Creativity in teaching

How important is creativity in today’s teaching spaces? It’s a question that is gradually coming more into focus and one which is certainly worthy of our attention. As 1-1 teachers, or eve small group facilitators is this something we need to be thinking about? Perhaps because I work in an arts environment, it has always seemed to me that creativity – defining it for students (and the definition is really not that important) and reminding them of its accessibility, is crucial if we are to empower them to take control of their learning. One of my favourite key texts on creativity is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention’ (1997). I also find Ken Robinson inspiring:

In a recent article James C. Kaufman evaluates the importance of creativity alongside other key skills for success. His four – C model of creativity categorises the different levels of creativity depending on their resultant effect on self and community. The open definition he provides is democratic and open enough for us to take it into our teaching rooms, confident that it can make a difference. “Creativity” he says “can be a person, a process, a product, or a place, and it should be both new and task appropriate or relevant.” Key components of creativity include being open – to new experiences, new conversations, new ideas, new challenges. As teachers then, we surely have an obligation to subscribe to this version of creativity. It may empower us but more importantly, if we make this definition available to our students, whether it be in a 1-1 space or a more collaborative group, the flow of ideas exchange is both more fluid and more accessible to students. We can all think of different ways of encouraging this creative mindset in students – the author here suggests brainstorming. Some small-group process techniques (depending on the size) include:

Fishbowls (could be usefully combined with the Liz Lerman Critical Response technique)
Pair dialogues

Phil Race (‘The Lecturer’s Toolkit, 1998, 3rd edition 2007)  does an excellent job of describing each of these techniques and suggesting how they could be useful. Within each of these techniques, fostering the creative approach remains paramount and a key skill that needs constant developing. Race notes that one of the important but often overlooked points of deploying such techniques in small groups is the need to impress upon students that the roles they assume within such groups (whether they are leaders or followers) are transferable skills that they will need in life outside of the classroom. We will all have occasions to be both leaders and followers in the real world. Creativity too is a hugely transferable skill.

Pointing the difference to students between “following” because you agree with leadership and belief in the method and project you are on and being, as Race puts it, “easily led” is crucial. As orchestral musicians, as collaborative artists, as researchers on a bigger project, this skill can make the difference between a successful project that each member can own and a failed one. The difference lies in the ability of the followers to ‘own’ and to participate in the leadership process. In collaborative work particularly, the success of an enterprise is entirely depending on the ‘followers’.

In my experience there are various things that can jeopardise small-group teaching and – let me be clear about this – these issues are not always caused by students. Small-group teaching is a multiway interactive process that demands much from both the student and the teacher. Not least the teacher (or lecturer) transforms himself into a facilitator while the students have the opportunity to influence, control and shape their own learning in real-time. This is, to my mind at least, the most valuable quality of small-group teaching and can totally transform the learning experience. Particularly in a conservatoire setting, where students continually work with each other and participate in collaborative performances etc. many skills that students learn in small groups are transferable skills. Unfortunately however, the concept of ‘facilitator’ often elicits a negative response from staff who tend to see it as a derogatory or diluted form of teaching.

In another piece entitled ‘Facilitating Learning in Small Groups’, Race suggests that facilitation is “what we really need to be trying to do when we’re getting small groups of students learning from each other, and from learning resources, and indeed from ourselves” I personally do not see why such a role deserves the bad press it often gets because it does not (or should not!) suggest less preparation on the time of the teacher or for that matter, any less knowledge. Rather it indicates an openness to make that knowledge available to students in a different way and encourages students to make sure that they are themselves ‘constructing meaning’. Small group teaching demands a great deal, in the here and now, from the students. This kind of teaching is challenging from the perspective of both the teacher and the student.

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