Risk and creativity, an odd combination?

Risk and creativity, an odd combination?

This is an experiment in creative thinking. I’m going out on a limb and taking a risk. This blog post will demonstrate how linking unrelated ideas can become a cohesive piece of reading material. Here we go.

School finished for the day, farewelled my students, did some press-ups, packed my gear, picked up student belongings and headed to my office, which led me across the school driveway. A Porsche with the top down drove in front of me, and the driver, a middle aged woman, was on her phone (in hand). ERRRRRRRR. I ran up to her expensive piece of machinery and signalled to stop.

“You know talking on your phone while driving is dangerous and illegal?”

“I know.”

?

“So why are you doing it?”

“It’s only a driveway”

“But there are lots of young kids around.”

She shrugs, grunts and drives on.

Flabbergasted.

How can this be that in spite of knowing the dangers to others that an individual can blatantly put those around them at risk? In a school.

Our own mortality may be something that we are ignorant about, but what about that of young kids? Is this the kind of example we want to set for them and the risk we want them to be exposed to? and believe is harmless?

Although, risk can be a great thing. It lets us experiment with the unknown and push our own boundaries. Without it we, humanity, would make very slow progress. But please let it be informed intelligent risk. Risk that will make us grow and develop, not cut short and destroy. We have a responsibility as educators to teach risk in a safe environment manifesting individual, social, technological and artistic development for the better.

The creative process is an excellent tool to help students realise what risk is all about. It provides a framework where unlikely ideas are welcome. For a student to suggest an improbable or impossible solution, is often a huge risk. Many won’t put forward absurd solutions because they don’t want to be ridiculed or simply, education encourages rational, reasonable answers.

Tina Seelig in her book ‘Ingenius’ covers various tools that facilitate creativity, one of them is combining odd things. She highlights the Japanese artform of ‘Chindōgu’ which is the Japanese “art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem, but are in fact useless.” These pictures will give you a brief but compelling summary.

Butter stick

Baby mop

Noodle cooler

 

Absolutely absurd? Yes.

Practical? No.

The baby mop is definitely a favourite but only because I giggle imagining my own kids in that suit.

But ideas like these are hard for students to grasp for the above mentioned reasons, although they are imaginative ideas that spur creative thinking in divergent directions – a desirable trait. Think of this blog post as an example, where did it start? With an anecdotal story about a Porsche, phone and arrogant woman, and now at a besotted father laughing at his kids as cheap labour mopping the family floors.

And why not? Are there any definite rules to writing blogs? Sure there are methods we know that do work but does that mean everything else doesn’t? How many times do we think there are set structures in life only to see them rewritten, and be successful? There are countless examples of ‘experts’ telling individuals that they are off the mark and their ideas have no value, only to be proved wrong. The Xerox machine, the personal computer (Apple), Aspirin and the telephone are all examples of products that were seen as useless and had no potential market. So why not putting ridiculous ideas together to come up with something new?

The ‘Bowie method’ is a good example of this. David Bowie would write out the lyrics for a new song he was working on, cut them up and randomly rearrange them. From the new constellation of lyrics, he would rework and tweak them into a form that resonated. Who would think, all those songs that people have meaningful relationships with, were once cut up on pieces of paper lying on Bowie’s floor waiting to be randomly pasted together?

So how can we, within our contexts, allow and encourage absurdity to be acceptable and use it to develop thinking? Over the next year I’m on a mission to try and explain math concepts through dance, I know I’m not the first but it will be a first time for me. Maybe not totally absurd but hopefully something unexpected, odd and engaging.

In my theatre and dance classes I sometimes encourage students to think of an unfeasible place where they would like to ideally perform their creations – for example on the moon or underwater. Obviously it is not possible to do that, but what would it feel like to perform in those places? Can you show me what it would look like? Then suddenly they have a new quality of moving, and essentially a new dance.

How often do we make up new words? We only really use what we know but when we read Roald Dahl books or the Harry Potter collection we never doubt the use of new words to describe places, creatures, objects or events. Students could aim to invent a number of new words in a creative writing exercise to push their thinking.

Unfeasible geopolitical situations, like I mean absolutely absurd, Aliens invade and literally split Canada down the middle and then the East coast is transported and fused to the west coast of Portugal, extending Europe into the Atlantic. How do you deal with the new geographical situation and political implications?

Different rules that structure our universe, the space and time continuum  is not how we know it but governed by something completely different, eg Newton’s laws of motion behaved differently. Then conduct theoretical experiments within the new parameters.

All of these ideas still require students to use skills that they have previously learnt or the knowledge and skills learnt during these exercises are applicable to other real life situations.

