Monthly Archives: September 2018

Watering The Seeds The Blossoming of Creativity in the Classroom

We tend to think of creativity as an intriguing personality trait, but one that is only useful in practice to the artist or the aimless dreamer. But what if I told you that creativity, not in spite of the due emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), is an increasingly essential skill to our children’s success, both in school and on the job?

Frankly, a non-creative person is an unadaptable person. Moreover, a person who cannot adapt cannot survive the turbulence of our ever-changing world. So why do we continue to push models of education that limit creativity in favor of rote memorization?

Of course, the transfer of traditional knowledge and information is needed for students to grow. However, that information would be little more than arbitrary if not for the creative ingenuity that transforms it into something meaningful in our minds. At a certain point, intellectual growth and evolution, skills like real-time problem solving, and the very seeds of entrepreneurial thought cannot take place without this ingenuity, so the fact that our educational system is based largely on spreading and storing data while neglecting creativity warrants concern.

In the following, we will examine our country’s current educational system and determine the ways in which it inadvertently stifles creativity and critical thinking. Hopefully, through a reassessment of our current practices, we can cultivate a more innovative society of tomorrow.

Let us begin by joining the typical elementary student in their classroom. Take your seat and remain silent. Do not fret, your input will not be necessary. There will be a man or woman at the front of the room that will handle all the thinking for you. Just memorize what they tell you. Once your ability to recite this information has been gauged to be on the level of your peers, you and your classmates will find a place on the assembly line. From there, you all will be packaged and shipped to the next level of institutionalized education, where you will undergo the process again. And so on and so on.

The aforementioned scenario illustrates (albeit crudely) our educational model. Sounds outdated, doesn’t it? That’s because our system of education is actually a remnant of 19th-century philosophy and a product of the Industrial Revolution’s economic circumstances. The model was created with the idea that intelligence was to be measured by one’s knowledge of the classics and their ability to carry out deductive reasoning. As a consequence of this model, the usefulness of the arts (its ability to provide both emotional stimulation and intellectual stimulation while inspiring new patterns of thought) was also forgotten.

Essentially a system of standardization, our public education model was constructed to mimic factory assembly lines because that was what worked best for production, and what worked to make machines must also produce efficient workers. Prior to the Industrial Era, a system of universal education simply did not exist. When the system was first proposed, it was based on the premise that the skills that are needed for work are the only skills that should be emphasized by educators.

The purpose was to get a group of students to consume the same information and all apply it in a similar fashion. For what it’s worth, the system was great for industrial productivity.

So, you may be wondering, where is the harm in the above process?

Well, as philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger argues, it only serves to create more worker bees. The workers who were trained in this fashion were unadaptable because they were made (prepared) purely for a static function (job). By teaching students merely to take in information without first analyzing it, we imply that the world is static and constant. We teach them that it is only their task to internalize the prescribed laws of the world. There is no need to question anything or investigate the world because that has already been done for them. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire argues that this practice robs them of their ability to become active participants in the world. So how can they improve and add value to their community when they only know how to follow directions and not how to maximize their full potential?

In fact, students’ ability to think critically may actually be reduced because of this process. In their book, Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, researchers George Land and Beth Jarman present a study which corroborates this theory. Land and Jarman tested 1,600 students between ages three and five on their divergent (creative) thinking skills. They asked questions requiring abstract thought such as “How many ways can a paperclip be used?” More than 98% of the students scored at the level of creative genius. The authors waited five years before assessing the children again. When evaluated for the second time, only 32% scored at this same level; by the age of 15, less than 12% scored at this level. The test later made its way to some 280,000 adults (average age 31) and only 2% scored at the level of creative genius. Land concluded his study by asserting that “non-creativity” must be a learned behavior. Given the results of the study, it is not unreasonable to believe that our educational practices are largely to blame for the declining levels of creativity over time.

