Creativity: Insights, Directions, and Possibilities

Creativity: Insights, Directions, and Possibilities
Creativity: Insights, Directions,
and Possibilities
Autumn 2012 Vol. 6 No. 1
Editorial Staff
Editor: Lynn Butler-Kisber
Managing Editor: Mary Stewart
Copy Editor: David Mitchell
Graphic Artist: Maryse Boutin
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The views expressed in this journal are not necessarily those of the Editorial Staff or LEARN. It is the
responsibility of the authors to ensure that proper standards of scholarship have been followed,
including obtaining approval from review boards, where applicable, and ensuring that informed consent has been given from participants involved in any research studies.
Copyright ©2012 LEARN holds the copyright to each article; however, any article may be reproduced
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Comments to the Editor: [email protected]
Published in Canada in the fourth quarter of 2012
Imprimé au Canada au 4ième trimestre 2012
ISSN 1913-5688
Table of Contents
Autumn 2012 Vol. 6 No. 1
Statement of Purpose
Review Board
Lynn Butler-Kisber
Reflections on Some Dangers to Childhood Creativity
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
On Children’s Creativity: Defying Expectation
Jessica Hoffmann Davis
A Portrait of the Creative Process in Children’s Learning
Zenia Dusaniwsky
Getting at the Heart of the Creative Experience
Howard Gardner
A Week in Creativity
Jane Piirto
Graduate Research Writing: A Pedagogy of Possibility
Cecile Badenhorst, Cecilia Moloney, Janna Rosales, and Jennifer Dyer
Uprooting Social Work Education
Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha, Mariam Rashidi,
and Stephanie Amaral
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli, Lella Gandini,
Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
The Power of Imagination: Constructing Innovative Classrooms Through a
Cultural-Historical Approach to Creative Education
M. Cathrene Connery and Vera John-Steiner
155 Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education:
ResponsiveDesign and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
Enabling Creativity in Learning Environments:
Lessons From the CREANOVA Project
John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two Together
Margaret Louise Dobson
Narrative Insights: A Creative Space for Learning
Marcea Ingersoll
223 Portraying Children’s Voices Through Creative Approaches to Enhance Their
Transition Experience and Improve the Transition Practice
Divya Jindal-Snape
241 Creating Mentorship Metaphors: Pacific Island Perspectives
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, Donasiano Ruru, Kabini Sanga, Keith Walker,
and Edwin Ralph
261 Working With a Student Model in a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop:
Charging Joint Creativity
Carol Lipszyc
Creative Literacies and Learning With Latino Emergent Bilinguals
Patricia Martínez-Álvarez, María Paula Ghiso, and Isabel Martínez
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Steppingstones to Appreciating the Importance of Play in the Creative Act
Joe Norris
Fostering a Creativity Mindset for Teaching (and Learning)
Mia O’Brien
Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or)
Not to Go by the Book
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
The Creative Research Process: Delights and Difficulties
Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
Sumer Seiki
The Promise of Creativity
Maxine E. Sprague and Jim Parsons
Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
The Journey From Trepidation to Theory: P-12 Teacher Researchers
and Creativity
Jenice L. View, Mary Stone Hanley, Stacia Stribling,
and Elizabeth DeMulder
Comfortably Uncomfortable: A Study of Undergraduate Students’
Responses to Working in a Creative Learning Environment
Jan S. Watson
Old Pathways, New Directions: Using Lived Experiences to Rethink
Classroom Management
Jamie Zepeda
479 Leading Beautifully: The Creative Economy and Beyond
Nancy J. Adler
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Statement of Purpose
LEARNing LandscapesTM is an open access, peer-reviewed, online edu­
tion journal supported by LEARN (Leading English Education and
Resource Network). Published in the autumn and spring of each year, it
attempts to make links between theory and practice and is built upon the
principles of partnership, collaboration, inclusion, and attention to multiple perspectives and voices. The material in each publication attempts
to share and showcase leading educational ideas, research, and practices
in Quebec, and beyond, by welcoming articles, interviews, visual representations, arts-informed work, and multimedia texts to inspire teachers,
administrators, and other educators to reflect upon and develop innovative possibilities within their own practices.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Review Board
Avril Aitken, Bishop’s University
Shaun Murphy, University of Saskatchewan
Susan Allnutt, McGill University
Anne Murray-Orr, St. Francis Xavier University
Natasha Artemeva, Carleton University
Heike Neumann, Concordia University
Liliane Asseraf-Pasin, McGill University
Tiiu Poldma, Université de Montréal
Glenda Bissex, University of Vermont
Monica Prendergast, University of Victoria
David Cappella, Central Connecticut
Debbie Pushor, University of Saskatchewan
Patricia Cordeiro, The University of Rhode
Krista Ritchie, IWK Health Centre
Linda Davies, McGill University
Mela Sakar, McGill University
Susan E. Elliott-Johns, Nipissing University
Pauline Sameshima, Washington State
Lynn Fels, Simon Fraser University
Ruth Shagoury, Lewis & Clark College
Jean Fillatre, Lester B. Pearson School Board
Bruce Shore, McGill University
Susanne Gannon, University of Western
Sylvia Sklar, McGill University
Karen Gazith, Bronfman Jewish Education
Sheryl Smith-Gilman, McGill University
Corrine Glesne, University of Vermont
Mary Hafeli, State University of New York,
New Paltz
Lauren Small, New Frontiers School Board
Carolyn Sturge Sparkes, Memorial University
Doreen Stark-Meyerring, McGill University
Pam Steeves, University of Alberta
Ilonna Holland, Harvard University
Teresa Strong-Wilson, McGill University
Paul Kettner, English Montreal School Board
Anne McCrary Sullivan, National Louis
Joanne Kingsley, Education Consultant
Neomi Kronish, Education Consultant
Carl Leggo, University of British Columbia
Mary Maguire, McGill University
Judy McBride, Education Consultant
Fiona Hughes McDonnell, Emmanuel College
Marianna K. McVey, Education Consultant
Pauline Mesher, Education Consultant
Carol A. Mullen, The University of North
Carolina at Greensboro
Lori Rabinovitch, Education Consultant
Linda Szabad-Smyth, Concordia University
Janis Timm-Bottos, Concordia University
Teri Todd, California State University,
Lisa Trimble, McGill University
Kathleen Vaughan, Concordia University
Boyd White, McGill University
Lee Williams, Slippery Rock University
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
here is a growing interest in the role that creativity can play in education to keep up with the fast-moving, 21st Century knowledge society.
The definition of creativity has been somewhat elusive as understandings have evolved and changed over the last millennium. It was once thought that
creativity was solely a partner of intelligence, and an innate quality found only in
highly intelligent people who, during their lifetime, drastically changed the thinking
within a particular domain. Largely by studying the lives of such renowned thinkers
in many disciplines (see Gardner and Csikszentmihalyi below), it has become apparent that what has been called “Big C” creativity, or eminent creativity, involves knowledge, motivation, perseverance, nurturing/scaffolding, and frequently a good deal
of time (Craft, Jeffrey, & Leibling, 2001). Thinking has changed, however. There is an
understanding now that “Small c” creativity is a feature possessed by all people and
can be developed and taught (Vialte & Verenikina, 2000, p. 112). Individuals have different kinds of propensities that lend themselves to novel ways of using their talents
(not only in the arts) to find new and effective solutions in everyday problem solving.
These can be nurtured, are context dependent, and culturally shaped. This democratic understanding of creativity is what permeates this issue of LEARNing Landscapes.
We are proud to say that it is our eleventh and largest issue to date, and represents
the work of university researchers, graduate students, and practitioners from nine different countries. This rich array of work is organized alphabetically in the issue, but
for the purposes of the editorial overview, the submissions have been clustered according to themes that emerged while I was immersed in the excellent work of these
authors. As in the past, our issue begins with invited commentaries on creativity from
luminaries in the field.
We are extremely honoured and privileged to have commentaries from
some very eminent people. Howard Gardner, known worldwide for his theory of multiple intelligences, is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Lynn Butler-Kisber
Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His interest in creativity has
its roots in his own music education. He turned his attention away from music for a
number of years while he explored the notion of multiple intelligences. In the 1990s,
he shifted his focus back to creativity and studied the lives of “seven creators of the
modern era.” He recounts in our interview how he was most surprised about their
personalities—ambitious, wanting to make a mark, and willing to take risks and fail
along the way. He realized during this research, contrary to what had been thought,
that creativity was not a one-shot thing in a particular moment, but more the product
of a way of being. He discusses his current focus on “good work,” on the moral and
ethical implications of creativity, and suggests that the task of educators in fostering
creativity is to stimulate young minds to pursue inquiry in ways that lead them to trying to do, and ultimately doing, the “right thing.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the C.S. and D.J. Davidson Professor of Psychology at the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences, and the Peter F. Drucker
Professor in the Graduate School of Management, at Claremont Graduate University.
He is renowned for his long-time work on creativity and the theory of “flow” within
the creative process. Initially, he was surprised when the highly creative people he
studied repeatedly talked about how childhood “boredom,” or a restriction due to
isolation or illness, stimulated their creativity. He suggests that creativity is fostered
by solitude, scaffolding, and passion. He cautions that technology has a tendency
to steal important childhood moments, which otherwise would give rise to creative
activity, because it is so constantly accessible and distracting.
Jessica Hoffman Davis is the founding director of the Arts in Education Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and continues to research and write
passionately about art and children’s development. In her commentary she discusses
the widely varying definitions of creativity that range from small everyday acts, to
more global contributions. She recounts how, as a student, she pushed back against
the demands of academic conformity which resulted in reprimand, rather than encouragement. Then, as a teacher herself, she lamented when she saw this conformity
in youngsters who tended to copy each other’s work. She poignantly highlights how
her son taught her an important lesson about creativity at age six when he produced
a drawing to explain an event at school rather than telling her about it. Excited by
both his approach and product, she framed the picture and hung it up proudly to
showcase his creativity. The important insight occurred when her son, some years
later, confessed that he had “copied” his friend’s drawing from memory. As a result of
this experience, she began to question the very fixed notions of creativity that many
educators hold, ones that do not permit replication, even though, she argues, that
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replication develops aesthetic judgment, vocabulary acquisition, and new possibilities of thought.
Jane Piirto is the Trustees’ Distinguished Professor at Ashland University.
Well known for her research in talent development (Piirto Pyramid of Talent Development), she is also a poet and novelist. She lives a full life fueled by thinking, talking,
writing, teaching, and presenting about creativity. In this commentary she provides a
lively overview of what a week of “living creativity” looks and feels like by describing
her daily activities. These are predicated on five key attitudes for the creative process—openness to experience, risk-taking, tolerance for ambiguity, groups trust, and
self-discipline—and seven necessary dimensions which include inspiration, insight,
imagery, imagination, intuition, incubation, and improvisation.
Before becoming an inspirational Art teacher at St. George’s Elementary
School in Montreal, Zenia Dusaniwsky taught in a range of remote and International
School settings around the world. These experiences ignited her passion for teaching
art and developing creativity in young children. She believes that creativity is present
in everyone and needs to be fostered by providing spaces within structured parameters for play and experimentation, for celebrating mistakes, and for learning to collaborate. She shows, with interesting student examples, how she promotes creativity
as a form of critical literacy.
Promise of Creativity
A theme cutting across several of the submissions for this issue of LEARNing
Landscapes is the “promise of creativity.” Connery and John-Steiner suggest that the
power of imagination is best understood by using a cultural-historical lens based on
the work of Lev Vygotsky. Their approach, known as CHACE (cultural-historical approach to creative education), is the mindful, intentional nurturing of a system of activities resulting in novel interpretations, enhanced understandings, imaginative problem
solving, critical innovations, and artistic creations achieved with the support of a community of learners and teachers. They describe, with lovely examples, how creative learning environments can be established to scaffold student learning and development,
to encourage play, imagination, and innovation, to promote self-worth and resilience,
to cultivate competence and cognitive pluralism, and to encourage an apprenticeship approach to content development through meaningful and real-life social justice projects. Treffinger, Selby, and Schoonover argue that it is not how creative
one is, but more importantly, how one is creative. They juxtapose stories of two students, Michael, who gravitates toward novelty, and Lucy, who embraces structure, to
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Lynn Butler-Kisber
illustrate­two very different ways in which each demonstrate personal creativity and
problem-solving styles. They suggest that educators must seek and embrace the differences in students’ approaches to tasks in order to foster four categories of personal
creativity: generating ideas, digging deeper into ideas, fostering an openness and
courage to explore ideas, and listening to one’s inner voice, and three dimensions of
problem-solving: orientation to change, manner of processing, and ways of deciding.
Sprague and Parsons suggest in a review of the literature that current thinking about
creativity is culturally rooted and biased in the Western world toward individualism,
genius, eminence, and fine art. This limits extensively how creativity is defined and
viewed. They argue that an expanded and inclusive, or ecological notion, of creativity
is needed to create spaces in which the promise of creativity can be realized in each
and every student.
Power of Self-Study/Practitioner Inquiry
Self-study has been used extensively to help practitioner inquirers (CochranSmyth & Lytle, 2009) to study questions about which they are passionate, and get
a deeper understanding of their teaching and learning practices. It requires extensive reflection (Brookfield, 1995) and frequently involves the engagement of “critical
friends” who offer both feedback and support in the process. Dobson shares how two
incidences in her educational practice inspired her to look more deeply, using the
lenses of Arendt, Bergson, and Damasio (her “critical friends”), to understand how the
“essential identity” of a teacher is what creates the necessary caring, respectful, and
playful space in which creativity can be nourished and flourish. Seiki discusses how by
creating “sound stories” of her American Japanese family’s imprisonment experiences
during the Second World War she was able to uncover counter stories of agency and
resistance. These stories gave her a “powerful reliving” of what had transpired and a
way to counter the pain she experienced as a result of these racist events. She discovered that this innovative form of representation not only invoked deep empathy from
others, but also provided important suggestions for classroom practices. Russell and
Owen describe how practitioner inquiry can include students as researchers. In their
research at Deacon High School in Northeast England, teachers worked with students
to develop research skills that would examine creative practices across five departments in the school. Using interviews and photographs, and arts-informed representational forms, the students were encouraged to identify new ways of looking at their
school context and practices. The inclusion of student voices in the research process
enhanced and widened the lenses for looking at creative activity and exploring ways
for change. Ingersoll delves into stories of her own schooling to show the disruptive, discouraging, and silencing nature of correction and enforced conformity. She
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juxtaposes these stories with her experience as a graduate student where writing
without censure was encouraged and allowed her stifled creativity and voice to
emerge and grow. Zepeda reflects on stories of her experiences as a novice Kindergarten teacher to show how she grappled with classroom management and moved
from a “punitive” to “instructive” form of discipline. Her candid accounts of her evolution as she moved to accepting, understanding, and involving students in learning, rather than reacting negatively to problems, have helped her to develop creative
pathways for fostering meaningful learning, especially for students with particular
Fostering Creativity in Classrooms
Cline and Pope Edwards et al. describe, with delightful examples, a day in
Filastrocca Preschool in Pistoia, Italy. They show how a library teacher in this Reggio
Emilia-based school supports literacy development through imagination, creative
activities, and social interaction, all of which foster a special empathy among these
preschoolers. The Reggio Approach is based on the work of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, among others. It encourages collaboration among children, teachers, and
parents, the co-construction of knowledge, the interdependence of individual and
social learning, and how the role of culture is an important part of this interdependence (Rankin, 2004). Jindal-Snape, in her work at the University of Dundee, explains
how theories of self-esteem, resilience, and emotional intelligence help to explain the
psycho-social processes that children use when going through transitions. She illustrates, with examples, how various creative activities can help to make the thoughts
and feelings of students more transparent than words, and with these new insights
can help educators make student transitions much more positive. Martínez-Álvarez,
Ghiso, and Martínez, in response to the educational policies in the United States that
support standardized testing and decontextualized curricula, studied first-graders’
second language learning that was culturally and contextually grounded. Their findings show that second language learners thrive when immersed in relevant and creative activities that honour their cultural and linguistic identities. View, Hanley, Stribling, and DeMulder used oral history interviews of the schooling experiences of five
people of colour to create videotaped, found poems around issues of race that had
emerged in the interviews. Subsequently, 60 in-service teachers viewed the videotapes, and created and shared their own poems in response to what they had seen.
This endeavour provided increased empathy for others’ experiences, encouraged creative agency among these teachers, and underscored the powerful dimensions of
creative activity.
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Creative Lenses in Higher Education
Using interviews, reflective sketchbooks, and observational notes as data,
Watson explored undergraduate student perceptions of working in a creative learning environment at the University of East Anglia. Her study showed that the students
benefited from working collaboratively, pursuing their own avenues of inquiry, and
demonstrating their knowledge using different modalities. She suggests that performance-driven universities need to change the status quo and to experiment with
creative pedagogies if they wish to keep pace with the 21st Century knowledge society. Pinard describes the resistance she encountered as a junior faculty member in
a state university in the United States when she attempted to convince colleagues
to revamp a Principles of Education course by using students’ existing philosophical understandings and identities as a point of departure. She shares, using student
examples, her experience of struggling to move away from standard curricula and assignments, and how she was able to inspire some to become more creative thinkers,
learners, and teachers, while others were less able to take risks in the same way. She
suggests that perhaps those who were unable to take risks were inhibited by personal
philosophical orientations, and/or by the anticipated demands of the educational job
market. This is a tension that resonates with other higher education contexts. At the
University of Queensland in Australia, O’Brien echoes the work of Craft (2003) and
Sawyer (2011) by positing that creativity is not fixed, but rather can be taught. She
describes how pre-service teachers learn to use Storythread, a pedagogical program
that grounds learners in real-life issues and events, and applies curriculum content
using story, drama, inquiry, games, play, deep reflection, and engagement with the
environment. The feedback from the students has been very positive and poignant.
Much like Pinard discusses in her article, O’Brien underscores that this mindset may
be counterintuitive, and therefore resisted by many who choose education as a profession. Norris criticizes the binary notions about work and play, and shows with
interesting examples how he integrates play into his higher education teaching at
Brock University to inspire both creativity and artistry. He acknowledges, though,
how this type of teaching/living is often more difficult than it looks. Lipszyc describes
how in a higher education writing course at SUNY Plattsburgh she used previous student models of writing to try to stimulate creativity among her students and to help
them develop strategies to become autonomous writers. She suggests, as does Hoffman Davis mentioned earlier, that by mimicking or applying writing models used in
the work of previous students, these writers gained self-confidence, aesthetic judgment, and the vocabulary and practices of the writing genres, and were scaffolded
into new areas of possibility. Badenhorst, Moloney, Rosales, and Dyer at Memorial
University describe the negative experiences that graduate students have with thesis
writing because of the literacy demands that are expected of them, and because of an
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
implicit “othering” they experience in the process. Through an extended workshop
with a total of 22 students over two semesters, they presented research genres, rules
and conventions and at the same time encouraged creativity, choice and the inclusion of the “self” in research writing. The outcomes were positive, productive, and liberating, suggesting that the “cohortness” of the group, along with an adept balance of
structure and flexibility, help to build confidence and to scaffold possibility in thesis
writing. Clarke et al. examine how they worked with five undergraduate social work
students to bridge the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work by interrogating the dominant Eurocentric thinking that exists in academia. They illustrate
this journey visually by representing their work in a “social work tree,” a metaphorical
representation for the past, present, and future of social work, and elaborate in some
detail in their discussion showing concretely how the use of metaphor enhances understanding.
Creative Spaces for Professional Learning
In the fast-moving world of learning and technology, there is a growing
demand for innovative professional development that will meet needs, and build
capacity and sustainability in educational contexts. Johansson-Fua, Ruru, Sanga,
Walker, and Ralph describe an interesting professional learning mentoring initiative
among leaders from Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, and Canada. They based the work on
their beliefs that all mentoring is fundamentally relational, and that metaphors help
to explain and create mental images by connecting the familiar and the strange and
result in clarifying meaning, evoking emotions, and guiding action. They describe a
series of three workshops held in the South Pacific and attended by a total by 94
educational leaders from a variety of disciplines and professions. Their study showed
that the participants were able to use cultural metaphors to adapt generic mentoring principles meaningfully to fit specific contexts, and that the collaborative, crossdisciplinary nature of the groups enhanced the overall process. Córdova, Hudson,
and Kumpulainen share how the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (CoLab), made
up of educational researchers interested in innovation for 21st Century learning, used
their theory of innovation and action called ResponsiveDesign as a basis for a summer leadership institute. The institute comprised a National Writing Project, a school
district, and museum leaders in St. Louis Missouri in the United States who worked
on the use of ResponsiveDesign (a model for exploring, envisioning, prototyping, and
enacting teaching practices) to explore creatively the development of partnerships
among formal and informal learning contexts. They describe with rich visuals a number of the activities in which they were involved, the enthusiasm of the participants,
and the interesting ideas that emerged as a result. Their work attests to the potential­
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Lynn Butler-Kisber
synergy that exists when leaders from formal and informal contexts collaborate.
Davis, Aruldoss, McNair, and Bizas, researchers at the University of Edinburgh, building on the work of Csikszentmihalyi (1990), Sawyer (2012), and others, describe the
CREANOVA project. This was an investigation involving 507 participants from technical and creative industries in four countries on how relational issues diminish or
enhance creativity in learning/working contexts, and how creative learning environments can be promoted. Their quantitative and qualitative results highlighted the
collaborative nature of creativity. Their findings indicated that creativity is motivated
internally and externally, by a number of different factors, and often is generated
from a wish to help others rather than for individual gains. Furthermore, environment,
learning, freedom (within flexible frameworks), and interaction were significant factors contributing to creativity and innovation. They conclude with an interesting discussion on how their findings have implications for teaching and learning in schools.
Reprinted Article
Last, but certainly not least, Adler, from the Faculty of Management at McGill University, suggests persuasively that we need to focus on creativity and beauty at the
macro level of society, rather than on mundane aspects at the micro level. She argues
convincingly, with a range of examples, that our aspirations should be grounded in
careful observations, rather than assumptions, that will inspire and result in creative,
courageous, and innovative possibilities. These will contribute to a peaceful and prosperous world for the future.
Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically
reflective teacher. New York: Jossey-Bass.
Cochran-Smyth, M., & Lytle, S. (2009). Inquiry as
stance: Practitioner inquiry in the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.
Craft, A. (2003). The limits to creativity in education: Dilemmas for the educator. British Journal of Educational Studies, 51(2),
Craft, A., Jeffrey, B., & Leibling, M. (2001). Creativity in education. London: Continuum.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York:
Rankin, B. (2004). The importance of socialization among children in small groups: A
conversation with Loris Malaguzzi. Early
Childhood Education Journal, 32(2), 81–85.
Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2011). Structure and improvisation in creative teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The
science of human innovation. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Vialte, W., & Verenikina, I. (2000). Handbook on
Child Development. Tuggerah, Australia:
Social Science Press.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Lynn Butler-Kisber (B. Ed., M. Ed., McGill University; Ed.
D., Harvard University), a former elementary school teacher, is
Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education in the Faculty of Education at McGill where she is Director of the Centre for Educational Leadership and the McGill
Graduate Certificate in Educational Leadership Programs I
& II. She has served as Director of Undergraduate Education
Programs, Director of Graduate Studies and Research in Educational Studies, Associate Dean in Education, and Associate
Dean and Dean of Students, and on numerous committees
inside the University and in the educational milieu. In 2007
she was appointed to the Board of Directors of St. George’s
Schools. She teaches courses on language arts, qualitative
research, and teacher education. She has a particular interest in feminist/equity and social justice issues, and the role of
arts-based analysis and representation in qualitative research.
Her current research and development activities include the
McGill/Champlain College Mentoring Project, the Quebec/
Vermont International Professional Learning Community Project, and other work with teachers and school leaders in Dominican Republic, France, and Bhutan. The focus of this work
includes leadership, literacy, student engagement, professional development, and qualitative methodologies and she
has published and presented extensively in these areas. Most
recent is her book entitled, Qualitative Inquiry: Thematic, Narrative and Arts-Informed Perspectives, published by Sage.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
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Reflections on Some Dangers to Childhood Creativity
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Claremont Graduate University
In this commentary, renowned author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reflects on the state of creativity in today’s children. From his many years of studying
creativity, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has observed that the most creative people share a
common experience in childhood: that of being left alone, often in a barren environment, and of being bored. Paradoxically, solitude and boredom become the springboard from which a creative passion is born. Finally, the author questions whether
the presence of technology in children’s lives today is an opportunity for learning or a
source of effortless experiences that are not conducive to nurturing creativity.
espite the fact that I am writing these notes right after Thanksgiving, which
means that Christmas carols already drift in the air and lovely light-bulb
decorations swing between the neighborhood’s trees, in writing about
creat­ivity I feel overcome by a distinctly Grinchish feeling. It’s such a lovely topic, so
why is it so difficult to be upbeat about it?
Creativity has been a steady interest of mine for the past 58 years, ever since
we started the first research on young artists with J.W. Getzels. Or even earlier, when
I had no idea as yet that you could research such topics. But while at the beginning I
was driven by a curiosity to understand how such a wonderful thing as creativity was
possible, now I am more worried about understanding what we should do so as not
to lose it.
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Clearly creativity, at least creativity with a capital “C,” waxes and wanes across
cultures and through time. For all we know, potentially creative children are born at
the same rate in every culture and generation. But the opportunity to transform the
potential into actuality does vary a great deal. Athens was a hotbed of new ideas and
wonderful products two and a half millennia ago; Florence in the Fifteenth Century;
Paris in the Nineteenth. Is the United States poised to be the next cauldron of creative
ideas, the kind of ideas that give hope for a meaningful, worthwhile future to the rest
of the world? Or will G.B. Shaw’s quip to the effect that “America is the first great civilization to start declining before flourishing” come true? There are troubling signs that
point towards the second alternative. Everyone knows that in terms of test scores, the
US sadly underperforms most advanced countries in terms of reading, mathematics,
and science. Even though such scores are no indication of creativity, they are the substance from which creativity can arise. So it is worrisome to see that despite the enormous material advantages enjoyed by the US, its children are less able to read and do
mathematics than the children of Finland, Poland, or Luxembourg, not to mention
China, Korea, or Singapore.
This concern took added weight as I was listening to the individuals whose
interviews formed the basis of my book, Creativity. These were men and women in
their sixties and older who had left their mark on the culture, contributing to the
advancement of the arts and the sciences. A dozen were Nobel laureates, two of them
twice over.
One of the things a few of these unimpeachably creative folks mentioned
spontaneously was that creativity in children was becoming endangered. When I
asked why, an unexpected answer kept cropping up: “Well, the problem” they would
say, “is that children are no longer bored.” At first this answer appeared to me strange
and counterintuitive. But after a while, I began to see that it contained more than a
grain of truth.
It turns out that many of these outstanding persons started the work that
has changed the world we live in because they had to learn to find enjoyment in a
barren environment. Vera Rubin, an astronomer who revolutionized our understanding of how galaxies move, remembers that when she was seven years old her family
moved from the center of Chicago to the edge of the city, into an apartment building
across from a vast cemetery. Without friends, in a strange new place, she felt lonely
and lost. Because of the location, the nights were dark, and for the first time in her life
she could experience, laying in her bed, the full impact of the starry skies. She spent
more and more time just watching the slow wheeling of stars and planets over her
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Reflections on Some Dangers to Childhood Creativity
head. Fortunately her father, who was an engineer, understood Vera’s budding passion, and he helped make a small telescope out of an old cardboard tube and a few
lenses. After she was able to see clearly the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter,
she said, “I could not understand why every adult would not be an astronomer.” In a
nutshell, Vera Rubin’s experience was replicated in the majority of the creative individuals’ life stories.
The commonalities included a temporary change of lifestyle or restriction of
movement due to illness or isolation. In this condition the child felt lonely and bored.
Then an unexpected event—often quite ordinary—opened some opportunities to
the child. If the child seized the chance, and if she was fortunate to have the support
of caring adults, the child began a journey out of a boring reality into the freedom
of a new world. Of course, once the journey started, the child needed a great deal of
good luck and support before her interest could make a difference—before the play
became creativity.
Heinz Meyer-Leibnitz, a German physicist whose influential career was
crowned by Nobel prizes being given to two of his students (for different discoveries
started in his lab), had a touch of tuberculosis when he was still in grade school. His
parents sent him to stay with a farmer’s family in the Bavarian Alps. At first he laid in
bed all of the time, while his hosts went on with the chores of their peasant life out
in the fields and the meadows. Later he began to take short walks around the house,
in the shadow of the pine forests. The inscrutable peaks of the Alps towering above
the village led him to wonder about the nature of stone, and then matter in general.
Slowly he was no longer alone and listless; he started reading about physics . . . half a
century later he became the Director of the first European nuclear research laboratory
in Grenoble, France.
Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist, grew up in a poor district in Montreal,
Canada. His father was a railway porter who left Mondays on the transcontinental run
to Vancouver, and returned home for a few days a week later. His mother left to work
every morning, and Oscar was left home alone with nothing to do. But listening to
old LP records, he became fascinated by the sound of piano, and kept badgering his
parents to get an instrument like that for him. Finally his father gave in, and bought
an old decrepit piano for his son—but with one condition: that Oscar would learn to
play one new song every time he took a trip away on the railroad. The condition was
accepted, and from then on as soon as his father came back from Vancouver, the first
thing he did upon his return was to sit down in the parlor, and ask Oscar: “well, son,
let me hear that song you were supposed to learn for today.” And if the performance
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
was poor, he let his son know it in no uncertain terms; if the song was well played, he
slapped his knees in satisfaction.
Or Ellen Lanyon, a painter who has become over the years a friend and mentor to dozens of beginning women artists. She grew up with a single mother who had
to work each day. Just before starting school, Ellen came down with scarlet fever and
had to stay in bed while her mother was away at her job. After the first day alone, she
asked her mother if she could buy a pad of paper and some water colors for her to
have something to do during the long boring day. Her mother obliged, and by the
end of the day Ellen had filled the pad with paintings—of the window, the sofa, the
cat in various poses. . . Out of paper, she asked the mother for another pad. Although
the mother agreed, she forgot to buy more paper the next day. Growing increasingly
bored, Ellen began to paint on her bed sheets, and then the walls of her room. When
her mother returned from work, instead of bawling Ellen out as she had feared, she
promised the girl to make sure to get more paper for her next day, which she then
did. By then, however, Ellen had learned a life-changing lesson: nobody needs to be
bored, and everyone has the means to escape that uncomfortable condition.
But why is it that not every child gets to learn this lesson? One possible
reason, one that the creative people I interviewed mentioned more than any other,
is that we have made it too easy for them to escape from boredom and loneliness.
All they need to do is turn on a TV set, or a video game, and a stream of glittering
information will capture their attention; no need to figure anything out, to use the
resources of the mind, to engage reality—voilà—you are (virtually) connected with
the stream of life, you are back where the action is, in the middle of things.
Of course, this diagnosis might be no more than the grumbling of an older
generation looking disapprovingly at a world it no longer understands. I remember
that when I was a child and started reading incessantly; my father (who was a fairly
well educated man for his time and held a distinguished professional position) would
become frustrated and angry: “What is wrong with you?” he would ask; “why aren’t you
doing something useful? How can you waste all your time reading books?” Certainly,
the written word can also become a medium of cheap escape. But it has the advantage of requiring more effort on the part of the reader, an effort that leads to habits of
concentration and the development of skills involved in translating abstract linguistic
signs into images, events, and ideas that can be used to create alternative worlds.
In our research we have learned that children and adolescents report being
more happy and motivated when they watch TV that when they read. On the other
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Reflections on Some Dangers to Childhood Creativity
hand, in one study where we tried to predict which high school students would end
up in good colleges, we found that two questions were the most significant predictors of whether the teenager would end up in college, and if they did, on the quality
of the college they were admitted to. The two questions were: “do you have a TV set in
your bedroom?” and, “are there more than 50 books in your home?” If the answer was
“yes” to the first, and “no” to the second question, the chances that the teen would end
up in college were slim, and the chances of ending up in an academically demanding
college next to nil. And this controlling for parental income and education.
No one, I hope, will take these findings literally and conclude that if they
remove the TV from the child’s room and buy 50 books at random from the nearest
bookstore their offspring will be offered a scholarship at Harvard. These questions
were simply diagnostic of a home environment that was either friendly or hostile to
a child’s developing interests and mental discipline. And that environment includes,
above everything else, a parental commitment to a lifestyle conducive to learning.
Some of the parents of the creative people we studied had developed a network of
relatives or friends who were interested in one topic or another, and then prevailed
on them to become mentors to their children; uncle Rob introduced one child to bird
watching and the attendant avian lore; cousin Rita took the other child, who loved
dancing, to every ballet performance in the vicinity. Another creative person, who
grew up in poor circumstances in the Northeast, remembers that the entire family
would pile into their old car on weekends and drive to some free museum, historical
site, or architectural site within driving distance; by the time she was a teenager, she
felt connected to her environment by strong strands of meaningful memories.
It is also true that for a few children, the readily available technology offers
tremendous opportunities for learning and creating new programs, new games, new
apps, even new hardware. But how many are doing this? For the great majority, alas,
the new media are a limitless market of consumption, a source of effortless experience. And once a child enters the network of electronic communication, it becomes
difficult to step back from it. The cell phone and the Internet allow each child to be
connected. Unfortunately, creativity requires periods of solitude. Without prolonged
periods of concentration, which requires solitary “work,” only the most superficial
creat­ivity is possible.
Not that the creative person must always work alone. To the contrary, collaboration with peers who share the person’s interest is just as important for creativity as
solitude is. The problem is that solitude has become more and more difficult to find.
In another study, this with talented teenagers, we found that high school students
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
who had outstanding talent in mathematics, science, visual arts, music, and athletics
spent more time alone than typical teenagers. And more importantly, they tended
to feel less lonely when they were alone. Those talented teens who disliked being
alone avoided solitude, and if they could not hang out with their friends they would
be on the phone (this was before they could twitter, as the technology was not yet
advanced enough. . .) By the time they were finishing high school, the teens who had
trouble staying alone had reverted to being average students; those who could stand
solitude continued to develop their talents. Of course, adolescents have always been
gregarious, and solitude has been generally considered a fate only marginally better than death. To avoid feeling alone, children in the past had to learn how to make
friends, how to relate to other people’s world-views, and above all else—how to make
the best of solitude itself, when there is no other choice. And those are usually the
times when creativity flourishes best.
Obviously, it is not the technology itself that is to blame, but the use we
make of it. The evolution of humanity has always involved a step forward in the use
of tools, from stone axes to spaceships. In each case, the technology allowed us to do
something faster, easier, more efficiently. At the same time, the introduction of new
tools has also often resulted in unexpected consequences that were less desirable.
This was not much of a problem as long as the technology was local and could do
little damage. But when a medium can reach every child, and is so seductive that it
captures a great deal of their free attention, then we better watch out.
Unfortunately, past efforts to control the media have been both ineffectual
and reactionary. The Popes tried for centuries to prevent books to carry information
that they considered dangerous to the readers’ souls. The Nazi storm troopers burned
books that undermined their ideology, and so did Mao Tse-tung’s Red Guards—all to
no avail. We clearly need more creative solutions for how to prevent new technologies from sapping the imagination of children.
And this leads us to another issue that we might want to consider: how can
we expect children to be creative when we don’t teach them how? Our entire educational system is geared to produce convergent thinkers, solvers of problems that are
presented to them and for which tried-and-true solutions exist. Unfortunately, a great
many of the problems that life will present them are ill defined, and cannot be solved
by applying known methods. To use a simple parallel, we aspire to teach our children
to be good chess players—but life is more like a poker game. If we wish children to be
creative, we need to become more creative ourselves.
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Reflections on Some Dangers to Childhood Creativity
These are some of the Grinchean thoughts that the Holiday Season suggests.
But there is one more. Fifty years ago, creativity was a minor concern of parents and
educators. Each year, however, it appears that more and more concern is expressed
about how to make our children more creative. This is a good trend, I think, up to a
point. But it can be overdone: pursuing creativity at the expense of solid knowledge
will lead nowhere. In fact, “creativity” does not exist in the abstract. You can be a creative physicist, in which case you are unlikely to be also a creative poet, or pastry
chef, or plumber. And a creative poet is unlikely to do creative work as a physicist.
So the first thing children need is to discover a passion, or at least an interest in a
particular aspect of the world. And then they need the help of parents and teachers
to develop their interest in creative ways—by understanding the context, the causes,
and the consequences of the knowledge they are acquiring. They may not become
Mozarts or Einsteins in the process, but their lives are likely to become meaningful
and productive.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the C.S. and D.J. Davidson
Professor of Psychology at the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences, and the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School
of Management, at Claremont Graduate University; and coDirector of the Quality of Life Research Center. He is a Fellow
of several scientific societies, The National Academy of Education, and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
In addition to the hugely influential Flow: The Psychology of
Optimal Experience, he is the author of thirteen other books
translated into 23 different languages, and some 245 research
articles on optimal development, creativity, and well-being.
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On Children’s Creativity: Defying Expectation
Jessica Hoffmann Davis, Harvard University
Our definitions of creativity are varied and broad, ranging from the invention of small
works to the achievement of global contributions. As arbitrary as they may be, our
understandings generate stereotypical expectations for creative individuals and their
behavior. I argue here that these expectations (from artistic work as a priori creative
to originality as a criterion) may stand in the way of our appreciating children’s artistic
development and their acquisition of the necessary tools and confidence to find and
break boundaries. I urge teachers to be creative themselves in their interpretation
and acceptance of children’s creative endeavors.
eople have always told me I was “creative.” When I was little, I liked to draw
and adults said I was “amazingly artistic” and “so creative.” What I liked
about drawing was the worlds I could invent. For example, I would portray
my classroom with my own versions of my classmates seated at desks arranged as I
would have them, doing tasks that I invented as the director of the scene. At night,
if I would wake up from a bad dream, my mother would suggest I try to dream the
nightmare again but this time with a better ending. Not to forget a dream was like a
movie and I was the director: the person in charge, the creative force behind whatever was afoot.
I used my drawings to design things, tiny-waisted 1950s evening dresses
for idealized figures, high heel shoes (I had a great schema for making those) with or
without polka dots or bows—whatever my creative inclinations were at the moment.
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Jessica Hoffmann Davis
In adolescence, because I was creative, I wrote poetry instead of joining the science
club. And indeed the poems were like my dreams—their content and direction in my
control—a set of words bound together by rhythm and rhyme as determined by my
creative vision and power.
When I struggled with (but enjoyed) mathematics in my cookie-cutter high
school, the teachers said,
Not to worry. She’s a creative type who will best succeed in the free arenas
of the arts with no need for the rule-based constraints of mathematics and
science. Surely a creative type like Jessica will blow up the science lab and
flunk a mathematics exam.
These were the sort of stereotypical expectations that surrounded me and suited me
well. Why reach for the hard-edged challenge of more prosaic domains when the soft
contours of the arts would keep me safe and invite admiration from those who were
less, shall we say, creative?
Perhaps unexpectedly, I went on to St. John’s College where all students
were required to take four years of science and mathematics and seminar and music
and language and logic and there were no rain checks for creative students like me
who would at any other institution be majoring in writing or theater or the visual arts.
In this classical structured enclave, I learned a lesson that seemed to have escaped
some of my teachers in high school. Euclid was a wildly creative guy and in reading
his work, I was greatly inspired and loved not just to draw his elegant geometric figures, but also to experience the beauty of claims that built on each other and forged
new ground. And how about Isaac Newton? When he experienced phenomena he
couldn’t explain in the available language and systems of the day, he invented a new
In my high school, when instead of writing a report on a country in the world,
I invented one of my own, I was reproached. “Yes she’s creative, but she has to learn
to play by the rules, to color within the lines.” Well Newton didn’t believe that and
neither did Euclid. They rewrote the rules and crossed the lines. They were creating
worlds in their domains as surely as I had done in my dreams and drawings. Of course
these world movers had to learn the territory and its borders before charging ahead;
and so had I reviewed other countries and how they were framed before constructing
a country of my own. But that diligence was not what my teachers expected from a
creative type like me. There were no alternative modes of entry through the gates of
their assignment.
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On Children’s Creativity: Defying Expectation
From teaching and learning to world shaking and moving, creativity spans
as many arenas of human thought as human beings can invent. And even as our perceptions may open and shut doors, we struggle for clear definition. I spoke recently
with a high school student, a seventeen year old who excels at mathematics and science. He told me,
I think of myself as an artist because of how I see things. I never see things for
what they are but for what they can be. I see a table and think, ‘how would
it look on its side or if somebody were hiding behind it?’ (Davis, 2011, p. 35)
Is this not the essence of creativity? This imagining of possibilities beyond the given
as in my reinvented classrooms and Newton’s invention of the calculus.
One thing is certain. The word creativity is used with more frequency than
clarity. Nonetheless, our various understandings have critical impact on children’s
development and the direction of their learning. Which child is creative? Which if any
is not? My teachers thought that I was creative because I liked to draw and paint and
write poetry. But I went to an elementary school where these activities were daily
requirements that we all enjoyed (Davis, 2010). Did we all have a better shot at being
creative than children who went to schools that excluded the arts? Are we all born
with creative potential that is fostered or left to fade? And if fostered, toward what
What does adult creativity look like? The field-wide shifts that psychologists
describe (for example, the invention of psychoanalysis or anti-balletic modern dance)
in which whole systems of thought are expanded and transformed? Or the persistence and passion that keeps Aunt Martha painting seven hours a day without selling
any of her work (Davis & Gardner, 1996)? And what about childhood creativity, as
the early gift that writers and researchers have romanticized and celebrated since
at least the turn of the century? We are all moved by the open expressivity of young
children’s drawings and many of us mourn the exchange of free-form emotion for the
stiff “uncreative” stick figures that find their way into the work of children in middle
childhood (Davis, 2005). Must you be Freud or Martha Graham to be truly creative?
Or does the cherished expressivity of the young child or the ignored passion of Aunt
Martha count as well? And who will be the judge?
Teaching art in the 1960s to elementary school-aged children, I admired the
work of the youngest artists and longed for their creative immediacy. That “Oh here’s
a crayon and here’s a line” kind of quicksilver rapport, so different from the weary
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Jessica Hoffmann Davis
“What shall I draw?” refrain of the older children. The row of six little nine-year-old
girls drawing flowers with smiles and perfect rainbows in blue skies—each landscape
practically a replica of the others—would break my heart. Here surely, I thought, was
the death of creativity.
But some researchers have recognized artistic development in the uniformity of these renderings, the agreed-upon box and triangle for a house, the stick and
ball for the tree (Davis, 2005). They suggest that children at this stage are gaining
vocabularies of forms, learning from one another the strategies and schemas that
make for acceptable representations of what we see. “Come on girls,” I would plead
without speaking, “be creative. Try drawing something of your own. Something different from the child sitting next to you.”
Was my restricted view of creativity as originality and difference out of
step with the development I was unknowingly observing? Don’t we need to attain a
vocabulary of conventional forms before we can break a boundary in the landscape
of drawing? Did my unspoken disdain tell those girls that their participation in the
sweet acquisition of shared images was a forbidden adventure?
On a day several years later, my son Benjamin, a first grader at the time,
was late walking home from school. I was understandably distressed and he was
duly apologetic. All of a sudden, a light went on in his head—an “Ah ha” moment
creativity mavens might call it. “Wait a minute,” Ben said, “I’ll draw you a picture of
what happened.” Charmed (don’t forget I too had been a creative child), I watched as
he produced without hesitation a wonderful crayon drawing of a little boy bent over
in some kind of discourse with a few snake-like creatures wiggling out of the earth.
The rounded lean shape of the boy mirrored the shape of the creatures. “On the way
home, “ Benjamin explained, “I got into a conversation with a few worms.”
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
On Children’s Creativity: Defying Expectation
Fig. 1: Benjamin’s first grade drawing circa 1978
I was naturally delighted by my son’s wildly creative response to my concern. It was creative not only because he chose to tell his story in an image, not in
words; but also because the drawing itself was so expressive—the articulated shapes
responding to one another as if in genuine conversation.
Never one to limit the display of child art to refrigerator doors, I framed Ben’s
drawing and hung it with pride on our living room wall. Over time, it became apparent that Benjamin was less than delighted when folks would compliment him on his
tour de force. Finally he confessed to me with great embarrassment that it wasn’t
his drawing at all. He had “stolen” it from a boy named Eric in his class. “Stolen?” I
exclaimed. “I saw you draw it with my own eyes.” “Yeah, but Eric made this drawing in
class and I loved it. So I made it myself for you.” He was ashamed.
How much of his attitude came from me? My persistent disappointment at
the flowers and rainbows all in a row; my disinterest in the stick figures that children
draw at a certain age, apparently relieved that their sticks and circles will serve as a
visual short hand for “person.” Or perhaps by first grade in Ben’s progressive school,
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Jessica Hoffmann Davis
originality was touted as an objective in art. “Make it your own.”“Don’t copy from your
neighbor.” “Be creative.” Hadn’t Ben been creative putting to good use an image that
he had admired in class? Wasn’t he creative lifting crayon to paper and realizing without hesitation the very marks that had inspired him earlier in the day?
If only Ben knew the number of great artists that collect and “copy” the
artwork of children (Fineberg, 1997). Grown-up professional artists with work in art
museums using as inspiration and theme the literal copy of a child’s drawing, without
even mentioning (as Ben did with Eric) the name of the child from whom the image,
in Ben’s words, was “stolen.” Miro, Klee, Picasso, and first grader Benjamin Davis. All
creative artists who spoke for themselves through the representations of others. A
generative recycling rather than blatant theft.
Creativity can be found in any realm of ideas from our dreams to our drawings to the breaking of boundaries in science or mathematics. As educators we need
to think creatively about children’s expression. We must be open to alternatives and
to performance that defies expectation. Only then may we find even in replication
(traditionally the anathema of creativity) the development of the sort of aesthetic
judgment and acquisition of vocabulary with which our students can go on to forge
new and joyful directions of thought. Definitions and expectations offer clarity but
they threaten to confine. How do we encourage children to make their own worlds
and to feel comfortable using as media for their creations whatever inspiration they
may find?
Benjamin’s admiration and re-creation of a drawing were early signs of the
professional artist he grew up to be. Were I to turn the clock back several decades,
I’d have celebrated the rainbow girls for their interest in their friends’ images and
in the world of images that they themselves could create. My teachers, were they
still around, would no doubt wish that they’d welcomed my reinvented assignment.
Whatever our understandings of and aspirations for creativity, we must remember to
remind children that they are the directors of the worlds they are creating, that their
imagination and the imagination of others are what keep us moving forward. Creativity knows no bounds and neither should their thoughts. Take this from someone who
has always been called “creative.”
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
On Children’s Creativity: Defying Expectation
Davis, J. (2005). Framing education as art: The
octopus has a good day. New York: Teachers College Press.
Davis, J. (2010). Ordinary gifted children: The
power and promise of individual attention.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Davis, J. (2011). Why our high schools need the
arts. New York: Teachers College Press.
Davis, J., & Gardner, H. (1996). Creativity: Who,
What, When, Where Festschrift in Honor of
Frank Barron, Ed. A. Montuori, Hampton
Fineberg, J. (1997). The innocent eye: Children’s
art and the modern artist. New Jersey:
Princeton University Press.
Jessica Hoffmann Davis is a writer and researcher dedi­
cated to children and art. At Harvard’s Graduate School of
Education, Dr. Davis was the founding director of the Arts in
Education Program and held the university’s first chair in arts
in education. Her research has focused on arts learning and
development within and beyond school walls. Recent books
include Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (2012), Ordinary
Gifted Children: The Power and Promise of Individual Attention
(2010), Why Our Schools Need the Arts, (2008), and Framing the
Arts as Education: The Octopus Has a Good Day (2005).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Portrait of the Creative Process in Children’s
Zenia Dusaniwsky, St. George’s Elementary School
In this filmed interview, Zenia Dusaniwsky describes her first teaching assignment in
South America over 20 years ago and how she eventually became the art teacher at
St. George’s Elementary School in Montreal. She believes that all children can learn,
but not necessarily at the same pace or in the same way. She stresses it is important
to “highlight mistakes and failures…not as an endpoint but as part of the process.”
Moreover, she feels that creativity is as critical as literacy in fostering the overall development of students and their ability to take on future life challenges. She concludes
by presenting some of her students’ creative art projects.
Can you start off by telling us how you decided to become an art teacher?
ssentially the decision fell into my lap, so to speak, as a church bulletin. I graduated in 1990 and at the time there were not a lot of jobs available in Montreal. I came across a posting for a job teaching in South America. I knew very
little about South America and I knew even less about teaching art but being young
and adventurous I was game to take on the challenge. So I went and my teaching load
at that time was to do the elementary / middle school art as well as middle school science, computers, high school gym…so I had a little bit of everything. I had no formal
training in art at that time. In fact, I hadn’t done any art myself, probably since my
elementary school experience and so I essentially flew by the seat of my pants and
had real joy, pure enjoyment in terms of engaging the students for the pleasure of
creating art. But that’s essentially where it stayed for those first couple of years.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Zenia Dusaniwsky
Upon returning from South America I went back and actually did a Certificate
in teaching Art Education so that I would have a background in terms of techniques
and strategies and a little bit more of a formal approach. When I resumed teaching
in Montreal I not only had the opportunity to keep the pleasure aspect of creating
going, but also I had little bit more to offer the students in terms of the techniques
and strategies that they could apply in their creations.
How did you end up in your position at St. George’s?
I originally started here as a research assistant and I retained the position of
a grade five homeroom teacher and then I proceeded to take over the grade three
homeroom teacher position whereby I taught English Language Arts, Mathematics,
and Social Studies…and I did incorporate a lot of art into the curriculum. In the Language Arts there was a lot of art integrated with the writers’ sketch-journals that were
used as the art always served as a springboard for the writing. I also had students
create self-portraits—each year they did at least three. I thought it was a wonderful
exercise for them to take a moment to reflect upon how they saw themselves at that
particular moment in time. Not to mention for nostalgic purposes, there are students
that I’ve met many years later who still have those portraits framed [laughter]. I taught
as a homeroom teacher for 12 years and then I left on maternity leave and this position opened up and I joyfully jumped at it. Coming back to art with more maturity as
a teacher enabled me to not only keep the pleasure of creating art and then add the
techniques, but I also had a sense of how I needed to address the bigger concepts and
the bigger picture of “Why art? Why is it that we were doing what we were doing?” It
was no longer just a series of cute activities for the pleasure of doing a cute activity.
It’s growing in depth in terms of my experience of developing as a professional.
What are your basic beliefs about education generally, and art more specifically?
I think that learning is life. I think that every incident that you’re exposed
to, every person that you meet, every experience that you have is an opportunity to
learn. Inasmuch as I have the title and the role of a teacher, I think that the students
have a lot to teach me as well. As a result, I believe that all children are capable of
learning—I think not necessarily at the same time or in the same way. They should
be given the time that they need to learn and offered diverse approaches to learning.
All children like to learn, that they are “wonder addicts,” and that they are innately
curious. I believe that parents are crucial partners in a child’s learning…as well as the
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A Portrait of the Creative Process in Children’s Learning
culture and community in which the child is raised….ALL these influence their education. I think that literacy is essential, and by literacy I don’t mean just reading and writing; visual literacy, media literacy as well as mathematics literacy and science literacy
are very important. I think creativity is as important as literacy is. I think that success
breeds success and that can become addictive. I feel that it’s important for children to
learn to be independent. At the same time, it’s important to teach them the soft skills
of working in a team collaboratively. I think that if learning did not occur, that teaching did not occur…so I often think about that when I’m writing reports and I’m evaluating the students, the ones who have had difficulty I think of what may have been
lacking in my teaching. Learning is also something that’s intrinsically innate in that
the learner has to take ownership of what they’re learning in order for there not to be
a dissociation. It’s important to address the purposefulness of what I am teaching so
that the students see the big “Why?” and I think that this can then be transferred to
other areas.
I believe that art is fundamental in the development of the child in terms of
their motor development but also in their social, cognitive, and emotional development. I believe that children prefer a strong and firm boundary when they’re learning
and when they’re creating, but then also knowing that there’s a freedom within those
parameters. I really believe that art, to a great extent, is about pushing on those limits…it’s about pushing those limits and pushing the potential of the creativity within
that defined parameter. It’s my job to set up a context in which the students can push
and then realize the potential of their creativity. I think creativity is innate to everyone
as a human being; you have it because you’re human. I think that it can be taught,
re-taught—it’s almost as if we have to remember that we are creative beings and that
it can be modelled. I believe that, in terms of art, children’s work should be posted
in public as much as possible. I believe that children can be inspired. They are easily
inspired because things easily awe them. I think, most importantly in art, that there
needs to be time: time to play and time for spontaneity. I think it was John Muir that
said something to the [effect] that, “play is the exultation of the possible” and as much
as possible in the confines of a constrained schedule I think it’s important to create
time for play and experimentation with a new medium or a new idea. That’s the time
where children can take risks and they can share their ideas and adapt their ideas.
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Zenia Dusaniwsky
Can you give some examples of how teaching art to elementary students has
surprised you on occasion and/or taught you something important?
I think one of the difficulties sometimes in art is that because there is a constrained time in a classroom setting, that usually the first idea is the last idea. I am
constantly trying to find new ways to make it so that there is more time to play. I
think that it’s important to highlight mistakes and failures, not as a cul de sac, not as
an endpoint but as part of the process. I think it was Einstein that said something to
the effect of, “If a person hasn’t made a mistake it’s because they haven’t tried anything new.” We’re constantly celebrating mistakes, and in art “you really can’t make
a mistake,” I tell the children, and, in fact, it might be the best thing that happened,
these wonderful accidents. I think that it’s important to give the decision-making and
the control as much as possible to the students so that they can really make those
choices and take ownership for their learning. And therein there comes a balance: you
have this free-play time and this time for just exuberance and play and experimentation and exploration, and then there is that inner critic that gets silenced during this
sacred time but then later it needs to come to the fore and really suss out and make
decisions based on the ideas that have been developed to really come to an end of
that creative process. I think there’s that synergy of opposites that occurs and there’s
an important need to also leave the time to reflect on the process. My job, in all of
that, I feel like I’m an enabler [laughter] and what I do is I am enabling by creating that
structure for all of that to happen…and so the children are playing, and they have the
pleasure of creating and they’re learning techniques, it might be techniques with different media, and they’re learning the creative process which I try to make as explicit
as possible, and they’re learning the strategies and the big concepts—and I get paid
for that, and that’s quite extraordinary.
I think that one example of “the importance of play” that sticks out in my
mind—because it was a recent example—is when I was working with a student with
Down syndrome. It was an ultimate pleasure, privilege for me that on occasion I would
have an opportunity to work with her one on one. And inasmuch as I would set up the
creative situation for her, I then took the opportunity to follow her lead and see what
she would do. I mirrored her approach, her use of materials. Her process was nowhere
near my process…so if she would make a mark or place a colour in a certain place or
do some gesture, it would make no sense to me but I would follow along. I think the
beauty of that was seeing when there is no inner critic, that all things are possible.
The trick there was teaching her how to find the right moment to stop because the
sensory would otherwise take over and there was no end in sight [laughter]. I think
for the younger children too, kindergarten and grade one, they are so raw and so full
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A Portrait of the Creative Process in Children’s Learning
of delight with just the sensory experience of the materials, that really for them, art is
about learning to find the right moment to stop. A lot of the organization of the program is about creating and exploring with different media and also learning when to
stop…when to stop making marks, and when to stop mixing the colours so it doesn’t
always become a brown and a grey [laughter].
One of the things that also strikes me is the idea that the best creative work
that I have seen over the course of the years that I’ve been teaching art comes within
a structured parameter. You would think that entirely open-ended would produce
more astonishing results but I think there’s a certain terror and almost a paralysis with
ultimate freedom. It makes me think of a story from my childhood of being enclosed
in our backyard. We had a big beautiful backyard and I was the youngest on the street
and everybody else was at least four years older and the children would often come
and pop their bicycles over the fence and then play with me a while and then leave. I
was alone in the backyard and I would watch day after day how it is that they crossed
over that fence. I was about three years old and one day I figured out how to do it,
and I got over to the other side, but they had all taken off on their bikes and left. And
I remember that crystallizing moment of being on the other side of the fence and
realizing I could go anywhere, I could do anything: the world was entirely open to
me—and that terrified me. And I remember calling out to my mother and she opened
the gate and I ran back in. I think that’s what that structure does for students: it tells
them you’re allowed to play within this parameter; do whatever, push the limits, you
can put a limb over, you can put your head over, you can suspend yourself over…but
stay in here. I think that’s how the most creative work comes.
I’m also in awe, even at the earliest ages, of how children are able to respond
to art. I think one of the things that makes us distinct as human beings is that we can
function with symbols and we can communicate through symbols. There’s an example in the other room. In grade two I was looking with the students at the work of
Mark Rothko and we were talking about how colour speaks. We analyzed his style and
the children looked at the fact that it was essentially about fields of colour, and what
could you say with colour? And they came up with titles for his pieces and then I put
out a time line of his work and I asked them to talk to me about what they saw. Even
at six and seven years of age, there was one child who really had me with my mouth
hanging open, who was able to essentially read Mark Rothko’s life through his work.
He talked about Rothko’s youth and that his colour choices would have made sense in
terms of his youthfulness and exuberance and joy of life having all prospects ahead of
him…and how with time the colours became more sombre when perhaps he realized
that he was aging and even with the success that he achieved that he wasn’t leading
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Zenia Dusaniwsky
the type of life that he would have wanted to… This child even inferred that perhaps
Rothko died or was close to his death with the colour shift.
The accessibility of the art never ceases to amaze me with the students.
They get it; they get it on so many levels. Even the kindergarten class for example:
the kindergarten program is structured on “Why art?” That’s the underlying question,
the undergirding question for the program…so we look at art as a doorway to the
imagination…how you can’t make a mistake in art…art can address the impossible,
things that don’t exist…art can address fears that you might have…we look at art as
monsters or beasts or mythical creatures. We then went into art as narrative and we
looked at how art can tell a story, how images can tell a story, and we looked at the
Lascaux cave paintings and they enacted hunting scenes and rituals that may have
preceded a hunting scene and then they created their own Lascaux-style paintings.
We then looked at art as an opportunity to leave a mark: we want to create something
to leave our mark, knowing that we are mortals. In our most recent project we were
looking at art as decoration. We were decorating the human body, so the children
looked at images of people who decorate themselves throughout the world. We had
many images posted including warriors from Papua New Guinea as well as people
doing Japanese theatre…and I asked them to group these images and think about
why people would decorate themselves. Given that we had done all this work about
the hunting, they talked about the fact that the people might disguise themselves
to embody the spirit of the animal that they were hunting, or the type of hunter that
they would like to be, and then they saw that the warrior aspect was present in the
images and they grouped together images that they thought might be warriors wishing to frighten their enemies. Then I asked the students if any of them had parents
who decorate themselves or paint their faces, and the students responded, “Yes. You
know my mom paints her face.” And I had asked, “Do you think it’s to scare her enemies?” and “Oh yes,” they said [laughter]. Then quickly one of the little girls rectified
and said, “No, it’s to make herself beautiful.” But they get it; they get it on a very innate
level. It is something that’s primal—it’s part of us, it’s part of who we are.
That whole accessibility of art and the discussions about art are something
that always leave me really energized. And I know that they come away with a sense
of art being part of their lives. I remember one student in grade two: I had brought in
multiple objects and asked them to tell me what they all had in common. In the end,
one of the students said, “So, you mean to tell me everything is art, all of this is art?
My teacup is art and my bathroom sink is art and my bedspread is art?” And they walk
away with a sense of “it’s all art” and then the best part is one of the students had said,
“So I’m art too, aren’t I? I’m living art.” I think that’s a gift to think of ourselves as living
works of art, something we’re constantly and “ongoingly” creating.
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A Portrait of the Creative Process in Children’s Learning
In your opinion, what do you think educators should do to develop creative
learners for the 21st century?
I think that given that we’re preparing students for a life that we’re not familiar with, we are not really sure what lies ahead, I think there are some fundamentals
that need to be in place. I think that creative problem solving would be one of those
things, definitely critical thinking, the ability to communicate well, the ability to collaborate with others… A lot of jobs in the future will rely heavily on team efforts.
Given that the amount of information we have access to at present can be difficult to
navigate, we need to prepare our students to deal with information management and
to become media savvy and to be digital citizens as well—that’s their reality.
I also have a soft spot in my heart for thinking that part of education still
has to include teaching things like honour, trust, love, kindness, cooperation, peaceful conflict resolution, ethical economics, understanding power, and things of that
nature. But I think creativity is extremely important. We need to have students and
people who are going to be able to think unconventionally and to question the
herd…and to make decisions and to imagine new scenarios and to then generate
new ideas and refine these ideas and produce astonishing innovative work and solutions to problems that we’re going to have.
Would you like to share some of your students’ artwork with us?
Fig. 1: Grade three pumpkin transformation project by Milo Berger and Grace Lipovetz
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Zenia Dusaniwsky
This is a project that the grade three class recently undertook and it was
a transformation project. In fact, what you’re seeing here is a pumpkin. I asked the
students to look at the round shape and to transform it in some way. They worked
collaboratively in groups of two and they created these pumpkin transformations.
They built whatever it is that they needed to build—it was an additive sculpture. They
weren’t allowed to cut away because the pumpkins decompose too quickly otherwise. The whole creative process was really made explicit in this project. We looked
at generating a lot of ideas and then choosing the one that was the best. And if they
chose to come together with a partner they had to collaborate and as a team decide
which ideas would best work together and which ideas they would have to leave
behind. At times they would try things in terms of construction that didn’t work. They
had to resolve the problems. They had to figure out what materials they needed, how
they were going to adhere the things that they had prepared to the pumpkins themselves. One of the students summed it up best and said, “We’re really good at solving
these problems, aren’t we?” [laughter]. That was essentially what the project was trying to address: the idea of the creative process and the problem solving that goes
along the way. My role: I did some shopping for supplies and I was also the head “hot
glue” person but they took full ownership and the results were extraordinary.
Fig. 2: Grade one art project by Lorelai
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A Portrait of the Creative Process in Children’s Learning
This one is an example of children in grade one. In grade one the question is,
“Where do the ideas come from? Where do artists get their ideas?” We look at art ideas
as coming from your imagination. We look art ideas as a representation of nature—
we go outside and we draw the sunflowers that are in the back parking lot. And then
we look at art ideas as observation from a different perspective. We all went out and
lay under the trees and looked at the trees right up through the sky and then the
students painted what it is that they saw. They also look at art as a marriage between
the imagination and observation.
Fig. 3: Exploratory piece of students learning to speak “Mark Rothko” by Anika (Grade 2)
This is an exploratory piece so it’s not a final project—it would be an interim
project. I would give the students an opportunity to look at the work of Mark Rothko.
For example, we would discuss his style and then we would attempt to speak “Mark
Rothko” because I often talk to the students of art as a language. So they learn to speak
English and they learn to speak French and here they learn to speak “Mark Rothko.”
And using Rothko’s language they try to create a portrait of something or someone
that was important to them. They made choices in terms of colour, they made choice
in terms of the materials and the tools that they would use, and they would play with
texture. From that, their final piece would be an attempt to create their own language
because ideally what I want them to do is not just to imitate someone else—I want
them to create and find their own creative voice so that they can talk about the world
around them. This is an interim piece; a final piece has yet to come. In it, they’re using
colour and shape and figurative work or abstract—as they see fit—to best express the
world that they see around them.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Zenia Dusaniwsky
Zenia Dusaniwsky is currently working as an Art Specialist at St. George’s Elementary School in Montreal, but has
22 years of varied teaching experience behind her. She has
taught at different grade levels ranging from Pre-K to University and in different subject areas including: Science, Math,
Language Arts, Social Studies, and Art. Her experiences have
taken her overseas where she taught in established International School settings as well as in shantytowns and remote
jungle communities. Zenia has a B.Ed., a Certificate in the
Teaching of Arts, as well as an M.Ed. in Educational Psychology
and Counseling.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Getting at the Heart of the Creative Experience
Howard Gardner, Harvard University
In this interview, developmental psychologist, professor, and author Howard Gardner
describes his early interest in creativity and explains why he wanted to study creativity from a different perspective than what had been done in the past. He shares why
studying creativity through the biographies of creative people provides more insight
than using creativity tests that may be as limited as IQ tests. The creative leaders he
studied in his book Creating Minds proved to have an unusual blend of intelligences—not just those intelligences obviously related to their field. He explains that creativity is about one’s personality, the willingness to take risks, and being a certain kind
of person rather than having a particular set of cognitive skills. Finally, he comments
on creativity in today’s society.
How did you first become interested in creativity?
s a young person I was very much involved in music. After I went to college
I spent a year in England and even though I was supposed to be in studying at the London School of Economics I spent most of my time going to
theatre, opera, ballet, museums. I think that was sort of the beginning of my interest
in the creative process from a scholarly point of view. When I was a graduate student in psychology I actually wrote a big literature review about creativity for Stanley
Milgram who was a famous psychologist, now deceased, known for his study of the
“obedience paradigm.” I remember, he went over the paper pretty carefully, and he
wrote in notes saying, “People who study creativity are a singularly uncreative lot.”
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Howard Gardner
I don’t know why he said that but it always stuck in my mind. I might say it was a
stimulus or a motivator. I would add that while I think my interest in creativity came
from the arts, I don’t think creativity is particularly connected to the arts—I think you
can have creativity in any realm from business to politics to technology. Many artists
would hope they’re creative but they may not be. The study of creativity is a longterm interest…I didn’t write about it directly for 20 years after graduate school but it
was always something in my mind.
How has your journey to understand creativity unfolded, and what were the
milestones along the way?
I had this long-term interest in creativity but I really put it aside for work in
more “canonical” developmental psychology and neuropsychology where creativity
wasn’t much on the agenda and where there were not, in my view, good methods for
studying creativity. I’m best known for developing a theory of multiple intelligences
in which I argued that intelligence shouldn’t be viewed as a singular entity but rather
people are capable of developing and displaying different kinds of intelligence. That
got a lot of attention thirty years ago. When I began to speak publicly about this or to
write in more popular venues, people would say, “Well, what about creativity? Is there
one creativity or are there a bunch of creativities?” I hadn’t really thought about that
much before but I decided that I wanted to see whether there were specific forms of
creativity which mapped in a certain way to different kinds of intelligence.
Around the middle of the 1980s I began to think seriously about that issue.
First of all, I was never very happy with the so-called creativity tests, which were tests
of divergent thinking. In fact, if I wanted to be brutal, I would say that divergent thinking tests are tests of creativity by people who don’t really understand what creativity
is all about. I think tests of divergent thinking basically show whether somebody is
facile and can be entertaining at a cocktail party or maybe brainstorm well at some
kind of mixed group at work. I think creativity is a much longer-term endeavour,
which requires deep immersion in the subject matter, the development of skills, the
capacity to ask questions that haven’t been asked before and to spend as much time
as necessary to come up with the best answers we can to those questions. Divergent
thinking tests fall even shorter from the phenomenon of creativity than IQ tests fall
from the phenomenon of intelligence. I was not going to go out and give a bunch
of divergent tests to people in different domains to see whether their creativity was
different. Instead, I made a decision to do biographies and to take individuals who
were clearly creative—whether or not people liked them: they were clearly creative
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Getting at the Heart of the Creative Experience
in specific spheres, and by argument, these people would be creative in different
In your book, “Creating Minds” you have indicated that it was a pivotal moment
when you shifted from the question, “What is creativity,” to “Where is creativity?” Can you
talk about this and explain why this was so helpful?
My book, “Creating Minds,” came out in 1993 and has just been reissued in
2012 with a new preface, a new bibliography and new cover, which uncharacteristically I helped to design. In that book I studied seven people, each of whom I thought
would be creative in a different intelligence. The list was: Einstein whom I saw as a
logical, mathematical thinker; T.S. Eliot, the poet as linguistic thinker; Pablo Picasso,
the painter, a spatial thinker; Igor Stravinsky, the composer as a musical thinker; Martha Graham, the dancer as a ballet-kinesthetic thinker; as “intrapersonal,” Sigmund
Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis; and “interpersonal,” Gandhi, leader of people
in India [over 60] years ago. My hypothesis was that each of them would be creative,
reflecting their particular intelligence.
I selected people all of whom lived about 100 years ago, which meant, that
on the one hand, we were far enough away that nobody would argue that any of
them was not creative but recent enough so there was lots of data available. If you’ve
studied Mozart, he’s certainly creative, and I’ve written about Mozart, but the amount
of data available about him or the amount of data available about Napoleon or Jesus
Christ is pretty modest.
Interestingly, it didn’t turn out that each of these people was strong in one
intelligence and not in the others. In fact, what characterized them was more that
they had an unusual blend of intelligences. [For example,] Freud saw himself as a scientist but he wasn’t particularly good in logical, mathematical or spatial thinking but
he was brilliant at language and in understanding other people and in understanding
himself. He was a combination of linguistic and personal intelligences even though
he saw himself as a scientist. Each of the people whom I studied, except for one, also
had areas in which they were notably weak in—intelligences where they didn’t stand
out at all. The only exception from my study was Stravinsky, who I think was perfectly
fine in his other intelligences. He probably could have been a lawyer; in fact he studied law, was quite gifted in the other arts. He wasn’t a particularly nice person—I don’t
think he’d have any use for me—but I wasn’t studying who was nice, I was studying
who made creative use of different intelligences.
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Howard Gardner
This book is very different from other studies of creativity; it doesn’t give
tests to people, it doesn’t [look at] people that are alive, although Martha Graham
was alive during most of the time that I was working on this book. It relies on archival material. I think of all the books I’ve written, it was probably the most fun to do
because I really immersed myself in the worlds of these people and tried to pretend
that I was a friend of theirs and I could ask them questions and see what they were
doing and thinking.
Can you discuss the fundamental things that you learned about creativity in
your case studies of the “seven creators of the modern era?”
Probably the thing that surprised me the most was while these people
were very sharp cognitively, what distinguished them more were their personalities.
These were people who were very ambitious, wanted to make a mark—and here’s the
important part—were willing to take risks and didn’t care if they failed. If you want to
be creative you have to take risks—that’s almost the definition of being creative, but
yet if you don’t succeed and you quit or kick the dog or jump out the window, you’re
not going to be creative. So when these people did their risk taking, and it didn’t work
out, rather than blowing their stack, they said, “What can I learn from this? How can I
do better next time?” And then when they had a creative breakthrough—sometimes
they knew it and sometimes the world told them—they didn’t rest on their laurels,
they were looking for other kinds of challenges, other places to take risks. Creativity,
contrary to what I and many other people have thought, is not a one-shot thing; it’s
not even something that occurs at a particular moment. It’s more a way of being, and
the way of being probably starts very early in life. In fact, except for prodigies—Picasso
was a prodigy; Mozart was a prodigy—most people form the personality of a creator
before they figure out which area to be creative in. I mentioned that Stravinsky could
have been a lawyer, certainly T.S. Eliot and Freud could have been conventional scholars—they were very good academically. But they were already people who weren’t
happy with the status quo and they wanted to try something new. Even though they
might have been despondent if something didn’t work, they got out of it and they
tried new things. Creativity is really as much about personality, risk taking and being
a certain kind of person rather than having a particular set of cognitive skills.
You asked, “What’s the importance of asking the question, ‘Where’s creativity?’ as opposed to ‘What is creativity?’” This idea is not mine. It came from Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi, who is an expert in creativity. He actually took the “linguistic turn of
phrase” from a teacher of mine, Nelson Goodman, who was a philosopher and who,
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Getting at the Heart of the Creative Experience
instead of asking the question, “What is art,” wanted to ask the question, “When is art?”
Part of being a creative person, whether you’re Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or Nelson
Goodman, is to ask a new question, and when Csikszentmihalyi asked the question,
“Where is creativity?”, this was like a breakthrough.
Everybody, including myself, thought creativity was all inside the head of
the individual and most of our conversation so far has been about the individual. But
in fact creativity is always emergent from three different sectors: one is the individual
of whom we’ve been talking about until now, one is the domain in which individuals
work, and one is the field which makes judgments.
To be specific, if you’ve got a bunch of painters, and they’re all busy painting away, one question is, “How does their painting relate to what other people are
doing?” Is it just copying, is it too far out? Does it represent a step forward or a step
backward? But what the painter thinks, what the painter’s mother thinks doesn’t matter—it’s what the field thinks. The field are all the taste makers and opinion makers in
the area of the arts: people who decide who gets into art school, who graduates from
art school, who gets displayed in galleries, who gets a positive review, who wins various rewards, and so on. You might say, “Well, that’s the area of painting, it’s very subjective. But what about mathematics, it’s very objective: do you need a field there?”
And the answer is, “absolutely [yes].” There are many people who are mathematicians,
but you have to look at what mathematics they’re doing and how it relates to what
mathematics other people are doing. Does it copy what everybody else is doing, or
is it going off into a promising direction? But, again, it doesn’t matter what the mathematician thinks or his mother thinks. The question is, “What do informed people
By a more funny coincidence, every few years there’s an award given to the
most original mathematician under the age of forty and it’s called the “Fields Medal.”
