Perspectives on Creativity From an Engineer

In doing research on what the consensus is for when creativity peaks, I ran into this article by Joseph Berk, an engineer. Joseph offered a different perspective on creativity than Ken Robinson. Robinson, as well as many other people that I have featured on this blog, have stated that creativity is essentially one’s ability to connect the dots and come up with something new from those connections. Joseph Berk laments that “most new designs are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. They are improvements or modifications of other designs, rather than completely new concepts. They involve applications of other mechanisms and concepts, rather than completely new things.”

Isn’t this the “connecting the dots” that Robinson and others have talked about? Berk is not arguing that it isn’t, nor is he saying that this isn’t a type of creativity. He is lamenting that there isn’t more original work coming out of the world of engineering.  He faults the rules, regulations, and other constructs of society and the natural world that essentially put an engineer in a box and do not allow them to come up with original ideas of their own, simply because they are busy trying to conform to those rules.

The article is an interesting read, and another piece in the puzzle of creativity.

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Do SCLANS Promote Creativity?

I have been wanting to write about SCLANS for a very long time, but haven’t really had the opportunity.

What are SCLANS?

SCLANS stands for:

Shapes

Colors

Letters

And

Numbers

with an ‘s’ to make it plural

SCLANS are the toys that teach this academic knowledge with the help of lights, buttons, and music. They are the toys that everyone clamors for their child to have when they are young, but drive peiple nuts while they are being used.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with SCLANS, but in my personal experience they don’t tend to hold a child’s interest for very long. Button pushing is a relatively easy skill, after all. Some toys have pieces that move differently, and these pieces can prove challenging until mastered, but even that doesn’t take long, and when the skill is learned the interest is gone.

We have talked about creativity being about finding your element, connecting dots, and experiencing many different areas of life in order to find an area that truly inspires you. But then we provide these toys to our infants and toddlers in the hopes that they will learn something from them.

So what do they learn? If they push a button on the toy, it does something. Basic cause and effect. They will probably learn some songs and some basic motor skills. I haven’t seen the data on whether or not children retain any shape or color knowledge from those toys. I tend to doubt it because learning these things from a toy removes the knowledge from the context of the world around them. This means that understanding becomes limited, at best. In a previous post I spoke of my lack of understanding when it comes to math. I fully believe that if those advanced math classes had been taught to me in the context of the real world, my understanding and appreciation would have been greater. And isn’t that what we are talking about when it comes to creativity – learning through life experiences?

I teach colors in my class through the children using the color and manipulating it. We talk about the colors of crayons, paint, markers, paper they are cutting, scissors they are cutting with, and toys they are building with. We talk about letters when I am writing their names or something that they have said. We learn about numbers through counting and matching amounts with numerals. The point is, we mix the learning with life. We move ourselves, we interact with objects; we don’t just sit around pushing buttons on toys. Through our interactions we have learned not only the academic knowledge, but social skills, vocabulary, fine and gross motor skills, and many different creative ways to use the information we have learned. This also promotes independence, self-confidence, and a love of learning.

Learning in ways that require more work than just pushing a button is all-inclusive and can result in enhanced skills in many areas. For this reason, I do not allow SCLANS in my classroom. My job is to focus on more than simply academic knowledge. My job is to focus on the development of the whole child, and to increase their confidence and independence in areas other than button pushing, song singing, and academic knowledge.

Experiences Instead of Academia?

I ran into this video the other day, and it brought to mind a few questions – especially since I had just finished reading the Ken Robinson book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. Watch it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 

 

The interesting thing about this video, to me, is that Stephen Tonti states that those with ADHD have a difference in cognition. I am not arguing that this is or is not the case. I think that he is probably correct, since he has been living with ADHD all of his life. But he talks about how being able to experience many different things in his life enabled him to find out at a younger age than most what he really enjoyed doing – his medium, his element. My point in posting this video is that, wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to ALL children, not just those with ADHD, to provide them with a wide range of experiences so that they can find out about themselves and what their mediums are?