You see, the brain is responsible for two kinds of thinking: There is the divergent thinking referenced above and there is convergent thinking, which refers to the brain’s ability to make judgements about, critique, and evaluate a situation. Land refers to divergent thinking as the “accelerator” while convergent thinking is likened to the “brake.” Children are initially asked to use both, but it becomes difficult to think creatively while listening to the inner critic. Students will likely develop a fear of being wrong (having the wrong answer) as a result. Because of this disconnect (neurons on both sides of the brain are “fighting each other,” as asserted by Land), the brain is less able to capitalize on the divergent thinking. When a person succumbs to fear, then even less of the brain is active.

It is this stigmatization of mistakes (a fear cultivated by our deep-seated reliance on ranking students through standardized testing) that will hinder our children’s development because all evolution is the product of trial and error. One cognitive scientist, Guy Claxton, has caused an uproar in the educational community by referring to erasers as the “instrument of the devil.” While his statement does employ a bit of hyperbole, he bases it on the idea that the classroom often perpetuates the shaming of mistakes and errors.

Claxton argues that children should not be encouraged to hide their mistakes because mistakes give students an opportunity to reflect on the process that brought them to the right answer rather than just focusing on the answer itself. Further, in the real world there is no magic button that allows one to omit past decisions.

Instead, we must think wisely about the effects of any subsequent actions, while using past mistakes to help us adapt to new situations. In a consenting opinion, Chairman of the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE) John Coe stated that it is the job of teachers to be aware of the mistakes made by their students so that they “can target their instruction.”

In nature, certain characteristics arise within a species but are later removed or augmented when their applicability in the world is assessed. We are stifling our students’ growth because we insist on assessing the fitness of our educational practices against an antiquated model of the world. Our educators are trying to prepare our students to participate in the economy while ignoring the fact that it is constantly changing. How backwards is that? Teaching our students how to adapt is the only way that we can adequately prepare them for future problems.

So what can we do to promote more divergent thinking?  Well, we must first remember that cultures are malleable. We always have the opportunity to try new things to facilitate growth. So let’s shed the cocoon-like dogma that certain patterns of thought afford us. Let’s get rid of the notion that all students, all people are the same and learn the same way. Through the practice of differential education, we can assess students’ talents on an individualized basis. We can understand their strengths and find ways to help them discover and develop their special talents. We can also make use of the Socratic method, instead of only assessing a student’s ability to spit out a preprogrammed response without them understanding its applicability to the question. Focusing on inspiring inquiry and evaluating the level of abstract reasoning inherent to a student’s answer can foster creativity. Providing informative reviews of the students’ work rather than simply giving a letter grade will put the focus back on learning.

A move away from extrinsic motivation (motivation by external incentives, like an abstract grade) in elementary and middle school can be especially helpful for student development. Researchers Ruth Butler and Mordecai Nisan have shown that the ability of a student to think critically is reduced when too much emphasis is placed on a grade rather than the actual learning process. Grading can also be damaging when the rational student realizes that the potential consequence of an intellectual challenge (a failing grade) isn’t worth the risk. They may ultimately choose the easier alternative because they are afraid of lowering their grade average.

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn argues that believing competition, rankings, reward and punishment are just the “the way life works” obscures the fact that these are all simply societal practices which people can choose to respond or not respond to. Kohn reminds us that collaborative skills (employing someone else’s strengths) are essential to societal development, as well.

Furthermore, while in an interview with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), educationalist Sir Ken Robinson argued that “most original thinking comes through collaboration and through the stimulation of other people’s ideas.” On the other hand, pure competition may beget an overdependence on self that may hinder the development of the whole. Let’s remind our students that learning isn’t just about attaining an “A” or being better than the next person.

Earlier I alluded to how the arts can stimulate students both emotionally and intellectually, and even inspire new patterns of thought. To elaborate on this idea, empirical studies have also shown that the benefits of education in the arts transcends its immediate aesthetic and sensory appeal.

A 2002 report facilitated by James Catterall, an affiliate faculty member at the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, drew from the findings of 62 studies conducted by 100 researchers and revealed positive correlations between arts education and academic performance. For example, students who engaged in music education showed improvements in their mathematical skills, reading skills and cognitive development. Dance students tended to show improvements in their critical thinking skills and originality. Furthermore, students who were educated in a multitude of arts showed improvements in higher-order thinking skills.