And of course it’s named after somebody who has nothing to do with “field” in the
Csikszentmihalyi sense. But what it means is that even in mathematics we have
to make judgments, and just as in painting, the judgment of the man in the street
doesn’t mean much. The judgment of informed people, whether it’s gallery owners
or givers of the Fields Medal, is very important. Csikszentmihalyi having phrased the
question this way gave a whole additional push to the study of creativity.
I could add at this point I don’t think social science is or should be a mere
imitation of natural or physical science. What social scientists like Csikszentmihalyi
and me do is come up with concepts. These are concepts that people may not have
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Howard Gardner
thought of before like “multiple intelligences” or “flow” and we try to call evidence out
in favour of those concepts through experiments, observation, and argument. Then,
if the concept, whether it’s “multiple intelligences” or “flow” or Erik Erikson’s notion of
“identity” or Freud’s notion of the “superego” or Max Weber’s notion of the “iron law
of bureaucracy,” if those concepts proved useful to people who are thinking about
these questions, then they gain a certain currency. Again, social sciences differ from
the natural physical sciences, because sometimes when we write up a new finding it
actually affects the way people are. When Erikson wrote about “identity,” all of a sudden people had an identity crisis which they may not have had before. That’s the way
in which I think about my work on creativity, and probably one of the reasons I’m not
that excited about creativity tests, because I don’t think they get at the heart of the
creative enterprise.
You have suggested that “creative capital” is developed in childhood. How can it
be fostered and enhanced?
I think [there is] a good contrast between the prodigies whom I mentioned
and other people who end up being equally creative. Prodigies—Picasso and Mozart
are the prototypic examples—are individuals who have an incredible talent in an
area, in this particular case in graphic representation or in music, and within five to
ten years they become an expert and everybody says, “Wow, look at how representational Picasso’s paintings are…” [or] “Look how readily orchestras can play what
Mozart plays…” But most prodigies don’t end up doing anything that the rest of the
world cares about. They aren’t judged as “creative” by the field, as I defined it earlier.
And what has to happen basically with a prodigy if he or she is going to be judged as
creative, is for that prodigy to acquire a personality which is more challenging, which
doesn’t simply try to do better what all these adults are already doing, but trying to
go on in a new direction. It’s probably not an accident that both Mozart and Picasso
literally rejected their fathers. They were trained by their fathers. But rather than being
loyal to their fathers, Mozart went away from his father, and Picasso actually changed
his name—he used his mother’s name rather than his father’s name. There’s kind of a
rejection of the teacher, so one heads off in a new direction.
If you are a conventional creator—if that’s not a contradiction in terms, as I
said earlier—you first develop a kind of robust challenging personality and then you
choose which domain you’re going to work in but you don’t choose it randomly. [For
example], Einstein [could] probably have been a good mathematician as well as a
good physicist, but we know he wasn’t a particularly good violinist and he certainly
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Getting at the Heart of the Creative Experience
wouldn’t have been a good politician. The choice of domain is not random—it takes
place in areas in which you already have some strength. You might say, “What is it in
youth that involves the creation of capital on which you can draw later?” I don’t think
there’s a high heritable component; I don’t think people have creativity in their genes.
I do think having a healthy constitution, being robust, not having to sleep all that
much, probably has a genetic component. But much more important is the milieu
in which you live. It’s very hard to be creative if you live in a totalitarian environment
where there are very strict rules about what you can do and what you can’t do. There
needs to be a certain tolerance for experimentation. It helps if your own family has
got some iconoclasts in it: people who aren’t just following the status quo but who
are asking new questions. Probably, the conversation around the dinner table is
important: is father just dictating what to do, is everybody just sitting there quietly, or
are there vigorous discussions back and forth?
One of the fascinating things about the creative people I studied is that none
of them was born, as far as I can recall, in a major metropolis. They grew up as kind of a
big fish in a relatively small pond, but as soon as they became a middle adolescent—
that’s the age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty—they immediately moved to a big city,
whether it was Vienna or London or Zurich or New York. The reason [for this] was that
they’d already outgrown their little pond and they wanted to test themselves against
the best and the brightest in the domains in which they were interested. Even though
many of them became very difficult people as they got older (and I write about this),
at the age of 20 they’re all…characters like themselves, arguing, they would make
common cause, they were kind of young rebels. That certainly has happened in our
time in the United States: people would go to Silicon Valley or to Hollywood or to
Wall Street. I would imagine in Canada many of them flocked to Toronto or on the
west coast to Vancouver. One interesting question for students of creativity concerns
the digital era where we can contact everybody online: “Will geography become less
important or will it be as important as ever?” Richard Florida, who studies this issue,
says geography continues to be important even though we can be in contact with
people online; ultimately we want to be able to rub shoulders and elbows and make
love and make war with our peers—we don’t just want to do it via Facebook or Twitter
but it’s too early to know about that.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Howard Gardner
In your book “Five Minds for the Future,” you have said that what is needed in
today’s society is a “generous dollop of creativity in the human sphere” (p. 101). Can you
talk further about this and suggest the implications this has for classrooms?
If you live in an environment where there’s creativity all over the streets—
and that would be the United States today with Hollywood and Silicon Valley, then
the inculcation of creativity in the classroom isn’t as important because the message
is very vivid in the rest of the society. Even though that includes forms of creativity
which are not ethical, about which I’ll talk in a minute. But if you live in a society
which is more top-down, more controlled, more cutting down the tall poppies, the
high giraffes, then it is important for there to be creativity generated in the classroom
[and] in the home because the message in society isn’t that powerful. I’m going to
use Canada as an example. If you live in the middle of Saskatchewan you’re [probably] going to want to end up in Montreal or Toronto or Vancouver, and then even if
you’re very good in Canada you want to go to London or Paris or New York because
it’s a bigger pond and you want to lock your horns with people who are not in the
country—which I think is a wonderful country—but it’s not as much in the headlines
as the places I’ve talked about.
Part of my answer to your question is; it depends on what the messages in
society are. Another answer is, “What is the teachers’ model?” If the teachers’ model
is the correct answer, then you better get to it as quickly as possible and if you don’t
get the correct answer “you’re a dummy,” then that’s not going to foster creativity. But
if teachers ask questions to which there are many answers or they analyze answers
which are thought to be wrong to see how people got to them, then that’s a much
better message.
I have a story I would like to tell about the smart-ass kid who came up to me
after a lecture about education. He held up his smartphone [and] said: “Why do we
need school anymore when the answers to all our questions are in the smartphone?”
And I thought for a moment, I said: “Yeah, the answers to all our questions except the
important ones.” The important ones are not going to be answered in smartphones
and the teachers or parents or religious leaders or club leaders who convey that
attitude are much more likely to spawn creative individuals than ones who think it’s
open and shut or “you can look it up in Google or Wikipedia,” and that’s end of the
When I talk about a “generous dollop of creativity in the human sphere,” I’m
really talking about ethics and morality. All the rewards for creativity now are for the
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Getting at the Heart of the Creative Experience
latest app, latest technology, the ways in which you can invade privacy even more
effectively than before, or diss or bully people more absolutely than before. But
human nature seems not to have changed very much, and certainly not very much
for the better since the time of the Greek city-states. Of course, we had a lot of dark
ages. We had an enlightenment—the Enlightenment was wonderful for people who
lived in France, England, Scotland, the United States, maybe Canada, but certainly
didn’t affect other parts of the world. A new enlightenment can’t just be what Locke
and Rousseau and Hume and Voltaire thought—it has to reflect the best thinking
in our great traditions from all over the world as well as from some smaller societies
which managed the issue of sustainability better than many of our larger and more
avaricious and more iconoclastic societies.
My own work, as you may know now—it’s not in intelligence, it’s not in crea­
tivity—it’s what I call good work: we’re beginning to call our efforts the “good project” because we look at good persons, good workers and good citizens. (See www. We want to have people who don’t just have a lot of money
and a lot of power, we want to have people who want to do the right thing and go
about trying to do the right thing. [However,] that involves a seismic change in how
human beings relate to one another online and offline, how we make use of the best
of our talent in the young as well as in the old, and how we judge people not just by
how much disposable income they have but rather by what kind of contributions
they make to society. I like to joke—and this is probably a good line to end on—that
I always to look to see what Scotland and Canada do because Canada always does
the opposite of the United States and Scotland always does the opposite of England,
and in many ways Canada and Scotland are much saner. The problems in the United
States are more visible and have more power…and so we have to change the big
guys by learning from individuals, groups, and communities who may have a better idea of how to have a moral society but who don’t receive the same attention as
Washington or London do.
Gardner, H. (2007). Five minds for the future. Harvard Business School Press.
Gardner, H. (2012). Creating minds. Basic Books.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Howard Gardner
Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs
Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education. He also holds positions as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director
of Harvard Project Zero. Most recently, Gardner received the
2011 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. The author
of twenty-eight books translated into thirty-two languages,
and several hundred articles, Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique
of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence
that can be adequately assessed by standard psychometric
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Week in Creativity
Jane Piirto, Ashland University
The author recounts a week in October, describing her teaching, writing, thinking,
mail, and other activities that relate to her professional and personal work on creativity. This personal creative nonfiction piece also contains poetry and references to her
books and lectures. The author chose this form in order to emphasize the autobiographical nature of work in the area of creativity.
he Saturday was a gorgeous Ohio fall day, with orange and yellow trees,
colorful mums planted in precise plots, people wandering along paved
paths. The park was Inniswoods, a Columbus metropark, and I was here
to meet six graduate students in education, studying for their endorsements to be
gifted intervention specialists, taking their master’s degrees in Talent Development
Education. They were five women and a man and we were on our Meditation Day for
the course called “Creativity Studies.” Today we would meditate on nature, on the dark
side, and on art and beauty.
I read several poems having to do with autumn and nature, by such poets as
Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, and Rainer Marie Rilke, as the students formed a circle. “This
is your day,” I told them. “No kids, no duties, nothing to do but to meditate and think
about your own creativity. The rules are simple. Walk alone and think. Meet back here
by this bench in an hour and fifteen minutes. If you meet someone from the class, just
acknowledge with a nod and move on.” I am of the philosophy that one can’t teach
people to be creative unless one has explored her own creative self. The park was
busy with photographers and their subjects—families and couples. People walked on
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jane Piirto
the boardwalk and on the packed dirt paths. When we met up after the hour, everyone shared one observation. Mike said the park was fake and loud. The others were
more positive.
Our next venue for the day was a nearby cemetery. “We are here to put
a concrete experience on the dark side as an inspiration for creativity. If you have
recently experienced tragedy in your life, you do not have to participate in this meditation, but just enjoy the day.” I read some poems having to do with the dark side, one
by Theodore Roethke, a poet who committed suicide; one by Allan Tate, “Ode to the
Confederate Dead,” as the students turned and looked at the American flags flying
next to many of the graves, indicating service in the military. This cemetery has graves
from soldiers as far back as the Revolutionary War. I concluded with one of my own
poems, “Srebrenica,” about the massacre in 1995. Again, the students dispersed with
their Thoughtlogs (a daily assignment to make a note about their creative thoughts
to encourage the core attitude of Self-Discipline, an attribute which creative producers must have), with an admonition to think about the dark side as an inspiration for
Again we gathered after the meditation to share thoughts. Karla read a
poem about the contrast between the traffic passing (this cemetery is on a busy corner), heedless of the inevitable fate that befalls us all. She is an English teacher with
small children, being “at home” while she works on her Ph.D. She has always wanted
to write fiction and poetry but has experienced self-censorship about her abilities.
The poem is stunning, but I don’t tell her that as being over-praised is as killing to creativity as is criticism. She is going to do her final individual creativity project as a creative writer. She first wanted to make a backsplash for her kitchen counter out of tile,
but I have, over the years, discouraged home projects in the HGTV mode, so she has
reluctantly taken the risk (a core attitude) to work on her dream of writing creatively.
Mike passed on sharing. He had sat on the grass writing furiously in his Thoughtlog. It
turned out that he had lost his father in a pedestrian-car accident last year.
We drove a few miles downtown on I-71 for the next venue, the Columbus
Museum of Art. We gathered there in the foyer for lunch where we have a creativity
salon—we talk of music and art and books and politics—and not of our home lives,
our children, or our jobs… Then I read them some ekphrasis poems—Browning’s “My
Last Dutchess,” and Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” among them. They separated and
wandered through the rooms of the museum, with the charge to write a poem about
a work of art that moves them, that stabs their hearts. We then met up and went back
through the museum and they were the docents for those works of art, reading their
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Week in Creativity
poems to great appreciation by their classmates. Mike did not find a work of art worth
writing about, but he wrote about the old and new architecture of the museum.
Samantha, a third-grade teacher, chose a work from the primitive Columbus wood
carver, Elijah Pierce, exhibit being featured. Carol, a national board certified middle
school teacher, also chose an Elijah Pierce piece.
We had a final bout with the Thoughtlogs and a final sharing. They were
appreciative of the day, even though they arrived with resentment of having to
give up a Saturday. Marianne, an accomplished horsewoman, had taken the course
after she gave up a corporate job in Hollywood and New York, to keep her children
in their school district locally. She is so experienced no school system will hire her
for the classroom, as she is too expensive, so she is acquiring a new endorsement to
make herself more marketable. She gave up a day at the All American Quarter Horse
Congress, which was in town, to meet the assignment. I drove the 80 miles home,
exhausted, to greet my 96-year-old mother, who came to live with me as she can’t live
alone anymore.
On Monday, I began a four-week segment of an undergraduate honors seminar, which I shared with two other professors, one in mathematics, one in philosophy.
The students would be reading my book, Understanding Creativity, and I would be
teaching them my creative process system. Understanding Creativity was published in
2004, and my publisher says it is “a classic.” In this book, I used my graphic theoretical
framework, the Piirto Pyramid, to discuss the paths of creative writers, visual artists,
scientists, mathematicians, inventors, classical and popular musicians, composers,
conductors, actors, dancers, and athletes. In 2002 I realized part of my goal to write a
separate book about each of these domains, in my book, “My Teeming Brain”: Understanding Creative Writers, where I studied the lives and creative processes of about
200 U.S. creative writers who qualified, through a rigorous publication record, to be
listed in the Directory of American Poets & Writers. I have begun work on a similar book
about 10 female North American visual artists, including Emily Carr and Frida Kahlo,
but I have not gotten very far, what with full-time teaching and many requests for
writing, and trying to evaluate data I have collected on the personalities of talented
In Understanding Creativity I also laid out my take on the creative process,
which features five core attitudes—(1) Openness to Experience; (2) Risk-taking; (3)
Tolerance for Ambiguity; (4) Group Trust; and (5) Self-Discipline. I have named Seven
I’s necessary in the creative process: (1) Inspiration; (2) Insight; (3) Imagery; (4) Imagination; (5) Intuition; (6) Incubation; and (7) Improvisation. Several general practices
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jane Piirto
include the use of ritual; the search for silence; the presence of exercise, especially
walking; the practice of meditation; the practice of solitude; and a conscious decision
to live a life that is centered on creativity. In 2011 I published a book called Creativity for 21st Century Skills: How to Embed Creativity Into the Classroom, which contains
many practical suggestions to use in class. It seems to be doing well; at least my royalties weren’t zero.
I crossed campus and entered the room in the science building where the
honors seminar was to meet. There were six students, four females and two males in
a rigidly arranged classroom with tables in rows. I asked them to move the tables to
make a circle so we could see each other. The discussion of Chapter 1, which they had
read as an assignment, began. They were quiet, but also overwhelmed and surprised
by the sheer number and import of creativity writers and thinkers who are mentioned
in this introductory chapter. We ended the class with an overview of the Five Core
Attitudes. The core attitude of Openness to Experience is illustrated by a mindfulness exercise. I led them in closing their eyes, breathing deeply, and tasting a dried
blueberry, chewing it slowly. I challenged them to eat a whole meal with this kind of
mindfulness and openness to taste. I went home—it was so good to be teaching only
a few blocks away—and made my mother some supper.
I had to get up early Tuesday morning and drive to Columbus, where the
Ohio Association for Gifted Children annual conference was being held. The executive director asked me to do a session. I titled it, the title of a keynote speech I gave
to the Chicago School of Professional Psychology early in 2012, “Unlocking the Creative Process: A New Educational Psychology of Creativity,” modifying my PowerPoint
presentation from the Chicago speech to psychologists, tailoring it for the teachers
and administrators who would make up the audience. Over 100 people attended. I
led them through the Seven I’s, Five Core Attitudes, General Practices, and the Piirto
Pyramid’s “thorn” of intent and motivation, in this 50-minute presentation. I began it
by telling them how I came to this thought and system—how being both an artist
and a scholar has led me to rethink the common divergent production-based creativity exercises that are the curriculum for teachers studying creativity. I repeated
some of what I said last month at a similar presentation in Muenster, Germany, at the
European Council for High Ability Conference, when over 50 people attended, for the
last session of the last day of the congress, in a room far away from the headquarters,
in a science classroom on that huge campus. I am still grateful that so many people
sought out that session. I received e-mails later from colleagues in Sweden, Russia,
and Slovenia.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Week in Creativity
My daughter took the day off and drove from Columbus, where she lives
and works, to be with my mother, as I had to be away for 14 hours, for my creativity
class with grad students would meet that night. In class, the students shared focus
question essays; we had been discussing whether creativity has to have a product,
and we continued that discussion. A couple of students created an image of some
idea in the assigned readings from Understanding Creativity and Creativity for 21st Century Skills, and they shared original art and poems. The evening ended with reaction
essays to Meditation Day. All five women were thankful and had a good experience;
Mike’s reaction was negative—to all three venues—he felt cramped and coerced, he
said. Troubled, I drove home the 80 miles. My daughter was grateful for the day with
her grandmother, and I was grateful that my mother was safe in her hands.
My e-mail contained an acceptance for some poems I presented at a poetic
inquiry conference in Bournemouth, UK, last year. I belong to an arts-based research
group and we have biannual conferences. These were poems written at work, and
contained poems like this one:
Here, in the vocational school gymnasium,
We are gathered, I to speak, you to listen.
Or here, in the conference room at the big hotel,
We are gathered, I to speak, you to listen.
Or here, at the university auditorium,
We are gathered, I to speak, you to listen.
I give my generic powerpoint
based on my book which is based on my opinion
and long experience
“How to Parent the Gifted and Creative.”
My 13 points:
• Provide a Private Place for Creative Work to Be Done
• Provide Materials: Musical Instruments, Sketchbooks, Fabric, Paper,
Clay, Technology, Sports Equipment
• Encourage and Display the Child’s Work, but Avoid Overly Evaluating It
• Do Your Own Creative Work and Let the Child See You Doing It
• Set a Creative Tone
• Value The Creative Work of Others
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jane Piirto
Avoid Reinforcing Sex-Role Stereotypes
Provide Private Lessons and Special Classes
Use Hardship to Teach the Child Expression Through Metaphor
Discipline and Practice Are Important
Allow the Child to be “Odd”: Avoid Emphasizing Socialization at the
Expense of Creative Expression
Use Humor
Get Creativity Training
You wait patiently afterwards to speak to me
about your wonderful children.
Don’t you know your very presence here tells me
that they will be all right?
I am glad these idiosyncratic poems have found a home. For the past two
summers I participated in the Upper Peninsula Writers’ Book Tour in my home state of
Michigan, and a couple of my U.P. based poems have been accepted for anthologies
of our writing. So, the literary work goes on, simultaneously with the scholarly and
teaching work.
My mail on Wednesday contained a surprise cheque from an old publisher
for permissions to use something or other from my work on creativity and giftedness.
I was surprised, as I thought that book was dead. There was a contract in the mail, also,
from a press that wants me to edit a book on teaching to intuition. I have gathered
contributors from the arts-based life I’ve led, from the domains of mathematics, physics, general science, social studies, language arts, dance, theater, visual arts, general
elementary classrooms, writing, and the like. Marcy, one of my students in the creativity class, will contribute a chapter. She has noticed that her regular calculus students
solve problems much more creatively than her Advanced Placement calculus students, and is keeping a log of these solutions, to compare, and to make the point that
creativity is often squelched by the prescriptive curriculum of Advanced Placement
syllabi. The book will be one of a kind, and we are all enthusiastic. Its working title is
Organic Creativity, and it will be out in Fall 2013.
Wednesday afternoon I met the honors seminar for the second time. I gave
them a new box of colored pencils and small notebooks for Thoughtlogs. While I went
over the second chapter, I passed out mandalas and ask them to color as we talked, as
doodling and coloring will ensure they retain the material. They read their focus question essays aloud and we talked about the “I” of Inspiration from Nature. We closed
by sharing a time when nature inspired us. Tales of starlit nights, solitary walks, and
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Week in Creativity
swimming bareback on horses ended the class. My sharing was about my solitary
walks in the woods with my dog running loose and free. They were more lively than
the first day; I felt hope.
On Thursday I drove to meet another cohort, a class on counseling and
social emotional needs of the gifted and talented, and one of the students led a dialogue on perfectionism. They were reading my tome of a textbook, Talented Children
and Adults: Their Development and Education. They will take the creativity class next
semester and they are such students that will be challenged as they take it.
I am writing this on Friday. Today I finished reading the new biography of
Leonard Cohen, in which I have taken many notes on his creative process and the
themes in his life, which are similar to those of other creative writers—another part of
my week of creativity. Perfectionism is strong in him. I’m sure I will use examples from
this biography in my future writings and speeches. This has been a typical week, containing many other instances of living a creativity-focused life, but LEARNing Landscapes has asked me for only 2,000 words and I’m over the count.
Piirto, J. (2002). “My teeming brain”: Understanding creative writers. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton
Piirto, J. (2004). Understanding creativity. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Piirto, J. (2007). Talented children and adults:
Their development and education. (3rd Ed.)
Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Piirto, J. (2011). Creativity for 21st century skills:
How to embed creativity into the classroom. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense
Simmons, S. (2012). I’m your man: The life of
Leonard Cohen. Toronto: McClelland &
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jane Piirto
Jane Piirto is Trustees’ Distinguished Professor at Ashland
University in Ohio, USA. She is the recipient of the Mensa
Education and Research Foundation Lifetime Achievement
Award, and the National Association for Gifted Children Distinguished Scholar Award. She has published many articles in
peer-reviewed journals, and is on the editorial board of several scholarly journals. She has received an honorary Doctor of
Humane Letters from Northern Michigan University. She has
taught and worked with students from pre-K to doctoral levels. She is the author of 14 books and 6 chapbooks. Some are
available on Kindle and Nook.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Graduate Research Writing: A Pedagogy
of Possibility
Cecile Badenhorst, Cecilia Moloney, Janna Rosales,
and Jennifer Dyer, Memorial University
Graduates often find conceptualizing and writing long research projects an arduous
alienating process. This paper1 describes a research writing intervention conducted
at Memorial University in Newfoundland with two groups of graduate students (Engineering and Arts). One small part of the workshop was devoted to creative “sentence
activities.” Our argument is that these creative activities contributed to re-connecting
students to themselves as researchers/writers and to others in the group. The activities engaged students in language literally, metaphorically, and performatively.
Introduction and Context
raduate students rarely express their experience of writing research dissertations in enthusiastic terms. For the most part, they convey their experience in terms of anxiety, distress, suffering, agony, and even torture.
The plethora of advice books on how to complete a Master’s or PhD thesis that have
saturated the market are testament to the desperation among many students to find
some compass, some north star, to latch on to and guide them through this journey
(Kamler & Thomson, 2008). Once finally at road’s end, many students express a loss
of confidence after completing their Master’s or PhD dissertation when intuitively
one would expect the opposite. After many years of focussing on a research topic
and hour upon hour devoted to writing, one would expect students’ self-assurance
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Cecile Badenhorst, Cecilia Moloney, Janna Rosales, and Jennifer Dyer
to grow with their increasing content knowledge and expertise. Why is the research
dissertation process defined by struggle? Does it necessarily have to be? What can
be done to change this? At Memorial University, a group of faculty from different disciplines (Education, Engineering and Applied Science, Arts) were drawn together by
these questions. We wanted to explore the possibility of introducing graduate students to new ways of thinking about their research.
Why Is Graduate Research Writing Defined by Struggle?
One key reason why students find writing difficult is because, as Bartholomae (1985) wrote of undergraduate student writing: “Every time a student sits down
to write for us, he[/she] has to invent the university for the occasion” (p. 4). What Bartholomae suggests is that students write within a context that is fluid, evolving, and
constantly changing. Negotiating fluctuating writing discourses is difficult for students, mostly because the requirements are hidden. To be successful, a student needs
to understand the institutional and disciplinary values and expectations. Learning the
secret life of research and research writing happens at a largely tacit level. Language
conventions, required genres, and even thinking styles are often governed by disciplinary norms. Many of these conventions are subtle even to experienced scholars,
yet students are expected to know them without explicit instruction (Parry, 1998).
Universities consist of discourse communities that have ways of structuring writing (genres), ways of doing research, ways of asking questions, and ways of using
language (Cain & Pople, 2011). To participate in a discourse community and to be
taken seriously one must be able read, speak, and write the discourse (Northedge,
2003; Wrigglesworth & McKeever, 2010). Far from being explicit or even stable, these
hidden requirements must seem like “a set of secret handshakes and esoteric codes”
(Sommers, 2008, p. 153), particularly to newcomers. By the time a student reaches the
graduate level, he/she will have divined the writing requirements for an undergraduate degree in some way. When they begin their graduate program, they soon realize
that the rules have changed yet again.
A second reason why graduate writing is defined by struggle is that few programs offer institutionalized graduate research writing courses. Graduate research is
cognitively complex: students are required to undertake research, embark on large
projects, develop conceptual frameworks and, especially for PhDs, contribute to the
knowledge of a discipline or field. Writing in academia, requires not only subjectmatter knowledge or knowledge of genres, but also how to write “convincingly to
expert readers” in the field (Tardy, 2005, p. 325). Students will often receive training in
content areas, and research methodology through prescribed courses. They may get
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Graduate Research Writing: A Pedagogy of Possibility
mentoring through supervision in operationalizing their research and collecting data.
But rarely do they get training on how to pull these disparate areas together. Added
to this, the nature of research itself is chaotic, messy, and multi-faceted. Students are
required to draw threads from the chaos and translate these into a coherent linear
written text without much formal guidance beyond supervision. For this reason,
there are increasing calls in the literature for systematic graduate research training
in a variety of forms (Aitchison, 2009; Clughen & Hardy, 2011; Ens, Boyd, Matczuk, &
Nickerson, 2011; Ferguson, 2009; Haas, 2011; Maher et al., 2008).
Third, a common assumption is that writing is a transparent activity (Parker,
2002). One does research and then writes it up. An “academic literacies” perspective
takes the approach that writing is complex and involves many embedded literacies that are situated in specific contexts (Lea & Street, 2006). Consequently, writing
a research thesis is not merely reporting on research but about making ontological
and epistemological claims (Lillis & Scott, 2007). We perform our academic identity
through our research writing (Hyland, 2002). It is the way we participate in the discourse, how we are positioned by the discourse, and how we negotiate that positioning. Structures of argument, citation practices, and making evaluations on previous
research have underlying epistemological roots (Parry, 1998). What forms of data are
acceptable and how data is valued changes from discipline to discipline and sometimes within disciplines (Badenhorst, 2008). Disciplines and discourse communities
are themselves fluid structures and are continually changing (Parker, 2002). While
writing is about language and skill, it is, indeed, much more.
The “Othering” of Graduate Students
We argue that all of the above contributes to many graduate students experiencing a process of “Othering” when they engage in research writing. Krumer-Nevo
and Sidi (2012) describe Othering as the way moral codes of inferiority and difference
are subtly established over time. It is the “critical discursive tool of discrimination and
exclusion against individuals” (p. 300). Otherness happens through rules of behaviour, conventions, and performance in a discourse. Often the process is seen as neutral and transparent, and becomes accepted as natural. In their study they found four
mechanisms of Othering at work:
1) Objectification is subjugation of individual complexities by ignoring personal
perspectives. The individual person is hidden behind the general features of the
group or cohort.
2) Decontextualization is the detachment from an immediate context of place and
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time. Behaviours become generalized rather than specific responses to particular
3) Dehistorization is the focus on the present. Divorced from personal individual histories, the present becomes distorted.
4) Deauthorization where texts created are supposedly autonomous, objective, and
authorless. Writing is not an author’s interpretation but the views of an omniscient narrator with an external reality.
These mechanisms of Otherness produce “alienation and social distance” (p. 300).
When writing in academic contexts, students are faced with these four
mechanisms of Othering. Personal histories are often subjugated by prevailing discourses on academic writing that promote third-person, distant, passive, objective,
and neutral positions. Conservative, rule-bound conventions characteristic of academic writing (Fulford, 2009; Northedge, 2003) often decontextualize and depersonalize content. Academic writing is often seen by students as impersonal and
dry where they must separate their personalities from their research or writing. The
self must be subordinate to the rigid conventions and authorial anonymity (Hyland,
2002). The process of researching and writing as strictly mediated by the discourse
community is restrictive and “militates against creativity and individuality” (Cain &
Pople, 2011, p. 49).
Krumer-Nevo and Sidi (2012) further suggest that methods to write against
Othering would include using 1) narratives to enable contextualization, historicization, and subjectivity; 2) dialogue which brings together the personal and subjective of the other, and acts against objectification and dehistoricization because the
subject is present; and 3) reflexivity which acts against the (apparent) authoritative
stance of the researcher. Critical reflexivity questions the stance of the researcher as
an all-knowing claimer of truth. When the author demonstrates his/her processes of
interpretation and conclusion-making, it emphasizes the text and writing as personal
and partial. Reflexivity positions the researcher/writer in the text and reveals the
researcher’s “epistemological, ontological, methodological premises” (p. 305).
Krumer-Nevo and Sidi (2012) pose their argument in the context of researchers writing on and of their “subjects,” but we found their work applicable on two levels. First, how students themselves are Othered through academic writing practices
and, second, how students perpetuate that Othering when they write about their
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Graduate Research Writing: A Pedagogy of Possibility
Introducing Creativity
Our research team’s collective history involved many hours of grappling
with how to nurture graduate students as writers within disciplinary constraints and
processes of Othering in contexts where graduate research training is seen as only
necessary in the format of once-off, add-on workshops. How could we incorporate
the complexity, the fluidity, the contradictions, the hidden rules of research writing as
well as the explicit knowledge of genres, argument, research conceptualization and
so many other crucial bits of information and process?
We drew on an existing workshop, which had successfully been applied in
the South African context (Badenhorst, 2007), and adapted it to suit the disciplinary contexts at Memorial (Rosales, Moloney, Badenhorst, Dyer, & Murray, 2012). We
applied for and received funding to pilot the program. The result was an intensive, cocurricular, multi-day workshop. The pilot was conducted with a relatively small cohort
of students from Memorial University’s Graduate Program in Humanities and the Faculty of Arts (A&H) in Fall 2011 (9 participants) and a second offering occurred in Winter
2012 with graduate students from the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science (E)
(13 participants). The 9 and 13 refer to the numbers of students who completed all
components of the workshop. The total number of students attending was 17 in each
offering, 34 in total. Many who attended were international students. Research areas
varied considerably and included sports, poetry, the esoteric, music anthropology,
and philosophy from the humanities group and electrical, computer, process, civil,
ocean, and naval architecture, and mechanical in the engineering group. Each offering of the workshop involved seven mornings of class time, which lasted 3.5 hours
each. The workshop was divided into two parts to simulate two stages of the writing process: composition (Part 1, four consecutive mornings) and revision (Part 2,
three consecutive mornings). Daily homework was assigned to reinforce key learning
points and for students to adapt learning to their own research contexts. Between the
two Parts, participants had about a month to work on the first draft of their chosen
research writing project.
Each of the seven workshop mornings was divided into three sections. In the
first section, the homework from the day before was discussed in groups using specific feedback strategies. In the second section, activities and facilitated dialogue gave
participants information and models on academic discourses relevant to graduate
research (what counts as evidence in the discipline, how arguments work, research
writing genres, etc.). They were also guided through theories of writing and creativity
(process writing, what writing does, why writing is difficult, why creativity is important, identity and writing, how criticism affects writing self-efficacy, how academic
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Cecile Badenhorst, Cecilia Moloney, Janna Rosales, and Jennifer Dyer
writing is situated in a discourse of criticism, etc.). The last part of the morning was
devoted to “play” activities intended to allow and encourage participants to move
out of their usual ways of writing. Students were supplied with a copy of Badenhorst
(2007) which contained materials, notes, and examples. They were also given additional references, and models of research and writing specific to their disciplines.
Creativity was a key theme throughout the workshop. Our purpose was to
present writing and research genres, rules, and conventions but then to introduce
the notions of possibility, choice, and the Self in writing and research. We sought to
encourage flexible minds (Zerubavel, 1995) that would allow students to embrace the
chaos of research rather than to only limit and control it. We carefully chose classroom
settings that were as un-classroom-like as possible and conducive to creative thinking. Tables and chairs were arranged in groups to reflect a more “studio” style of learning. On each table we placed piles of blank coloured paper and a mug of coloured
felt-tip markers. We removed all blue and black markers and asked students to write
only on coloured paper with coloured markers, preferably their favourite colours. We
also asked students to use their paper in “landscape” mode and not the regular “portrait” style. As we explained to participants, the purpose for using coloured paper and
pens was to shift them out of habitual ways of doing things and to move them into
changing their way of seeing their research. Throughout the workshop we asked students to sketch their research, to draw concept maps, to free write, to “play” with their
research ideas.
We talked about Billy Collins’ poem, Introduction to poetry, (http://www.loc.
gov/poetry/180/001.html) where he says “I ask them to take a poem/and hold it up to
the light/like a colour slide.” He ends: “But all they want to do/ is tie a poem to a chair
with a rope/ and torture a confession out it.” We urged students to hold their research
up to the light, turning it this way and that to see how the light shone through it, to
drop a mouse in it and to see which way it crawled out and not torture a confession
out of it. We asked them to write/draw using activities that were metaphorical and
often illogical. Again the purpose was to allow students to “see” their research with
new eyes, to unpack hidden assumptions, and to work through inconsistencies and
Initially some students were sceptical of the activities but over the duration of the workshop they increasingly found value in them. By the end, they happily engaged in a range of creative activities. In part, the success of this component
of the workshop was due to a set of activities, “the sentence activities,” conducted in
the last hour of each day in the first week. It is these activities that we would like to
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Graduate Research Writing: A Pedagogy of Possibility
explain and highlight in this paper. The sentence activities were just one set of activities among many others but they played a crucial role in the workshop.
The Sentence Activities
For the last hour of each of the four days in Part 1 of the workshop, we
introduced students to four sentences: The statement, the question, the exclamation,
and the command. The inspiration for these activities was taken from Paul Matthews,
Sing me the creation (1994), a sourcebook for writing poetry. Matthews argued that
all language circulates around and between these sentence structures. We used the
sentences to focus students’ attention literally on how to construct sentences and
paragraphs, metaphorically on what using these sentences can mean, and also performatively (Austin, 1975) on what these sentences do. Participants were asked to do
the activities quickly and not to think too much or to censor themselves. Specifically,
we talked about self-criticism and how negative inner talk often serves as an editor in
writing, correcting before we have even thought through what we want to say.
The statement.
We began with the statement as it is the sentence that students are generally
most comfortable using. The statement is the comfort zone of academia because it
states, it names, it describes, it defines, and it gives information. Academic writing is
most often about naming and defining. The statement is the voice of reason where a
writer views the world and comes to conclusions about it. Statements are powerful
because it allows a writer to name differences and to state truths (this is a chair, that is
not). The statement, Matthews (1994) argues, aims to be correct and wise: “Statement
is the power that human beings have to name differences, to distinguish between I
and you, dark and light, cat and cabbage” (p. 20).
After explaining the sentence, we asked students to do a number of activities. The activities were drawn from Matthews (1994) and Badenhorst (2007). Only a
sample of activities are included here. We scaffolded the activities by moving from
the concrete to the abstract. We used M.C. Escher’s lithograph “Relativity” (http:// to frame to concrete activities. “Relativity” was selected because
it was a combination of the rational/logical with the chaotic/illogical to help students
relate to the chaotic yet rational research process. The activities moved from “Relativity” to the classroom, to more abstract issues, to their research, and finally to themselves. For example:
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Cecile Badenhorst, Cecilia Moloney, Janna Rosales, and Jennifer Dyer
Write three statements about the Escher lithograph
Write three wise statements and three unwise statements about “Relativity”
Write three truthful statements and three untruthful statements about
Look around the classroom and write a statement that only you can see
Write a statement explaining how this room is different from other rooms
Write a statement of certainty and one of uncertainty
Write a statement on the “big picture” of your research
Write three “I am…” statements.
Students were given between 10-20 of these activities, depending on the
size of the group and how fast they worked through them. Participants were quite
comfortable writing statements and this provided an easy way into these activities
that would continue to push them out of their comfort zones as the days went on.
Despite this, students sometimes found it difficult to do some of the activities. For
example, in writing untruthful statements they would ask: “Am I supposed to do it
like this? Is this right? How do I know?” We did not provide answers or guidance and
reminded them that they were “play” activities and to “let go.” Once the activities were
finished, all groups around a table were asked to read their responses aloud to each
other and to select responses to share with the larger group as a whole. We did not
give criteria for the selection but left it open to the group. We did pose the possibility
that they might want to share the funniest, the most innovative as opposed to the
“best.” We also suggested that if they wanted to share more than one response for
each activity that was fine too. Initially there were many questions around what was
“right,” what they were supposed to do, and what everyone else was doing. By the end
of the week, groups were quite happy to contribute in ways that suited them. After the
group discussions, the groups then shared their chosen responses to the larger class.
The facilitators used this to direct discussion around language, words, academic conventions, and possibilities. For example, what happens when you name something,
when you claim a truth? How do you do this in research? In writing? What counts as
truth in your discipline? For the final activity, each person read his or her response to
the whole group. This served to acknowledge the personal in the researcher/writer
and the groups bonded considerably over these activities.
The question.
The second sentence was the question. The question moves a writer into
uncertainty (Matthews, 1994). The stability of the statement gives way to the ambiguity of the question. Questions cast doubt on truth and are about being receptive and
opening up to a response. They are about possibilities, dialogue, receptivity as well as
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interrogation and cross-examination: “Question implies a quest – to find an answer,
someone to answer us. Without a question we are forever shut out from the inner life
of another” (Matthews, 1994, p. 66). The activities included:
Write three questions about the Escher lithograph
Write three profound questions and three silly questions about “Relativity”
Write three unusual questions about “Relativity”
Write an interrogative question about the room, write an uncertain question
about the room
Write a question that tests the truth of the room
Write an answer on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to hide what you’ve written, pass it to a partner who writes a question without looking at the answer
Write a question and answer about your research
Since questions are about quests, what is your quest in life, research or otherwise. Do a free-write.
The first day’s activities broke the ice and by the second day, students were
much more comfortable doing these activities. We asked students to change tables
and sit with people they did not know or had not worked with before. The atmosphere in the classroom was one of focused concentration interspersed with laughter,
side-comments and joking. Students were asked to provide three sentences rather
than just one because it allowed them to move beyond their initial surface thoughts.
Often the first sentence response was similar in the groups but numbers 2 and 3 were
different. This reinforced the unique nature of individuals, their particular writing
style, and their distinctive voice. Many students were surprised at their responses,
at the uniqueness of their answers, and of how appreciative their audience was of
their writing. Reading the responses aloud was important in helping them hear their
distinct voice even if their responses were similar to others’. The group work provided
a writer/audience context where the students knew they would have an audience
for their writing. The discussion revolved around uncertainty in research, about a dialogue between writers and readers, and about receptivity. The final activity focused
on why participants were doing the research they had chosen, what motivated them,
and what kept them going. This was a powerful and emotional activity but also affirming for individuals, the group, and facilitators.
The exclamation.
The third sentence was the exclamation, the most difficult sentence for
graduate students since most had been schooled not to use exclamations. As Matthews suggested: “Exclamation is language as direct expression of the inner life – to
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clamour, to cry out – its ideal being to sound the heart’s tone truly. So often the voice
of our education insists that we withdraw from talk about our feelings” (Matthews,
1994, p. 94). The exclamation is the outcast sentence in academic contexts because
it is spontaneous and excited. There is no time to think or to formulate correct sentences. It is a form of delight and surprise but also horror. There is no detached third
person author with the exclamation. Exclamation activities included:
Write three exclamations about the Escher lithograph
Write three exclamations of excitement and three exclamations of horror
about “Relativity”
Write three unusual exclamations about “Relativity”
Write a detached exclamation about the room
Write a long exclamation and a short exclamation about the room
Write a heartfelt apology for handing in work to your supervisor late
Write a statement then change it into an exclamation
Write about an “aha! moment” in your research
Exclamations open the heart in wonder. Write about what opens your heart
in wonder (research or otherwise).
Although this sentence was difficult for some students in the context of their
research, most relished these activities and gave full reign to their exclamations. This
sentence opened the discussion on passion in research and why it was important for
writing. We talked about conventions and disciplinary requirements that prevented
any exclaiming sentences in research writing but where one could subtly convey
interest, fascination, and inspiration in writing. We discussed writing with active and
passive verbs and how the passive carries connotations of truth and how active verbs
humanize writing. The final activity, again, focused on the person and made the link
between the individual and the research. Most students expressed a passion for their
research and felt a release at being able to express this.
The command.
The final sentence, the command, is about power, control, and authority.
One commands when one wants to compel, dominate, or to order. Sometimes we
have the right to command. “Command is language as deed, where the sentence is
dynamic, imposing will on the world – not what language says, but what it does,” proposes Matthews (1994, p. 134). We suggested to students that in research contexts,
command is the authority that comes as a result of naming, questioning, and exclaiming. That once we know a research area inside and out, you can claim authority in
writing. To achieve that end, the students were asked to:
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Write three commands about the Escher lithograph
Make an ordinary command and an unusual one of the room
Draw “command”
Write a long command and then change it to a one-word command
Write three male/masculine commands and female/feminine commands
State what you can authoritatively say about your research
Write a paragraph about your research and begin with a command
Some people are naturally statement-makers, or questioners, or exclaimers
or commanders. Which are you? Which sentence are you drawn to?
By this stage students were comfortable in completing these activities and
were no longer surprised at what they were asked to do. They also stopped questioning themselves and would write freely. The discussion here revolved around authority
in writing: who has it, how does one write authoritatively, can one give away authority in writing, and so on. At this point, we also introduced the idea of how we use our
authority as researchers, how we “represent” subjects of research, and whose voices
appear in the writing of research.
The final activity was a reflection on how individuals worked as researchers
and writers. Many of them found this activity surprising and informative. For example,
if students reflected that they were exclaimers, it added to their understanding of
why academic writing was sometimes a struggle.
For each of the sentences, we began by asking all students to stand and walk
around the classroom and say statements, questions, exclamations, and commands
out loud. We wanted them to hear how these sentences sounded and how they
changed depending on content, context, and audience. We also wanted to acknowledge the embodied nature of language and writing. The Arts and Humanities cohort
embraced this activity but the Engineering students found this less enjoyable.
The sentence activities sought to make participants aware of sentences
and words and how they are used in particular contexts (Escher lithograph, room,
research, personally). We hoped they would transfer this awareness into their own
research. We wanted them to “see” sentences with new eyes and not to take them
for granted. We wanted them to see the possibilities and the choices in terms of language, conventions, and personal preferences. We also used the sentences to discuss
issues like the holistic researcher/writer who was not compartmentalized into separate boxes of “home” and “university.” Rather, we wanted them to see how they were
influenced by the type of research they did and their writing processes. The activity,
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“write a statement on something only you can see,” allowed many students to realize
that they did have a unique perspective on the world and to develop the confidence
to use this in their research. Finally, we used the sentences to talk about the process
of doing research and structuring writing: naming, questioning, understanding with
awe, and, ultimately, knowing.
Student Comments
Alongside the workshops, the team conducted research. The key purpose of
the accompanying research was to study the overall workshop pedagogy for its effectiveness in transforming student perspectives of research and writing. The data collected included observations during the workshops, workshop data collection (samples of student work, reflections on activities), pre- and post-surveys, and program
evaluations. We are also in the process of collecting longitudinal interview data to
explore the long-term effects of the workshop intervention over time. We deliberately
did not collect samples from the “sentence activities.” These activities played a crucial
role in building trust, developing group dynamics, and nurturing individuals. We were
cognizant of the damage any form of surveillance could do. Since we were committed to freeing students to write in an uncensored manner, collecting and scrutinizing
their work seemed counter-productive. We did, however, ask students to reflect on
the sentence activities and on the element of “play” in general.
Some students commented on the element of fun and how different this
was from usual emotions they felt when it came to writing:
It [was] enjoyable. There [was] no constraint on my mind. Very relaxed. (Engineering [E])
I think it was a fantastic opportunity to feel free to write whatever I wanted. (Arts &
Humanities (A&H)
I think the sentence activity was very good. I enjoyed it very much. Although it was …kind
of fun but it [was about] different ways of thinking different things. (E)
…the humdrum of daily life and leading the life of a grad student with work, studies, and
social life had taken something out of me completely and this is writing just for the fun
and joy of writing. (A&H)
Others commented on the activities in relation to collegiality and the broader group:
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It was a fun activity … it made everything light and bright. You got to know people, and
how they think. I liked it. (E)
I found that people think differently when they look at the same picture. Some people
think and write about drawing details while others may think about the whole concept
and background idea. It was very interesting that I found it hard to make simple statements…although the drawing was complicated. I did not expect to have difficulty. (E)
The comments below illustrate that participants recognized the multiple layers to the
sentence activities:
Yesterday’s activity was fun and strange! At first glance, it was easy but it was not because
you have to look at things in a different way and also, I found it useful for my last night’s
writing. (E)
Research is serious, to me, but maybe it can also be fun, just like using coloured pens to
write down whatever you want to write on the fancy papers. I am the one who has the
choice/option and can make the decision. (E)
Yes, I am thinking differently. I find using coloured pens and paper useful [smiley face]
at least it makes the hard problem seem friendly and lovely. Now I am confident to write
something and think about something. (E)
Some of the play seems not closely related to writing at first glance, but after reflection
on it. I find the questions asked quite relevant to writing. These questions make me think
about my research and my writing from a different perspective. (E)
Some of the activities opened my eyes to the potential of creativity in writing that I had
not thought possible…I loved the use of the Escher print “Relativity,” really interesting trying to grapple with that one. So many different and interesting men and women in this
workshop from so many different backgrounds as well as cultural backgrounds. (A&H)
I liked [the sentence activities] because I discovered I’m an organic writer that has tried to
be too logical and formal. (A&H)
I enjoyed very much the creativity and the … fun of the writing process. I found it simple,
yet deep as concept and practice. (A&H)
…I feel encouraged to not be afraid to keep submitting creatively researched and creatively written assignments. (A&H)
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Discussion and Conclusion
What we have argued here is that students experience a process of Othering
that separates them from their personal histories, personal interests, and their role as
author with voice in their writing. Students often learn “one way” to write in academic
contexts and writing experiences are defined by few choices. In contexts where many
of the rules are unwritten, obscure, and hidden, it is difficult to gauge right and wrong
ways of writing except through a random process of hit and miss. Constantly being
on guard and under the surveillance of assessment creates writers who are cautious,
conventional, and seek conformity.
Graduate students have the added challenge of pulling together cognitively
complex fields into coherent, linear, lucid research dissertations. Research methodology, content areas, and dissertation writing are rarely grouped together in graduate
research training. We developed a workshop that drew together these threads. One
small aspect of the workshop focused on creativity in writing and thinking about
research. The “sentence activities” played a particular role in the workshop. KrumerNevo and Sidi (2012) suggest that methods for working against Othering include
using 1) narratives, 2) dialogue, and 3) reflexivity. We argue that these sentence activities encompass these three methods.
Throughout the activities, and particularly the final activity of each day, was
an opportunity for students to write their own stories, their own narratives, to contextualize their own experience, and to link their personal identities to their researcher
identities. By reading their writing aloud, participants began to hear their own unique
voice as opposed to a disembodied ventriloquized academic voice, which they had
become accustomed to using in their writing. Working in groups gave these writers an immediate and supportive contextualized audience. Linking research to the
personal, re-connected students to themselves as whole people with histories and a
sense of self. These activities also connected individuals to others in the group.
The sentence activities, although in some senses literal in that students
became aware of sentence structure and construction, were also metaphorical. They
showed what the different sentence types can mean in academic contexts. The truthbearing nature of the statement, for example, was disrupted from its assumed natural
and normal position of power. The dialogue that resulted from the engagement in
what sentences mean in contexts and time and how they can change or be changed
allowed students to see through the “natural” and “normal.” We also opened the discussion on what the sentences do and how they perform academia. Exclamations, for
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example, convey passion and are most often exiled from academic writing. This ongoing dialogue is crucial for students themselves as researchers/writers but also for how
they conduct research and how they “write” their subjects.
The sentence activities also encouraged reflexivity by questioning the
authority of the researcher, how this comes to be written, what alternatives or choices
there are and how one can write differently. Participants had often never thought
through how they came to conclusions or whether their conclusions carried authority. This growing awareness allowed them to make choices on how to conduct themselves as researchers ethically and poetically. The sentence activities showed students
that their unique perspectives were based on “epistemological, ontological, methodological premises” (Krumer-Nevo & Sidi, 2012, p. 305). Awareness of these premises
allowed writers/researchers to see themselves aside and in relation to others and not
merely as an unvoiced monolithic group subject to the dictates of a discourse.
The key outcome of the sentence activities was to surface the self above
rigid conventions and authorial anonymity, to connect that self to others who may be
undergoing similar processes of alienation, to begin a dialogue that connected rather
than Othered, and to encourage a reflexivity where students could recognize the purpose of the activities. While we cannot claim to have reversed the process of Othering
through one short workshop, we feel we have begun a process that would be greatly
enhanced by more systematic institutionalized graduate training programs along
these lines.
1. This research has been supported by an Instructional Development grant from
Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2011-12. Ethical approval for this
research was granted by the Interdisciplinary Committee on Ethics in Human
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Graduate Research Writing: A Pedagogy of Possibility
Cecile Badenhorst is an Assistant Professor in Adult/Postsecondary education in the Faculty of Education, Memorial
University of Newfoundland. Her research focus is on teaching and learning in culturally and linguistically diverse postsecondary contexts, research writing, qualitative research, and
adult learning. A particular area of interest for her is the pedagogy of academic research and writing; she has published
three books in this area: Research Writing (2007), Dissertation
Writing (2008), and Productive Writing (2010).
Cecilia Moloney is a Professor of Electrical and Computer
Engineering with Memorial University. From 2004-2009 she
held the NSERC/Petro-Canada Chair for Women in Science
and Engineering, Atlantic Region (CWSEA). She is currently
directing the MetaKettle Project at Memorial University as a
legacy project from the CWSEA. Dr. Moloney’s research interests include nonlinear signal and image processing methods,
signal representations, human visual perception, radar signal
processing, transformative pedagogy for science and engineering, and gender and science studies.
Janna Rosales works at the intersection of the sciences and
humanities. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Faculty
of Engineering and Applied Science where she studies the social and ethical implications of technology, and teaches in the
areas of ethics, communication, and professionalism. Her work
explores the role that higher education plays in producing
21st century global citizens, with a particular focus on creativity studies, leadership development, and dialogue education.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Cecile Badenhorst, Cecilia Moloney, Janna Rosales, and Jennifer Dyer
Jennifer Dyer
is Assistant Professor of Communication
Studies, Director of the Humanities Graduate Program, and
Interim Director of the Interdisciplinary PhD at Memorial University. Her book Serial Images: The Modern Art of Iteration was
published in 2011. She has also published and presented on
Warhol, Hermeneutics, the aesthetic concept of Play, Francis
Bacon, and semiotics in self-portraiture. She is currently writing a monograph on Art and Everyday Life.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Uprooting Social Work Education
Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral, Ryerson University
In this article, the authors attempt to deconstruct social work education using a metaphor of a “social work tree.” Through reflective dialogue and an arts-based approach,
we critically examined the past, present, and future of social work education. This collaborative art project allows us to visually express the colonial roots of social work
education and the transformation that is possible when its Eurocentric stronghold is
uprooted. We discuss the implications for social work education and suggest ways of
moving forward with an allied approach that bridges the gap between mainstream
and Indigenous social work education.
(Up)rooting social work” is a metaphor we have used to describe a collaborative art project between a social work academic and five undergraduate social
work students in Ontario, Canada. The purpose of the project was to examine
how to bridge the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work to enhance
social work education. Using an arts-based approach, we critically reflected upon social work’s past, present, and future, looking specifically at the colonial stronghold of
Euro-Western knowledge systems, which marginalize and exclude other voices and
perspectives in social work education. We expressed our ideas and hope of bridging
the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work in the creation of a “social
work tree.”
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
This paper builds on a poster presentation that the six authors prepared for
the 2012 Canadian Association of Social Work Education (CASWE) conference held in
Kitchener-Waterloo. Called Breaking down Borders and Bridging the Gap between Mainstream and Indigenous Social Work (CASWE, 2012), this poster presentation unearthed
some insightful and thought-provoking discussions between presenters and conference attendees. For instance, it was evident from the discussions that Eurocentric
knowledge continues to dominate social work education (Baskin, 2005; Dei, 2008;
Dumbrill & Green, 2008; Rice-Green & Dumbrill, 2005; Sinclair, Hart, & Bruyere, 2009).
Further, many schools have not yet considered that bridging the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work is integral to the future of social work education in
Canada. In fact, Indigenous knowledge is given little, if any, legitimate role in higher
education (Sinclair, 2009).
From the positive responses to the poster presentation and our experiences
in constructing it, art appears to be an effective way to stimulate dialogue among students, practitioners, and educators about the past, present, and future of social work
education. The creation of a “social work tree” gave us an opportunity to critically
examine the linkages between theory and practice, disrupt Eurocentric dominance
in the academy, and create space for the inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in social
work education (Baskin, 2008, 2009; Dumbrill & Green, 2008; Hart, 2009; Sinclair et al.,
2009). As we constructed the tree, we furthered our understanding of social work’s
history and objectives of social change. Our collaboration was fuelled by creativity
and the telling of a “marginalized story … one that undermines and destabilizes the
oppressive, contradicting the insinuation of hierarchal and self-preserving meaning
over contextual and anomalous meaning” (Rolling, 2011, p. 100).
We drew upon John-Steiner’s (2006) study with doctoral students to inform
our creative collaboration. In her book, Creative Collaboration, she notes that:
[i]n universities, some of the closest bonds are between professors and … students. In this relationship, we experience the temporary inequality between
expert and novice…. The mentor learns new ideas and approaches from his
apprentice; he adds to what he learns and transforms it. (pp. 163–164)
At different moments and on different aspects of the project, we were learners and
experts collaborating on a project that we believed would help to transform social
work education. We remained vigilant to the power dynamics in the collaborative
process, and worked to build our partnership upon mutual trust, respect, and shared
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Uprooting Social Work Education
This article focuses on an arts-based teaching and learning experience in a
school of social work. As a pedagogical approach, it opened up new possibilities for
us to understand the tensions, contradictions, and opportunities for transformative
learning (Feller et al., 2004; O’Sullivan, 2008) and unlearning (Macdonald, 2002) in
social work education. Transformative learning offers new ways of thinking, acting,
and feeling in order to challenge and resist the forces of domination and inequities in
society. Transformative learning has much in common with critical pedagogy (Freire,
1992; Giroux, 1988), anti-oppressive (Barnoff & Moffatt, 2007), feminists (hooks, 1994),
antiracist (Dei, 2008b; James, 2001) and anti-colonial (Baskin, 2008, 2009; Dumbrill &
Green, 2008; Graveline, 1998; Hart, 2009; Sinclair et al., 2009) approaches to teaching
and learning. As a form of emancipatory practice, transformative learning focuses on
dynamics of power, privilege and oppression that shape how social differences are
experienced and understood (Dei, James, Karumanchery, James-Wilson, & Zine, 2000;
Dei, 2008a; hooks, 1994; O’Sullivan, 2008). It also offers new insights by disrupting the
Eurocentric academic space and unsettling educators’ and learners’ ways of knowing;
challenging taken-for-granted assumptions and dominant discourses in social work
education (Baskin, 2008; Fook, 2002; Foucault, 1978, 1980; Kincheloe, 2004; Macdonald & MacDonnell, 2008; MacDonnell, 2009; Rossiter, 2005).
Through our arts-based collaboration, we interrogated some of the core
concepts, theories, ideologies, values, and practice approaches upon which social
work education was built. We contend that an arts-based project can create spaces
and opportunities for critical inquiry and creativity that allows students and educators to attend to the complex relations of power, informing whose voices and knowledge are authorized and legitimized in the academy and whose are marginalized or
excluded (Cervero, 2001). We drew upon our teaching and learning experiences to
illustrate how an arts-based project can transform social work education. The article
begins with a brief discussion on arts-based approach in social work, and then takes a
brief conceptual detour before moving to a critical examination of social work’s past,
present, and future, through a visual representation of a metaphoric “social work tree.”
The article concludes with implications for social work education.
Arts-based Teaching and Learning in Social Work
The field of arts-based education is characterized by an interdisciplinary
scholarship. Various academic disciplines, including social work, currently confer
notable interest in creativity. In their study of creativity in education, Buckingham and
Jones (2001) describe a “cultural turn”—a shift in thinking where creativity is a key
ingredient for learners in the knowledge economy. As such, educators and students
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Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
are expected to engage in creative teaching and learning methods within the knowledge economy (Craft 2005, 2008; Jones, 2003; Young, 2008).
Like many scholars, we believe that art is a way of knowing, a form of cultural
expression that communicates emotions, skills, and insights (Janesick, 2004; Sullivan,
2005). Art is a method of teaching and learning that promotes creativity and knowledge construction that can lead to social change (Janesick, 2004; Sullivan, 2005).
Wyman (2004) argues that “at their simplest level, the arts . . . bring aesthetic pleasure
and gaiety to our lives. We must never forget that essence of absolute joy, unjustified by any other reason other than its existence” (p.14). Diamond and Mullen (1999)
concede that arts-based learning also needs to be about “thinking imaginatively, performing artistically, and taking a risk” (p. 152). A study by Weitz (1996) reveals that
the arts “offer opportunities for children and youth to learn new skills, expand their
horizons and develop a sense of self, well-being and belonging” (p. 6). Rolling (2011)
describes art-based learning as a journey of discovery, free of “walls, barriers or false
fronts” (p. 100).
Debates continue about arts’ progressive pedagogy, value, and effectiveness in teaching, developing students’ skills, or addressing social issues and social
change (Craft, 2005, 2008; Chang, Lim, & Kim, 2012; Claxton, 2007; Costello, 1995; Gallagher, 1995; Jones, 2010b; MacNeil & Krensky, 1996; Pope, 2005; Sawyer, 2004; Weitz,
1996; Wositsky, 1998). There is also reluctance among some educators to engage in
arts-based education. This may be due to limited experience with the arts or with
alternative methods of learning. Mont (2009) argues that there is a preoccupation
with logical and linguistic-based teaching, failing to acknowledge the similarities
between the arts and rational thinking, or how art education may promote advanced
thinking and inquiry. Further, Hanna (1994) posits that there is a lack of evidence that
arts-based education actually accomplish what it intends. Scholars’ mixed perspectives on arts-based education may also be linked to conservative views of creative
learning as inferior to traditional teaching approaches or a lack of commitment to
standards (Jones, 2003). Such challenges keep arts-based education on the margins
in higher education.
The “Social Work Tree”: Past, Present, and Future
We used the metaphor of a “social work tree” to represent our critical examination of the past, present, and future of social work education. A tree appeared most
appropriate because its roots, trunk, and leaves can metaphorically illustrate social
work’s past, present, and future. Further, because the profession has mostly followed
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Uprooting Social Work Education
a bottom-up, grassroots approach, we can effectively guide the reader through a
visual representation of social work beginning at its roots, and continuing through
the trunk and up to the leaves. The “social work tree” is discussed below in three main
sections: roots, trunk, and leaves (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: “Social work tree”
A Short Detour
Before beginning a critical examination of social work’s past, present, and
future as represented in our “social work tree” above, we take a short conceptual
detour to discuss what we mean by the terms “Aboriginal” and “mainstream social
work” as used throughout this article.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
We use “Aboriginal” as an inclusive term to include Status and Non-status
First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples of Turtle Island. The terms “Aboriginal,” “Native,”
and “Indigenous” are used interchangeably in the literature (Sinclair, 2009; Smith,
2005), and will be used similarly in this article. However, we acknowledge that significant diversity exists in terms of language, culture, tradition, and philosophical belief
(Alfred & Corntassel, 2005; Fire, 2006). As non-Aboriginal scholars, we recognize that
in Canada the term Aboriginal is a legal, cultural, and political term, a label given to
the Indigenous peoples of this land by the Canadian government (Alfred & Corntassel, 2005). As social workers and educators, we also recognize the dangers of using
terms that homogenize Indigenous people despite their diversity.
We follow Baines’ (2007) assertion that “mainstream” social work takes “politics and political awareness out of issues in order to control the issues and those
seeking to make social change” (p. 5). Hence mainstream social work refers to perspectives, policies, procedures and practice approaches that maintain rather than
challenge the status quo. Baines distinguishes “mainstream social work” from “critical
social work,” arguing that in mainstream social work “[i]nterventions are aimed largely
at the individual with little or no analysis of or intent to challenge power, structures,
social relations, culture, or economic forces” (p. 4). The focus is on individual shortcomings, pathology, and inadequacy with much emphasis on medical and psychiatric diagnoses and little concern for social change and transformation.
Bearing in mind that mainstream social work is constructed on Eurocentric
knowledge, and Aboriginal perspectives are not often present in the academy, we set
out to make visible the historical and ongoing colonial influence that are at the roots
of social work education.
(Up) rooting Social Work: Revealing the Hidden to Advance the Future
A tree is dependent on its roots for nourishment (see Figure 2). The health of
the roots determines the health of the tree. The concepts displayed along the roots of
our “social work tree” symbolize the origins of the profession, and the historical legacy
that continue to influence it today. In this section, we discuss the history of social
work through the roots of the tree.
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Uprooting Social Work Education
Fig. 2: “Social work tree – roots”
Since its early beginnings in the 19th Century, primarily in the United States
and England, social work as a profession has its roots in the struggle to eradicate poverty and the problems associated with it (Elliott, 1997; Healy, 2001; Hokenstad, Khinduka, & Midgley, 1992; Jones, 2002; Weiss-Gal, Benyamini, Ginzburg, Savaya, & Peled,
2009). Historically, social work assisted individuals, families, groups, and communities
mainly through charity work (Altman & Goldberg, 2008). From the 1800s, social work
in Canada meant relief for the poor, whose poverty was believed to result from weakness of character. However, the rise of the Industrial Revolution left many in poverty.
The state viewed the poor as a direct threat to social order, and created a system to
support them (Jacoby, 1984). While the system had good intentions, an underlying
motive was social control (Piven & Cloward, 1993; Margolin, 1997).
With the rise of charity movements like Mary Richmond’s Charity Organization Society (Altman & Goldberg, 2008) and Jane Addams’ Settlement House Movement (Lundblad, 1995), social work began to gain more recognition. After World War
II, the profession grew with the expansion of the welfare state and the development
of public services such as health and social welfare, in which social workers were often
employed (Rice & Prince, 2000). The profession grew dramatically in the 1960s and
1970s, as social entitlement to government services became a right to Canadian citizens (Rice & Prince, 2000).
Social work is also rooted in social change and upholding the values of social
justice and equity, as well as advocacy for the poor and the oppressed (Healy, 2008).
However, the profession is not free of flaws and criticisms (Piven & Cloward, 1993).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
The history of Canada is the history of the colonization of Indigenous peoples (Alfred, 2007). Colonialism involves the settlement of territory, the exploitation
or development of its resources and the attempt to govern the Indigenous peoples of
the occupied lands (Boehmer, 1995). As such, social control by a dominant class takes
place through political, economic, and ideological means (Mullaly, 1993). Social work
played a significant role in the colonization process. First, mainstream social work
was, and continues to be, rooted in Eurocentric/Anglo-American values (Gordon,
1994; Katz, 1986; Mink, 1995; Platt, 1969). These values promote capitalism, imperialism and positivism. Eurocentricism is a practice of viewing the world from a European
perspective (Shohat & Stam, 1994). This includes viewing European practices as superior to others, and being largely unaccepting of other ways of knowing.
Colonialism and imperialism have exploited and dispossessed Indigenous
peoples everywhere for hundreds of years (Alfred & Corntassel, 2005). The powerful colonial institutions, whether they are educational, social, or economic, have also
colonized people’s minds. This has led to internalized colonialism and the acquisition
of “white lenses” (hooks, 1992), based on Western values, ways of thinking, and worldviews. These subtle forms of colonization have led many Indigenous individuals to
devalue their own culture and anything connected to it (Alfred, 2007).
Social workers have helped to maintain the colonization of Indigenous
peoples, largely through the residential school system and the “sixties scoop” (AlstonO’Connor, 2010). Thousands of Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential
schools with the stated objective of cultural assimilation into the wider Canadian
society (Blackstock, 2007). Aboriginal children placed in these schools often lost all
meaningful contact with their families and community. The legacy of the residential
school system, which was inherently a form of cultural genocide, continues to negatively impact Aboriginal peoples (Alston-O’Connor, 2010).
As residential schools failed to meet the goals of assimilation, the child welfare system became the new agent of assimilation and colonization (Alston-O’Connor,
2010). The “sixties scoop,” which began in the 1950s, continues (Ball, 2008). A significant proportion of Aboriginal children were and continue to be placed in non-Aboriginal foster and adoptive homes by provincial child welfare agencies (Ball, 2008), which
largely employ social workers. Forced relocation of entire villages, dispersal of clans,
and urbanization have further disconnected Aboriginal children and families from
their communities, languages, livelihoods, and cultures (Sinha et al., 2011). Moreover,
“There are more First Nations children in child welfare care today than at the height of
the residential schools by a factor of three” (Blackstock, 2007, p. 74). Therefore, while
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Uprooting Social Work Education
social work espouses the values of advocacy, human rights, social justice, and equity,
it continues to be a colonial tool of the Canadian state (Healy, 2008).
The roots of the tree illustrate the differing, yet interconnected social work
ideologies and values upon which social work was built (Murdach, 2011). Empowering values such as charity, advocacy, social change, and social justice co-exist with
oppressive ideologies of capitalism, colonization, Eurocentricism, imperialism, positivism, racism, and social control (Healy, 2008). These deeply rooted values and ideologies continue to influence social work education today.
(Up) rooting Social Work: Breaking Down Borders
and Bridging the Gap
The concepts of respect, reciprocity, reflexivity, and resistance were selected
to frame the trunk of our “social work tree” because of their importance in helping to
bridge the gap between mainstream and Aboriginal social work (Fook, 2002; Green &
Baldry, 2008). The applicability of these concepts to both Euro-Western and Aboriginal perspectives makes these central pillars to hold up the trunk of our tree. Like Briskman (2007), we believe that critical and progressive social work has some relevance
to Aboriginal social work, particularly in challenging Eurocentric knowledge systems
in the academy (See Figure 3). The four concepts of critical and Aboriginal social work
that frame the trunk of our “social work tree” are discussed as follows.
Fig. 3: “Social work tree – trunk”
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
Respect is a core social work value and an important principle in Aboriginal worldview (Baskin, 2006; International Association of Schools of Social Work,
2001). We view respect as a central principle in helping to bridge the colonial divide
between Eurocentric and Aboriginal worldviews. To that end, we propose a respectful
inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge and ways of helping into social work curricula. This
is not simply an add-on but a disruption of Eurocentric dominance to make space for
Aboriginal knowledges and approaches in social work (Fire, 2006). For instance, entire
curricula should be infused with content that examines the history of colonization in
Canada, the profession’s role in various state colonial projects, and an emphasis on
decolonization (Baskin, 2006; Fire, 2006; Gair, Thomson, Miles, & Harris, 2002; Lynn,
2001; Weaver, 1999, 2000a, 2000b).
A respectful integration would ensure that Aboriginal peoples and their
diverse knowledge and ways of helping are valued in the academy. A respectful integration should not lead to Aboriginal peoples losing control and ownership of their
knowledge systems. However, it should help Aboriginal students feel more welcome
in an environment which for too long has disrespected, marginalized, and excluded
them (Baskin, 2006; Dei et al., 2000; Fire, 2006). Having respect as a core value and
principle in mainstream social work can help safeguard against appropriation and
misappropriation of Aboriginal knowledge in the academy.
Reciprocity is a guiding ethical principle within Aboriginal worldview (Lawless, 1992). Reciprocity refers to an exchange; a two-way process of “consistently giving and receiving” (Baskin, 2009, p. 140; Lassiter, 2001, Lawless, 1992). We believe this
concept is useful in bridging the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social
work education. For example, reciprocity disrupts the mainstream discourse of faculty member as the “expert” and “creator” of knowledge who dispenses information
to “passive” and “unknowing” students (Freire, 1983, 1995; Scollon, 1981). It challenges
faculty members to be open; to being vulnerable and experience the ambiguities,
uncertainties, and complexities of the real world (Parton & O’Byrne, 2000a; 2000b).
In reciprocal relationships, educators, researchers, and practitioners share knowledge, control, and power in the teaching, learning, research, and helping processes
so that everyone learns and grows from the exchange (Lassiter, 2001; Lawless, 1992;
Scarangella, 2002). The principle of reciprocity requires faculty members to be open
to collaborating and co-creating knowledge with students, and involve them in tasks
that build their own knowledge and skills (Barnhardt, 1986). When relationships are
built on reciprocity, they are empowering, and mutual trust and respect are easily
developed (Baskin, 2009).
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Uprooting Social Work Education
Reflexivity is a multidisciplinary term with varied meanings and interpretations in the literature, and is often confused with reflectivity and reflection; and the
terms are sometimes used interchangeably (D’Cruz, Gillingham, & Melendez, 2007;
Fook, 2002; Fook & Askeland, 2006; Mosca & Yost, 2001; Rea, 2000; Payne, 2005; Ryan
& Golden, 2006). Jones (2010a) defines reflection as “a process of critically examining
one’s past and present practice as a means of building one’s knowledge and understanding in order to improve practice” (p. 593). Fook (2002) refers to reflexivity as a
critical “stance of being able to locate oneself in the picture, to appreciate how one’s
own self influences the research act” (p. 43). Other scholars argue that “[r]eflexivity
involves the capacity to develop critical awareness of the assumptions that underlie
practice” (Edwards, Ranson, & Strain, 2002, p. 533) and an interrogation of our role
and contribution to the construction of knowledge and meaning making (Campbell,
2004; Taylor, 2006). Importantly, reflexivity entails a critical examination of our own
subjectivities and social locations (Ali, 2006; Golombisky, 2006; Gray, 2008; Mauthner,
2000; Suki, 2006), and the role that emotions play in the work we do with people
(D’Cruz et al., 2007; Miehls & Moffat, 2000). Thus while both reflection and reflectivity allow for the casting of a critical gaze upon practice through reflection in and on
action (Fook, 2002; Schon, 1983, 1987), reflexivity is much more complex because it
implicates individuals in the work they do (D’Cruz et al., 2007; Edwards et al., 2002;
Ruch, 2002).
Reflexivity was selected for the trunk of the tree because it shares similarities with an Aboriginal perspective of exploring the self—of turning inwards to continuously find meaning to enrich our lives and the work we do with people (Baskin,
2006; Ermine, 1995; Fook, 2002). In Aboriginal worldview, there is an acceptance of
introspection, of journeying inward to find meaning through prayer, fasting, ceremonies, silence, and so on (Baskin, 2006). As Willie Ermine (1995) states, “Aboriginal epistemology speaks of pondering great mysteries that lie no further than the self” (p. 108).
As a critical approach to practice, reflexivity requires the social worker to situate the
self in the work, recognize the influence of self on people and contexts, question and
acknowledge power relations, and challenge and resist various forms of domination
to bring about social change (Cosgrove & McHugh, 2000; D’Cruz et al., 2007; Fook,
White, & Gardner, 2006; Parton & O’Byrne, 2000a; Ruch, 2002; Schon, 1983, 1987;
Sheppard, Newstead, Di Caccavo, & Ryan, 2000; Speer, 2002; Taylor & White, 2000).
Thus reflexivity is central to bridging the gap between mainstream and Aboriginal
social work.
Resistance is an important concept in both mainstream and Aboriginal social
work (Baskin, 2006; Fook, 2002; Lynn, 2001; Turiel, 2003). It can simply be understood
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Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
as an act of rule breaking, non-compliance or an oppositional act that contests institutional power and dominant cultural norms to uncover and confront issues (Darts,
2004; Singh & Cowden, 2009). Acts of resistance may vary from clients refusing treatment to progressive social workers forming alliances with Aboriginal people or social
and political movements such as anti-capitalist and anti-globalization activists to
bring about social transformation (Baines, 2007; Mullaly, 1997).