I remember when I was in high school, during my sophomore and junior years, going through somewhat of a crisis because I did not know who I was. I was sheltered and didn’t have a lot of life experience to fall back on in terms of knowing how life worked and what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go when I got out of high school. It is one of the scariest feelings in the world, not knowing who you are or what you are going to do or how to go forward with your life. But all I had really known, as far as school went, was sitting at a desk writing papers. And I was good at that. But I knew that I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life. Life isn’t about sitting at a desk writing papers. It is about finding what you really love to do and doing it. It is about living. And I had no idea how to do that.

Luckily I found out, and I found my element. But it took me years. I was in my thirties before I found it and figured out who I was. That is a lot of time that I could have spent being me instead of figuring out me.

After watching this video, it occurred to me that maybe we should be offering all children experiences  that will enable them to figure out who they are and what they love, instead of just sitting them at a desk all day and expecting them to write papers. Stephen Tonti said that he was able to figure out what he loved to do simply because he had the opportunity to do many, many things with all of his energy. Shouldn’t everyone have that opportunity so that they can figure themselves out? Is it fair to expect children or young adults to spend so much time figuring that out? Especially with the cost of higher education these days – stories are told all the time about people who went to get a degree, found out that they didn’t even like doing what it was they got the degree for, and then going back to get a degree in what it was they really wanted to do. It really seems like a huge waste of time and money, when we could be offering children the chance to learn about real life so that they can figure all of this out before they get to that point.

Our education system is so focused on assessments and testing that we have lost sight of what children really need to be learning about: how to live. Yes, math, reading and writing are important when it comes to living a full life, but they are not everything. Offering children experiences could help them learn how to live full, productive lives with as little wasted time as possible.

And I wonder, now that I think about it…do I blog because I know nothing else besides reading and writing? Because that is all I learned earlier in life? I was good at it, remember? That is a depressing thought. I do more than that, though. I teach. I try to offer the children that I teach experiences because I know how beneficial it is to them. I know that they aren’t even worried about their element at the age of two, but at least I can give them as much experience at life as I can. Someone should.

Attitude and Dedication

Since school is out and I am taking a much needed break, I have begun to resume my independent research. Since I received a gift card to Barnes & Noble for Teacher Appreciation Week, I decided to purchase a book that has long been on my wish list: The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach – Advanced Reflections which is a collection of essays and reflections from several people involved the Reggio Emilia Approach to education. I haven’t even made it through the introductions (yes, that is plural) when I came across a quote by Howard Gardner that has made me think:

So much has been written about progressive methods in education, but so rarely are the ideals of progressive education actually realized. Perhaps one reason why is that one needs a team that is willing to work together for decades in the service of a set of energizing ideas; the team needs to evolve procedures for attaining an education of quality while still encouraging growth for all who participate. So much has been written about the powers of the young mind, and yet so rarely can they be seen in full action.

This quote has put into words a frustration of mine that, at one time, made me question my place in the field of early childhood education. This frustration has stemmed from an inability of teachers to work together for the common purpose of providing children with the best quality education. I admit, most teachers out there do work to provide children with an education, but this is where the growth and personal education come into play. Many teachers still use outdated methods that provide no intrinsic motivation or stimulation to children, have only a passing knowledge of current child development research, and make no effort to keep abreast of the latest research dealing with children and education. They expect other teachers to work with them using these methods that not only don’t work, but cause more problems than they are worth. And while they are expecting others to work with them using these methods, others are passing them by in their own personal education and knowledge, leading to friction and differing ideas when it comes to the best methods for educating children.