I don’t mean to imply that math, science, and our other traditional school subjects aren’t useful areas of study, or that they should be tossed aside. Nor should we presume that higher-order thinking skills are limited to the college classroom. I’m only suggesting that students, even our youngest students, often miss out on a more applicable understanding of these subjects when they aren’t encouraged to approach them in novel and creative ways. It has less to do with the information presented, and more to do with how that information is presented. Do we want a generation of spectators and trend-followers, or do we want a future world filled with leaders and critical thinkers? The choice begins with how we educate our students.

As we recognize and respect our ability to change, we will see that certain situations will require new modes of thought: Innovation. George Land suggests that we tap into our “inner five-year-old.” So let’s think outside the box. Remember when we weren’t so afraid to think differently? It may sound odd, but we can only move the collective when we begin to think for ourselves.

A caring and comforting school

My wife died when my daughter was just four. She took it very hard and became a very quiet and sullen child. Her teachers advised me to take her for counseling but even that didn’t seem to help. After three years, I moved to Bangalore to be closer to family. Even being closer to family didn’t help her come out of the shell she seemed to have gone into. After visiting many schools, I decided to enroll her in Candor International School.  Though the school was very big almost 20 acres the school was new and just had 200 students. So I thought the small number of students would make her feel less intimidated.

At first there wasn’t much difference. She was still quiet but slowly I found her starting to talk more, draw, paint and make and play with friends in the new apartment complex. I was extremely curious and wanted to know what had changed. So one weekend I went across to meet her class teacher. Her teacher had also noticed the difference and said that my daughter had befriended another student who also experienced a loss of a parent recently. Both the girls bonded immediately. That student somehow worked through her pain and now was helping my daughter through hers.  I was shocked. I mean how much help can a seven-year-old be? Then I discovered that the other student used to regularly see the Candor counselor and a few times, my daughter had also gone along with her. Though I can’t fathom why she found her family unapproachable I am happy she found a listening ear and someone to help her through the pain.

In just four months there was such a tremendous change in her life. I know she will always miss her mother but she’s starting to become her old self.  She even told me the other day that just the two of us should go for a holiday somewhere.

The teacher’s have been so patient with her – they have neither pitied nor patronized her. As a parent I’m extremely thankful for schools that go beyond academics and can care about the emotional wellbeing as well.  To see my daughter happy and smiling again is the best gift I could receive. Parents don’t just put your children in any school but choose a school like Candor that genuinely cares.

Effective Teaching

A student spends most of her productive waking hours in school. Thus, teachers play a pivotal role in her life. It is very important for a teacher to assess the needs of her students. A comfortable and congenial environment is very important for effective teaching and learning.

Students will feel motivated to learn only if they understand the significance of what they are learning. A teacher knows that all the knowledge imparted in school, according to the prescribed syllabus, may not directly fulfill the needs of each of her students. However, through her teaching, she can create the need, the urge to learn by connecting the theoretical with the practical i.e. interlinking the knowledge that she wants to impart with the day-to-day relevance of such knowledge.

It is very important for a teacher to plan her lessons in advance. However, sticking to the plan to the core is not advisable. There should be enough scope in her lesson plan to incorporate changes that make teaching and learning more effective. A teacher, who is prepared, is confident. She comes across as someone who is sure of what she is doing and this creates a degree of trust between the students and the teacher.

If I am interested in the topic that I am teaching, students will also be interested.  People naturally feel drawn towards people who are sprightly. Stress is a part of everyone’s life these days including students. Thus, it is important for the teacher to be happy, lively and enthusiastic so that learning becomes interesting.