Aboriginal peoples have and continue to resist colonization and domination, often by refusing to participate in the Euro-Canadian education system and in
Westernized social services (Baskin, 2006; Simpson, 2001; Sinclair et al., 2009). By not
participating, Aboriginal peoples demonstrate their resistance to state control, a process that is unacceptable for the ways it negates the sharing of power and inclusion
of Aboriginal values and knowledge (Simpson, 2001). As social workers and allies with
Aboriginal people, we know our participation is essential in the struggles for re-claiming Aboriginal land, languages, and politics (Dei, 2002).
The creation of a “social work tree” was itself an act of resistance to mainstream social work, which continues to marginalize Aboriginal people and their
world­views. We recognize that very little attention is given to Indigenous knowledges in mainstream social work education. Our aims as allies are to challenge this
invisibility and marginality, further develop our understanding, and help to advance
Aboriginal social work in Canada. We believe that resistance can sharpen our collective understanding of the ways individuals and groups challenge dominant cultural
material and social determinants (Dimitriadis, 2011).
We believe that resistance can uproot social work’s colonial history and challenge Eurocentric practices that have become routinized and standardized in social
work (Baines, 2008). The very act of selecting concepts for inclusion and removal from
our “social work tree” was an act of resistance. Through critical de-construction and
reflexivity, we engaged in a process of “meditating upon blindness, the invisible, the
unseen, the unseeable, [and] the overlooked”—a “visual culture resistance” (Darts,
2004, p. 319).
(Up) rooting Social Work: Creating Space and Building Hope
for the Future
We have considered the roots, trunk and now we focus on the leaves of our
“social work tree” (see Figure 4). The leaves depict the current approaches in social
work education and our vision of the future. The leaves reflect the colours of the Medicine Wheel: red, white, black, and yellow. As Thomas and Green (2007) explain:
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Uprooting Social Work Education
the red quadrant, focusing on spirituality and new beginnings; the black
being the direction of the physical being, sharing of knowledge and
strengthening of community; the white representing the mentality, focused
on change, re-thinking, re-evaluating; and finally the yellow quadrant the
direction of the emotional being, a time of learning, warmth, and growth.
(pp. 92–93)
Many Aboriginal people approach health and wellness through the four quadrants,
the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual, to maintain balance between the self,
other living things, and Mother Earth (Lavallee, 2007).
Our project follows a similar philosophical aspiration as the Wheel—that
all aspects of social work, regardless of differences, are interrelated. As Thomas and
Green (2007) argue, the Wheel “has no beginning and no end and teaches us that
all things are interrelated” (p. 2). The Wheel suggests a continuum, unlike the linear
thinking of mainstream social work which often proceeds in separate and disconnected ways.
Fig. 4: “Social work tree – leaves”
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Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
The leaves of the “social work tree” represent the diverse elements of both
mainstream and Indigenous social work. The red leaves represent the current concepts, values, theories, and practice approaches that are prevalent in mainstream
social work. Some of these are anti-oppression and empowerment, postmodernism/
poststructuralism, identity/discourse. Due to space limitation, only a few are discussed here. The mainstream concepts that we suggest be removed from social work
education are cultural competency, neo-liberalism, standardization, diagnosis, and
the medical model. These are depicted by the falling leaves from the tree.
Anti-oppressive practice refers to a framework which addresses structural
and systemic inequalities and social divisions in the work with clients (Healy, 2005).
It is a “person-centered philosophy, an egalitarian value system and a focus on process and outcome” (p. 179). Anti-oppressive practice has a significant impact on social
work education, research, and practice, allowing opportunities for major societal and
structural change (Burke & Harrison, 1998; Dalrymple & Burke, 1995; Dominelli, 2002;
Lynn, 1999; Mullaly, 2002; Payne, 1997; Razack, 1999). Holding true to its empowerment model, an anti-oppressive approach is crucial in eradicating oppression and
bridging the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work.
The perspectives of poststructuralism and postmodernism also hold importance in mainstream social work education. Postmodernism “involves a critique of
totalising theories and structures, boundaries and hierarchies which maintain and
enact them” (Fook, 2002, p. 12). It holds the ideological perspective that there is no
neutrality and no one truth; rather there are multiple realities and ways of knowing
(Fook, 2002). Poststructuralism is linked to postmodernism, and posits that multiple
meanings and interpretations always exist (Fook, 2002). Postmodernist and poststructuralist perspectives recognize power as the major contributor to inequality
and challenge the colonial teachings that govern social work education. As Foucault
(1980) describes, “power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain
strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (p. 93).
Other perspectives that also contribute to the growth of our “social work
tree” are strengths theory, constructivism, task-centered practice, crisis intervention,
and the solution-focused perspective. As social work continues to pull away from
its colonial past, it needs to question, challenge, and uproot dominant mainstream
perspectives to make way for Indigenous and Other ways of knowing in social work
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Having discussed the mainstream concepts represented by the red leaves,
we now discuss the concepts that support an allied approach. These are social justice,
social action and self-reflection (to name a few), as represented by the black leaves.
We believe an allied approach can help to bridge the gap between mainstream and
Indigenous social work education.
Social justice is described as an “organizing value of social work” (Swenson,
1998, p. 527). Importantly, the value of social justice “requires that practitioners pay
careful attention to their own experiences of oppression and of privilege or domination” (p. 532). Van Soest (1995) argues that social justice involves three components:
“legal justice, which is concerned with what a person owes to society; commutative
justice, which is concerned with what people owe each other; and distributive justice,
which is what society owes a person” (p. 1811). As a central value of social work education, social justice can help to inform an allied approach.
As discussed earlier, the process of self-reflection is “underpinned by a reflexive stance” (Fook, 2002, p. 43). “Critical reflection focuses on change in individuals and
has been linked to an agenda for social change through collective action” (D’Cruz
et al., 2007, p. 87). The purpose of reflective practice is to “close the gap between
what is espoused and what is enacted” (Fook & Gardner, 2007, p. 24). In this way, selfreflection can be utilized to bridge the gap between theory and practice; between
mainstream and Indigenous social work by transforming our social justice values into
social action. This firm link between social justice, self-reflection, and action is useful
in developing an allied approach.
Fook and Gardner (2007) also stress the importance of context within reflective practice, stating that “there needs to be a readiness to respond to what might
be new or different about these contexts” (p. 25). They also suggest an “awareness of
different perspectives…[and] an emphasis on a holistic approach…and the sorts of
knowledge that support relevant practice in complex and unpredictable situations”
(p. 26). An allied approach between Indigenous and mainstream social work now
exists in some schools of social work but further challenge is needed to push the
boundaries to a framework of decolonization.
The yellow leaves represent Aboriginal values that are beginning to be
incorporated into social work curricula. These leaves represent concepts such as storytelling, sharing circles, wholism, and holistic methods of healing. The use of sharing circles in Indigenous cultures is a rich form of communicating and capturing an
individual’s experiences (Lavallée, 2009). Sharing circles demonstrate the power of
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Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
storytelling and has influenced mainstream practices such as narrative and art-based
therapy. A healing journey may capture the benefits of being close to nature and elements which heal: “connecting to the land and earth, and using symbolism, such as
holding a rock and or being close to soothing water” (Sinclair et al., 2009, p. 137). The
cultural practice of smudging, which involves the burning of sacred plants such as
sage and sweetgrass, can also aid in cleansing a room, people, and/or objects (Lavallée, 2009). Such practices are empowering, and allow for “expressing oneself, establishing a connection with nature, engaging in traditions and participating in ceremonies demonstrates the resilience of Aboriginal people and resilience of Indigenous
culture” (Sinclair et al., 2009, p. 138).
Our “social work tree” was created to uproot the colonial stronghold of EuroWestern perspective in mainstream social work and to make space for Aboriginal
knowledge in the academy. As allies with Aboriginal people, what we strive for in
institutions of education is a “synthesis” of knowledges, which Dei (2002) describes as:
shifting to a restructured and re-constituted space where issues of knowledge content and physical representation are addressed in ways to acknowledge the multiplicity of human ideas [and] [a]n educational practice that
leads to systemic change rather than a remedial patchwork of unsustained
efforts. (p. 9)
We must continually be mindful that our role as allies is to work with Aboriginal people but ultimately, “Indigenous peoples must own their past, culture and traditions
… and use Indigenous knowledge as a basis for contributing to the universal knowledge system” (p. 10). We can support a decolonizing framework in our classrooms by
integrating critical, anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and anti-colonial perspectives in our
curricula and programs until they become a way of life (Thomas & Green, 2007). As
we let go of colonial frameworks in education, and embrace marginalized voices and
perspectives, the social work profession will grow and flourish.
“(Up) rooting Social Work”: Implications for Social Work Education
In this article, we discussed a collaborative arts-based project, which we
have called a “social work tree.” Through this metaphor, we have shown social work’s
past, present, and future, paying special attention to the colonial stronghold of EuroWestern knowledge systems in social work education, and suggest ways of moving
forward with an allied approach that bridges the gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work education.
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Using art and the metaphor of a “social work tree,” we have visually shown
how social work education was deconstructed from its historical roots, powerful trunk,
to the flourishing leaves of the tree. This arts-based approach allowed us to engage
creatively and critically with the tensions, contradictions and complexities of social
work history. The aim was to show how mainstream social work education has been
influenced by colonialism and Euro-Western knowledge systems, to the exclusion of
other voices and perspectives. A further aim was to make visible how mainstream
social work education could benefit from integrating Aboriginal and other diverse
perspectives into its curricula and program. Social work educators can play a critical
role in challenging Eurocentric knowledge systems and create space for Aboriginal
and Other knowledges to be integrated into social work curricula (Thomas & Green,
2007). Creating space for marginalized voices and perspectives is a challenge for the
We resisted using dominant modalities of plain text for our critical deconstruction of social work education, and instead utilized shapes, colours, pictures, and
textures to illustrate our ideas and vision of social work. Through our visual and critical analysis, we have shown the colonial stronghold of Euro-Western knowledge systems in social work education. We have also shown that the legacy of colonization
continues to be a reality for Aboriginal peoples in Canada (Weaver, 1999; Thomas &
Green, 2007; Sinclair et al., 2009), emphasizing a need for ongoing advocacy and resistance by Aboriginal people and allies. By making visible the roots of social work, we
hope to uproot the colonial perspectives upon which social work education was built.
The concepts of respect, reciprocity, reflexivity, and resistance that are represented in the trunk of our “social work tree” illustrate our attempt to bridge the
gap between mainstream and Indigenous social work education. These concepts
can help us engage in a process of “decolonizing education” (Battiste, Bell, & Findlay,
2002). They can also be utilized as strategies for uprooting and resisting Eurocentric
dominance in the academy and make way for marginalized and excluded voices and
Having respect as a core value and principle in mainstream social work
education can help to advance the profession’s position against colonialism and
safeguard against appropriation and misappropriation of Aboriginal knowledge in
the academy. Reciprocity disrupts the mainstream discourse of “expert knowledge”
(Freire, 1983) in social work education so that marginalized voices are acknowledge
and valued. Both reflexivity and resistance aim to challenge social work education
by requiring social workers to implicate the self in the work they do with people
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(D’Cruz et al., 2007; Fook, 2002) and resist colonization and Eurocentric dominance
in Western social service practices (Baskin, 2006; Simpson, 2001; Sinclair et al., 2009).
The leaves of our “social work tree” reflect our critiques, ideas and hope for
the future of social work education. We used red leaves to represent mainstream
social work, black leaves to support an allied approach, and yellow leaves to represent
Aboriginal values that have begun to be incorporated into social work education. By
letting go of certain concepts, theories, and practice approaches, we envision a future
where Aboriginal and Other knowledges are acknowledged, respected, and valued in
social work education.
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Jennifer Clarke, Olivia Aiello, Kelsen Chau, Zakiya Atcha,
Mariam Rashidi, and Stephanie Amaral
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Jennifer Clarke is an Assistant Professor in the School of
Social Work at Ryerson University. Her research interests are in
the areas of anti-racism and equity issues in schooling; schooling experiences of marginalized and racialized youth; educational policies, including “zero tolerance” and school safety;
newcomer youth settlement; child welfare; and social work
field education, specifically alternative and innovative models of field education. Jennifer teaches courses in social work
theory and practice, anti-oppression and human diversity and
power, resistance and change.
Olivia Aiello is presently pursuing her MSW at Ryerson University. Her research focus and interests surround her passion
for yoga and alternative methods of healing. She is concentrating her MRP on utilizing yoga as a method of healing for
young women experiencing eating disorders. Olivia’s passions
for yoga and holistic methods to wellness have been close to
her heart since beginning her yoga practice four years ago.
Further interests include community work with youth, Indigenous knowledge and healing, and art-based practices.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Uprooting Social Work Education
Kelsen Chau
graduated from Ryerson University with a
Bachelor of Social Work. He is currently completing a Master
of Social Work (MSW) at the University of Toronto. His frontline work experiences have been in the field of mental health,
public relations, communications, ethics review, research, program planning, and consultation. Kelsen is passionate about
social service administration, program evaluation, and working with youth, and is involved with a number of Torontobased organizations on a diversity of boards and committees.
Zakiya Atcha is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work
at Ryerson University. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work and
a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Jurisprudence. She has a
background working with children and youth in the fields of
mental health, education, and the legal system. Her research
interests include ethics and values in research and practice,
critical discourse analysis, social policy, the judicial system and
critical perspectives in knowledge production.
Mariam Rashidi is currently pursuing a Master of Social
Work degree at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at
the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work
from Ryerson University. Her research interests include Indigenous social work practice, decolonization, and working with
racialized immigrant communities.
Stephanie Amaral
is a recent graduate of Ryerson University, School of Social Work. She holds a Bachelor of Social
Work, and plans on pursuing a Master of Social work in the
next academic year. Stephanie’s research interests are in the
areas of children’s mental health and child welfare. Stephanie
plans to pursue a career in child welfare, specifically in the area
of adoption.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative
Keely D. Cline, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Carolyn Pope Edwards, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Alga Giacomelli, Filastrocca Preschool
Lella Gandini, Liaison, Reggio Children
Donatella Giovannini, Infant/Toddler Services, Pistoia
Annalia Galardini, Crescere
In this article,1 we explore how the library teacher of an Italian preschool with a special
mission focused on books, stories, and the imagination uses group literacy activities
as a context for encouraging shared meaning making through creative experiences.
We take readers inside one day at the Italian Preschool, Filastrocca, providing detailed
descriptions and analysis of interactions and activities. We suggest that elaborate extended dialogue among children and the teacher, promotion of empathy through
opportunities to take others’ perspectives (including book characters’), and group engagement in shared and multi-faceted creativity are important characteristics related
to meaning making in the context of relationships. Encouraging creative exploration
and play across all domains of intelligence allows the children to develop their individual strengths into a product uniquely theirs.
Empathy means the “right time.” The important thing when we share daily life
with children (in particular when we share moments in play) is not necessarily
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
to reach an important “truth,” but instead to be able to encounter one another,
listening without misunderstanding, without overriding the other’s meaning, in
harmony based on deep, mutual familiarity.
-- Donatella Giovannini, pedagogical coordinator with Pistoia, Italy
early education system (in Galardini & Giovannini, 2001, p. 98)
… [W]ith the acquisition of speech and narrative capacities, the young child, by
engaging in playful dialogues, develops imaginative capacities in which alternatives for action can be represented and expressed. Envisioning alternatives
for action and multiple perspectives is a central part of the Italian experience,
and it is considered by most to be an important moral sensibility.
-- Robert M. Emde, MD, in his Foreword to Bambini: The Italian
Approach to Infant/ Toddler Care (2001, p. xi)
Empathy, the awareness of another being’s feelings; the ability to take up
another being’s point of view. We nurture empathy when we practice seeing the
world from new and unfamiliar perspectives. Looking from a window, not into a
mirror, we see another being’s point of view, we imaginatively enter into another
being’s experience, we feel the pulse and throb of another being’s heart.
--Ann Pelo (In press)
oung children are driven to learn about and understand their world. Indeed, many educators suggest that the role of meaning making, or comprehension, in children’s literacy development should be given more emphasis in educational and research communities. As part of their model of “emergent
comprehension,” Dooley and Matthews (2009) describe interactions among adults
and peers as the context in which children learn to also interact with objects—such as
books—to make meaning. This shared experience spanned over time allows children
to build expectations that text has purpose and meaning (Dooley, 2011). In a qualitative case study of the learning environment at an Italian preschool, Scuola Comunale dell’Infanzia La Filastrocca (“Nursery Rhyme”), we concluded that this particular
school combined storytelling, imagination, and family involvement in an innovative
and unique way to create a coherent, legible school environment (see Edwards et
al., in press). We suggested that Filastrocca’s environment promotes a community
context for “emergent comprehension,” in that interaction among children and adults
encourages children to explore possibilities and look for the meaning contained in
books and environmental print (Dooley, 2011; Dooley & Matthews, 2009). Consistent with Dooley and Matthews’ suggestions, Filastrocca’s library teacher adopted an
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
approach to supporting children’s literacy development that focused not on basic skill
preparation (e.g., decoding), but emphasized the role of meaning making through
creative activity in the context of social-emotional relationships.
This paper focuses on Filastrocca Preschool, which has been among the Pistoia, Italy, schools and centers studied by visitors and researchers interested in the
progressive and innovative Italian early childhood education practices (e.g., Barrs,
2007; West, 2008). Filastrocca, originally established in 1970 under the name of Fornaci (“Furnaces”), served 119 children aged 3-6 from a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood in 2010 (see Edwards et al., in press, for a historical overview and
in-depth description). The purpose of this paper is to expand upon our original case
study and further explore Filastrocca practices, specifically through providing readers
a glimpse of how literacy activities are carried out in a way that promotes emergent
literacy skills and creative growth through collective imagination and through fostering empathy for peers and others. Fostering empathy has always been an explicit
value of the early educational system of Pistoia (Edwards & Gandini, 2001), drawing
on attachment theory, especially as put forward by Emmi Pikler at the Loczy Institute
in Budapest, Hungary (David & Appelli, 2001). In this article, we describe and analyze
a book-reading discussion and related activity observed during a 2006 visit to Filastrocca. These interactions involved a group of five-year olds and the library teacher
Alga Giacomelli, a master educator in the domain of literacy, who was influential for
decades in establishing and guiding the preschool’s mission focused on books, stories, and the imagination.
Many visitors of the Pistoia schools and centers have been delighted by Filastrocca’s distinct school culture and environment (Barrs, 2007; Edwards et al., in press;
West, 2008). In this paper, we take readers inside one day at Filastrocca by providing
a description and analysis of a reading conversation and related activity focused on
the class’s exploration of Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider (1984), translated into Italian.
It is noteworthy that the Filastrocca community has a special interest in Eric Carle; the
author has established a presence in the Tuscan region over the last decade through
projects designed to stimulate children’s interest in books by introducing his works to
teachers, educators, parents, and librarians. The interactions described in this paper
occurred not long after Eric Carle made a special visit to the school to share about his
Filastrocca’s approach to sharing books with children involves a three-stage
process, first introducing a book by reading it in narrative style, and then continuing exploration with additional, interactive readings of the same book and extended
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
experiences that help promote understanding and support creativity (e.g., dramatic
play, painting, drawing, collage, theatre, etc.). The observation described in this paper
captures the Filastrocca preschool class’s second reading of The Very Busy Spider. The
day before, they had read the book for a first time with Alga and started work on a
project of constructing their own copies of The Very Busy Spider, involving creating a
cover and inside pages of the book.
As will be presented, the rich interactions described below demonstrate
several salient features related to the relationship-focused approach at Filastrocca:
elaborate extended dialogue among children and the teacher; promotion of empathy
through opportunities to take another’s perspective, including book characters; and
group engagement in shared creativity. This creativity also honors children’s multiple
intelligences, or “frames of mind,” in the theory of Howard Gardner (1983). Children
are encouraged to
…find their way to learn across the wide variety of approaches that are
offered them, without there being any pressure or favour for one approach
over another. The recognition of differing characteristics [of children]
encourages a variety of learning styles … The skill of the teacher is in the
balancing out of the differing interests and ideas that the children bring to
the group in order to arrive at a consensus, that will be taken up with enthusiasm by all the members. (West, 2008, p. 8, speaking of Gardner’s theory in
relation to the pedagogy she observed in Pistoia.)
As we shall lay out in the discussion section of the paper, the learning experiences
at Filastrocca cultivate all of the different intelligences of children, especially (with
respect to this literacy encounter) linguistic, interpersonal, and visual-spatial, but also
intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, and musical. We suggest that
the interactions in the interactive reading and follow-up book-making experience
support shared meaning making through creative activity.
The Literacy Experience
And here begins the story: setting the stage.
Alga uses familiar rituals to start literacy interactions and activities in Filastrocca’s library, officially named Sfogliando l’Arcobaleno, or Paging (Leafing) through the
Rainbow, but called the Rainbow Library by the children. Part of the children’s library
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
routine is to have their hands stamped with a red heart, a symbol associated with the
children’s system for rating library books (more hearts = liking the book more). When
children return home from preschool with a heart stamped on their hands, parents
know their child has been to the Rainbow Library that day. Children also engage in a
group conversation before reading and engaging in literacy activities. The following
describes interactions following the hand-stamping and discussion. Readers should
also see the linked “photo story” (
documents/Filastrocca_Preschool.pptx) that illustrates the activities through photographs and textual description.
With the book propped up in her lap, Alga announces to the group
of children sitting in the circle of youth-sized chairs that they need to wait for
Nicolo, another student who has run an errand, to return before they start
reading. She then indicates that she also needs another student to go to
the kitchen and relay a message to the staff. A couple of students volunteer,
“Me!” but Alga says she needs a “big” child who can complete this errand that
is a “little difficult,” and requests Bianca’s assistance. Just as Bianca is making
her way out of the circle to run her errand, Nicolo returns.
“Go Nicolo,” Alga prompts him to join his classmates. As Nicolo
takes a seat, Alga initiates the activity. “First we have to sing our song, right?”
she asks. Then laying the book in her lap, she starts to sway from side to
side, rhythmically chanting, “Once upon a time there was a king sitting on
a sofa that said to his woman, ‘tell me a story.’” The children join in saying
the words. One boy taps his foot to the rhythm of the chant. “And the story
began, once upon a time there was a king” Alga begins. Then crinkling her
face in an expression that suggests she has just said something ridiculous,
Alga exclaims, “Not a king!” “Who was it?” she asks as she holds up the book
for the children to see.
“A spider!” the children respond. “A little spider,” Alga confirms, smiling. Still holding the book, Alga
asks the child what they should do. Should they wait for Bianca to return
before they start? A few sounds of disappointment come from the circle of
children. Putting her hand up as if to motion, “Stop,” Alga responds, “No, let’s
go slowly and calmly,” as she opens up the book. “What could be written
here on this little page?” asks Alga as she follows the words on the title page
with her finger. One child speaks louder than the others to reply, “The little
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
“The little spider says Pietro,” Alga repeats as she turns back to the
cover of the book and points to the picture of the red and green spider.
Opening the book again, Alga says, “And here begins the story.” As she reads
the words on the first page, her voice is not the only one that can be heard.
A few children are trying “read” along with the teacher, saying the same
words as Alga. Another little voice is making a comment or asking a question, but is drowned out by the surrounding, enthusiastic noise.
Developing empathy: making spider thread and being “a little bit like a
Alga helps to transport children into the world of the spider by allowing
them to pretend to do what spiders do, make threads of web. This full exploration of
the character and topic has the potential to promote the widening of the children’s
perspective, which in turn may aid in their ability to engage with the story, topic, and
representation through creative activity.
After Alga finishes reading the text about the spider on the first
page, Nicholas spontaneously asks, “Why does he get stuck like that?”
“Do you remember, Nicholas? Let’s show them we can make a
thread.” Alga prompts. Nicholas is not the only child to respond to Alga’s
request. Several children put their hands to their mouths, collecting saliva
between their thumbs and pointer fingers. Once they have enough saliva,
they hold out their hands, displaying their ability to create thin “threads” of
saliva that string between their thumbs and pointer fingers. Based on their
quick responses to the teacher’s request to make spider web threads, it
would appear that these children have tried this before. Children smile and
laugh as they make their own spider web thread.
The children are still collecting saliva between their fingers when
Alga says, “But Giulio was saying something important. He was saying that
the spider’s saliva is a special saliva. Right? Tell us why it is a special saliva.”
“Because we can’t do what a spider does,” responds Giulio. “We cannot make a spider web,” Alga reiterates. This prompts a discussion among
the children and teacher, with their comments sometimes overlapping.
“We are kids,” says one child.
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
“Let’s do what kids know how to do,” suggests Alga.
“We can’t do what the animals do,” says Giulio.
“We’ll do what men and children know how to do. Even the animals
don’t know how to do what we know how to do,” says Alga. Several children
excitedly respond with their comments, prompting Alga to say, “Let’s speak
one at a time, otherwise we can’t hear Pietro. What did you want to say?”
“Yes to everyone, we can do like this,” Pietro responds, making a
funny face, sticking out his tongue. Several children laugh and imitate Pietro.
Alga, too, laughs, and then makes an attempt to redirect the conversation to
spiders again, “But, like spiders do, you don’t know how to.”
“Or like a bunny,” says Pietro.
“Or like a bunny,” Alga repeats. Alga makes yet another attempt to
redirect the conversation toward spiders. “But, Nicholas showed us before
that he knows how to be a little bit like a spider. A little piece of thread. Little,
little,” says Alga, pointing to Nicholas and motioning how to make thread
between her thumb and pointer finger (yet not using saliva).
“Me too!” respond several children and a little chatter goes on.
Not leaving anyone out: starting over for a single child.
Alga communicates the importance of each individual child when she starts
the activity over for a single student.
Looking down at the book and then back up at the children, Alga
asks, “Can we start because Bianca is here?” Bianca had returned a few minutes earlier and is now seated in one of the chairs. The children are still talking about their spider thread, saying, “A little bit! A little bit!”
“A little bit. Okay,” responds Alga. “Bianca, sit here and we will start
all over for you.” Bianca is already seated, but Alga makes a special point to
emphasize that they are “starting over” for her.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
Reading… and interacting.
Alga’s style of interacting with children in reading and discussion is characterized by high levels of animation and enthusiastic engagement.
Now that they are “officially” started, Alga proceeds with the activity. The children attentively listen as she reads, “The splendid sun is shining.
The wind is blowing. Blowing already in this good morning. It brings with it
a spider in a field. The spider gets stuck on a fence and starts to build a spider
web. A horse arrived and said, ‘Hee-eee, hee-eee, do you want to ride on
me?” Alga switches to a high-pitched voice as she reads the horse’s dialogue.
She returns to her “own” voice as she continues, “The little spider is quiet.”
The children chime in saying this last line of text. As Alga finishes reading
the page, Giulio adds “Because he didn’t know how to ride a horse.” Alga
confirms this as she turns to the next page. Alga then reads that the spider
does not respond to the cow’s invitation to join her in eating grass in the
field. Giulio exclaims, “Because the spider eats little insects.”
“He eats flies, mosquitos, bees…” starts Alga.
“The wasps,” interrupts Giulio.
“Also the wasps. Everything that flies gets stuck in his spider web,”
says Alga. The activity proceeds with Alga animatedly reading about each of
the invitations that the busy spider receives from the various farm animals
to join in their doings. She shifts in to the “character voices” as she reads the
animals’ dialogue. “Let see who is coming. The pig arrives and says, ‘Do you
want to come and roll in the mud with me?’” She makes a snort as she speaks
for the pig.
One child imagines himself as the spider rolling in the mud. “The
little spider could drown,” he says.
Alga repeats, “He could drown. He couldn’t go [in the mud]. So what
does he do? He makes a spider web and doesn’t speak.” She then picks up
on words she is hearing from Bianca. “Bianca was saying that first he made a
spider web like a cross.”
Giulio extends Bianca’s idea with another observation about the
web. “He made a little circle.”
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
Alga repeats Giulio’s idea to the whole group, and children begin
to speak about the circular aspect of the spider web. They remember how
they themselves drew spider webs. One child says, “Slowly, slowly. And then
I made it round.” Another agrees, “I made it round, too.” Alga draws their
thoughts together, saying, “Because he does it slowly, slowly, then he makes
it round.” Pointing to one child, Stella, who is making the motions with her
arm, Alga says, “Look at her. How our friend is doing it. Because the spider
does it small, small, and then, big, big, big. Show us, Giulio, so we can do it
together. And then how our friend, Stella, taught us. Like this, like this.” The
children use their bodies to practice how the spider produces thread and
how it spins a web—rotating their arms in smaller, then increasing larger,
concentric circles.
Not so different from spiders: it’s like when we eat some animals.
Children next have another rich opportunity to develop empathy by first
attending to the situation of a fly that becomes a meal for a spider, and then contemplating a parallel between spiders and people.
“Now let’s see what happens. Let’s see if he is able to catch the fly.
What do you all think? Do you think he will catch the fly?” Alga asks.
“Yes,” a child responds.
“He did it,” Alga says, and continues reading, “But first a rooster
arrived and said ‘Cock-a-doodle-do, why don’t we go together to catch a fly?’
The spider is quiet. He already caught the fly. So do you think this is the same
fly?” Alga poses the question to the children, who respond that they think it
is. Alga continues, “Is it the same fly that is stuck in the spider web, what do
you think? Poor fly. After all, he eats flies like we eat ice cream.”
“It’s like when we eat some animals,” a girl named Stella suggests.
“Sure, good job. Stella said something very right. Did you hear what
Stella said? She said, it’s true that the spider ate the fly, but we eat meat, too,”
says Alga.
Children name different meats, “Fish, and rabbits, chicken...”
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
How much did you like it?
Children engage in a procedure of quantifying how much they like the book
that is specifically adapted for their level. This verbal method corresponds with their
usual procedure of evaluating library books that involves children rating books by
assigning a number of hearts (more hearts equates to liking the book more) (Edwards
et al., in press).
Upon finishing reading, Alga elicits children’s opinions about the
book. After a few children respond that they like the book, but provide little
description about what they like or how much they like it, Alga asks, “Which
page did you like? Kids, think about it.”
“The one with the owl,” responds Nicolo.
“The one with the owl. This one,” Alga says with the book open to
the page with the owl. “You like this one best? How much would you give
it? A heart? A lot? A whole lot? What would you give it? A kiss?” Alga tries
to get Nicolo to describe how much he likes in a way that the children can
“A lot,” responds Nicolo. “Me too,” says Nicholas.
“Let’s listen to Nicholas,” says Alga.
“I liked it a lot, a lot, a lot,” the boy responds.
Alga says, “Nicolas liked it a lot, a lot, a lot. Three a lots. What page
did you like the most?”
“If you turn to it, I’ll tell you,” says Nicholas.
“I’ll turn the pages and you tell me. This one? This one?” Alga says
flipping through the pages. Nicholas responds “no” until Alga turns to the
This initiates the start of an animated book review. Children take
turns sharing which animals they like the best and how many “a lots” they
like the book. After Isacco reviews the book, Alga exclaims, “Wow! He liked it
even more [than the student who said he liked it 7 a lots]! Let’s repeat with
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
Isacco.” Then counting on her fingers, with the children following along, she
says, “A lot, a lot, a lot…” until she is holding up eight fingers.
Finishing the book that we started yesterday.
As previously described, Filastrocca’s method of reading books involves:
introducing in narrative style and then investigating more through interactive readings and creative activities. The children extend their understanding of the book by
engaging with the material in various ways over multiple days.
As the children finish their reviews, Alga suggests, “We need to clap
for this book. Shall we do it?” The children jump up from their chairs and
enthusiastically applaud, many looking around, exchanging beaming smiles
with their peers. Alga helps the children transition to their next related activity by responding to one child’s request and announcing, “Nicholas was saying something. Say it to everybody. Nicholas was saying that he wanted to
finish the book that we started yesterday. Go sit at the table and then we’ll
start.” Alga hands the book in her hand to one child as she goes to prepare
for the activity. Several children crowd around the book-holder to catch a
glimpse of and touch the book.
Opening shop: adding pretend play.
In the next section, the children and teacher are transported to a makebelieve shop where they can negotiate the prices of the supplies needed to complete
their book covers.
The children seat themselves around a table. In front of them, they
have the little handmade books. Alga moves from child to child, helping to
staple a colorful piece of paper (book cover) around the pages that each
child started the day before. Children also have scissors and glue. Alga sits at
a smaller table to the side of the children’s table. On her table, the The Very
Busy Spider book is displayed. Additionally, there are containers of paper of
varying colors, sizes, and shapes. Alga says, “Now we’ll open another shop.
It’s a shop that sells many papers of all colors. Nicholas and Sara came to
buy, let’s see what they buy.” Children take turns “buying” their supplies from
Alga, reaching into their pockets to pull out invisible money which they
hand over to Alga before returning to their seats with the paper “purchases”
that they craft into fences, spiders and webs upon their return to their table.
Many children cut strips to go around their cover, just like the wooden frame
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Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
they had seen portrayed in Eric Carle’s story. Some children focus more on
representing the body of the spider, and others more on the shape of the
They discuss the price of the paper with one another and Alga.
“How much is it?” one child asks about a piece of paper that Alga
suggests would make a good spider web.
Nicholas indicates, “One hundred million Lire.” Alga responds, “No
that is too much, [instead] one hundred Lire.” The children continue to “buy”
supplies and work on their books. At one point, Alga says one child owes
100 Lire.
He says, “No, 90.”
Alga responds to the bargaining, “My goodness! Pay, okay here’s
the change. Take the change. Hey guys, I became rich today selling. You all
paid me a lot of money.” The children continue to converse among themselves and with Alga as they intently paste paper in their books and use
markers to add to their books. Alga offers, “Would you all like some music?
Should I put a little music on?”
“Yes!,” children respond in unison. “The one with the Lions,” one child requests, referring to the 5-yearold’s class symbol. With the music now playing in the background and Alga
seated at the table with the children as they work on, there is discussion of
the children’s books and choice of supplies.
The title: Bianca writes it and Alga photocopies it.
Alga utilizes an individual student’s contributions to provide resources for
the entire group.
Alga asks, “Listen, does anyone want to maybe put on the title of
this book?” Several children respond, “I do.”
“How do we do it? Why doesn’t Bianca write it and Alga goes to
photocopy?” Alga suggests. Bianca has a strip of paper on which to write the
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Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
title of the book. Though Bianca is ready, Alga is talking with Nicholas and
says, “Hold on, Bianca, one moment. This is something important. Nicholas
would like some very little things to attach on these strips. He would like to
put the little animals.”
Upon discussing Nicholas’s ideas and helping him with his supplies, Alga returns to the topic of the title saying, “Listen kids, to this idea
of Nicholas. That is cute but Alga has to go make a copy. Listen, Sara, would
you like to put on the title? Tell me one thing, who would like the title of the
book?” All of the children raise their hands, “Me!” “Oh my gosh, everyone
wants to. We need to decide something. Bianca will write it, and Alga will
photocopy it. Okay?”
“Me too,” one child says.
“With all of us, it would take too long. No, Bianca, I’ll give you a strip.
You can write on it and then…” Alga starts as she addresses Bianca.
Once Bianca has the strip of paper and marker, Alga asks, “Do you
want to write all of the title of the book? The Little Spider Who Spins a Web
in Silence?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t fit,” responds Bianca.
“Little, little, write little,” suggests Alga. Alga sits next to Bianca, giving her instruction and watching intently as she writes the words on the
strip of paper.
Upon Bianca’s completion of the writing, Alga asks, “Okay, who
wants Bianca’s writing, The Little Spider Who Spins a Web in Silence?” Once
the copies are made, Alga uses a paper cutter to cut the little strips of paper.
Children trim the paper strips with scissors and paste them onto their elaborately decorated book covers, continuing to talk about their work with one
another and Alga as they do so.
“Tell me everything about this book.”
Alga gives children the opportunity to explain their books while she records
the descriptions. Children are allowed to finish at their own pace.
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Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
As children near completion of their books, Alga signals the end of the activity by saying, “Today our friends Nicolo and Nicholas will have a lot to do. Yes, you
have to put the room back. Who is going to help clean the room? Cleaning the table.”
With the title pasted onto the cover, Isacco, beaming with pride,
holds his book up to show Alga across the table. Alga says, “Look at Isacco’s.
He has finished. It came out really well. Look! A beautiful cover page.” Issaco comes over to Alga’s table. “Listen, do you want to tell me
something you want me to write inside? Let’s do this, how the lady that
sells, if you want, will be at this table,” Alga gestures to the little table with
the paper and supplies. “When you are done if you want to come to tell her
something about your book, you can come, okay. Come, honey. Sit,” Alga
says to Isacco as they go to the supply table together. Alga and Isacco discuss Isacco’s book, with Alga complimenting him on it. Another child comes
up to Alga, explaining that his title will not fit on the cover. Alga suggests,
“If you would have put it on top of the circle it would have fit. You can leave
it like that. It is missing the little eyes,” she points out of the child’s spider
before he returns to the table. Directing her attention back to Isacco, Alga
says, with Isacco’s book opened to the last page and her pen poised to write
down his responses, “Okay, tell me everything about this book. Did you like
the story of the spider?” Isacco tells Alga it is the story of the spider.
“It’s the story of the spider. Is that it? You don’t want to write anything else?” Alga asks as she writes. Since Isacco doesn’t say anything further,
Alga accepts that he is finished. “Very nice,” she says, “Let’s put this book that
you have finished, down to dry.” Alga attends to the other children about
their books, helping them to put their books up on the shelf to dry. Children
who are finished select books in the library to independently read as Alga
continues to assist until all children are finished.
The pace of the above-described activities was relaxed and flowing without
distinct “starts” and “stops.” A rhythmic chant preceded the reading of the book and
helped the children to recognize that they were going to be starting the story. As
Alga and the children explored the first pages, they not only focused on the text, but
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
also spontaneously pretended to make spider webs. Although they had already read
some of the book, Alga restarted the story on behalf of one child who had missed the
beginning. Much dialogue surrounded the reading, and this discussion was characterized by extensive turn-taking. At the conclusion of the reading of the book, children were invited to provide their reviews and evaluate how much they liked the
story, eliciting many repetitions of “a lot, a lot, a lot…” The discussion surrounding
the reading of the book lasted nearly 20 minutes. As children gathered around the
table to continue making their own versions of the book, children simultaneously
worked on their projects and conversed with one another and Alga as music played
in the background. Children appeared serious about their work while at the same
time enjoying the company around them. The activity concluded with the children
discussing their books with Alga. This atmosphere, relatively free of prompts to hurry
or rush, allowed children time to have time to engage with one another in collective
experience and form new creative ideas.
We suggest that this relationships-focused setting provided opportunities
for engagement in creative activity and interactions that promoted shared meaning making. The children and teacher gained a deeper and shared understanding of
topics of interest through extended dialogue. Through this conversation and related
activities (e.g., making spider webs from saliva), the class develops empathy for the
spider. The book does not afford any particular supports for relating to the character—he does not speak; he displays no emotion; he simply weaves a web in silence
as other animal characters try to engage him with no success. By comparing their
own actions (i.e., diets) to those of the spider and being a little like a spider by making
webs, the children move a little closer to feeling the spider’s feelings and experiencing the spider’s experiences. Is this important? We suggest that it equips the children
for more effectively making meaning of books and shared experiences. This more
advanced meaning making is also a product of children’s related creative activity; as
children work both individually and collaboratively to represent the book through
creating their own versions, they are expanding the depth of their understanding of
the original children’s literature story.
Finally, the experience at Filastrocca fostered creative learning in young children by allowing them to engage their voices and bodies, stretch their imaginations,
and employ all their approaches to learning. Table 1 indicates that each of the seven
approaches described by Howard Gardner (1983) in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, was stimulated in at least two episodes of the observed book reading and cover making. Encouraging creative exploration and play across all domains
of intelligence helps young children to develop their individual strengths and even
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
combine elements of several domains into a process and product uniquely theirs. In
this encounter, creativity was fostered through oral storytelling and extended discussion; quantifying and evaluating; interactive and imaginative role-playing; reflecting
on their likes and dislikes; attention to everyone in the group; employing a variety of
artistic techniques and materials; and rhythmic chanting and listening to music.
Table 1
the Multiple
(Gardner, 1983)
Example(s) and Descriptions of Observed Interactions
Encouraging Each Type of Intelligence
Linguistic intelligence
has to do with the
ability to use words,
spoken or written
Developing Empathy: Making Spider Thread and Being “a
Little Bit Like a Spider.” The children engaged in complex discussions of the book, for example, when they talked about
the differences between what humans and spiders can do
and how the spider spins its web.
Not So Different From Spiders. The verbal interaction continued as they compared the spider eating flies to children eating meat.
The Title: Bianca Writes It and Alga Photocopies It. Children
integrated writing into their cover-making activity; one
child wrote out the title of the book and the other children
used photocopied slips of paper to paste onto their book
Tell Me Everything About This Book. Spoken and written
words were integrated for the children when Alga asked
them individually to explain their books while she recorded
their descriptions.
Interpersonal intelligence has to do with
interaction with others
and understanding
And Here Begins the Story. The children interacted with one
another through shared, familiar rituals, including having
their hands stamped with the library symbol and engaging
in discussion before reading.
Not Leaving Anyone Out. Alga communicated the importance of each individual as part of the group, when she
started the reading of the book over for a single child,
Bianca, who returned to the class after running an errand.
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
Reading… and Interacting. The children were encouraged to
develop empathy and widen their ability to take another’s
perspective by pretending to do what spiders do—make
threads of web.
The Title: Bianca Writes It and Alga Photocopies It. Alga promoted a cooperative spirit and appreciation of others’
strengths by allowing Bianca to apply her good lettering
skills to copy the title of the book for everyone to use.
Visual-Spatial intelligence has to do with
spatial judgment,
visual patterns, and
the ability to visualize
with the mind’s eye
Opening Shop. The children decided how to design their
book covers and utilize the space on their pages. Many
children cut paper strips to frame their cover, replicating
the wooden frame they had seen portrayed in the original
story. Some children worked to represent the body of the
spider, while others focused on representing the concentric
circles that were part of the web.
The Title: Bianca Writes It and Alga Photocopies It. To complete their covers, each child arranged and pasted a strip of
paper with the book title onto his or her cover.
Intrapersonal intelligence has to do with
introspective and selfreflective capacities
How Much Did You Like It? The children were encouraged to
reflect on their own likes and dislikes as they chose which
animals they liked the best in the story and rated how much
they liked the book.
Finishing the Book That We Started Yesterday. The children
also expressed their appreciation for the book by clapping
for it.
intelligence has to
do with numbers,
logic, abstractions,
reasoning, and critical
How Much Did You Like It? The children quantified how much
they each liked the book by evaluating how many “tanto’s”
(“a lot’s”) it was worth.
Opening Shop. Alga helped children explore the concept
of the corresponding value of objects and money, as she
“sold” art supplies to them to make their books.
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Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
intelligence has to do
with control of one’s
bodily motions and
the capacity to handle
objects skillfully
Reading … and Interacting. The children used their mouths
and fingers to illustrate how spiders produce thread; they
stretched strings of saliva between their thumbs and
pointer fingers. They also pretended to be spiders spinning their webs, rotating their arms through the air in first
smaller, and then increasing larger concentric circles.
Opening Shop. The activity of making book covers involved
physically manipulating objects and art materials as they
cut, arranged, and pasted pieces of paper and employed
markers to draw and represent spider, web, and other elements of the story.
Musical intelligence
has to do with sensitivity to sounds,
rhythms, tones, and
And Here Begins the Story: Alga began the book reading
with a rhythmic set of familiar words, “Once upon a time…”
and the children joined in. One boy tapped his foot to the
rhythm of the chant.
Opening Shop: The children all responded, “Yes!” to Alga’s
suggestion to have music playing in the background as
they worked on their books.
In conclusion, we suggest that the observations of Filastrocca Preschool
described in this paper provide an illustration of how shared extended discourse, promotion of empathy, and shared and multifaceted creative activity can be intertwined
in the process of meaning making in the context of relationships.
1. We gratefully acknowledge the children, families, and teachers of Filastrocca
Preschool as the co-creators of this article; and thank the educational officials
and public administrators of the Municipality of Pistoia for their openness to our
studies. Silvia Betta assisted in the translation of the documents. The University
of Nebraska–Lincoln generously supported the research and publication efforts
of Carolyn Edwards.
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Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
Barrs, M. (2007). The creative community of Pistoia. Teaching, Thinking, & Creativity, 8(1),
Carle, E. (1984). The very busy spider. New York:
Philomel Books.
David, M., & Appelli, G. (2001). Lóczy: An unusual
approach to mothering. Los Angeles:
Resources for Infant Educarers.
Dooley, C. M. (2011). The emergence of comprehension: A decade of research 2000-2010.
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 169–184.
Dooley, C. M., & Matthews, M. W. (2009). Emergent comprehension: Understanding
comprehension development among
young literacy learners. Journal of Early
Childhood Literacy, 9(3), 269–294.
Edwards, C. P., Cline, K. D., Gandini, L., Giacomelli, A., Giovannini, D., & Galardini, A. (In
press). Books, stories, and the imagination at ‘The Nursery Rhyme’: A qualitative
case study of the learning environment at
an Italian preschool. Journal of Research in
Childhood Education, in press.
Emde, R. M. (2001). Foreword. In L. Gandini &
C. P. Edwards (Eds.), Bambini: Italian experiences of infant and toddler care (pp. vii–
xiv). New York: Teachers College Press.
Galardini, A., & Giovannini, D. (2001). Pistoia:
Creating a dynamic, open system to serve
children, families and community. In L.
Gandini & C. P. Edwards (Eds.), Bambini:
Italian experiences of infant and toddler
care (pp. 89–105). New York: Teachers College Press.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory
of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic
Pelo, A. (In press). The goodness of rain: Developing an ecological identity in children. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.
West, V. (2008). Architecture, space, and pedagogy in Pistoia. Staffordshire University,
United Kingdom. Retrieved from http://
Edwards, C. P., & Gandini, L. (2001). Research as a
partnership for learning together: Studying the growth of relationships inside the
nido. In L. Gandini & C. P. Edwards (Eds.),
Bambini: Italian experiences of infant and
toddler care (pp. 181–199). New York:
Teachers College Press.
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Keely D. Cline, Carolyn Pope Edwards, Alga Giacomelli,
Lella Gandini, Donatella Giovannini, and Annalia Galardini
Keely D. Cline
works with the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools (CYFS) at the
University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She has studied Filastrocca
Preschool and participated in a study tour to Pistoia in May
2010. Her research interests include understanding strategies
for supporting young children’s literacy and language development. She is currently the project director of an Institute
of Education Sciences funded research project focused on
assessing the effects of an intervention designed to promote
children’s school readiness through parent engagement and
parent-teacher relationships.
Carolyn Pope Edwards is Willa Cather Professor at the
University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She has visited Pistoia numerous times, most recently while also participating in a study
tour to Pistoia in March, 2012. She co-edited Bambini: The Italian Approach to Infant/Toddler Caregiving (Teachers College
Press, 2001), with Lella Gandini, as well as the accompanying
video on Pistoia (available from Learning Materials Workshop.)
Among her publications are The Hundred Languages of Children, 3rd Ed.: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation
(with Lella Gandini and George Forman, 2012) and The Diary
of Laura: Perspectives on a Reggio Emilia Diary (with Carolina
Rinaldi, 2008).
Alga Giacomelli, recently retired, was for many years the
library teacher at Filastrocca preschool in Pistoia, a school for
children from 3 to 6 years of age. She designed the lending library for parents, run by children, and a program that includes
the invention of stories, as well as the design and illustration
of books by children.
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A Day at Filastrocca Preschool, Pistoia, Italy:
Meaning Making Through Literacy and Creative Experience
Lella Gandini, Visiting Scholar at Lesley University in Cambridge 2007-2009 and at the University of Arizona 2010, introduced the Italian education of young children from Pistoia and
Reggio Emilia in the United States in the early 1980s. For Reggio Children, she serves as the Liaison for the Dissemination
of the Reggio Emilia Approach. She is co-author and co-editor
of The Hundred Languages of Children; Bambini: The Italian Approach to Infant/Toddler Care; Beautiful Stuff; In the Spirit of the
Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia; and Insights
and Inspirations from Reggio Emilia: Stories of Teachers and Children from North America.
Donatella Giovannini
is Pedagogical Coordinator for
Infant/Toddler Services of Pistoia, Italy. She is involved in research carried out by the Psychology Institute of the National
Research Council in Rome and in collaboration with several
European programs for young children. She has published
many articles and book chapters and has been instrumental
in supporting the professional development of infant-toddler
educators in Pistoia and its sister city, Palermo.
Annalia Galardini was a founding leader of early childhood services in Pistoia, Italy and Director of Education, Social
Services, and Cultural Affairs in the city administration. She
is now President of Crescere, providing professional development in the Tuscan region. Prominent at the national and
international levels, she has organized in-service workshops
in several Italian cities and published articles, chapters, and
books about the organization and goals of family-centered
services for young children.
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The Power of Imagination: Constructing Innovative
Classrooms Through a Cultural-Historical Approach
to Creative Education
M. Cathrene Connery, Ithaca College
Vera John-Steiner, University of New Mexico
All children have a need for and a right to educational programs that foster their creative ingenuity. This article presents a cultural-historical approach to creative education (CHACE) to cultivate K-5 students’ higher order thinking, critical inquiries, and
imaginative proficiencies. The text illustrates the application of Vygotskian theory in
elementary, bilingual classrooms where interdisciplinary, collaborative, and apprentice initiatives in the arts, humanities, and sciences facilitate the acquisition of literacy,
numeracy, and content knowledge. Relationship, affect, and cognitive pluralism are
discussed as theoretical cornerstones in a system of activities to nurture children’s
novel interpretations, enhanced understandings, imaginative problem solving, critical
innovations, and artistic creations within a supportive teaching-learning community.
he world around us is constantly in flux, demanding adaptation to multifaceted environments. Our very existence depends on careful observation, creative imagination, innovative problem solving, and collaborative
solution making. Creativity has been associated with a few solitary individuals “born”
to accomplish great things; schools have isolated small percentages of children in
“gifted and talented” programs. However, research reveals that joint problem solving,
imagination, discipline, and precision are needed for all domains of human endeavor
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
M. Cathrene Connery and Vera John-Steiner
(Scribner, 1997). When, in children’s lives, are such proficiencies developed? How and
where do youth cultivate such complex psychological requisites? We assert that “the
very nature of learning is creative” (Marjanovic-Shane, Connery, & John-Steiner, 2010,
p. 215) and that all children, especially linguistically, economically, and culturally diverse (LECD) students, have a right to educational programs that foster their creative
Across our careers, we have been privileged to witness the innovation of
children and adults; these theoretical, research, and pedagogical journeys have provided resources for us to systematically apply cultural-historical theory into an educational approach that cultivates creativity. While primarily based on the writings of L.S.
Vygotsky, our thinking is deeply influenced by the work of Maxine Greene, Eliot Eisner,
Kieran Egan, Natalia Gajdamaschko, Gunter Kress, Shirley Brice Heath, and members
of the Cultural-historical Activity Theory electronic community. In this article, we offer
readers a cultural-historical approach to creative education (CHACE) derived from our
scholarly study of the mind and work in K-5th grade content English as a Second Language and bilingual classrooms in the western United States.
Vygotsky’s Theoretical and Methodological Framework
Scholars have long debated the nature of creativity without agreeing on
a common definition. Vygotsky characterizes creativity as “a transformative activity
where emotion, meaning, and cognitive symbols are synthesized” (John-Steiner et
al., 2010, p. 12). His cultural-historical framework includes everyday problem solving
and creative artifacts capable of producing a lasting, generational impact. Because
he ascertains, “Creativity exists not only where it creates great historical works, but
also everywhere human imagination combines, changes, and creates anything new,”
(Vygotsky as quoted in Smolucha, 1992, p. 53) the efforts of teachers and students
are defined as imaginative, innovative, and collaborative endeavors (Egan, 2006;
Gajdamaschko, 2005).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
The Power of Imagination: Constructing Innovative Classrooms Through
a Cultural-Historical Approach to Creative Education
Fig. 1: Claire’s punctuation cartoon (courtesy of the artist)
In building on Vygotsky’s framework, we propose that creative education is
the mindful, intentional nurturing of a system of activities resulting in novel interpretations, enhanced understandings, imaginative problem solving, critical innovations, and
artistic creations achieved with the support of a community of learners and teachers.
The goal of a cultural-historical approach to creative education (CHACE) is to develop
children’s capacity for higher order thinking, including critical and creative proficiencies associated with inquiry, problem solving, and pragmatic applications in the arts,
humanities, and sciences. The aims of CHACE are not at odds with the traditional
curriculum, nor the implementation of stand-alone, art curriculums. We propose,
instead, an integrated approach that develops the power of imagination. In CHACE
classrooms, first graders might learn to correctly apply quotation marks in Language
Arts by writing cartoons like the example in Figure 1 where a father seagull exclaims,
“Honey, hurry up with supper! These kids are hungry!” Alternatively, fifth graders
might film documentaries integrating information from Social Studies, Science, and
Mathematics. What is different about CHACE is that higher order thinking is the origin, focus, and product of the curriculum.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
M. Cathrene Connery and Vera John-Steiner
Obuchenie: Teaching-Learning as a Connected Relationship
CHACE redefines teaching and learning as complementary, collaborative,
and relational processes. This principle provides educators with a theoretical blueprint to direct their choices, communications, and actions including assessments
undertaken at the start of each school year. When identifying students’ academic challenges in relationship to grade-level performance standards, these diagnostic tools
have the potential of reinforcing remedial, polarizing relationships between teachers
and students. When correctly utilized to collect relevant information, such measures
can reveal what knowledge or proficiencies students need to develop. Teachers can
then use this data to strategize and construct individualized, small group, and class
instructional plans.
In CHACE, educators might extend beyond these scores to identify the
unique funds of knowledge, talents, and interests of their students, families, and communities (Moll, 1990). Imagine the teacher who challenges her elementary students
on the first day of school asking, “Which one of you will find a cure for cancer? Who
will write a poem that will be read at a presidential inauguration? Win an Olympic
gold medal? Play, dance, or act before heads of state? Exhibit at the Smithsonian?
Take a photo that changes the view of the world? Devise an invention that helps people and the environment at the same time? This year, we are going to work together
to get you closer to realizing these dreams.”
Toward this end, CHACE practitioners renegotiate the power relationships
that often divide or isolate teachers and students. Educators should not abandon
their professional knowledge, adult roles, or seriousness of purpose; rather, the work
of teachers and their students is recast in relational terms, replacing one-way, authoritarian banking approaches to education (Freire, 1970) with Vygotsky’s obuchenie
(1933d). The concept of obuchenie represents teaching and learning as connected,
complementary forms of meaning making where teachers act “first among learners”
(Miyazaki, 2007). In innovative classrooms, teachers verbally walk students through
steps to collectively solve mathematical problems. They can challenge students to
identify ways healthy adults resolve social issues, hurt feelings, or come to agreements. Innovative teachers can also model self-protection, self-soothing, and resilient
behaviors. They might engage in “think alouds” when reading picture books or novels
to the class, verbally illustrating what images come to mind as they interact with texts
as expert readers.
In applying these principles, teachers infuse the teaching/learning process
with creative insights and solutions. A major assumption in Vygotsky’s writings is that
creative work is profoundly social as well as individual:
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Art is the social within us, and even if its action is performed by a single
individual it does not mean that its essence is individual… Art is the social
technique of emotion, a tool of society which brings the most intimate and
personal aspects of our being into the circle of social life. (1971, p. 249)
This principle has been demonstrated by many children with whom we
have worked in the language-literacy arts. In one instance, a fourth-grader, whose
father had been accidentally killed, composed a short story about a Diné boy named
Little Three Wounds during the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo. The student had confided earlier in the school year that while he had witnessed his father’s death as a
kindergartener, he did not have any clear memory of the incident and did not like to
speak about it. However, the child’s narrative reflected specific aspects of the actual
tragedy and his feelings about his father’s passing. The account combined historical
facts about the forced march, the starvation of the imprisoned Navajo, and the child’s
developmental interests. Amid horse-chasing, hunting, and scenes of family life, Little
Three Wounds’ family is captured and forced to leave its ancestral lands. At the climax
of the story, the protagonist’s father is murdered by a U.S. soldier. The child wrote:
The sun beat down on the tall limestone figures that towered over the heads
of the throng traveling through the desolate valley. The soldiers had decided
to abandon a baby whose crying pierced the ears of the slowly moving cluster. Little Three Wounds’ father, in shackles, stopped and said in a serious
voice, “I will not go any further away from my home.” His Pawnee interpreter
told the lieutenant what Yellow Bear had said. The soldier was absolutely
furious! The interpreter told Yellow Bear to go on or be killed at the soldiers
bidding. Little Three Wounds father remained still with a look of hate on his
The lieutenant drew his midnight black and brown rifle from its holster
on the side of the supply wagon. He raised the gun to his eye. Little Three
Wounds was watching with horror, standing still so frightened. The lieutenant pulled his index finger back. Little Three Wounds covered his face with
his hands. The shot whistled through the air for what seemed like eternity to
the young brave. His father dropped to the ground.
After a series of conflicts, the student composed a fictitious ending where
Little Three Wounds leads his people to safety and food. While historically inaccurate,
the child’s conclusion combines elements of the Nez Perce flight into Canada that had
also been studied by the class as well as the child’s own catharsis and reconnection
with his mother, concluding the narrative with a powerful, imaginative sentence:
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The Navajos traveled through thick and thin on their journey. It was a very
long trip, and a hard one, too. Their travels took them fourteen days with the
white soldiers about five miles behind them all the way. But, thanks to Little
Three Wounds, the white men never caught up.
When they crossed the border of Canada, everybody cheered and hugged
Little Three Wounds. His mother kissed the amazing eleven year old boy. His
tribe gave him a new name: “He Who Saved His People”. The young brave
took his father’s turquoise necklace and held it tightly in his hand. (Courtesy
of the Writer & His Mother)
After reading the story to his classmates, a profound silence fell across the classroom;
the fourth graders regarded their classmate with new eyes. A discussion ensued
regarding loss and resilience, with a multiplicity of examples offered from the children’s lives. Our conversation concluded by listing examples of artists and scientists
who had additionally experienced great tragedy in their young lives and who had
gone on to contribute to humankind.
Learning and Development Inside the ZPD
In a CHACE classroom, educators intentionally cultivate multiple collaborations between learners and thinkers by consciously connecting novice and expert
learners in a host of meaning-making partnerships. Just as the painter selects and
mixes colors in the service of illustrating knowledge, so the creative teacher knowingly combines individuals of a variety of ages, proficiencies, and learning styles to
enhance learning. These carefully conceived collaborations link children to essential
social sources, facilitating the measured appropriation of knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions.
In innovative classrooms, teachers might validate, recruit, and extend children’s funds of knowledge and academic strengths by assigning “consulting positions”
that share student expertise with the larger class. Children in the CHACE classroom
can exercise their own agency when referring to a list of peer-writing consultants
to help them brainstorm names for a character, indent paragraphs, conjugate the
correct tense of a verb, or select a juicy adjective from the thesaurus. A quick peek
into an innovative classroom might confirm the presence of parents and community
partners engaged in discussions with learners, sharing their expertise and cultural
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These instructional collaborations form the very structures of the zone of
proximal development (ZPD) necessary for learning to take place. Vygotsky (1978)
described the ZPD as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as
determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with
more capable peers” (p. 86). Within the ZPD, learners and partners engage in two-way
interactions and collective meaning making, “transcend[ing] the constraints of biology, of time, of habit and achieve a fuller self, beyond the limitations and the talents
of the isolated individual” (John-Steiner, 2000, pp. 187–188).
The CHACE approach taps teachers’ professional expertise in order to cultivate joint productive attention, nurture shared and distributed meanings through
carefully constructed ZPDs, and implement open-ended or goal-directed activities,
role-play, and discussions. It values the application of educators’ sophisticated set of
relational resources and social skills including Rychly’s (2012) definition of receptive
discourse where teachers employ understandings and strategies related to the dual
directionality of language as a distinct form of classroom discourse facilitating student agency, learning, and language acquisition.
CHACE educators make cultural information, academic strategies, and linguistic problem-solving concrete, accessible, and explicit. Real-world analogies can
help children make sense of the English language. For example, when asked if they
always follow directions, most primary students will say that their home and school
behaviors differ. When metaphorically extended to abstract orthographic patterns
(the “ea” “bead” or “ph” or /f/ sound in “phone”), children understand that letters, like
themselves, don’t always follow “the rules.”
It is essential that teachers highlight social sources and constructs that
might be otherwise invisible or unattainable to children and their communities.
These resources are often right in front of us as the following account illustrates:
It was a beautiful, sunny spring day in a Northern New Mexico Pueblo. These
are traditional villages next to the Rio Grande river. The Pueblo school was
known for its engaged teachers and eager students. This day was a little
noisy because there was construction going on outside the second-grade
class window. Most of the workmen, being members of the Navajo nation,
were taller than the Pueblo natives. The children would have liked to speak
to them, but their Tewa language was quite different from the Navajo language their guests spoke.
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Some of the younger men brought their wives for the weeks they were working in the Pueblo, and one young woman looked a little sad while watching
the construction. The children had noticed that she sometimes worked on
a loom with different colored threads. They suggested to their teacher that
they should invite her into the classroom with her loom; perhaps they could
exchange a few words in English. And so they did.
The young wife came several times, and showed them how she combined
colors, following a design that she envisioned in her mind. One day, she
brought some natural dye, and deepened the color of one of her threads.
The teacher brought in books about the famous Navajo rugs and their
varied, frequently geometric designs. The students wanted to know more
about diverse Indian tribes—some of them their neighbors, others living far
away—about their past, and what they shared as Native people.1
Classrooms as Sites and Sources for Learning
Teachers engaged in CHACE consciously consider and construct all aspects
of the learning environment including the physical arrangement of the classroom,
schedules, protocols, and routines. One of our colleagues gift-wraps the drawers and
cabinets of her classroom in early August. During the first week of school, her students unwrap these gifts and discuss how they will use their resources or spaces. This
activity reflects that learning environments serve as both the site and source of learning. Vygotsky’s (1981) genetic law of cultural development notes that the knowledge,
skills strategies, and dispositions teachers seek to cultivate “appear twice or on two
planes. First [they] appear on the social plane and then it appears on the psychological plane. First it appears between people as an interpsychological category and then
within the individual child as an intrapsychological category” (p. 163). In order for
a particular understanding to fully develop, the mature form must be evidenced or
utilized in the innovative classroom.
In the CHACE classroom, furniture, supplies, and other items are labeled
with icons sporting children’s languages as supports for their biliterate proficiencies.
In innovative environments, children might collectively brainstorm a list of classroom jobs to promote the smooth functioning of their community. After deliberating a minimum wage, a student personnel director can work with the class human
resources manager to hire specific positions, monitor performance, and advertise
new jobs dictated by classroom needs (see Fig. 2). A student veterinarian might take
responsibility for the care of a pet, receiving a weekly paycheck from the class bank
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for her efforts. Children can then spend their earnings at a Friday auction where recycled toys, books, and other items are bid on in the children’s dual languages.
Fig. 2: Job board, announcement, and checklist
Fig. 3: Dual language idiom posters
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In the innovative classroom, multilingual dyads might illustrate cultural idioms; children’s linguistic and communal knowledge can be recorded on posters that
are shared weekly across the course of the academic year (see Fig. 3). On Mondays,
children might enter a new bilingual idiom into their personal language dictionaries.
Both teacher and students can anticipate interactions, situations, and events across
the week when they can appropriately apply an adopted idiom or dicho.
The Resource and Role of Affect
Such deliberate construction of the learning environment recognizes the
role of affect as an essential resource in learning established by neuroscientists
including Antonio Damasio (2000, 2005). Connery (2011) has written about the “emotional curriculum” interwoven with cognitive objectives “derived from the lived experience of children; their construction of identity in their private and public lives; the
response, meaning, and affection they assign to teachers, classmates, and school; and
both their individual and collective feelings of agency” (p. 47). In CHACE, the emotional curriculum is made manifest by strategically developing children’s positive
sense of self-worth and resilience required for repeated risk-taking in the learning
Practitioners can deliberately tap children’s enthusiasm to fuel excitement
for the learning process by actively soliciting what the children would like to learn.
These interests can be recorded with suggestions offered by parents and caregivers
to incorporate cultural knowledge, multicultural-biliterate proficiencies, and critical
perspectives often absent in educational canon. After constructing a curriculum map,
educators might share a tentative schedule of when and how the class might integrate state standards, district initiatives, and grade-level curriculum with these topics.
We recall that a fourth grader’s excitement at the prospect of studying the Great Barrier Reef sustained his engagement across the course of two academic quarters.
Conversely, teachers can also sensitively contextualize the sorrows and
struggles children bring to school through their informal play, casual interactions,
academic discussions, and formal assignments. It is not only common, but also
healthy for students to draw and write about personal tragedies in the writing process. Teachers can utilize narratives about the passing of a pet or another loss to promote positive self-care and the development of wisdom. When provided with safety
and respect, children make profound, transformative connections with teachers,
classmates, and the curriculum. We are reminded of a discussion on the Underground
Railroad with fifth graders which began in an uncharacteristically quiet manner. After
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prompting the silent students with a few open-ended questions, a child timidly raised
her hand and offered, “But maestra (teacher), weren’t they a lot like us?”
The student was identifying with the conditions of African-Americans who
sought freedom from slavery in the 1800s by escaping to the North with her family
and classmates’ histories as the children of undocumented Mexican laborers. In our
subsequent discussion, the children related their own personal hardships, including
leaving valued family members, toys, pets, and places behind. They drew parallels
with the African-American experience of having to wrap their own feet in rags after
the terrain destroyed their shoes. Our discussion encompassed the historical similarities and differences of both groups of people, including geographic boundaries,
socioeconomic motivations, and religious and political perspectives. Perhaps the best
learning outcome of our session occurred when the children discovered that civil
rights law protected them from being illegally removed from school by the Office of
Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).
Creative teachers seek to understand the role of affect in developing imagination (Gajdamaschko, 2005). Vygotsky suggests “the internal logic of feeling will represent the most subjective, most internal form of imagination” (1930/2004, p. 19). Just
as emotion impacts imagination, imagination also shapes emotion.
[This is why] works of art created by their author’s imaginations can have
such a strong emotional effect on us. The passions and fates of imaginary
characters, their joys and sorrows move, disturb, and excite us, despite the
fact that we know these are not real events, but rather the products of fantasy. This occurs only because the emotions that take hold of us from the
artistic images on the pages of books or from the stage are completely real,
and we experience them truly, seriously, and deeply. (p. 20)
Such imaginative experience is often memorable for young children. The emotional
aspect of creative engagement often facilitates greater understandings and connections to the curriculum; secondary educators, including Smagorinsky (2010) and Zoss
(2010), document this process.
The Playful Curriculum as Imaginative Invitation
CHACE is also distinguished by the development of analytical, expressive,
and innovative thought including learners’ common and unique abilities related to
cognitive pluralism, multiculturalism, and bilingual-biliterate proficiencies. These
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objectives are realized when teachers and students forge connections across content
areas in spaces where open-ended discoveries and playful adventures are interwoven
into the fabric of the targeted curriculum.
Developmentally, children’s play is the beginning of discovery and the construction of novelty. Vygotsky (1993/1976) describes play as an interactive form of
embodied imagination. Both Goncu (2012) and Holzman (2010) assert that children
construct their relationships to themselves, other individuals, social groups, and the
material world through play. Marjanovic-Shane (2010) highlights the relational, emotional, and transformative nature of play as a means by which stress, fears, and aspirations have the potential to evolve into collective meanings through playful activity.
St. John’s (2010) accounts of young children’s free play with musical instruments echo
these findings while highlighting Vygotsky’s contention that “imagination operates
not freely, but directed by someone else’s experience, as if according to someone
else’s instructions” (1930/2004, p. 17).
While play has been emphasized as part of creativity by many psychologists
who have recently focused on this topic, Vygotsky’s (1930/2004) approach displays his
broader view of seeing higher psychological processes as interrelated, psychological
or “complex functional systems.” The construction of these dynamic systems requires
what Pelaprat and Cole (2011) have named “gap filling” from the Russian term “voobrazhenie” translated as “moving into image making.” They suggest that imagination
is an ever-present part of human thought
and should neither be understood as a special ability nor as the creation of
‘unreal’ fantasies…There are fundamental ‘gaps’ that must be resolved for
individuals to think or act in relation to the world. Resolving these gaps
through image making constitutes the self and the world in the same process. It is the human form of cognition. (p. 413)
Further, Vygotsky (1934/1987) argues strongly that the development of
speech is a powerful impetus for the development of imagination. While fantasy is
connected to the visual richness of dreams, language further broadens the child’s
imagination by presenting the not here, the not now, the not real. He contends,
“The child can express in words something that does not coincide with the precise
arrangement of objects or representations. This provides him the power to move with
extraordinary freedom in the sphere of impressions, designating them with words”
(p. 346).
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In the larger literature on creative classrooms, the focus lies on the individual teacher or student. However, in CHACE, practitioners can adopt a culturally
relevant, curricular framework to systematically and imaginatively scaffold learning
experiences for their entire class. For example, at the start of the school year when
teaching in separate fourth and fifth grade Dual Immersion classrooms, we adopted
the metaphor of learning as an adventurous journey. The language-literacy arts were
presented as the vehicle by which the children might realize their dreams. A design
competition was held for students to propose what a class aircraft might look like; the
children worked as individuals, pairs, or in small groups to illustrate their conception
of a Flying Literature Mobile (FLM) (see Fig. 4).
Fig. 4: Design proposal for Flying Literature Mobile (FLM)
After a class vote to select the best design, the artist and teacher constructed
the rocket out of butcher paper, boxes, construction paper, and found objects each
student brought to adhere to the imaginative vehicle (see Fig. 5). Parents attended a
“Back to School Night,” only to discover that their children would appropriate, apply,
and refine an integrated, grade-level curriculum, while floating around the cosmos,
wandering back in time, exploring exotic locations, and solve critical problems in the
Flying Literature Mobile (FLM).
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Fig. 5: Flying Literature Mobile (FLM)
A daily class narrative was constructed around these adventures.
Each morning, students pounded
on the door to read informative
communications from the FLM’s
control center that alluded to,
challenged, or targeted specific
literacy, numeracy, and content
knowledge, skills, strategies, and
dispositions. The example in Figure
6 foreshadows the study and application of geographical concepts of
latitude and longitudinal lines.
Fig. 6: FLM control center communication sample
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Other innovative teachers might frame their curriculum by challenging their
classes to agree on an essential question as a curricular prism for student inquiry
across the year. Teachers and children have examined topics such as, “What makes a
person courageous?” or, “What is justice?” After much spirited debate, one of our fifth
grade classes adopted the guiding query, “Who have we been, who are we now, and
who will we be in the future?” In the fall, students wrote themselves letters addressing the first two components of the inquiry. These epistles were hidden away in miniature “time capsules” with personal commercials or student videos filmed during
the first month of school. At the holidays, students revisited the essential question
while evaluating personal progress on individual goals; these statements were then
added to the time capsules. In June, the children “liberated” the information in the
capsules to assist them in evaluating the literacy proficiencies and work samples they
had collected in portfolios throughout the year. In contrast to traditional forms of
assessment, the essential question provided both an individual and collective lens for
children to assign meanings to their growth.
Cultivating Competence and Cognitive Pluralism
We experience life through all our senses, communicating our impressions
through symbol systems. In Vygotsky’s theory, language plays a primary role by
which experience is both deepened and transformed. However, he recognized that
our semiotic means include visual systems (traffic lights and sign language), kinesthetic icons (the Olympic torch), musical notation, the multimodal performing arts,
mathematical symbols and scientific reasoning. Sustained exposure to any one of
these meaning-making activities requires curiosity and immersion. CHACE provides
children with the opportunity to transact with, imitate, and develop multi-modal
means. These competencies call upon combinations of Gardner’s (1983) multiple
intelligences, including intrapersonal understanding through the exploration of the
learner’s shifting strengths and weaknesses when collaborating in the classroom, studio, laboratory, and life.
CHACE recognizes that the role of culturally patterned activities influences
the availability and salience of a particular modality. For example, John-Steiner’s
(1984) investigation of the impact of Native Southwestern crafts upon Pueblo children’s learning styles found that the children relied on observational learning and
possessed highly developed visual skills in contrast to their urban peers. She (1995)
refers to these effects of culture as cognitive pluralism, noting that the cross-cultural
encounters of Native students and non-indigenous teachers can be either a source of
tension or synthesis of modalities and cultures.