So, you get the point. We can, and should, push student thinking into not just what we do know and what is possible (or right) – but beyond to the outrageous edges of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” universe (if you have never read these books take the time!). We need the irrational, ludicrous thinking to make the impossible possible. It is not a redundant exercise, we have to remember as educators that in these types of absurd scenarios students will still be applying subject specific skills to a creative thinking exercise.

What the research is telling us about the future of the workforce is that employers want people who see opportunities or problems beyond what is in front of them. Being able to consider something that seems impossible or absurd is definitely a step in the right direction. We have to encourage students to take these risks, yet even better – use risk to their advantage.

Whether or not this is a well written blog post is beside the point, it was for me a journey and an experiment from which I have learnt. By trying something new a risk was taken which made me think divergently by attempting to link together different ideas to make a point.

 

All Images by Nela

Ready to teach a multidisciplinary arts project?

Ready to teach a multidisciplinary arts project?

We had long been talking in our department about interdisciplinary with other subject areas but getting it off the ground was difficult. This is when we looked at the situation from another perspective and thought why don’t we do it internally; multidisciplinary projects within the Performing Arts?

In Grade 6 and 7 all students have to take Drama, Dance, Music and Theatre Design. We took the decision to combine two disciplines where they have to create a single product over the course of a semester. So, Grade 6 attend Dance and Music where they have to compose a dance and a piece of music to a certain theme (first semester ‘personality traits’ and the other in second semester ‘opposites’). In Drama and Theatre Design they devise small theatrical pieces and make costume elements, and then in the second semester create puppets for a self-devised piece.

Grade 7 we switch it up with the aim of challenging student perceptions and thinking. We combine, Dance with Drama and then Music with Theatre Design. These couplings that are not so ‘natural’ produce some excellent work and I have been surprised by the willingness, and openness the students have approached the tasks. The end of unit performances this past semester were particularly strong which surprised, not only us, but the students. Putting ‘unexpected’ elements together is an identified tool to help enhance creative thinking (and an upcoming blog post).

We leave the actual creating of the final work till quite late and spent the majority of time through the unit skill building. Students spent one lesson a week in each of the two disciplines they are doing for the semester. In my context, through dance, a focus on how to abstract movement from words and gestures, working with choreographic tools. In the Music class they anaylsis pieces through listening tasks, learn some basic theory and work on composition skills. These are independent lessons, music and dance, but are ‘sold’ to the students as one course, for example we look at how to compose music and choreograph  dance over a two week period using the same stimulus “rollercoaster”. All the time we push students beyond ‘the first thing’ they think of while doing any type of creating. Trying to get them into a habit of producing multiple alternatives, a great little tool to demonstrate this is the 10x2 artful thinking activity.

Our goal is that when we arrive at the final product the students should be in a semi-autonomous state, where they only need guiding questions and prompting. We provide boundaries – what needs to be included – and continually guide them with feedback.

There are loads of positives doing these multidisciplinary project based units and we make sure that there is an authentic audience at the conclusion by inviting parents. Beyond that:

  • It is a collaborative process, students work in groups of three to six and have to deal with compromises – finding strategies to work effectively together.
  • Changes perceptions about how disciplines can be combined to create. Students often enter with a “but how will we do this? What will it look like?” attitude. Even Music and Dance which are a ‘natural pairing’ students are encouraged to develop dance content without having finished composing music. This order (or simultaneous creating) is difficult for students because it breaks with expectations.
  • Tracking student progress. The constant communication with colleagues allows consistency with students across the different disciplines.
  • Reduced planning time, as we do the same lesson twice a week, the second time round with the experience of the first is often an improved version.
  • Reduced grading time. The students are receiving an overall grade for Performing Arts, some activities that are not subject specific like writing artistic intentions, reflections, exploring the stimulus are divided between the teachers and moderated. It reduces our grading load for these classes by half.
  • Students that are learning English benefit from communication and explanation from peers.
  • Makes the creative process explicit. Throughout the skill building phase we work with constraints, metaphors and producing LOTS of alternatives/solutions.
  • During the final product stage, it is a genuine problem that has to be looked at in detail and requires an analytical and playful approach.
  • Having showings during the process raises the quality, students are encouraged to work harder when they see what other groups are capable of producing.
  • Differentiation. Students choose their own  groups, which manifests in pushing each other to achieve higher (in almost all combinations, although you always get one group…)

The multidisciplinary approach has been a very successful model within our context and one that we really enjoying teaching. I am positive it could easily work in other subject areas as well. Please feel free to ask if you have any questions on how we structure it.