As a human being I know that it is very difficult for me to pay attention to something that I am naturally not interested in.  The same applies to students. Lessons can be made interesting by involving the students in the learning process. They shouldn’t be passive listeners. Regular questioning and inviting suggestions and opinions from them, forces them to concentrate.  The teacher can quote famous personalities, use examples from popular T.V. programmes, movies, books etc. Creative association between the lesson and popular media captivates the attention of students and helps in retention. The students should know that the teacher has put in a lot of effort to make her lesson interesting. Students respect teachers who do that and try their best to please them by being more efficient themselves.

Students don’t like it if they are expected to acquire a whole lot of new skills to understand what is being taught. While delivering her lesson, a teacher should be able to utilize the existing skills of her students to the optimum. She should understand that new skills can be acquired only gradually with a lot of hand holding. Also, children shouldn’t be insulted if they don’t know the things that the teacher thought they knew.

Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Just because a teacher is older than her students does not authorize her to be rude and insensitive towards her students. So a teacher should try her best to be likeable and approachable. It is only when you give respect that you get respect.  And If I as a teacher get respect, then, I will also feel motivated to be a good teacher.

I know it is not possible to be a perfect human being. Also, it is very difficult to be around perfectionists. When a teacher acknowledges some of her shortcomings, mistakes and choices she made in life and shares her own school life experiences, children feel more comfortable with her. They feel less pressurized.  So the aim of a teacher should not to be to become perfect but be someone who is human, humane and wants to make a positive difference in the lives of her students.

Bullying – A misnomer in preschool terminology

The idea of of writing this musing is to present a case to state that the word ‘bully’ is not a relevant one to describe a child in an ECE environment.

As a teacher, I have always thought it inappropriate to label children in this age group with a negative connotation. This has long term effects on a child as he could very easily grow out of a particular behaviour with guidance at this stage of development. These are the years for children to develop their social skills, and comprehend the foundation for socially acceptable behaviour. I feel that the word ‘bully’ has a very negative connotation for any young child before they even comprehend the concept. Let me reason why I believe ‘bullies’ do not exist in early childhood settings and why we should not label them so. Behaviour management is an important area for us as teachers to keep reflecting on. We need to keep working on strategies depending on the type of behaviour of the individual child that we are addressing. I consider the development of social skills for children as the key factor for teachers to address and promote in the environment.

Farrell (1999) states that, “A range of authors concurs that bullying is repeated, intentional, gendered oppression, of a physical or psychological nature, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons and exclusion from the social group” (p. 40). Now think of any child in your early childhood establishment and decide for yourself if any of them fit that description. These are adult perceptions of people with intentional behaviour that is repeated and I suggest that bullying is different from aggression. Tepetas et al. (2010) cites Olweus (1993) who states that, “There is a general agreement that for a behavior to be considered bullying, it must have three elements: It must be intended to harm, it must be repetitive, and a difference of power–physical, social, or other–must exist between the bully and the victim” (p. 1675). With current teacher-child ratios in an early childhood environment I cannot fathom how this adult perception of the word could even have a place. Teachers as a team are aware of a child’s patterns of behaviour and address them through positive guidance. Farrell (1999) reiterates this point as she states that, “In early childhood education, however, we note a relative paucity of research into bullying using the nomenclature of the bully and the bullied or victim. Perhaps a different lexicon is used by early childhood teachers to provide descriptors of the deleterious attitudes and behaviours which others may describe as bullying” (p. 43).

Drewery & Bird (2007) suggest that bullies are,”people who intentionally harm another person, are not fully developed in social role-taking, that they do not realise how extremely harmful their actions are to another person” (p. 195). I would consider this to be the case during post preschool development, otherwise, we would be labeling a child who bites, snatches toys, pushes, or not being able to keep his hands to himself, as a bully. Intent is the key word for me in that definition and I do not think that children in their early years have yet developed that cognitive function to that particular level. Aggression is a different issue and we all have to deal with it in some form or another during our working day. Strategies that we use to deal with inappropriate behaviour need to be consistently applied by a teaching team. Boundaries are then automatically established and a social awareness around those boundaries begin to develop. That is why ongoing PD is also vital to keep up the momentum of our own reflective practice. A programme like ‘The Incredible Years’ is one such behaviour management programme that I can think of offhand that offers strategies for us to take back to our own environment, and to apply them as we see fit. The foundation before applying any strategies is to build a strong relationship with the child in question for these strategies to be effective.