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Innovative teachers can construct imaginative connections between themselves, their students, and the curriculum by honoring and employing students’ cognitive pluralism. For instance, third graders might precisely label the parts of a flower
on a giant chart in their native or second language only to act out the respective structural functions in a dance to Aaron Copeland’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (see Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: La Tablas de las partes de la flor / Parts of the flower chart
The entire range of psychological tools, from language, musical notes, mathematical
formulas, and other mediating means offered through the arts and technology can
be made available to learners. In CHACE, teachers might mediate and co-construct
complex information using virtual field trips to the Smithsonian’s Egyptian collection,
edible ingredients to represent the parts of a cell, or employ video clips highlighting underwater volcanic eruptions. PowerPoint software, like the book commercial
created as a preview for Kathleen Krull’s (2003) text, Harvesting Hope (accessed by
clicking here:
ing_Hope.pdf ), enriches children’s prior knowledge while prompting a host of predictions about the text. Conversely, children might internalize, record, and express
higher order thinking, academic proficiencies, or content knowledge through a multiplicity of learning formats including song, debate, games, experimentation, art making, and dance. The illustrated verses of a song about seed dispersal, found in Figure
8, can assist student memory and recall.
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Fig. 8: Seed dispersal drawing – fuzzies
Similarly, the chronological segments of a book mobile can be used to relate specific
periods in the biography of important historical figures like Frederick Douglas (see
Fig. 9).
Fig. 9: Frederick Douglas biography book mobile
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Artifacts that draw on increasingly sophisticated forms of cognition including application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis (Anderson & Krathwohl et al.,
2000) can be constructed by combining and applying content and genres to spotlight
essential, critical, or creative aspects of the curriculum. It is one thing for students to
write an outline of the historical conflict between British and American Colonists from
their Social Studies text; Vygotsky (1930/2004) describes such as reproductive activity. However, asking children to compose and justify a recipe, rap, or re-enactment of
the American Revolution initiates a creative recombination of knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions. Challenging fourth graders to write an invitation to a birthday party for each of the planets in the solar system (see Fig. 10) entails reproductive
as well as creative thinking, whereby knowledge regarding planetary composition,
climate, rotations vs. revolutions is called on in combination with literacy processes
to “rework[s] elements …..and use[s] them to generate new propositions and new
behavior” (Vygotsky, 1930/2004, p. 9).
Fig. 10: Birthday invitation for the planet Mercury
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Fig. 11: Wanted poster for Peter the paramecium
Once children are invited to engage in these imaginative ventures, they will
construct their own innovative artifacts to reflect curricular knowledge and competencies. Figure 11 displays a wanted poster for Peter the Paramecium composed by
two fifth graders after reading about unicellular protozoa in their science text. The
artifact includes two mug shots, a detailed description of the criminal, grounds for
his arrest, and a reward for his capture, written and fictitiously signed by the Protist
County Sheriff. With the exception of identifying general grading criteria with their
teacher, the entire project was devised by the two girls.
An Apprentice Approach to Content Development
Vygotsky once noted, “It is precisely human creative activity that makes
the human being a creature oriented toward the future, creating the future and
thus altering his own present” (1930/2004, p. 9). This premise is especially true for
young children in their attempts to appropriate and recreate cultural tools from the
preceding generation (Cole, 1996). CHACE builds on Vygotsky’s view of students as
“active, vigorous participants in their own existence and … at each stage of development, children acquire the means by which they can completely affect their world
and themselves” (John-Steiner & Souberman, 1978, p. 123). The implementation of an
apprentice approach further cultivates the power of imagination through fieldwork
simulations and social justice projects.
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Field apprenticeships provide educators with an alternative venue to construct teaching-learning spaces where children engage in open-ended discoveries
and applied adventures. These imaginative ZPDs, like the paleontological study of a
second grade class highlighted in Figures 12-14, can integrate the entire curriculum.
After entering a class time machine, hiking around the swamps of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, and composing an ABC book of the dinosaurs students
met in role-play, teachers might bury bones they have saved in a large dirt pile on
school grounds. The next morning, the children then convene into scientific teams
after being assigned specific roles to engage in a paleontological dig. The students
can apply the curriculum acquired across the disciplines to stake a claim, describe
their field area, extract specimens, and record critical attributes of their findings. A
serious focus can be placed on the proper application of procedures including the
use of map coordinates, empirical observation, the metric system, and disciplinespecific writing genres. Through the scientific method, the children can playfully
explore authentic physical and psychological tools used by professionals, transforming everyday knowledge into scientific understandings (Vygotsky, 1934/1987). After
the discovery of specimens in the field (Fig. 12), students might prepare and transport
artifacts to a classroom laboratory (Fig. 13) where their findings undergo additional
examination, scientific notation, and preservative treatments in new scientific teams.
By the end of the unit, the children can design, build, and curate an exhibition for a
class museum (Fig. 14). The exhibit might be advertised in school hallways, attended
by younger children who receive invitations from siblings or older peers. The final display can be shared with the larger community through a class newsletter or museum
catalogue recording the event.
Fig. 12: Specimen discovery at paleontological expedition
(courtesy of the students and their families)
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Fig. 13: Preparation of artifacts for transportation to the lab
(courtesy of the students and their families)
Fig. 14: Museum exhibition of paleontological findings
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Finally, CHACE classrooms extend Vygotsky’s notion that emotion fuels all
human endeavors including scientific discovery, sports, and work for the welfare of
others. Social justice projects can similarly provide motivating projects where children
appropriate and refine knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions while becoming
agents of change. For example, our second graders collected a sufficient number of
aluminum cans to purchase an acre of rain forest for protection by a conservation
group. Fourth graders completed an investigation on nutrition, food, and hunger by
sponsoring a school-wide, canned food drive called the Great Donation Estimation
Challenge, showcasing their proficiencies in the use of graphs, multiplication, and
percentages (see Fig. 15 and Fig. 16). Fifth-grade emergent biliterates decided the
best way they could combat youth drug use was to donate Spanish-English recordings of their favorite pieces of children’s literature for check-out at the local library.
By targeting constructive solutions, children can actualize the old axiom that “knowledge is power.” In realizing their dreams, students learn to locate themselves and others in positions of empowerment.
Fig. 15: The great donation estimation challenge graph
Fig. 16: The great donation estimation challenge canned
food delivery
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As educators confront the destructive effects of test-driven pedagogies, the
academic literature on creative education has begun to expand. While we honor the
innovative work of scholars in this field (e.g., see Craft, 2005), most writers synthesize a variety of theories and concepts, lacking an integrative framework. In contrast,
CHACE’s foundation in Vygotskian theory offers a solid architecture for the development of novel and imaginative approaches to learning. Further, in drawing on Moll’s
(1992) “funds of knowledge,” CHACE dialectically unites both individual and social
understandings of students. After internalizing the shared knowledge of their communities, social individuals bring this expertise into new environments where it is
added to, transformed, and re-imagined through dignified, caring interactions. As distillations of the constant activity of humanity, by sharing the awe of socially produced
artifacts, we can help children recognize their own never-ceasing inventiveness.
In this paper, we have presented a cultural-historical approach to creative
education by emphasizing the obuchenie that exists between teachers who construct stimulating and imaginative learning environments and children who expand
each other’s creativity through the complementarity evidenced in collaborative
efforts, interactions, and explorations. Rather than focusing primarily on the individual, as is the case in most creativity theories, we emphasize the joint creation of
innovative projects by agents, peers, and activists as collective learning adventures.
We underscore the central role of schooling in the lives of linguistically, economically and culturally diverse children whose education is too frequently oppressive.
In contrast, practitioners of CHACE seek ways to highlight and enhance all children’s
cultural and linguistic funds of knowledge and resilience. In CHACE classrooms,
the power of imagination is honored as students are provided with the expressive
means to transform their emotions, memories, talents, and lives in relationship with
the knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions of the curriculum. Joy, intensity,
inventiveness, and risk-taking are embraced. Play is validated alongside other diverse
semiotic means, broadening children’s functional systems as they are modified and
expanded throughout the course of development. Finally, we assert that children’s
creative activities and engagement in their learning provide a hopeful path to their
future and all of our futures.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
M. Cathrene Connery and Vera John-Steiner
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LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
M. Cathrene Connery and Vera John-Steiner
M. Cathrene Connery (B.F.A. & M.Ed., University of Illinois, Ph.D., University of New Mexico) is Assistant Professor of
Education at Ithaca College. A bilingual educator, researcher
and advocate, she has presented on theoretical, pedagogic,
and programmatic concerns surrounding the education of culturally and linguistically diverse children in the United States
and abroad. Her current scholarly interests include fostering
the success of refugee students, families, and their community
partners. Her books explore cultural-historical approaches to
language, learning, and pedagogy, including Profiles in Emergent Biliteracy: Children Making Meaning in a Chicano Community (2011) and Vygotsky and Creativity: A Cultural-historical Approach to Play, Meaning-making, and the Arts (2010) published
by Peter Lang.
Vera John-Steiner
(B.A. Barnard College, Ph.D. University of Chicago). At Yeshiva University and at the University of
New Mexico she helped develop interdisciplinary programs
in the study of language. After 35 years at UNM, she is currently retired but continues to teach seminars and publishes
books and articles. She recently co-edited Vygotsky and Creat­
ivity with Connery and Marjanovic-Shane. Her books include
Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations on Thinking, winner of the
1990 William James Book Award from the APA and, Creative
Collaboration, a topic which has received much scholarly attention since the book’s publication. Her most recent book,
Loving and Hating Mathematics, is co-authored with the mathematician Reuben Hersh.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for
21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign and the
Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., University of Missouri–Saint Louis
Kristiina Kumpulainen, University of Helsinki
Jeff Hudson, Alton High School in Southern Illinois
This study examines events within a CoLab1 3RDSpace: Summer Leadership Institute on
Creativity & Innovation. The analyses are organized into two telling cases and reveal
how participants develop a shared understanding of ResponsiveDesign, CoLab’s theory of inquiry and innovation. Drawing on an interactional ethnographic perspective,
the analyses make visible the ways in which concepts of space, language, creativity,
and innovation complement one another to form ResponsiveDesign as a powerful approach for educators in any setting to transform their ordinary places into extraordinary spaces for creatively confident learning.
Few ideas emerge fully formed. Instead, innovators often try things out and
then quickly adjust them in the light of experience. Tinkering seems to play
a vital role in all kinds of innovation, involving trial and error, hunches,
and experiments that only in retrospect look rational and planned.
(Johnson, 2011, p. 151)
ave you ever wondered how creativity works in teachers’ professional
lives to harness learning opportunities within formal and semi-formal
learning settings? And what might tinkering and prototyping have to do
with how teachers develop a shared language and theory to help them collaborate­
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
and thrive within diverse learning settings? Questions around how creativity and innovation can be harnessed, to transform how we think of and design learning experiences, focuses the work we do as the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (CoLab, The CoLab is a transdisciplinary community of teacher-researchers concerned with 21st century education and learning, asking the bigger question:
how can schools and non-school settings become innovation spaces where knowledge is no longer just stored and consumed but rather constructed and innovated
upon within and beyond the school setting?
In this article, we share with you our theory of innovation and action called
ResponsiveDesign. Although grounded in and arising out of over eight years of
ongoing teacher-research projects, this study situates our explorations and insights
against the backdrop of a five-day institute from the summer of 2012, involving eight
American universities and three museums, called the 3RDspace Summer Leadership
Institute on Creativity & Innovation. We examine the ways we came to develop a shared
theoretical and pedagogical understanding of ResponsiveDesign, and, the ways we
can apply it to our teaching practices in order to innovate them. The participants were
National Writing Project (NWP) affiliated teacher-researchers from across the United
States, museum educators, graduate students, and one literacy coach from a school
The 3RDspace Summer Leadership Institute on Creativity & Innovation
The experientially and theoretically grounded institute had two mutually
informing goals. The first focused on harnessing the CoLab’s theory of action called
ResponsiveDesign in order to unpack how we think about and understand what
counts as innovative and creative leadership. The second goal was to harness ResponsiveDesign in order to support NWP, Museum, and School District leaders to explore,
envision, and enact creativity-centric partnerships among local formal and semi-formal learning settings.
Thus, our 3RDspace institute goals were situated within the nexus where
formal and semi-formal learning settings overlap: namely schools and National Writing Project sites interacting with and learning from museums and library settings.
From this overlapping “cultures” perspective, we conceived of our institute as being
a “third space,” or state of in-betweenness. In this space, participants could explore
each other’s individual local challenges and prototype radical solutions while concurrently testing ResponsiveDesign in St. Louis locales, making them cultural landscapes for learning that led to powerful insights. From this perspective, the name
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
3RDspace held significance for the group. The number three represented the three E’s
in ResponsiveDesign’s methodological processes: Explore, Envision, Enact, whereas the
RD represented ResponsiveDesign. Thus the 3RDspace connotes the making of learning spaces by harnessing ResponsiveDesign as a theory of action and innovation.
Our Work’s Theoretical Significance and Practical Applications
Although we view our conceptual approach to professional learning as
innovative, the need for this kind of work is not new. In the last decades of the 20th
century, educational scholars have assisted us to conceive of learning as situated phenomena that is socially constructed within formal school settings (Anderson-Levitt,
2002; Dyson, 1993; Dyson et al., 1995; Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 1986; Green &
Meyer, 1991; Heath, 1983) and outside of school settings within the larger constitutive communities of practice (Córdova, 2008; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002) and families’ cultural ways of knowing and being (Moll, Amanti,
Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992; Yeager & Córdova, 2010) with which schools interact. Thus,
accounting for the interactive nature of in-school and out-of-school learning relationships has been the source of robust scholarship in the last four decades, and that
focus is grounded in an even longer research tradition dating back to philosophers
and scholars like John Dewey (1916) and John Cotton Dana (1917).
Since the beginning of the last century, scholars have been conceptualizing the role that experience plays in the processes of teaching and learning inside
(Dewey, 1916; Heathcote & Bolton, 1994) and outside (Dana, 1917; Montessori, 1969)
of schools. Further, how we come to think about school as participatory learning
spaces has been influenced by theorists like Paulo Freire and Loris Malaguzzi who, following in the progressive education tradition, pushed us to think critically about how
the pedagogies we as educators construct contribute to the awakening of critical
consciousness—or hinder it. Thus, a tradition of critical pedagogies has long assisted
educators and researchers in formal settings with ways to conceive of schools beyond
simply places where knowledge is replicated but where new cultures can be invented
(Córdova, 2008, 2010; Freire, 1998).
Knowing is one thing, and we know so much about how learning communities are constructed and the consequences for their particular ways of knowing
and being. Yet, doing is another. Though rich in empirical knowledge, in the fields of
teacher and museum education we seem to know very little about how to actually
harness empirical research, ripe with insights on how learning cultures emerge, and
harness those insights to nurture and grow innovative learning communities in our
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
own backyards. It is this very disconnect between theory and practice, within formal
and semi-formal learning settings, that the CoLab has begun to bridge.
In any sociocultural setting, there are elements that challenge educators’
creativity in designing extended spaces for learning that connect school with communities and students’ learning lives. For example, in the US “teaching for the test”
easily narrows down teachers’ freedom to design 21st century learning opportunities
for their students that build bridges across different communities. Further, teachers
begin to narrow (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Allington, 2001; Córdova & Matthiesen,
2010; MacGillivray, Ardell, Curwen, & Palma, 2004) the educational potential semiformal learning spaces have not only for their students, but also for themselves. In
fact, Crocco and Costigan (2007) have argued that what has been called the narrowing of what counts as curriculum (e.g., Dillon, 2006)—which they expand to include
the impact of mandated, prescribed curriculum that “frequently limits pedagogical
options” (p. 514)—has meant that teachers in many schools “often find their personal
and professional identity development thwarted, creativity and autonomy undermined, and ability to forge relationships with students diminished” (p. 514).
Globally, both formal and semi-formal learning institutions such as museums and libraries are struggling to respond to 21st century learning demands with
“one size fits for all” approaches. These locations whose pedagogical understandings developed in a previous century responding to particular demands of long ago,
are now seeking new approaches relevant to the new challenges (Córdova, 2008;
Murawski & Córdova, 2012). It seems harder than ever for teachers and students to
create learning communities (Dixon & Green, 2009; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1992a, 1992b) that honor students’ and teachers’
lived experiences as funds of knowledge (Moll, 1994; Moll et al., 1992) to build upon
as readers and writers—and researchers.
Thus, we are presented with a daunting task as school and museum based
teacher-researchers to learn how to mitigate the disconnect in cultural expectations
between teachers as they learned to construct a professional learning community,
and between teacher learning communities and the museum environment with its
own cultural expectations. As the CoLab, we seek to create sustainable professional
interdisciplinary learning spaces to nurture and become the researchers of diverse
cultural landscapes, seeking answers to the questions that emerge from our everyday
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Our Inquiry
While space prohibits a reporting of the comprehensive analyses completed
of the five-day institute, our piece is organized as an exploration into a slice of our
work, and, concludes with an invitation for collaboration. Questions leading our
1. How do teacher-researchers and leaders move from individual to collective
understandings of ResponsiveDesign as a theory of action and inquiry? Related
to this question, we explore how teacher-researchers and leaders harnessed
ResponsiveDesign to explore, envision, and enact a cultural practice called the
Artifact Box as an inquiry into teaching practices.
2. How does how we think about space and struggle shed light on how teachers
grapple with complex ideas leading to insights about teaching, learning, and
leadership? Related to this question, we examine how the teacher-researchers
and leaders created and entered transformative spaces for learning when they
engaged in community-based art making alongside a professional communitybased artist, Takashi Horisaki.
First, we begin by discussing the theoretical and methodological considerations undergirding our work including data and setting. Second, we will discuss
what the CoLab is and what its theoretical roots are as an innovative transdisciplinary
community of learners, including defining our theory of action called ResponsiveDesign and how it works. Third, our analyses make visible the creativity-centric theoretical routes that CoLab teacher-researchers have journeyed by describing the fiveday 3RDspace institute. Against this backdrop, we organize our two analyses in what
Mitchell (1984) calls telling cases, which serve as a methodology out of which theory,
concepts, and hypotheses can be drawn, leading to further research. We conclude
with an invitation for international collaboration with the CoLab.
Theoretical and Methodological Traditions
That Orient Our Study
Our views are grounded in an interactional ethnographic perspective (Santa
Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1995) that lets us understand classrooms and
learning settings as cultures (Santa Barbara Classroom Discourse Group, 1992a,
1992b) and knowledge as situated and socially constructed. We expand our view by
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
drawing from the field of museum learning (Hein, 1998; Falk & Dierking, 2000; HooperGreenhill, 2007). From these perspectives, our study reveals how teacher-researchers
can explore issues pertinent to constructing creativity and innovation-focused learning communities in schools and with museums by drawing on theories from anthropology (Frake, 1977; Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 1986; Spradley, 1980), critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1992; Ivanic, 1994), and literary theory (Bakhtin, 1986).
Data and Setting
The data examined in this study were collected during the five-day Summer Leadership Institute on Creativity & Innovation, July 9-13, 2012 in St. Louis. Data
records include video footage, participant work samples, and field notes. The authors
collaboratively collected them across diverse learning settings where the institute
took place: two art museums, a chess museum, and a fine arts gallery. Ralph, first
author, is a university-based researcher. He is Latino, of native Mexican-Indian and
Spanish cultural heritage. Kristiina, second author, is a Finnish educational researcher.
Third author, Jeff is a white man, and high school English teacher-researcher. Ralph
and Jeff co-developed the 3RDspace summer institute along with fellow CoLab members: Michael Murawski, Director of School Services for the Saint Louis Art Museum;
Patricia Swank, high school English teacher; Dawn Jung, university instructor, and Ann
Taylor, university researcher. These CoLab leaders and participants are from the eight
National Writing Project sites and two art museums totaled 25; nineteen women and
six men.
The CoLab’s Roots and Routes
To conceptualize the dynamic nature of the CoLab’s cultural roots and routes
presented in this article, we invoke the concept of morphogenesis (Turing, 1952) and
emergence (Johnson, 2001) to help us understand the organic and spontaneous
processes inherent in the moment-to-moment and over time nature of how humans
socially construct learning cultures at the ground level. Turing posited that complex
systems have origins that emerge organically from the bottom-up, not authoritatively
from the top-down. Johnson argues that organized complexity emerges over time
out of seeming chaos giving shape and physicality to phenomena.
CoLab’s origins can be traced back to an idea planted in 2004 in an innovative and synergistic interplay between diverse National NWP sites and the Santa
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Barbara Classroom Discourse Group (SBCDG, 1992a, 1992b). At that time, Ralph, the
first author, was a bilingual third grade teacher and had just completed his Ph.D. He
first conceived of the Collaboratory idea as a space for NWP teacher-researchers to
explore their classroom and larger communities as cultural landscapes for learning.
Complementing these roots, the routes of action that CoLab members have taken
have led them to collaborate internationally with the Learning Bridges research
network ( located in Finland at the University of Helsinki,
Department of Teacher Education (see also Kumpulainen et al., 2011). In 2005, Finnish researcher Dr. Kristiina Kumpulainen became a CoLab member, leading the group
to collaborate internationally with Finnish teachers, teacher education and interdisciplinary research networks on learning.
From this local-to-global, recursive, school-based learning interplay, CoLab’s
routes further articulated themselves in the form of global teaching and research
partnerships between museums and informal community-based institutions with a
shared focus on interdisciplinary professional learning (Córdova & Murawski, 2010).
Because we are transnationally located, we bring our respective local sociocultural
knowledge of educational policy and practice to our work. It is through this synergistic and dynamic collaboration that we develop shared understandings of the particular educational challenges facing educators in both American and Finnish settings.
In 2009, CoLab began to interact with and learn from Stanford University’s
d.School and faculty. The d.School is an interdisciplinary learning hub, housed at
Stanford, where undergraduate and graduate students work together across all disciplines. The d.School draws on a design-thinking approach, an ethnographic process that invites users to generate ideas, insights, and innovation. Our work with the
d.School enabled us to name and articulate our own theory of innovation and action,
which we named ResponsiveDesign (discussed in the next section).
Thus, CoLab’s morphogenesis reveals a synergistic concept of action that is
informed by seeming disparate places and diverse people, disciplines, and ideas. Our
members self-select to collaborate towards a shared goal of building to learn and to
innovate upon what is presently known in our learning settings. Building upon its
human-centered ethnographic and language centered origins, however, the routes
that the CoLab has taken reveal an image of an organic and dynamic self-learning and
self-teaching organism without one particular physical space.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
What Is ResponsiveDesign?
Our ResponsiveDesign theory of action grew out of our collective efforts to
notice and name the logic-of-inquiry we used in our teacher-researcher work. Therefore, we sought to name our process with language that would account for our ethnographic approach of interacting with and learning from others. In this way our
process could be accessible to educators beyond our local setting. The ethnographic
practice of “deep diving” into situations helps us to respectfully surface people’s needs
(Responsive), while the field of art and design guides us to create prototypes (Design)
of practice to be tested in the field.
Fig. 1: ResponsiveDesign
ResponsiveDesign’s epistemology posits that people are natural theory-makers and theory-testers whose works foster in them innovator growth mindsets that
can become habits of mind. Through the multiple iterative cycles of rapid prototyping used in its work, by exploring to develop empathy, envisioning by deferring judgment, and enacting in order to learn from failure, participants come to conceptualize
their teaching practices as cultural technologies that can be harnessed and innovated
CoLab’s theoretical ethnographic and language-centric roots are at the heart
of ResponsiveDesign’s “DNA”: Dive & Document, Notice & Name, Analyze & Announce.
This play on words, for us, helps us remember our theoretical cultural heritage and
serves to focus ResponsiveDesign’s purpose as a generative, human-centered, and
creativity-harnessing theory of action and innovation.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Examining the 3RDspace Summer Institute
The National Writing Project’s Digital Is Initiative supported eight NWP sites
representing diverse universities and communities, to collaborate with the CoLab
to enact the 5-day institute. NWP’s Digital Is Initiative is funded by the John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. NWP site
leaders and museum educators brought their site-based innovation problems and
educational quandaries to this more global space, thus creating a “third space,” harnessing ResponsiveDesign, where they were to learn innovation-yielding technologies
that CoLab leaders would guide them through.
Therefore there is a double-meaning in the concept being constructed
known as 3RDspace. One meaning resides in the number 3 representing explore,
envision, enact with RD representing ResponsiveDesign. The second meaning, is a theoretical one, developed by scholars in the last two decades to help us to understand
the role that struggle, space, and states of in-betweenness play to help us transform
and grow (Anzaldúa, 1987, 1993; Córdova, 2008; Franquíz, 1999; Gutierrez, Baquedano-López, & Tejeda, 1999).
Franquíz (1999) drew on Anzaldúa’s (1987, 1993) conceptualization of
Nepántla, a Náhuatl word meaning a non-physical state of in-betweenness. People
create Nepántla as they navigate within and across physical and non-physical borders. Nepántla describes the transformative nature of what happens for individuals
and collectives as they simultaneously shape and are shaped by their environments.
Across the overlapping spaces where students, teachers and community-based artists live and work, they struggle with complex ideas, experiences, and issues. For
example, in the context of a fifth-grade classroom learning about the Holocaust, Franquíz (1999) made visible how students assisted each other to navigate the complex
terrain of these social issues and how they applied understandings of inequity and
racism to their everyday lives.
On day one, July 9, 2012 the twenty-five participants began the fiveday experience at the St. Louis Chess Museum Hall of Fame at 9:30 a.m. In Table 1:
3RDspace Daily Events, an overview of each day’s focus is provided. The analyses in
our two telling cases are of events from Day 1, highlighted in green, and Day 2, highlighted in orange.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
Table 1
3RDspace Daily Events and Units of Analysis
Telling Case One: Unpacking and Harnessing ResponsiveDesign
as Shared Theory of Action and Inquiry
At 10:30 a.m. Ralph, a 3RDspace leader, asked each participant to do a bit of
writing, “as an individual, please take just one minute, and I’ll time you, to jot down
in your writer’s notebooks everything that comes to mind when you hear the word
‘explore.’” After a minute, Ralph asked the participants to pair up with particular directions: “Think of the words you are about to share with your partner as your DNA, and
if you hear an intriguing association from your partner, feel free to steal it and add it
to your list.” The pairs were given two minutes to share with each other, and then were
called back to attention as a whole group. Ralph repeated the process again with
them two more times, this time asking them to entertain the word “enact” and then
the word “envision.”
After the repetitive process of unpacking individually and then sharing in
pairs, their understandings of “explore, envision, and enact,” Ralph asked the group to
consider a new challenge as he guided the group to consider the purpose for why we
share ideas with one another. Table 2 contains a transcript of his framing directions in
message units.
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and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Table 2
Framing What Counts as Explore, Envision, Enact
Message Units
Science writer
Steven Johnson
talks about
the coffee houses
of eighteenth century
as being
innovation places
and the birth place
of the Enlightenment.
He tells us
for much of Europe’s earlier history,
people drank ale because
water was dangerous.
Then tea and coffee became available,
and people no longer drunk,
were buzzed on caffeine sharing ideas
in these cramped locations.
He calls coffee houses as
the place where ideas go
to have sex
with each other
As Ralph guided each pairing to consider itself as an “organism” with its particular
understanding of explore, envision, and enact as its working and viable “DNA,” he
opened up for the participants metaphorical ways to understand how ideas are
shared that may lead to new ideas to emerge. When he guided groups to make a
larger organism of four people—with each pairing sharing with the other its understandings of those three words—pairings acted as nodes within networks and their
cross-pairings led to networks to become circuits of understandings.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
After five minutes, he interrupted the groups to instruct them they had a
challenge before them. In the next 10 minutes, they were to take their shared understanding of explore, envision, enact, and theorize, in a visual representation, the ways
those three sets of understandings work together. Five minutes later the four groups
of four participants were asked to share with the larger group what they theorized the
relationship to be among explore, envision, and enact.
In Figures 2 and 3 we see the four groups’ articulations of explore, envision,
and enact. Group One draws on a holistic and natural metaphor to depict its understanding of ResponsiveDesign as a dynamic cycle of life with energy sources, predator,
and prey. Group Two draws on a metaphor from earth science depicting ResponsiveDesign’s explore, envision, enact as an energetic tornado with “perspectives and ideas
that are big and small.” The tornado picks them up and throws them out.” This group
described the force of new ideas to change existing models and perspectives.
Fig. 2: Groups 1 and 2 make visible shared understandings of ResponsiveDesign
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Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
Group Three draws upon a cooking metaphor likening the development of new ideas
akin to baking bread from onset to loaf. They discussed the seeming disparate nature
of the individual ingredients, and, when energy is applied, the result is an altogether
molecularly different product: bread. Group Four drew upon the scientific notion of
the “Big Bang” to articulate that any inquiry has the potential to take one to unexpected understandings, all within the realm of what is possible to be known within
the laws of physics and human understandings of the universe.
Fig. 3: Groups 3 and 4 make visible shared understandings of ResponsiveDesign
When the individual members were afforded opportunities to unpack what each
word, “explore, envision, enact,” represented to them, they were drawing upon their
individual experiences to make present, or visible, any associations with those words
in light of what the prospective 3RDspace institute had the potential to become. When
the individuals became pairs, three times, throughout the first part of the “unpacking”
exercise, they acted as individuals-within-a-collective of knowers. After the exercise,
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
each pair was asked to make sense of its paired understanding of those three verbs
that constitute ResponsiveDesign. By having had this opportunity to engage as both
individual and an individual-within-a-collective (Souza-Lima, 1995) pair, both participants drew upon their individual knowledges to create a shared knowledge.
By harnessing the semiotic processes of inscribing a mediated, negotiated,
and shared understanding of explore, envision, enact into a metaphor, each foursome
made visible to the larger group its temporal understanding of ResponsiveDesign.
As each group shared, as an individual cluster of knowledge, the collective understanding of what could count as explore, envision, enact was socially constructed in
Harnessing ResponsiveDesign to Become “Archaeologists” of Each
Other’s Lives: The Artifact Box
After this public display of individual and shared knowledge of ResponsiveDesign, the group had a ten-minute break after which Patti, a CoLab leader and participant, would ask the group to harness ResponsiveDesign in a different way, this time
as an inquiry methodology as she engaged all members in a lesson. Patti recasted a
typical lesson, called the Artifact Box, as an “Inquiry Into My Practice” (IIMP), which she
wanted to both use to help facilitate community-building among the participants,
and, she also wanted the participants to help her critically examine the lesson/IIMP
after it concluded. For the CoLab, this IIMP process involves a Pre-Brief conversation
between the lead teacher and a “Thinking-Partner.” Then the lesson is enacted. The
IIMP process is concluded with a public reflective conversation between the lead
teacher and the Thinking-Partner about what took place during the lesson.
The Artifact Box is a teaching and learning technology that involves participants collecting items that represent themselves, placing them in a box or bag, and,
then setting them up, in a curated approach, in a shared space that will become a
“gallery.” Each person then walks around silently in the gallery space, interacting with
the curated objects that colleagues assembled for them, leaving feedback guided by
“I noticed...” and “I wonder...” on sticky notes placed on the items. After about fifteen
minutes of noticing and wondering, all participants return to their own Artifact Box,
and read through the noticings and wonderings. They are then to select one of the
most compelling pieces of feedback and engage in a 15-minute, sustained, moment
of writing to address that noticing or wondering. To conclude, participants pair up
and read their writing, and, then aloud to the whole group.
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Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
IIMP pre-brief.
During the Artifact Box Pre-Brief, Patti would harness ResponsiveDesign’s
explore, envision, enact iterative cycles with a colleague, Ralph, as her “Thinking-Partner” to critically examine the Artifact Box process. At the CoLab, a Thinking-Partner
helps the lead teacher, about to enact a prototype of her practice, to verbally articulate aloud what she will explore in the lesson, what she envisions will occur, and, when
enacted, what she wants learners to walk away knowing and caring about. The IIMP’s
“Pre-Brief” conversation took place in front of the participants with whom she would
shortly enact her prototype of practice. This was a process of building empathy, of
listening. Acting as Patti’s thinking partner, Ralph’s role is crucial; he served as the
empath. He guided the pre-brief through a process of noticing: “So I heard you say…”
and questioning, “I wonder…” Ralph drew out and makes visible for everyone, Patti’s
expertise, her locally held wisdom.
Enacting the IIMP.
While enacting her IIMP, Ralph took notes, while Patti guided the group
through an hour-long exploration of each other’s artifacts as lived experiences, interrogations, and wonderings of those artifacts, which then led to sustained writing in
response to those artifacts. In Figure 4, we see teacher-researcher, Jeff’s (third author)
Artifact Box containing fishing fly-ties, pictures of his daughters, and National Writing
Project paraphernalia. As the artifact-box inquiry was enacted, each participant dove
in, suspending judgment. Each learner attended fully to what unfolded, feeling safe
in the knowledge that part of the process would involve an opportunity to debrief,
to envision possibilities, to appropriate the learning for his/her own purposes and
Fig. 4: Jeff’s Artifact Box
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Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
Each member of a learning community was valued as a knower. Each member was
supported and pushed to move along the continuum from less expertise to more
expertise. In taking the lead, Patti allowed all learners to envision themselves sharing
and inquiring into practice.
Debriefing the IIMP.
During the IIMP Debrief, Patti and Ralph reflected upon what they both
noticed during the learning experience. She noted that this application of the Artifact Box was to support diverse people from across the country to get to know each
other, while simultaneously demonstrating how the Artifact Box technology worked
as an Inquiry Into My Practice (IIMP) using ResponsiveDesign as a theory of inquiry and
After the debrief, Patti asked participants to write reflectively about the
entire experience. This reflection written in Jeff’s notebook moments after Patti’s IIMP
provides us with insight about how participants were making sense of and connections with the experience:
What we just experienced actually started several days ago when we were asked
to assemble the artifacts—symbolic representations of identity, of experience,
of memory. Then, via Patti’s instructions, we let our identities ripple out and
interact with others, strangers who are less strange now.
Via our [sticky note] noticings and wonderings we conjured stories—powerful
stories which reveal connections, which now constitute the fabric squares of this
new quilt (the quilt metaphor here is the direct residue of another Artifact Box
containing a quilt made for students), Patti guided us from individual to community member and back again.
—Jeff’s journal entry, July 9, 2012
Looking back at this event, we notice the intentionality of Patti’s leadership.
It was not an accident that another teacher’s Artifact Box became a metaphor that Jeff
employed to make sense of the experience. Patti had guided the participants to interact with one another’s identity, to slip in and out of one another’s stories. We, thereby,
were both shaping and shaped by one another. We co-constructed this space for literate action and learning.
The transparency of Patti’s leadership, the careful exploring, envisioning,
and enacting allowed us to fully attend to one another. We were given space to notice
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
and wonder. We were given space to be the expert, to be the storyteller, as an attentive and supportive audience solicited our stories from us. Finally, we were guided
back to ourselves and given space to wrestle with the “So What?” of the experience,
given space to envision a future for the experience both literally and figuratively.
This process of harnessing ResponsiveDesign to tackle challenges bridging
formal and semi-formal learning settings ensued across the 3RDspaces’ five days. By
Friday, day 5 of the institute, teacher-researchers had become confident navigators
of seemingly disparate cultural landscapes of museums and community settings, by
exploring, envisioning, and enacting shared inquiries into whose knowledge counts
and further refined their individual inquiries and questions to take back to their
respective sites. In this way, teacher-researchers were supported to become teacherleaders as they would return home and guide others to unpack and then harness
ResponsiveDesign as a prototyping approach to teaching and learning.
Telling Case Two: Constructing Spaces for Struggling With Complex
A powerful example of ResponsiveDesign’s “Explore: Developing Empathy”
and the transformative role that space can play in our learning was made visible to
us on Day 2 of our time together that week. Community-based artist Takashi Horisaki invited teachers to grapple with seemingly foreign concepts of performance art
that document cultural settings. He helped the group engage in his artistic process
of making latex castings of architectural features of buildings near the Contemporary
Art Museum. Over cocktails and dinner the night before there were playful and coy
hints at what the day would bring. Participants knew it would involve latex, but were
given little more. This ambiguity of the day’s events asked participants to rely on their
unpacking of ResponsiveDesign, asked them to understand the work as an exploration. As such, they exercised their empathy “muscles.” They depended upon the support of this emerging community of learners. Further, as a metaphor for classroom
practice, Horisaki’s work with teacher-leaders at the art museum challenged certain
conventional wisdom—the convention of spelling out lesson objectives ahead of
time, of providing copious background notes and information prior to any exploration, for example.
In addition to the cognitive ambiguity of “the lesson,” the day promised
physical challenges as well. The blazing sun and forecast excessive heat warnings had
folks slathering on sunscreen, hydrating vigorously, and devising all sorts of shade
from hats to canopies and tarps. Direction from Takashi and his aides was sparse.
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Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
Participants were given a paintbrush, cheesecloth, and a cup of pigment-shaded latex
and directed to find a surface to begin coating.
Participants settled into clusters working together on shared parts of the
building (See Fig. 5, Picture A). Teachers began discussing and sharing. Discussions
ranged from personal stories of family and summers to the sharing of work and
research interests. Takashi, the artist, often initiated conversation by sidling up to an
isolated or quiet painter and asked questions. A couple of things happened in these
moments. Diverse and individual experiences began to ripple out, to both shape and
be shaped by the community. In addition, Takashi was able to demonstrate various
latex casting techniques while each artist was engaged in the very process. As folks
talked and imitated, this knowledge spread through the community.
Fig. 5: Documenting our cultural landscapes with latex
Once settled in ambiguity, teachers actually began to attend to what was
before them. Expectations and questions about “what is the purpose? What are we
doing? What’s the significance?” all receded into the background as an intensive
2-hour “doing” phase emerged. In pushing aside preconceived notions and expectations of educational purpose, participants created a state of in-betweenness and thus
enacted Nepántla, or the 3RDspace, into being.
Within the span of two hours, the teacher-leaders’ castings had dried and
then began the process of peeling away the latex (Fig. 5, Picture B), revealing a mold of
the negative spaces from various parts of the building and sidewalk. Artists marveled
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Nurturing Creativity and Professional Learning for 21st Century Education: ResponsiveDesign
and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
at the surprising and colorful castings—surprised as if they were an unexpected gift, a
result of their labor. Each cluster of teacher-leaders emerged anew as community artists whose process and product represented the art-as-meaning-making experience.
After lunch, the day’s experience ended inside The Contemporary Art
Museum. The task: to make sense of the “what happened” earlier in the day. First, a
Quick-Write summarized the varied individual experiences of the day: “What did we
do with that building today…what just happened?” The group discussed, what came
to be called the “So What?,” of the day’s experience. Horisaki shared with the group
his process of developing his art-making techniques stemming from his childhood
in Japan, where he had experienced the consequences of rapid city-growth that led
to the loss of historical cultural landscapes. He developed a passion for documenting
city landscapes alongside city dwellers to tell the “hidden stories” of the city.
These teacher-leader/artists then had an opportunity to explore Horisaki’s
installation at the Contemporary Art Museum documenting elements of St. Louis’
architectural cultural landscapes (see Fig. 6).
Fig. 6: Takashi Horisaki’s latex castings of St. Louis, Missouri
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
Mike, a participant and museum-based teacher-leader wrote of the day’s experience
later on the group’s blog:
This first word that comes to my mind as I reflect on the day’s experiences is …
DISEQUILIBRIUM. Yes, that word that we all run into in teacher ed courses and ed
psych texts, but rarely experience in such a deep, raw way as we may have done
today. And not only did we experience the dizzying discomfort of disequilibrium
(that’s a lot of d’s, I realize), but we had a new language and new community
with which to dissect the experience, share our personal elements of that experience, and take pieces of it away to build something new later down the road. As
I mentioned on Monday, I think there is a certain amount of discomfort needed
in order to drive the learning process forward in meaningful and transformative
— Mike, July 10, 2012
Mike’s insights remind us of the nature of disequilibrium or discomfort as instructive
phenomena, and when we allow ourselves to attend to this state of in-betweenness,
we can emerge transformed with insights and visions toward new professional action.
Concluding Thoughts and an Invitation
to “CoLaborate”
The 3RDspace became a place to explore ResponsiveDesign as a shared
theory of action and shared way of exploring diverse cultural landscapes. Group
members harnessed cultural practices and technologies to dig into their local vexing
problems around the Common Core State Standards, high stakes teacher evaluation
concerns facing most United States teachers, and the growing interest for schools
to open themselves up to develop partnerships with community-based institutions
such as museums. ResponsiveDesign’s explore, envision, enact is an iterative and nonlinear process that can yield a logic of inquiry, tailor-made for the user, that guides
her/him into a prototyping mindset to rethink ordinary teaching into an extraordinary opportunity for revising and innovating upon failing teaching practices.
When a group of National Writing Project leaders, museum educators, and
district literacy coaches develop a shared logic of inquiry as a theory of action, they
can harness ResponsiveDesign’s prototyping energy to co-explore, co-envision, and
co-enact innovations to enhance otherwise sometimes static, prepackaged, and
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and the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory
lackluster educational cultural practices. This study focused on just one slice of the
dynamic and situated nature of how CoLab teacher-researchers convene as a group
to inquire into their respective individual challenges, assist each other to take risks
into new territories by harnessing design-centric methodologies, and, thus emerge
transformed in and through the 3RDspace they individually and collectively created
for each other.
We close by inviting you, our future colleagues, to join us as we explore,
envision, and enact more 3RDspaces, where we further test ResponsiveDesign’s application in formal and semi-formal learning settings in international contexts. Together,
we can develop and innovate educational innovations for the benefit of 21st century
1. The Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (CoLab) is a transdisciplinary community
of P-21 teacher-researchers who share a passion and practice for transforming ordinary places into extraordinary creative spaces for professional learning.
CoLab emerged over time from the dynamic interplay among teacher-researchers from diverse National Writing Project sites, university-based ethnographic
researchers, and museum-based educators.
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LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Ralph A. Córdova Jr., Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Jeff Hudson
Ralph A. Córdova Jr.
is teacher, educational ethnographer, and researcher. A bilingual former 3rd grade teacher in
Santa Barbara, CA, he now teaches at the University of Missouri–Saint Louis. Ralph draws on an interactional ethno­
graphic perspective to conceive of formal learning places like
classrooms, and semi-formal places such as museums as cultural landscapes for learning. His areas of expertise are in literacy development, professional development, creativity, and
Kristiina Kumpulainen, Ph.D., is a professor of education
at the Department of Teacher Education at the University of
Helsinki. She specializes in formal and informal learning, learning environments, innovative schools and their pedagogies,
teacher professional development as well as undertaking interdisciplinary research for the promotion of learning in the 21st
century. Professor Kumpulainen has spearheaded many international research projects examining learning and education
from the sociocultural perspective. She has published/co-published over 85 articles and chapters, and delivered more than
100 papers at national and international conferences. She is
the chief editor of Life Long Learning in Europe (LLinE) Journal
and JETEN, Journal of European Teacher Education Network.
Jeff Hudson has been teaching high school English in Alton, Illinois for the last 17 years. He holds an MA in teaching
writing from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He is
also a founding fellow and co-director of the Piasa Bluffs Writing Project, a National Writing Project site at SIUE, and a member of the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory leadership.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Enabling Creativity in Learning Environments:
Lessons From the CREANOVA Project
John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair,
and Nikolaos Bizas
University of Edinburgh
The paper employs data from a European Union funded project to outline the different contexts and factors that enable creativity and innovation. It suggests that
creativity and innovation are supported by flexible work settings, adaptable learning
environments, collaborative design processes, determined effort, and liberating innovative relationships. It concludes that learning environments that seek to enable
creativity and innovation should encourage collaborative working, offer flexibility for
both learners and educators, enable learner-led innovative processes, and recognize
that creativity occurs in curriculum areas beyond the creative arts.
his article1 employs the findings of the CREANOVA project (carried out
2009-2012) to investigate how individual, structural, and inter-subjective
relational issues defuse or escalate creativity in learning and working environments; and analyzes what lessons can be learned for educationalists who seek
to promote creative learning environments. CREANOVA was a major European Union
(EU) research project funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive
Agency (EACEA) of the European Commission (European Commission Project Number 143725-LLP-1-2008-1-ES-KA1-KA1SCR). The project involved universities, vocational education specialists, regional governments, creative and technical experts
from the Basque Country (Spain), Estonia, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and
Scotland (UK). It investigated how learning environments, workspaces, and design
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John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
processes were constructed to achieve sustainable innovation in the technology and
creative industries.
Creativity is a “vague” and “elusive” term that has different connotations in
contrasting contexts (NACCCE, 1999). Most writers suggest that creativity involves
novel ideas and knowledge (Craft, 2005; Goldenberg & Mazursky, 2002). While literatures in the past have conceptualized creativity as a solitary individual act (Saracho,
2002), there has been a recent increasing assertion that creativity is also a group activity (Sawyer, 2012; Sefton-Green, 2000).
Various writers have defined the conceptual frameworks that underpin different definitions of creativity, for example, individual, collective, emergent, and interpersonal, and have argued that our understanding of creativity and its usage is very
dependent on context (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Misztal, 2007). In the past, creativity
has been synonymously associated with artists and individuals who have changed
the world through their inventions and discoveries (Sternberg, 2003). Creativity was
conceptualized as an individual process, that happened only with extraordinary individuals and it was linked with divine or artistic quality that could only be delivered
by very few super-intelligent or spiritual human beings (Misztal, 2007; Sawyer, 2012;
Sternberg, 2003).
Changes in perception now lead us to think that creativity is also collective
and it can happen through process, dialogue, brainstorming, consultation, group
activity, and facilitation (Craft, 2005; Sawyer, 2012; Sternberg, 2003). This shift to a
notion of creativity as a collective process raised questions for the CREANOVA project
concerning what environments enabled human beings to be creative in their everyday life and what factors supported their capacity to develop and execute creative
practice. It has been argued that creativity is stimulated or comes from an underlying need, e.g., economic, social, personal, technical, and so on (Sternberg, 2003).
Hence, the CREANOVA project was interested in understanding the connections
between collective and individual issues concerning need and environment, to identify whether there were connections between different factors that promoted creativity and innovation, and to contribute to debates that characterize creativity as an
ambiguous concept (Misztal, 2007).
The CREANOVA project sought to respond to writing that had called for a
more cogent analysis of creativity (Sefton-Green, 2000). It aimed to examine in more
detail the environments, factors, and relationships that enabled collaborative working in systems and to pose both quantitative and qualitative questions of respondents
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concerning what a supportive creative environment looked like and how such environments worked. The project sought to carry out factor analysis to examine the comparability and interdependency among four key factors of creativity: need, freedom,
environment, and social interaction. It also connected this data to qualitative data
from interviews. Before proceeding to identify and discuss the results of the study this
paper briefly outlines the methods employed in the study.
Four sources of information and data.
The project involved a review of international literature in the field that established our conceptual basis; an online statistical questionnaire of people in creative
and technical sectors; experimental case studies that piloted innovative and creative
learning tools; and qualitative interviews of key experts and creative people who had
developed innovative business designs, practices, and strategies. This paper draws
from the analysis of the statistical questionnaire and qualitative interviews to raise
key questions about the connecting factors that influence creativity and innovation.
Twelve hundred individuals in companies in the technical and creative
industries were contacted in four countries including the United Kingdom, Basque
Country (Spain), Finland and Estonia to participate in an online questionnaire. A total
of 507 respondents completed the questionnaire from the 1200 invitees, providing
a response rate of 42.25%. Among the respondents 148 worked in the public sector,
309 worked in the private sector, and 22 worked in the voluntary sector. Sixty eight
respondents were male and 239 respondents were female. As well, 229 were managers or team leaders and 278 were workers or trainee workers. Participants were asked
to respond by way of a five-point Likert scale to a series of questions concerning
themselves, their colleagues, and their organizations and issues of creativity, innovation and learning. In order to be able to unpack the results in a more in-depth way,
45 key respondents who were identified as having led innovative processes or organizations took part in qualitative interviews in the Basque Country (Spain), Estonia,
Finland, Italy, and Scotland (UK).
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The results section briefly considers definitions of creativity and innovation
before demonstrating the relationship among the four key factors: need, freedom,
environment, and social interaction, however, it also demonstrates that there were
gaps in the factor analysis and utilizes qualitative data to consider these gaps.
Defining Creativity and Innovation
Creativity is an ambiguous concept that is difficult to separate out from
the concept of innovation, as it is a time-bound moment that brings something
new into the world that may or may not be useful. The respondents to the qualitative interviews described creativity as the individual and collective ability to produce
new ideas and solve problems in ways that had the potential to change the way that
people engaged with objects or activities in their everyday worlds (in keeping with
a range of authors, e.g., Ibáñez et al., 2010; Mumford & Gustafson, 1998; Woodman,
Sawyer & Griffin, 1993). The findings corroborated exiting literature that suggested
creativity was not only an individual endeavour, but was also collective and collaborative (Faulkner & Coates; 2011; Sawyer, 2012). It also expanded our understanding
that creative outcomes, new inventions, discoveries, ideas, and imagination can also
emerge through collective processes and interactions within systems (e.g., through
collective dialogue that facilitates individuals and groups to come up with new ideas
or knowledge or overcome disagreements). This finding supported the work of Csikszentmihalyi (1999), who conceptualized creativity as an outcome of the interplay
among a creative individual who developed new ideas and possibilities, the cultural
domain which had a set of symbolic rules and procedures for receiving, preserving
and transmitting novel ideas, and the field that judged, recognized, and valued the
creative process. The findings supported the idea that creativity was perceived not
only as an individually motivated intrinsic act, but also as an activity that thrived and
emerged in individuals within the system during moments of dialogue that enabled
interaction between individual impulses and external environment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Yet, it also encouraged us to go beyond such writing that mainly focused
on the individual (rather than groups) within the system to consider the context of
collective, collaborative creative, and innovative processes.
For example, respondents in the CREANOVA project connected the concept
of innovation to creativity; sometimes it was suggested that they were they same
thing but at other times it was argued that innovation followed on from creative or
that innovation as a process enabled creative ideas to come to fruition. People felt
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innovation allowed creativity to have practical meaning and stemmed from individuals thinking creatively, unrestricted by conventional or traditional boundaries.
Innovation was described as enabling people to solve pressing problems, adapt to
changing circumstances, or learn from the past. People suggested that if change processes were to occur smoothly, creativity and innovation should be inseparable from
notions of design and that design was a collaborative and inter-relation process.
The findings of the CREANOVA project at first appeared confusing and contradictory, for example, when the respondents suggested creativity and innovation
were the same thing or alternatively that one followed the other (Davis et al., 2011;
Farrier, Quinn, Bruce, Davis, & Bizas, 2011). However our deeper analysis suggested
that it was possible to expand the definition of creativity to argue that it was any act,
idea, or product that changes an existing situation. Creativity and innovation were
seen as similar activities with the proviso that innovation was a process that involved
creativity. These findings concurred with literature that argued creativity was the precursor to innovation, and innovation was “the successful execution of creative ideas
or new product by the whole organisation” (Sawyer, 2012, p. 8).
Need, Desire, Motivation, and Inspiration
In keeping with a number of writers (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Misztal, 2007;
Saracho, 2002; Sternberg, 2003; Sawyer, 2012), the respondents in CREANOVA project
interviews argued that the desire for creativity is both external and internal and that
it can be motivated by social, economic, inter-personal, technological, and communitarian factors.
Our status resulted in us choosing an innovative market strategy, unlike our
rivals, to maintain market share in the higher elements of the product range.
The first reason was to distinguish ourselves from the big producers, who
use traditional weighing systems with load cells.
Yes, be more practical. Innovation for innovation’s sake cannot be the objective. Do you get me? You have to innovate for the market. (Personal communication, respondent, Basque Country technical sector)
Internally, the urge for creativity for participants was linked with various
intrinsic qualities of an individual such as imagination, self-motivation, the need to
develop new skills, determination, perseverance, and so on. Externally, the thrust
for creativity came from the impact of structural factors (e.g., changes in market
forces, management approaches, performance review, and competition from other
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John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
organizations, etc.) on individuals or groups and involved inter-relational issues such
as the need to resolve organizational conflict.
There is an important distinction between innovation for me or for my organization which might need something totally new, never done before and
have a need for novelty in the full organization (not just one department);
easier, more secure and faster solutions; or more transparency (Personal
communication, respondent, creative industry Estonia)
Somewhat surprisingly, the factor analysis from the online questionnaire
found that creativity and innovation had no significant statistical relationship with
need. We surmised that respondents had not fully understood our questions on this
topic and concluded that subsequent research should consider rephrasing our needrelated questions.
The interview respondents argued that the need to be creative did not
always stem from the aspiration to achieve individual gains, but also came from a
wish to support others to achieve their aspirations. People stated that being and staying creative itself was one of the most challenging tasks in their job. Despite this pressure they described the challenge to create things in the learning or working environment as highly motivating.
Table 1
Factors for Creativity and Innovation, Environments, Learning, Freedom
and Interaction
Tests of Sampling Adequacy, Sphericity and Variance by Factor
Total Variance
Test (p <0.05) Explained
Environment 1: organizational
goals, policy, and management
Environment 2: perceived creativity
and innovativeness of organization
and colleagues
Learning 1: Training on Creativity
Learning 2: Training on Innovation
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Table 1 demonstrates that environment, learning, freedom, and interaction
emerged from the online questionnaire as statistically significant key factors in creativity and innovation. In the interviews a number of types of work environments
were found to enable creativity and innovation. For example, those that had flexible
working practice, enabled cultural exchange, supported participants to put abstract
ideas into practice by focusing learning processes on everyday concerns, facilitated
dialogue (particularly around issues of conflict), and enabled participants to structure
their own learner-led activities. It was concluded that when attempting to stimulate
creativity and innovation there is a need to balance supportive organizational structures, learning opportunities, interaction between colleagues, and freedom or flexibility to attempt new things.
Environment was found to be about the relationships between people
and the social structures that are constructed in organizations in terms of interaction, power-relationships, and hierarchy. Environment included the educational, economic, political, and social systems under which the conditions of innovation and
creativity were forged, tolerated, accepted, rejected, or enhanced by people within
social spaces (Davis et al., 2011).
Two dimensions of environment were identified: Environment 1 involving
organizational characteristics (e.g., design of workspaces, organizational goals, managerial styles, policies, rules, systems, frameworks, etc.). Environment 2 involving perceived organizational creativity and innovation where individuals and groups were
enabled by the organizational culture to act autonomously and collectively (e.g.,
individual experience of training in creativity, individual experience of training on
innovation, availability of local learning spaces, worker freedom, and worker social
Qualitative findings suggested that respondents valued working together
in environments that were creative, innovative, and (crucially) designed around the
common good. The results implied strongly that creativity and innovation were not
“individually heroic” traits. On the contrary, they could be connected to inter-relational sensitivity, gentility, generosity, caring, compassion, and recognition (Davis et
al., 2011). Additionally, innovation and creativity were identified as benefiting from
processes that adjusted organizational and structural conditions to allow for flexible
distribution of roles, themes, and problems. These findings indicated that creativity
lay in the connection and interrelationship between the individual and the environment. Indeed, Table 2 demonstrates the correlation scores among the various factors.
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John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
Table 2
Correlation Among Factors
men onmen
Environment 1
Environment 2
Learning 1
Learning: 2
The correlation scores in the table above illustrate the complex web of interrelationships among factors. Most factors were interrelated with the exception of the
Environment 1 organizational structure which was not correlated with freedom or
learning on innovation. This suggests that some factors co-exist without influencing
each other.
Diversity, Freedom, and Interaction—A Condition for Innovation
Respondents to the survey and interviews highlighted the need for diversity
and tolerance as a condition for innovation. They suggested that innovation flourished in settings where staff were enabled to challenge traditional approaches, welcome difference, contest hierarchies, experience openness, feel respected, and avoid
sanctions for mistakes. Respondents also highly valued work environments that were
free from time-pressure anxiety and enabled risk taking, tolerance of ambiguity,
autonomy, reflection, self-directed working, and the promotion of high degrees of
When linear regression was run with all the independent variables in our
survey data, very encouraging results were produced. The multiple correlation
coefficient (R=0.629a), which looked at the association of all the variables together,
including environment, training, interaction freedom, and so forth, showed that the
variables were highly correlated and that they predict creativity and innovation in
environments very well. The R Square (R Square = 0.396) meant that roughly 39.6%
of the variance in creativity and innovation in environments could be explained
by the combination of training, interaction, and freedom, a very good percentage.
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Correlations among factors are given in Table 2 that illuminate the relationships
between the dependent variable and the influence of the independent variables.
Our ANOVA significance test showed that the model was statistically significant and appropriate. Additionally, our coefficient table showed us that the independent variables positively affect creativity and innovation in environments (e.g., the
higher the social interaction in an environment, the more creativity and innovation
identified in it). As seen in Figure 1, all factors that correlate do so positively. So, for
example, the more freedom there exists in an environment, the more creativity and
innovation is identified in it and the more social interaction. The same was found for
social interaction, which had the strongest correlation with creativity and innovation.
Creativity and
of Environment
Environment 1
Fig. 1: Influence of 3 factors on creativity and innovation of environment
However, Environment 1 correlated weakly on its own with creativity and
innovation and had a non-significant correlation with freedom. Figure 2 illustrates the
correlation relationships among the factors after we have removed environment.
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John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
Creativity and
of Environment
Fig. 2: Influence of two factors on creativity and innovation of environment
When connected to interview and case study data, this suggested that
flexible frameworks were more necessary factors than total individual freedom for
creativity and innovation. Hence, collaboration seemed more important than individual freedom, that is respondents perceived that, the stronger the social interaction
there was in an environment (e.g., the more workers shared the same values, humour
influenced their work place, issues of equality and diversity were valued in the workplace); and the more freedom there was (the more people were autonomous to make
choices, use personal initiative, etc.), then the more creative and innovative were the
environments. This suggested that the inter-relational context within which people
are located plays an important part in creativity and innovation. It was possible to
conclude that the skill, knowledge, values and experience of a person is not enough
to stimulate creativity if the spaces that learners/workers live in are so formally structured or limited that they do not meet people’s aspirations to practically utilize their
creative potentials (Farrier et al., 2011). In particular, it was argued in qualitative interviews that companies would be wasting money on training on innovation and creativity if the contexts within which people worked did not enable them to be free to
interact with others to put into practice what they had learnt from the training.
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To innovate, a tradition of innovating must be deeply rooted in all segments
of the company. It must be a constant in all areas, from human relations
to sales representatives, production and management staff. They must be
capable of defending their area, overcoming quarrels, jealousy and in-company struggles. An innovation culture must exist. (Personal communication,
respondent, Creative industry, The Basque Country)
These findings support the work of writers that critique top-down management ideas
that assume, for instance, that workers needed extrinsic rewards and monitoring
(Seddon, 2008). Our study results substantiated other literature that has argued that
creativity and innovation can be hindered or crushed by rigid hierarchy, simplification, uniformity and control associated with traditional industrial and school systems
(Sawyer, 2012).
On a whole, the environment was seen as an important factor for facilitating creativity and innovation. The CREANOVA project was able to clarify the different
aspects of “environment” that supported change (e.g., mentoring, flexible rules, relevant working agreements, technology, well-designed working spaces, teamwork, etc.).
The qualitative findings were also able to suggest other factors that might
explain the gaps in the factor analysis; for example, during interviews respondents
emphasized the importance of design, planning, and “stick-ability.” Stick-ability was
defined as “staying the course” and seeing plans or agreements through to the end.
Respondents suggested that a combination of individual and structural factors
pushed individuals and groups to stay focused, positive, and creative.
It requires a long-term commitment, one shouldn’t give up after the first
or fifth failure. People are not the same; not everyone is a developer; some
people even suffer from too much freedom. We also need people who are
more monotonic and repetitive. (Personal communication, respondent, Finland technical industry)
I suppose creativity is the resource that you have that you can draw on, which
then goes in through a design process, and leads you to an innovation. So
design is like the glue, we call it the glue between creativity and innovation,
so creativity doesn’t necessarily have to have a purposeful output and innovation is a new way of doing things and a new way of approaching things,
but it has a practical implication and the design process is what links the two
of them. (Personal communication, respondent, creative industry, Scotland)
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In this way, design (or structure) was identified as a bridge (or the glue)
between creativity and innovation. This also suggested that it was as important for
people to learn about how to plan innovative processes that enabled them to deliver
creative outcomes so as to learn about how to be creative. The final discussion section of the paper connects such findings to literature on learning, innovation, and
creativity. The CREANOVA respondents particularly stated that creativity and innovation benefited from collaborative, multi-professional and cross-cultural learning and
the final section considers this finding in relation to work-related learning and to children’s learning.
Discussion: What Do the CREANOVA Project
Findings Mean for Children’s Learning?
Participants in the CREANOVA project viewed learning and working contexts as crucial to creativity and innovation. This enabled us to reject traditional
behaviourist models of learning that have suggested that people learn from repetition, reinforcement, reward, and punishment (Laird, 1985). In schools these ideas
have been challenged by the constructivist idea that learning should enable the
learner to analyze, conceptualize, and synthesize their prior experience into new
knowledge, and that the teacher or instructor should reflectively facilitate the learning environment when trying to transmit knowledge (Dahlberg, Moss, & Pence, 1999;
Popkewitz & Bloch, 2001). Such ideas suggested children required a certain degree
of freedom to be involved with the activity of their choice, but at the same time they
also argued that children needed a mentor or facilitator for guidance (Foster, 1971).
It is argued that creativity itself is a challenging task, it demands certain skills, and
that these skills have to be learnt or nurtured in childhood through training or education. Yet, the preponderance in schools of romantic models of creativity that believed
creative individuals are born, not made, offer little room for adult-led nurturing of
creativity and also ignored the role of peer group interaction (Sefton-Green, 2000).
The CREANOVA project findings bring into question writing that places emphasis
on the liberal concept of individual success stimulated by individual teacher-child
interaction and suggests that we should reengage with the concept of peer and collaborative learning. Collectivist notions of creativity identified in the CREANOVA project can more easily be connected with writing that highlights the need for flexibility
when considering the emerging nature of creative ideas in childhood (Sawyer, 2012).
More contemporary writing has connected the idea of individual reflection to group
approaches to reflexive learning that highlight the connections among experience,
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environment, flat hierarchies, learning, sharing, and reflection. Such writing promotes the idea that change can be stimulated by collective dialogue of everyday
problems (Davis & Smith, 2012; Dewey, 1938; Turnbull, 2009), that learning embedded
in an emergent activity can enable a qualitative transformation of the entire activity
system (Davis et al., 2011; Davis & Smith, 2012; Engeström, 2004), and that there is a
strong relationship among learning pedagogies, the construction of children in the
curriculum, and creativity (Craft, 2005; Foster, 1971).
Learning pedagogies shape learning environments, both formal ones that
are envisaged overtly in educational curriculum documents and informal ones that
are underpinned in adult-child interaction (Craft, 2005; Moyles, 2010a). It is not clear
that those trying to promote creative learning in schools are able to always utilize flexible approaches to learning that enable children to learn collaboratively. Indeed, arts
and media topics are introduced in the curriculum because they are believed to be
the subjects best suited to nurturing creativity in children. Yet this leads many teachers to fail to associate creativity with processes inherent in arts-based curriculum—
for example, teachers may well overlook the creative planning and design aspects of
more science-based topics (Sefton-Green, 2000). There has often been discontinuity
in the way creativity is embedded in different curricula. It has been argued that the
focus of the curriculum is often on art activities rather than cross-curricular skills and
life skills (Craft, 2005). For example, teachers sometimes ignore the suggestions that
creativity can be connected to the whole curriculum and disregard the principle that
creativity is important not only for visual arts, but it is also relevant in other aspects of
learning—in peer interaction, in problem solving, in language socialization, and so
on (Craft, 2011).
The CREANOVA project findings suggest that schools who utilize interactive approaches to learning may enable children to develop creative planning, resilience, and “stick-ability” skills that will be very useful in future creative workplaces.
The project findings also suggested that a focus on joint problem solving in schools
might better enable children to identify with collective and less hierarchical notions
of creativity. The CREANOVA project enabled us to conclude that learning environments that seek to promote creativity and innovation should interactively enable and
stimulate the impulses, interest, intentions, and actions of the learner (Davis & Smith,
2012). This finding raises questions about how effective we are at promoting learning on creativity and innovation in ways that enable people to learn about innovation as a process. The findings also encourage us to pose questions concerning how
effective we are at helping children learn how to plan and develop processes of innovation that enable creative ideas to come to fruition or learners to experience and
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overcome uncertainty and discontinuity. We concluded, as others have, that there is
an inherent tension in how creativity is pronounced in policy documents and how
it is translated into practice in learning environments (Burnard & White, 2008; Craft,
2005; Moyles, 2010a). Although creative agendas are expressed in policy documents,
for example, that articulate the need for creative education in schools and emphasize freedom and empowerment, educational practices are bureaucratized through
central administration and control regimes and school authorities are pressured to
comply with standards through performativity (Burnard & White, 2008).
The CREANOVA findings also raise questions about what approaches stimulate collaborative creativity in childhood. Playful pedagogies are strongly advocated
as a means to achieve creativity in childhood, particularly in the early years. Play
can be viewed as “spontaneous and joyful, stylised and regulated, revealing imbalances of power and social hierarchy and also as blurring the boundaries of the real
and imaginary” (Montgomery, 2009, p. 143). It is postulated that play is a most natural activity that happens in children’s lives across all cultures, that play is universal,
and that all children have a natural tendency and inclination towards play (Moyles,
2010b). Papatheodorou (2010) argues playful learning environments provide a pedagogy that supports creative activity, forges strong interaction, enables communication with others, provides opportunity for cooperation, encourages joint problem
solving, promotes independence, and enables interdependence.
In reality, at-home play is yet not wholeheartedly accepted among parents;
in schools, the concept of teaching as a formal activity reduces opportunities for flexible learning and the value of play in terms of its contribution to “actual” learning
is not clearly explicated and understood by parents and teachers (Moyles, 2010a).
Indeed, the notion that play activities automatically enable creativity is simplistic and
overlooks writing that argues that children often encounter barriers to play such as
the inability to interact outdoors free of adults or a preponderance of overtly adultcontrolled learning spaces in schools (Moyles, 2010a). The CREANOVA findings suggest that learners have to be able to put into practice their learning in flexible and supportive environments. The project findings suggest there may be a tension between
adult- and child-led processes and that a tendency towards adult-structured learning
in schools might act to prevent the development of children’s creativity and innovation. All too often children’s play is “overseen” by adult “facilitators” in ways that seem
contradictory to the findings of the CREANOVA project.
The CREANOVA project findings suggest that people can be encouraged
to be creative and innovative if the spaces they work in value diversity and enable
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them to try out new ideas. This brings into question the ideas of those who promote
more controlled and adult-led approaches to children’s play. For example, Duffy
(2006) views creativity and imagination through a developmental lens. This way of
seeing creativity suggests certain limits to creativity, (i.e., predictability of creative
experiences linked to age and stage of the child). Children are positioned as inferior
to adults and adults are promoted as necessary guides of the creative process. The
influence of child development theories and the introduction of Developmentally
Appropriate Practices (DAP) into early childhood fields across the world has made an
impression that child development is universal and it happens at the same pace and
level to every child (Papatheodorou, 2010).
Woodhead (2009) has encouraged us to reject crude versions of learning
and developmentalism that are based on rigid hierarchies and to engage with more
contemporary approaches to development that are concerned with connections
among physical, relational and cultural factors that influence changes in children’s
growth, learning, and well-being. In childhood studies, there has been an overwhelming response among scholars that see children as active agents of their social
world (James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998; Mayall, 2002), thus, any theory which talks about
creativity in learning environments should take into consideration the idea that children are the chief constructors in the creative process and they are instrumental in
the meaning-making process of everyday creative activity (Faulkner & Coates, 2011;
Moyles, 2010a).
Yet, post-structuralist thinkers have moved even beyond the child agency/
adult structures debate to argue in a similar way to the CREANOVA project that freedom and structure can co-exist and support creativity in the same social spaces.
Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) and Felix Guattari (1930-92) have viewed the concept of creativity as in-between movements and flows, rather than outcomes of play. Deleuze
and Guattari “did not see the impossibility of organising life around closed structures
as problematic. Instead, they saw this as an opportunity to experiment with, invent
and create different ways of knowing” (Brooker & Edwards, 2010, p. 86).
Though learning takes place while they are playing, children’s intention
is not always to play in order to learn (Kalliala, 2006). Similarly, play in early years is
not always fun and innocent; it can also be political and may have ethical and moral
implications (e.g., it can be gendered and involve discrimination) (Grieshaber & McArdle, 2010). In a similar way to the CREANOVA project findings it has been argued that
the socio-cultural environment is important for the child to realize his/her agency in
play-based learning (Bruce, 2010). Spontaneous, free-flow “divergent thinking” has
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been viewed as instrumental for play and creativity in the early years (Sylva, Bruner, &
Jolly, 1976), but creativity has also been connected with a combination of divergent
and convergent thinking in “possibility thinking” which promotes risk, consideration
of alternatives, imagination of new ideas, and posing of questions (Craft, 2000, 2011).
Such writing has sought to encourage children’s abilities with regards to imagination, exploration, decision making, and problem solving. It has encouraged teachers
to develop enabling contexts, by centring themselves off-stage and utilizing flexible
pedagogy that enable children to foster their autonomy by taking space and time
to develop ownership of their own discovery-type learning. We can see connections
between writing that encourage teachers to work in flexible ways and ideas identified in the CREANOVA project concerning freedom, interaction, and the need for flexible forms of support.
The proliferation of post-modernist approaches to learning has recognized
the ability of the learner to make choices/meanings and therefore make alternative
constructions of the knowledge of the teacher (Dahlberg et al., 1999). The CREANOVA
project findings suggest that such skills will be extremely useful in the creative work
places of the future. However, it should be noted that in Childhood Studies such
approaches are promoted because they support children to express their identities
in the present rather than because they might help with a forthcoming need to be
productive adults in the future (Lorenz & Lundvall, 2011; Sawyer, 2006).
The CREANOVA project findings point to the need for learning frameworks
and relationships as well as flexibility and freedom. They emphasize the importance
of learner-led collaborative knowledge production. The concept of learner-led creativity encourages us to be cautious in our aim to enable children’s creativity, for
example, it suggests that those who seek to simulate a shift in thinking and practice
on creativity and innovation in early years settings and schools should encourage
teachers to avoid assuming that any single activity automatically stimulates creativity. The CREANOVA project findings also suggest that it will be important for adults
planning creative activities to: negotiate with children; build on children’s aspirations;
be clear about freedoms and constraints; agree on specific shared objectives or success criteria; and allow for discussion, debriefs, feedback. Moreover, the CREANOVA
project findings suggest that learning activities benefit from having a focus (e.g.,
on a shared problem) yet also need to be flexible enough to enable participants to
set the direction of travel, can be connected to writing that has argued we need to
reconsider constructivist approaches to children’s learning, and overcome paradigm
divides and disciplinary boundaries in relation to childhood creativity (Faulkner &
Coates, 2011; Sawyer, 1999, 2006, 2012). Such writing has promoted a “collaborative
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Enabling Creativity in Learning Environments: Lessons From the CREANOVA Project
emergence theory” of collective and complex creativity and has argued that emergent processes are not only cognitive they are also occur as a bottom-up process
in systems that involve constant improvisation by their creators (Faulkner & Coates,
2011). For example, Faulkner and Coates (2011) decontextualized the notion of agerelated development and creativity in developmental psychology and asserted that
children’s creative narratives are collaborative, improvisational, and contextual.
While literature in the past supported either “learner agency” or “teacher
agency,” we propose that the mediation between these two and a flexible learning
environment is mandatory for fostering creativity. Faulkner and Coates (2011) suggest
children’s creative narratives are co-constructed with their peers or teachers in learning environments and they emerge mainly in collaborative processes. This is similar
to other work that has argued that learning environments that promote creativity
and innovation should involve supportive frameworks that mediate learner-teacher
agency, value cross-curriculum learning, recognize collective strength in knowledge
production, and balance ideas of autonomy, diversity, and co-option (Popkewitz &
Bloch, 2001).
Discourses on children’s creativity that hitherto were dominated by individual, cognition-based psychological theories, thus, are now beginning to take into
account the social and political processes involved in everyday creativity. Moreover,
our research supports the contention that we need to better understand how children’s interpretations of creative processes and their creative outputs change over
time and further examine the nature of their “progressive continuous recontextualisation” of creativity (Faulkner & Coates, 2011, p. 2). Therefore, it is our conclusion that
educational settings that seek to promote creativity will benefit from considering
how they can better become spaces where children carry out learner-led collaborative knowledge production and spaces where children are enabled to situate learning in their everyday life contexts.
