IATEFL 2012: Carol Read on “Creative Teaching, Creative Learning”

Carol Read: Creative Teaching, Creative Learning. (Tuesday 20th March 2012, IATEFL Glasgow)

To be creative is to get on a roll with an idea. You experience “flow” or the positive harnessing of emotions in pursuit of a goal or outcome. It is with this thought that Carol Read opened her extremely creative session on creative teaching and learning.

Carol went on to discuss the necessity of a frame work in order to create. A framework, she said, is energising and liberating: without one, we become lethargic and uninspired. She supported this with a quote from David Ogilvy, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”. Not only do we need motivation and inspiration, both of which are typically associated with creativity, but also disciplined thinking, attention to detail and effort, which may come to mind less readily in connection with the concept.

As a word, creativity has both positive and negative connotations. In the negative sense, it may seem clever but sneaky. For example, filling in expense claim forms to obtain the maximum return. While on a positive note, we think of energy and enthusiasm, thinking outside the box.

But how do people define creativity? Carol negotiated this minefield next.

The dictionary definitions, she told us, are ok but not very helpful. Take for example Macmillan’s free online dictionary:

Creativity: the ability to create new ideas or things using your imagination.

Creative: involving a lot of imagination and new ideas; someone who is creative has a lot of imagination and new ideas.

Having put forward that the dictionary did not hold the answers we were seeking, Carol shared a few quotes about creativity with us:

“Creativity is an act that produces surprise” – Jerome Bruner

“Creativity is adventurous thinking” – F Bartlett.

“Creativity is a state of mind in which all our intelligences are working together”

“Creativity is a cluster of skills which we use to come up with something new and valid” – Chaz Pugliese.

Creativity, then, is newness, excitement, something valued in its context. We all know what it is but it is difficult to describe. Carol suggested that it’s not what it is that’s important but where. That is, the interaction between creative person, social context, field or domain.

A talk on creativity would not be complete without taking a creative twist to the telling of it, or so Carol believed, and as a consequence of this, we were treated to “Princess Crystal Creative”, based on Babette Cole’s well known spoof fairytale, Princess Smartypants. In Carol’s version, the princess questioned the princes with a series of questions on creativity and each prince got one question further than the last, until finally a prince was able to answer all of the questions…

1. What’s the difference between creativity, imagination and innovation?

  • Imagination: pretending, supposing, playing…
  • creativity: generation of new questions, products, ideas; underpinned by imagination.
  • innovation: taking creativity and applying it to the real world.

These are like layers of an onion. Imagination at the centre, followed by creativity, followed by innovation.

2. What’s the difference between big C and little c creativity?

  • Big C creativity: This encompasses large ideas, paintings etc that change the world and peoples’ lives.
  • Little c creativity: This is about personal effectiveness in our daily lives, the creative decisions that we make all the time. For example us delegates negotiating the conference.

In terms of teaching and learning, Big C creativity is something a student produces that is significant to their progress, which gains validation from those around i.e. teacher and peers. Little c creativity, on the other hand, is everything that is going on between us, as teachers, and the learners, and how it is constructing relevance. It is how children use little language to communicate what they want to say.

3. What is “creative teaching” and how does it differ from “teaching for creativity”?

  • Creative teaching: effective teaching, using techniques to get things across creatively, thus engaging learners.
  • Teaching for creativity: This is about learner empowerment, equipping learners with the skills they need to be creative themselves. The outcome or objective of a lesson that teaches for creativity is a creative product from the learners.

4. What is creative learning?

Creative learning is when learners are allowed to use imagination and experience in pursuit of learning. It’s when learners are allowed to exercise choice – both in the process and in the product. It’s when learners are involved in pedagogic decisions and in shaping the syllabus. Creative learning requires critical reflection and evaluation, learners learn to evaluate themselves, the materials and their teachers. Thus, this type of learning is a close cousin of learner autonomy, in the way that it develops metacognition and meta-skills.

5. What teaching approaches and strategies promote creativity?

Carol suggested that the following would see us on the right path:

  • develop motivation and engagement
  • provide a stimulus, framework and purpose
  • build up self-esteem: security, identity, belonging, purpose, confidence.
  • adopt an inclusive approach
  • model creativity in the way you teach: be “an effective surprise”
  • offer choice and foster ownership
  • give personal relevance
  • consider the role of questions: use open questions as well as closed; allow “think time” before students respond; value students’ questions too.
  • make connections, explore and play with ideas: connect home life and school life, use different media. This opens up synapses in our brain and makes it open to possibilities.
  • use “possibility thinking” e.g. “what if….” question.
  • keep options open, withhold judgement, alllow brainstorming with “what”, “why”, “when” and “how” questions.
  • reflect critically.