I haven’t done much personal research on this yet, but I have heard that many teachers and administrators have have taken bits and pieces of progressive education ideas and used them to suit their needs and have tried to fit them in the mold of education as it is today. The result has been a list of outcomes achieved by rote memorization of supposed facts revealed by textbooks and then tested by….tests. This method has resulted in quite a few generations of children who hate school, hate teachers, and ultimately have little or no knowledge of the world around them; they have been too busy reading textbooks to learn about how the world around them works. They end up with mounds of college debt that they have accrued pursuing a degree that they have been told that they need in order to work at the job that they acquired that they hate. This isn’t the way that progressive education is supposed to work. Children are supposed to learn about the world around them through acting with it and on it, and then use the skills that they have learned to pursue the knowledge that they need to do what they have discovered that they love. The job of the teacher is to guide them on this journey, not to provide textbooks and useless knowledge.

The Chilling Effects of Behaviorism

As someone who has subscribed to the views of Objectivism, I believe in the power of the self. I believe in each person’s unique ability to create, shape, and define their own destiny using their intelligence and their power of reason.

Imagine reading about a viewpoint that negates all of those things.

I am currently reading “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” by Alfie Kohn. The first chapter is devoted to an explanation of operant conditioning, the cornerstone of B.F. Skinner’s contribution to the study of behaviorism. Skinner’s views, as related by Kohn, would be something requiring a much more in depth look if it were not revealed that Kohn had personally interviewed Skinner several times. As it is, what Skinner relates certainly follows sound logic, if it doesn’t follow reason.

For example, Skinner believed that humans are no different in how or why they behave from any other animal on earth. Our behaviors, he claimed, are simply reactions to outside environmental factors. If this is the case, then there is no self, we have no will – there is no ability to reason in us. Everything, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Steve Jobs’ creation of the iPhone, simply happened because the stars aligned just right – the environment and genetic makeup surrounding Beethoven and Jobs was precisely what each individual needed to be able to create what they did.

This argument seems to be precisely what has fueled the nature/nurture argument for so long. Which has more affect on how a person turns out: their genetic disposition (nature) or the environment that they grew up in (nurture)? No wonder that battle has raged on and on. The one thing that each of these arguments fails to consider is the self – the individual inside the body that is able to think and create and reason. Rather than viewing anyone as a person, we are viewing the people around us as a ball of chemicals and experiences. We count certain chemicals and experiences as handicaps; we see someone from a single parent home and use that environment to justify poor performance in different areas of their life. We then develop statistics that back up our justifications, and when one person from a single parent home bucks the trend, we discuss how they overcame such great odds. But this person is not part of a group – the group of those from single parent homes. This person is an individual who is able to control their own destiny, whether they are from a single parent home or not. All individuals have this capability, and placing individuals into categories based on genetics or experiences does nothing but hurt the individuals involved.

Now, granted, certain genetic diseases can be a handicap, but that still does not and should not negate the fact that the people that have these genetic diseases are still individuals that can shape their own destiny. We have become a culture that allows people to justify their behaviors based on experiences and genetics, thereby releasing them from personal responsibility for their actions. We have become a culture that holds individuals back through the use of conditioning rather than stand back and watch them reach their full potential.

I chose the name “Uplifting Freedom” for this blog because I believe that every individual should be afforded every opportunity to realize their full potential. As teachers, it is not our job to assign children to groups based on their genetics or their environment in order to figure out how to deal with the group as a whole. Our job is to look at each individual child – their capabilities, their strengths, and their interests – and help them figure out how to maximize these individual traits in order to learn more about their world. Our job is to help them as they realize their individual dreams and goals, and to challenge them to take personal responsibility for the actions that they take to reach them. In this way, we create a truly free individual.

The Theory of Concentrated Attention

For the past few weeks, my research has taken me in very unexpected (although not unwelcome) areas. I have been reading a book that has been very enlightening to me, and that I hope to review before my school semester starts. It ties a lot of basic principles together that I have been hard-pressed to try to work out for myself. It has also taken my research into discipline, punishments, rewards, classroom management, and curriculum into new areas which I had not foreseen. Suffice to say that I have been very surprised at how much the book has impacted me, for I had planned for my research to go a very different direction than the one it has taken.