Creativity and innovation are enabled by environments that engage with
diversity, celebrate complexity, and value collaboration. \We have argued that rather
than silencing creativity (e.g., through the imposition of a rigid, strict, universal
pedagogy), we should create enabling environments that recognize children’s and
adult’s creative potential and employ flexible frameworks to support that potential
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
to flourish. At the centre of this argument is the idea that creativity is not a gift that
powerful managers or teachers should give to workers or pupils. Creativity is something that can be achieved by us all and can flourish in social spaces where people
are enabled individually and collectively to achieve their aspirations. Creativity is
individual, collective, emergent, and interpersonal; it stems from internal and external sources of inspiration and is motivated as much by communitarian as individual
goals. This paper promotes the idea that creativity and innovation benefit from collaborative leadership and inter-personal/interactive design processes that enable
issues of conflict to be worked through in teams. It has set out the key environmental
issues that support the development of creativity and innovation including design of
workspaces, organizational goals, managerial styles, policies, rules, systems, frameworks, training/learning spaces, worker freedom, worker social interaction, and so
on. It has encouraged readers to consider what sensitive learner-led approaches to
creativity and innovation might look like for adults and children. We would finally
like to conclude that our work suggests that educationalists need to move beyond
rigid individualist, constructivist and child development notions of learning to more
interactive, flexible, and complex positions. Indeed, the creativity of the CREANOVA
project itself stemmed from the collaboration across countries of a diverse group of
researchers and it stands as an example of what can be achieved when people from
different cultures collaborate, explore and joint problem solve in ways that don’t
assume there is one universal approach to learning or working.
1. This research was supported by the European Commission’s Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) Grant 143725-LLP-1-2008-1-ES-KA1KA1SCR. Professor John M. Davis led the research analysis work package on this
project. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Professor John M. Davis, The Moray House School of Education, The University of Edinburgh, Charteris Land, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AQ. Email: [email protected]
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John M. Davis is Professor in Childhood Inclusion at the
University of Edinburgh. His research has critically examined
participatory research methods and focused on understanding children’s and professional’s perspectives of inclusion, social justice, and multi-professional working. He has extensive
experience in developing creative and innovative professional
development resources and his major concern has been to develop contemporary examples of inclusion that children, families, and professionals can utilize to change children’s services.
He has a BSC (Hons) Social Anthropology and Sociology from
the University of Ulster at Coleraine and a PhD in Education
from the University of Edinburgh.
Vinnarasan Aruldoss is a PhD student in Social Policy
at Edinburgh University researching children’s and families’
experiences of early years services in India. He is also an associate tutor on “Social Policy and Society” and “the Politics
of the Welfare States” for the undergraduate courses in Social
Policy at Edinburgh University. Previously, he worked for several years as a lead practitioner in India on projects with local
Non-Governmental Organizations, Governmental Research
Organizations, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the United Nations Development Programme. He holds a Bachelor’s degree
in Statistics and a Master’s degree in Social Work from Madras
University, India.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
John M. Davis, Vinnarasan Aruldoss, Lynn McNair, and Nikolaos Bizas
Lynn McNair is Head of Centre in a leading Early Childhood
Education setting. Lynn has over thirty years experience working with young children and their families. Lynn is an associate tutor on the B.A. in Childhood Practice and the Froebel in
Childhood Practice professional development course at the
University of Edinburgh. Lynn is a leader in early years professional development and collaborates with the Scottish Government and other bodies. Lynn is an award-winning author,
has a Masters in Early Education from Strathclyde University,
and is currently working on a PhD at the University of Edinburgh.
Nikolaos Bizas
is a researcher whose work focuses on
international comparative research in education, learning,
and social policy issues. He is currently working for the University of Edinburgh and is involved in planning, developing,
and coordinating a number of EU-focused research projects.
Nikolaos has also worked with leading organizations in Scotland including the Scottish Social Services Council, Voluntary
Health Scotland, and think tanks such as the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. He holds a BSc in Sociology from the University of Crete and an MSc in International and European Politics
from the University of Edinburgh.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two
Margaret Louise Dobson
“Questions, not method, are the heart of research” (Hendry, 2010, p. 73). Prompted by
untutored intuition in the form of questions generated from two stories about teaching and educational leadership, this investigation looks for insights, not answers, to
the mystery of identity and creativity. Putting two and two together reveals an intangible “in-between” (Arendt, 1974); distinguishes thinking and knowing (Arendt, 1971);
elucidates intuition and intellect (Bergson, 1998/1907); exposes emotion and feelings
as vital aspects of reason (Damasio, 1994; 1999); and conspires to revitalize the meaning and purpose of education.
n a daring attempt to probe the long-standing mystery of what (or who) constitutes identity and creativity, I shall begin by re-examining two narrative pieces
I recently wrote to highlight particular events stemming from my former teaching and educational leadership experience. The two accounts are intended to form
a backdrop for the present investigation as well as to elicit useful prompts to propel
my ongoing doctoral work, and to hopefully turn up additional clues to substantiate
the intimate relationship I detect between identity and creativity. Understanding the
nature of this connection may hold important implications for education.
“Questions, not method, are the heart of research” (Hendry, 2010, p. 73).The
process of inquiry as I have come to know it has always been instigated by untutored
intuitions in the form of questions. Past forays into questions of identity and creativity
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Margaret Louise Dobson
have taught me, through trial and error, that the mystery I am investigating will not
lend itself readily to a step-by-step procedure; nor will the conundrum succumb easily to attempts to unravel or compile information. Au contraire, investigative work of
this nature has repeatedly shown that identity and creativity shy away from positivistic analyses, categorizations, and definitions. I have discovered, instead, that meaningful insights “occur” in the same manner that Gadamer describes the happenstance
of hermeneutics, the phenomenon of understanding that “goes beyond the limits of
the concept of method as set by modern science” and “belongs to human experience
of the world in general” (2010, p. xx). I suspect, again from past experience, that any
clues to the mystery I am presently investigating will tend to reveal themselves by
sudden surprise, and only if I am attentive to the rigorous demands of “perceptivity,”
defined by Barone and Eisner as “seeing what most people miss” (1997, p. 93). No longer trying to figure it all out, I am interested in putting two and two together based
on my lived experience of the mystery under investigation.
For the inquisitive process I describe, storytelling has become one of the
best ways I know for paying close attention to the regular, irregular, and downright
peculiar aspects of lived experience. A recounting of events can expose significant
truths that may otherwise be overlooked. Most importantly for research purposes,
storytelling generates more questions than answers, and provides the necessary time
and space for introspection and reflection.
The following two stories took place several years apart: one many years ago
in Simcoe County, Ontario; and the other, more recently at St. Anthony’s College at
Oxford University. The leitmotiv in both scenarios is the mystery presently under the
magnifying glass, namely identity and creativity. You may recognize aspects of your
own experience in the reflection.
Stumbling Upon the Wow! Factor
Like most young people starting out in their careers, I didn’t give any thought
whatsoever to the meaning and purpose of the profession I was about to enter. Compared to my preoccupation with lesson plans and classroom management skills, or
lack thereof, the intrinsic meaning of education lay carefully and conveniently buried
beneath the fascinating and daunting details of my extrinsic to-do list. For all I knew,
or cared to know at the time, I was hired by the Simcoe County Board of Education to
do “a job.” My job was simply to teach French to high school students according to the
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Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two Together
latest methods prescribed by the ministry-approved program that was handed to me
on day one. The program was part of a broader curriculum that was part of a larger
school system designed and operated by the Ontario government, and legislated by
the Canadian government to be delivered according to provincial standards by the
local school board officials. For my small part in the big picture, it was all I could do
just to do my job. C’est déjà ça ! Little by little, and quite by surprise, however, I began
to discover I loved my job! In fact, I took to the classroom like a duck to water. To this
day I can remember the surge of confidence I felt when my first district inspector’s
report came back: “Natural born teacher.”
Because I was only a few years older than my Grade 13 students, I learned
very quickly that authority in the classroom comes from personal authenticity, not
from expertise or know-how which was understandably still very much under construction. Despite my newness to the role, I made sure that my lesson plans were as
good as done; my methodology comme il faut; and my students’ test results commendable. For reasons beyond the obvious quantifiable predictable factors for success, however, there was an unpredictable yet undeniable wow! factor to be taken
into serious account: my students loved their French classes; and incidentally, so did
their French teacher! Whatever the content of matières, the French class environment
was consistently alive with joie de vivre. We were on to something that I definitely did
not learn at the Ontario teachers’ college! And like a grass fire, word of this mysterious,
mystical, unquantifiable, unqualified, unknown wow! factor got around. I was asked
by the school officials to spread that fire, and was appointed to the role of Supervisor
of Moderns for the County to do just that. Soon I was invited to co-author the highschool segments of a new K-13 audio-visual program with a team from the Ontario
Ministry of Education. And yet another inexplicable fait accompli led to facilitating
teacher workshops in Canada and the United States, and to animating an ETV program for teaching FSL in classrooms across Canada. The teaching “job” that I was initially hired to do had quickly morphed into a juggernaut of responsibilities for which
I didn’t really, at heart, feel prepared. How do I teach a wow! factor phenomenon that
I had only just recently, just by accident, stumbled upon?
At one of the workshops I came face to face with the core issue, or problem, that I had intuited. In my usual animated interpersonal style of presentation, I
could tell that the response of the audience was for the most part warmly receptive
to the methodology of the contexte globale philosophy I was advocating. Suddenly,
however, and seemingly out of the blue, one of the teachers whose tone of voice and
rigid posture immediately let me know that she was not happy with the “newest and
latest,” stood up in a rage. She was not just angry; she was furious! “What about the
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Margaret Louise Dobson
grammar?” she yelled at me from her entrenched position half way back in the auditorium. For this teacher, what mattered were the mechanics of the language, “the grammar,” both literally and figuratively. There was no trying to convince her otherwise.
I continued to teach and to lead in a variety of privileged positions and circumstances in Ontario and Quebec schools, but the impact of that incident, along
with the questions and theoretical hunches evoked by the events of the first few
years of my career, have continued to haunt me. How do I advocate the wow! factor
when it is so difficult, if not impossible, to define and explain the intangible within the
parameters of an institution firmly established in the concrete traditions, concepts,
and principles of utilitarian and instrumental aims, where raison d’être (meaning and
purpose) has been eclipsed by savoir faire (skills and knowledge)? Who wants to be
reminded that there is more to education than learning “the grammar” or getting “the
job”? How do I find ways to convey in a scholarly manner the invisible, immeasurable,
nuanced, creative aspects of education? Does it matter anymore who is doing the
teaching, or who is doing the learning? Does it matter as long as “the job” gets done
according to standardized tests and ministry guidelines? How do we integrate what
we do with who we are in ways that will allow not just the acquisition of knowledge
and competencies, but also the flourishing of the human spirit? Can the wow! factor
that seems to have everything to do with joie de vivre and passion for what we do in
relationship with others be taught? How do we create conditions for a creative interplay between teacher and students that can evoke mastery and mystery?
Before attempting to respond to the pressing questions generated from the
above narrative, I want to present the second account for the purposes of expanding
the base and opening up a larger arena for a discussion of related factors. Please fast
forward to an international gathering of educational leaders—“The Superintendency
and The Principalship”—invited in 2004 to present papers on “Designing Leadership
Practices for the Future of Public Education” at the Oxford Round Table on Education
at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford University.
Is There Room for Creativity in Our Schools?
An air of scholarly tradition pervaded the historical setting of the prestigious Oxford Union, the ambiance tangibly influencing the formality of the day-long
proceedings. Each morning we would enter the hall quietly, almost reverently, and
take our appointed places around the dark hand-carved oak tables. Delegates’ words
sounded especially weighty in the echoing chambers of this hallowed space.
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Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two Together
Somewhat dishevelled from having just abandoned his early morning duties
inspecting Oxford schools, Bill Laar burst through the door and into the chambers like
an unexpected gust of wind. Laar had come to speak on his scheduled topic, “Is There
Room for Creativity in the UK?” Along with Laar, the proverbial “breath of fresh air”
blew strong and mighty into our midst. The rather stuffy atmosphere of the previous
deliberations was stirred up and undone in one fell swoop. The timbre of the 2004
Round Table on Education was changed for the duration.
Laar was grappling with the alarming statistics of the teacher drop-out
rate in the United Kingdom (UK), and the resultant chaos for British schools. He also
named many of the all-too-familiar problems faced by public education everywhere:
the underfunding and overtaxing of human and material resources; the intolerable
pressures on teachers and students exerted by society’s high expectations for inhuman results; the as yet unmet challenges to truly meet the needs of a diverse student population; governments’ insistent and pervasive implementation of external
standardized testing routines despite the cry of educators to the contrary; and the
ubiquitous, unrealistic, and often misaligned, top-down reforms aimed at schoolimprovement coupled with the exponential increase in numbers of parents choosing
private schools over public schools—or home-schooling or un-schooling (the latest
trend)—in their attempt to protect their children from the real or perceived “degradation” of the public education system.
Laar’s presentation, however, wasn’t just about what was tragically wrong
with the present-day situation. His talk soon took an impassioned turn into an envisioning of what education could/should really be all about, namely, creativity. Is there
room for creativity in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter? Laar’s vision lauded a
well-rounded education that would include every possible kind of exposure to every
possible kind of human experience. Through the prolific examples and metaphors he
offered, we could literally feel the critical importance in the developing life of a young
boy or girl of experiencing the thrill of sailing a boat into the wind, for example; or the
sense of accomplishment in learning to play a Mozart minuet on the piano, or the joy
of participation in team sports or a school play or musical production.
“Yes, but ... creativity costs money that cash-strapped public schools just
don’t have,” was the gist of the initial comments from the delegates who were only
too well versed in the bottom-line of school administration. “It’s the politicians and
the economists who hold the purse strings; and, therefore, make the decisions as to
what constitutes an education, not educators,” continued the thread of conversation.
The irony did not go unnoticed: as productivity and fiscal responsibility continue to
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Margaret Louise Dobson
squeeze out “expensive” creativity from the public school curriculum, the costs of
public schools’ problems appear to be on the rise in equal or greater measure.
It was unanimous. We agreed that creativity, in whatever form it takes, is
absolutely essential to education. “Creativity is a way of living; it’s a way of being
human,” declared one delegate. “Is there room for spirit in our schools?” asked another.
Rather than continue to complain and bemoan the fact (as we were) that education
is no longer in the hands of educators, but under the dictates of policy-makers who
have little or no interest in creativity, it was thought by some delegates to be high
time that we, as educational leaders, roll up our sleeves and take back our calling.
There was talk of drawing up a collective statement to that effect that would represent the delegates’ unequivocal agreement on the essential place of creativity in
education. A pre-programmed, heavily packed agenda and lack of time—the usual
culprits—prevented that statement from ever being written. Perhaps, in some small
way, the doctoral work in which I am presently engaged will help to make that unwritten statement one day a reality.
The 2004 Oxford Round Table on Education has not only raised a roof in the
Oxford Union, it has also raised several more questions of critical importance to the
investigation at hand. What (or who) constitutes “creativity”? Can creativity and productivity work together in harmony in our schools, each potentially enhancing and
enriching the other? Does creativity have to cost money that cash-strapped schools
just don’t have, or is creativity a luxury only for the privileged few who can afford it?
And finally, how could/would creativity and all that creativity might entail in the UK
and elsewhere contribute to nurturing and nourishing the complexity and diversity
of a worldwide web, the interconnected, interdependent ecological, political, social,
and economic reality of the 21st century?
Enter Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt (1974), in her remarkable book, The Human Condition, has
given much thought to the questions I am posing. She says that the source of creativity springs indeed from who we are and remains “outside the actual work process”
as well as independent of what we may achieve (p. 211). This is a significant finding
in light of the intuitive question at the heart of this paper: Is there a link between
identity and creativity? The source of creativity, according to Arendt, springs from the
identity of the person, who. A subjective completion of critical importance to this
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Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two Together
investigation has thus been revealed. To further elucidate the subject, I again quote
Arendt who says that who “is the unchangeable identity of the person” (p. 193).
Arendt’s perspective contradicts the widely accepted view of identity that
is central to most contemporary Western educational programs and reforms. Stuart
Hall, for example, says that identity is “constructed”; and that the notion of an integral, originary, and unified identity, or what he calls “essentialist concepts,” has been
deconstructed and “put under erasure” (1996, p. 2). The growing ideal in modern society in this regard, says Charles Taylor, is a human agent “who is able to remake himself
by methodical and disciplined action” (1989, p. 159).
Based on my early teaching experiences, I find Arendt’s essentialist perspective of the authentic “unchangeable” identity, who, to be the most plausible
for explaining the source of creativity, or, in this case, the wow! factor. Moreover,
Arendt’s following explanations à propos the mysterious occurrence make utter sense
to me thanks to the resonance of my personal experience with the phenomenon
she describes. Arendt explains that when people get together as who—aka “essential” identity—and not what—aka “constructed” identity—an “in between” opens
between them. The “in-between,” according to Arendt (1974), is no less real than the
world of things we visibly have in common. Arendt maintains that only love (respect
in the public realm) is fully receptive to who somebody is. I ascertain, therefore, that
the unpredictable, uncalculated, unplanned wow! factor that transpired in my classroom was the result of the inadvertent presence of who—perhaps due to the very
fact that skills and know-how were still under construction, and assumed-identity-asteacher as yet under-developed—that allowed the respectful “in between” to open
between the teacher and her students. If the wow! factor is the “real” we have in common, where’s the mystery in that? “What about the grammar?” I hear the resounding
echo of the teacher’s angry protest.
How differently we might approach teaching and learning if we were to seriously consider the premise that human identity is not something that is socially, politically, and economically “schooled,” “storied,” and/or “constructed,” but that human
identity is inherently and originally generated as who one is, the source of creativity.
Arendt says that the purpose of her book is to inspire a generation of “job holders”
to “think what we are doing” (1974, p. 5). Aligning the purpose of the present investigation with the purpose of The Human Condition, I ask who is thinking and who is
doing; who is the source of creativity? The pivotal question that remains at the heart
of the inquiry, therefore, is “Am I an ‘essential’ who or a ‘constructed’ what?” Or, “Am I
both?” My newly educated guess is that the ineffable mystery of creativity—the wow!
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Margaret Louise Dobson
factor—may be understood in the putting of two and two together. Arendt’s (1971)
following distinction between thinking and knowing complicates the double entendre and amplifies the resonance of the complements under investigation.
Thinking and Knowing
In “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Arendt (1971) gives credit
to Kant for the important distinction she makes between thinking and knowing,
“between reason, the urge to think and understand, and the intellect, which desires
and is capable of certain verifiable knowledge” (p. 422). Arendt sees the activity of
thinking as “the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever comes to pass,
regardless of specific content and quite independent of results …” (p. 418). Knowing, on the other hand, according to Arendt, is results-oriented and “no less a worldbuilding activity than the building of houses” (p. 421). I make the connection between
knowing and the results-oriented, world-building, goal-driven activities of the dominantly instrumental-utilitarian program of schooling. In the case of the wow! factor
narrative, knowing pertains to subject content and material, lesson plans, and classroom management skills and strategies. Thinking, on the other hand, goes beyond
knowing, in that thinking “deals with invisibles and is itself invisible, lacking all the
outside manifestation of other activities” (p. 433). Arendt cites Socrates as having used
the metaphor of the wind for thinking. In reference to the first narrative piece, I make
a connection between Aristotle’s wind that does, un-does, and re-does thought, and
Arendt’s (1974) portrayal of who and Taylor’s (1989) citations of essential identity. Any
“natural born” teacher knows that it is good practice to have at hand sound knowledge of subject material, lesson plans, teaching skills, and classroom management
strategies in the same way that the sailor must have a boat, rudder, sails, maps, compass, and the wherewithal to sail the high seas. However, the teacher and the sailor
worth their salt both know that it is the wind that determines the momentary course
of action, the momentum, and the nature of the voyage into life’s perplexities or
into the teaching of French grammar! The personal authority and freedom to act (or
teach) is released in perpetual thinking. From that perspective, perhaps it could also
be deduced that conditioned behaviour and trained professing is determined and
held in check by conceptualized knowing.
“If it should turn out to be true that knowledge … and thought have parted
company for good, then indeed we would become the helpless slaves, not so much of
our machines as of our know-how…” (Arendt, 1974, p. 3). This is an alarming prediction
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Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two Together
in light of the fact—again according to Arendt—that we have lost who we are in what
we do. It would seem from the above warning that thinking is an integral part of the
authentic who that has been lost in the artificial what of man-made constructions. In
carrying this notion further, I make a distinction between education and schooling
that is critical to this investigation. It would seem from the above consideration, that
thinking (thought) is central to creativity, and can be drawn forth (e-duced) through
education; while knowing (cognition) is central to productivity, and can be taught
(in-duced) through schooling. In putting two and two together, I begin to discern
the links between “essential” identity (who), thinking, creativity, and education; and
“constructed” identity (what), knowing, productivity, and schooling. Education and
schooling are not the same. Has schooling overtaken education? Have education and
schooling parted company for good?
Along with the distinct, yet complementary, essential who and the constructed what of identity, and the distinct, yet interrelated and interdependent
aspects of thinking and knowing, another related duo of distinction conspires to both
complicate the matter and elucidate the mystery. The next elusive pair to come forward for examination is intuition and intellect.
Reigniting the Lamp of Intuition
Henri Bergson (1998/1907), an eminent French scientist turned philosopher,
examines the complexity of relationship between intuition and intellect. Bergson says
that intuition, what he calls, “the best part” of the power of consciousness, has been
sacrificed to intellect. The following excerpt from Creative Evolution illustrates the
resonance I detect between Bergsonian theory of human consciousness and Arendt’s
(1971) reinvigoration of the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing:
Consciousness, in man, is pre-eminently intellect. It might have been, it
ought, so it seems, to have been also intuition. Intuition and intellect represent two opposite directions of the work of consciousness: intuition goes in
the very direction of life, intellect goes in the inverse direction, and thus finds
itself naturally in accordance with matter. A complete and perfect humanity
would be that in which these two forms of conscious activity should attain
their full development. (Bergson, 1998, p. 267)
Bergson explains what he means when he says that intuition is the “best part” of the
power of consciousness. He says that it is only when we place ourselves in intuition
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Margaret Louise Dobson
that we can pass from intuition to intellect. From the place of the intellect we shall
never be able to pass to intuition, he says. Yet, it is the intellect that has dominated
intuition in the present-day humanity of which we are a part. The consequence of the
pre-eminence of the intellect in human affairs is explained in the following continuation of the above citation:
This conquest, in the particular conditions in which it has been accomplished, has required that consciousness should adapt itself to the habits
of matter and concentrate all its attention on them, in fact determine itself
more as intellect. Intuition is there, but vague and above all discontinuous. It
is a lamp almost extinguished, which only glimmers now and then, for a few
moments at most. (p. 268)
Bergson suggests that what he calls “fleeting intuitions” ought to be seized by philosophy, first for the purposes of sustaining them, and then for expanding them and
uniting them together. According to Bergson, the rationale for advancing in this work
stems from the fact that the more one advances, the more one will perceive that intuition is mind itself and, in a certain sense, life itself. Thus, says Bergson, is revealed “the
unity of the spiritual life” (p. 268). And, thus another significant two are put together
by Bergson in a compelling argument for the complementary and equal partnership
of distinct opposites.
Emotion, Feeling, and Reason
The French word intuition more closely approximates the English word “feelings” than that of the word “instinct” which is the commonly used English translation
to be found in Bergson’s work. According to neurologist and neuroscientist Antonio
Damasio (2003), until only recently little has been understood about the nature of
feelings. “Elucidating the neurobiology of feelings and their antecedent emotions
contributes to our views on the mind-body problem, a problem central to our understanding of who we are” (p. 7). Moreover, maintains Damasio, “understanding what
feelings are, how they work, and what they mean is indispensable to the future construction of a view of human beings more accurate than the one readily available
today.” Why? “Because the success or failure of humanity depends in large measure
on how the public and the institutions charged with the governance of public life
incorporate that revised view of human beings in principles and policies” (p. 8).
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According to Damasio, “Feelings form the base for what humans have
described for millennia as the human soul or spirit” (1994, p. xvi). Damasio sees identity and creativity in the same light that Arendt (1974) and Bergson (1998) envision
a complete and perfect humanity in which both aspects of consciousness are fully
developed and working together. For Damasio, feelings are the connectors; storytelling and the Arts the inducers, a way into “the homeostatic refinement ... the biological
counterpart of a spiritual dimension in human affairs” (2010, p. 296).
The most vexing of all questions writes Damasio in Descartes’ Error is this:
“How is it that we are conscious of the world around us, that we know what we
know, and that we know that we know?” (1994, p. xvii). The intriguing question at the
heart of this investigation brings me full circle to the conundrum of the first narrative. The wow! factor that I accidently stumbled upon as a beginning teacher, and the
unplanned phenomenon that I wasn’t able to articulate at the time, or “teach” in my
workshops, could not have been reasonably addressed because there were few scientific explanations and little scientific interest to substantiate the mysterious occurrence. “Only during the past decade has the problem finally entered the scientific
agenda, largely as a part of the investigation of consciousness,” says Damasio (2003,
p. 184).
Damasio calls intuition “the covert, mysterious mechanism” by which
we arrive at the solution of a problem without reasoning toward it (1994, p. 188).
Because the creative process on which the progress of science is based operates on
the level of the subconscious, when we witness signs of creativity in contemporary
humans, explains Damasio, we are probably witnessing the integrated operation of
sundry combinations of these devices. Damasio’s astute, all-encompassing observation moves this investigation towards a broader comprehension of the link between
identity and creativity and the important implications of “the integrated operation of
sundry combinations of these devices” (p. 191) in the scientific investigation of consciousness as well as in a revised rationale for accommodating creativity in education.
Making the Connection
The aim of education, according to Christopher Winch (1999), is to prepare
children for adult life. The purpose of schooling is to instruct, socialize, and qualify
students for political, social, and economic utilitarian-instrumental advantages; however, the meaning of education (from the Latin root, educare, to draw forth from
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Margaret Louise Dobson
within) goes beyond the one-sided positivistic view of schooling. Deep within the
heart of the educational matter, there is a persistent and determined search for self,
a who that is not artificially engineered (i.e., moulded by concept and constructed by
will), but originally generated and authentically expressed from within.
Understanding the mystery of identity and creativity requires that we “think
what we are doing” (Arendt, 1974, p. 242); that we reignite the flame of intuition (Bergson, 1998/1907); and that we include emotion and feelings as integral aspects of reason (Damasio, 1994; 2003). Making the connection between what and who, knowing
and thinking, intuition and intellect, and mind and body may turn out to be the real
“job” of the modern-day educator. A dynamic interplay of the differences may make
all the difference in how we envision ourselves in the future.
The concerns for the future of education as expressed by the educational
leaders at the 2004 Oxford Round Table on Education challenge the status quo of
modern schooling, and advocate a revised rationale for a reasonable accommodation
of creativity. By all accounts, it would seem that a “revised view of human beings more
accurate the one readily available” as articulated by Damasio (2003, p. 8), is in the
hands (and minds and hearts) of educators. Reverberating from the hallowed halls
of the Oxford Union are two remaining questions: Is there room for creativity in our
schools? How could/would creativity contribute to nurturing and nourishing the fragile well-being of the interdependent, interconnected worldwide web?
The more I understand the mystery at the heart of this investigation, the
more I doubt the sustainability of present-day conceptualizations of constructed
identity and instrumental productivity as useful rationales for success in Western
school programs and reforms. The propensity for savoir faire (knowledge and skills)
no longer seems feasible if we are to take seriously into account the list of all-toofamiliar problems cited by Bill Laar and the delegates at the 2004 Oxford Round Table.
In advocating room for creativity, the educational leaders envisioned the possibility of moving toward a well-rounded education that would include both savoir faire
(knowledge and skills) and raison d’être (meaning and purpose). The health (wholeness) of the interconnected, interdependent world in which we live might very well
hang in the balance.
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Identity and Creativity: Putting Two and Two Together
Visionary educational scholar Maxine Greene (1995) defines educating for
freedom as letting people choose their own way of being in the world. She sees in
imagination the untapped inner resources of youth. Of the “in-between” (Arendt,
1974) that opens between people when they come together as who, Greene says,
“There are worldly relationships, and over that, there is the delicate web of human
relationships” (1998, p. 23).
The delicate web of human relationships that I have experienced in schools
tells me that creativity does not need money as much as it needs will. When room
is made for creativity in the hearts and minds of educators (room for who we are,
and room for the “in between”), I am convinced that all manner of means will quickly
materialize to accommodate the intangible wow! factor. As I recall school life—the
vibrancy of reading circles, the excitement of awards assemblies, the exuberant allschool singing, the dancing, the musical production extravaganzas, the costumes, the
artwork displays, the science fairs, the hard work, the lunch-hour sports, the mathematics videos, the larger community involvement, the partnerships with universities,
the student council’s voices, and the tension-filled growing pains generated between
stakeholders in the collaborative creation of their school’s Success Plan—I can vouch
for the fact that creativity (the “real” we have in common, Arendt, 1974) does not cost
money that cash-strapped public schools just don’t have. As one teacher put it very
simply, “When we’re together, stuff happens!”
Arendt, H. (1971). Thinking and moral considerations: A lecture. Social Research, 38(3),
Bergson, H. (1998). Creative evolution, Authorized Translation by Mitchell, A. Mineola,
NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
Arendt, H. (1974). The human condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion,
reason and the human brain. New York:
G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Barone, T., & Eisner, E. (1997). Arts-based educational research. In Jaeger, R. (Ed). Complementary methods for research in education,
2nd edition, Washington, DC: AERA.
Bergson, H. (1907). L’Evolution créatrice. Paris:
PUF (Publication universitaire française).
Damasio, A. R. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of
consciousness. New York: A Harvest Book,
Harcourt, Inc.
Damasio, A. R. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy,
sorrow and the feeling brain. Orlando, FL:
Harcourt Books.
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Margaret Louise Dobson
Damasio, A. R. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York:
Pantheon Books.
Gadamer, H.G. (2011). Truth and method (c. 1975)
Translation revised by Weinsheimer, J. &
Marshall, D.G. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Hall, S., & Du Gay, P. (Eds) (1996). Question of
identity: Debates about cultural identity
and their meaning in contemporary social
formations. London: SAGE Publications.
Hendry, P.M. (2010). Narrative as inquiry. The
Journal of Educational Research, 103,
Greene, M. (1995) Releasing the imagination:
Essays on education, the arts and social
change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making
of modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Greene, M. (1998). A light in dark times: Maxine
Greene and the unfinished conversation.
In Maxine Greene, William C. Ayers, and
Janet L. Miller (Eds.). Teachers College
Winch, C. (1999). The aims of education. In
Roger Marples (Ed). London: Routledge
(pp. 74–84).
Margaret Dobson was previously a high school teacher
of French and English and an educational leader in Ontario
and Quebec schools. She has recently returned to her alma
mater to investigate intuitive educational hunches she has
gleaned from the field. She is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University.
Her research interests include the potential role of identity
and creativity in revitalizing the meaning and purpose of education.
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Narrative Insights: A Creative Space for Learning
Marcea Ingersoll, Queen’s University
Through this scholarly personal narrative, the author offers insight into how student
creativity can be engaged or neglected. While the narrative highlights the potential
conflict between students’ lives and their schools, the hope lies in the illuminative
power of stories of difficulty. By interweaving narrative and theory, the author sheds
light on the conditions that inhibit creativity, and emphasizes the capacity of teachers
to locate creative, compassionate spaces for themselves and their students.
f you want to write but feel you can’t, you are not alone (Elbow, 1998). What is
it that makes writing simultaneously appealing and daunting? In “Writing without Teachers,” Elbow claims that many of us have an internal editorial filter that
we place between our creative thoughts and the page, and that this “is partly because
schooling makes us obsessed with the ‘mistakes’ we make in writing” (p. 5). How can
we as teachers help students move beyond the fear of writing and lead them to its appeal? Perhaps we need to move beyond our own fears—to write and share our own
stories with our students. We need to create opportunities for students to be comfortable writing with their teachers, rather than without (or for) them.
In the short piece, Lessons, in Writing, I explore personal memories of schooling that surfaced when I engaged in writing practices that were part of a graduate
education class. Using scholarly personal narrative (Nash, 1994) to reach into my
own pedagogical past, I found a creative space for representing the difficulty that
arises when teachers correct students’ “mistakes” of language. I present this narrative as a location for dialogue about home language, school language, and teaching.
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Marcea Ingersoll
By interrupting the personal narrative with scholarly quotations, I direct teachers to
works that provide further insight into the links between language, narrative, and
identity. The symbiosis of personal narrative and scholarly text points teachers to the
possibilities offered through creative engagement with stories of our educational
LESSONS, in Writing
“I trust you will use writing as a method of inquiry to move into your own impossibility where anything might happen—and will”
(Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005).
Monday. Social Studies.
Above the green chalkboard, curling posters of the provinces form a neat
line from west to east. British Columbia’s dawn redwoods. The prairies. The crags of
Newfoundland. Beneath them, with equal precision, is the perfectly executed script
that we must record. We copy the notes obediently. Mrs. Dominion circles, silent,
hands on hips. She patrols the rows, nodding her approval to those who reproduce
her elegant penmanship.
My hand sends the pencil across the page, an effortless translation of words
from board to paper while my mind roams elsewhere. I am not in the room. I am not
copying notes. I am anyone else but me and anywhere else but here.
Mrs. Dominion’s precious silver chalk holder has dropped onto the floor next
to my desk. The tiny clip lying lengthways along the barrel has broken, and on its
descent the chalk has streaked a white line onto her navy slacks. Leaning over to pick
up the fallen bullet, Mrs. Dominion’s eyes fix on my page. She straightens.
- Your margins!
- They’re drifting.
- They’re positively unmoored.
- Yes. Um…I’m sorry, Mrs. Dominion.
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Class, you will mind your margins! THIS (my looseleaf flutters in the air) is
unacceptable. It’s uncontrolled!
Mrs. Dominion puts her chalk holder carefully onto the desk and smoothes the white
blemish from her slacks. Then she tells us to go home and find out more information
for our exchange projects on the fishery. Finish our research about what goes on in
our community, and come back next week with something about what makes this
tiny island in the Bay of Fundy work.
“Canadian identity is not unified or seamless, but shifts according to the particularity of language, geographical affiliations, and historical circumstances”
(Sumara, Davis, & Laidlaw, 2001).
Wednesday. Home.
I know quite a bit already. After all, I always saw the boats go out, waited for
my dad to come back after being away for a week, dreaded church on Sundays not
just because the minister scared the bejeesus outta me but mostly because after the
service, the menfolk would head to the wharves. It would be a long week, but our
mothers made it go by with Koolaid, Kraft Dinner, grilled cheese. Serial sunburns and
sand in our swimsuits as we played hide and seek, laid in the grass, and counted the
Friday afternoons we’d wait at the end of the wharf, sitting on the hood of
the car until someone called out here they come! Mothers would pull on shirttails and
try and keep us from going near the wharf edge. The men aboard would stand and
wave as the bow of the boat met each wave and came closer, closer. We’d have been
cleaned up, face cloths dragged across our mouths and our small hands like flags flapping off their poles and popsicles melting down our shirtfronts. We’d look out! as the
heavy ropes were flung onto the wharf and looped around the pilings. Then there was
the slinging of duffle bags and thump, thump, thump, six landings of unwashed fish
clothes, followed by the men, climbing up the ladders and over the lip of the wharf.
The lifting, lifting, hugging of kids while mothers made sure no one was too close to
the edge. Mothers moved over and dads went behind the wheel, driving home for
Friday night baths and creaky bedsprings. Saturdays were for baked beans simmering
in molasses, golden loaves of homemade bread, full clothes lines, and mowing the
lawn with Dad.
“As a conscious professional pedagogue, I find the need to tell my stories, mostly
to myself but sometimes to others, to make meaning of my existence”
(Fowler, 2006).
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Marcea Ingersoll
Friday. Home.
I’ve asked my dad about the seines and sheds, asked him lots of questions
about how they used to smoke the herring, what kinds of nets they use now on the
seiner, who gets to do what. He’s told me lots of stuff; told me about the herring his
mum used to bone down at the shed, how her fingers were raw and stiff and sore. Told
me about the golden smell in the rafters of the smoke house where they hung the
herring sticks row on row. Different game now, he says, and tells me about the long
old steam down to Yarmouth, half asleep in the wheelhouse, pitching along with the
waves. Climbing down into the engine room—he keeps it neat as a pin mum says—he
checks the gauges and makes sure everything is just right. They set seine after midnight, shine their lights and wait for the silver slips of fish to come to them. They circle,
circle, tighten the purse and bring it up, a boiling surface of scales and flesh that gets
pumped aboard and measured by the hogshead. This is what he gets up to, Dad tells
me, when he goes out in the boat on Sundays, comes home on Fridays. But he doesn’t
mention the little bandaid-like patch he puts behind his ear to keep him from pitching his guts overboard, or how he ripped the heck outta his shoulder when he went
overboard last time they were down in Novi—these are the bits I catch by mistake,
when I’m not supposed to be listening.
“Different languages and different discourses within a given language divide up
the world and give it meaning in ways that are not reducible to one another.
Language is how social organization and power are defined and contested and
the place where one’s sense of self—one’s subjectivity—is constructed”
(Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005).
Monday. Social Studies.
We’re all ready to tell our bits about the island fishery. We’re gonna combine
our projects and put them all in an envelope and send them off to a class of farm
children on the prairies. They’ve probably never even seen the ocean or been aboard
a fishing boat. Probably don’t even know what a kipper is.
Gleaming with the fill of stories Dad told me, I was ready. And when Mrs.
Dominion asked me the question on Monday, what did you find out, Marcea? I
couldn’t wait to tell. Breathless with excitement, I began.
I found out about the fish scaler. It’s the machine they use to take the scales off
the herring. They use the scales to make fingernail polish! I didn’t know that before. Anyways, my dad told me about the scaler on the herring seiner, and on Sunday before they
left, I seen the way it works.
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Narrative Insights: A Creative Space for Learning
You what?
My dad told me about the scaler on the herring seiner, and on Sunday before
they left, I seen the way it works. I repeated, slowed, convinced she hadn’t heard. She
ignored us a lot. I also reckoned she might have a problem with her ears, you know.
But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was me. Mrs Dominion smiled
that same little smile she got on her face whenever she was ready to pounce on one
of the small children abandoned to her care.
You what? She asked again, although it didn’t sound much like a question.
And I was neither breathless nor enthusiastic for this retelling.
I seen the scaler, on the seiner down at the wharf, and I seen how it works. I can
tell you what I seen…
No, you can’t, she said, as I turned red, red, red…
and she began to write on the board, and I grew small, small, small…in my
You will write 100 times for tomorrow….I will never say I seen.
And I haven’t. I’ve never said it again. I wrote those hundred lines. Hunched
over the kitchen table I held two pens in my cramped hand to scrawl in shaky lines
across the looseleaf. Thought of my dad out on the boat, bit my lip, and moored my
error tight against the margins. And with each line, these words of my father were
erased forever from my own discourse and etched into ink, locked onto the page.
“To embrace narrative is to live into an image of the self, a construct of who we
wish, or fear, to be. There can be nostalgia associated with such images, too: the
point of the story, after all, is to comfort us, to help us make sense of what we
think we were, or imagine we have become”
(Zwicky, 2006).
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Marcea Ingersoll
I embraced narrative in a graduate class where the freedom to write without
censure gave rise to creativity. As we moved through writing practices (Luce-Kapler,
2004) that encouraged us to reach into the educational stories of ourselves, I entered
places long forgotten, deeply buried, but in need of surfacing. And as these experiences of stifled creativity and voice were given space to emerge, they became transformed into stories of power and realization. How had my own teaching been influenced by my experiences as a student? How could I move beyond censure?
Fowler (2006) suggests that through a process of narration and analysis, we
can enact intentional pedagogical movement and more productive pedagogical relations. Through our willingness to engage in the storying of difficulty, we can safely
illuminate the underside of teaching, and confront those experiences that are difficult
to accept or know. Fowler identifies stories as places where we can store our difficulties, hold them in the vessel, or temenos of analysis, and learn from them. Lessons, in
Writing represents a narrative exploration of the tensions presented when negotiating the borderlands of identity. By holding this story in the temenos, by analyzing the
interaction of the teacher and student and family and community, I open a space for
dialogue about the disruptive and discouraging nature of correction, censure, and
enforced conformity.
By examining our untold stories, we can come to know ourselves in ways that
make us better teachers. Last year I shared Lessons, in Writing with my students, who
are teacher candidates at a faculty of education. I was encouraged by the connections
they made to their own experiences as students, and their desires for themselves as
teachers. One teacher candidate sent me a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, “Originally,” and highlighted the lines that brought these texts together for her. Another
shared her experience of linguistic difference and isolation when she entered university and left the linguistic familiarity of her small town. She expressed, haltingly, her
sense of being not “quite as good as, or as educated as” the others, because of the way
she spoke.
These connections point to the possibility created in sharing stories of pedagogical experience. Teachers are always at the borders of the geographies of identity
that we claim or deny. The geographies of our childhoods continue to be places we
inhabit in conscious and unconscious ways. By examining our pasts, we can come
to understand that the traces of our histories, our geographies, sometimes imprint
themselves on our bodies and in our voices. We can begin to understand that—as
teachers—we are also texts our students read. And by sharing these experiences
through narrative, there is an opportunity for pedagogical moments to emerge, for
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intertextual and interpersonal connections to be made. There is a creative, intimate,
trusting space that opens when we search for and share narrative insights.
Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without teachers (2nd
ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Fowler, L. C. (2006). A curriculum of difficulty:
Narrative research in education and the
practice of teaching. New York: Peter Lang.
Luce-Kapler, R. (2004). Writing with, through,
and beyond the text: An ecology of language. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Nash, R. J. (2004). Liberating scholarly writing:
The power of personal narrative. New York:
Teachers College Press.
Richardson, L., & St. Pierre, E. A. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. Denzin &
Y. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of
qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 959–978).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sumara, D., Davis, B., & Laidlaw, L. (2001). Canadian identity and curriculum theory: An
ecological, postmodern perspective.
Canadian Journal of Education, 26(2),
Zwicky, J. (2006). Lyric, narrative, memory. In R.
Finley, P. Friesen, A. Hunter, A. Simpson,
& J. Zwicky, (Eds.), A ragged pen: Essays on
poetry & memory (pp. 87–108). Kentville,
NS: Gaspereau Press.
Marcea Ingersoll
is a Maritimer by birth and a global
nomad by nature. She has been an English teacher for nearly
seventeen years, and has worked in Canadian, British, and
American curriculum schools on three continents. Most of her
teaching experience has been with students in Grades 7 to 12,
but she has also taught at the university, college, and primaryjunior levels. Marcea is a PhD student in Curriculum Studies at
Queen’s University, where she continues to teach and to learn.
Her current research interests include international schools
and their communities, narrative inquiry, and teacher identity.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Portraying Children’s Voices Through Creative
Approaches to Enhance Their Transition Experience
and Improve the Transition Practice
Divya Jindal-Snape, University of Dundee
In this paper, I have made a case for using creative approaches to facilitate educational transitions. I have presented examples from research and practice which suggest
that creative activities can be used in multiple ways to portray children and young
people’s voices. I argue that these voices, as well as the process of being heard, can
help modify existing transition practices, identify new transition practices, and enhance children and young people’s ability to manage change. Theories of self-esteem,
resilience, and emotional intelligence have been used to explain the psycho-social
processes that a child, or young person, goes through during transitions, as well as
how creative approaches can be used to support these processes.
ducational transitions, when children move from one context and set of interpersonal relationships to another (Jindal-Snape, 2010a), can be a period of
anxiety for many children and young people1 (Adeyemo, 2007; Jindal-Snape
& Foggie, 2008; Jindal-Snape & Miller, 2008), and can lead to substantial declines in
self-esteem, academic motivation, and achievement (Wigfield, Eccles, Mac Iver, Redman, & Midgley, 1991). However, transitions can be, and should be, a time of excitement due to increased opportunities and feelings of progression. Important changes
take place as children navigate this journey, such as changes in relationships, teaching style, environment, space, context for learning, and so on (Fabian & Dunlop, 2005).
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According to recent research (Jindal-Snape, 2010a), for children and young
people to have positive transition experiences, there should be an increased emphasis on involving those most affected, especially the children themselves, in planning
and preparation for transitions. Galton (2010a) has stressed the importance of schools
listening to the voices of pupils. Researchers in the area of primary-secondary and
post-school transitions have tried to listen to the voices of children and young people
(e.g., Jindal-Snape & Foggie, 2008), whereas few researchers in the area of transition
to primary school (e.g., Dockett & Perry, 2004) have managed to portray the voices of
very young children. In addition, even when data has been collected from children
and young people it is not clear whether the children/young people found data collection techniques such as questionnaires or interviews meaningful. There are serious methodological and ethical issues in this context, with only a few researchers
using other ways that might be more meaningful to the child or young person and
adopting a stance that children should be active and effective partners in research
(e.g., Dockett & Perry, 2011). Future transition research and practice needs to focus on
listening to the voices of children in ways that are natural and meaningful to them.
Researchers and practitioners really need to engage with children to gather their perspectives, not only to understand their unique experiences, but also to ensure that
they are active participants in determining transition practice and programs. Innovative and creative ways of listening to children should be considered, for example, the
Mosaic Approach (Clark & Moss, 2001, 2008), which uses different ways of collecting
voices such as giving children disposable cameras and through observation (JindalSnape, 2010b), and then piecing together the data to get a fuller and clearer picture.
The rationale for the use of creative approaches provided in this paper is
also supported by other research. In the context of 19 creative learning case studies from Scottish schools, Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) (2004) reported that
one of the main outcomes for students was a sense of personal success. Similarly, in
the United States, Schacter, Thum, and Zifkin (2006) reported that creative teaching
methods substantially improved student achievement. Research conducted in the
United Kingdom also indicated that these approaches could lead to increased levels
of pupil motivation and engagement (Bancroft, Fawcett, & Hay, 2008; Craft, Chappell,
& Twining, 2008; Cremin, Burnard, & Craft, 2006; LTS, 2004; Wood & Ashfield, 2008),
increased levels of confidence and imagination associated with creative environments (Galton, 2010b; LTS, 2004), enhanced ability to face challenges (Galton, 2010b)
and increases in resilience (Bancroft et al., 2008).
Further, other researchers have also suggested that creative approaches
can enhance children and young people’s emotional development and social skills
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Enhance Their Transition Experience and Improve the Transition Practice
(Bancroft et al., 2008; Galton, 2010b; Matthews, 2007; Whitebread, Coltman, Jameson,
& Lander, 2009). Whitebread et al. (2009) suggest that play promotes self-regulation,
and Bancroft et al. (2008) suggest that it can enhance interpersonal skills, including greater willingness to play with others, value each other’s work, and engage in
However, how does one go about using creative approaches to facilitate
transition by building in strategies to enhance children’s self-esteem, resilience,
emotional intelligence, and agency? This paper draws on some examples of creative
approaches and activities that are grounded in the theories of self-esteem, resilience,
emotional intelligence, and agency. The examples presented here demonstrate how
we can listen to the voices of children with the aims of facilitating their transitions and
improving existing transition practices.
Examples of Creative Activities Used in Transition
Research and Practice
This paper discusses some of the creative activities that I have used for
transition research and that practitioners have used in practice. The aim is to give
both researchers and practitioners a clear rationale of why these are appropriate and
important ways of facilitating transition, and an idea of how to implement these in
your own research and practice. The examples aim to provide you with insight into
how, if carefully implemented, self-esteem, resilience, active learning agency, and
emotional intelligence interact in the context of transitions leading to positive spirals
of successful adaptation.
Let us consider some of these theories before we move on to the examples. In the context of transitions, Jindal-Snape and Miller (2008, 2010) used Mruk’s
two-dimensional theory of self-esteem which looks at the students’ experiences
and interactions in the light of self-competence and self-worth (Mruk, 1999). This
two-dimensional theory reflects the belief that how people feel about themselves
is dependent, not only on whether they see themselves as worthwhile people, but
also involves judgments about competence in a set of domains considered important to them. Therefore, to have high self-esteem, children must feel confident both
about their sense of self-worth (“I am a good person entitled to respect from others”) and their sense of self-competence (“I am able to meet the challenges I face in
life”) (Jindal-Snape & Miller, 2010, p. 13). During transition, the sense of self-worth
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Divya Jindal-Snape
and/or self-competence can be easily challenged, based on changing relationships
with peers and teachers as well as the perceived ability to undertake higher level academic tasks. Therefore, it is important that children are able to go through transitions
without their self-esteem being adversely affected. Self-esteem can be an important
factor in developing resilience to challenges during transition. Resilience has been
defined as a dynamic process of adaptation and the ability to thrive when faced with
adverse situations. Resilience research (Luthar, 2006) suggests that whether an individual is resilient or not, is dependent on internal attributes (e.g., self-esteem) and
the protective factors in their environment (e.g., positive relations with teachers or
peers). Therefore, resilience becomes important, during both transition research and
practice, as it provides us with insight into how we can ensure that children are resilient during this period of significant change; which for some might create adverse
situations (Jindal-Snape & Miller, 2008).
Similarly, Adeyemo (2007, 2010) has focused on emotional intelligence
interventions and suggests that children and young people need psychological skills
and resources that can help them with adaptations, adjustments, and an understanding of self that is required to navigate this journey. He suggests that this is because
they need skills to relate with peers and teachers, and also to understand their own
emotions and use that understanding to relate to others. The ability to regulate one’s
own emotions and, in turn, to be able to manage those of others requires a degree
of self-regulation and agency. This agency can be developed better when children
experience autonomy and feel in control. Other researchers have also discussed the
importance of the “active learning agency” (i.e., “a capacity for intentional and responsible management of new learning,” Pietarinen, Soini, & Pyhältö, 2010, p. 144), “active
participation,” and/or “feeling in control” in successfully navigating the transition process (Akos, 2010; Galton, 2010a; Jindal-Snape, 2010b). This can lead to increases in
motivation to learn, resilience and self-esteem, especially the two-dimensional selfesteem seen in terms of self-competence and self-worth (Jindal-Snape & Miller, 2010).
Photographs can be a powerful medium for listening to children’s voices as
well as helping them prepare for transition. Photovoice has been used as a participatory action research method that enables “participants to use their photographs to
elicit emotions, feelings, and insights about topics that may have been shrouded in
silence” (Lopez, Eng, Robinson, & Wang, 2005, p. 326). It has been used to provide
opportunities for participants to speak from their own experiences, to see connections between them, and to share these experiences in order to discover the root
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cause of some problem (Freire, 1970, cited in Cooper & Yarbrough, 2010). As such,
photographs can be used to discuss issues that might be of importance to children
when making the move to another school or school year. The child can take control of
the situation by deciding on what photographs to take and being able to express his
or her views fully.
Gorton (2012) gave children in a nursery setting a digital camera and asked
them to take photos of their own setting. She then asked each child to sort these
using “happy,” “sad,” and “ok” faces and downloaded the photographs onto a laptop
computer. The children were given a card with each face (happy, sad and ok) on to
indicate their choice. They also had the option to point to an icon of the same face on
the computer. She repeated this process with the children when they were in primary
school, and asked them to take photos of their new setting and then to sort them as
mentioned earlier. These photos and allocated faces were used to discuss children’s
feelings about leaving nursery, what they were excited about, what had worked well
for them, and more importantly why. This seemed an effective way of collecting the
views of 4 to 6 year olds who had autism as this gave them an alternative way of
communication. Their views, along with the views of their parents and professionals
who had worked with them, provided insights into how transition practices could be
improved, as well as this triangulation of perspectives providing methodical rigour
to the data collected through photos and highlighting when the views of adults and
children did not match.
In the context of primary-secondary transitions, photographs taken by others have also been used to probe children’s views about transition and transition practices by showing them photographs of abstract objects and asking them to use the
images to project their excitement or concerns regarding transition, and evaluate the
system in place (Jindal-Snape, Baird, & Miller, 2011; see Board Game later for an example). On the basis of previous feedback from parents about problems experienced by
their children due to lack of familiarity with the physical environment and significant
people in a primary school, for the next cohort, the head teacher provided photographs of significant others and important places that the child and parents could
look at before starting school. In an online questionnaire, administered six months
after their children had started primary school, parents highlighted the photographs
as one of the most beneficial aspects of the transition preparation undertaken by the
school (Jindal-Snape, 2009).
… useful having photos which we showed to our son every now and then to
remind him that school was approaching, “this is your teacher, this is your classroom” etc etc. A very useful tool for getting them into that way of thinking. (p. 8)
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According to Davies (2011), using cameras can help children see familiar
objects in an unfamiliar way and also to observe them from a different perspective.
As mentioned earlier, in Jindal-Snape (2009), nursery school children used the photographs taken by others to look at unfamiliar objects and people to familiarize themselves and develop a bond prior to starting school. Therefore, photographs became
an important way of capturing views as well as an important familiarization tool, thus
providing crucial opportunities to children to understand their own emotions and
prepare them better for the new environment leading to enhanced resilience.
Children’s drawings can be very powerful in conveying messages that they
might be consciously and subconsciously giving to others. Sketches were used to find
out children’s views of transition (Jindal-Snape & Foggie, 2009; Jindal-Snape et al.,
2010). They were asked to draw freely to indicate their expectations, concerns, experiences, etc. These were then used to generate a dialogue with them. Figure 1 shows
an example of how a child felt after the induction day at a secondary school (JindalSnape, Miller, & Baird, 2010).
Fig. 1: Sketch to express views regarding the move to secondary school
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As you can see, she also added that, “I felt small for the first time since P1
(first year of primary school) & comfused (confused).” However, the symbolic nature of
the change in height represented by the scales on the left and the two images of the
girl show her feelings even more clearly.
Similarly, in another study, after failing to get much dialogue going with
young people about life transitions following participation in an alternative curriculum project, their sketches gave a good forum to start the discussion (Jindal-Snape &
Foggie, 2009). Figure 2 provides an example of such a sketch.
Fig. 2: Example of young person’s voice regarding effectiveness of an alternative curriculum project
As you can see, in the two sketches the young person was able to portray
different aspects of his life (Figure 2). This sketch is powerful as it visually conveys how
much the use of drugs had reduced, and how instead of lying around the house, the
young person started taking different lessons and playing tennis. It portrays aspects
that probably words alone could not. Most importantly, it acted as a springboard for
discussion. In this type of creative approach, however, it is important that we do not
end up becoming gatekeepers (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, cited in Davies, 2011) and
make value judgments of their sketches or perceived to be doing so by children and
young people. There should be a shared understanding that the sketch is important
to convey their experience and not for its aesthetic value. Again, this opportunity to
express themselves fully gives children a sense of agency as the discussion is controlled by them on the basis of their sketch. Further, both sketches provided opportunities to express their emotions, thus facilitating a good understanding of their self
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which would help regulate these emotions in the future, leading to better emotional
intelligence and resilience.
Board Games
As mentioned earlier, when working with children, it is important to consider ways of collecting their voices in a way that is more natural or meaningful to
them. Playing comes naturally to children and its role in early years is well documented (Davies, Jindal-Snape, Collier, Digby, Hay, & Howe, 2012). However, there is
also evidence that games-based approaches can support creativity at all ages (Cremin et al., 2006; Cumming, 2007; European Commission 2009; Miller, Hudson, Miller,
& Shimi, 2010). According to Davies (2011) a skilled practitioner can involve children
in “sustained shared thinking” (p. 36) by engaging effectively in children’s play.
A board game2 was used to collect views of 11-12-year-olds about their
experience of primary to secondary transition (Jindal-Snape, Baird et al., 2011). This
board game was designed based on research conducted by Jindal-Snape in the area
of primary-secondary transition in Scotland between 2006 and 2010 as well as on
research carried out by others (e.g., Galton, 2010a). The areas included in the text on
the board game were highlighted as aspects that facilitated successful transition if
implemented well, and areas of concern or excitement for children (Jindal-Snape,
forthcoming). Data, on which the text in the game were based, were collected by
Jindal-Snape from young people, their parents, and professionals regarding experience of transition along with an in-depth review of literature in this area. The board
game was piloted with three children in the age group of 10-12 years and refined on
the basis of their feedback.
After the focus group was over, the children were asked about their views on
using a board game to facilitate it. Feedback was very positive; children said that they
found it easier to respond to questions as part of the game rather than responding to
questions posed by an adult researcher.
I thought it was good. I thought it was better because the last time someone
came they were just asking questions. So I liked this better because you get to
have fun as well.
It was interactive.
It was a good way to get us talking.
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Although this board game was specifically created for this purpose, it is possible to
adapt commercially available board games.
The same board game can be used with children to help facilitate transitions. The teacher or parent can use the scenarios in the boxes as cues for discussion
about school. The scenarios can be used by teachers to provide information to the
children; or by parents to make a note of questions to ask the child’s primary/secondary school teacher/s. This game can be used in small groups with children in class.
The object of the game3 is not to win but to have a good discussion about these areas
and make a note of any areas that should be discussed with the primary or secondary
school teachers/parents/child in future.
Similar board games can be used with children about to start primary school.
Some student teachers have used the board game and provided positive feedback
about it.
My students (student teachers) have used your board game with their pupils
when on placement in schools. They have provided very positive feedback on
how the game was effectively used with children.
(Personal communication, Gwen Boswell, 7.12.2011)
According to Gandini, Hill, Cadwell, and Schwall (2005), on the basis of
observations in Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, regularly practiced dialogue can support and sustain a culture and community that thinks together, with interpersonal
exchange, negotiation of conflict, and comparison of ideas and actions supporting
this process. This board game can provide children, parents, and teachers with an aid
for creating such dialogue, clearly linking with emotional intelligence and opportunities to practise resolution of any conflicts. This can also enhance the resilience of the
child by effective support provided in these dialogues by family, teachers, and peers.
Parents in Jindal-Snape (2010c), and Hannah, Gorton, and Jindal-Snape
(2010) suggested that children should be given a chance to practise activities and
rules that are new to them in a simulated setting. This is similar to the drama approach
discussed later. With this in mind the author created storybooks for children focusing
on different issues such as making friends, uniforms, bilingualism, and so on.
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For example, one story book is based on research with children moving to
primary school (Jindal-Snape, Snape, & Snape, 2011) that suggests that children’s
worries revolve around making friends, knowing the difference in rules of the primary
school compared to the preschool setting, adults expecting them to be independent,
and dealing with different behaviours according to the context they find themselves
in (Jindal-Snape, 2010b). The objectives of this storybook are to explore children’s
worries about starting school, rehearse in a safe environment the possible actions in
response to others’ behaviour, discuss possible consequences of their actions, and to
explore positive ways of making friends.
The story can be used with an individual child, or a group of children, to discuss the different responses that the child/ren might have to a scenario. The facilitator
involves them in the story by asking what they might do in a similar situation, and
provides opportunities of talking through their reaction to the situation and potential
consequences. The basic story starts with a scenario, such as this one, where some
children are playing and one child comes and pushes another child.4
The children are then asked to discuss what might happen next. They can
talk about reactions of other children; reflect on the consequences of those actions,
feelings of each child in the scenario, and reasons behind those feelings. These are
good opportunities for enhancing the child’s emotional intelligence. Some options
of what might happen are given in the story, but the idea is to let the children take
ownership of the story and develop it in whatever direction they want to, with the
purpose of enhancing their active learning agency. The examples of consequences
in the story can also be used to discuss the change in rules, children’s concerns, positive ways of making friends, and so forth. It is worth noting that the second and third
authors of the book are 10 and 8 year-old children who designed the options, consequences, and dialogues. This was done to ensure that the story was meaningful and
natural to young children and portrayed their voices rather than that of the adult
(Jindal-Snape, Snape et al., 2011).
The storybook was piloted with children, parents, and professionals and
refined on that basis. The feedback so far has been positive. However, data has not
been gathered to see its impact on transition experiences and is an area worth exploring in future. Again, storybooks with age appropriate characters in a relevant context can give children opportunities to personalize (I would…) or depersonalize (She
should…) and practise what they would do in a similar scenario (Boal, 1995). Storybooks like these can be used by practitioners and parents; ideally this idea can be
used to create their own stories.
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Creative Drama
As mentioned earlier, it has been suggested that prior to transition, children/
young people should be involved in simulated role-play, drama, and story-telling to
provide opportunities to express their transition concerns and tackle them in a secure
and familiar environment, thus making them more resilient. Creative drama can again
be used as a means of constructing a plausible real-life scenario in which the actors
can depersonalize their actions and responses in the guise of “playing the character”
(Jindal-Snape, Vettraino et al., 2011, p. 2). Creative drama is important for children
engaging in the experience of moving schools as it helps them understand the process of change and ways of managing that process. Similar to Boal’s (1995) metaxis,
“the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different, autonomous
worlds; the image of reality and the reality of the image” (p. 43), children can participate in drama and observe how they, or others, might behave in drama and reality. If
this creative drama is based on their context, it can provide them with opportunities
to learn and rehearse real-life situations in a safe environment. The environment is
safe as it is part of their natural environment with familiar peers and teachers, and
they have the additional protection of playing out “somebody else’s life” rather than
their own. They can play out important scenarios, their reactions and consequences
to their reactions within the protected guise of “drama”—a fictional piece of work.
This can then free them up to openly reflect and debate, gain a greater understanding to help interpret potential real life situations, make appropriate behaviour choices
to engage with those situations, and learn from the successful outcomes of those
situations (Jindal-Snape, Vettraino et al., 2011). Other research has also suggested
that such creative activities can enhance a child’s confidence and self-esteem (JindalSnape & Foggie, 2008) and promote resilience (Akos, 2004; Newman & Blackburn,
2002). You can use different scenarios such as first day at school, bullying, making
friends, peer pressure, and so on for creative drama. Ideally these should come from
the children themselves through other drama games, sketches, stories, and so forth
that the teacher might already be using in class.
Drama professionals have also been positive about the use of drama for
transitions (Jindal-Snape, Vettraino et al., 2011):
. . . I think it’s the power of drama that we do create a level playing field . . . and
also begin to discover voices we never knew existed, the children never knew
they had. . .
As soon as you ask children about what’s going on in their head they won’t tell it.
But when you create a character . . . then it becomes a lot easier . . . (then) there is
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no sense of exposure or vulnerability there . . . we’ve created a believable enough
character where children from P7 (final year of primary school in Scotland) to S1
(first year of secondary school in Scotland) face similar sort of problems – suddenly they are freed up . . . (pp. 7–8)
Therefore, when discussing “level playing field,” “no exposure or vulnerability,” they are suggesting clear links with resilience and self-esteem. An example of
creative drama activity is available in Jindal-Snape, forthcoming.
Discussion and Conclusion
The examples from practice and research evidence suggest that children’s
self-esteem, emotional intelligence, agency, and resilience can be enhanced through
involvement in creative approaches such as drama, story-telling, and games-based
learning. In this way, children and young people are provided with secure exposure
to transition related issues and given opportunities to tackle them. Overall, it can be
seen that whether we listen and portray voices in the context of research or practice,
creative approaches can help improve transition practice for individual children and
others. As mentioned earlier, research suggests that creativity frees children and gives
them a voice to articulate their views (Bancroft et al., 2008). Above all, a combination of different creative approaches (as well as in conjunction with more traditional
approaches) gives each child the opportunity to choose what he or she might be
most comfortable with and interested in. Although these creative techniques have
some similarities with the ideas behind the Mosaic Approach, they are different in
that they have been structured based on transitions research with a strong grounding
in theory. Also, they are based on over 30 years of international research on school
These approaches provide children with opportunities to control their environment and the context of learning. They are creating their own world—whether
real or fictitious. The elements of creativity not only engage and motivate them, but
also the process, and indeed the output, can lead to increases in self-esteem. Further, as was mentioned by professionals in Jindal-Snape, Baird et al. (2011) and JindalSnape, Vettraino et al. (2011), creative approaches provide a level playing field for
every child. They suggest that this is because the focus is not on academic skills, but
is about “active learning” and imagination.
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Being able to practise real-life scenarios in a safe environment with peers
and adults they are familiar with, can prepare them for such situations in a new environment. Being able to understand the consequences of potential actions helps them
manage risks in their new environment. They are able to rehearse key life skills in the
“make believe” world of drama or storybooks. They develop emotionally and socially,
and become more resilient. As Newman and Blackburn (2002) have said, it is important not to avoid risk, but to successfully manage it. These creative approaches give
opportunities to do just that. If we see transition as an ongoing process (Jindal-Snape,
2010a), we need to keep using these approaches even after the move has been made.
On the basis of this, I propose a model that establishes the links between creative
approaches, voices, and subsequent improvement in transition experience (Figure
3). This model suggests that voices heard through creative, and child- and youngpeople-appropriate techniques, can have multi-fold benefits. It can help practitioners
revise existing transition practices as well as identify new techniques that can be used
(In Figure 3, starting in a bottom-up manner, these are the two boxes on the left and
middle of level 3). For instance, Galton (2010a) gives an example of how a group of
children suggested that instead of schools just giving a map of the secondary school
for a tour of the school (commonly existing transition practice), schools could set up a
treasure hunt which could involve working in teams using that map to find their way
around the new school (a suggestion for new transition practice). Further, creative
approaches can be used for the child to learn to manage changes and work through
any issues. Carrying on with the above-mentioned example, the treasure hunt will
provide a child with the opportunity for problem solving in a safe environment with
peer support, where concerns of “being lost” will be overridden by the game of treasure hunt (In Figure 3, starting in a bottom-up manner, this is the box on the right of
level 3). All these lead to a child feeling more in control and having a more positive
sense of self-worth and self-competence reinforced by adults’ willingness to listen
and modify their practice. All these then help the child have more positive transition experiences and also act as a buffer against any negative experiences thanks to
increased self-esteem and resilience.
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Positive transition experience
(acts as a buffer against any
negative experiences)
Increase in
Increase in
Increase in
Feeling in control
and valued,
active learning agency,
Modify existing transition
Design new transition
Child learns problem solving
and working through issues
Creative Approaches
Fig. 3: Using creative approaches to portray voices to facilitate transitions through enhancement of
resilience, well-being, and self-esteem
Potential Issues and Considerations
It is also important to understand that not all adults are comfortable using
creative approaches. In a study done by Jindal-Snape, Baird et al. (2011), some teachers did raise concerns about knowing less than the children when using computer
games during the transition process. Other research into creativity has also suggested
that some teachers are not comfortable and they need training in facilitating creativity (Jindal-Snape, Vettraino et al., 2011). This also places an increased responsibility on
teacher trainers to use similar creative approaches with student teachers to provide
them opportunities to take such risks and develop the confidence to “let go of control” and allow for more autonomy. Davies et al. (2012) suggest that it is important to
provide continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers that helps them discuss their preconceptions of creativity, gives opportunities to have dialogues around
models of creativity and pedagogy, and provides opportunities to develop their own
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Enhance Their Transition Experience and Improve the Transition Practice
Researchers have also pointed out barriers to using creative approaches
in schools, namely, statutory requirements, organizational barriers, and pedagogical barriers to taking risks (Davies et al., 2012; Wyse & Spendlove, 2007). However,
given that there is increasing evidence of the benefits of using creative approaches,
the educational policy and practice has to change. To create a school ethos which is
conducive to creativity, supportive leadership is very important (Grainger, Goouch,
& Lambirth, 2005). In the context of Scotland, with the emphasis on Curriculum for
Excellence (LTS, n.d.) and assessment for learning, this might become easier. In other
countries where similar curricular reforms have taken place such as New Zealand, Italy,
Sweden and Finland, again there is more scope for the use of creative approaches,
and indeed there are some very good examples of how they are used (e.g., Peters,
1. In this paper, “children” refers to individuals up to 11 years of age and “young
people” denotes individuals aged 12 to 16.
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Divya Jindal-Snape is Professor of Education, Inclusion
and Life Transitions in the School of Education, Social Work
and Community Education at the University of Dundee. She
has published extensively in the area of transitions and is
also involved in designing creative educational resources to
facilitate educational and life transitions. She is the convenor
of Transformative Change: Educational and Life Transitions
(TCELT) research network.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creating Mentorship Metaphors:
Pacific Island Perspectives
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, University of the South Pacific, Tonga
Donasiano Ruru, University of the South Pacific, Fiji
Kabini Sanga, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Keith Walker and Edwin Ralph, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
The authors facilitated three inter-professional mentorship workshops in Fiji and
Tonga, which were part of a series of such events that they recently conducted across
the Pacific region. These workshops, in turn, formed part of a larger, ongoing leadership initiative co-sponsored by several local, regional, and international organizations.
The purpose of each workshop was to facilitate each multi-disciplinary cohort of leaders in attendance to begin to create an adaptable mentorship model that would fit
their unique Pacific contexts. One task within these model-development sessions was
for each cohort to create metaphors that they believed best encapsulated the essence of their specific mentorship approach. In this article, the authors summarize
aspects of that creative process, present several metaphors that the three cohorts
generated, and raise implications regarding future mentoring initiatives.
nterest has expanded worldwide regarding the role of leadership development
within educational and professional organizations (Allen & Eby, 2007). Furthermore, the practice of mentorship has also been recognized as a key component
in this developmental process (Rombeau, Goldberg, & Loveland-Jones, 2010); and
as such, mentorship has spawned a considerable body of research (Rose Ragins &
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Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, Donasiano Ruru, Kabini Sanga, Keith Walker, and Edwin Ralph
Kram, 2007). Within this research, the ability to be creative has been identified as
an indispensable attribute of effective leaders and mentors in any context (Chang,
2011b; Gardner & Laskin, 2011).
In our own recent research on the mentorship process (e.g., Johansson-Fua,
Sanga, Walker, & Ralph, 2011; Ralph & Walker, 2011a; Ruru, Sanga, Walker, & Ralph,
in press), we described the series of mentorship workshops we facilitated, in which
several cross-disciplinary cohorts of educational and professional leaders began
to develop mentorship models to suit their unique cultural contexts in the Pacific
region. A key activity in the workshops we conducted was for participants to create
and refine relevant metaphors to further clarify the particular mentorship model they
were developing. In this present article, we describe that metaphor-creation initiative.
Purpose of the Study
Our purpose in this study was to (a) summarize key aspects of the creative
process that workshop cohorts from Fiji and Tonga demonstrated, and (b) describe
some metaphors they created to conceptualize the mentoring process in their respective cultural and organizational environments. Participants represented a variety of
educational, governmental, business, and religious organizations; and they attended
one of three mentorship workshops (one of which was held in Tonga and two in Fiji).
The complete series of 11 mentorship events, of which these three workshops were
a part, in turn formed one segment of a larger, previously established leadership initiative that had been organized and/or co-sponsored by several local, regional, and
international organizations (see Johansson-Fua et al., 2011; Ruru et al., in press).
Literature Review
Mentoring Processes
Universally, there has been a growing attentiveness to the quality of the
mentorship process conducted in all professional disciplines and occupations (Carnegie, 2011; Rose Ragins & Kram, 2007), which in turn has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of related research efforts, publications, conferences, and websites that have appeared during the past three decades (Chun, Sosik,
& Yun, in press). At the same time, however, concerns have been raised (Allen, Eby,
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Creating Mentorship Metaphors: Pacific Island Perspectives
O’Brien, & Lentz, 2008) about how much of this new mentoring research has been
overly dependent on such elements as: cross-sectional designs, self-reported data,
single data-gathering methods, and quantitative/correlational approaches conducted in field settings.
Consequently, we decided to address some of these limitations by conducting several inter-professional studies in which inter-professional leaders designed
their own mentoring models tailored to their local contexts. This research also investigated the extent that the leaders found Adaptive Mentorship© (Ralph & Walker, 2011a,
2011b) useful in helping them accomplish that task (Johansson-Fua et al., 2011; Ruru
et al., in press).
Many mentorship scholars and practitioners have conceptualized mentorship as a developmental process by which an individual with more knowledge and
skill in a field (i.e., the mentor) assists a person with less knowledge and skill (i.e., the
protégé) to develop in these areas (Ralph & Walker, 2011a). Regarding the Adaptive
Mentorship (AM) model, we have shown that the mentor must first adjust his/her
leadership response or style to appropriately match the task-specific developmental
level of the protégé. We derived the AM model from early contingency leadership
approaches (Fiedler & Garcia, 1987; Hersey & Blanchard, 1988), cognitive developmental theories (Piaget, 1973; Vygotsky & Cole, 1978), and situated and experiential learning models (Kolb, 1984; Lave & Wenger, 1991). Subsequently, as the protégé increases
his/her competence and confidence in performing the skill-set being practiced, the
mentor must adapt/adjust, in inverse proportions, the corresponding degree of task
direction and support given to the protégé (Blanchard et al., 2010; Ralph & Walker,
The quality of mentorship will be influenced by the characteristics not only
of the work setting or professional culture, but also of the broader society within
which the mentorship process occurs (Allen & Eby, 2007). However, the related
research has repeatedly confirmed that the core element undergirding successful
mentorship practice, universally, is the prevalence of positive interpersonal relationships between/among the mentorship participants, whereby partners’ mutual needs
for acceptance, affiliation, and belonging are fulfilled (Fletcher & Rose Ragins, 2007;
McManus & Russell, 2007).
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Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, Donasiano Ruru, Kabini Sanga, Keith Walker, and Edwin Ralph
Creating Metaphors
In this report, we have conceptualized creativity as an intellectual process
by which individuals incorporate cognition, originality, flexibility, and imagination
to both frame and solve problems (Gardner, 2011; Lindsay & Davis, 2012; Robinson,
2011; Sternberg, 2003). Creativity has always been part of human activity; and it has
been studied and promoted by leaders in all contexts for centuries (Gardner, 2011;
Sternberg & Kaufman, 2011). Today, social, political, and commercial organizations
in every sector not only espouse creativity and innovation as essential to all facets
of human existence, but they also commit considerable resources to educate/train
their members to develop their inventive thinking abilities, and their imaginative
and problem-solving capacities (Chang, 2011a; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Medina, 2008;
Osborn, 1993).
