Limits on Creativity

Creating something new is challenging.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles to “creating.”  The first is having creativity – you actually have to think creatively to create!  The second is skill – you need certain skills to go from an idea to a product.  For example, if I wanted to draw a picture, I need to be able to envision what I want to draw in my mind (creativity), and then I need to have drawing ability to actually produce the work (skill).  The same can be said for producing music, or writing a short story, or landscaping your backyard, or designing and building a shed, or preparing a delicious meal.  Each of these examples requires having creativity and skill.

I have often felt that I have a desire to be creative but lack the skills to actually produce quality work.  Recently it occurred to me that technology has improved my ability to create because it lowers the barrier on skill.  Technology makes creation more accessible.  For example,  with only a rudimentary level of skill in digital photography, my DSLR camera helps me take (some) great photos.  In addition, programs like Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom have allowed  me to turn great photos into stunning images that I am incredibly proud to share with friends.  These technologies help me to produce a level of quality that I never could have attained with my limited skills.

Over the past 2 years, I have been thinking a lot about fostering the creativity of my students.  I continue to look for opportunities for students to be creative in my lessons and assignments.  Since technology lowers the barrier to creativity, it has often been the conduit through which my students express themselves.  For example, I have had great success with student blogging, film making, and designing infographics.  My students have started poking fun at me saying,

“Sir, none of our other teachers have ever used the word ‘infographic’, and you say it at least twice a week!”

These days, I am excited to explore  more low-tech forms of creativity in my classes (such as creative writing and drawing).  Sunni Brown gave a great 5 minute TED talk called, “Doodlers, unite!”  In it, she explains the benefits of doodling for brain processing.  I found the talk inspiring  and I am already making plans to incorporate doodling into my Physics lessons on a regular basis this coming semester.  My hope is that doodling encourages a deeper (or more concrete) understanding of concepts in Physics.  And, as a bonus, I might be able reuse some of their cartoon gems to teach concepts to future classes!

Photo Credit: Kim Petersen

Hidden Curriculum

This past Thursday was the start of a new semester – a new group of students and a new opportunity make some changes to my teaching.  It’s always refreshing!  I have often said that one of the best parts of being a teacher in a semestered school is the chance to “reboot” twice a year.  You can build on all of the successes from the previous semester, and let all of your mistakes dissolve away.

Over the past few years, I have worked hard to refine my “Intro Day Presentation”  (although, it actually spans multiple days.)  I have written about this presentation in greater detail here.  The most recent addition to my presentation is a focus on the aspects of my classroom that I deem the “hidden curriculum.”

A hidden curriculum is often thought of as the “lessons” learned in an educational environment that were not openly intended.  According to Wikipedia, the concept of the hidden curriculum “expresses the idea that schools do more than simply transmit knowledge, as laid down in the official curricula.”  My hope is that by exposing the hidden curriculum of my classroom to my students, then they will have a better sense of what is truly important for their learning.

So far, I have identified 6 items in my hidden curriculum:  Collaboration, Self-Directed Learning, Problem Solving, Making Connections, Creativity, and Character Education.  I say my hidden curriculum because I think that a hidden curriculum is very much a by-product of the type of learning environment a teacher creates (often unconsciously).  By definition, a hidden curriculum is not overt.  It has been through a process of reflection I have realized these items are embedded skills that my students are required to develop in order to be most successful because my teaching strategies and my assessments rely on the skills of my hidden curriculum.

Below, I have given a brief summary of the language I use when explaining these items to my students.

1. Collaboration

“To learn Physics, you will need to rely on others for support.  You will also benefit greatly from being an active contributing member of our learning community.  The more you are able to give (using your own talents), the more you will get from this course.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to refine your skills of collaboration.”

2. Self-Directed Learning

“Learning Physics cannot only happen for one hour each day.  You will need to look for opportunities to learn about Physics outside the walls of the classroom.  You will need to reflect on your strengths and your weaknesses, and seek out opportunities to improve your skills.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to refine your skills for self-directed learning.”

3. Problem Solving

“Physics is about understanding the natural world.  In order to build your understanding of Physics you will be asked to solve challenging problems.  Some problem solving will occur by applying concepts of Physics to difficult questions.  However, you will also be using your skills for problem solving when working with others, designing and building projects, and performing inquiry investigations.”

4. Making Connections

“Physics connects to our lives in a multitude of ways.  I will do my best to bring those connections into our classroom so that you can learn about the cross-curricular nature of Physics.  As you learn about Physics, begin to look for those connections on your own.  You are encouraged to share your insights with the rest of our class in order to help others see the connections to their life also.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to refine your skills for making connections.”

5. Creativity

“Learning of any kind is a personal journey.  You are encouraged to be creative in the ways that you choose to learn Physics, and the ways that you communicate your understanding to your teacher and your peers.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to develop your creativity in how you express yourself, how you solve problems and how you contribute to our classroom community.”

6. Character Education

“We cannot learn in a space that does not feel safe.  This year, you will be encouraged to reflect on your personal character and the ways in which you contribute to the inclusiveness of our learning community.  In this course, you will have lots of opportunity to develop your personal character.  Remember, it’s nice to be nice!”

In recent years, I have really de-emphasized the actual curriculum content of my courses in the first few days of school.  I believe the emphasis should be on establishing a positive classroom community first and foremost.  This semester, I have tried hard to communicate the idea to my students that our Physics/Science course is only the context for learning much bigger skills – skills that extend far beyond our course, or even our school.  I tell them, “If you want to learn the Physics curriculum in a deep and meaningful way, focus primarily on learning the hidden curriculum.  These skills will not only service you well in our course, but throughout your process of life-long learning.”

If you’re a teacher, consider what is your hidden curriculum?  What skills do you expect students to develop that are not part of the overt curriculum?  I would love to hear about it in the comments!

Image Credit:  olaerik