Saturday, April 30, 2011

Innovation, Creativity, and Imagination in Education

Time to split hairs.

On the surface of things, imagination, creativity, and innovation are probably the same thing, but if you go a little deeper each of those concepts are slightly different from each other.  I see imagination as the ability to think up a bunch of things.  Kids see things in different ways all the time. A lot of times, they come without preconceptions and see things in refreshing ways.  I learn so much from my daughter, and one of my favourite lessons from her is to experience everything with an open mind.  Her joy is pure joy.  Her laughter is not there to create an impression.  She laughs (and smiles and sings and dances) because it is an expression of her delight.  In the same way, her imagination is organic.  She comes up with ideas that seem divergent to me, but to her are just "ideas."

Creativity is putting your imagination into action.  It sounds redundant, but creativity is creating things or actions, not just generating ideas.  To me, something must be made or enacted, in order for the instance to be a creative one.  My sister is incredibly creative.  Her hands are always moving, always producing.  She can be found cooking, sewing, or doing crafts at home.  Not only does she do these things, for the pure love of the act, but she gives a lot of creations away to family, friends, and coworkers. 

One of my favourite movies is Groundhog Day, and one of my favourite scenes is a very subtle one.  Over halfway through the film when he is approaching enlightenment, Bill Murray is sitting in that diner and he hears some beautiful piano music.  He smiles to everyone because for the first time he actually hears the music and smiles to everyone, though they don't notice him or the music.  (Because he has to relive that same day over and over, it is strange that he never noticed it before, but I guess that is the point of the movie.  Isn't it?)  The next day he starts taking piano lessons because he realizes that some of the key ingredients of life are to appreciate the beauty around you, to create some of that beauty yourself, and to share it with others.  (Just like my sister.) 

Innovation is a little trickier.  If imagination is having lots of ideas and creativity is acting on those ideas, then to me, innovation is not only creating something useful but to do things in a different way.  The iPad is an innovation: it is useful and until recently, experiencing multimedia hadn't been done that way before.  Lady Gaga, not so much.  (The first time I saw her, I thought, "What happened to Madonna's nose?").  My dad, though very conservative, has an innovator's spirit.  Some of his ideas were successfully executed (e.g. fashioning an exhaust for our lawnmower out of a tomato juice can) and some were not (e.g. ruining nice and expensive knives opening paint lids).  The key is he was always thinking of new ways to use old things. (I call him "innovative".  My mom probably calls him "cheap".)  All of his ideas had use and forced us to look at everyday objects in new ways.  Did I mention that he built and rebuilt a garbage can station for our carport, reusing the same wood in a couple of different residences?  (The really scary thing is that wood now comprises the floor of my shed.)

Yeah, yeah, and What Does This Have to Do with Classroom Design and Education?   

A lot of times on this blog, I seem to go off on huge tangents from my original focus (looking at the effect of classroom design on learning).  Though this time is no different, I can bring the idea of Innovation back to education in two ways: me and conditions (though still about me, really).

First, I like to think of myself as an Innovator.  But if this is really true, then I need to live up to my own definition: my ideas and creations have to be useful.  I have a lot of ideas, but the problem is I don't enact most of them, plus the ones I do enact, don't always work.  The good news is I have developed a really comfortable relationship with Failure.  (You know, I saw Failure from across the room.  We made furtive eye contact, but we never really connected.  Then I started courting Success and that was really nice --- for a while.  Success was very enticing and sexy, but I could never really live up to Success's expectations.  So then I fell out of Success's graces and good old, consistent Failure was there on the rebound.  Failure and I had an intense and long relationship, especially in the 80's and then again when I started teaching.  But then Success started coming around again because of, ironically, all the lessons I learned from Failure.  I don't see Failure as much as I used to, though we still keep in touch.  We're still good friends and like any good friend, I don't fear Failure.  I owe Failure so much.  Failure is always there when I need to learn something or remember something.--- Yeah, I know, nice riffing.)  Switching metaphors, I know I can't hit it out of the park every time, but overall I know I am a better teacher every time I try something new.  Build on the Success, Learn from the Failure.

Second, the classroom design experiment is an exploration of Innovation.  Can I change the way I teach by playing with how the classroom looks?  What effect does it have on learning?  By now, I've come to realize that classroom design will not change the way students learn unless the way I teach follows suit.  If I teach the way we've always taught, then I'll have traditional education in a weird looking classroom.  But as I've written about before, I know I have to go deeper with my students in terms of relationship and really listen to them.  And then, based on my understanding of each child, to set the proper conditions for their learning.  Some aspects are global:  for example, my classroom must be a safe place to be in terms of respect for each other and the willingness to take chances; my classroom must be open to new ideas and points of view if Innovation is to develop; my classroom have access to choices (and failure) if students are to carve out an understanding for themselves; etc. 