Not enough research has surfaced around bullying in preschools in comparison to what has been established in this topic regarding older children. Alsaker & Nägele (2008) have conducted studies that suggest bullying does occur in preschools and offer examples of day care centres in Norway, Switzerland, and United States. They also state that,”we still need more precise knowledge concerning the similarities in bullying between younger and older children, the impact that bullying and victimization has on younger children’s well-being, and the stability of the roles before and during the transition to elementary school” (p. 230). Once again we are getting into lexical semantics around the word bullying. The demarcation for me between aggression in preschool and bullying at school is a more developed social mindset during the school stage when there is intent to victimize. I do feel that this intent is beyond the cognitive capability of preschool children and once again state that social skills and understanding are still in a developmental stage. The behaviour in preschool could be the precursor to bullying that sets in with intent at a later stage, but that doesn’t mean that we label a child a ‘bully’ right from preschool. This is where we as preschool teachers play such a defining role in our behaviour management strategies. Offering positive guidance based on a centre’s policy, as well as one’s own pedagogical beliefs, further strengthens my stance of a necessity to have 100% qualified staff at a centre that cover acceptable ratios.

In conclusion, I request my fellow colleagues in the ECE profession to not get too caught up with semantics by applying the word ‘bully’ with reference to a child in the early years. Let them learn their social skills through trial and error, as well as role modeling and guidance from us. This will enable them to build on their foundation towards a greater social awareness in their school years. Sure, some may turn out to be bullies in the future, but to stigmatise them from the start does not offer them any positive guidance towards a better social understanding.

Comprehension Strategies and Routines Based on Research Knowledge

This article explores four evidence-based comprehension reading strategies and one comprehension routine relevant to improving reading comprehension for struggling readers. The four research based comprehension routines discussed will be as follows: visual representation-mental imagery, summarization, and strategies used by good readers.  The comprehension routine will discuss inferring and/or drawing conclusions.  All of these research-based strategies and comprehension routines are important to the effectiveness of teaching reading and being a child in a classroom.

“ There is an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.  When it comes to comprehension, this saying might be paraphrased, “a visual display helps readers understand, organize, and remember some of those thousand words.”  (as cited in Duke and Pearson, 2002, p. 218).  Visual representation and mental imagery are very important to the reader.  When children see an image, it helps put things in a different perspective in reference to what is occurring in the story. The right comprehension strategy can mean the start or the end to a wondrous relationship with reading.

Children of all ages, grade levels, and those with disabilities can use mental imagery to digest what has been read as it provides them with a mental picture in their head.  Early readers rely a lot on picture books to tell a story.  They build upon their reading strengths by following sequential images.  As they get older, the picture books are combined with text; as they age and get closer to middle school, text is primarily the sole provider of information.

A study done by Gallagher and Pearson concluded that fourth grade students that used both content and structural features such as matrix and flow charts, allowed them to significantly learn better.  The children were composed of mainly poor readers and the study took place over a series of several weeks. They held discussions of short books about different social insects such as ants, bees, and termites.

They read, in order, a passage about a fourth social insect, the paper wasp, a passage about a human society, and a passage about geographic formations such as gulfs, capes, peninsulas, and the like.  As the conceptual distance between original set of books and the testing passages increased, the effect of the intervention (compared with a group who read the same texts and answered questions and with a group that only read texts) decreased in magnitude, but was still statistically significant, suggesting that students were learning something about (a) insect societies, (b) social organization in general, and (c) how to unearth the structure of an informational text. (Gallagher and Pearson, 1989, p. 217).

This study speaks volumes about the importance of content knowledge and text structure, and especially why it is important to use visual charts (matrix and flowcharts) to better understand reading content.  The students were taught information in an organized way and intertwining the lesson with the use of two different types of flowcharts, provided students with another informed way to digest information.