 

Feature image by Nela

Mindfulness and focus in five minutes

Mindfulness and focus in five minutes

“I’m pretty much done with mindfulness. I’m just going to start paying attention.” – Gina Barre (comedian)

This quote made me smile, it reinforces my cynicism of trends, although this post won’t go into that topic, but it will provide a quick strategy to focus a classroom and establish authentic attention. I stumbled upon this purely by accident but now use it regularly. It works for all ages and you can do it for yourself.

Balance on one leg.

That’s it. But framing is important. Have students stand, feet together all facing the same direction with a bit of space around them. Hands relaxed by their sides. Wait for quiet. Instruct students to find a point on the wall in front of them at eye height to focus on. Slowly lift/slide left foot on top of right so it is just resting on top of it. After a minute or so suggest if they feel comfortable they can lift their foot to their knee. Remind them to keep the focus on the point in front of them that ‘that focus helps them balance’ (and it does). After a minute slowly lower leg to stand on two feet. Repeat on the other foot. Done.

Remind those doing the activity if they start to wobble or get frustrated, to just quietly reset and start again. The calm approach is vital.

This is not necessarily something I use when kids are off task (but do as well). In my context with small groups creating dance or devising theatre in a large space, it gets loud. Even though students are working towards a goal it is sometimes good to pause, digest, reset and go again.

It works so well because it is a challenge. I am always surprised at how calm and focused the class is after this activity. I usually use it halfway through a lesson but it works well both as a starter and as part of a plenary as well. You can unpack it if you like, observations etc, and talk about the effects of concentration in helping you achieve a goal…

Feature image by Nela

Boredom breeds bad-ass music

Boredom breeds bad-ass music

This article out of Harvard looks at the trend of students being increasingly bored as they progress with their schooling, as they get older they are less engaged. It attributes this mainly to how these students are being taught, commenting that there are ways to engage kids with little excuse not to.

We know in the age of inquiry and design thinking that there are meaningful ways to plan out and execute schemes of work to tackle lack of student engagement. Although despite this, and no matter what we do, there are always going to be students that are bored, period. It is nature. It is human. And to be frankly honest, it is good.

Bored youth have changed the way music sounds, changed the way art is created, changed the way we speak, changed social customs, changed how we interact with technology and the world. Boredom propels us forward.

Ok, I better stop here and say I am not advocating a force fed style education. No, I believe in inquiry and engagement, as a performing arts specialist I would be somewhat hypocritical, and a lousy teacher! But what we have to acknowledge is that some students will always be bored if not in your class, somebody else’s.

This monotonous activity called school that they endure provides opportunity for the mind to wander, abstracting thought and making meaningful connections. It will spur them to connect with other like minded individuals. While the students that are engaged will hopefully be being led through processes to find connections and abstract thinking activities as well but the results will be different.

Maybe it is possible to engage all and still provide the rebellious artistic output that characterises certain genres and generations. Although, I find it hard to picture learning environments with 100% captivated attention leading to powerfully music about disenfranchised youth who are misunderstood.

Boredom has its place. Boredom is a breeding ground for creative exploration. It’s is a launching pad for invention, reflection and inquisitiveness – because we look for ways to understand the world through our own eyes, and just entertain ourselves.

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.” – Bertrand Russell (philosopher).

Let me reiterate, we should not be lazy and look to bore but we have to recognise that it is human condition. Some youth will always resent systems and authority. I just hope that boredom goes towards a positive outlet and if I can help direct it I will, but maybe I’m just getting in the way?

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

10 reasons school musicals not only rock but are learning opportunities

 

Recently I read an article on the value of school musicals… as we were fast approaching opening night of our own, which I was directing. So, here is my take on it.

“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”
– Tom Stoppard, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

After five months of rehearsals (five months for three performances!) ask any student if they think it was worth it, I’m fairly certain they would tell you ‘yes’. As with all creative endeavors it’s not just the end product but the process of practise and decision making that contains the learning, and if not the adrenalin kick of performing, the enrichment.

There are triumphant moments and loads of challenges which at the end an audience sit and (hopefully) marvel at the spectacle. What is behind the illusion on stage often gets overlooked, or never considered. Real life skills plus a multitude of learning moments are ingrained in rehearsing.

For one, anybody who thinks they can do something the first time for stage and do it right, is wrong. The students heard the word “again” come out my mouth more than any other. Characterisation is a process of empathy and experimentation, a unique mix of yourself and the qualities of the character whose role you have, every interpretation is different. Singing is about practice and refinement, as is learning to be in time with the music and each other while dancing a choreography.

Second, if you get it right once it doesn’t mean it will be right the next time… or the next time.. or the next time but the more you get it right the more consistent it will be. It is to be blunt, damn hard work, although outsiders often see it as just playing around (upcoming post soon about ‘why dance school is harder than medical school’).