According to this book, the phrase “theory of concentrated attention” was first used by Maria Montessori in 1917. John Dewey also used a version of the phrase: “theory of undivided interest”. Basically this theory pertains to any activity that children engage in independently that holds their interest in such a way that outside distractions do not disturb them for an amount of time that seems impossible for their age.

I have often seen this type of thing happen in my classroom and have marveled at it. I once saw a girl – a two-year-old – take her shoe off and work to put it back on her foot repeatedly for days until she had mastered putting her shoe back on her foot. When she was working with that shoe, nothing would distract her. I recently saw another two-year-old girl working with a lacing card not far from where her friends were playing a pretend game with their baby dolls – a game that she frequently plays with them. It is amazing to see a child enter this state because their demeanor changes; they become calmer, focused, and very in-tune to the task at hand.

Usually when anyone thinks of a two-year-old, they think of a wild child who tears through the room completely full of energy and spark. While this is true, two-year-olds (and other ages as well – I only single them out because I work with this age every day) exhibit an amazing capacity to concentrate on certain activities – as long as those activities are interesting to the child. Our job then, as teachers, is to come up with those activities that will hold the child’s interest and attention.

Very soon I will be doing a post about how curriculum goes hand-in-hand with discipline, but the idea that the activities that we provide need to be ones that hold our children’s interest hits very close to the theme of that topic. When children are engaged in an activity that interests them, they no longer have a need to go tearing around a room or bugging their friends to the point that there is an altercation. They become calmer and more able to work productively with others. It is a winning theory for the classroom.

But another point that I want to make at this time is that sometimes the activity that the child becomes interested in isn’t one that you have provided as a teacher. Concerning the child who worked so long on learning how to put her shoe on: if I, as her teacher, had fussed at her about taking her shoes off, took her shoes from her, and put them back on her feet myself, she never would have learned the skill of putting her shoes on her feet. Teachers need to be sensitive to what children are trying to accomplish on their own and less quick to judge what is right and wrong for a child to do. If we take a step back and observe what children are doing in any given moment, and try to put those actions into an objective developmental perspective rather than a judgmental perspective, we may see that there is more learning going on in “mistaken behaviors” than we may realize. And the reason why our field has chosen to label these behaviors as mistaken is not because the child is mistaken in doing them, but because it is so easy to mistake these behaviors for discipline issues. They usually are, in fact, experimental issues.

Children are like scientists; they constantly want to learn more about the world around them. If they aren’t given engaging activities to do, they will make some up for themselves. These activities could be anything from hitting their friends to find out what will happen, to hitting an object with another object to find out what will happen. To curtail these behaviors,  providing engaging activities and teaching the children how to properly explore with the materials for the activities is a must. It will lead to a much calmer, more focused classroom.

And you may even see the wonder of a child as they are so focused on the activity that you have provided that nothing else in the room matters.

The Root of the Entitlement Mentality Part II

A long time ago I promised a sequel to my post “The Root of the Entitlement Mentality.” I never delivered on that promise, mainly because it was very hard for me to pinpoint exactly what is at the root of the entitlement mentality. And I feel that I still may not have gotten to the root of the issue, but I do have insights that I did not have during the writing of the previous post. This is mainly due to my research into classroom management, showing children respect, and the effect of punishments and rewards.

Showing children respect is a major pet peeve of mine, and has been since I have begun doing research into proper methods of disciplining children. I think that one of the major issues regarding the lack of respect afforded to children is a widespread misunderstanding as to what discipline actually is. The majority of parents and teachers today view discipline as a system where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished.