With respect to promoting creativity to enhance human cognition, people
in all cultures have created metaphors to describe and explain phenomena and
events in life (Danesi & Mollica, 2008), and to help them clarify meaning and deepen
understanding of their lived experiences (Costa, 2001). Metaphors have been defined
as “comparisons that create mental images by connecting the familiar with the less
familiar” (Cornett, 2011, p. 99). Moreover, related research-literature (e.g., Lakoff &
Johnson, 1980), as well as individuals’ personal communicative experiences, have
confirmed that metaphorical and figurative language has not only been an integral
component of human discourse, but that people are also often unaware of its prevalence in regular communication (Levin, 1988).
Kovecses (2002) surveyed the research literature on conceptual metaphor
to ascertain the sources that were most often used, and he identified six sourcedomains: the human body, living things, manufactured objects, human activities, the
environment, and processes from the field of physics. Over the years, people have
used metaphorical language to create and/or elaborate meaning, to expand understanding (Boroditsky & Ramscar, 2002), to shape public opinion, and/or to influence
decision-making behavior (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011). In more recent times it has
been included as part of narrative inquiry within the qualitative research paradigm
in the social sciences and humanities (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009; Tompkins & Lawley,
Research on the use of metaphors has appeared in the literature of several
professional disciplines, such as: Architectural Design (Casakin, 2007); Education
(Mewburn & Pitcher, 2011); Geography (Reed & Peters, 2004); Management (Gray,
2007); Nursing (Streubert & Rinaldi Carpenter, 2010); and Psychology (Newell, 2008).
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Creating Mentorship Metaphors: Pacific Island Perspectives
Moreover, some sources (e.g., Jensen, 2006) have suggested that metaphors have
been identified, at least in some form, in the research literature of nearly all professional fields.
Our search of the literature (e.g., Casakin, 2007; Garner, 2005; Gray, 2007;
Ortony, 1993; Tompkins & Lawley, 2006) identified several advantages of employing
metaphorical and figurative language in research: metaphors provide a vivid, compact, and expressive way to convey complex information; they help reveal hidden
assumptions and unarticulated beliefs; they enhance comprehension and retention
of complicated concepts/relationships; they evoke emotion and stimulate imagination, creative thinking, and innovative problem-solving; and they promote reflection
and arouse action.
On the other hand, several authors (e.g., Carpenter, 2008; Garner, 2005; Jensen, 2006; Newell, 2008; Schmitt, 2005) have identified potential drawbacks regarding the inappropriate use of metaphors in research, such as: (a) metaphors may be
incompatible with the reality of the situation; (b) they may distort, obscure, trivialize,
or misrepresent events; (c) they may be confusing for parties from different cultures
or backgrounds; (d) they may ignore some facets of a process; or (e) if used, they
should be supported with triangulated data from other relevant sources.
With respect to these limitations, Reed and Peters (2004) advised scholars/
practitioners to acknowledge possible caveats; to attempt to address uncertainties
and ambiguities that may appear; and to be resilient when interpreting metaphors
and/or discussing their implications. Moreover, researchers who study metaphor
usage have identified several forms and have employed a variety of idiosyncratic
terms. For instance, Jensen (2006) reported four metaphor categories (i.e., active,
inactive, foundational, and dead); and Reed and Peters (2004) mentioned three forms
(i.e., landscape, spatial, and ecological). Thibodeau and Boroditsky (2011) studied how
metaphorical language was powerful but often hidden, in that people generally did
not realize that the metaphors within the messages they received actually shaped
their subsequent reasoning and decision-making.
Researchers, themselves, have employed varying numbers of research
metaphors. For example, Ph.D. students listed three basic research metaphors: spatial concepts (e.g., expressed in words like field, region, or area); travel expressions
(e.g., path or journey); and actions (e.g., design, construct, or build, Mewburn & Pitcher,
2011). Moreover, post-doctoral researchers portrayed research in four metaphorical ways: explorative, spatial, constructive, and organic (Pitcher & Akerlind, 2009).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, Donasiano Ruru, Kabini Sanga, Keith Walker, and Edwin Ralph
Thus, even though researchers generally acknowledged the value of using metaphor,
we found that there was little uniformity.
With regard to relating metaphors to mentorship, Ganser (2008) found that
mentors, themselves, represented their mentoring practice in a variety of ways, such
as: family or relation (e.g., serving as a parent, counselor, or friend); sports (e.g., serving
as a coach or a lifeguard); directive (e.g., serving as a navigator or a pilot); or nurturing/
developmental (e.g., serving as a gardener or a tailor). By contrast, Busen and Engebretson (1999) had indicated nearly a decade earlier that some of these same metaphors could also be used in a “toxic” sense, whereby the protégé would have little or
no input into his/her professional development, but was merely a passive recipient in
the process. Some of these toxic metaphors were: (a) being sculpted, whereby the protégé lacked any voice in his/her growth; (b) being directed by a person who behaved
like a “show-business parent,” in that the mentor was an overbearing choreographer
of the protégé’s performance; (c) being a slave, whereby the protégé subserviently
obeyed “the master;” or (d) being nurtured in a garden, whereby the mentor was the
nurturing agent doing everything for the protégé.
We found that Edelson (1999) presented one of the most incisive explorations of adult creativity. He reviewed the contributions of prominent scholars (e.g.,
Bandura, 1997; Boden, 1990; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Drucker, 1993; Osborn, 1993;
Rothenberg, 1990; Wallace & Gruber, 1989), who studied how creative adults functioned within work and educational settings. Edelson’s synthesis of the related
research confirmed that all humans have creative potential, and that creativity will be
enhanced in organizational environments when leaders actively support imaginative
and innovative thinking/action among group-members.
In our literature review, we observed that although there was nearly universal recognition of the importance of promoting creative thinking to solve local,
national, and global problems, there was also a lack of agreement among practitioners and scholars with respect to common terminology and uniform strategies
related to these solutions. It was clear that when creating mentoring metaphors, each
society, culture, profession, occupation, or organization reflected its own history, traditions, and ways of knowing (Huffer, 2006).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creating Mentorship Metaphors: Pacific Island Perspectives
The 94 leaders who attended our three workshops represented universities,
colleges, schools, government ministries, private businesses, international aid agencies, and church/religious organizations from Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, and Canada.
Thirty-seven leaders attended the Tonga workshop, 35 attended the Lautoka (Fiji)
workshop, and 22 attended the Suva (Fiji) event. The three cohorts were drawn from a
broad cross-section of disciplinary and inter-professional backgrounds (e.g., managers, teachers, school principals, professors, social workers, nurses, police officers, government ministers, church ministers, or NGO administrators). These cohort-members
had been previously recognized by the sponsoring organizers as being mentorship
leaders in their respective fields; and these mentorship workshops formed one segment of a broader leadership-development program that had been organized across
the Pacific region. Therefore, the workshop planners had formally invited these individuals to attend the workshops.
To collect data regarding attendees’ creation of mentorship metaphors, we
used a qualitative research approach (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2010), and wrote verbatim notes of delegates’ comments during the metaphor-creation process, especially
during talanoa (or discussion/debriefing, Halapua, 2008) sessions. Two members of
our research team triangulated these comments with data we collected both from (a)
semi-structured conversations with individuals and focus-group before/after several
sessions; and (b) field-notes we kept of our observations of pairs and groups who
were engaged in the workshop deliberations.
We organized the workshop activities according to our prior understandings
and assumptions, which we derived both from Pacific island cultures/values/epistemologies, and from the broader research literature related to effective professional
development (e.g., Fullan, 2007) and facilitating creativity with adult learners (Edelson, 1999). For instance, we offered a variety of workshop sessions, such as: individual
reflections (e.g., “What does mentoring look like for you?); paired discussions (e.g.,
“Share a story with a partner regarding a powerful mentoring experience you had.”);
small-group interactions (e.g., “What metaphor best captures these themes of effective mentorship?”); and whole-group syntheses (e.g., “In the light of our deliberations,
what might effective mentorship look like?”). We built into these sessions an ongoing,
reflexive, and iterative dimension, in which participants were invited to respond (and
to suggest modifications) to the deliberations.
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Seu’ula Johansson-Fua, Donasiano Ruru, Kabini Sanga, Keith Walker, and Edwin Ralph
As we have reported elsewhere (Johansson-Fua et al., 2011; Ruru et al., in
press), we were pleased with the overall results of the mentorship workshops, in that:
(a) all attendees evaluated the workshops as valuable; (b) an authentic spirit of trust
seemed to pervade the sessions, not only among the attendees, but also between
the attendees and the facilitators; and (c) participants created several mentorship
metaphors, which not only incorporated many of the generic attributes of effective
metaphors as mentioned earlier in this article, but which also reflected specific cultural, historical, and traditional values and beliefs of the Pacific Way (Lawson, 2010).
Because of space limitations, we have selected and summarized only a representative
sample of the metaphors that the participants created.
Fijian Metaphors
Bure. The bure is a Fijian house that shelters people from rain, wind, and sun.
Its interior is cool in hot weather and warm on cooler days; and in the safety of the
bure, teaching, learning, and nurturing of the young takes place. Stories of inspiration,
imagination, and motivation are shared; and laughter and crying are permitted and
encouraged. It is a metaphor for the environment within which effective mentorship
occurs in any setting.
I ketekete. In Fijian, i ketekete is a metaphorical basket of wisdom, within
which are stored the values and customs that Fijian society deems important. In
the basket are the heritage, histories, songs, and dances of clan and tribal groups,
which are guarded by clan trustees who rank highest in the clan hierarchy. From this
basket, mentors draw out needed wisdom and skills to pass on to protégés in their
Kava pounding. Kava-making is a daily activity in Fiji, in which the kava root
is pounded into powder, in preparation for mixing and drinking the beverage within
the traditional kava ceremony. In this metaphor, the pounder represents the mentor who shapes/challenges the protégé to achieve worthy goals and fulfill responsibilities. The kava root represents the protégé, who is “influenced” towards positive
change. The grog pot, in which the roots are ground, constitutes the environment
within which mentorship occurs.
Loloma. Loloma is Fijian for love, and this metaphor conceptualizes selfless
love as the connector between/among everyone within a mentoring relationship.
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Love is the foundation for a caring relationship in family, school, work, and community. Every participant is considered unique, made in God’s image; and each one
needs to receive/give love and guidance to develop optimally.
Noqu salusalu. In Fiji, salusalu (an intricately woven flower garland) is used
to honor dignitaries, guests, and designated citizens. The salusalu makers’ good intentions and character are also represented by the different blooms and fragrances skillfully designed and woven with a desired pattern and purpose. The plaiting process
requires the salusalu maker’s patience, skill, and creativity, which symbolize a mentor’s
care and integrity, who seeks to promote and enhance the protégé’s development.
Another aspect of the salusalu metaphor is that parents often refer to their
children as noqu salusalu (my garland). In this regard, children are expected to honor
their parents and grandparents. In a further meaning, Fijians also refer to people as
salusalu ni vanua (garlands of the land), or as guardians of the integrity of their family
heritage by gracing the “shoulders of the land.” Each new generation is expected to
conduct themselves honorably in morally responsible and ethical ways. In like manner, the ultimate mentorship goal is for protégés to grace their communities, after
undergoing a process of purposeful shaping by their mentors.
Ulu ni vanua. Ulu ni vanua refers to a mountain, and metaphorically, to one’s
formation, growth, and maturation. In a similar way that a mountain depicts strength,
resources, constancy, and protection, a mentor is expected to create a protective
atmosphere, within which a protégé will ultimately develop into a ulu ni vanua.
Because the ulu ni vanua is elevated, humans look up to it and emulate it; and the
mountain simultaneously is considered to view all creatures under its protection with
an outlook of care. The ulu ni vanua is also able to produce its own resources, such as
rivers, streams, and forests that provide plant and animal life for the sustenance of
people in its jurisdiction. Likewise, mentors will provide necessary support and guidance for protégés under their watch.
Vakai sulu. The Fijian masi (tapa cloth or bark cloth) is significant, in that
it was used traditionally for ceremonial purposes such as weddings and conferring
recognition. On such occasions, the masi symbolized the person being clothed with
the honor that he/she received. For Fijians, vakai sulu or being clothed by one’s family with a Fijian masi signified receiving the family’s blessings and treasures. Being
clothed upon with the masi of different tapa patterns and multiple layers of wrappings, the honoree was acknowledged, affirmed, appreciated, and respected.
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Upon being clad with Fijian tapa, the honored person was also deemed to
have been endowed with the gifts of leadership, and was expected to perform that
role competently and judiciously. Regarding mentorship, the vakai sulu metaphor
depicted an achievement in the mentoring process, in which the protégé was receiving “treasures” to be used, enjoyed, and celebrated in the public arena and for the
community’s benefit.
Va vakada. In the process of growing yams, Fiji farmers would erect a bamboo scaffolding (i vakada) to support the developing plants. Because yams are of the
creeping variety, they need a structure on which to grow and entwine. The scaffolding acts like a bridge along and across which the yams creep and weave their way
toward the natural sunlight. The i vakada assists the plants to develop in a productive
manner, to avoid over-crowding around the roots, and to obtain sufficient sunlight.
In like manner, the va vakada or scaffolding metaphor depicts adaptively mentoring
protégés within a nurturing environment.
Veiyacani. Naming is of considerable significance in Fijian society; and being
named after another person is a privilege of honour. A child is commonly named after
a senior person, usually from within the extended family or clan. The namesake then
is expected to carry on the heritage, legacy, and identity of the named person’s family,
together with the dignity and respect associated with the family name. The younger
person is entrusted to extend and preserve the reputation of the inherited name. In
turn, the senior person assumes a mentorship responsibility for the bearer of his/her
name. From the time of naming, the mentor takes responsibility for his/her namesake,
as adviser, counsellor, and provider of care.
In Fijian society, the mentor often helps finance the protégé’s education and
sustenance, and may show the protégé a biased degree of favouritism. The protégé’s
parents may also seek the mentor’s advice in cases where disciplinary guidance is
needed for their child. This entire veiyacani relationship typifies an effective mentorprotégé relationship.
Vinaka Vaka Niu. In Fijian, lutu na nuilutu ki vuna means “coconut fruits will
fall around the coconut palm.” Once a dried coconut fruit has fallen to the base of the
tree, it will become a vara (seedling), provided that the necessary elements are present to promote germination: fertile soil, spacing, transplanting, and mulching.
All parts of the coconut palm are used: its leaves for sasa for weaving baskets, fans, and roofing; its stem for furniture, doormats, and house-posts; its husks for
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Creating Mentorship Metaphors: Pacific Island Perspectives
magimagi (sinnet), scrubbing brushes, or firewood; its flesh for food, medicine, and
oil; and its shell for containers, eating utensils, or ornaments. With respect to mentorship, the vinaka vaka niu metaphor also has several related idioms. In Fiji Hindi, Jaisa
bees boge waisa paoge means “you reap what you sow”; o na seva gia na bua ko a tea
means “the fruit doesn’t fall far from the palm/tree”; and na vutu ka lakikasa means
“your mentoring may not come to fruition immediately, but one day the protégé
will eventually actualize the teachings that will have made mentor’s mentoring all
Vunilagi. In Fijian, lagi means heavens, and vu means source. In some parts
of Fiji, vunilagi refers to the horizon or the heavens where the sky begins. This concept
can represent the goals of mentoring the protégé, who pursues aspirations, ideals,
achievement, and success. The vunilagi model could therefore emphasize promoting the protégé’s quality and sustained excellence. In an educational or professional
development context, the vunilagi image could highlight the purpose of mentorship
as the protégé’s achievement, both in its specific and general senses.
Tongan Metaphors
Pununga.The pununga metaphor represents a bird’s nest in which the
mother bird (mentor) nurtures the baby bird (protégé), by bringing to the nest the
necessary materials to enhance the latter’s development (i.e., the experiences, feelings, insights, values, and beliefs that promote protégés’ success). The nest (environment) is a safe haven for the neophyte, where he/she is free from stress and danger,
and where protégés’ problems are not compounded, and where they can find privacy
and time to reflect.
This environment is safe but not stifling, and caring but not intrusive, where
the mentor helps the fledgling learn to fly. Other processes in the nesting process
with implications for mentorship are: selecting the location of the nest (tree, water,
land); constructing it (as coarse on the outside, soft on the inside); sharing it with
other protégés; and eventually leaving.
Fale-lalava. This metaphor represents Tongan house-building or faletonga.
A faletonga begins with sinking pillars (pou) or coconut trunks into the ground. The
faletonga frame has a structural frame (kahoki), upon which the roof (‘ato made from
coconut leaves) is set.
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The quality of the connections between the pillars and the roof shows
builders’ construction skills (tufunga lalava). In earlier times, Tongans used coconut
ropes (kafa) to connect (lalava) each part, thereby linking each frame with the pillars. House builders were identified by the lalava designs that connected each linkage of the frame with the pillars. With respect to the Tongan mentorship process, the
four golden values of respect (faka’apa’apa), loyalty (mamahi’ime’a), reciprocation
(tauhivaha’a), and selfless service (lototo), together with explicit Christian moral values, were qualities of successful Tongan mentors.
These virtues are represented by the supporting pillars of a falelalava, and
the faletonga roof includes Tongan traditions, cultures, family histories, and certain
western values. In this metaphor, a Tongan mentor is one who integrates/balances
these elements, by guiding the protégé toward an outcome of excellence, in the
same way a lalava connects/links the pillars with the frame and the roof. Similarly, just
as the faletonga (Tongan house) is a place of hope, belonging, and acceptance, the
effective Tongan mentor is able to create an environment that is welcoming to protégés, who may have previously experienced coldness and separation in the outside
Fetākinima. Fetākinima is to lead by taking a person’s hand and encouraging or gently pulling him/her to come along. A common sight in Tonga is young people holding each other’s hands, or putting an arm around one another when walking.
It shows a bond between two people that runs deeper than mere physical contact.
Feeling safe in the immediate presence of another means that trust, respect, love, and
honesty exist between them. This bond is critical in the fetākinima metaphor, because
partners experience more safety together, and they can move more securely than if
they were alone.
When forming the fetākinima bond, the partners can each learn about the
other. As depicted in the Adaptive Mentorship model, the person in the mentoring
role learns how to adjust to the protégé’s particular developmental needs. A related
strength of the Fetākinima metaphor is that both partners walk side-by-side: at certain times in the mentorship journey, the mentor may take the lead, but at other times
the protégé may lead. As the relationship matures, they will work together, take turns,
and even exchange roles as peer mentors.
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Discussion and Implications
With respect to the creative process exhibited by attendees during the
workshop-sessions, we observed that—whether interacting in pair-, small group-,
or whole group-settings—they appeared to be sincerely involved, enthusiastic, and
often animated in expressing/critiquing the ideas presented. We also noted that participants not only quickly engaged in each activity, but that they were also able to
maintain this intensity of interaction throughout the deliberations (Johansson-Fua
et al., 2011; Ruru et al., in press). We attributed this high level of engagement in the
creative process to the characteristics of the participants and the organizers. On the
one hand, the attendees were motivated, uninhibited, and eager to contribute and
collaborate. On the other hand, the workshop leaders (particularly the Pacific island
team-members, Professors Johansson-Fua, Ruru, and Sanga) had previously established (and had maintained during these workshops) the pre-requisite conditions
conducive to fostering such creative energy among these cohorts. Three such conditions that had been identified by the scholars cited in our preceding literature review
were: (a) evidence of sustained support of such efforts by recognized leaders (e.g., by
providing attendees with release time, resources, and recognition); (b) promotion of
participants’ professional development and self-efficacy; and (c) allowance for participatory flexibility, unpredictability, and personalization of members’ idea-sharing and
Regarding the product generated from the creativity deliberations, the
cohorts produced several metaphors that fit largely into the organic category related
to the processes of biological growth and nurturing (Ganser, 2008; Kovecses, 2002;
Pitcher & Akerlind, 2009). Each of these organic metaphors not only reflected the
cherished values and experiences of the regional and local cultures, but the metaphors also exemplified the generic, positive traits attributed to research metaphors,
which we highlighted earlier in this article (e.g., clarifying meaning, evoking emotions,
guiding action). Moreover, these metaphors helped to broaden participants’ understanding, to clarify complex realities, and to suggest creative solutions for adapting
mentorship to match the developmental levels of individual protégés across the disciplines (e.g., Carpenter, 2008; Ralph & Walker, 2011a).
The predominant themes in both the Fijian and Tongan mentoring metaphors reflected the peoples’ connection to their families and to nature. Citizens of
Pacific island nations are typically devoted to close-knit community relationships, to
the tradition of recognizing the sea and land as essential to their livelihood and wellbeing, and to the Pacific Way (the latter referring to their emphasis on collaborative
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dialogue, respect, inclusiveness, flexibility, adaptation, and balance, Huffer, 2006). Yet
at the same time, citizens of each country also identify particular aspects that characterize their respective unique cultural, linguistic, historical, and traditional contexts
(Sanga & Chu, 2009). These facts were demonstrated by the similarities and the differences among the metaphors described above.
At the same time, we noted that the workshop attendees readily recognized
limitations in the metaphors, such as: (a) the possible misinterpretation by outsiders; (b) an emphasis on certain elements but neglecting others; and (c) the presence
of culturally biased subjectivity (Carpenter, 2008; Ganser, 2008; Garner, 2005; Huffer,
2006). Nevertheless, we wholeheartedly agreed with the following statement from a
participant, who responded to our invitation sent to all attendees a few days after the
workshops, soliciting their input to our initial workshop-report that we had e-mailed
to all attendees shortly after each workshop:
Any of the metaphors suggested by the participants in the workshop can be
adapted to fit our settings. What’s important for me is that the selected model
must be guided by those Pacific values we articulated in the workshop: responsibility/loyalty, maintaining reciprocal relationships, and compassion/humility/
We found that the attendees intently engaged in creating mentorship
metaphors that were relevant and realistic to their particular cultures and daily lives.
Because two members of our workshop team were from Canada, we Canadians initially thought that attendees might resist our efforts, perceiving us as “external agents”
somehow trying to force them to accept a foreign model. However, our concerns
were alleviated when the attendees openly and candidly considered and critiqued
the AM model, and subsequently adapted/incorporated the portions of the model
that resonated with their own contexts and values. Participants also ignored those
parts of the model that did not fit with their contexts. In fact, in one concluding session, an attendee thanked the team for the opportunity to assess the AM model and
to preserve what was helpful. “After all,” she chuckled, “Your model is called ‘adaptive.’”
What we found most impressive in all three venues was not only how readily all participants engaged in the creative process of adapting generic mentorship
principles to fit their unique contexts, but also how helpful they reported seeing this
collaborative, cross-disciplinary process. It is the sincere hope of our entire team that
the momentum generated by this initiative might be sustained by the cohort members as they continue their quest, in turn, to mentor a new generation of leaders in
their respective settings across all sectors in the Pacific region.
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Overall, we believe we achieved our objective of facilitating an interdisciplinary group of interested mentorship scholars and practitioners to evaluate one
mentoring scheme and to adapt it by creating innovative approaches to meet the
contextual needs of their unique settings—across professions and across cultures.
Based on the written and oral comments (including invitations to the team to conduct
follow-up events) that we received from the workshop attendees (Johansson-Fua et
al., 2011; Ruru et al., in press), we, at the time of this writing, are preparing follow-up
initiatives for these venues and are planning new workshops for other international
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Seu’ula Johansson-Fua
(Ph.D., University of Toronto),
who is from Tonga, is an administrator and research fellow at
the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Education. She
has been active in key reform initiatives throughout the region, and has also conducted research projects and facilitated
leadership-training events in several Pacific Island nations.
Donasiano Ruru was born in Fiji, where he is currently
a teacher educator at Fiji National University. He has earned
three graduate degrees: an MBA from the University of the
South Pacific, a Master in Development Administration from
the Australian National University, and a PhD in Development
Studies from Victoria University of Wellington.
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Kabini Sanga
is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of
Education, Karori Campus at Victoria University of Wellington
(NZ). He has been a key educational leader across the South
Pacific region for several years. Kabini’s research interests are
in leadership, educational policy, international education,
governance of higher education, and indigenous research.
Keith Walker
is a Professor in the Department of Educational Administration and the Johnson Shoyama Graduate
School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan in
Canada. His teaching and research interests lie in the areas of
ethics, leadership, and educational policy.
Edwin Ralph is a Professor and Facilitator/Supervisor of Extended Practicum with the Department of Curriculum Studies,
College of Education, University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
His teaching and research interests relate to enhancing the
teaching, learning, and mentorship processes from the pre-K
through to the adult levels across all disciplines.
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Working With a Student Model in a Creative
Non-Fiction Workshop: Charging Joint Creativity
Carol Lipszyc, State University of New York, Plattsburgh
In this arts-based inquiry, I examine how a student model creative non-fiction essay
develops students in a third-year creative writing workshop as critical readers, editors,
and writers. Over the course of two semesters, student writers reciprocally acquire
strategic knowledge and enhance their creativity. Plural voices emerge in the dialogue between the model student/writer, her peers, and my curriculum as evidenced
in the narrative excerpts composed and revised by the student; in her peers’ critical
feedback; and in students’ reflections. Exploring this collaboration, I envision affording more opportunity for student model writers to share their evolving knowledge in
both traditional and online classrooms.
s a teacher of expressive writing and practitioner of the writing arts, I search
for ways to trigger my students’ creativity and prepare them with a repository of strategies so they can become autonomous writers who will shape
their own future writing communities. There is a dichotomy at work here: I aim to
create conditions in a writing classroom that will foster a student’s individuality while
connecting that student to a network of relationships. Including student models as
part of my reading component has proven to be an instrumental step in my quest.
One student model, the focus of this study, was a dynamic vehicle for just such student growth.
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Carol Lipszyc
Two questions drive the inquiry: How would reading a student model nurture the individual writer and enhance creativity in a collaborative setting that is the
college creative writing workshop? Secondly, what strategic knowledge will students
gain from one another? I hope to present an illustration of a partnership, what Fritjof
Capra (1996) characterizes as “pervasive cooperation” between my classroom student
writers and the student model writer, as they promote their development and alternate teaching and learning roles.
In the fall of 2008, I taught an introductory third-year creative non-fiction
course, open to all students who had completed their requisite composition credits.
The course is generally capped at twenty-two; students enroll both from the writing
program and from programs across disciplines here in this North Country liberal arts
college, which is part of the SUNY system. The original model, “Cocoon,” was written
by a student, D. Andrews,1 in the first semester. With her permission, I then included
that essay in the second semester curriculum (Spring 2009) as a model in the thematic
units of family story and writer interacting with nature. Second semester students
studied and mimicked facets of the model and, importantly, provided constructive
feedback to D. Andrews, thereby reciprocally sharing and intelligently applying new
knowledge to their respective writing.
This inquiry rests on systemic thinking. I build in this inquiry on Fritjof
Capra’s call for relatedness, insofar as it applies to the teaching of creative writing
(Lipszyc, 2006). Teaching and writing are complex epistemologies; I value the movement between systems of thought as I decode the intricate processes of these two
To think systemically as writer/teacher/researcher: a) I think in terms of interconnectedness; meaning I derive in this inquiry
will come from the experience of context (Capra, 2004);
b) I search for a non-linear, non-hierarchical understanding of relationships within the whole (Capra, 1999).
In my adherence to a non-linear, non-hierarchical view of teaching writing,
I describe a cyclical exchange which arises in a number of contexts in this inquiry.
These contexts include: student model, D. Andrews’ influence on the 2009 classroom
of student writers; feedback from that classroom community back to the student
model writer; and students’ reflections during the process. Leadership in this context
was systemic, shared, with responsibility extended to the whole. As a teacher, I acted
as a leader of shared processes that empowered students (Capra, 2002; Dewey, 1938).
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Working With a Student Model in a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop: Charging Joint Creativity
Impress of the Student Model
I design writing courses where reading and writing have equal footing and
where students become better writers by example, namely, by reading the exemplary
work of those writers who preceded them (Murray, 1989; Prose, 2006). Along with an
eclectic variety of professional models ranging from Amy Tan, Annie Dillard, Bruce
Chatwin, and Lee Gutkind, I present student models for reading material in thematic
units. I integrate a select number of these student model essays to challenge students
with material just beyond their grasp but not too removed from their needs, drawing from Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development. Applying this theory to
the teaching of creative writing, I afford students the space to critically ask questions
about the model and their own writing; to glean significance from their new experience and act upon it with newfound maturity; and to build strategic knowledge with
other students. My goal is that any number of these models will inspire students who
might apply or mimic in their writing some figurative trope or rhetorical pattern from
that model.
As Barone (2000) informs, the needs of my students and the writing environment press upon and shape each other. When, in 2009, I conducted a semi-structured
interview with one of my students, Jerome, about the comparative educational value
of using both student and professional models, he spoke frankly of the apprehensions he faced and about how D. Andrews buoyed his self-confidence. Jerome had
returned to school after service in Iraq. He had an inquiring mind and an imaginative flair for writing. A certain amount of anxiety about facing the blank page was
normal for all writers, I assured him in our conversation. Nonetheless, he maintained,
D. Andrews’ work propelled him to envision the possibility of writing. Her work was
purposeful and more closely approximated his own writing. Here are excerpts of his
By using a student model, you made it more real…
We should look at professional models too because there is a reason Annie
Dillard is held in such high regard. Still, most students, I think, feel they
wouldn’t be able to match a professional writer…it would be like me playing
basketball with Michael Jordan…But, here it is like playing against a friend
in high school who goes on to play on a professional team…
In reading the student model, I saw how purpose could be given to a piece.
As I read her work, I was drawn to it, I cared about it, and I saw that she
learned from it. I knew that is what I wanted to do… (Unpublished Student
Responses from Semi-Structured Interview, April 2009)
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Carol Lipszyc
A close read of D. Andrews’ model facilitated a central teaching objective I
noted earlier, that students would integrate figurative or structural features of a text
they admired. D. Andrews’ essay begins with extracts of Shelley’s poem, “The Sensitive Plant” and a quote by Keats (1816/1959): “The poetry of earth is never dead,”
(p. 19) paying homage to nature and orientating the reader to the world of the
cocoon, the title of her piece. As Jerome had suggested, his peers were influenced
positively by features of her work in their own writing, thereby writing what Murray
(1989) calls “parallel texts.” A number of students in the 2009 classroom began their
creative non-fiction essays with a quote. The introduction in the model fired for them.
When asked in journal and exam responses to reflect on what element resonated for
them, students responded as follows:
I loved how D. Andrews introduced the paper using a quote…
I didn’t initially think of it as student’s work but something professionals
would do… Starting out with the poem quote was bold—It was a bold step
for a student to take, and I felt it was a great way to focus the piece. (Unpublished Student Responses from Exam and Journals, March-May 2009)
A second tool or strategy D. Andrews applied also surfaced in students’ writing. With the collapsing time line in creative non-fiction, D. Andrews used asterisks.
A number of students mimicked this feature to help organize their essays. Jerome
referred to this problem-solving strategy on the final exam as he reflected on narrative elements which challenged him and took on new critical significance:
After my story began to come together, I was stuck on how to arrange it on
the page. I had time lapses, and they needed to be noted somehow. Again,
D. Andrews came to my rescue. I liked her simple strategy of using the asterisk for time and focus breaks, so I used the same method. I had no qualms
about doing so, as her piece was presented to us as a way to learn. (Unpublished Student Response on Exam, May 2009)
A complex view of writing emerges. Students set goals and created an image
of the task that depended upon the strategies they were learning (Flower, 1990). They
then proceeded to write, integrating features of text that came before them in the
discourse community of the creative non-fiction writing classroom (Bawarshi, 2003).
With these features, they were applying newfound strategies in their own work.
Since the model approximated their own writing, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development paved the way for learning, and for the individual agency and belief that
generates writing, which I recognized in students’ journal responses (Capra, 1996,
2002; Elbow, 1973).
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D. Andrews’ narrative moved students emotionally and launched them into
critical thinking about their own writing. A student further commented in her journal on the “great sensory detail that caught the reader’s attention early in the piece”
(Unpublished Student Response, April 2009). Another highlighted the angle of the
piece, the cocoon, which provided the subject of the essay and unified it. Finding a
subject, the student understood, was integral to the genesis of writing. In the following response, the student discovers his distinct writing subject even as he sets D’s
model alongside his own.
D’s piece was incredibly helpful to me, as I saw how she was able to work
a hook into her writing without it feeling artificial. I then started off to find
my hook. I remembered the strong emotions connected with teaching my
daughter to ride a bike. This was my hook. I had ridden my bike everywhere,
and it is also a nearly universal event. Most children have their parents help
them learn to ride their bike, and I wanted to tap into this common event as
a point of reference for the reader. It closely matched D’s cocoon idea, yet
was not copying her idea. (Unpublished Student Exam Response, May 2009)
Another factor accounted for the success of the model. Because the student
model’s process was made more transparent to them, students were all the more
drawn to the essay. While teaching the course that spring, I informed students about
changes D. Andrews and I discussed in our one-on-one classroom conferences. For
example, I relayed her need to fill in narrative gaps that were too abrupt for the reader
(the details of which I will discuss shortly). In our semi-structured interview, Jerome
mentioned this explicit part of my teaching because it elucidated for him what process could be and because it made the essay all the more accessible. In the next quote,
Jerome is reading with a heightened awareness, like a writer (Prose, 2006) working
with a curriculum where reading and writing were interdependent, where the two
practices evolved in the “contrapuntal action” so necessary to the way writers work
(Murray, 1989). Observing D. Andrews’ thinking and writing processes as a model,
Jerome was intent on adapting useful strategies for his own purposes (Halasek, 1999).
After my initial reaction to her piece, I really looked at her work and became
more aware of the thinking behind the writing, of the plan she followed
through. I was helped in this way when you said in class what her work
looked like originally and when you gave us a description of her writing
process. This really brought down the intimidation factor and allowed me
to appreciate the process of writing. (Unpublished Student Responses from
Semi-Structured Interview, April 2009)
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Carol Lipszyc
Let me now provide an excerpt from the first half of D. Andrews’ essay, to
which the students refer. In a piece of evocative writing that merges writer interacting
with nature and family story, D. Andrews revisits her childhood fascination with living
creatures. Her “hook” is established and her sensory detail replete. As a reliable narrator, she re-creates a child’s sense of discovery and the self-satisfaction she felt about
her new experiential knowledge.
My brother, Curtis and I were explorers within the confines of our backyard.
We loved to see the small pieces of life that would otherwise be ignored—
grasshoppers, frogs, beetles, and the like. Curtis would even find small,
skinny garden snakes and gently pick them up by the tail. We would look
at the strange creature—Curt, from arm’s length, and me from a slight distance. It would wriggle in the air awkwardly, contorting its slender body into
a corkscrew as it was lowered delicately down to its familiar grassy territory.
Once again on terra firma, its verdant form would slip into the grass and
slither away, unharmed but grateful to be away from children’s prying fingers. We would watch the spectacle, barely blinking.
It was in this spirit of discovery that we came upon the cocoon. It was a
miracle of sorts, or at least that’s how it seemed to us at the time: a brownishgray shape made of gauzy material, hanging innocently from a rail on our
backyard fence.
“Mom!” we shouted, begging her to come outside. “Look close! You can see
the caterpillar inside!”
“Well, look at that!” She smiled. We were proud. We knew all about caterpillars and Cocoon.
Metamorphosis was a popular topic in elementary school science classes,
so we felt especially qualified to observe the real-life experience. Over the
next few weeks, we checked in on our bundled-up little friend every day.
With time, the gauze over him began to thin and, when the cocoon became
backlit by the sun, we could see the silhouette of tiny, premature wings. We
longed for the day that the butterfly would come out, fully formed and ready
to fly. I hoped we would watch the cocoon break open, to see a born-again
creature emerging like a chick cracking its way out of an eggshell. (Unpublished Student Narrative, Summer 2009)
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Reversal of Roles: Classroom Students Inform the Student Model Writer
At this juncture, I shift the lens primarily toward the student classroom
writers as editors of the student model essay. Attending to writers’ concerns when
reading the model, students subsequently contributed to D. Andrews’ work with two
important edits: in adding back story, and in her rewriting of the conclusion with
more nuance and subtlety. Through this process of joint analysis, reflection, and revision, the exchange remained respectful. Students informally dialogued, had working
conversations with text, with each other, and with me as they gained membership in
a writing community of practice. In turn, the student model writer refined and embellished her piece as she met the needs of her audience.
Adding back story.
From my experience, revisions often entail filling in narrative gaps, thereby
removing implausible shifts for the reader. During the fall semester, D. Andrews fastforwarded from the careless killing of the cocoon by her cousin Barry, a childhood
playmate, to Barry’s funeral, where she mourned the loss of his potential. Barry died
tragically at nineteen. I informed her during our classroom conference in the fall that
I was not emotionally invested enough to care about Barry’s loss since I knew so little
about the young man. Prompting her, I discovered that Barry had addictions and that
he had sped-driven along a narrow town road, wrapping his car around a telephone
pole. Armed with this information, I suggested a possible connection between the
boy’s casual disregard for nature and his carelessness about his own life. I was modeling for D. Andrews the kinds of connections writers make, finding a pattern of meaning upon which to thread a thematic motif through the narrative. She incorporated
my feedback for more back story to a degree in her next version with moderately
improved effect.
More was needed. D. Andrews would learn to fill breaks in the narrative with
detail in order to achieve a more “satisfying and expressive relationship among the
parts that constitute the whole” (Eisner, 2002, p. 75) and to win the credibility, empathy, and engagement of the reader.
In the Spring semester class, a student, Dave, echoed my need to know more
about Barry in his quick write, but he expanded on my earlier response with specific
questions, providing constructive feedback.
I would have liked to see more of a back story on Barry. What was he like
in high school? What were his parents like? What is the author’s opinion of
what caused Barry to become this way and not like the author? These are
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Carol Lipszyc
questions that would make the story much more interesting. (Unpublished
Student Quick Write [Journal] Response, April 2009)
I contacted D. Andrews via e-mail and informed her of the ongoing study of her narrative model. In the following response, D. Andrews addresses her readers’ needs, readers who were “immediate participant[s]” (Bakhtin, 1986).
Thanks for sending the student comment. I’m so glad your spring students
were interested and took time to offer feedback. It really is incredibly helpful. I have struggled with the idea of writing background….I know the story
needs it, and it is part of my plan for my next revision. It’s just one of those
things that really needs to be handled delicately. (Unpublished Student
E-mail Response, May 2009)
With time and distance and the respect afforded to her by peers, D. Andrews’
tone was open and gracious. The interdependence among students who were not
physically in the same classroom was evident to me. Here, too, D. Andrews acknowledges how challenging it is to find a balance in the rhetorical act of writing. We
e-mailed one another on the need to inform readers enough while giving them
ample room to make their own meaning. She voiced ethical concerns, as well, inherent to creative non-fiction, a genre where writers reveal truths about family and make
public what is private. D. Andrews was becoming more cognizant of the skill required
to mediate with language when writing narratives about our fragile and precarious
lives. School semester was now over, but our communication continued into the
I’m trying to find a good balance between honesty and compassion. I feel
like readers have to be a need-to-know basis, but at the same time, they
need enough information to draw their own conclusions. It’s a very fine line
for me to write along. (Unpublished Student E-mail Response, June 2009)
As D. Andrews edited, she gained perspective on the narrative essay as a
whole and on its details. She was discovering the piece she had to write (Bell, 2007).
To compose the back story that my student, Dave, had recommended, one more element came into the complex mix—the realm of intuitive consciousness. Emotions
intensify that consciousness and propel the writer to find a way to translate emotion into an aesthetic form (Hague, 2003).2 D. Andrews wrote to tell how she sensed it
was time to write. Two years had passed since Barry’s death. An anniversary of death
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Working With a Student Model in a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop: Charging Joint Creativity
A few days later, I received passages that met readers’ needs for more detail
without providing easy, succinct answers. She wrote about Barry’s broad shoulders,
his work ethic, how he would wake up before dawn to help a local dairy farmer with
the morning milking, how the two of them graduated high school in their caps
and gowns. Barry was now a more developed character with whom readers could
b) Rewriting the conclusion.
We learn on a continuum from our students. When my spring semester class
read the conclusion of the essay, students remarked that D. Andrews had strained too
hard for imagery, that the passage contained too many metaphors. I had somehow
missed this, but my students alerted me to a further need for revision. In her symbolic
effort to contrast herself from Barry, D. Andrews wrote:
There is however, a difference between a plant that blooms and one that
shrivels into the shade; a monarch butterfly and a moth that flies into the
hungry orange tongues of bonfire’s flame. It is the signal an antenna reads
from its own struggling body, the perception of self when the wings are
tickled with a flame’s taunting warmth. The moth either flies to the fire, or
retreats into musty darkness. Given the chance, a butterfly leaves its cocoon.
(Unpublished Student Narrative, Spring 2009)
In the role of intermediary, I e-mailed D. Andrews about the students’
response, which was collective and unanimous. Evocative as the writing was, I could
now see through my students’ astute eyes and ears that the number of figurative
devices blinded me, so that I didn’t know which image to recall, which truth to hold
on to. D. Andrews was highly receptive to the feedback, particularly after time had
lapsed and the emotional and psychological distance between herself and her work
gave her a clearer view of how the words impacted one another. She was also receiving this feedback from a community of peers, not from a reader who assessed her
work quantitatively. The writing classroom became what Noddings (2002) calls an
“artistic medium,” a democratized shared process of inquiry where change was called
for appropriate to the needs of the students at that point of their writing.
By mid-July, I heard back from D. Andrews. Her process was idiosyncratic
and complex. She reenacted how she found the pieces of the puzzle by going back
to the origins or impetus of the writing with the poem “The Sensitive Plant” for a key
to the meaning she would make. That poem was a variable “along with the right state
of mind, poor penmanship, and an expansion on the prior draft…” (Unpublished Student E-mail Response, July 2009).
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Carol Lipszyc
The last link of the narrative fed back into the first. In the excerpt below,
the graduation brings the characters together. I present the final paragraph, which I
suggest satisfies and illuminates without preaching, as the writer acknowledges the
tenuousness of our lives.
Even now, we stand together in those pictures, smiling despite the uncertainty of where our lives are about to take us. We’ll stay that way until,
decades from now, the photographs age and yellow and decay. Until then,
we remain in that moment when, despite any of life’s injustices, we are
together—linked inextricably to the great unknown promises the future has
in store for us. Promises, which, in that moment, we each have a lifetime to
fulfill. (Unpublished Student Narrative, Summer 2009)
Educational Implications
Alongside D. Andrews’ noteworthy capacity as a writer is the inclusive
dimension of the community of student readers and writers who depended on one
another, who were inspired by her model essay, who integrated common elements
from that essay into their own writing to good rhetorical effect, and who improved
the model essay through their feedback over the course of time. Creativity was
enhanced through the interchangeable roles students assumed as informed readers
and writers.
Student classroom writers specifically benefited by the setting of goals and
by writing with a keener sense of purpose; they gained from the hope they felt in
approximating the student model; and they developed as writers from the figurative
and structural features of the student model they included. In turn, the student model
writer better solved challenges particular to the genre and to the trauma her narrative relayed through the feedback of student peers (in-class response) and teacher as
facilitator (online).
Online feedback proved to be a viable teaching tool between myself and
the student/model writer. While the student model writer assumed ownership, I facilitated by negotiating meaning when necessary and by offering suggestions as an
informed reader. In examining this inquiry now, however, I envision a more visible role
for a model student writer who could be brought into the class in real time, or could
be incorporated, with that student writer’s permission, more actively into the curriculum through technology. Students in the classroom could communicate their views
and edits directly to the student model writer online through forums or blogging, for
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Working With a Student Model in a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop: Charging Joint Creativity
example. Why not open up online dialogues in a more recursive loop between student model writers (from former classes) and current students so that they construct
meaning together and revise more effectively?
I end with Jerome’s words as he looked back on the semester, on his building of writing strategies and burgeoning self-confidence. Jerome makes connections
between his past learning and experience as he looks forward to the future quality
of his writing. By accessing this student model in the structure and design of my curriculum, I left space enough for him to develop and create with the courage writing
necessarily takes.
I feel now I am unafraid to take risks. I know that it is acceptable to push
boundaries. I am also more able to piece smaller ideas into a larger theme.
My writing is still in the toddler stage, but I feel I now have a framework to
work with. (Unpublished Student Exam Response, May 2009)
2. Hague works with the Jungian concept of intuitive consciousness which she synthesizes and applies to the creative process.
Bakhtin, M. (1986). Speech genres and other late
essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Barone, T. (2000). Aesthetics, politics and educational inquiry. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Bawarshi, A. (2003). Genre & the invention of the
writer. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Bell, S. (2007). The artful edit: On the practice of
editing yourself. New York: W.W. Norton &
Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific
understanding of living systems. New York:
Anchor Books.
Capra, F. (1999). Ecoliteracy: The challenge for
education in the next century. Liverpool
Schumacher Lectures. March 20, 1999.
Berkeley: Center for Ecoliteracy.
Capra, F. (2002). The hidden connections: A
science of sustainable living. New York:
Anchor Books.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Carol Lipszyc
Capra, F. (2004). Complexity and life. Audiorecording of seminar presented at Omega
Institute, Institute for Holistic Studies.
August 20, 2004. New York.
Keats, J. (1816/1959). The grasshopper and the
cricket. In Selected poems and letters (Ed.
Douglas Bush). Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education. New
York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Lipszyc, C. (2006). Self as journeyer: On writing and teaching paths. An arts-based
autoethnographic study on the interconnectedness between writing and teaching. Doctorate of Education Dissertation,
University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education.
Eisner, E. (2002). The arts and the creation of the
mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Elbow, P. (1973). Introduction. In Writing without
Teachers. xi-xxxii. New York: OUP.
Flower, L. (1990). The role of task representation
in reading-to-write. In Reading to write:
Exploring a cognitive and social process.
Linda Flower, Victoria Stein, John Ackerman, Margaret J. Kantz, Kathleen McCormick, & Wayne C. Peck (Eds.) (pp. 35–75).
New York: Oxford University Press.
Hague, A. (2003). Fiction, intuition, & creativity:
Studies in Bronte, James, Woolf, and Lessing. Washington: The Catholic University
of America Press.
Halasek, K. (1999). A pedagogy of possibility:
Bakhtinian perspectives on composition
studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Murray, D. M. (1989). Expecting the unexpected:
Teaching myself — and others — to read
and write. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook
Publishers Heinemann.
Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people: A
caring alternative to character education.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Prose, F. (2006). Reading like a writer: A guide
for people who have books and for those
who want to write them. New York: Harper
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. In Mind in Society.
(Trans. M. Cole). Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Carol Lipszyc is currently an Assistant Professor at State
University of New York, Plattsburgh, teaching English teacher
education and writing arts. Her book of lyrical and autobiographical poems, Singing Me Home, was published by Inanna
Publications, York University, 2010. In 2011 and 2012, Carol
published on arts-based and interdisciplinary education in
Journal of Artistic and Creative Education and Complicity, an International Journal of Complexity and Education. Her Literacy/
ESL Reader with chants, People Express, was published by Oxford University Press, Toronto.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creative Literacies and Learning With Latino
Emergent Bilinguals
Patricia Martínez-Álvarez, Teachers College, Columbia University
María Paula Ghiso, Teachers College, Columbia University
Isabel Martínez, Autónoma University of Madrid
Research documents the benefits of implementing pedagogical practices that foster
creativity in order to prepare students for a changing future and to meet the needs of
emergent bilingual learners. Designing pedagogical invitations that make room for
creativity is especially urgent given educational policies in the United States which
privilege decontextualized, standardized learning aimed at “testable” skills, often in
opposition to more expansive multilingual and multimodal learning opportunities.
The current study explores how multimodal literacy experiences grounded in bilingual learners’ sociocultural realities stimulated creativity and allowed students to
demonstrate and practice their creative abilities.
s bilingual, former Spanish-English elementary teachers, we remember
having space during the year to explore creative opportunities for teaching and learning. In the last decade, The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era
in the United States has pushed schools to prioritize test results, and by extension,
test preparation, over culturally responsive and transformative learning experiences
that invite students to be designers (Kress, 2003) rather than passive recipients of
knowledge. This shift in policy and practice is limiting opportunities for more creative,
and potentially more engaging, modes of learning and of expressing what is learned,
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Patricia Martínez-Álvarez, María Paula Ghiso, and Isabel Martínez
many of which are not measurable through test performance. As a result, students are
often ushered into an artificial curriculum that does not respect their diverse profiles.
Research documents how this shift has disproportionately affected students
from historically minoritized populations, such as language learners and children
living in poverty (Menken, 2008), as many families with privilege opt out of neighborhood schools towards private or more pedagogically progressive contexts, and
schools labeled as “failing”—overwhelmingly those that serve students of color—
adopt remedial curricula in an effort to raise test scores. This has been the case for the
students with whom we work: first graders in a Spanish-English bilingual program
whose families are primarily Latin American immigrants. As a result of the growth
of Latino students in U.S. public schools, there is an impetus on studying the educational progress of this population. The focus, however, has been on making conclusions based on standardized assessments, which solely measure basic knowledge
and skills and too often document student failure rather than create opportunities for
academic success.
Practices focused on factual learning for immediate higher test performance
restrict students who are acquiring multiple languages—henceforth referred to as
emergent bilinguals (García & Kleifgen, 2010)—who tend to perform better than
monolinguals in measures of divergent thinking, or creativity (Ricciardelli, 1992; Hommel, Colzato, Fischer, & Christoffels, 2011; Okoh, 1980, cited in Kharkhurin, 2007), and
who benefit from pedagogies which are personalized and employ multiple modes
for learning (e.g., hands-on, visual, and kinesthetic). Insisting on teaching with the
primary objective of passing a test is privileging some learners while failing those
who don’t fit within the social/academic U.S. norm.
This manuscript documents students’ engagement with a technologymediated biliteracy pedagogy that valued students’ cultural and linguistic funds of
knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992) and sought to create instructional
Third Spaces (Gutiérrez, 2008) that blended home and school. Drawing on notions of
the multiple literacies needed for an increasingly technological and global future, our
pedagogy did not ask students to replicate a teacher-directed model of writing, as is
the case with many standardized curricula, but to intentionally utilize varied available
resources, including multiple modes of representation, for actively designing (Kress,
2003) texts along student-generated purposes.
We found that as a result of participating in these pedagogical invitations, first grade Spanish-English bilingual learners created written products that
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Creative Literacies and Learning With Latino Emergent Bilinguals
demonstrated enhanced creativity. Based on Irby and Lara-Alecio’s (1996) characteristics of Latino bilingual gifted students and Kharkhurin’s (2010) investigation on bilingual nonverbal creative behavior, we define creativity in student writing in terms of:
(1) Complexity in format by integrating imagery, text, and add-ons (i.e., sticky notes
or pieces of paper); (2) Richness of Imagery demarcated by number of elements (i.e.,
contexts and/or people); (3) Richness of Text which refers to multiple contexts or scenarios expressed through writing; (4) Amount of Text; and (5) Expressions of Feelings
and Emotions. Below, we detail the theoretical frameworks of language and literacy
learning that inform this work, and go on to examine creativity in student writings as
informed by our study.
Conceptual Frameworks
There is consensus in the educational literature about the need to better
serve the growing language-learning population across the United States (García,
2001; Darder, 1995; Flores, Tefft-Cousin, & Díaz, 1991). The increasing focus of such
pedagogies, however, has often promoted acquisition of English at the expense of
the native language. Literacy policies in particular have resulted in top-down curricula that emphasize decontextualized skills, rather than valuing literacy as a process
of interaction that is not merely cognitive (Scribner & Cole, 1981).
Conflicting with such skills-based curricula, there is a long-standing body of
research that documents children’s engagement with literacy in ways that draw on
out-of-school practices, community heritages, and cultural and linguistic resources
(e.g., Campano, 2007), including use of multimodality (Siegel, 2012) and new technologies. Thus, literacy is not merely textual decoding but also the transmission of and
participation in cultural events mediated through symbolic artifacts and language
(Cummins, 2004; Dixon-Krauss, 1996; Vygotsky, 1997). Emerging research in the area
of biliteracy provides windows into language arts practices that aim to develop
more linguistically inclusive pedagogies (Franquiz & de la Luz Reyes, 1998; Medina &
Campano, 2006). This includes literacy programs that foster a sense of shared power
between teachers, students’, and families, in which learners’ cultures and home languages are valued (Cummins, 2004).
Our work brings together social practice theories of literacy as a process of
participating in communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) within hierarchies of
power (Freire, 1973; Street, 1995) with community and family funds of knowledge
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(Moll, 1992) to create school opportunities for learning based on students’ cultural
and linguistic resources—making the instructional context a hybrid Third Space
(Gutiérrez, 2008). This perspective draws on frameworks that conceptualize learning as a dialectic between collective and individual activities and sense-making
(Engeström & Sannino, 2010) across a range of contexts, and whereby contradictions
and tensions are not barriers but the source of new “expansive learning” (Engeström,
1987). The current friction between curricula geared to a testing model and students’
family and community knowledge may, through biliteracy pedagogies such as the
engagements we feature in this article, present opportunities for expanded teaching
and learning that recognizes emergent bilinguals’ funds of knowledge. We focus here
in one of our findings: that such pedagogical invitations foster bilingual students’
Relevance of Creativity in Education
The rapidly changing nature of our society has implications for the kinds of
proficiencies that will be necessary for a 21st century work force. Creativity may contribute to the advancement of science, mathematics, arts, and technology, and could
fortify individuals’ ability to problem-solve and adapt. According to Aljughaiman
and Ayoub (2012), “creative ability is of great importance in the economic growth
and development of emerging regions” (p. 159). Thus, education that fosters creativity supports students in meeting the unpredictable demands of their future reality
(NACCCE, 1999), provides teachers with more opportunities to support and assess
diverse learners (Antink Meyer, 2012), and impacts critical-thinking skills, motivation,
and engagement (Amabile, 1998; Eyster, 2010; Lederman, 2007).
Pedagogically, creativity becomes especially important in the language
classroom (Akinwamide & Adedara, 2012). Akinwamide (2007) enumerates seven
dimensions of the connection between language learning and creativity: 1) Language
is generative and results in creativity; 2) Creativity triggers learning; 3) Some people
become motivated as a result of inspiration which makes them create something of
value; 4) Creativity improves self-esteem; 5) Creative work in the language classroom
can lead to authentic communication and cooperation; 6) Creative tasks enrich classroom work; and 7) Creative thinking is an important skill in real life. Despite its importance for the education of all students, but particularly as a key stimulus for academic
growth for emergent bilinguals, creativity has not been well represented as a topic in
bilingual education research, and does not hold a significant position in educational
practice (Boden, 2001).
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There is some research documenting the relationship between pedagogy
and creativity. For example, Aljughaiman and Ayoub (2012) studied the effects of
an enrichment program with three units on upper elementary gifted students’ creativity. During their enrichment program, which lasted six weeks, students were
exposed to a problem-based theme and created a project of their choice in groups
(e.g., research paper, website, and video). The study resulted in significantly enhanced
analytical and creative abilities in the experimental group in comparison to a control
group. Geissler, Edison, and Wayland (2012) found that an instructional intervention
improved college students’ ability to engage in creative discussions. Fleta Guillen and
García Bermejo (2011) document pedagogies that promote language, content, and
literacy in English by stimulating the creativity of the learner through the arts. Rather
than measuring creativity per se, the authors asked students to use their creativity in
movement and music for telling stories, and concluded that these stories were means
of internalizing language and literacy growth.
Research shows that bilinguals have enhanced creativity when compared to
monolinguals (Ricciardelli, 1992), with the bilingual practice influencing the underlying processes and mechanisms of creativity (Hommel et al., 2011). The sociocultural
environment—learner’s home and community experiences—plays a key role in this
process of creative and divergent thinking (Kharkhurin, 2010). Our instruction sought
to capitalize on these home resources for learning within school contexts.
Our review of the literature indicates the benefit of implementing pedagogical practices fostering creativity both for preparing students for a changing future
and for better meeting the linguistic and learning needs of emergent bilingual learners. The current study explores how literacy experiences grounded in bilingual learners’ sociocultural realities stimulated creativity and allowed students to demonstrate
and practice their creative abilities.
Research Questions
In order to explore bilingual students’ creativity in the literacy classroom, we
grounded our work in the following guiding questions:
1. Will an instructional sequence involving expansive literacy activities grounded in
learners’ sociocultural realities and mediated by technology result in first grade
bilingual students’ enhanced creative performance in writing samples?
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2. What are the distinguishing characteristics of creative written products bilingual
students generate when invited to share their home and community experiences orally and visually?
The contexts for the study are two public elementary schools in a large
Northeastern city. A total of 93 first graders participated in this study. Fifty-four children participated in the instructional sequence (27 and 27 in each of the two classes
respectively). Fifty-three of these children identified as Latino, and all received free
lunch. Due to absences, only 48 were included in the quantitative analysis we feature
in this article. The majority of the children’s families, and many of the children themselves, were immigrants from Latin America. The dual language program functioned
on alternating days according to language. The Spanish teacher was bilingual; the
English teacher did not speak Spanish, but showed a resource orientation to the children’s native languages and an appreciation and understanding for Latino culture.
Both planned collaboratively and were highly regarded at the school.
In addition, 37 bilingual students were in the control group (two classes with
18 and 19 students each). Thirty-five identified as Latino, and three spoke both Spanish and Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language. Thirty-five participants received
free or reduced lunch. Due to absences, only 28 students were included in the control
group for the quantitative analysis we feature in this article. This school followed a
rollercoaster dual language model, switching English and Spanish instruction daily
while alternating language mornings and afternoons. The Spanish and English teachers met the same characteristics as those in the instructional group.
Biliteracy Pedagogies Procedure
For one semester, we met biweekly with the students and teachers in our
study around a series of writing experiences that extended beyond print text to multiple modes and media (Kress, 2003) for representation. The biliteracy activities were
designed to tap into students’ creative, linguistic, cultural, and experiential resources,
and were mediated by the use of the cameras to document their families’ and communities’ daily experiences. Our intention was also to shift agency from teachers to
students regarding what counts as literacy and is worth telling in a school setting.
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To engage students in the proposed biliteracy pedagogies, we asked them
to utilize low-cost digital cameras to document: 1) their family meals and daily activities; and 2) their community experiences. As children brought their photographs to
school, they generated oral stories around the photographs in small groups. From
these oral narratives, they decided which visual texts they wanted to print out. These
selections became the basis for writing using a variety of formats and themes.
The multi-modal composing consisted of: 1) Writing down stories based on
the self-selected images; 2) Creating digital comics using Comic Life software and
writing the dialogue and captions for each element in the sequence; 3) Drawing
paper-based comics documenting their immigrant stories and family/community
experiences; 4) Using talk and thought bubbles to render the perspectives of different figures in an image; and 5) Creating a Collage of my Worlds using photographs,
labels, and art materials to write, draw, and symbolically represent their culturally and
linguistically hybrid worlds.
Throughout, we intentionally emphasized to children that they could utilize
any or all of their languages to communicate their stories, both orally and in writing. We also focused on multiple ways of conveying meaning beyond language, in
particular through the use of visuals such as drawing. The implicit message students
received was that their stories were worth communicating in school and were appropriate themes for rigorous academic tasks.
Children’s work was bounded in a book and shared with teachers, researchers, classmates, and parents in a final celebration. Children took digital copies of their
photographs and the book home and they were encouraged to read it and share
it, and to continue to add to it over the summer. Before and after the biliteracy curriculum, children were asked to write a story about their families and were given
unlimited pieces of blank white paper to create their stories. No further instructions
or materials were provided.
Data Collection
This is a mixed-methods study blending ethnographic and participatory
approaches with quasi-experimental quantitative design. Our aim in combining
qualitative and quantitative data was to triangulate findings and provide a more
robust understanding of our research question (Denzin, 1978) regarding the effects
of multimodal biliteracy pedagogies as well as students’ negotiation of such curricular invitations. The purpose of a quasi-experimental design is to test descriptive
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causal hypotheses about identified manipulable variables. Quasi-experiments do not
traditionally employ random assignment (Campbell & Stanley, 1963). The qualitative
(Erickson, 1986) and practitioner research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) component
of the study documents how students engaged with the multimodal literacy experiences we designed and facilitated.
Data sources for the project include: 1) Pre- and post-writing samples asking
students to draw and write a story about their family; 2) Children’s written products
(i.e., digital texts, comics, collage); 3) Audio-recorded and transcribed class sessions,
group interactions, and children’s discussions of their photographs; 4) Fieldnotes and
researcher reflective memos; and 5) Interviews with the teachers and students.
Data Analysis
We analyzed the qualitative data thematically in a recursive and iterative
process (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), identifying patterns both in the content of children’s
works, as well as in the process by which children engaged in composing stories. For
the quantitative analysis reported on in this article, we focused specifically on students’ pre and post bilingual writing samples.
The quantitative analysis followed several steps. First, the authors read all
the writing samples to extract outstanding trends in the data. Then, in an effort to
avoid the use of standardized test results that fail to fully portrait bilingual students’
creative abilities, and based on the literature on the measurement of creativity, we
identified several elements applicable to analyzing creativity in children’s writing and
drawing. We designed a creativity rubric as a lens to more systematically examine
children’s work. The development of the creativity rubric was informed primarily by
two reports on gifted/creative characteristics particular to bilingual learners. One is
Irby and Lara-Alecio’s (1996) work identifying 11 characteristics of Latino bilingual
gifted students. Among these characteristics, they include strong cultural sensitivity and familial connections, preference for collaboration, creative performance, and
elaborate imagination exhibited through oral and written language and rich imagery.
The second is Kharkhurin’s (2010) investigation of bilingual verbal and nonverbal creative behavior based on college students who had emigrated from the former Soviet
Union and spoke both Russian and English. Kharkhurin identified five verbal and 10
nonverbal criterion-referenced creativity indicators using the standard ATTA assessment procedure (Goff & Torrance, 2002). The identified nonverbal indicators were:
1) Richness and colorfulness of imagery; 2) Expressions of feelings and emotions; 3)
Future orientation; 4) Humor: conceptual incongruity; 5) Provocative questions; 6)
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Abstractness of titles; 7) Context; 8) Synthesis of two or more figures; 9) Internal visual
perspective; and 10) Fantasy. These indicators informed the conception of the creativity rubric in the present study. The resulting rubric included five elements and is
shown in Figure 1.
0 Points
(format, imagery,
and/or text)
Richness of
Imagery (number
of elements, e.g.
contexts & people)
Richness of Text
1 Point
2 Points
3 Points
No images or Only images or
text with no addons (i.e. glued
pieces of paper,
cut out bubbles)
No images
1-2 elements on
Imagery & text
but separated
No words
Two contexts
(scenarios, e.g.
Park and home)
Integrates 2 modes of
representation: Imagery
with text
or includes adds-on to
product (i.e. comic)
> 10 elements on image
or inclusion of multiple
contexts (i. e. several
consecutive drawings)
More than 2 contexts
(scenarios) with
elaboration (e.g.
describing what
happens in street, then
home, & then park)
>50 words
Text describes
one context
(scenario, e.g.
3-10 elements
on image
Amount of Text
No words
Up to 30 words
31-50 words
Expressions of
Feelings and
No reference
to feelings
1 reference to
2 references to
3 references to feelings
1: Creativity
1. Creativity
Two raters who were bilingual in Spanish and English assessed the writing
pieces’ creative characteristics using the rubric. A total of five different scores (Complexity, Richness of Imagery, Richness of Text, Amount of Text, and Expressions of
Feelings and Emotions) were obtained for each pre- and post-writing sample. One of
the authors scored all the samples, while a second reviewer scored 38% of the products. According to Kennedy (2005), the current convention is that 20% is a minimal
baseline and 33% is preferable for adequately assessing the consistency of measurement. Using Kappa coefficients (Cohen, 1960), the inter-rater reliabilities obtained
were between .71 and 1.00. Landis and Koch (1977) characterized values .61-.80 as
substantial. Nonetheless, to improve inter-rater reliability, cases of disagreement
were discussed until an agreement was reached.
Prior to performing the statistical analyses, the scores in each characteristic
of creativity for the writing samples students wrote before the instructional sequence
in both instructional and control groups were compared to determine if the groups’
levels differed significantly. One-way between groups’ analysis of variance was used
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to determine initial differences between the two sets of scores. As shown in Table 1,
there was a statistically significant difference between the instructional and the control groups on pre-instruction scores on students’ writing samples for the scores in all
five characteristics of creativity.
Table 1
Pre-instruction ANOVA Means From Treatment and Control
(1, 74)
Richness of Imagery
(1, 74)
Richness of Text
(1, 74)
Amount of Text
(1, 74)
Expression of Feelings & Emotions
(1, 74)
*p<.05**p<.01.*** p<.001
Consequently, a one-way between groups’ analysis of covariance was conducted on the pre- and post-creativity scores from students in the instructional and
control groups. The independent variable used was the group students belonged to
(instructional or control) and the dependent variable was students’ scores in the five
creativity criteria after the instructional sequence. Participants’ pre-instruction scores
were used as the covariate in this analysis.
Table 2 presents the post-instructional group’s means and standard deviations for the different characteristics of creativity.
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Table 2
Means and Standard Deviations for Pre- and Post-Dependent Measures
1.90* 2.08
Richness of Imagery
Richness of Text
Amount of Text
Expression of Feelings .48
& Emotions
The results of the analysis of covariance, adjusted for pre-instruction scores
in the characteristics of creativity are shown in Table 3, and illustrated in Figure 2.
These results reveal that there was a statistically significant difference between the
instructional and control groups on post-instruction scores in four of the five characteristics. Namely, the statistically significant differences were in: Complexity, Richness
of Imagery, Richness of Text, and Amount of Text. Once again, all effect sizes were
small according to Cohen’s (1960) guidelines.
Table 3
ANCOVAS’ Results Comparing the Post-Instruction Means of the Two Groups
(1, 73)
Richness of Imagery
(1, 73)
Richness of Text
(1, 73)
Amount of Text
(1, 73)
Expression of Feelings & Emotions
(1, 73)
*p<.05**p<.01.*** p<.001
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The changes that took place for each characteristic from pre to post the instructional
sequence are best illustrated in Figure 2.
Fig. 2: Pre/post results for creativity characteristics
As can be seen in Table 3, the change in the Expression of Feelings and
Emotions category was not statistically significant. When looking at the frequency
of occurrence, children in the instructional group included feelings and emotions
in their pre-instruction writing samples in 24 cases and 39 cases during the postinstruction. On the other hand, the frequency of occurrence in the pre-instruction
writing for children in the control group was 34 instances, versus 26 in the post. These
results show that, even though the changes were not significant statistically, children
in the instructional group added more feelings to their writing pieces as a result of
the instructional sequence, while children in the control group actually reduced the
number of references to feelings and emotions.
Therefore, quantitative analysis confirms that the instructional sequence
involving expansive literacy activities grounded in learners’ sociocultural realities
and mediated by technology resulted in first grade bilingual students’ enhanced creative performance in writing samples for at least four of the identified characteristics.
Amount of Text is the characteristic most impacted by the instruction, and Expression
of Feelings and Emotions the least.
The qualitative analysis supports these findings and adds information to
address our second research question. We identified several distinguishing characteristics of creative written products bilingual students generated after participating in
these instructional invitations, which we describe in the section that follows through
examples of student work.
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Illustrative Examples
Our qualitative analysis confirmed that, at the end of the instructional
sequence, participating children’s work showed enhanced creativity in terms of Complexity, Richness of Imagery, Richness of Text, Amount of Text, and Expression of Feelings and Emotions when compared to the non-participating group. To illustrate this,
we first present a representative example from Juan, a student in the control group.
Juan’s pre-writing is shown in Figure 3 and his post-writing is in Figure 4.
Fig. 3: Juan’s pre-instruction writing
Fig. 4: Juan’s post-instruction writing
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A few differences from analyzing Juan’s pre to post products can be identified, but
these are not directly related to the creativity indicators. One difference is that in the
post-writing experience the student wrote a title “cuando fue mi cumpleaños” [when
it was my birthday], which was absent during the first written product. Additionally,
the presentation of the lists of elements is more elaborated in the post than in the
pre (i.e., “tacos, tostadas, arroz con habichuelas” [tacos, toasts, rice with beans] versus
“me gusto los regalos, me gusto los juguetes y la ropa” [I liked the presents, I liked the
toys and the clothes]. The analysis of these pre-post student products revealed no
robust characteristics in relation to enhanced creativity. Both written pieces describe
one context and include a general and simple picture. In both pre and post samples,
the student enumerates elements of a sequence rather than elaborating in the story
and including a variety of scenarios. The lack of creativity in the final products generated from students in the control group suggests that creativity, unless it is stimulated and valued, does not spontaneously increase as a result of students’ schooling
experiences. In fact, the results show that scores assigned to students’ final products
actually decreased in three measures of creativity (Complexity, Richness of Imagery,
and Richness of Text).
Samples from students who participated in the pedagogical invitations
revealed enhanced creativity as operationalized in terms of the described characteristics. Several representative sets of writing are presented below to convey the range
of work produced in the class.
Figure 5 is an example of what we considered a complex final product.
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Fig. 5: Julia’s post-instruction writing
Julia, the author of this piece, included a title and a story spanning three contexts
(preparing for a trip, arriving at her friend’s house, and her emotions once at the destination). Her work extended onto a second piece of paper, with visual representations of the story sequence. The first drawing corresponds to getting ready for the
trip, and adds new elements to the written composition—a girl who appears to be
the author saying “help me” while a taller figure, a family member, replies affirmatively. The second drawing shows their medium of transportation, and the final panel
depicts four people arriving at a house. The white space on the page suggests that
had Julia been given more time to complete the visual text, she may have included
additional elements.
Comparing this final work with Julia’s pre-instruction writing sample (Fig. 6),
there is evidence of differences in complexity, and by extension, creativity.
Fig. 6: Julia’s pre-instruction writing
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The initial sample reads:
I went to Chuck E. Cheese with my family and I had a lot of fun I played with
my brother. We went there because it was my birthday and when we went
home we celebrated my birthday. My birthday was November 27 and I had
a lot of fun [our translation].
While Julia also included here references to feeling/emotion, the pre-instruction writing piece contained fewer words than the post (42 versus 69), and elaborates on two
contexts of the celebration (the arcade location and her home). Julia also included
a drawing in this initial writing, but it is not as developed as that of her post-writing
sample. We can assume it was intended to be a representation of the Chuck E. Cheese
character, though it is in the early stages of completion. In comparison to the post
drawing, this image is simpler and less developed, containing neither words nor multiple elements.
This difference in the complexity of the drawings and the integration of
images and written text was present in the work of most of the children who participated in the biliteracy instruction. Contrary to the common assumption that as
children learn more and become more sophisticated in their writing, they no longer
need the support of drawing, we found that complex writings were enriched by progressively more complex drawings and that written and visual elements were highly
integrated and complemented each other.
The synergistic relationship between words and pictures holds even in cases
where the writing does not initially appear more sophisticated, but where complexity is conveyed through the integration of written and visual text across scenarios. A
representative example can be found in Carlos’ pre (Fig. 7) and post (Fig. 8) writing
samples. Juxtaposing these works reveals enhanced creativity following participation
in the instructional sequence.
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Fig. 7: Carlos’ pre-instruction writing
Fig. 8: Carlos’ post-instruction writing
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Carlos’ pre-instruction writing presents a story on a singular piece of paper.
He includes three complete sentences, and while both text and visuals are included,
these dimensions appear only partially connected. By contrast, Carlos’ post product
includes two pieces with drawing and writing, which are closely connected. Atop the
first page, he writes, “my mom is cooking the food” in both Spanish and English, an
articulation which encapsulates the essence of that scene. The drawing below shows
Carlos talking with his mom as she cooks. Carlos also included text within the illustration, extending the initial title/sentence as he explains, “I like food” in Spanish and
his mom expresses how good the food is with “MMM…” The dialogue captures the
interactive nature of the experience, rendered in the home language.
Carlos then moves his visual/written composition to a second page (carefully
numbering at the top right-hand corner in the sequence), this time depicting himself watching a televised soccer game in another part of the home. The word “Goal!”
uttered by the figure and the print on the tv screen “Megico[sic]: 2, Brazil: 0” and “Gol!
[Goal!]” introduce important details. The two-piece work communicates important
aspects of Latino culture, indexing both the particularities of Carlos’ family and how
they spend their time together, as well as broader cultural pastimes and even national
allegiance, as Carlos cheers on his country’s team. There is an innovative use of visuals
to convey depth, as languages and traditions mix in Carlos’ lived experience. Interestingly, the themes of soccer and family dinners are present in both the pre- and
post-writing samples. However, through the integration of multiple languages and
modes in the latter version, Carlos is able to create a more specific account of topics
he considers important. Even the fact that Carlos chooses to pull out his crayons and
include color is telling, since during more standardized writing experiences at the
school such materials were off-limits.