Third, it is full of practical skill building. Dancing, singing and acting require coordination, active listening, body awareness, control, expression, spatial awareness, self awareness, confidence, projection, timing and empathy.

When all three are performed together, well it’s communication in a very complex form. Think about it, singing and dancing simultaneously while pretending to be someone else.

Fourth, teamwork/collaboration. The people on stage, have to work with, and trust each other to develop and produce a successful performance but they are still only a small piece of the puzzle. Costume, makeup, set designers, stage hands, light and sound technicians… Nothing looks or sounds good without them. Their process also begins at the same time as rehearsals, decisions in one creative field affect (and inspire) another, therefore clear communication between them is vital. I cannot stress how much I make the performers aware and appreciative of the people that get them to the stage and keep them looking good on it.

Fifth, it builds relationships. It is an extraordinary situation, school leavers with those starting middle school. Everyone is a stakeholder in a common goal. Students connect over similar interests that they only get to share through this unique situation. They build surprising, meaningful bonds.

Sixth, it installs an environment of responsibility. Everybody has a responsibility to know their lines, choreography and harmony. You don’t want to let yourself down, God forbid anybody else. It also gives older students the opportunity to mentor younger, and this often happens without any prompting.

Seventh, dealing with disappointment. Things do not always go right, as is the nature of live performance. Rehearsals are can be left on a low because it didn’t go as anticipated. Audiences do not always like what they see (and are usually happy enough to tell you). Getting back on the horse, being resilient and learning from those experiences is a vital part of the performer’s skill set.

Eighth, improvisation. Built during rehearsals to develop content. This is a demanding undertaking, you put yourself and your ideas totally on the line. It helps to build confidence to deal with things that go wrong in the moment which has a lot to do with being open, listening and being able to respond. Improvisation gets better with practise.

Ninth, inclusion. This one cannot be understated. Along with the tiaras and tantrums of the divas, the school musical picks up many students that sit on the social fringes. These kids are suddenly integral to a project and its success, no matter how much of an oddball their peers may think they are. The realisation that social ineptitude is actually a quirky personality with a wealth of passion.

Tenth, fulfillment and fun. At the end of the day it’s exhausting, has plenty of moments of frustration, numerous challenges and problems to be solved but it is simply fun and fills the proverbial cup to the brim. Very little that I have experienced has that same swelling feeling in the lungs and throat with a compelling urge to dance, topped off with pride and accomplishment when the cast sing the finale in a production that took five months to piece together. This is far from an exhaustive list so here is my plus one:

Eleventh. It explicitly details the creative process.

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Header image by Nela Fletcher – see more here

How to approach feedback

How to approach feedback

“Teachers may claim they give much feedback, but the more appropriate measure is the nature of feedback received (and this is often quite little)” – John Hattie. Feedback, feedforward, instruction, prompting, cueing, guidance, we all know its documented importance in education.

Non-judgemental feedback during the creative process is an excellent tool to implement for students and teachers alike. It takes a bit of re-routing but once in place can be very powerful.

All you have to do is describe what they see or hear, easy right? Well, this is harder to do than one realises but once students have that factual description of what someone else sees, it provides them with a different perspective to their work. It has to be a methodical process, starting with the big picture (the most obvious) and then becoming more refined. And I suggest that one really starts with the words “I see” or “I hear” to frame it for students.

Next, contextualise the work by relating it back to the task. This is also the time where the viewer can start to talk about interpretation of what they saw. Does it match the task? What still needs to be done? What knowledge do you have to help you continue and develop?

The process very quickly draws one to details and makes things explicit that the students had possibly not realised or expected. It gives them new ideas to consider, try out and evaluate. It reveals what is missing. It talks as much about what is not present, as what is.

The thing I love about this is the autonomy it gives the creators and that it increases self-efficacy. It is not a teacher saying “Now you need to think about adding X so that  it fulfills the criteria.” It also avoids you passing a judgement that puts the work on a scale. It provides space for students to reflect and realise what needs to be addressed.

Project Zero have a great system for this as part of their ‘visible thinking’ routines. Called “I see, I think, I wonder” – describe what your see, comment on what it makes you think and then ask what it makes you wonder. It is a gradual progression that brings attention to observation, connects opinion, and finally thinking about possible alternatives or solutions.

Things to watch out for in the initial stage (because people just love to give their opinion when it comes to someone else’s creation), “I liked…”, “I feel like…”, “It was good that…”, etc. Strive to have the description first, there needs to be space between this step and adding opinion to digest and reflect. Get students to share what they have seen, it’s surprising how much can be extracted. Even this, being aware of how much is in front of them can open doors of possibilities.

 

**Header picture by my talened wife Nela Fletcher, for more click here