Creative TeachingAs the education establishment continues to flail their arms and run in circles to find a way to improve the American school system, the question of creativity in the classroom comes up. We are told that in order to motivate students, to get them to "think outside the box", to give them the enthusiasm to learn, to not "stifle their individuality", we as teachers must find creative ways to deliver lessons. We must also encourage creativity in our students.
I used to look for and create creative lessons. It was fun. The one question it took me a while to ask though, was: are the students really learning? That is, are they learning the content I was trying to teach? No matter how much the education mavens deny it in their insistence that students must be taught "higher level thinking skills", content is important and has to come first. If you don't have the content, what is there to think about?
I remember teaching fractions with Hershey Bars. I told my class that they were Hershey Fraction Bars. I did this on my own, as I'm sure hundreds of other teachers did because - hey look! They're divided into fractional portions! At some point, someone who was more creative than me wrote a book on how to use Hershey Bars to teach math.
Did my students love these lessons? You bet they did. Their participation was terrific. They followed every direction. We played with fractions for the whole math period and got to enjoy our candy bars. The next day, was there the increased understanding I had hoped for? Was there any understanding? I wasn't so sure as I had to reexplain everything I thought I'd taught the previous day. The candy was good though.
For a couple years in a row, I had my students work in groups to make board games based on European explorers. (I found the idea in a teacher's magazine). Very few of them actually had any information about the explorer they were supposed to be based on. The students had fun though, and they were willingly engaged in creating their board games. And that is supposed to count. In fact, had I been a student teacher being observed during those lessons, the engagement would have been more of a point than whether or not the students were learning.
There was a role playing game that I was able to buy many years ago, where students pretended that they were creating colonies in the New World. We spent time forming groups, drawing maps. learning about the various problems they would face as colonists, but I stopped before we'd finished when I realized that they were learning nothing of the real history of the colonists. We could have spent fifteen minutes reading about the tribulations of the early colonists to the New World and figured out that it was a tough way to go.
Not every creative endeavor has been a flop. I've done writing projects with students involving synonyms, characters in stories, extending stories, and proper word usage in which I think students have learned what I was trying to teach. In order to do those projects well though, there was a certain amount of content knowledge that students needed. The students who had a firm grasp of that knowledge did better than the ones who didn't.
Science demands that students engage in "hands on" learning. We do activities and demonstrations in order to better understand science concepts, but again, these activities are grounded in content knowledge. I was able to purchase a large amount of K-Nex one year because I was able to show how I was going to use it to teach Science. That year I spent two class periods with my fourth graders building K-Nex models before I became frustrated at their inability to follow the K-Nex directions. We wasted so much time building the models that the next year, I had students who wanted to build, come after school. I still spent a lot of time rebuilding. Now I just build the models myself or call on students from the previous year who are bright enough to interpret the directions. While K-Nex is a good tool for teaching some Science concepts, it hasn't been as great as thought it would be. Maybe it's worked better for others.
I know teachers who don't want to follow the curriculum because it doesn't allow their own creativity to flourish. I used to agree. Now I think the only thing that counts is that the students learn what we are trying to teach. If a teacher is that intent on being creative, there are other options. Write a symphony - or a song - or a novel - or a poem. Paint a picture. Build a sculpture. Design a building. Dance. Nobody is interested on how creative a teacher is if the students aren't learning.
Students still need the basics. If they can be delivered and learned creatively, that's fine. But we all know that school isn't always fun and that as much as it does offend some people, learning is hard work. There's no creative way around it.