Another set of examples from a student in the instructional group provides
an opportunity to unpack the affordances of biliteracy pedagogies that draw on children’s languages and worlds through the use of multiple modes and media. Jackson’s
pre-instruction writing is shown in Figure 9 and the post-instruction writing is in Figure 10.
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Fig. 9: Jackson’s pre-instruction writing
Fig. 10: Jackson’s post-instruction writing
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Patricia Martínez-Álvarez, María Paula Ghiso, and Isabel Martínez
Fig. 10: Jackson’s post-instruction writing (cont.)
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It is evident not only that Jackson wrote more in the final piece, but also how
he manipulated verbal and visual text to create a multipart account that echoes features from other popular culture texts, such as movies and video games. The 10-word
title synthesizes the three-page story with impressive vocabulary for a seven-yearold—“When I got the game Lego Star Wars: The Compete Soga [Saga]”. Jackson’s
detailed description includes story language (“one day”), direct quotes, and connecting words such as “then” and “so.” His visual text is not subsumed to the print, but
extends the verbal account, providing details that would be difficult to convey with
words alone. Part 2 begins with Jackson’s identification of who is taking on the identity of each character in the video game (“I’m playing as Jango.”). The visual image that
dominates the page transports readers into the game itself, with labels denoting the
characters, a battle taking place mid-screen, and icons at each corner denoting available lives and the remaining resources of each character. This rendering is complex
yet efficient—what would take a great deal of space to describe in words is rendered
visually in a way that conveys not only accuracy but also immediacy. Part 3 of Jackson’s work includes a conclusion to the movie/book he had created. By contrast, Jackson’s pre-writing more dichotomously separates verbal and visual modes, and does
not exude the same level of enthusiasm for the topic represented.
Towards Inclusive and Creative School Literacies
Upon concluding our biliteracy study, we held a classroom celebration
where the first graders could share their work, and were gratified by the overwhelming number of family members in attendance. This show of support is a testament
to the possibility of creating school opportunities for learning that take seriously
the value of family, and underscores the creative resources in the community that
directly or indirectly inform the children’s academic work. Our interviews with students regarding this project show that they possess a mature understanding, not
always shared by teachers, of the importance of integrating family stories and community experiences into their schoolwork. The children made comments such as the
A mí me gustó hacer historias y dedicárselos a mi familia porque me recuerdo
algunas veces de cuando estaba paseando con mi papá y mi mamá a la
panadería y a lavar. [I liked making stories and dedicating them to my family
because I remember times when I was walking with my mom and dad to the
bakery and to do the washing].
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Patricia Martínez-Álvarez, María Paula Ghiso, and Isabel Martínez
A mí me pareció bien porque pude escribir todo de mi comunidad y mi
familia porque creo que los lugares que visitamos son emocionantes y divertidos. [I liked it (the instruction) because I was able to write everything about
my community and my family, because I think that the places we visit are
exciting and fun].
Students continually expressed their excitement for the project and cheered whenever we handed out printed photographs, cartoon strips, scissors and glue, or computers as materials for composing beyond only paper and pencil.
In the current educational climate, bilingual learners are increasingly subjected to standardized curricula that homogenize experience (Campano, 2007) and
reward sameness at the expense of individualized, self-directed learning. By participating in expansive school literacy activities that took seriously the value of their heritage, students were able to exercise agency in communicating aspects of their lives
traditionally left outside the school curricula. Through photography, comics, digital
texts, writing, drawing, and storytelling, children manipulated and blended multiple
modes of expression to convey aspects of their identities they identified as important.
Rather than passively hew to a delineated writing trajectory, the flexible opportunities for composing allowed students to be active designers (Kress, 2003) of texts, and
created contexts of shared power in the classroom. The multimodal biliteracy pedagogies also resulted in more creative, complex, and personal representations than the
traditional one-piece essays school requires children to write.
When students were given opportunities to blend their cultural and linguistic identities with their academic pursuits, and when the curriculum privileged children’s choosing of how to represent their stories given an array of verbal and visual
possibilities, they flourished creatively. Furthermore, even though such analysis and
discussion are beyond the scope of this manuscript, we found evidence that students’
literacy skills also improved in the participating group of students more than in the
non-participating control group. Our findings suggest that cultural engagement, academic achievement, and creativity are not mutually exclusive, but may exist in a synergistic relationship. We encourage further studies to investigate this interconnection.
We would like to thank the journal editors, anonymous reviewers, and Gerald Campano for their insights on previous drafts of this article.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creative Literacies and Learning With Latino Emergent Bilinguals
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LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creative Literacies and Learning With Latino Emergent Bilinguals
Patricia Martínez-Álvarez
is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Arts and Humanities at Teachers
College, Columbia University. Dr. Martínez-Álvarez is a former
Arlington Public Schools dual language special education
teacher. She has been an adjunct professor at George Mason
University, Fairfax, VA, and a consultant with the Center for Applied Linguistics in a project focused on enhancing vocabulary
through cognate awareness activities. Her scholarly interests
focus on integrating language and science, and technologymediated learning in bilingual/bicultural settings. Patricia has
conducted workshops with teachers in the United States and
Perú. She has published in the field of interculturality, struggling learners, science conceptual change, and mobile and
blended learning.
María Paula Ghiso is an Assistant Professor in the Depart­
ment of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarly interests focus on two related
strands: the critical literacy practices of young children, especially writing and response to literature, and language learning/biliteracy. María Paula has facilitated professional development in a range of national and international contexts, and
is a former New York City dual language teacher. She has published in venues such as Language Arts, Handbook of Research
on Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, and the National Reading Conference Yearbook.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Patricia Martínez-Álvarez, María Paula Ghiso, and Isabel Martínez
Isabel Martínez is a Developmental and Educational researcher at the Autónoma University of Madrid, Spain. Her
research interests include the processes of reading and writing as learning tools at different educational levels. She is an
active member of the COST Action ERN-LWE research group
within the European Research Network on Learning to Write
Effectively. The title of her dissertation is Teaching reading and
writing to learn in Primary Education: design and evaluation of
the efficacy of a program involving synthesis tasks from several
source texts. She has published two articles based on the work
she conducted through her doctoral period, and has fulfilled
stays in two European countries outside of Spain.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Steppingstones to Appreciating the Importance of
Play in the Creative Act
Joe Norris, Brock University
This paper documents how the literature on creativity has inspired a professor to live
and teach creatively. Through a weaving of stories with the literature, the paper demonstrates that praxis is achievable and can be fun! It is hoped that the stories will
inspire the readers to take risks and become more playful and creative in all aspects
of their lives.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping-stone
R. L. Sharpe (1948, p. 306)
uilding upon Aoki’s claim (2005) that teachers live in the zone of tensionality
between the curriculum-as-planned (the hypothetical) and the curriculumas-lived (the experience), this reflective paper first articulates how the literature on play and creativity has provided me with theoretical steppingstones upon
which I have built my practice. It then provides a few concrete stories that serve as
exemplars of how these influences have inspired me to live/teach/perform playfully.
The aim is to provide a collage or buffet of abstract thoughts and concrete actions
from which readers can choose morsels to their own liking that will enable them, if
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Joe Norris
they choose, to counter the hegemonic position of “work” and restore the work/play
balance so necessary to our existence.
Robinson (2009) believes that we are taught out of creativity and Wagner
(2012) promotes classrooms in which “intrinsic motivation and creative-thinking skills
are far more essential than mere technical knowledge” (p. 57). I concur. It is my belief
that the over-instrumentalization of the current educational system has created an
ethos of convergent learning that desires/demands a predetermined answer/outcome and that the divergent nature of creativity, imagination, and play is systemically
discouraged. The aim of this paper is to join with Robinson, Wagner, and others in promoting an environment of play both within and outside of the educational system.
Act 1: Artistry-as-Inspired
Research at the University of California at Berkeley regarding key insights
that lead to successful scientific discoveries found in interviews with scientists that the main activity that seemed to influence successful results was
play. The more these scientists were able to enjoy light, seemingly off-purpose games and activities while engaged in research, the greater were their
successes at breakthrough discoveries. (Cloke & Goldsmith 2002, p. 11)
Whether one works, plays, or studies in the arts, humanities, sciences, or
business, “play” plays a vital role in enabling acts of creation and co-creation. As
described in the quote above, play is a disposition towards a task that fosters thresholds of possibilities, from which fresh ideas can emerge. Neilsen (2002) defines such
a threshold as a “liminal space… a waiting space, a green room” (p. 208). Play, then,
requires patience as one experiments with existing ideas until new ones emerge. The
“when” cannot be dictated by a deadline or strategic plan. Whether it is something
novel that seems to come from nowhere or is something that we knew but didn’t
know that we knew, play acts as a midwife facilitating new insights, inventions, practices, treatments, or artistic pieces.
Harman and Rheingold (1984) remind us that the root of imagination is
“magi,” meaning from another place. The Magi in the Christian faith came from
another place and (magi)cians bring rabbits from another place through empty hats.
The i(mage)s that we see through our eyes initiated elsewhere and our i(magi)nations
create things that seem to come from a place unknown. To be creative, means to be
in a state of openness to the unknown, a place of possibilities, a place that a playful
environment fosters. Harman and Rheingold call this waiting, “incubation,” comparing
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Steppingstones to Appreciating the Importance of Play in the Creative Act
it with a computer going offline to work in the background, as other tasks are done.
But the creative process is much more that waiting. Gordon (1961) claims that the
perspiration stage occurs prior to incubation, as one gathers ideas and materials from
other sources and commences to work/play with them in an attempt to have a breakthrough thought and/or new creation. A lot of preliminary work is necessary before
one waits.
McGuinness (2007) claims that if previous “work” (perspiration) has occurred
prior to the waiting, the stage is incubation; if not, it is procrastination, as the work
must come first. I partially agree. Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein (2001) discuss
how a “playful” spirit underpinned the “work” of the scientist Alexander Fleming who
was infamous for his ability to play both socially and at work. “Nor did Fleming confine
his playful spirit to after-hours only. He played at work – or, more accurately, he played
with his work” (p. 247). Fleming drew pictures on agar plates and while the scientific
community initially ignored him, these seemingly frivolous activities were the initial
stages of his research with penicillin.
Sometimes play is the prerequisite not only to incubation but also to perspiration. Most often I need to play myself into the mood of creating/writing. Drama
teachers call these warm-ups. Once there, I can get down to the task at hand. I often
take this stance when I become blocked as a writer. I leave the task and “play” a computer game or tidy my desk, or… When I return refreshed, the flow, most often, returns.
In my early years I considered this “goofing off” but through the insights of Harman
and Rheingold, I now embrace “play” as natural and healthy aspect of the “work” that
I do. It creates a healthy waiting space. The perspiration, incubation, and illuminations stages may not be as linear as the theory suggest. The act of perspiration can
take many forms and need not be restricted by rigid methodologies and techniques.
Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein’s book, Sparks of Genius and Harman and Rheingold’s (1984), Higher Creativity document many such cases of playing in the arts and
sciences. Intuitively playing around with things can be serious work (perspiration).
Cottrell (1979) blurs the line between play and work with the phrase, “Play is
the work of the young child” (p. 2). Implicit within the statement is a trace to Derrida’s
concept of logocentrism (Culler, 1982). The English language is based upon binary
opposites with one term considered dominate and/or positive and the other subordinate and/or negative. In addition to denotative meanings of words, within them are
previously embedded cultural biases. Day is preferred over night, with the perception
that evil happens most often in the dark. Our culture has a longstanding history of
considering males dominant and only within the last century and one-half has some
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Joe Norris
semblance of equality emerged. In research, objectivity (male) has been valued over
subjectivity (female) and work, not play, is preferred in schooling. The list exploring
the hegemonic structures with our language can be a long one, much longer the
meager example below.
Table 1
Dominant and Subordinate Structures With Language
(or Good) Hegemonic
(or Bad)
Reality (Fact)
Fantasy (Fiction)
Liminal (not in spell checker)
Left Brain
Right Brain
To make the concept of logocentrism explicit, each year, I ask one of my students to make a paper airplane and then throw it. After picking it up, I first talk about
how creative that act was, outlining the sleek design and the ability to reshape a flat
piece of paper so that it could fly. Then, I unfold the plane, commenting on the act’s
destructive nature and how difficult it will be to take notes on it, the paper’s intended
purpose. The problem is embedded within our language. We often choose to place
value on one aspect of our actions, our desired one, ignoring its other characteristics.
But Shiva is not only the goddess of destruction—she is also the goddess of transformation and rebirth. In every act of destruction there is an act of creation and vice
versa. I relate how a logocentric analysis can be applied to the work/play dichotomy.
Musicians play instruments, athletes play sports, and in drama, as young
children, we may have done role-plays for our personal enjoyment, but, at times, we
rehearse them to show to others and call that product, a play. Our educational system reinforces the subordinate position of play with an implicit bias where subjects
that use the word “play” are not considered core but designated as optional. Play is a
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Steppingstones to Appreciating the Importance of Play in the Creative Act
misunderstood state. The hidden curriculum (Flinders, Noddings, & Thornton, 1986)
of schooling predominately creates an ethos away from the arts and creative acts
in mathematics and the sciences. The hegemony of standardized testing practice
that seeks convergent responses discourages the “thinking outside-of-the-box” or
the divergent mentality so necessary to play and creativity. There is a lot of “collateral
damage” (Nichols & Berliner, 2007) with creativity being but one example.
Phrases like, “Stop playing around,” “I’m just playing,” and “Get back to work”
demonstrate the inherent privileging of work. Black (1987) confronts this by calling
for the abolition of work by providing a counter hegemonic discourse. Wing (1995)
found that children categorized tasks directed by another as work (extrinsically motivated) and that play was more autonomous (intrinsically motivated). Refuting Cottrell
and others, she claimed that, “In contrast to the early childhood maxim ‘play is the
work of the child,’ in children’s minds, play is not work” (p. 227). For these students play
and work were considered distinct, with the power of logocentrism underlying the
difference. Our young learn quickly the cultural denotations of words.
This socio-linguistic categorization, however, ignores the use of play in
one’s early years. When referring to infants, we claim that they are “playing with their
hands.” The term “work” is seldom used to describe the development of these psychomotor skills. Infants experiment with their bodies until their desired actions match
their intents. The same happens with language development. An infant’s babbling is
a form of play where the child experiments with sound until she/he finds those that
match the culture in which she/he was born. Children play naturally with no imposed
external expectations. Play, then, could be considered synonymous with (experi)
ment and (experi)ential learning. Through natural living our young play around until
they discover things worth keeping.
This occurs often in the arts. Artists and students experiment with sounds,
images, and gestures as they explore and assess their emergent compositions. In
fact, they form hypotheses, immediately test them and then make adjustments. Their
work/play is similar to an immediate bio-feedback loop. Those in the arts apply the
scientific method daily as they experiment and revise as they go. Interestingly, this
is most often labeled play, not work; art, not science. I contend that the scientific
method is frequently employed in every art form and class although it is not labeled
as such. Like work and play, with creativity, there is also a blurring of art and science.
Play and work, then, appear to function more as adverbs than verbs. They
provide our attitudes toward the tasks at hand. Any task can be categorized with
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Joe Norris
either of these two terms. One can “work” the piano or “play” with numbers. Imagine
an accountant leaving the house in the morning saying, “I’m off to play.” While this
may be more accurate, it runs against our cultural beliefs. The work world rulz.
Play is also valued by engineers who often use the term play in reference to
the flexibility of a structure. A bridge will collapse in the wind without some flexibility
and a building will topple in an earthquake if there is not enough play in its design.
Rigidity can be a dangerous thing in the physical, social, and educational worlds.
Some business literature also supports the value of play. Freiberg and Freiberg (1998) in their history of Southwest Airlines discuss the importance of humor
in the workplace. They report practical jokes and playful incidents concocted by
employees. They claim that,
These people are scrupulous about working hard and zealous about having fun-so much so that many people want to know, “Who these nuts are?”
they are impassioned about treating each other like family…many outsiders
think they are hokey and unquestionably nuts. (p. 3)
Southwest Airlines even has a humor manifesto. Similar to Fleming, Southwest Airlines encourages employees to play at work. The same attitude is found at the Pike
Place Fish Market (Lundin, 2000; Lundin, Christensen, & Paul, 2003). Instructional
management programs have been designed based upon these fish mongers’ abilities
to play at work.
Bakke (2005) also recognizes the value of an intrinsically motivating workplace, a place in which people conduct tasks because they want to.
Winning, especially winning financially, is a second-order goal at best.
Working according to certain timeless, true, and transcendent values and
principles should be our ambition. A major point of this book is to suggest
a broader definition of organizational performance and success, one that
gives a high priority to a workplace that is filled with joy for ordinary working people (p. 18).
“Work”-places and schools need play and flexibility so that those who dwell
in such places find them humane. To be human is to have humor, the ability to laugh.
It defines us as a species. We are called to be creatures of joy in all aspects of our lives.
Part of that joy comes from the pleasure of creating things (Buber, 1947). The call to
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Steppingstones to Appreciating the Importance of Play in the Creative Act
create is natural, our birthright. I (1989), referencing the Bible as a literary and/or religious text, claim that if people were made in the creator’s image and the first image
of the “creator” is that of a creator, then it is our right and responsibility to create.
But the ability to play and create is fraught with inter and intrapersonal
obstacles. Robinson (2006), claims that “If you are not prepared to be wrong you will
never come up with anything original” and I believe that our school system places
more obstacles in the way of, than steppingstones toward, the creative act. Over the
years I have learned to unlearn the specter of the judge and just do (Madson, 2005).
I do bring in the judge/editor but at a much later date. Over time I have begun to
realize that having the judge present too early inhibits the play so necessary to the
creative act.
I remember taking a full-day mask workshop with Richard Pochinko in 1976
(circa) and being asked to lie on my back and with my eyes closed and paint the
inside of the imaginary box in which I was contained. At first, I was careful, making
certain that I got everything right when suddenly I was struck with the idea that the
workshop leader had no idea what I was doing. My movements became freer and the
colours more vivid. I switched to a roller in one hand and a brush in the other. I had
fun painting inside and outside of the metaphorical lines.
Nachmanovitch (1990) believes that the biggest obstacle to creativity is fear
of the judge and in Pochinko’s workshop my externally fostered internal judge had
disappeared. The paint flowed (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) freely as the cork to my imagination was released. Through twelve years of schooling I had learned to get it right
based upon ever-watchful eyes. “Please the teacher” was deeply engrained into my
psyche. The workshop was a turning point for me. I consider this event, at the age of
24, my creative birth date. It was on this day that I discovered the “courage to create”
(May, 1975), way too late by my standard. From then on I embarked on a path of trying
to reclaim my playful self both in and out of school and over the years many readings
and workshops assisted me in appreciating the importance of play and utilizing it in
my teaching, artistry, and living. This became my self-designed curriculum.
Fantasy is also a misunderstood component of play; sadly it too is often used
pejoratively. It is not the “real world” as skeptics would argue. Prospero’s claim that
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep”
(Shakespeare, 1972a, p. 1563) is marginalized. When we are told not to daydream,
those “seemingly off-purpose games and activities” are discouraged, play ceases to
be, and potential creativity is lost.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Joe Norris
One steppingstone in reestablishing the value of play is reclaiming the role
fantasy in our lives. Harman and Rheingold (1984) report that Elias Howe’s breakthrough with the invention of the sewing machine came in the form of a dream. We
ARE the stuff of dreams. The chairs that we sit on are based upon the imaginations of
thousands of people from the first person who sat on a stone, to the one who found
wood to be softer, to the person who carved wood to better shape her/his behind,
through those who worked with metal, fabric, and synthetics and the designers who
created the multitude of shapes and styles. Each day we actually sit on a conglomerate of fantasies. Dreams, while of value in and of themselves, can also have utilitarian
I do most of my writing after awaking from a deep sleep and often find that
I write best (like now) when I first wake up. It is this state where my brain free flows
and the judge is suspended for a much later future edit (also done). I call it the “twilight zone” (Norris & Greenlaw, 2012), a time when I metaphorically paint within my
imaginary box. That twilight place is one of my thresholds to the fantasy world, a
place where I can imagine. Such places need fostering and as artists we have learned
to create our own thresholds and as teachers of the arts we assist others in finding/
creating theirs.
While common practice is to distinguish work and play, I encourage the conceptual collapsing of this binary opposite, to move beyond Wing’s observation and
create a world in which we do things for self (play) and for the Other (work). Such is
the call of Buber (1958). One balances self in the world of Others when one attempts
to achieve an I-Thou relationship. One achieves joy, not merely from the act of playing, but with the recognition that such joy can be and most often will be shared with
others. Play for the self alone can lead to self-centeredness. Unlike Black, I do not
call for the abolition of work but for removal of its hegemonic position. With work to
balance play, one becomes centered-in-self, recognizing that Others are I’s to themselves. The restoring of the balance of work and play, in addition to epistemological
and ontological reasons, has an axiological one. We share the sandbox, classroom,
staffroom, and playground.
Act II: Artistry-as-Lived
Kopp (1972) believes that we can learn vicariously by listening to the stories
of others as we resonate with certain aspects and incorporate them into our own
beliefs and actions. Barone (1990) calls such resonance a conspiracy where the reader
breathes (spires) con (with) the narratives presented. The following vignettes provide
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Steppingstones to Appreciating the Importance of Play in the Creative Act
just a few concrete examples of how I have attempted to live and teach playfully with
the hope that these stories may serve as steppingstones for others.
Appreciation of accidents.
Nachmanovitch (1990) cites Miles Davis’ slogan, “Do not fear mistakes. There
are none” (p. 88). He claims that a pearl is made from a grit of sand and that we must
learn how to make pearls. Long before I read this quote but shortly after I had taken
the Pochinko workshop, I found myself cast as Professor Strychnine in the pre-musical
version of Spring Awakening (Wedekind, 1912). After one scene we exited stage right
and picked up umbrellas, ran quickly under the stage and back up the other side
to enter after a short scene between the two. During a dress rehearsal the umbrella
stuck upside down, forming a bowl instead of an awning. Rather than delaying my
entrance to fix it, I went with it. In this production the professors all wore masks, so
the director had to query who had the upside down umbrella. I raised my hand and
he responded, brilliant, keep it. During a subsequent rehearsal, the rain came and
the umbrella filled with water. This bizarreness added to the macabre nature of this
funeral scene.
Had I tried to remove this metaphorical grit, the scene would have missed
these elements. Since then, I have come to appreciate mistakes and advocate the
looking for pearls. Mistakes can be regarded as unforeseen play that invites us to
respond differently, like a tree to a summer breeze. Do we resist or accept?
In directing a scene about the many responsibilities of a teacher we piled a
number of boxes in an actor’s arms. In one rehearsal, they toppled. From then on, we
made them topple. The acceptance was, in part, due to my previous experience with
mistakes. I have come to recognize that creativity is not always deliberate, that one
steppingstone towards play is the embracing of mistakes and, when appropriate, turn
them into pearls.
Risk taking in teaching.
Nachmanovitch (1990) also claims that creativity is not about having unlimited resources but about working with the givens. Building upon this concept, I
decided to take a risk/experiment and try something new in my teaching, uncertain
of the outcome. I asked the students to wander the campus and return with a collection of “clean garbage.” I explained the task no further. They returned with leaves, pop
cups and everything in between. I then put them into groups and asked them to create the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with their collection and then explain
their choices. The result exceeded my expectations. They played outside of the cliché
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and found dimensions of the scene that expanded our collective understanding of
the play.
The students working with their givens created something original. Had
they been told to find things to create the scene, their creativity would have been
reduced to what was already known. Not knowing the second task actually increased
the potential for something new, as the known can be an obstacle in and of itself. This
also provided an insight for my teaching/planning. From the experience I concluded
that it is not always best for teachers and students to know what will emerge. We, too,
must model risk taking and take leaps of faith. Visions can be restrictive. By keeping
ourselves in the dark, we expand our thinking by playing with uncertainty. Since this
experience, I have created many lessons with this discovered principle.
The acceptance of the intuitive, liminal, and dreams.
I was asked by a colleague to give a guest workshop on The Sandbox (Albee,
1988) to her high school drama class. Again, I tried something new. I asked the students to bring in a collection of magazines and tear out phrases and pictures that
intuitively spoke to them in a way that related to the play. I joined in the activity and
two of the images that I chose were a large fork and a man in a wheelchair. Once we
each had a sizable assortment, I asked them to assemble their collection into a collage and find a relationship among what they had chosen.
For my collage, as I placed the wheelchair on the fork I experienced an “ah
ha” moment. The play is about how the young eat their elders. Student comments
were as insightful. The final part of the lesson had the students not only share their
collages but also tell us, based upon their collages, how they might direct the play or
design its set. Their articulation of their understandings of the play went well beyond
what would be typically expected. Their openness to playing with another medium
was an indirect intuitive route to new meanings.
Harman and Rheingold’s (1984) examples of the invention of the sewing
machine, the discovery of mathematical formula, and other breakthroughs that
emerged from dreams reinforced my belief in the intuitive and I continue to create
lessons in which I ask my students “not to think.” I believe that we can overthink and
shut down relevant parts of the brain that are the wellsprings of great ideas. Too much
planning can get in the way of the liminal and throughout my teaching, I encourage my students to play with their ideas in different ways, to take risk and leaps of
faith. Most often this results in better work/play. My mantra is, “I don’t know where I’m
going but I do know how to get there.”
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Trusting play.
I recently changed an activity that I do with a course of graduate students
(practicing teachers). Previously, I created five centers, one with puppets, one with
hats, one with Orff instruments, one with props, and the fifth was my computer with
iTunes open. I equally divided those assembled into five groups and they took turns
going to each station to complete the tasks written on the sheets of paper before
them. During the summer of 2012, I eliminated the iTunes and puppets centers and
asked three groups to just go to one center and play. As expected, initially, they had
a tough time. Slowly they became more animated and genuinely built upon each
other’s ideas. The group with the props became pirates and invaded the hat group
and escaped with some of their booty. The Orff group paraded around clanging their
newfound instruments. Frivolous? Absolutely! But they achieved that playful state
that was so necessary for us as we researched and wrote a play about the lived-experiences of teachers.
For me, play and creativity is about disposition, a state of being. While knowledge and skills are necessary, they, without a state of playfulness, lack luster. Nachmanovitch claims that we need both technique and freedom from technique and I
agree. To be creative is to enter a state where you trust in the act. Madson’s (2005)
subtitle to “Improv wisdom” sums this state up, “Don’t prepare, just show up”. While
desired, I have encountered various degrees of student resistance, as they have been
enculturated into a means-ends (Peattie, 1960) mentality. Many expect certainty and
are skeptical of an emergent curriculum.
Zone of proximal development.
As a result of student skepticism, I attempt to eliminate the fear of the judge;
to promote risk taking and to take leaps of faith into the unknown (easier said that
done when I am also the giver of grades). Even with third-year undergraduate drama
students and after-degree drama education students, there exists a fear of being
watched by their peers. Many continue to report that they censor their actions to
avoid being thought silly or wrong. Their creative actions are stifled by such a disposition. I search for activities that wean them from such fear.
In one, I have them all in a circle, facing forward. Their arms are outstretched,
horizontal to the floor and their hands are folded together. I ask them to raise their
thumbs that will serve as batons as they “conduct” the music that I will play. I then ask
them to turn out, so they see no one but themselves. As the upbeat music plays I add
different isolations: “conduct with elbows, chins, eyebrows, tongues, knees, baby toes,
etc.” As they conduct the music, they are moving in atypical ways. Eventually, they
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are moving about the room in parallel action (not interacting with one another) and
reach high, low, to the left and right as I side-coach isolations, combinations, levels,
and directions. I avoid the word, dance.
During the debriefing that always follows, students comment on the gentleness of the progression and that the facing-out enabled them to become comfortable
with the exercise. To create a playful atmosphere, as teachers, we must determine
both the stumbling blocks and steppingstones. For me, student comfort, relaxation,
and trust are essential. I design activities that build upon where they are emotionally
(Goleman, 1995) so that I can playfully invite them to other places. Adapting the theory of the zone of proximal development (Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2006) that tends
to focus primarily on cognitive ability, I apply it to the creation of inter and intrapersonal dispositions, systematically removing obstacles and building steppingstones to
play. When activities do not succeed it is sometimes due to asking too much too soon.
For/with other.
In my early years I detested writing. My extroverted side considered the private time required for writing as punishment. My muse was elsewhere. That changed
the summer following grade seven. I took the compositions written that school year,
read them at a public speaking contest and won. With a sense of audience, creative
writing found a purpose. It is no accident that my research work in both playbuilding
(Norris, 2009) and duoethnography (Norris, Sawyer, & Lund, 2012) is collaborative. I
think/play/create best with my mouth open in communion with the Other.
As a former teacher of English, I understood the reluctance that many of
my students had to writing, and created some opportunities for them to write collaboratively. Photos were distributed to pairs and each, without conferring, was to
write a sentence about the photo and pass it to his/her partner. The paper went back
and forth with some students creating their best writing in response to the Other.
They became each other’s muse as they played collaboratively. They wrote for each
other. According to Briggs-Myers and McCaulley (1985), seventy-five percent of our
population is extraverted. Their best playgrounds/classrooms are interactive ones. It
behooves us, as teachers, to create spaces with the recognition that the Other can
provide a) a sense of audience so necessary for some as it provides a sense of purpose
and b) that some play/create best in the company of others. Removing the hegemony
of silence and creating opportunities for collaborative interaction can foster creativity
in the majority of our students.
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The importance of surrender (a confession).
It was the last day of classes prior to the December 2012 break. The previous
week was a field trip and I was anxious to reestablish a focus so that we could depart
with a strong understanding of the play that we were writing, a springboard so to
speak, that would propel us into the New Year. I initiated a check-in with students
and we commented on the field trip and clarified questions on the assignment due
the following week. We did what I ascertained was the appropriate amount of playful activities. After the break I was determined to get to task (work). As the third-year
undergraduate students sat in a circle on the floor, I passed out file folders to store our
collective thoughts and was ready to begin when I was bombarded with a series of
cascading comments,
Can we play a game?
(Students in unison) Yes.
Come on, its Christmas
I put the stuffed lobster that I use as a talking stick on the floor and made
it my pillow as I laid down in utter capitulation. I mocked tears. My mind raced. “We
already had the obligatory warm-up. How dare they! When we get closer to performance, they will complain that we didn’t have enough time. They just came back from
a break. They should be ready by now!”
They were insistent.
Sure, I said
Can we, really?
Obviously they didn’t believe me.
Isn’t that what I said?
Yay! (in unison).
One student suggested Pterodactyl, a game that I did not know. It was an
elimination game, the type that I seldom favour as these create winners and losers.
But by now I was drained and listened.
“Everyone curls their upper and lower lips inward so that their teeth are
never seen. Someone in the circle starts looking either to the person to his/her left
or right and says, ‘pterodactyl’. Each person in turn passes it but if teeth are shown,
that person is eliminated. The receiving person can reverse the direction by making a
pterodactyl sound.”
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Lots of laughter ensued and for about eight minutes we played with about
six people remaining. (Try to keep your lips curled in while laughing. It isn’t easy.) We
then got back to the task with gusto.
The irony of this story is that it happened after I wrote most of this paper. I too
am susceptible to the ethos of the task. In my rush, I failed to listen. Sometimes surrender is also a necessary aspect of play. It means “cultivating a comfortable attitude
towards not knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 22). Play requires a deep listening to the moment, accessing the present need and responding accordingly. Walking
the talk is more difficult than it looks. Living in the zone of tensionality between the
curriculum-as-planned and the curriculum-as-lived is a common state.
The above are but a few of the many experience that I have had in trying to live and
teach in a playful way. We all have our stories, and by sharing them we assist others in
reinforcing what they already do, provide new pathways to their imaginations, and/
or point out obstacles to avoid. As the Bard says, “The play’s the thing… (Shakespeare,
1972b, p. 935) so I conclude with the “F” word, “fun.” I had fun writing this piece. Was it
work or was it play? I’d say both. For me, the binaries have collapsed.
Albee, E. (1988). The sandbox; and, The death
of Bessie Smith; with, Fam and Yam. New
York: New American Library.
A guide to the development and use of the
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto:
Consulting Psychologists Press.
Aoki, T. (2005). Teaching as indwelling between
two curriculum worlds. In W. Pinar & R.
L. Irwin (Eds.), Curriculum in a New Key:
The Collected Works of Ted T. Aoki (pp.
159–165). Edmonton: Curriculum Praxis
Department of Secondary Education University of Alberta.
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Barone, T. E. (1990). Using the narrative text as
an occasion for conspiracy. In E. W. Eisner
& A. Peshkin (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry in
education (pp. 305–326). New York: Teachers College Press.
Black, B. (1987). The abolition of work.
Semiotext[e], 13, 15–26.
Briggs-Myers, I., & McCaulley, M. (1985). Manual:
Buber, M. (1958). I and Thou (R. G. Smith, Trans.).
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, MacMillan Publishing Company.
Cloke, K., & Goldsmith, J. (2002). The end of
management and the rise of organizational
democracy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York:
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Culler, J. (1982). On deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
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Flinders, D. J., Noddings, N., & Thornton, S. J.
(1986). The null curriculum: Its theoretical
basis and practical implications. Curriculum Inquiry, 16(1), 33–42.
Freiberg, K., & Freiberg, J. (1998). Nuts! New
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road, kill him. New York: Bantam.
Lundin, S. C. (2000). Fish! A remarkable way to
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York: Hyperion.
Lundin, S. C., Christensen, J., & Paul, H. (2003).
Fish! sticks: A remarkable way to adapt to
changing times and keep your work fresh.
New York: Hyperion.
Madson, P. R. (2005). Improv wisdom: Don’t prepare, just show up. New York: Bell Tower.
May, R. (1975). The courage to create. Toronto:
Bantam Books.
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between incubation and procrastination?
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Norris, J. (1989). Some authorities as co-authors
in a collective creation production. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of
Norris, J. (2009). Playbuilding as qualitative research: A participatory arts-based
approach. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Norris, J., & Greenlaw, J. (2012). Responding to
our muses: A duoethnography on becoming writers In J. Norris, R. D. Sawyer & D.
E. Lund (Eds.), Duoethnography: Dialogic
methods for social, health, and educational
research (pp. 89–113). Walnut Creek: Left
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(p. 306). New York: Harper.
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Joe Norris
Joe Norris teaches drama as a teaching methodology, theatre for social change, and playbuilding as a research methodology at Brock University. His book, Playbuilding as Qualitative Research: A Participatory Arts-based Approach received the
2011 Outstanding Book Award from the Qualitative Research
SIG of the American Educational Research Association. Along
with Rick Sawyer he has developed a dialogic form of narrative research. Duoethnography: Dialogic Methods for Social,
Health, and Educational Research was released in April 2012
with Left Coast Press and Understanding Qualitative Research:
Duoethnography will be published in early 2013 with Oxford
University Press.
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Fostering a Creativity Mindset for Teaching
(and Learning)
Mia O’Brien, University of Queensland
Teaching is a creative practice that requires the kind of open-minded, whole-hearted,
flexible, improvisational (yet knowledgeable), and performative orientation that I refer to as the “creativity mindset.” Fostering such a mindset amongst preservice teachers can be challenging, since they often see their future teaching-selves as altruistic
yet authoritarian subject matter experts. Underpinning these views are narrow conceptions of teaching, and of how we learn. To what extent can an experience of creative, performative pedagogy transform these views, and foster a creativity mindset
for teaching (and learning) amongst preservice teachers?
reativity remains a significant priority within education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published
reports on creativity and schools (1999); The National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE, 1999) signaled the importance of
maintaining creativity within curriculum and pedagogy in schools across the United
Kingdom; and within the recent return to a national approach the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2012) features creativity as a general capability to be cultivated within
all subject areas.
In order for creativity to be a priority within schooling we need teachers who
understand the nature of creativity and appreciate its pedagogical value. However,
creativity is not usually high on the list of reasons for choosing teaching. In fact, those
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Mia O’Brien
drawn to teaching often have stereotypically didactic views of teaching based on
autobiographical experiences of the classroom (Lortie, 1975; Sfard & Prusak, 2005).
Indeed, some research indicates that commencing first year pre-service teachers
choose teaching because they feel a) they are experts within particular subject areas,
and hope to share that expertise with their future students; b) they are “fun” people
to be with; and c) they envision their future teaching “selves” as friendly but informative authoritarian figures within a classroom (O’Brien & Dole, 2012). More extensive
psychometric studies (see Watt & Richardson, 2012) illustrate the multidimensional
nature of choosing teaching. These reasons include personal utilitarian motivations,
intrinsic motivations, and ability-related beliefs. But such studies only serve to highlight our local experiences within teacher education programs. That is, when faced
with visions of classrooms in which learning and teaching practices are represented
as dialogic, inquiry-driven, creative practices—as opposed to the knowledge-heavy,
didactic models of teaching and learning of personal visions—many preservice
teachers feel challenged and uncomfortable (O’Brien, 2011, ATEA).
How do we effectively encourage preservice teachers to more readily
embrace creativity as an important pedagogical process and agenda? In this study I
was particularly interested in the perceptions and beliefs about learning and teaching that may be indicative of positive orientations towards the place of creativity in
education. The aim was to foster a “creativity mindset” for teaching and learning.
Creativity in Learning and Teaching Contexts
Indeed, classrooms filled with dialogue, inquiry, collaboration, innovation,
connectivity, and creative practices are the hallmarks of effective contemporary pedagogy (Gore, Griffiths, & Ladwig, 2004; Lingard, Hayes, & Mills, 2003), and not just the
purview of creativity itself. So the pedagogical value of cultivating creativity in the
classroom is well argued elsewhere (Jeffrey, 2008; Sawyer, 2012). What is missing however are more powerful conceptions of how teachers may adapt core beliefs or mindsets related to teaching, learning, and pedagogy in ways that more fully embrace the
potential of creativity.
For example, there is general acknowledgement in the field that creativity,
as it would be usefully applied to education, is not so much a fixed trait that an individual might possess, but rather a process of higher order thinking and engagement
that is learnable by all (Craft, 2003; Jeffrey, 2008; McWilliam & Haukkaa, 2008; Sawyer,
2012). This perspective disentangles creativity from the Arts and related notions of
uncommon genius. Instead, creativity is conceptualized as a sustainable, replicable
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Fostering a Creativity Mindset for Teaching (and Learning)
intellectual practice that transcends subject areas and informs innovation and knowledge growth (McWilliam & Haukkaa, 2008). This view makes creativity an “ordinary”
process that is generally accessible (Craft, 2003) and teachable (Jeffrey, 2008), and
certainly well within the reach of the motivated teacher (Sawyer, 2012).
In fact, Sawyer (2012) reviewed a range of research that produced recommendations for building creativity in the classroom. His synthesis of the “teacher
behaviours most commonly associated with creativity” (p. 4) include: i) openness of
attitude and perspective, an inclusive classroom culture in which collaboration and
the cross-fertilization of ideas is valued; ii) the deliberate cultivation of surprise and
the unexpected as fruitful learning opportunities, that is closely coupled with iii)
trust and a safe environment for risk-taking, in which time is allowed for thinking and
incubation; iv) the development of students’ self-efficacy; as well as v) support in the
resistance to conformity of peers; vi) fostering of problem-finding, idea generation,
questioning of assumptions, and imagination of alternative perspectives and viewpoints; based also on vii) the mastering of factual knowledge; viii) explicit modeling
of creativity.
Jeffrey and Craft (2004) draw on extensive empirical research in their explications of creativity in education, and make a useful distinction between “teaching
creatively” and “teaching for creativity.” Teaching creatively involves the development
of materials and approaches that foster students’ interests and motivation in learning.
In contrast, and of interest here, is the notion of “teaching for creativity” which relates
to the forms of teaching that intend to develop students’ own creative thinking and
behavior. Teaching that develops creativity in students entails the development of
the common capabilities and sensibilities of creativity (curiosity, creative processes
and practices, etc.), the encouragement of young people to believe in their creative
identities, as well as the development of a sense of agency and self-determination in
the learning process.
Building on this work Jeffrey (2008) suggests that the characteristics of creative pedagogies include: the development of meaningful experiences that offer and
reinforce social identities and roles for students; creative learning processes such as
intellectual enquiry, possibility thinking, engagement with problems and a range
of intelligences; and altered teaching and learning relationships (such as those that
enable students to negotiate and/or lead learning).
The common thread across the discourse on creativity, teaching, and learning is that implementing creativity effectively within classroom contexts requires
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Mia O’Brien
significant reframing of learners, learning, and teaching (Jeffrey, 2008; Jeffrey & Craft,
2004; Sawyer, 2012). Sawyer (2012) suggests this is based on the differences between
traditional views of classroom practices (instructionism) as opposed to more progressive, constructivist views of learning. Jeffrey and Craft (2004) hint at the need for
inculcation into the values and principles of practice inherent within the creative process. Just as the foundation of creativity’s place in education is anchored in a view of
creativity as an emergent, tangible, replicable process of engagement—so too must
the teaching of, and for, creativity be rooted in more fluid, flexible beliefs about how
we learn and how we might teach.
Dweck’s (1999) research on the relationship between personal beliefs and
effectiveness or success seems particularly relevant here. In her work she makes a distinction between “fixed” mindsets and “growth” mindsets. People with fixed mindsets
see their personal qualities (intelligence, talent, ability) as stable and unchangeable
traits. Those with growth mindsets see such qualities as amenable and are thus more
fluid in their view of learning and approach to life. A fluid or growth mindset seems
particularly applicable to teaching for creativity. That is, teachers would need to see
the qualities of their students and their personal teaching capabilities through a flexible, fluid lens in order to effectively facilitate creative pedagogical experiences. What
might that mindset entail? How would we encourage its development?
Drama, Storythread, and Improvised Pedagogy—An Intervention
At the heart of this paper are the experiences of our pre-service teachers,
documented as they participated in an extraordinary pedagogical event. Over the
last two years a small contingent of our Bachelor of Education students have been
invited to participate in, and observe, the unique educational adventure that is the
Pullenvale Environmental Education Centre or PEEC ( The PEEC
offers a range of educational resources and support processes, but most significantly provides on-site learning experiences for primary or elementary school children from across the state. These learning experiences incorporate creative teaching
strategies and in particular are anchored in the pedagogical practice of Storythread
(Education Queensland, 1994). Storythread pedagogy aims to connect learners to
real people, places, issues, and events, and to help them understand and apply curriculum content, through the use of story and drama, investigations, games and play,
attentiveness, deep reflective responding, creative response and interpretive walks
and engagement in the environment. A Storythread unit of learning begins with a
story (often written and created by the teachers at PEEC) that captures a key issue in
need of further exploration. At PEEC these stories are often based on environmental
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Fostering a Creativity Mindset for Teaching (and Learning)
sustainability and/or the impact of human change on nature. Classroom teachers
are provided with a range of preliminary resources and materials to introduce their
students to the story, and they facilitate introductory and exploratory activities to
build engagement in the story’s themes over several weeks. This gives the students
an opportunity to engage authentically and deeply with the issues at hand, and to
build knowledge and understanding of the related curriculum content. Eventually,
the students are able to “step into” the story as they attend an immersive excursion at
PEEC, facilitated by the talented PEEC teachers who role play various characters and
scenarios, and who over the course of the event engage the students in puzzling over
and solving the particular dilemma or problem.
Storythread pedagogy has similarities to Scottish Storyline (Bell, Harkness, &
White, 2007) in that a) fictionalized stories are used/created to capture and represent
curriculum content in its application to authentic social scenarios; that in turn b) act
as stimuli for active learning processes that aim to enlarge and bring the concepts
of note “to life” for students through the use of drama, role play, visual arts, inquiry,
collaborative problem solving, and similar strategies over time; and therefore c) foreground the processes of active and inquiry learning as a pedagogical priority. In contrast, Storythread appears to distinguish itself from the Scottish Storyline approach
by its emphasis on engaging students in extended dialogue and focused attentiveness activities, and in the case of PEEC, by its emphasis on the exploration of values
related to the environment. The potential of these strategies for engaging even very
young children in new levels of awareness and commitment to action shows much
promise (Tooth & Renshaw, 2012; Renshaw & Tooth, 2009).
Importantly for this study, both Storythread and Scottish Storyline pedagogies recast the role of the teacher. As with many active learning pedagogies, teachers
design active learning scenarios (set a context, provide potentially fruitful resources,
design and sequence learning activities to engage students in various forms of investigations, etc.), and artfully facilitate emergent learning experiences (monitor and
guide learning, whilst restraining from traditional forms of “content” delivery). These
forms of pedagogy are highly dialogic, and require the kind of “improvisational” teaching that Sawyer (2004) refers to. Indeed, they require and perhaps epitomize Schön’s
notions of reflection-in-action (1983). In Storythread (and potentially in Scottish
Storyline) pedagogies teachers do not provide students with extensive content, but
rather engage and facilitate their students’ search for information, scaffold and guide
preliminary ideas, subtly sharpen and refine emerging understandings of content,
and carefully navigate the development of values and potential action—all as part
of the pedagogical process. It is this “shift” in pedagogical perspective (from content
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delivery to creative and active learning facilitator) that can be most challenging for
preservice teachers. Few will have experienced the extensive use of story, drama,
role-play, and fiction as mechanisms for engaging in curriculum content. And while
many are keen to be “great” teachers who can motivate and inspire their students,
most are unsure about how they can achieve this in a classroom setting. For these
reasons I hoped that this intervention would effectively offset the sometimes didactic models of pedagogy our preservice teachers experience as university students,
and that they would begin to comprehend the potential of more creative pedagogies
within their own practice.
For the intervention, participating pre-service teachers were provided with
a two-part experience. The first part entailed an all-day professional development
workshop in which the staff at PEEC review and discuss their unique approach and
the storythread pedagogy. This workshop covers and discusses the extensive range
of supporting materials and educational resources that the centre develops and provides to schools. The second part involves a return visit to the PEEC Centre and an
opportunity to observe and follow the activities of visiting school children as they
participate in an all-day “in the story” experience. These follow-up sessions are typically five hours in length, and comprehensive in nature. Only two preservice teachers
were permitted to attend any particular follow-up session as these days were primarily designed for visiting schools, and the presence of additional visitors needed to be
minimized. These days proved invaluable as they provided a first-hand experience of
the storythread pedagogy as it was implemented with up to 60 school children and
their teachers/carers.
As part of the attendance requirements of the PEEC experience, all participating preservice teachers (n=24 in 2011; n=23 in 2012) completed a short answer
survey in which they were asked to self-report beliefs and perceptions related to
learning, teaching, and their potential future self as teacher. The survey had a number
of items, but I have selected items as having particular relevance to this paper’s focus,
including responses to themes such as:
I see learning as…
I describe myself as the kind of teacher who…
A surprising or unexpected theme/idea/understanding I have taken from this
experience is…
This experience has helped me to…
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Responses to each item were collated and thematically analyzed (Flick,
2009). Soon after the PEEC experience the preservice teachers were required to complete an interview. Interviews were based on a simple schedule of themes that asked
participants to report experiences and new understandings gleaned from the experience, and included questions such as:
How did learning and teaching happen in this context?
What surprised you most about learning and teaching in this experience?
What is your understanding of learners and learning?
Tell me about the teaching and learning practices that most impressed you and
The interviews were transcribed verbatim and a thematic analysis was undertaken to identify and illustrate the variation of responses to each question or theme.
The Emerging Nature of a Creativity Mindset
The overarching focus of this project was to track the impact of an intervention that enabled the preservice teachers to be explicitly trained in, and to observe the
implementation of, a highly creative pedagogy. I hoped that this intervention would
evoke transformation: an opening up of narrow views of learning and teaching. My
hunch was that this experience would elicit new ways of thinking about learners and
learning; teachers and teaching; the nature of pedagogy; and about themselves as
future teachers. And that in turn, perhaps less directly, I felt preservice teachers would
begin to orient towards the powerful potential of creativity in learning and teaching.
Just as such perceptions can be seen as indicators of shifting teacher identities, of “becoming pedagogical” (O’Brien et al., 2012), so too are they indicators of how
our preservice teachers are orienting towards their future pedagogical self.
In this section I exemplify and discuss preservice teacher perceptions that
emerged in relation to learning, teaching, and pedagogy, and frame them within the
qualities of teaching for creativity that have been laid out in the recent literature.
Views of Learning and Learners
It is not uncommon for preservice teachers to assume that students learn
through relatively passive processes in which the teacher, textbook, or some other
external source provides the “knowledge” to be learned. While some hold more
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sophisticated views of learning in the broadest sense, most equate classroom or
school-related learning with traditional models of instruction and simplistic learning
theories (such as information processing and memory). At best, preservice teachers
acknowledge that it is possible for learning to occur through creative means, but
very few have direct experiences or in-depth understandings about how this might
The PEEC intervention and in particular the experience of storythread and
drama in pedagogy elicited broader views of the nature of learning. That is to say,
the opportunity to observe that school students first had as they participated in roleplays and dramatized illustrations of various events, as well as in interpretive walks
and guided attentiveness sessions seemed highly influential in broadening the preservice teachers’ views of learning:
It was intriguing and interesting. I felt that it was the way most students learn.
Children have more ways to learn other than from computers. Opportunities to
learn never cease. (Chris, 2011)
I now see learning as an active participation in the process of pedagogy. (Eric,
I learned that in order to get kids to respect the environment, you can’t just tell
them that they should, they need to experience the environment and be in a
place and be a part of it and then they will respect the environment and actually want to protect it and preserve it without having ideas forced upon them.
(Beth, 2011)
For some preservice teachers these observations made them aware of
assumptions they had made about learning and of what learning could entail:
I’ve always said it’s a bad thing to assume you know what your students are
thinking or learning, and this was sooo clear today. The kids I thought hated the
day because they said this a number of times were actually the ones that had all
the right answers at question time. So for me this demonstrates not only never
assume but also knowledge and understanding can reach a child even if they
are not “having fun” or rather they were having fun. (Loris, 2012)
Something we are constantly doing in all kinds of ways. You can learn things
even when you don’t realize you’re learning! (Elizabeth, 2012)
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Others noted the significance of the students’ agency and involvement
in this pedagogical situation. As the PEEC teachers enacted various scenarios and
invited the school students to join in “in character,” the preservice students noted the
potential power of storythread and drama to enable even very young students to
engage and participate in their own way. To “invest” emotionally and intellectually:
[I was surprised at] how implicitly it can occur, and how the children’s curiosity is
a natural catalyst for learning and discovery. (Paige, 2012)
I was surprised at… That everyone can appreciate it in their own way. I spoke to
a small group of boys who were hesitant to express their feelings to me, and the
ways in which they would go about solving some problems in the Hoodwinked
scenario because (and I’m only speculating, because I got the sense that this was
the case…it certainly was when I was in grade 5!) they were “too cool” for the
activities the rest of the class were participating in…but as time progressed they
were completely engaged with the story and were enjoying themselves, and
were subsequently some of the more active members in the discussions Lucinda
facilitated. (Stephanie, 2012)
That it was not all directly linked to the topic/story of the day. The reflection of
the grade 3 student who said she had learned such an amazing understanding
of respect simply blew me away—that is, when asked what they has learned
one particular little girl responded with some along the lines of “That when we
treat people with respect and help them when they need help our friendship will
go a long way.” She was a grade 3 student! (Whitney, 2012)
What was most striking to the preservice teachers was the compelling
nature of a creative pedagogy for engaging and holding the intellectual and emotional interests of the students. As the following extracts illustrate, the preservice
teachers developed an emerging awareness of, and a renewed appreciation for, the
impact of a meaningful learning experience that was at the same time comprehensively informative:
I think learning is a powerful tool in the lives of those who value it, and provides
them with more opportunities to reach their potential in life. Even a basic understanding of certain ideas and concepts provides individuals with the capacity to
question…and I think this is important in recognising your place in the world
and how to prevail above any given situation. You can’t let anyone other than
yourself dictate your life—learning provides new experiences and the resources
to allow individuals to make their own informed decisions. (Stephanie, 2012)
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The students’ growing passion as they became more immersed in the activity—I
think that by the end of it, they all had a pretty strong ecological identity and
sense of right and wrong regarding the environment…they became more passionate, it was really lovely to see. (Stephanie, 2012)
These extracts illustrate significant shifts in the preservice teachers’ views
of learning and learners. These shifts reflect an emerging orientation to important
aspects of creativity in learning and teaching. For example, their apprehension of the
process of learning broadened and they became aware of the potential for learning
to occur in the kind of “altered spaces” that Jeffrey (2008) describes. As the first few
extracts indicate, the preservice teachers showed some surprise that learning could
(and should) involve more than direct instructional methods (see particularly Chris,
Eric, and Beth’s comments), yet still include and creatively build on a strong foundation of knowledge (as Sawyer, 2012 has argued). We see glimmers of more complex
understandings of learning as being driven by curiosity and personal engagement
(much as Jeffrey & Craft, 2004 have suggested). And as the last two extracts in this section indicate, the preservice teachers were deeply impressed by the genuine level of
engagement and “passion” the students developed during the learning experience.
Understanding the power that meaningful engagement as part of creative teaching
and learning entails is a common thread in the literature (Craft, 2003; Jeffrey & Craft,
2004; Sawyer, 2012).
Views of Teaching and Teachers
Just as the preservice teachers began to change their views about learning
and learners, they also became explicitly aware of the well-crafted, deliberate practices of the PEEC teachers. They were impressed by the way in which simple classroom management strategies that were consistently integrated into the pedagogy
were effective without stopping the flow of the activity.
At one level this shift was focused on the potential of employing interest
and engagement for offsetting (or managing) the students’ behavior:
There were few behavioral issues, and when there was the teacher simply found
a moment to address it in a calm way. (Aisla, 2012)
The teachers’ form of behavioural management—keeping the students
engaged, and reinforcing the “RESPECT” high-5 thing; the children becoming so
genuinely immersed in the learning. (Lorraine, 2012)
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But at another level the preservice teachers also became aware that teachers aim to do much more than just “teach the curriculum” and “control the class.” They
connect to what is interesting and relevant to students, provide safe learning environments, collaborate in the learning process, and direct their attention to facilitating
connection and negotiated engagement (letting behavior management take care of
itself ):
Using a different approach such as this challenges students on many levels.
What they learn is not just facts on paper, but also attitudes, problem solving,
social and community involvement, and psychological development in learning
behaviours. (Eric, 2012)
A teacher has to help the students want to learn—the teacher needs to engage
with & interest them (Elizabeth, 2012)
There is more to teaching than pedagogy, it is also about bringing together the
students in a safe learning environment. (Felicia, 2012)
How involved the teachers got into the acting out of the story, but took a back
seat when it came to behavior management. (Morag, 2012)
To use story telling excites children and extends their knowledge. The way the
teacher excitedly engaged with students while upholding control. (Aisla, 2012)
Some preservice teachers were surprised and impressed by the deliberate
positivity and enthusiasm for learning cultivated by the teachers. This is an important
shift as many preservice teachers problematize the role of teachers and can easily feel
too overwhelmed by various pressures and opt out of teaching creatively, or teaching for creativity. As this extract illustrates, the PEEC teachers modeled a highly positive learning relationship as well as some concrete strategies for engaging learners,
which, in turn, inspired and influenced the preservice teachers:
The positive nature of the staff of PEEC. They were incredibly knowledgeable
and positive about their work and it was a real pleasure and inspiration to work
with educators who were so positively responsive to not only the students’ experiences but ours as well. They had a solution for every problem. The value of their
work at PEEC in many ways is so simple but so complex it was interesting to see
how it had been overlooked in my own education at primary and high school (I
never had an opportunity like this at school). (Loris, 2012)
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And as the following extract captures, the in-depth observation of teachers teaching creatively “in action” afforded some deeply impressive and long-lasting
shifts in understanding the potential role, position, and relationship to students that
teachers can cultivate:
[A surprising thing I noticed about teaching was] how to change the position of
power in a classroom so that students are able to take control of their learning
(and in that discover their own learning). (Beth, 2011)
These renewed views of teachers and teaching experienced by the preservice teachers reflect a growing awareness of creativity in teaching. These included
many of the teacher behaviours commonly linked to creativity and learning synthesized by Sawyer (2012) and the characteristics of creative teaching outlined by Jeffrey
(2008). These included: the development of trust, a sense of safety and self-efficacy
for students (indicated here by Elizabeth, Felicia, and Morag); the modeling of positive
and generative creative processes and behaviours (in Ailsa and Loris’s comments); as
well as a range of related cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes (outlined by Eric).
Beth’s comment is both indicative and significant. For a great majority of preservice
teachers the greatest challenge to their emergent teaching identity and practice is
the stubborn vision of teacher as “sage on the stage”—even those willing to consider
alternative pedagogies struggle to see their roles and place as teacher. The extended
observation of the PEEC teachers in action appeared to loosen these views significantly. Instead, we see evidence of the preservice teachers awareness of altered teaching and learning relationships (Jeffrey, 2008) and the understanding that in stepping
aside from a “leadership” role per se, students could take control and discover their
own learning.
Views of Pedagogy
Setting aside the complexities surrounding its meaning, I use the term
pedagogy here to refer to the interrelationship and qualities of interaction that
arise between teachers and students as they collaboratively navigate and negotiate the learning space. Just as our preservice teachers initially hold simplistic views
of learning and perceptions of teaching as an authoritarian, instructional process,
they assume pedagogy to be a highly didactic, linear, and structured relationship.
The opportunity to observe teachers implementing creative, active learning forms of
pedagogy certainly disrupted these assumptions, but in ways that seemed to enable
the preservice teachers to readily embrace an alternative perspective and philosophy
almost instantaneously.
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Storythread makes good use of narratives and the story-telling experience
to engage students in some core concepts and life-like contexts. The teachers at PEEC
also use storythread to set up generative, problem finding and problem “responding”
learning scenarios. These often take the form of extended dialogues in which the PEEC
teacher is “in character” and leads a discussion asking the students to solve a problem
or generate some potential solutions. Our preservice teachers found the educational
potential of this pedagogy to be highly illuminating and personally inspiring:
I believe narrative is a wonderful means of learning and combined with the
other elements of Storythread Pedagogy (attentiveness and reflection) forms a
powerful teaching tool. I’m a strong believer that learning needs to be situated
in real-life contexts in order for it to be memorable, and that’s exactly what Storythread aims to achieve. I also love the creative, hands-on elements behind it
and would love to learn how to inspire my students to use their whole bodies
when learning (e.g., full sensory, mind body engagement). (Anna, 2011)
[What surprised me was] the idea of creating that interesting way of teaching
through stories and drama linking subjects together. (Nell, 2011)
[What surprised me was]…It turned learning into an adventure with the children the adventurers. (Whitney, 2012)
As these comments indicate, the preservice teachers began to more fully
appreciate the potential of this pedagogy for establishing (as Jeffrey & Craft, 2004;
and Jeffrey, 2008 propose) relevance of meaning for both individual students and
the group; ownership of knowledge; control of the learning process by students; and
innovation and intellectual inquiry:
The excitement of the kids—it was almost tangible and certainly contagious
(so perhaps they escalated because of me?) Arrival, entering the “rocket ship,”
meeting Arlec, in the forest while exploring and discovering new and interesting things…the level of excitement would not have veered below 8 out of 10.
(Paige, 2012)
Extended role-playing as they did with Hoodwinked; I had not anticipated that
they would be effective with students as old as grade 5, anticipated that they
would be made more apathetic by peer pressure—now that I know they can be
engaged with this method I would definitely like to incorporate it. (Rachel, 2012)
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Shifting a person’s perception, when you learn something, especially through
experiencing it hands on. It is a journey, different for each person, individual,
absorbing and using information at different paces and levels. And, the more
tools, such as Storythread and Productive Pedagogies, a teacher can effectively and appropriately use, the better the student outcomes because they are
engaged and connected with the topic and therefore more inclined to become
active self-directed learners. (Paige, 2012)
The PEEC pedagogy incorporates notions of “deep attentiveness” based on
the tenet that learning is driven by attention. In this process the students are taken
to a place in the outdoors that is unfamiliar or new, and asked to sit in quiet stillness
for between 1-5 minutes. Afterwards they take turns sharing a comment about what
they noticed—an attentiveness statement. The power of “deep attentiveness” was felt
by a majority of our preservice teachers, many of whom continued to reference this
strategy in their learning journals for one of their courses. Eric’s comment below captures this impression:
Using the magnifying glass to take photos of tiny flowers and berries (now in
frames on my lounge room wall) and hearing the attentiveness statements read
back to us. Experiencing the intricacies of the role play with the grade 5 students.
I did not expect it to be so involved and to see how the students progressively
got more involved in the story (even the difficult/skeptical students) was quite
enlightening. (Eric, 2012)
For many of our preservice teachers, they found the incorporation of “content” within such pedagogies an unexpected yet welcome attribute. This helped to
shift more stubborn biases that creative learning and teaching compromises engagement in “real” content:
[What surprised me was] Deep listening, as an activity to increase concentration
rather than just as a relaxing activity; the group poem activity, as an engaging way to create group connectivity…and the preparation for Hoodwinked;
the activities were interesting and very content oriented despite their dramatic
focus (not that drama isn’t interesting, I just expected that the activities would
be a lot less focused on teaching content and historical context). (Rachel, 2012)
As Jeffrey (2008) carefully describes, creative pedagogies can (and do)
incorporate relevance and meaning for students, a sense of ownership and control
in the learning process, as well as innovation, whilst facilitating valued intellectual
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processes like inquiry, possibility thinking, and the engagement in problems. That
our preservice teachers became aware of these qualities—together with what Sawyer (2012) describes important foundational knowledge—as an intentional aim of
the storythread pedagogy is an encouraging indication of an emerging “creativity”
Views of Self-as-Teacher
Arguably the most important component of a creativity mindset for learning and teaching would entail a particular view of oneself as teacher. Jeffrey and Craft
(2004) argue strongly that such a view must be based on a “learner-inclusive pedagogy” and the philosophy that teaching for creativity is less about “performance”—as
Sawyer (2004) has proposed—and more about developing young people’s capacity
for creative thinking and behavior.
The PEEC experience had a wide-ranging impact on preservice teachers’
views of “self-as-teacher.” This may have been due to the immersive nature of the
intervention, in which preservice teachers could see and experience first-hand the
implementation of creative pedagogies by teachers who appeared “just like them”:
I think that learning to teach through narrative is a valuable skill to hold. I would
like to broaden the way I think about teaching and I think that the best way to
do that is through experience. The content would be relevant to me due to my
major in history. I think this would be a useful tool to use while teaching history
to younger grades. (Erin, 2011)
I got really absorbed into the Mrs. Muddle-up “I wonder” activity and actually
thought she was a real person for a moment. I found this really engaging and
felt inspired that if I run Storythread Pedagogy with my own future students that
they will experience something similar. (Anna, 2011)
I would definitely like to place more elements within my future teaching curriculum that will promote attentiveness and the reflective process. (Freya, 2011)
I’ve always thought I would struggle to communicate to young children and so
I want to be a high school teacher, but after today I was surprised to learn I can
communicate with them after all. (Loris, 2012)
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As the preservice teachers became more willing to reconsider their future
teaching identities, they embraced the potential of creative pedagogies for prioritizing the social roles of their students over their own role as teacher (Jeffrey, 2008) as
well as the significance of encouraging the creative identities of their students (Jeffrey & Craft, 2004):
[This experience helped me to]…..further break free of highly structured, traditional methods of teaching and embrace a new form a learning that is backed
by some consistent research. I really want to see how this Storythread Pedagogy
works and have more practice at utilizing all my senses to learn so that I can
help my students do the same. (Anna, 2011)
[This experience helped me to] understand another way of teaching, and myself
understand another way of learning. (Demi, 2011)
This has helped me to think about myself in terms of…being an animated extrovert, and not afraid to make a “fool” of myself (appropriately); being observant,
noticing students’ peaks and troughs in their learning and emotional wellbeing; being inventive and resourceful, to not be overly artistic but to create and
hopefully inspire others to create amazing items—sculptures (clay, recycled
goods), pictures (different textures and mediums), written (poetry and stories).
(Paige, 2012)
In one sense, these revised views of “self-as-teacher” represent one of the
most important qualities of a creativity mindset for teaching and learning. Craft has
argued consistently for creativity to be less about what the teacher does and more
about who the learner is and can be (Craft, 2003; Jeffrey & Craft 2004). Incorporating
a view of oneself as teacher that is centred on the facilitation of the learner’s identity
and social role (as it is emerging within Anna, Freya, and Erik’s comments above) is
one of the most challenging shifts for our preservice teachers to navigate (O’Brien &
Dole, 2012; O’Brien et al., 2012).
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Concluding Comments: The Importance of Teachers’
Perceptions of Learning, Teaching, and Pedagogy for
a Creativity Mindset
Proponents of creativity in education have argued for the place of creativity
in the classroom (Burnard, 2006; McWilliam & Haukka, 2008), proposed various types
of teaching behaviors for the facilitation of creative learning (NACCCE, 1999; Sawyer,
2004, 2012), and delineated a range of empirically evidenced practices that enable
teachers to foster and build opportunities for sustained creative engagement (Jeffrey & Craft, 2004; Jeffrey, 2008). However, in this paper I have argued that a creativity
mindset is fundamental to such initiatives, and that such a mindset is underpinned by
particular ways of viewing and understanding the nature of learning, teaching, and
pedagogy within creatively oriented contexts.
As the analysis here aims to illustrate, a creativity mindset for teaching and
learning might potentially incorporate flexible yet sophisticated perceptions of learning; a willingness to see teaching as a process of collaborative learning and the careful
orchestration of multifaceted learning experiences in which the teacher is not always
central; and most importantly, the kind of open-minded, open-hearted, courageous
visions of self-as-teacher that casts the students into lead roles and teachers as occasional director and frequent understudy.
The challenge for teacher education is that such a mindset may be counterintuitive to the majority of people who initially choose this vocation. Adding further
to this challenge is the didactic nature of university education, where our preservice
teachers experience very limited models of good pedagogy, and rare glimpses of
creativity as learning and teaching priorities. While the intervention reported here
has some financial and organizational drawbacks, the impact on preservice teachers’
growth is significant. Our challenge then, within teacher education programs, is to
provide similarly immersive and extended opportunities for our students to observe
and absorb the potential of creative pedagogies implemented by everyday (yet in
many ways, extraordinary) teachers.
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Tooth, R., & Renshaw, P. (2012). Storythread for
environmental education. In T. Wrigley, P.
Thompson, B. Lingard. (Eds.). Changing
schools: Alternative ways to make a world
of difference. London: Routledge.
Watt, H. M.G., & Richardson, P. W. (2012). An
introduction to teaching motivations in
different countries: comparisons using
the FIT-Choice scale. Asia-Pacific Journal
of Teacher Education, 40(3), 185–197.
Mia O’Brien is a lecturer at the School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia. She convenes courses on
creativity and learning, pedagogy and learning theories. Her
research investigates the interrelationship between teaching
and learning within innovative pedagogical contexts, and she
is particularly interested in the implementation of positive
psychologies, new media and the creative arts, and inquiry
and dialogue in learning contexts. Her recent publications focus on the professional learning and identities of preservice
teachers, and with whom she shares a passionate interest in
the integration of creativity in pedagogical practice. She is also
a keen singer-songwriter and avid fan of early swing, jazz, and
gypsy music.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery:
Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel,
and Kathy Irwin, State University at New York, Potsdam
This article shares one junior faculty member’s account of how she and her students
debated, deliberated about, decided to, and ultimately reshaped a traditional, foundational Principles of Education course in an undergraduate teacher education program. Three former childhood, art, and theater education students highlight their experiences, observing connections between their own and their instructor’s creativity
and evolving philosophies of education. Together, they illustrate issues they confronted while reflecting individually and collectively on how and whether to creatively
teach and learn, while also being constrained by practical, systemic realities.
he argument in the memo, sent from a male senior faculty member to
junior faculty members, went like this:
…students are much too quick to want a personal philosophy,…I worry
about the conflation of a ‘personal’ philosophy with a developed philosophy
of education. It isn’t that they aren’t connected, but that an examination of
the latter should precede the development of the former. That is, any personal philosophy should be the result of first studying what experts have
had to say about the issues important to a philosophy of education.… (Correspondence from PI Committee Member to C&I EDLS 201 Revision Committee Members, Fall 2010)
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
No amount of discussion when the curriculum review committee met could persuade
senior faculty that students’ arrival with pre-formed “philosophies” of education could
be points of departure for straying from descriptors attached to course curricula designated in the General Education as “Philsophical Inquiry” (PI). Perennially oriented,
the dominant opinion was that students’ experiences should be relegated secondary
to classic thinkers’; junior approaches were dismissed as being imprudent:
…philosophy is far too important to be left to the philosophers, and, in addition, is essentially interdisciplinary in nature… this doesn’t excuse folks from
engaging with what experts in the field have had to say about the important
philosophical issues, and it seems to me that an introductory philosophy course
should largely be an introduction to what some of those experts have had to
say…. (Correspondence from PI Committee Member to C&I EDLS 201 Revision
Committee Members, Fall 2010)
This debate, ironically, might have been exactly the opposite twenty years earlier
when 1990s P-16 educators were initially asked to respond to globalization. Innovation, creativity, and “lifewide” creativity were being applied broadly and increasingly valued (Craft, 2003). Educators were responsible for contributing to economic
advancement. Today, notions of what creativity is or could be remains a topic of philosophical debate; though this is not this article’s core focus, increasingly, it has become
apparent in the U.S. education system that counterpoint voices supporting arts-based
learning and alternative pedagogies or assessment forms have dwindled. New York
State educators at all levels are under federal pressure to “Race to the Top.” Annual
performance program reviews (APPR) depend on models such as Danielson’s Framework for Teaching (2011) in which “creativity” is to be demonstrated at proficient and
distinguished levels by teachers; otherwise, one might be judged as incompetent—
even dismissed, despite being tenured. Resources and funds available for Science,
Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs increase the need for
evidence in the accountability movement. Standardized instruction and evaluation
force documentation of quantifiable rather than qualitative outcomes. Widespread
pressures, from early childhood throughout teacher preparation programs, literally
force time for creativity out of prescribed curricula.
At SUNY Potsdam in the School of Education & Professional Studies, this
junior faculty author and her co-author students teach and learn amidst this pressure. SUNY Potsdam accounts for student outcomes, primarily, by submitting quantitative reports to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)
through an electronic portfolio system (TaskStream Teacher
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Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
education candidates’ dispositions, or “soft skills,” are documented in seven broad
areas, primarily in two dimensions: how candidates are “willing to take risks and show
comfort with uncertainty” and when they “recognize and respect one’s own diversity and that of others.” Indicators show that a candidate: “tries unfamiliar techniques,
encourages students/peers in taking risks, uses instructional resources that incorporate or depict alternative points of view, uses instructional practices that respects/
reflect diversity among participants, (and) seeks divergent points of view” (CE/EC Dispositions, 2009, SUNY Potsdam). Students are required to earn three credits in the
aesthetic experiential (AE) mode and three in the aesthetic in the critical and discriminative (AC) domains of the general education curriculum (
academics/general_education/moi/index.cfm). Art education and theater education
majors are exposed by nature to creative pedagogy. Childhood and early childhood
students also take a course in Creative and Sensory Experiences (Birth-Grade 2).
Specific definitions about what it means to be “creative” have shifted since
1990 to include valuing: ordinary people rather than genius; process versus product;
and, qualitative characteristics more than quantitative measurements (Craft, 2003).
Culture-specific values, as well as policies and practices within formal and informal
education settings, practically influence how teachers are able to enact their philosophies of education. Junior faculty members (without tenure, such as I was at the time)
may succumb to social limitations, however, to avoid political sanctions; instructors
may become socialized into submission, or experience suffocation of their creativity
(Craft, 2003).
Senior faculty rebukes (such as those in the memo) clearly revitalized the
creativity debate:
…the obvious tension between…the idea of the concept of creativity being
at all limited is paradoxical in itself. For it would seem that creativity is an
open-ended concept, concerned with the development and application of
possibilities – and thus inherently unlimited. (Craft, 2003, pp. 117–118)
My relative confidence in unorthodox teaching methods did little to stave off senior
faculty members’ scrutiny or attempts to squelch my choices of materials. The debate
about EDLS course design, purposefully chosen arts-based exercises and non-western readings, intentionally attempting to expand students’ philosophical understanding of what it means to teach, learn, and serve in diverse educational communities
conflicted with my belief that philosophy is and should remain a topic of unresolved
(and personal) exploration.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
More pragmatic issues centered on getting the syllabus approved. I suspected my primal reaction to being thwarted was not unfamiliar to veteran educators. Although our department had provenance over this course, it appeared that
less robust syllabi retained the “PI” designator, for instance. Nevertheless, students
enroll in foundational classes prior to methods or fieldwork courses. Central outcomes are supposed to focus on contextualizing philosophies historically; students
are expected to synthesize and articulate evolutionary, professional teaching philosophies. Creatively demonstrating understanding of core PI concepts did not appear
incompatible to me with philosophical inquiry.
