Getting out of the way

Have you ever asked yourself what might happen if you thought up a unit’s conceptual framework, and let the students use what they know and can do to design their own learning?

A unit taught recently began with explorations of the key concept and time spent formulating a definition of creativity by expanding the idea of the phenomenon. The goal was to see creativity as not just a manifestation of compulsion in visual and musical artists, which was a stereotype we wanted to break.

Students used video, photographs, memes, blog articles, social media articles and other cultural artifacts to provoke thinking about the definition of creativity. Together, the group refined their definition so that it no longer included only what visual artists or other traditional artists did, but also to encompass the greater uses of creativity in life –sports, problem solving at home in the DIY movement, reusing materials and reducing waste, cooking, making playlists—the list of what might become creative endeavors grew as the students explored portraits of creativity from different media. After they had defined creativity as “the ability to rearrange and reinterpret things to create solutions,” students wanted to know more background knowledge from creativity research.

The students engaged through questions. They created questions, which came from their personal interests. The variety of questions astounded. The students came up with questions that well illustrated the distinction between factual, conceptual and debatable questions. Also since the topic of creativity was new to many, students started with factual questions to learn what creativity was in different contexts, how it worked, and why some people were considered creative – questions which helped them to create further questions that gradually narrowed their research focus and further refined our definition of creativity.

  • What is the science behind creativity?
  • What is the Romantic idea of creativity?
  • What mental illnesses have been associated with creativity?
  • How is creativity used in architecture?
  • What are some ways creativity might be portrayed?

We see from the sample questions that the students were able to start with factual questions.

In a subsequent round of question-formulation, with many of their factual questions answered, students began to explore more conceptual questions.

  • Where does creativity come from?
  • How do you define a creative person?
  • Can wealth have an effect on creativity?
  • How does creativity impact lives and places?

After two weeks of answering and sharing what they had learned from factual and conceptual inquiry, students began to ask debatable questions.

  • Are some people more creative than others?
  • How is creativity helpful in everyday life?

The class discussed how we might expand our inquiry by addressing some of the debatable questions in a panel discussion with the community. Students and teachers were invited to a presentation and panel discussion.

At the panel discussion, each student spoke to his or her research questions and what was learned. The audience members were responsive, and asked questions of their own. Sometimes, the class would answer the audience’s questions; other times, the questions would be beyond the scope of the inquiries and remained questions to be explored further.

After the panel discussion, the students went after one more line of inquiry and then they began to prepare their summative tasks. The summative task was to capture what they had learned in a personal manifesto. All students opted to write a personal manifesto for creativity for life. They chose formats that they felt captured their creative identity.

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Getting out of the way was the best thing I did for my students.

The unit was completely student-generated. The decisions that the teacher made consisted of choosing the key concept, the related concepts and the approaches to learning to explicitly teach during the course of the unit.

These were the student decisions:

What materials might provoke thinking about creativity.
Students brought in different materials and used it to expand their thinking about what creativity is and where it is expressed.

What they wanted to learn

The questions that students created started with finding background information by asking focused factual questions.

The process of learning

Students expanded their questioning to include conceptual and debatable questions after they had found background knowledge about creativity. They chose their lines of inquiry and used a range of materials to explore and synthesize answers from the materials. Students also made unusual connections between ideas.

Often the worry about using open-ended inquiries is that students will go off on a tangent and never get the content, concepts and skills that we are supposed to guarantee they will learn.

It is not easy to let go of the control that teachers have over content covered through a highly structured scope and sequence. When we do, what might happen?

Students ask questions.

Students who ask questions that are relevant to them work harder than anyone else to find answers. They use a wide range of skills to find answers, too: research, self-management, organization, communication, collaboration, critical and creative thinking skills were evident in their inquiries.

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Students ask more questions. Their questions reach complexity as a matter of course as their knowledge increases.

Students like authentic audiences. They prepare with care when they know that others want to, and will, learn from them.

At high school level, students are approaching independence in the ways they access knowledge and conceptual understanding. They have more experiences than before so they are able to make connections to real-life situations and multiple, global perspectives. If they had been provided rehearsal in making connections between ideas, they will form new connections when given opportunities.

And when they are given structured autonomy, students are able to inquire independently.

The most satisfying feature of the unit was the students’ ownership of learning and self-directedness in their learning process.

When what we want is a self-directed learner, and we might create environments where that can happen, we might learn that effective teaching is creating situations where people can be effective learners. Then we just let them be.

2 comments

  1. Dear Aloha

    This is a very lucid example of inquiry and an extremely well structured outline of the process. Something to try out with the senior students. In fact I would like to try this out on a small scale with my sixth graders.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Aloha. While your posts are always stimulating, this one goes a step further in clarifying many doubts and instilling very many new ideas.

    Warm regards,
    Mayura Tiwari
    Form tutor 6A
    Grade level coordinator – Grade 6
    English teacher – MYP, IGCSE
    http://www.pathways.in
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    1. Dear Mayura,
      Thanks for your comment. The engagement of the students and how they took the inquiry into the areas that were most relevant to them and their own creativity, made this unit fantastic. The unit plan was written with the students providing the rest of the unit planner information, so all the teacher had to do was document and provide guidance students when they were stuck or needed a conversation to reflect on their ideas.
      Best regards, Aloha

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