6. What are barriers to creativity?

As important to be aware of as the strategies that we can use to promote it, and in essence the opposites of all the items in question five! Carol warned us against the following:

  • Too much spoon-feeding/scaffolding/help
  • “Telling” vs experiential learning
  • deep end discovery without structure or guidance, where students are thrown in with no rooting: if they don’t know where they are going, how are they going to get there?
  • routinization: plodding through x units of a book per lesson, to the exclusion of all else
  • undervaluing students’ knowledge
  • fear of risk-taking
  • over-crowded curriculum: 50% knowledge and 50% creative application would be preferable
  • lack of space, leading to no time for creativity
  • institutional and parental attitudes
  • exam systems, internal or external

Finally, Carol concluded with a quote by Tim Smit:

“Every good teacher is a catalyst of creativity, a liberator. Every bad teacher creates cages.”

(To find out more about Carol Read and see some fantastic teaching ideas, visit her blog or her website for a wealth of information about teaching young learners as well as talks she has done and books/articles etc that she has had published.)

IATEFL 2012 Opening Plenary: Adrian Underhill on “Mess and Progress”

IATEFL 2012 Opening Plenary: Adrian Underhill

Mess and Progress

On Tuesday 20th March 2012, Adrian Underhill opened the main conference with his plenary speech on Mess and Progress, putting forward the case for engaging systemic thinking and leaving behind heroic leadership.

What is the difference between difficulty and mess? Underhill suggested that the differences lie in the scale and uncertainty:

A difficulty is fairly clear cut and definable. It can be explained and labelled. It is probably solvable with current thinking. We may know what the answer will look like. A mess, on the other hand, is extensive, knows no boundaries, is uncertain and ambiguous. There is no single correct view of it. It resists change. Everything is interconnected so it is hard to know where to start or what the concern really is. There is no tidy fix within current thinking.

Underhill went on to contrast traditional and systemic thinking: The traditional view entails ‘things’ being considered as primary and relationships as secondary. Conversely, systems thinking ranks relationships as primary and things as secondary. Systemic thinking has developed over the past 50 years to make full patterns clearer, to see connections and relationships rather than isolated entities in a bid to see how to bring about effective change.

He explained that there is a tension between controlling and connecting. Our default preference is control however, while control may work with difficulty, it cannot work with mess.

Having established this premise, Underhill went on to discuss traditional leadership and its deficiencies.

New leadership is closer to teaching than traditional leadership. It is time for everyone to take responsibility for their influence. Until recently, the tendency has been towards hierarchical set-ups, also known as heroic leadership. This is changing, though that may not be apparent in the media. This change is obligatory because hierarchical leadership is not smart enough to handle today’s complexity, where you need intelligence dispersed throughout the system not just at the top.

Today’s leaders must

  • make decisions based on incomplete data
  • accept that cause and effect are disconnected, which makes it hard to learn from experience: there are layers of outcomes, we do not know what is due to what.)
  • face unintended consequences: each solution has an impact beyond what is expected.
  • serve people not themselves: people demand this, something that is also seen in the classrooms of today.
  • have self-knowledge and personal maturity

Heroic leadership cannot cope with all of this. Underhill shared a quote from Wheatley that summarises this: “The great thing is to realise that leaders’ work is essentially very different from the past”. (This, then, is presumably why leadership has had to develop accordingly.)

Underhill then moved on to considering post-heroic leadership:

In this model of leadership, instead of looking at a person, we look at activity. Then leadership can come from anywhere in the system e.g. teachers and parents as well as the head teacher. Perhaps there has been a paradigm shift from influencing the community to follow a leader’s vision to influencing the community to face its problems.

Will things fall apart with less hierarchical control? No, because values, meaning and purpose hold things together. When people are aligned to their purpose, when the gap between values and behaviour closes, what people experience is a stream of ease. A leader’s job is to help purpose and values line up. Peoples’ commitment can be developed by aligning with their values. This typifies a healthy organisation. If we engage systems thinking, then we do not damage one thing while trying to develop another: dynamic connectivity. This sort of connectivity cannot come from heroic leadership.

Systems thinking, i.e. thinking outside of the box, is not currently the norm. Underhill quoted Amanda Sinclair on this issue as follows: “we don’t discuss alternatives to heroic leadership because male heroic leadership archetype is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it has become invisible.”