Having an open classroom design that reflects safety, choice, taking chances and thinking in new ways are just more of the proper conditions for Innovation (and learning) to develop.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

NSFAQ: Not So Frequently Asked Questions

Yesterday, I had a couple of visitors pop into my classroom.  Jane and Jane are educational consultants who are helping my district with the implementation of full-day kindergarten.  Because they know about early childhood education and emergent curriculum, I asked my principal to bring them by my classroom because I thought they could help me with my exploration of "organic learning" and give me some feedback about classroom environment.  Sometimes I wonder if all the attention I give to design is just wasted on window dressing, and is really missing the mark (the mark being, what we can do to give kids the best education). 
When the Janes came (accompanied by my dear friend Andrea, who is the Early Learning Coordinator), it was at snack time.  It was unfortunate because the Janes didn't see us in our full learning mode.  But they still were able to see what the room looked like with kids in it. 

I was interested in what they asked even more than what they said.  They said really positive things, but they asked some interesting questions that I hadn't really explored consciously before.  At first they asked the regular questions like where the risers came from, what the students do for storage, etc.  But then they asked some not so frequently asked questions.  (I know I don't have the exact phrasing of their questions, but I think I have the gist).

Do the kids give you a lot of input (about the classroom set up)?
The answer is yes and no.  They tell me that they like the risers and the decor, but they don't really tell me how it should be changed. I think they see the environment as something I am really interested in, so it's the "teacher's thing" and they let me run with it.  Not really my intention, but this is where it has ended up.  In fact, during classroom meetings the things they want to change are things they do or have (e.g. more art, another classroom pet, etc.), or things beyond our classroom, (e.g having a swimming pool at our school).  I think they are satisfied with our classroom set up.  I asked the Janes if they thought my classroom was too much stimulation or too much to do with me, and they didn't think so.  I think they liked to overall tone of the classroom because it was calm and inviting.

Do the boys use the risers to stand more than the girls do?
Generally, the answer is yes, the boys use the risers as a standing desk more than the girls, especially at the beginning.  One thing I definitely noticed is that the girls use the vertical bulletin boards to write on more than the boys.  One particular group of girls like to collaborate on stories, so I think they find it easier to post the work up, so they can see it and talk about it.  The boys are more "huddlers", standing at the risers or the back window counter.

Do the student choose where they sit on the risers, or do they have assigned spots? 
The students choose where they sit.  They place their lapdesks and now a pillow to vaguely reserve their spots on the risers, and they those they tend to move spots from day to day, they seem to have a social contract with each other that their spot on the risers is theirs for the whole day.  Thus, they tend to return to the same spot within the day, and their ownership of that spot, for the day, is respected.  And yes, I will move kids around if I feel that is not the best spot for them to learn, but it happens less than you might think.

What kinds of effects is the environment having on learning?
This really is the big question, and it does not get asked very much.  And the problem is I can't really tell what effect it is having.  I have no data, and any thoughts I have are anecdotal.  I think I told the Janes that I definitely saw a lot of pride in my students with the classroom.  They like their classroom, they like the look of it, and they especially like the choices they get to make in terms of working spaces, (standing, sitting, lying down, with or without other people, in a corner, by a window, on an easel, on a bulletin board, seated at a desk, etc.). 
The part I didn't tell the Janes is that I feel that the riser set up has really brought my class together as a community.  Because all of my students share all of the workspaces, the students are having to make decisions and interact with others in order to find themselves a workable space.  They have to monitor their own behaviour if they are allowed to stay on the risers or choose the place where they sit on them.  Also, the students are not separated from other students by individual desks or chairs.  I remember at the beginning of the year, one student in my class being very uncomfortable sitting by boys, so she sat on the edge or maneuvered herself to be with girls.  I don't see that same discomfort now.
Another test was my new student, B, who has been with us a few months now.  At first, he really didn't fit in.  He chose to sit at a desk because that is what he was used to at his last school.  At the beginning, he really acted up because he was trying to get noticed so he could make friends or find his place within the classroom.  Now if you walked in my classroom, you couldn't tell B from any other student.
Another parallel is when the class across the hall joins us for a big session of writing workshop.  When we first started joining classes, the students from the other class took a while to settle in, but now it is remarkable how the space accommodates over 45 bodies working in different areas.  When people come in during those times, they are surprised that I have more than one class in my room at the time. 

So yes, I guess the classroom environment does affect the way students learn and interact.  At first, I couldn't see it because I didn't think I had anything to compare my situation to.

The time I had with the Janes was only about 10 minutes.  I wished that I could have picked their brains a bit more, but even in the short time that I had with them, they had me think and rethink about what I am doing with classroom design.