Children tend to view all of the things they do as a means to a certain end. In most children, the task itself is the means and the end, meaning that they tend to get pleasure from doing the task itself. When teachers introduce punishments and rewards, the child’s focus when doing a task changes. The child performs the task as a means to receive a punishment or reward; the end becomes trying to please the teacher.Tasks that once were enjoyable to the child now have no meaning to them other than as a way to gain approval, and thus become unrelated to independent self-fulfillment . Because children are not actively practicing self-fulfillment (because they are looking for rewards from other people), they develop an intense need for attention, as well as an affirmation of self-worth from anyone around them. Because of their increased need for attention, either punishment or reward is validating because either makes a statement of worth to the child. Rewards, of course, send a message of positive worth and punishment a message of negative worth.

We may ask ourselves at this point: “Well, I see why punishment is bad, but what is so wrong with rewards?” Because children begin actively looking for rewards or punishments for their actions, they come to expect them. We perpetuate this cycle as children get older through giving out grades and extra credit. By the time these children reach adulthood, they come to expect some sort of punishment or reward for their actions, no matter how large or small the action is. The small rewards begin to lose their ability to offer the message of self-worth; bigger rewards are needed to provide the same feeling of satisfaction that the small rewards once did.

This is how the entitlement mentality is manifested, and it begins at an early age – at the age that punishments are rewards are introduced. This cycle can be stopped, or even reversed, as we discontinue the use of punishments are rewards. This brings us back to the definition of discipline. I was actually surprised when I looked up the word, because several definitions actually listed punishment as a part of discipline. However, there is another way to look at this word: according to dictionary.com, to discipline someone is to train by instruction and exercise. This means that if a child does something that is dangerous to themselves or others, we need to instruct them in the right way to handle the situation. This involves explaining to them what the proper action is, as well as explaining to them why their action was wrong. In this way we awaken in the child their own thought processes and allow them to own their own behavior. We also do not pass a judgement of positive or negative value when we offer our explanations, because that would put us back in the realm of issuing a punishment or reward. Our ultimate goal is to teach the child what the correct action would be in a given situation and help them to remember that action in the future. They will then continue to use the proper action and build upon it as they grow and develop.

We should also allow children a chance to play-act situations in the classroom. One girl in my class loves to pretend that her baby-doll has hit someone in the classroom, and it is amazing to watch her discuss problem-solving strategies with the doll. This is her way of internalizing what she has been taught; by practicing what she has learned through the use of a baby-doll, she will be better able to call upon her newly-learned skills when they are needed.

Doing away with the entitlement mindset, punishments, and rewards in the classroom is not easy. We almost seem programmed to say, “Good job” when a child does something (which is a positive value judgement). One thing that I have taught myself to do is make observations rather than statements that indicate a judgement. Pointing out the colors that a child used in a drawing, or indicating that you see the action that they are performing can go a long way in helping a child to develop independence and a sense of self-fulfillment through their actions. These types of statements also teach vocabulary and let the child know that you notice them or their work. Ultimately, it is up to the child to determine the value of their work; this will enhance their own self-actualization and their development into strong, independent adults who do not need approval from outside sources tot ell them that they are doing a good job. They will gain self-respect and self-fulfillment through their work because they enjoy doing it – which is also a topic for another day.

For more information:

Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism by Jerry Kirkpatrick

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Interest and Effort in Education by John Dewey

Documenting Children’s Learning

If there is one thing that I have become passionate about in the past year or so, it is documenting the learning that goes on in my classroom. Not only have I found it to be a wonderful way to see just what the children are learning when involved in different classroom activities, but I have found it to be absolutely crucial when it comes to figuring out how to use or augment the curriculum to enhance and further the development of the children involved.

For example, a little over a month ago (its probably been two months now) the children and I went outside to collect leaves for a project. One of the kids happened to look up and noticed the leaves that were falling off of the trees. Through asking open-ended questions I found out that most of the children in the class did not have the term “falling” in their expressive vocabulary (although it was present in their receptive vocabulary). Through documenting the children’s discovery and understanding of falling, as well as their ability to use the word as part of their vocabulary, I was able to come up with several different activities to enhance their understanding of falling, as well as giving the children more opportunities to use the word as they talk about falling.