Underhill continued by expanding on learning at organisational and individual level:

He suggested that there is much intelligence in schools but that it is not flowing. It is not allowing relationships to be created that would enable things to be done as fully as they could be. What is needed is, essentially, acupuncture (!), because disconnected humans do not yield human capital.

On the other hand, in a learning organisation, where the intelligence is flowing, the learning of all its members is facilitated and continuously developed. Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level. A company that does a lot of training is, however, not necessarily a smart organisation, as training can still result in an organisation full of smart individuals who are not connected, which does not make a smart organisation. Learning is a leaderly activity: leaders can lead through their learning. Systemic thinking requires slow learning, which is an attitude and outlook that allow different ways of knowing.

Underhill concluded that it is exhausting to maintain the pretence that messes are difficulties. We need to develop a new learning mantra. We need to see what is going on, as well as the impacts and results and the distractions interrupting the sight. Then we need to do something different, prod the system and find out a bit more about how it works. This can be done by doing what we do not usually do and refraining from blindly doing what we would usually do OR by doing what we usually do but watching it more carefully. Finally we need to learn from it and gain insights which should be taken and tested in what we do next. All of this is the key to thinking systemically.

In addition, you need to know your point of view but check out all the other points of view in the room too, as a matter of course. You need to thus depend on diversity. You need to give up on certainty, be uncertain and give up trying to be right. You need to look for unintended consequences. Look sideways at any simple action and you can float outside the box. You need to bother less about control and focus on connecting with others instead. It’s more interesting! You need to start conversations and see the whole school as an adventure park for learning. Hassle is part of learning: make plans but do not expect them to work out.

Adrian Underhill closed by reminding us that it is fun, inspiring and urgent to explore and that doing something different is an important method of enquiry, which should be fun. After a rousing rendition of reflective practice blues, he encouraged us to try out something different every day.

My reflections:

The world is a chaotic place, so systemic thinking seems, to me, to be a logical means of progression. Furthermore, such an approach is empowering to the individual. We are all capable of contributing through nurturing an enquiring mind and engaging with the diversity that all of our views and ideas embody.

I think the world of #eltchat and blogging is a fine example of systemic thinking, connectivity and expanding on learning. We lead each other forwards by sharing our own ideas and reflecting on those of our PLN, which in turn influence our own. The ELT world progresses, develops, and we are all part of that process. The intelligence is undoubtedly flowing and we all benefit from it as we try new things, inspired by what we read and discuss.

The challenge is to replicate this systemic thinking in our workplaces, embrace the mess and derive progress from it!

The journey of a thousand miles… (a thank-you to Cactus and to #ELTChat!)

…or how inter-related everything is!

Today I received an email from Cactus informing me that my conference scholarship report has finally been published on their website. On re-reading it, I was able to re-live the excitement of IATEFL 2012 and also reflect on what consequences my attendance has so far yielded…

- In my conference pack, there was a leaflet promoting an M.A. course with integrated DELTA. Yesterday I had an interview and was offered a place on this course. I would not have known about the course had I not attended the conference. I am very excited about embarking on this course and feel sure I will grow hugely as a teacher and, indeed, individual, as I negotiate my way through it.

- At the conference, I attended a pre-conference event, that of the Teacher Development SIG. I volunteered to write a report of it and this has been published in a recent TD SIG newsletter. Had I not attended the conference, this would of course not have been possible.

- I also bought Jim Scrivener’s latest book, “Classroom Management Techniques” during my week at IATEFL 2012. I subsequently reviewed this book for The English Teachers Association of Switzerland Journal, invited by Vicky of my PLN (@Vickyloras). Had I not attended the conference, I would not have known about this new book or acquired it so would not have been able to review it. A review of a new book is of greater interest than a review of a book that has been kicking around for years, so this was perhaps instrumental to my work being included in the journal.

- At the conference, I met Jim Scrivener in a post-conference talk and joined in the discussion on Demand High ELT. Subsequently, I proposed this topic for #EltChat and wrote the summary for it, which has been published on Jim and Adrian’s website. Becoming involved in Jim and Adrian’s project has been a source of great excitement for me.

So, all of these exciting things became possible due to my being able to attend IATEFL’s annual conference this year. My attendance was enabled by winning the scholarship from Cactus, for which I am immensely grateful. And finally, I would not have known about these scholarships were it not for #eltchat!! An exciting journey was begun when I signed up for twitter and happened on the #eltchat tag. So many opportunities have been opened up to me as a result and I have met many people who now form part of my PLN, from whom I learn on a regular basis.

Thank you #Eltchat and Cactus for the immeasurable impact they have had on my career to date.