When someone walks into a school, they can immediately see the flooding of visual imagery such as televisions, computers, illustrated texts and smart boards.  All of these tools are necessary for laying the foundation for successful students, but are they helpful in terms of reading comprehension?

“Unfortunately this bombardment of visual images does not necessarily transfer to students’ ability to create mental images that support reading comprehension.” (Hibbing and Rankin-Erickson, 2003)  As Hibbing and Rankin-Erickson had noted, children need more than just an overload of visual representation.  Students need to be able to have pictures included in their textbooks to show them what’s going on.  I feel that visual representation and mental imagery provide support for children that experience comprehension problems.  It is an informative, necessary tool that aids students in the understanding of what is being discussed whether it be something stated inside of a text, or written in a novel.  Children can close their eyes while a book is being read to them and use mental imagery to explore the author’s ways of representing the story. This not only proves to be effective, but enlightening.

Another comprehension strategy that is useful for reading comprehension is summarization.  “ The ability to summarize information requires readers to sift through large units of text, differentiate important from unimportant ideas, and then synthesize those ideas and create a new coherent text that stands for, by substantive criteria, the original. (Dole, Duffy, Roehler, and Pearson, 1991, p. 220).

Having taught students how to do this, I have seen that it is hard for children to accomplish this task. Teachers have to provide examples and lots of student practice before children really catch on how to summarize effectively.  Summarization helps students understand the material that they are reading. Students are able to put what is read into their own words.  Students need to learn how to omit unnecessary material within a chapter of a book that they are summarizing.  They also need to replace words in a text or novel with their own vocabulary.

When children can put into their own words what is happening inside of a book or a section of a text, they enhance their reading comprehension.  The strategy of summarization through practice and teacher instruction, allows a student to better understand what it is that they are reading.  Summarization forces students to look at the criteria, identify what is important and what is not, turn a writers words into their own, and truly pull out only necessary information to form a summary of their own.  Summarization also helps students recall what has happened within text and apply it to several different avenues of teacher instruction.

Strong readers not only use effective strategies such as summarization, visual or mental imagery.  They also use predictions, rereading, make inferences on what is read, draw conclusions, compare and contrast what they are reading with what they already know, and successful readers take the time to figure out unfamiliar words.

“The quickest and best thing you do to boost the reading abilities of all students is to increase the amount of time they spend reading.” (Gunning, 2006, p. 99).  The more time students spend on reading inside and outside of the classroom, the better equipped they will be at using effective reading strategies.  If poor readers do not read continually, they will drastically decrease their ability to make progress.  Children that are struggling with reading need to devote time to reading daily. In my opinion, reading aloud is an extremely helpful tool. Hearing oneself pronouncing words enhances a child’s ability to decode, therefore to read effectively.

Struggling readers will most likely have difficulty making inferences.  Teachers need to guide students and ask them to go over the information to look for important facts and supporting details. Teachers should model an example of inferencing by referencing things in their life to what was read. This learning model should be followed by asking students to do the same. Forming these relationships brings higher meaning to text, and a broader understanding of conceptual thinking. By making inferences on what is read, a student can successfully incorporate the joy of reading into the knowledge of learning strategies that can make them insightful readers.

Drawing conclusions is also an important comprehension based reading strategy.  It is part of making inferences.  Readers come to conclusions after looking at details and facts within text. In accordance with making inferences, teachers should use guided practice with their students and instruct learners on how to pay attention to details in a story and form conclusions. Students should use supporting details when doing this due to the implication that conclusions are based on facts and details from stories.

Comprehensive reading strategies are essential to the productivity and growth of all readers and grade levels.  As educators, if we can combine our own teaching techniques with research-based information, we can offer all of our worthy students a positive establishment for effective reading. Providing these methods and learning from research-based knowledge will ensure continuous growth.  A well-skilled student is not only the foundation of our future, but they are the dreamers of tomorrow, and the educational constitutes of our emerging world.  As teachers, we can create a solid platform for our students to walk on, and be fundamentally successful.