By documenting all of this information through pictures, quotes from the children, and my own observations, I am able to see the changes in the children’s understanding and development through time. Additionally, the added documentation will lead to more activities that will lead to more discoveries.

I have often tried to explain to different teachers, as well as to parents, that – to me – documentation serves three purposes: it provides a timeline for development and a springboard for new activities for teachers; it provides the child with a set of “instructions” for how to revisit a project on their own; and it provides evidence of learning to the parent.

The idea that the child can look at documentation and use it to initiate a self-directed activity is an important one. If a child is genuinely interested in a project, they will use the documentation to help them explore a project again and perhaps expand on the knowledge that they have already gained from the project. I have seen this in my classroom, where my children are currently experimenting with ramps and bridges. Each time that we revisit the project (or the children revisit it themselves), their understanding of why objects act the way they do on a ramp or a bridge deepens.

I recently posted an article about observing during easel painting, in which I wrote detailed notes about what the children did, as well as what they said, while painting on an easel. This exercise was very eye-opening for me as I observed how the children interacted with the paint and the brushes, as well as how they articulated their thoughts about what they were doing. This information was priceless to me as I tracked their development, and the observations of the interactions led to more ideas for projects that would allow the children to explore with different materials in the same way that they explored with the paint.

For more information about documentation:

30 Days of Documentation – Yo Yo Reggio

It’s the Process, Not the Product

Sometimes I have issues with the holidays in the classroom. I worry that parents expect their children to come home with perfectly made crafts that express the joy of the season and look beautiful on, or near, a Christmas tree. The problem with this is, I work with two-year-olds. At the age of two, children have no realization that a project is supposed to be done a certain way; it is simply supposed to be done. Take painting, for example. They don’t paint to make a picture of a tree or a house or a person. They paint so that they can explore how the paintbrush moves the paint across the paper, or how the paint feels on their hand, or how the colors of the paint look when they mix together. They don’t worry about what the paper looks like when they are done.

This year I am doing “Holidays Around the World” in my classroom, and I have been hard-pressed trying to find art projects that reflect the different cultures that we are talking about, but still allow the children to enjoy the process of doing the art. Not to mention that, at age two, children really have no concept of a world out there that could be so different that they celebrate all of these different things.

I enjoy watching children do art and explore with art materials. There is a look of concentration that shows on their face that doesn’t show up all of the time. They become very focused on the task at hand, even of their idea the task is different than what I intended the task to be. I get a feel for each individual child’s true attention span as they immerse themselves in the materials.

This is why I love doing art with two-year-olds, and am going to try hard to come up with art projects that will convey the holiday spirit while allowing the children to explore the materials.

Obsessed With Art

I have become obsessed with art in the classroom. I guess that’s because art can transfer to anything else in the classroom. We did some experimenting with cornstarch and water last week and now my kids can’t get enough. The first thing they asked for on Monday was cornstarch. I am working on a permanent reusable natural collage for the classroom that I think will be a huge hit. I am going to get my kids involved in a color mixing activity involving colored water and eye droppers.

I had a nice fusion of art and other areas in my old classroom. My director would walk into the classroom and be astonished to see children with clipboards and crayons in the housekeeping area: “I don’t know why she has crayons over there! They aren’t supposed to be over there!” I would smile and shrug and say, “They are making shopping lists.”

The challenge for me now is to create that same fusion with a younger group of children. There will be a lot of education involved as to the proper use of crayons, but I think it can be done. One thing I worry about is when the children move out of my classroom. When the children move out of my classroom they won’t have the opportunity to fuse their exploration in such a way, and that may cause some confusion and frustration. I don’t want to create a losing situation for the children in my classroom, but I want to give them every opportunity to explore their world.