I wonder where the next thousand steps will take me…

IATEFL 2012: Notes and Reflections on Jim Scrivener’s talk on Demand-High Teaching

Jim Scrivener’s talk on Demand-High Teaching took place on 20th March 2012. Demand-High Teaching was not a term I’d heard used before, but one of Jim’s books, Learning Teaching, got me through my CELTA as well as my first year of teaching, so, ignorance be damned, there was no way I was going to miss this talk! It certainly did not disappoint, and, together with the follow-up session that took place two days later, it has provided plenty of food for thought and scope for experimentation in class since.

Jim started with the premise that ELT has become too entrenched, a problem that has gone mostly unnoticed. ELT lessons may be ok, enjoyable for the students, solid and good enough but there’s something missing. Jim suggests that this “something” is sufficient demand on the students. Teachers tend to be satisfied with less than the students are capable of. Teaching skills and methods may be solid and allow the possibility of a higher level of demand but they are not taken beyond “going through the motions”. The communicative approach is established, and we have agreed and established ways of doing things, many of them good, but this has led to a peaceful dead end.

But what of the learning in this dead end? Is there any learning? How could the students or teachers know? What is the point of all the activities undertaken? What was done to promote learning? The activities might be perfectly valid but if the teacher hasn’t thought about what he or she wanted to achieve by doing them, considered the purpose, then opportunities for learning can be lost. This is what seems to meant by “going through the motions”. The teacher races at the speed of the fastest student in the class, in order to satisfy the requirements of the syllabus in the allocated time and the purpose gets forgotten. That leads to demand-low, challenge-low teaching, in which students are regularly asked to do less than they are capable of, while teachers respond over-positively, lacking the skills to help the students develop and upgrade their language. The ability and techniques to intervene have been lost to fear. Teachers sidestep the excitement of working with the learning, wrestling with the language, ‘swimming’ in it.

Jim went on to suggest that we need to be more physically active and interventionist in the classroom. We need to demand in a supportive way. We need to think about how the learning happens and how we can make it happen. The gap-fill work and the pair work are just the vehicles of learning, teachers need to drive them in the desired direction. The current path we tend to send these vehicles along seems to end in a dead end. Helpfully, he  also discussed how teachers can increase the level of demand in their classrooms.

The premise of all these things is that it really is ok to “teach”. For me, this was the key to the whole talk. This idea that there’s no need to be afraid to go that bit further, and stretch the students that little bit more. We don’t need to stand back or limit ourselves to classroom management. Jim introduced the idea of “intervention” in a classroom context: Anything a teacher does that affects what happens in the classroom; to do/say something or indeed NOT to do/say something. A teacher needs to find a way to be as useful as possible to the learning process, by structuring and manipulating it: a type of classroom management. Classroom management becomes anything that helps more learning to go on in the classroom; so it is taken to another level, beyond the simple ‘crowd control’ that it usually pertains to.

Here are a few techniques that Jim shared with us. (A whole chapter of these can be found in Jim’s new book, Classroom Management Techniques, which I’ve found to be most helpful, as it not only offers a wealth of ideas on how to do things differently in the classroom but also encourages you to think about why you are or aren’t doing them.)

1) Don’t rubber stamp

Rubberstamping is when the teacher says “excellent”, “very good” and other such empty words of praise at every turn. This ends the conversation by closing it down. Whereas, if the teacher withholds that ‘rubber-stamp’, the dynamic is changed and a big difference can be made. This is a way to break out of the chase for right answers. We need to learn to give feedback rather than unearned praise, as praise not only can be a dead end but also inflates: Good becomes excellent which in its turn becomes fantastic until all is AMAZING!

2) Open up questions rather than closing them down

Has terror of hurting students’ feelings has taken over? Either way, intervention and demand-high teaching can be done supportively while still upgrading the students’ level in a way that empty praise cannot. We need to push the students that step further, challenge them by moving away from doing activities ritualistically. Think about the learning process students go through as they encounter a word: Counting syllables, splitting up the syllables, trying it out, comparing with a neighbour etc. Open up this process.

3) Work one to one with a student, making it valid for the whole class.

Jim championed this idea that working one to one with a student can be time well-spent rather than an inefficient use of precious time, as it is often considered. I recently started working at the Berdale Centre in Sheffield, teaching a pre-intermediate ESOL class. One of the things I have experimented with, in the light of this talk, the follow-up discussion and the #eltchat discussion on this topic, is making one to one work with a student something the whole class can learn from. This has led to students contributing to the process and enquiring deeper into the language in question. I intend to keep a journal to record these moments and others generated by experimentation with this and other demand-high teaching techniques, so more on this later!

Getting to the end of the talk, Jim stressed that the Demand-High Teaching discussion is not a methodology-bashing, course book-bashing or anything else-bashing enterprise. The communicative approach is great, methodology is not a problem, neither are the course books. The issue is how we engage with them and what we get out of using them. There are a lot of positions to take, not just Dogme vs course books. We need to hold on to the many good elements of the communicative approach but find ways to get up close with the learning process. We need to explore it more. We need to demand more of our students.

It’s a small change of attitude that could make a big difference: “They CAN do better”. If you believe in it and ask for it, they will do it. 

The talk then ended but the discussion is ongoing: no peaceful dead end here! Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill have set up the Demand-High ELT blog. The slides from Jim’s talk can be found here, as well as further input on the topic in the form of articles etc. It is also a space where teachers are welcome to share experiences, questions and opinions regarding Demand-High Teaching.

Being a nervous sort of person, I found this talk quite empowering: “It’s ok to really teach” – done supportively, it doesn’t turn you into the wicked witch of the west or make you some kind of student destroyer. To the contrary, it enables you to really make a difference to the students’ learning. Little wonder then, that I made every effort to attend the follow-up discussion on Thursday 22nd March. This took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel bar and about a dozen of us spent an hour discussing Demand-High teaching, sharing our thoughts and experiences of it.  I didn’t take notes on this because I was too busy participating and being thoroughly excited to do so!

Again due to being of a slightly nervous disposition, I came out of my CELTA with my B-pass and the mindset that to teach successfully, I had to do all the things I’d learned to do during the course. Questioning them didn’t occur to me. What right had I to question? So, along with the empowerment as mentioned above, the other main thing I took away from this talk and the follow-up discussions is awareness of the importance of questioning methods and techniques. Not with the aim of rubbishing them, at all (the course was great and I learnt masses of good things that have stood me in good stead!), but rather with the aim of achieving a greater understanding of what ends I hope to gain by using them. This may be obvious to more experienced teachers and more confident teachers, but for me, as a newish teacher of two years teaching experience, this was an important message: I can question and experiment my way off the path to a peaceful dead end. 

IATEFL Glasgow 19th-23rd March 2012: My Top Five Highlights

Having ignored my blog for months and months, I feel compelled yet again to give it another lease of life following the amazing, the incredible, the mind-boggling IATEFL Glasgow 2012 conference. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship, from Cactus, giving me entry to all four days of the main conference, in addition to which I treated myself to a Pre-Conference Event (PCE) with the Teacher Development Special Interest Group (TD SIG). It has been a memorable experience, so to start with I am going to attempt to extract what, for me, were the top five (one for each day of IATEFL 2012!) highlights of this past week.

In no particular order then…

- Attending a plethora of talks and workshops, including some given by people whose names I know from the methodology books etc that I have used. E.g. Jim Scrivener, Jeremy Harmer, Adrian Underhill, Michael Swan, Luke Meddings, Lindsay Clandfield. I can’t choose a favourite session because there have been too many brilliant sessions for me to pick only one!

- Participating in the TD SIG pre-conference workshop on using drama and improvisation on Monday 19th March. (Link to a report to come..) A fantastic start to my week, long ago now though it seems! It was a lot of fun, hands-on and we all came away with a host of techniques to try out in the classroom in time to come.

- Putting faces to a large number of Twitter handles: Having participated in #eltchats and followed the hashtag for ten months now, gaining much in the way of inspiration, motivation and support, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting my PLN in person rather than online. I believe we mostly took over the #IATEFL/#IATEFL2012 hashtag! If it weren’t for #eltchat, I wouldn’t have found out about the scholarships and therefore wouldn’t have just attended my first conference: Thank you, all of you!

- Participating in a follow-up session/discussion to Jim Scrivener’s talk on High-Demand Teaching: Wow! Turns out that as well as writing awesome books for teachers, Jim and Adrian are also really nice guys, as were the other dozen or so people who joined in this session. Sharing thoughts and ideas with all of them was a very cool experience indeed.

- Making the most of the Exhibition stands’ discounts and acquiring a small stack of new books to get my teeth into (once my brain has recovered from conference overload syndrome!). It was wonderful to see so many ELT books together in one place, rather than the half a bookshelf they are often allocated in bookshops.

And an additional one for luck: sharing a hotel room and the conference experience with Sandy Millin, who has been to conferences before and offered me support and guidance throughout: far easier and more enjoyable than the solitary alternative. Thank you, Sandy!

To all who I met at IATEFL, to all who presented, to all who worked behind the scenes to make it possible: you rock! (Spot the reference to the closing plenary… :-p)