Among faculty within the Curriculum & Instruction (C&I) department
assigned to tweak the syllabus during the renewal process, I took a less essentialist and perennial approach than previous instructors. Revisions reflected studentcentered, constructivist, critical, and comparative theoretical approaches; I wanted
students to be creative and to take risks by producing arts-based rather than solely
text-based conceptualizations of their philosophies. Unfortunately, these brought
our syllabus under close scrutiny. There appeared to be a fundamental dispute about
how (or whether) junior faculty should be allowed to (creatively) teach the course,
a discussion Kenkmann (2008) describes is increasingly occurring in adult education and higher education circles, though rarely about philosophy courses. However, inhibiting teachers’ and students’ creativity by centrally controlling content and
teaching-learning strategies or, supporting it by appropriate organizational climates
(Craft, 2003) fundamentally reflects an institution’s values and is demonstrated by
these actions. This ultimately serves to diminish or enhance teachers’ and learners’
self-efficacy, as well as to force convergent or nurture divergent thought (Fasko, 20002001). It was this realization that most upset me.
The C&I team (and I) interpreted the curriculum committee’s criticism to mean
that “expert voices” should outshout students’. Our debates centered on whether best
approaches should be inductive or deductive. Differences became painfully obvious when readings and assignments were closely scrutinized. Nowhere on the list
of philosophers we were urged to consider was a female or non-Western thinker, for
instance, though text (Parkay & Stanford, 2010) and anthology (Chartock, 2004) readings approved previously contained excerpted references of each. Non-“classic” (e.g.,
Freire, 2005; Reagan, 2005) selections were now criticized as straying into “XC” (crosscultural) designator territory. These criticisms reflect what Craft identified as two of
the dangers of complacent and resistance approaches to curricula. The first indicates
that, “…we have a curriculum and a framework which acknowledges creativity and
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
which connects creativity – …so we need do nothing else than implement the curriculum as if it were unproblematic” (2003, p. 124). To temper this criticism, we C&I
educators attempted to adopt “alternative assignments” suggested: an argumentative paper, a counter-argumentative paper, and a counter-counter argumentative
paper. Oh—and one debate. In other words—retreads of traditional means of “philosophical inquiry.” Craft’s second position is that educators who implement creative
approaches are polarized and represent “the Other.” Tensions between members of
the curriculum committee, represented solely by faculty from the School of Arts & Science, versus the School of Education & Professional Studies, clearly surfaced during
our curriculum review process. These tensions were overt and went unresolved; we
felt viewed as “the Other”—as marginalized, less competent, strange and deficient in
our worldviews about, ironically, curriculum and instruction—our supposed area of
expertise. When the EDLS 201 course syllabus ultimately did not receive a PI designator, education students were made exempt from earning PI General Education credit
to graduate. The temporary “solution” did not, in my opinion, resolve the deeper
issues—which were in large part about creative license to demonstrate teaching and
learning processes.
My reaction to centering students’ experiences primarily in text, in verbal
and written (or other linguistic forms of ) debate was firm. Arts-based means of processing students’ lived school experiences became a way of encouraging them to
examine socio-cultural shaping by their families’, teachers’, schools’, religions’, and
communities’ educational values—prior to bringing out the “experts.” These aligned
with fundamental objectives of the course syllabus, which claimed to examine:
1. the nature of knowledge as it applies to the education profession
2. the metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological underpinnings of prominent
educational philosophies and philosophers associated with each
3. how philosophies of educators materialize as goals and objectives within historical eras, political communities, and as socio-economic conditions change
Arts-based or non-western based “ways of knowing” were not mutually exclusive with
these objectives. I was, at the time, in the midst of doctoral studies, and had experienced my own philosophical epiphanies through non-traditional means; perhaps this
is why I was less willing to compromise: in spite of extensive experience as a classroom teacher, I was, still more idealistic—even as a junior faculty member. Immersed
in examining narratives and critical incidences, using self-study methodology, I was
committed to the philosophy that students’ life experiences mattered.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
Post-modernism came alive for me in arts-based classroom exercises such as
Readers’ Theater, found poetry, and collage. Teachers formally liberated the thought
that students’ voices or “ways of knowing” count! These ideas lucidly emerged through
arts-informed exercises in an interpretive inquiry course (Butler-Kisber, 2010) and collage exercises; as Gunn (2010) points out, philosophical inquiry is both about skill
development and knowledge acquisition. I was hoping to re-create this in EDLS 201:
I wanted students to creatively explore what it means to teach, learn, and serve. Influenced by idealist, progressivist, pragmatist, realist, social reconstructionist, critical
theorist, and feminist readings and activities—I hoped students would demonstrate
a personal (albeit emerging) understanding of philosophy of education by creative
means. I believed students could (or should) mine personal experiences first, begin to
analyze primordial influences, and determine for themselves how viewpoints about
teaching, disciplining or managing students, or manipulating curricula are affected.
Essentially, I wanted to empower students to challenge status quo and find alternative modes of existence (of thought) or ways of demonstrating their knowing (Craft,
2003). It was disheartening to me that a course review committee would co-opt a
colleague’s philosophy so fundamentally. As students in my sections were slated to
become certified early childhood, childhood, and secondary teachers, as well as theater and art education majors, I could not envision being philosophical just by “thinking” rather than by “doing” (Kenkmann, 2008); instead, I found 25 ways to develop
creativity by Sternberg and Williams (as described in Fasko, 2000-2001) to be a useful
conceptual guide in choosing strategies, as my students’ multiple learning styles (and
certification tracks) would certainly demand active approaches.
As an operational premise for EDLS 201, I decided students should focus on
life histories. Narrative inquiry approaches supplemented graphic representations.
I shared collage and mixed methods to contextualize autobiographical information
and revealed what values, experiences, and struggles in life impacted my own teaching and learning. I encouraged students to explore media and began overtly provoking assumptions around other students’ and teachers’ ideas (using text readings
as a backdrop). I asked students to question typical research notions of objectivity,
whether there differences exist between the researcher and the researched, etcetera.
Melding auto ethnographic traditions with self-study, I shared my own research, noting how critical incidences centered on “epiphanal event(s)” (Denzin, 1989) and “turning point(s)” (McAdams, Josselson, & Lieblich, 2001 in Chase, 2005, p. 652).
Reactions to using creative methods or forms of assessment in this course
were not always immediately warm, comprehensive, or accepting. Many students
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Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
stuck with papers, for instance, while a few created posters, and one or two created
web-based versions of their lives set to music using Garage Band. To encourage
risk-taking, I tinkered with rubric language about the “creative” elements. Students
ventured further and produced more aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking
pieces. Over time, students have warmed to using non-text based means to represent
autobiographies. Gaining permission to showcase examples of previous students’
work, I bring in examples of alternate means of representing life stories—one friend’s
non-traditional “tea-box” representing her child’s birth announcement, or drawing
from the respectable collection of student-donated samples (of quality and sub-standard work). Both are instructive. Displaying students’ work (along with the rubrics)
to assess, prior to assigning projects, allows me to discourage mimicry, encourage
originality, and, though I get some of the former, I long for more of the latter. Students’
work becomes inspirational, I find, when student-centered versus teacher-centered
instruction occurs. Learning becomes reciprocal and integral to my own teachinglearning process and launches a ripple effect among students.
One piece that always captures students’ imaginations is a painting (Fig. 1) of
a student’s “inner eyes”; in this, unique differences between existentialist and essentialist paths that a novice teacher found herself considering are encapsulated.
Fig. 1: J. Robinson, May 2011 (Used with permission of artist)
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
Novice teacher candidates instantaneously relate to this artist’s dilemma, as my veteran colleagues also do. They imagine traipsing along, pondering how best to nurture
students’ love for learning. Even as a seasoned faculty member, I acknowledge the
invisible power I wield. I wrestle often with how best to guide students to uncover
their philosophies of education without authoritatively imposing my own. This student artist captured this dilemma in the piercing eyes. Philosophical decisions about
teaching go to the heart of creativity when designing curriculum, crafting choices
about how to teach, so that students can best learn and we best serve a community.
Deciding (whether or not) to go by the book.
My overall attempts to nurture creative displays or personalized educational
philosophies have included social justice through the arts, but these elicit mixed reactions from students who are not used to nor comfortable with alternative classroom
structures. Some students prefer traditional, lecture-based and objective assessments. With less faith in “radical” or “ambiguous” methods, they make their discomfort
known. While I am comfortable with their discomfort, they clearly are not. Heightened political implications of being untenured in education contexts have made me
apprehensive about leading students astray or too far from “schools” of thought and
expectations, as well. As I have been reluctant to purposefully offend senior faculty, I
also worry about preparing students to confront harsher evaluation processes. I am
not completely naïve about reappointment or about consequences of disregarding
judgments of one’s “teaching effectiveness.”
Kress (2010) vocalized how ambivalent attempts to motivate creativity may
result (inadvertently) in alienating students, describing them within the conceptual
framework of post formalism, and recalling the theoretical process of bricolage presented by Maxine Greene (1988). Cook, Smagorinksy, Fry, Konopak, and Moore discussed Problems in Developing a Constructivist Approach to Teaching (2002) and the
fundamental disconnect in teacher education programs between how concepts are
defined (or not) and modeled (or not), as well as how students appropriate them.
When creativity as a concept is vague, not valued within education, or is marginalized, at best, within educational institutions, students and teachers lack power to
unleash full potential to solve problems or create new knowledge. In a global and
diverse information society, we depend on innovation to advance our economy. The
role of creativity and STEM fields are not mutually exclusive. Building disciplined innovation through lesson structures that scaffold learning experiences in teacher education programs (Sawyer, 2006) would appear to be a promising way of addressing
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
The students’ view.
I turn now to students to reveal their experiences in EDLS 201. Donna, Gina,
and Kathy lend their creative voices and share how they creatively explored core
course concepts.
Donna is a first generation high school and college graduate; her confidence and
willingness to take risks socially caught my attention in the first few EDLS 201 classes.
Raised in Florida, she struggled in public schools, and gained success after moving to
New York by enrolling in regional vocational Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) programs and studying at the Long Island High School for the Arts. At
SUNY Potsdam, Donna’s academic skills continued to be bolstered by involvement
in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) (
eop/index.cfm). Donna’s goal was to become an art teacher, concentrating on Studio media, Advanced Drawing and Painting and Digital Photography. Donna framed
my instructional approach as “student centered with a focus on …choice theory…
leaving room for flexibility to meet the needs of the students…” She claimed this
affected her learning due to the “flexibility in class structure as well as (the) teaching
approach…(it) open(ed) doors for me and allowed me to take risks and be creative...
(allowing) me to respond artistically in an academic setting.” In this photo essay (Fig.
2), Donna imagined herself as a (student) teacher:
Fig. 2: Donna Cappel – Imagining self as a student teacher
Donna elaborated on how her creative images reflect her professional dispositions,
philosophy of education and classroom management style, enabling me to evaluate
connections she made with course content:
…The first image represents auditory learning, the second is tactile/kinesthetic learning and the last is visual learning….An analogy that can help to
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
explain the auditory pose is when you go hunting, you crouch down to listen to the deer approaching. Just like hunting, a teacher needs to get down
to the students’ level and listen. The tactile/kinesthetic pose has hands-on
experience [as my] touching the branches of the tree is symbolic of how
teachers touch the lives of their students. Finally the visual learning style is
represented with me up in a tree looking out onto the horizon because not
everything can be touched or heard, but has to be seen as well. I incorporated all three learning styles into every lesson that I create in order to fit the
needs of every student…These images also support the nature vs nurture
debate to teaching…As every good teacher knows, you need structure in
the classroom but you have to make room for flexibility to meet the needs
of your students. The trees help to support this concept, since a tree has a
strong structure but also has flexibility in its branches to obtain the need of
sunlight. My outfits also help to support this concept. The dress is the same
in each image which represents structure and professionalism, but the pants
and shoes help represent flexibility since (the students) are all different.
Donna’s creative arts background, admitted challenges in traditionally structured
learning situations, and persistence had emerged early. I noticed her highlighted,
carefully transcribed text notes. Peers could see Donna did not shy from opposing
viewpoints or questioning status quo; I valued contentious class discussions, as 20%
of “class participation” was evaluated in the overall course score. I imagine that Donna
would laboriously have prepared written assignments but, if I weighted these along
with quiz and essay scores more heavily, these forms of assessments could have easily
masked Donna’s depth of understanding. Instead, by creatively risk-taking, she had
an ability to express fuller comprehension of course concepts and I had opportunities
to assess her understanding more authentically. We both progressed in our development as teachers.
Gina was a theater education major. She was confident taking creative
risks, did not require support that reluctant students need, and was comfortable
with non-traditional teaching and alternative assessments. When I initially asked students to introduce each other and demonstrate multiple learning styles, it was clear
Gina enthusiastically would welcome activity-based assignments to achieve course
objectives. Gina described my instructional style as being “free spirited.” While Gina
perceived my role as the instructor as lateral to the students’ process of learning,
rather than central, she also repositioned how she saw herself—becoming an active,
engaged learner. She observed that:
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Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
… (I) let the process of the who, what, where, and why questioning happen
first among the students. This technique gave us the room to make discoveries, or to create hypothesis. It made (us) realize that a teacher is…someone to guide us through and help us if we fall off the horse, but not to hold
our hands and do the work for us…(to) let you feel comfortable exploring
avenues that are unlike yourself.
I agree that my role as teacher educator positioned students intentionally to explore
and connect experiences to course objectives but I have found that is not always successful and that, indeed, the difficult and real work of being a creative, constructivist,
student-centered teacher does not guarantee learning outcomes—especially with
students who are NOT like Gina.
Assisting students to connect text-based concepts with their prior experiences is the goal of creative processes, and the arts-based methods I use to guide
their self-discovery and philosophical inquiry becomes more important, to me, than
students’ adoption of any one philosophy of education. Gina described how this
occurred for her:
I had never really categorized my teaching methods with a philosophy, but
through …exploration …I can now say what I am, and what I am not…
(because we) tackle(d) the topics that in other classrooms maybe seem
uncomfortable, but were completely valid to discuss in this classroom.
When I attempt to engage students in social justice topics, such as educational inequity, conversations and activities require risk-taking on students’ and my part. I have
found, that while my identity (even as a relatively junior faculty member) includes
being a “boundary-pusher,” many of my students (and colleagues) do not welcome
this persona, philosophically or pedagogically, as easily into their experiential base.
Gina explained how she learned about boundaries teachers have to cross,
though she describes realities faced by those who dare not cross them:
In my experience as a student, I see teachers afraid to get personal with
their students. Personal in a professional manner. Maybe lazy to get to know
them, or they do not use assignments that are relatable to the students’
age-appropriate experiences or lives. In EDLS (201) assignments were being
manipulated to analyze my own life experiences, and relate them to teaching strategies and situations… I had to write about six campus experiences,
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
describe them, what I learned from them as a teacher, person, etc. By simply
relating assignments to individuals’ experiences you can engage a student
more easily, especially students younger than the college level.
Gina’s fear is not singular. I find, while teaching, whether raising tough topics for discussion, or sharing exemplary products that are not universally acceptable in all contexts, in public schools in particular, I sometimes crush “free spirits.” I am very mindful
that novice teachers will find themselves under pressure of high profile assessments,
public accountability, practical and philosophical limitations—including the very real
threat of job loss. It is not surprising that teachers, even those who are experienced
or who have relative security in the forms of seniority and tenure, find themselves
unable or reluctant to use students’ (or their own) lives as bases for creative curricula.
I am reminded of how Gina described the juggling she does with these philosophical
ideals within her realm of experience:
In my mind creativity in the classroom involves implementing the arts into
strategies and assignments in all topics… But sadly I am discovering that
the idea of teaching to the individual and getting to know and understand
your students and what strategies benefit them seems to fit into a category
that only ‘creative’ teachers utilized, or constructivist teachers. This should
be an implemented strategy across the board. I find it crazy that teachers
do not know the names of the students that they give the grades to, or that
they teach every student the exact same way, and expect them all to be successful. As a prospective teacher grades K-12, it is easy to put myself in the
shoes of a High School student because it was not too long ago I was sitting
in a row of desks, like I was in some prison, while a teacher talked at me for
hours. I was a C average student in High School, constantly put down by my
teachers and passed on to other ones when a teacher was too lazy to really
work with me, or understand me. EDLS 201 gave me insight with scenarios
as well as ideas to make sure I do not become one of these teachers. Creativity is breaking the standard row of desks and having everyone physically
learn in the classroom…it is encouraging thought and questions, rather
then making students sit silent for hours hindering their spirit, individuality,
and eagerness to make discoveries.
As an art education major, Kathy gave concrete form to Gina’s pleas. Whereas
Gina’s active, questioning, and participatory style naturally exuded in class, Kathy’s
graceful character revealed itself in more measured manner. A contemplative learner,
she was one, I discovered in her written autobiography, who had endured personal
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Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
family tragedy at a very young age. As a result, Kathy channeled her expressive energy
privately, reflectively, but very powerfully—on canvass and in constructed pieces.
An early assignment asked students to investigate current controversial education
issues; from Kathy, “homelessness” elicited an oil painting. It was apparent that any
rubric I could devise (not to mention paper, series of debates, exam or essay questions) would have confined Kathy’s responses to concepts centered on philosophical
inquiry. By the time final evaluations arrived, I eagerly anticipated how Kathy would
reveal her comprehensive conception of education principles we had explored.
Fig. 3: Kathy Irwin – Two classrooms, May 2011
In supplemental text (required of all who choose performance options), Kathy
I chose to create miniature class rooms (Fig. 3) that depicted two opposing philosophies, one that was essentialist and one that was progressive…I
made by hand small wooden tables, desks, and chairs that really gave the
rooms a sense of being in a class. In the progressive classroom I arranged the
room so that the tables would form students into groups for discussions and
projects rather than individual rows where the students couldn’t speak with
one another. I made a variety of work stations including, a computer station, reading corner, and a science station. This entire group-activated environment encourages students to work as a team. On the opposite room I
arranged the seats in rows and tried to create a very bland non-colorful class
suggesting the more traditional style class that tends to neglect the arts and
focuses more on core subjects and less on the creative process.
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Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
By creating these two rooms from scratch with my hands and my own imagination I was able to see the process by which I understood each of these
philosophies and each detail that made each one unique. I was able to see
visually what these ideas were about as well as show my other classmates
my ideas behind the philosophies…it gave us a chance to see the principles
explained in a new light.
Kathy’s project was constructed simply out of cardboard and wood with meticulous
attention to every facet of the learning environment. It has spawned “copycat“ versions in subsequent semesters and much discussion about philosophy of education. I
use the models to launch concrete experiences and to teach about abstract concepts.
No student has yet articulated an analysis of the relationship between practice and
theory in as great detail as Kathy did—I suspect because the other students lack the
creative experience of constructing their understanding around the philosophical
questions Kathy examined while choosing to think deeply, and make decisions to
represent to others publically how to illustrate her understanding symbolically.
Kathy also created Invisible Boundaries (Fig. 4), which was awarded Best of
Show in the SUNY system. Describing this piece, she reflected on how artistic media
assists her to clarify her personal identity:
… helped me to grow as a person and has made me who I am. I use my
painting and ceramics as an expressive form to communicate my emotions.
During my four years at college I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer. After
her death I thought that I wouldn’t be able to go on. My art saved me….my
theme is about confinement and strength. I depict tension within the human
figure where I commonly place my figures in spaces of discomfort and claustrophobia. I use exaggeration of color, texture, mark, and gesture to really
bring the figures alive with agitated raw emotion. My work is as much about
the process, technique, and the style as it is about the content. The way that
I express myself is by working through the layers of a work and allowing it
to change and grow as the process naturally occurs. I found myself going to
my work for personal therapy as well as for my grief; my artwork gave me a
sense of hope and accomplishment in a place that seemed so bleak.
Kathy’s creative pieces express anguish that underlies the creative professional teaching and learning persona. “It goes to show that art with true passion and feeling
behind it can really resonate with others without words, but still communicate so
much meaning.”
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Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
Fig. 4: Kathy Irwin – Invisible barriers
The level of detail and analysis that Kathy included in art projects submitted for EDLS
201 demonstrated deep understanding of core course concepts and far exceeded
complexities I would derive from student essays submitted on traditional assignments. In using art to express her comprehension, both procedurally and in terms
of content, Kathy crossed philosophical boundaries—both of knowing and of doing.
She bridged theory with practice, personal with professional. Kathy concluded that:
The creative process of working on a project if it is a painting, sculpture, or
a project from a non-art (i.e., EDLS 201) class allows for a sense of discovery in ideas, concepts, and feelings that one might never see from a traditional standpoint. Allowing a creative approach to any lesson allows for new
boundaries to be crossed and encourages growth and risk taking. I have
learned from experience that the only way to move forward is to challenge
yourself and to take risks, knowing that it may not always work out the way
you planned, but you will never know if you never try.
I would concur. While creative exercises in EDLS 201 (and other classes) have
failed miserably (and some students have not been hesitant to let me know!), I am
cognizant of my very limited formal art or theater training. I am by nature, unconfident, somewhat introverted and insecure about performance-based assessments
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
myself. I, too, perseverate over mixed student comments, and wonder whether I
should heed those who lobby for more lectures and quizzes, demand less passion
(about social justice issues) or more specificity about “what the instructor wants” on
projects. Rubrics intentionally contain broad descriptors; ultimately, my desire for
retaining creative options appears to be outweighed by my concern over students’
grade point averages. While I remain reluctant to spell out “creativity” indices, I am
also occasionally tempted to include more perennial key content (vocabulary, for
instance), because of pressure to prepare teacher education candidates for certification exams and annual performance program reviews. Requiring students to identify
state department of education acronyms elicits complaints and finding creative ways
to teach these essential elements eludes me. Retrospectively reviewing student comments, I wonder to what degree my philosophy and creativity have become entwined
in teacher candidates’ developmental processes. Attempting to evoke creativity
within my students is an exercise that, ultimately, lies within each learner’s prerogative—to adopt or discard this as part of their critical thinking, decision-making and
philosophical inquiry practices.
In this article, I described decision-making processes I went through redesigning a foundational, Principles of Education course—in conjunction with my students’ experiences. I outlined my own philosophy of education and how I attempt
to motivate teacher education candidates using creative, learner-centered methods
of instruction and assessment. Three former students also shared interpretation or
examples of how they connected course content, creatively, to their own learning.
We described challenges faced within our learning and teaching contexts; I suggest
these may mirror those that teachers face when they attempt to implement creative
pedagogy or qualitative methods of assessment, given changes occurring in New
York State and U.S. education systems.
Despite my best efforts at inspiring and perspiring with my students to
become a more creative thinker, teacher, and learner, I face limitations as an instructor. Taking learners’ needs into account in my classes and building comfort with
ambiguity are disposition cited formally in SUNY Potsdam’s teacher education assessment guides; these indicate that colleagues in our institution require the freedom
to take risks, as well. Allowing my students to creatively demonstrate how they process understanding of course content by actively participating in the Principles of
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Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
Education class is, for me, the epitome of centering teaching and learning practice
around philosophical inquiry. Without being placed in a forced, contrite, or trivialized
state (Kenkmann, 2008), it seems the creative process ultimately requires sophisticated skills, knowledge, and an open mind—on the part of teachers and students
and the community in which they learn—alike. It is one that resonated, at least to the
three students whose voices are represented here. While they may have experienced
relative freedom to learn in a creative environment—learning the liberating aspect
of being, what Gina referred to as a “free spirit,” for other students, this may not have
been the case.
My experiences as a teacher educator and junior faculty member have
provided a self-critical examination of how I experimented to reshape a traditional
course in an undergraduate teacher education program. My former students’ experiences, represented by Donna, Gina, and Kathy, show how childhood, theater, and art
education students made observations of their own evolving philosophies of education. Together with my experience, we shared a collective understanding of what it
means to attempt to creatively teach, learn, and serve, recognizing that we are all
constrained by practical realities in the contexts where we work. Finally, questions we
raised may serve to underscore for others what it means to innovatively think or add
new knowledge to the field, while practicing the art of teaching.
Realities shared here have not entirely dictated my methods, and I have not
returned to an essentialist or perennial core curricula. It is my hope that my teacher
education candidates will, in spite of the increased emphasis on adopting and returning to scripted, commercialized, and prepared programs of instruction in school districts, also find concrete possibilities to be creative. Teacher education students arrive
in classes with expectations and training to think about curriculum, classroom management, and assessment in a particular (and less creative) form. What I (and, in turn,
my students) do (or choose not to do) will impact whether (or not) they are, in turn,
able to become gainfully employed. Yet, the pragmatic reality of teachers’ positions
influences how idealistic, experiential, social reconstructionist or radically critical
thinkers their students will become. This, in turn, influences how creative we practitioners want to—or are able to—become. With this in mind, I must and do, ethically
and creatively, consider how to balance my philosophy with students’ needs, urging
them to do the same.
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Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
Butler-Kisber, L. (2010). Qualitative inquiry: Thematic, narrative and arts-informed perspectives. London: Sage.
Chartock, R. (Ed.). (2004). Educational foundations: An anthology. 2nd Edition. NJ: Prentice Hall.
Chase, S.E. (2005). ‘Narrative inquiry – Multiple
lenses, approaches, voices,’ in N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 651–679).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Childhood/Early Childhood Dispositions, 2009,
SUNY Potsdam (Internal document).
Cook, L.S., Smagorinsky, P., Fry, P. G., Konopak,
B., & Moore, C. (2002). Problems in developing a constructivist approach to teaching: One teacher’s transition from teacher
preparation to teaching. The Elementary
School Journal, 102(5), 389–413.
Craft, A. (2003). The limits of creativity in education: Dilemmas for the educator. British Journal of Educational Studies, 51(2),
Danielson, C. (2011). The framework for teaching evaluation instrument. The Danielson
Group. Retrieved from
Denzin, N. (1989). Interpretive biography. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Fasko, D. J. (2000-2001). Education and creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 13(3&4),
Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers.
Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.
Greene, M. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. New
York: Teachers College Press
Gunn, A. (2010). Practical suggestions for
teaching students to think for themselves. Discourse. 4(1), 71–76. Retrieved
Kenkmann, A. (2008). Creativity and enjoyment
in philosophy teaching: Lessons from
adult education. Discourse, 7(2), 207–220.
Retrieved from http://prs.heacademy.
Kress, T. (2010). Tilting the machine: A critique
of one teacher’s attempts at using art
forms to create postformal, democratic
learning environments. Journal of Educational Controversy, 5(1). Bellingham, WA:
Woodring College of Education, Western
Washington University. Retrieved from
NCATE, National Council for Accreditation of
Teacher Education.
Parkay, F. W., & Stanford, B.H. (2010). Becoming a
teacher. 8th Edition. NJ: Pearson Prentice
Reagan, T. (2005). Non-western educational
traditions: Indigenous approaches to educational thought and practice. 3rd Edition.
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Sawyer, R. K. (2006). Educating for innovation.
Thinking Skills and Creativity, 1(1), 41–48.
State University of New York at Potsdam, General Education. http://www.potsdam.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Debate, Deliberation, Design, and Delivery: Deciding (Whether or) Not to Go by the Book
Michele Pinard is from the Adirondack Mountains. She is
an intercultural educator and Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the State University
of New York at Potsdam. She supervises undergraduate and
graduate student teachers in clinical settings, and teaches
Childhood and Early Childhood courses. Her research interests
focus on critical incidences, teacher identity development,
and internationalizing the curriculum.
Gina Marie Bilardi comes from Long Island, New York
and has performed at the Apollo Theatre, the Duplex Cabaret,
and off Broadway. Inspired by working with PINK, Katherine
Mcphee, Jason Robert Brown, Patrick Wilson, David Clemmons Casting, Frank Wildhorn, and Nancy Carson Casting, she
has used earlier performing experiences at Long Island High
School for the Arts Summer Academy and The Future Stars
Summer program as a drama instructor to apply it to her current work as a senior Theatre Educator major in her current
collegiate setting.
Donna Cappel was born in Hollywood, Florida, raised as
an only child by a single mother, and is the first of her family
members to graduate from college. She is pursuing a graduate
degree at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and hopes to teach
art. She credits her teachers at the Long Island High School
for the Arts with inspiring her interest in student-centered
teaching and in a variety of art: drawings, paintings, art history, photography, computer graphics, ceramics, and sculptural
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Michele Pinard, Gina Marie Bilardi, Donna Cappel, and Kathy Irwin
Kathy Irwin
is from Oswego, New York. She received a
Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in painting
and attributes her love and passion for art to her family. Both
parents impressed artistic values on her, urged her to experiment, and encouraged her to get her hands dirty to explore
her creative side. She believes hard work and having an open
mind are two of the most important ethics in her art.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
The Creative Research Process:
Delights and Difficulties
Lisa Russell, University of Huddersfield
Nick Owen, The Aspire Trust
This paper reports on an arts-informed approach to education research aimed to critically develop and promote teachers’ creative practice and understanding of creativity for both pupils and teachers. The creative research process is described to reveal
how it developed 20 students as researchers in a secondary school in England. The
students’ perspectives impressed artists and enlightened expert researchers into new
ways of thinking and doing research. A reciprocal relationship was developed that
unravelled novel data and promoted pupil voice.
he action education research described here aimed to explore creativity
in one secondary school in the North West of England. Researchers, artists, and students worked alongside one another to embark on a creative
research process to uncover what creativity means and how it may be enhanced. The
creative research process is detailed and reveals how it can facilitate pupil voice, improve the skilled researcher’s proficiency, and enhance student research expertise.
Questions about how to negotiate differing roles between facilitator and researcher/
artist and students and student-researchers are explored, as are the challenges concerning reporting creative findings in different formats such as in the form of poems,
objects, or drawings.
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Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
The use of arts-informed approaches to educational research has become
of significant interest in recent years, with some studies reporting the potentials and
difficulties such methods can bring (Prettyman & Gargarella, 2006; Thomson, Hall,
& Russell, 2006; Bagley, 2008). There has also been a rising recognition that young
people have valuable contributions to make within their schools (Fielding, 2004;
Bragg & Fielding, 2005; Leitch & Mitchell, 2007). In addition, some researchers have
commented on the valuable insight that arts-informed approaches can foster when
working with young people. Pupils can articulate their thoughts and display their
experiences in a non-written format (Russell, 2007). Moreover, using arts-informed
approaches helps the research process by being flexible and interactive.
Alongside the increased attention given to arts-informed approaches, there
has been a rise in policy and research interest in what makes a creative school (Jones
et al., 2007). Understandings about what creativity and creative learning are remain
complex. Sefton-Green, Thomson, Jones, and Bresler (2011) define creative learning
as extending beyond arts-based learning or the development of individual creativity.
Rather, it covers a range of processes and initiatives at the individual, classroom, and
whole school level that share common values, systems, and practices aimed at making learning more creative while also appreciating young people’s potential.
Schools are increasingly being encouraged to “personalize” their curriculum,
accelerate pupils’ learning, and close gaps in achievement between the rich and poor
(Thomson & Gunter, 2006). Consequently, many schools are turning to the potentialities of pupil voice to help bring about school improvement and change (Watts &
Youens, 2007). This project endeavoured to help pupils and teachers understand languages of creativity using the knowledge and skills of a range of creative practitioners
while simultaneously developing the pupils’ capabilities as researchers.
The School
Wade Deacon High School is a co-educational, comprehensive, community
school for 11-16 year olds. Located in the North West of England, it has 1121 pupils
drawn from a large catchment area. Originally a grammar school founded in 1507, this
school has an impressive long driveway leading to a striking architectural building
that dominates the entrance to the school. Wade Deacon was deemed a good school
by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) in
1997 with many outstanding aspects. In 2008, 95% of pupils gained 5% or more A*-C
grades. The school has vast sports facilities, fields, and space. Staff and school promotional documents proclaim high expectations held by teachers and pupils.
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The Creative Research Process: Delights and Difficulties
In September 2008, the school applied to become a Creative Partnerships
(CP) Change School: status which they intended to use to develop and embed a
creative thematic approach to curriculum development, ongoing Continued Professional Development (CPD), and to transform teaching and learning throughout the
whole school community. The focus of the Change School Programme was summarized in the following question:
How can ‘Big Thinkers’ in Creativity, Teaching and Learning help kick start and
embed a creative approach to Teaching and Learning, within a cross curricular
staff team, and ultimately across the whole learning community, planning for a
new ‘Creative Thematic Curriculum’ across year 7 and beyond.
(Tender document, 2009)
The Creative Research Process
This project emerged as a result of a negotiation process between the
school, CP, and the Aspire Trust—a Merseyside-based arts education development
agency that works across the UK to provide creative and educational support for
schools and communities. Aspire formulated the change school brief into a research
project entitled, “LookingUP at Wade Deacon”: named partially due to the school’s
remarkable structural design, impressive school displays, and high achieving status,
and partially in acknowledgement of the implicit processes of LookingUP in research
contexts; as a means of finding out, while simultaneously respecting and celebrating
the school’s physical structures and aspirations.
LookingUP at Wade Deacon was conceived of as
…an arts based research project which aims to critically develop and promote
teacher’s creative practice and understanding of creativity in the school. We
want to establish the project as a rigorous, educationally driven piece of work
which essentially asks questions of the creativity agenda, as opposed to providing a ‘big sell’ which exhorts everyone to buy into it. Whilst there will be staff
there who are sympathetic to developing creative practice, there will of course
be staff who are more cautious, need to be persuaded of the value and purpose
of that agenda – and, understandably, may look more askance at approaches
which rely on sales techniques as opposed to sound educational approaches.
(Project description, April 2009)
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
The project that was designed by teaching staff and Aspire aimed to identify creative practice in five departments including Arts, Design Technology, English,
Mathematics, and Physical Education to encourage staff to discuss, empirically test,
and reflect on what makes effective creative practice in the classroom and involve
staff and pupils in the examination of how arts-based practice and methodologies
can enhance creative processes in their classroom pedagogical practices. Twenty
year 7 pupils (aged 12-13 years) were allocated to participate in the program. This
group was off school timetable for a week to work with the team of practitioners
previously identified.
Rather than embark on possibly fruitless discussions about definitions of
creativity with pupils and the research team, this project introduced pupil researchers
to the concept that the presence of creative processes could be detected through a
series of “creativity lenses” (Owen, 2009) which could be used to focus on what conditions are present if creative teaching and learning is to be encouraged. The challenge
on this project was to translate this work into language suitable for year 7 pupils (and
arts researchers) without losing the integrity of that work. Nick Owen, author and
Director of The Aspire Trust, presented the pupils with a selection of graphics which
were to represent the lenses in question. Pupils were asked to look through the various lenses of creativity with a view to facilitate their work as analytic researchers and
understandings about how to do research and how to look out for creative teaching
and learning in the various classroom observations.
A creative practitioner team who had subject specific skills and interests
across the five subject areas worked as researchers, workshop facilitators, pupil mentors, and conversation catalysts between pupils and staff. The creative team included
a number of professionals practising within their known field; this in itself promoted
an exciting flexible research process whereby different practitioners gave distinct
insight into their understandings of creativity and how to conduct this art-based
action research. A group of six performing and visual artists (including a poet, sculptor, artist, composer, video-maker, and actor) and researchers were brought together
to comprise the research team with the pupils. This unusual mix of professionals and
pupils (adults and teenagers) allowed for a special reciprocal relationship to be built
between all participants that acted as fertile ground to enhance the creative research
process. Different ways of seeing and doing research unravelled as the phase two
research unfolded.
The creative practitioners were each assigned to a particular subject area
at the start of the project but eventually moved across disciplines as the week developed and the common timetables changes and restrictions occurred.
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The Creative Research Process: Delights and Difficulties
The first day involved developing the pupil’s research skills. After a basic
research skills presentation led by Lisa Russell, pupils were asked to find out something new about their hall. The hall was where the group was located for the majority
of the week; this place acted as a gathering ground for the team, a place to learn and
share ideas. It was a central part of the school physically and metaphorically.
Pupils were separated into groups as advised by a teacher and were told to
work with one practitioner across their affiliated field of interest. Pupils were allocated
from all year groups and across the achievement spectrum. One practitioner worked
with one group at all times while others (Russell and Owen) floated across research
teams to gain an overall perspective of what was going on. Each creative research
team identified creative practice in each subject area through pupil and practitioner
observation, conversation and sound and visual images with staff and other pupils
in those classes across all year groups. The team analyzed and disseminated data to
each other and to the senior management team at the end of the week. Some crossover between the various subjects occurred with some groups researching the same
lesson; this allowed for different groups’ perspectives to be shared, facilitating triangulation and giving the research teams an overall sense of what creativity can mean
in different sorts of classes.
Each team came up with its own identifying name, and had its own “private”
notebooks and one larger communal “shared” notebook to write field notes, gather
artefacts, reflect on the day’s events, analyze its findings, and develop its conclusions.
Pupils also had access to a Dictaphone to record staff and pupil interviews and sound
bites of “noise” in lessons, an iPhone to access the Internet and record visual and
audio data, a camera to take photographs of still images, and video cameras to record
movement and face-to-face interactions and interviews.
Pupils, researchers, and practitioners worked together to obtain 21 staff
interviews along with over 400 photos that included different areas of the school site,
pupils learning, teachers teaching, and research artefacts. In addition to the pupils
gathering information, the practitioners and researchers gathered written field
notes, photographic evidence, and recorded interview data and film on the creative
research process. Practitioners and researchers recorded and analyzed how pupils
were becoming researchers, how the school as a whole were responding to them,
and how they could facilitate the pupils in gaining rigorous data while expanding
their research expertise and understandings about creativity.
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Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
The Delights
1) Generating different sorts of data.
In addition to more traditional ways of generating data such as written field
notes, interviews, photographs, sound bites, and video imagery, more unusual forms
of data started to emerge; these developed from the practitioners’ workshop and the
“students’ eye” (Thomson & Gunter, 2006).
The practitioners’ expertise was drawn upon in both individual research
groups and in whole group contexts such as in workshops whereby practitioner
expertise was explored and shared. These interactive sessions were done intermittently throughout the week to help stimulate pupils and give them a break from the
intense research learning task, while also offering them insight into what creative
practice in different arts-related employment contexts can mean and thus developing their understandings and analytical capabilities.
A recording of the practitioner and researcher discussion from the first
morning’s events reveals their concerns about how the practitioner can facilitate the
pupils’ ability to express their findings.
I think it’s great working with kids like this, because they’ll see
stuff that we wouldn’t see; the challenge we have is to get them
to articulate what it is they are seeing and to discriminate so that
they can actually work out what it is they are seeing.
Pupils accessed a variety of media in which to express their thoughts and
communicate their opinions, analysis, and findings. This is something that developed
throughout the week and was certainly not set in stone from the outset; rather, it
grew as our relationship with the pupils matured and our common aims became
more apparent.
Communal and private notebooks.
Research groups had their own identifiable communal notebooks—somewhere for them to write notes, stick in artefacts, and bring together the day’s findings
and thoughts. Each pupil also had a matching private notebook: a smaller notebook
that was theirs alone to record whatever data they desired via whatever means. This
allowed pupils to be brave in their thoughts and feelings as it was “private” in the
sense that only they had access to it unless they agreed otherwise.
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The Creative Research Process: Delights and Difficulties
During the “finding something new about the hall” task on the first day, encouraged
by the public artist, some pupils gathered artefacts such as disregarded used coffee cups. Throughout subsequent lesson visits, others collected bits of old sports
equipment rope left behind on the sports field, flowers and grasses from the fields
(to record smell as well as visual artefacts)—things that the so-called established
researchers and practitioners may have left behind unquestioningly. These items
were used as a forum to open up discussion about meaning and use of space as well
as physically taken and stuck into the communal notebooks (where physically possible). Using familiar items in this way helped pupils to articulate their thoughts and
feelings and gave them a focus for their work.
Inspired by the dancer and film crew, the practitioners and researchers used
the idea of movement. Movement was a key component to the week’s events; it
served to stimulate pupils, to wake them up, to think about things in a different way,
and gave them a different medium to express themselves.
During a workshop given by our composer, explaining how she wrote for
the orchestra, a boy mischievously asked if she wrote for the triangle. Our poet suggested viewing this comment as a poem. This event reminded him that poems can
come from anywhere; they are not confined to a specific place, discipline, or even to
the conscious intention to write poems. The following poem was thus born:
I hate maths
I hate science
I hate school
I only love the triangle
Inspired by our poetry-writing workshop session, some research groups
started to use poems as a way of reflecting on their findings in order to analyze and
bring together their thoughts and experiences.
Other pupils preferred drawings and scribbles as a means of recording data
and reflecting upon practice.
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Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
Fig. 1: Drawing of colleagues and composer researcher (Neil 15.07.09)
One boy (Neil) created this drawing during one of our feedback sessions—
he did this without prompt and even without realizing its value; this was then collected as a piece of data that recorded a pupils interpretation of our research process. The fluid creative research process allowed the team to conduct student-led
research, offering the students a sense of ownership over their project while revealing to researchers and artists the students’ way of seeing the process. Data was being
generated intuitively by students.
2) The reciprocal relationship.
By the middle of the week the pupils were finding their own ways of generating data and facilitating their understandings of creativity and creative practice,
many of which challenged the practitioners and researchers’ view of what constituted
data and how to enhance pupil voice. A reciprocal relationship developed between
pupils, practitioners, and researchers, whereby each group challenged the others’
way of thinking about creativity and doing research.
During the first day’s session on developing the pupils’ research skills, pupils
were challenged to “find out something new about their hall.” It was on this task that
the skilled education researchers and practitioners started to learn from the “students’
eye” (Thomson & Gunter, 2006) and develop their own research skills. For example,
our ethnographer had set ideas about what types of written notes should be recorded
when entering a research environment. Written notes would usually include recordings of time, actions, behaviours, interactions, relations, descriptions of physical space
and how it was used, people’s dress, role, and actual speech. One group looked at the
disregarded rubbish on the floor and had conversations about what meanings these
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The Creative Research Process: Delights and Difficulties
items could possibly have. One pupil held a used polystyrene coffee cup and talked
about how the hall was normally used by staff—this is what this item symbolized to
them. I (Russell), an education ethnographer, was intrigued by this; I started to realize that items I may usually overlook held significance. When asking the pupils about
how they found this item, pupils said that they started the research task by looking on
the ground.
Different groups approached the task in different ways and uncovered various sorts of information. One group, inspired by the research title, “LookingUp,” were
immediately drawn to a disco ball hanging from the ceiling; this item looked somewhat out of place and inspired the group to find out more. By interviewing the Site
Maintenance Manager (SMM) they found that the hall had previously been used for
ballroom dances and the like but was no longer used for such activities. The pupils
showed real research skills by jumping at the opportunity to talk with the SMM, a
gentleman who had a sound take on the history of the hall given his fifteen years of
staff membership to the school. This not only demonstrated the pupils’ curiosity and
skill needed to find out a new piece of knowledge about their school hall, but it also
revealed that they were confident enough to look at their familiar school hall in a different way, through non-pupil eyes and via researcher lenses.
The researchers and practitioners started to make note of the pupils’ different ways of seeing their school and on subsequent observations implemented new
observation techniques they would otherwise have disregarded. They made a conscious effort to look down and then up, in addition to studying people’s movements,
mannerisms, and speech. Together, the creative research team had developed a different way of seeing and recording the physical research space. The ground and what
lay on it became more intriguing. Furthermore, they became more aware of “overlooked” items such as used coffee cups and thus started to develop their own data
collection techniques and assumptions about what makes a research artefact. We felt
as though our own ethnographic skills were challenged and developed by studying
the pupils’ take on research. On the first day, Russell articulated how the students as
researchers stimulated her own working practices as an ethnographer. This excerpt is
taken from dialogue between the artists and researchers.
They (the pupils) looked around at what was on the floor, they looked at objects
that I would pass off as a piece of junk but which obviously had meaning to
someone and held some purpose – even though it might just be a chocolate
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Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
I’d never go into a room and look at what’s on the floor and what’s been cast
aside. Because I’ve being doing this for quite a bit of time I’ve become quite set
in my ways and a little bit lazy in terms of what I’m looking for in a classroom
and how I go about it… so I’ve developed my practice in terms of doing research
through different eyes, looking at things in a different way.
3) The development of pupil voice.
Working as part of a creative team, in addition to utilizing an array of artsinformed approaches, facilitated the pupils’ ability to express their findings and
analyze data. The development of pupil voice was partly assisted via the reciprocal
relationship built up between practitioners, researchers, and pupils; a partnership of
trust, admiration, and intrigue was developed.
The more open you are, the more intelligent their response will
be, no matter what we think as adults. You know I’ve got specific
ideas about how to do research; they too will have their own specific ideas.
This work aimed to develop the pupils as “student researchers” before moving them to the next stage of becoming advocates for curriculum change in the
school by suggesting and implementing ideas about how to make their school more
Using art-informed approaches certainly aided the pupils’ ability to conceptualize “creativity” and how it worked within their school while also allowing them a
different medium in which to voice their opinions, talk about their experiences, analyze data, and disseminate results.
Using an array of arts-informed approaches during this creative process
allowed pupils to pick and choose what mediums they preferred to adopt in what
circumstances and thus facilitated their understandings about creativity and ability
to conduct research and disseminate findings.
Initially, there was some concern about the pupils’ research capabilities and
grasp of the complex concept, “creativity.” However, pupils responded well. When
asked what it feels like to be creative, one pupil replied, “you don’t always know you’re
being creative but you are—creativity doesn’t have to be in the moment but is something
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that is a process.” Furthermore, they developed their own analytical concepts such
as “self-managers” when describing what it meant to be a pupil in a creative lesson.
It meant for pupils to have some degree of autonomy in the lesson content, to be
involved, and to be able to take responsibility for one’s own learning experience.
During a high jump lesson visit based around an X Factor theme whereby pupils
are separated to take on different roles of judges of the high jumpers’ performance,
high jumpers and photographer, one pupil verbalized the analytical concept “selfmanager” and contextualized it in his private written notebook and later during
discussion. He described it as “giving pupils options, options to take on different roles.”
Although this complex concept had been discussed in previous lessons prior to this
research, it also showed a pupil able to grasp analytical notions and use them in other
In addition to facilitating pupils with their ability to conduct research and
express their opinions, the project aimed to implement change at a curriculum
level. Immediately after the project, the head teacher declared her willingness to
investigate whether a student-led workshop could be delivered whereby the pupils
involved in this project would lead a CPD session for staff in which pupils would help
staff understand their perceptions of what makes a creative school and a creative lesson with a view to implementing change.
This action-based research project had thus achieved its aims of developing
the school’s own capabilities and resources to implement a change for the better in
its own working environment.
The Dilemmas
1) Fighting familiarity.
One of the initial concerns the researchers and practitioners had related
to how they could facilitate pupils’ abilities to look at their school through researchers’ eyes rather than the eyes of a pupil—a role with which they were very familiar.
Surprisingly, many of the pupils demonstrated immediate dexterity when it came to
separating themselves from the “pupil” role, and quickly showed an ability to fight the
familiar during the task of “finding something new out about their hall” on the first
Interestingly, many pupils physically moved to the stage area of the hall,
as this was an area many of the pupils had not visited before. They found this area
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intriguing, described it as usually “off limits” and thus were drawn to its peculiarities.
While this demonstrated ability for the pupils to see their school through different
eyes, a confidence to see the familiar as unfamiliar (Delamont & Atkinson, 1995), it
also became a source of contention in future days, as pupils wanted to hide in the
stage’s nooks and play on the piano. The pupils’ adeptness to explore areas where
they had never been and ask questions to older pupils in the school and staff developed and flourished throughout the week’s events.
The researchers and practitioners were enthralled by the pupils’ analytical
and research abilities in addition to their growth in confidence as “student researchers” and “agents of social change.” Pupils used the research equipment available to
them in the lesson visits with certainty, focusing closely on other pupils, taking intimate shots, and recording probing responses from both staff and pupils. In knowing
their school and obviously feeling a relative sense of security within it, pupils were
able to gain different, sometimes more intimate photos and interview data that may
otherwise have been collected from the skilled researcher.
As researchers we sometimes feel intrusive in our data collection techniques
and take time to build a rapport with participants (Russell, 2007). However, these
pupils demonstrated an immediate adeptness when it came to accessing intimate
data. Unlike other researchers (Thomson & Gunter, 2006), these pupils (on the whole)
did not fear asking questions to older pupils and staff; in fact, as their confidence
quickly grew they gained a sense of autonomy from the process. This allowed for different sorts of data such as close up shots of older pupils doing high jumps that an
outsider such as a researcher may have questioned taking so soon into the field-work
2) Negotiating roles and research practices.
Although practitioners (Thomson et al., 2006) and researchers (Becker, 1967;
Lappalainen, 2002; Russell, 2005) have questioned their role during research conducted in schools, professionals in this instance automatically had a dual responsibility and as such experienced a constant negotiation between two roles. As “facilitator,” they had to develop the pupils’ research capabilities and the pupils and staff’s
understandings about creativity. As “researcher,” they documented, analyzed, and
concluded findings on the creative research process.
Moreover, the practitioners and researchers questioned their role in terms of
discipline. The hall stage, for example, became an area of contention; pupils wanted
to roam free around that area consistently: they hid in the dark crevasses and in
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amongst the equipment, played the piano, giggled and played in an area which was
usually forbidden. Researchers and practitioners started to question their role: was
it to discipline or was it to let the pupils roam free and stimulate their imagination?
After realizing that some pupils were disrupting other pupils working on the project,
pupils were asked to keep quiet so as not to disturb others. A decision was made
that if pupils did not want to conform they could leave the project, as we were “not
teachers” and were not prepared to replicate the school’s discipline code. Pupils were
offered the opportunity to leave the program if they wished. No pupils left the project
due to discipline issues but it remained a source of contention, with teachers sometimes thinking the practitioners and researchers should be taking more control of
their pupils in the school environment.
Towards the end of the week, some pupils had noticed that teachers were
“acting up” while they were present in their classroom: they were talking louder, moving themselves and pupils around the room more and appearing to be more “creative” in their presence and delivery of lesson content. One pupil described this as
being “camera posey,” aligning it to his experience of seeing how the school presents
itself for maximum effect through its publications, displays, and videos which are a
constant presence in the school’s public spaces.
In response to this difficulty the pupils decided to linger outside classrooms
and assess the creativity within it before and/or after officially entering/leaving the
classroom to gauge a more objective sense of what went on in particular lessons with
individual teachers. We negotiated our research practice and roles. This research practice developed as the reciprocal relationship between the creative team members
flourished and practitioners and researchers had diverged from the “teacher” role
more successfully. However, such episodes looked suspicious to teaching staff and
in some instances made them even wearier of our presence within the school. This
raises questions of ethical practice, but given that the school had agreed that this
project would be pupil-led, and used to inform staff, the ethical dilemma concerning
informed consent was somewhat appeased.
3) Dissemination.
Like researchers and practitioners using arts-informed approaches before
us (Thomson et al., 2006; Bagley, 2008), we experienced contentions about how best
to disseminate our findings and how best to express what the pupils felt without
upsetting staff members. Issues around “censorship” and what could and could not
be researched, and what should and should not be disseminated, arose.
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On the very first day the practitioners and researchers were concerned that
pupils would simply record the negative in their classroom visits.
Composer:I was slightly concerned that some of them are thinking about
negative things immediately, but then if it’s only positive then
that’s not research.
Seeing the negative is that they want to change something into
more positive, and so if we’re constructive with it, it can be a very
useful tool for them.
It was agreed that we wanted to remain as true to the pupil voice as possible.
We presented our findings to the Senior Management Team and had some
lengthy discussions about how best to do this. Discussions revolved around how
many words versus images should be used. At one point we entertained the idea of
using no written text, but decided against this in light of our audience members and
their needs. Their desire was to have set ideas about how to implement change; thus
we needed to present some concrete findings that the school take forward, whilst
also retaining the pupils’ voice.
Our presentation was finally given to the principal, head of mathematics
and two other staff who had participated in the project. Pupils identified the importance of atmosphere and space as important factors influential in a creative learning environment. They described creative lessons as ones in which furniture could be
rearranged. Some discussed altering the atmosphere by changing the light: “Lighter
rooms help your brain work better.” Others considered playing music helped produce
a relaxing atmosphere. Pupils agreed that relaxed did not necessarily mean comatose: “Sometimes when more creativity is going on, you move move move,” one pupil
noted. They also observed the counterproductive use of the interactive whiteboard:
“When the lights are turned off (for interactive whiteboard) your brain shuts down and it’s
easier to daydream and get distracted.” Pupils noted that creative lessons involved conversation and dissent. Whilst they noted that pupils were able to talk and work, and
so enjoy themselves more, they recognized too that peer group pressure could be
inhibitory and prevent pupils from getting more out of their lessons. They found that
pupils tended to be friendlier in creative classrooms, and if given different tasks to do
from the norm, this provided opportunities for independent problem solving. They
also noted that pupil pairs worked well, that humour played a vital role in classroom
relationships, and that they felt more creative “when you like the teacher.”
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Pupils found that all teachers could be creative in different lessons. Creativity was not located solely in the more traditional subjects of the arts and humanities,
but could appear anywhere. They saw creative teachers as ones who were energetic,
fun, and also exerted “good control” with some degree of structure; those who asked
good questions to make pupils think about things were also deemed creative.
Resources were important too. Pupils noted that colourful classrooms were
attractive to work in. The value of variety was also stressed as it provided moments of
difference and unpredictability.
One of the chief delights of working in this way was to see the pupils understand the complexities of creative teaching and learning, to be able to observe it in
their school, and to be able to construct interesting and insightful findings that they
and the staff could take forward and use in their program of school change.
Working in this unusual creative, arts-informed way facilitated a flexible creative research process that acted as fertile ground that enhanced pupils’ expertise
in understandings about creative teaching and learning and research skills. During
this process a reciprocal relationship between pupils and creative practitioners and
researchers developed. The delights of working in this way included the ability for
the creative research team to facilitate pupil voice. Pupils made adept researchers
with astute understandings about the languages and analytical concepts concerning creativity. They were able to choose from an array of mediums to record data,
analyze their findings, and disseminate their conclusions. Moreover, the professional
practitioners and researchers adapted their means of understanding creativity and
on how to conduct research during this process; this project enshrined partnership
whereby the pupils and staff learned from each other, in addition to the pupils and
practitioners/researchers engaging critically with one another and changing their
own practice as a result. Thus there is a real opportunity for arts-informed research
to have meaningful consequences for the school and the professionals brought in to
work with them.
However, there were a few difficulties that developed, namely around issues
of role definition and what it meant as an outside professional coming in to a school
to work in a collegiate, professional manner with young people. Other issues included
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Lisa Russell and Nick Owen
how to disseminate findings to Senior Management Team members while retaining
the pupils’ voice and sense of rawness.
Whatever the delights and dilemmas experienced, the overall outcome
of the research project was positive with both the school (pupils and staff ) and the
professionals (practitioners and researchers) benefitting from the creative research
process. Working in such a flexible way via using arts-informed methods of data collection, inquiry, and workshop stimulation can certainly promote pupil understanding and school change while simultaneously challenging the professionals working
Bagley, C. (2008). Educational ethnography
as performance arts: towards a sensuous feeling and knowing. Qualitative
Research, 8(1), 53–72.
Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose side are we on?
Social Problems, 14, 239–247.
Bragg, S., & Fielding, M. (2005). It’s an equal
thing…it’s about achieving together:
student voices and the possibility of a
radical collegiality. In H. Street & J. Temperley (Eds.) Improving Schools through
Collaborative Enquiry, 105–135. London:
Delamont, S., & Atkinson, P. (1995). Fighting
familiarity. Essays on education and ethnography. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Fielding, M. (2004). Transformative approaches
to student voice: Theoretical underpinnings, recalcitrant realities. British Educational Research Journal, 30(2), 295–311.
Jones, K., Thomson, P., Alexiadou, N., Hall,
C., Jones, S., McGregor, J., et al. (2007).
Creative School Change Project Interim
Report. Arts Council UK/Creative Partner
ships (2006-2008), The impact of Creative
Partnerships on whole school change.
Lappalainen, S. (2002). As a researcher between
children and teachers in G. Walford (Ed.)
Debates and developments in ethnographic
methodology, vol. 6, 61–72. Oxford: JAI.
Leitch, R., & Mitchell, S. J. (2007). Caged birds
and cloning machines: how student
imagery ‘speaks’ to us about cultures
of schooling and student participation.
Improving Schools, 10(1), 57–75.
Owen, N. (2009). Planning for creative development in the early years foundation stage:
Theory and practice. (I. Palaiologou, Ed.)
London: SAGE.
Prettyman, S., & Gargarella, E. (2006). Community, collaboration, and creativity:
The potential of art education to create change. Mid Western Educational
Researcher, 19(4), 12–19.
Russell, L. (2005). It’s a question of trust: balancing the relationship between students
and teachers in ethnographic fieldwork.
Qualitative Research, 5(2), 181–191.
Russell, L. (2007). Visual methods in researching
the arts and inclusion: possibilities and
dilemmas. Ethnography and Education,
2(1), 39–55.
Sefton-Green, J., Thomson, P., Jones, K., & Bresler, L. (2011). The Routledge international
handbook of creative learning. Routledge:
Thomson, P., & Gunter, H. (2006). From ‘consulting pupils’ to ‘pupils as researchers’: a
situated case narrative. British Educational
Research Journal, 32(6), 839–856.
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Thomson, P.L., Hall, C., & Russell, L. (2006). An
arts project failed, censored or...? A critical incident approach to artist-school
partnerships. Changing English, 13(1),
Watts, R., & Youens, B. (2007). Harnessing the
potential to influence school development. Improving Schools, 10(1), 18–28.
Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). The emotional
contours and career trajectories of (disappointed) reform enthusiasts. Cambridge
Journal of Education, 26(3), 345–359.
Lisa Russell is a Senior Research Fellow at the University
of Huddersfield in the Centre for Research in Post-Compulsory
Education. She has published in the areas of ethnography, excluded young people, mentoring, E2E (Entry to Employment)
and journal publication. Her research interests include qualitative research, social justice, pupil voice and young peoples’
experiences of inclusion and exclusion.
Nick Owen, Director of the Aspire Trust, is a producer, director and artist educator who has worked across the UK and
internationally. Recent publications include “Placing Students
at the Heart of Creative Learning” (Routledge) and “Outsider |
Insiders: becoming a creative partner with schools” (International Handbook of Creative Learning) and the film, “My Life as
An American” (Latent Productions).
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Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy
in Teachers and Students
Sumer Seiki
With the increased demand for culturally and linguistically relevant teaching, this paper explores the use of sound stories to cultivate empathetic understanding in undergraduate preservice teachers. I inquiry into the process of creating, writing, and
performing a sound story about my family’s American Japanese imprisonment experience to better understand this teaching method and adapt it for teacher education.
The inquiry reveals counter stories of agency and resistance, as well as a powerful and
creative teaching tool for increasing empathy in both the teacher and students.
Justification: Personal, Practical, Social
ast year I taught a new course and though I am not new to classroom teaching, I learned reflexively through the process of preparing and redesigning
my teaching methods for a new student body and content. The course was
the first of two required educational foundation classes for all education majors and
minors, at our Midwestern United States liberal arts undergraduate teacher training
program. Predominately freshman and sophomore students interested in becoming
K-12 teachers enroll in this course, Social Justice and Education. In the course, we
critically analyze the political, sociocultural, and economic forces that impact school
policies and practices while also introducing them to the demands of teaching for
social justice.
In preparation for the course, I reexamined the current and projected student demographics, which indicate ethnic minority populations within the United
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States steadily increased since the 1980s, and currently comprise over half of the total
U.S. school age population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Teacher demographics showed
the predominance of non-minority teachers, a consistent trend for over thirty years
(Torres, Santos, Peck, & Cortes, 2004). Morell’s (2010) research supports the previous
findings indicating the majority of United States pre-service teachers do not share
the same cultural or linguistic heritages as those of their students; they are predominately white and middle class. In fact, research revealed these pre-service teachers,
demographically similar to my students, have shown a “shallow historical consciousness about race, racism, and conceptions of culture and White identity but also report
discomfort discussing these things” (Sleeter, 2008 p. 121). It became clear through
research and classroom discussions that a number of my students too felt uncomfortable discussing issues of race and would disengage through silence. I needed to prepare these preservice teachers to be conscious of the growing differences between
home and school as well as teach students with cultural and linguistic practices different than their own, both important elements in teaching for social justice (CochranSmith et al., 2009; McAllister & Irvine, 2002). This research preparation also uncovered
an important step in cross-cultural teaching; teachers must learn to understand their
own worlds and the worlds of their students (Gay, 2010). Once teachers understand
their own cultural worlds, they are better able to empathetically enter into the worlds
of their students (Sleeter, 2008; Lugones, 1987).
Grounded in demographical and background research, my emerging
research puzzle began to form with the initial question of, “how can I improve my
teaching methods to foster preservice teachers’ understanding of their cultural
worlds and empathetically conceptualize their students’ worlds?” In this early stage
of my investigation I turn to Sleeter (2010), an influential teacher educator, who also
engaged in the process of deepening her predominately white pre-service and inservice students’ critical understanding of history and personal culture. Sleeter knew
the importance of building empathic understanding. She critically investigated five
generations of her family life history. Tracking individual family members’ lives she
uncovered unknown roots in slavery and Appalachia revealing the economic, political, and social experiences of each member. She found unexpected ethnic origins
“recover[ing] lost memories of blurred racial boundaries and reinvented origins, lost
narratives of having both perpetrated and also having been victimized by racism”
(Sleeter, 2008, p. 121). She discovered that her own personal critical life history exploration can “serve as an entrée” for pre-service teachers’ understanding of “historical
memory about race, ethnicity, and identity—revealing the ways in which power and
privilege have been constructed, the prices people have paid for that, and the ways
in which ordinary people have challenged inequities” (p. 115). In the same vein, she
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Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
asks her pre-service teachers to inquire critically into their own family histories to personally contextualize their family members’ “worlds.” This critical life history research
reveals the various subject positions within our family line/lives that have been covered over, and these lost stories serve to reveal institutionalized power relationships
(Sleeter, 2008, 2010).
This lived inquiry and critical analysis cultivated, in both herself and her
students, an understanding of their personal and generational “worlds.” Through this
process of critical analysis, Sleeter’s family history research methods offered me the
possibility of cultivating empathy in myself and in my preservice teachers, an essential skill in cross-cultural teaching (McAllister & Irvine, 2002) and a structural component of understanding history (Cunningham, 2009). Nurturing empathetic and
historic understandings were key components of my teaching goals and helped me
to reform my research puzzle. I was intrigued by Sleeter’s methods and suggestion to
have teacher educators and preservice teachers “examine their own backgrounds and
experiences to identify assumptions, beliefs, and values, as well as cultural contexts in
which they grew up, which impact their understanding of schooling and students” (p.
114). I decided to incorporate Sleeter’s methods in my evolving research puzzle. With
this addition, I sought to more clearly define and refine concepts involved in historic
My teacher education empathy research revealed McAllister and Irvine’s
(2002) description of empathy as a learned skill that is both “affective and cognitive” in
nature. Empathy is commonly referred to as the ability to identify the circumstances,
values, thoughts, and emotions of another in order to understand the complexities
of the other’s life. Lugones (1987) describes this empathic attribute as the ability to
world travel in loving perception or the ability to understand the feelings and perspective of another from the inside as well as understand the complex macro political
and social forces impacting those perspectives. Noddings (1984) describes empathy
as being one with the person in a non-judgmental posture. Examining and embodying the full form of empathy is a necessity for transforming traditional teaching practices into culturally responsive teaching, though not the sole requirement (Gay, 2010).
In her research, Cunningham (2007, 2009) described a group of history
teachers cultivating students’ empathy with their lessons, content, and interactions.
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Sumer Seiki
Through her case study research, she shares a variety of strategies to motivate and
build student empathy and identifies four parts to cultivating empathy. She argues
that teaching empathy utilizes the abilities to “1) think/reason/puzzle out; 2) experiment/feel/sense/recreate/get into; 3) understand/grasp/see/know; and 4) imagine”
(Cunningham, 2009, p. 689).
Using these process terms, Cunningham’s teacher participants engaged
in identifying and diagnosing the types of empathy skills students needed to learn.
Then, based on the students’ learning needs, these teachers drafted optimal lessons
that also accounted for the student, structural, and teacher limitations. Cunningham’s
(2007) iterative teaching cycle of “observing, diagnosing, reflecting, refining, practicing, and experimenting anew” (p. 612) bolstered empathy through creating well-tailored lessons suited for the specific needs of students.
Wrestling with these definitions of empathy and intrigued by Cunningham’s
teaching cycle to cultivate student empathy, caused me to engage with Sleeter’s
(2008, 2010) critical family history teacher-education research in new ways. I thought
about my prior undergraduate teaching experiences of cultivating empathy through
using sound stories of my families experience with race-based imprisonment of
American Japanese during World War II. I consider the possibilities of using those stories in the same bent as Sleeter and investigating the effectiveness of my method
through Cunningham’s cycle. I decide to reshape my research puzzle one last time;
I focused on my teaching experiences using sound stories, a narrative art-based
teaching method employing sound. I inquired into my teacher narratives through
the lens of Sleeter’s critical family history method as well as explore the potential of
this method for increasing preservice teachers empathetic understanding of historic
racism through Cunningham’s cycle.
As I investigate my teaching and family history, I borrow from some narrative inquiry methods (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Inspired by Cardinal (2011), in
her autobiographical narrative inquiry, I too found this method offered me space to
explore my narratives. Clandinin and Connelly’s (2000) description of narrative inquiry
as “strongly autobiographic” provides a vehicle to inquire into my previous method of
teaching my critical family history through sound stories to cultivate empathy.
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Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
Narrative inquiry helps me to begin to understand and unravel the complexities of my experiences. Since experience is both personal and social, and inherently
connected to education, it is the study of life (Dewey, 1938). Narratives are the mechanism through which humans share their experiences because “humans are storytelling organisms who, individually and socially, lead storied lives” (Connelly & Clandinin,
1990, p. 2). Hence, understanding the narrative experience of my previous teaching is
a way for me to understand and explore education as a complex human experience
or phenomenon. Connelly and Clandinin (1990) describe looking through the lens of
studying experience:
People shape their daily lives by stories of who they and others are and as
they interpret their past in terms of these stories. Story, in the current idiom,
is a portal through which a person enters the world and by which their experience of the world is interpreted and made personally meaningful. Viewed
this way, narrative is the phenomenon studied in inquiry. (p. 477)
Dewey (1938) explains that empirically investigating personal experiences can hold
the possibilities of enhancing educational practices, since education begets experience. Clandinin and Connelly (2000) characterize individual narratives as existing
within a dynamic three-dimensional space: temporal, social, and place-based. The
interplay occurs among the personal and social storied lives of educators, students,
communities, institutions, policies, and researchers, a network of life threads and
worlds intersecting and interweaving in a particular space and time. Thus, narratives
of life experiences teach us about education. Clandinin and Connelly (1995) explore
teacher narratives and reveal how teachers’ conscious and unconscious knowledge
was learned by experience and are expressed in their professional landscapes. I
explore my own teacher narratives through my understandings of narrative inquiry
to “articulate my emerging understandings” (Cardinal, 2011, p. 83) about using sound
stories to tell my own family history.
Hence, I begin my examination of my own teacher narratives of cultivating
empathy through the use of sound stories. I first learned this method through our
informal drama group practice exercises; collectively we created and told a variety
of humorous stories through sound. Becoming familiar with this drama technique,
I knew I could translate it from drama class into history class as well as into K-12
A sound story, for this paper, is much like a traditional theater performance
without visual senses; the audiences’ eyes are closed. A sound story is explained
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Sumer Seiki
through narration as the actors emote the personal experiences of their main characters. The setting of the scene is created by sound effects made by the performers
through their bodies. Since sound transmits wave vibrations through the air impacting the listener, the sound story creates story images in the audience members’ minds
as they also physically experience the emotions.
Neuroscience research reveals that closing the eyes enhances listeners’
emotional experience especially with regard to negative music sounds (Lerner,
Papo, Zhdanov, Belozersky, & Hendler, 2009). Similarly this performance produces
many negative sounds and emotions due to the racial oppression content; therefore
it stands to reason that as the audience closes their eyes during the performance
they will experience an enhanced emotional effect as documented in the research of
Lerner et al.
Engaging in this process of creating a sound story of my personal and family history, I relive these experiences through the retelling of these narratives. Paying
attention to “the complexity of lives and experiences help[s] us understand them in
deeper and more complex ways” (Clandinin et al., 2006). I find the “telling, retelling,
and reliving” storied lives (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) is active reflection, leading me,
the storyteller, and participants to “imagine” new possibilities (Huber & Whelan, 1999).
To begin this inquiry, I explore my research texts, which were collected in
an introductory undergraduate Asian American history course at a large researchbased California University. This course covered the historical experience of Asian
Americans from 1840 to the present, which included American Japanese imprisonment as required content. While I was a teaching assistant for this course, I noticed a
significant number of my students did not understand American Japanese imprisonment beyond the facts they memorized; they lacked empathetic understanding. For
two years I worked with different professors teaching the course to cultivate student
empathy around the required course topic of American Japanese imprisonment. My
research data collection for this work includes field texts before and/or after the performances, drafts and finalized scripts, audiotaped in-class performances, and family
annals. This research project is also part of a larger body of research on relational
counter-hegemonic pedagogy with the informal performance group, which I participated in for five-years, 2006-2011 (Torres, 2010; Seiki, Torres, Ramirez, & Carreon,
2010; Wilson et al., 2011).
The term American Japanese is used in this paper instead of Japanese American to acknowledge that the majority of those interned were United States citizens,
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Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
including my family members (Chan, 1991). I also use American Japanese to challenge the dominant narrative notions of American Japanese as suspicious perpetual
foreigners and to rightfully place their nationality first. I also use the term imprisonment in place of internment because I find it to be a more accurate depiction of my
family’s experience.
Below is the description of the final performance of my family’s sound story
in Asian American History class. I begin inquiring into the end of the story and work
my way through the other research texts in order to fully investigate the research
A Moment
The sound story ended. Scattered sniffles and heavy sadness filled the Asian
American History class auditorium. Then silence. Two hundred students, a professor,
four teaching assistants, the sound story performers, everyone, was still. As the audience kept their eyes closed, I breathed deeply, stepped forward, and requested that
everyone open their eyes. As they looked up, I saw many had tears.
As one of their teaching assistants, I was a familiar face to them. I explained
that the sound story I performed, with an informal performance troupe, was a story
mostly based on my family’s experience of American Japanese imprisonment during World War II. During the performance, the students’ vague understanding of the
personal nature of imprisonment suddenly transformed into living, breathing flesh
before them. Our collective emotions were palpable, theirs and mine; I felt the barriers between all of us shatter. In that shared experience of sound storytelling, they
were with me; they lived it themselves through waves of sound that transported
them back into that historical time alongside my family.
No longer was imprisonment an abstract fact on a page. It became a reality
as they experienced the real emotions and sounds of that time and moment, a powerful event across time and generations, touching them right now, through me. The
empathy they initially lacked in their reading reflections and discussions transformed
as they began to engage in heartfelt, emotional ways, gently asking questions about
my family and their experiences. As I spoke to them about the people in the story—my
father, uncle, grandmother, and grandfather—I saw them make deeper connections
to the reality of imprisonment. No longer were the American Japanese imprisoned
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just distant analytical facts and figures. They were identifiable people—they were my
I use narrative inquiry to unpack this moment of student empathetic breakthrough in class as described above. With this method, I travel into the three-dimensional space of the moment to examine the temporality, sociality, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Analyzing this moment leads me to time travel backward and
forward into the experiences of creating, rehearsing, and performing this particular
sound story described below. I am led back into my set of field texts, scripts, audiotaped performances, and family annals. Each of these data pieces and description of
my process leading up to the performance, help explain how this moment of transformation was created in each performance.
In each class performance, the student reaction was similar. However, the
moment described above was my final performance in Asian American History class
since I completed my graduation requirements and was transitioning out of graduate school. When I inquire into this moment I solely reference the data pertaining to
this final performance. In the unpacking of the process leading up to the lesson, the
analysis reveals the cultivation of empathy through sound story making and telling.
Lesson Development
As I inquire into this breakthrough moment, I am struck by the temporal
shifting I take between the present moment in class, moving to the lives of my family
during World War II in the performance, and back again to the present. These temporal shifts in time are analogous to my temporal process of understanding. As I analyze
this temporal understanding process, I first travel back in time exploring my motivation for creating this lesson. My motivation for developing this sound story and
engaging in the process of developing the lesson expanded my process of thinking,
reasoning, imagining, and puzzling out my family’s story. I gained insights as I wrote
the script and thought about the learning needs of my students. I was in the initial
stages of Cunningham’s (2007) empathic teaching cycle, observing my students and
diagnosing their empathetic learning needs. In focusing on my students’ needs, I discovered new empathetic understandings.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
My interest with creating this lesson began after reading early assignments,
listening to the discussion sections, and answering lecture questions. As I listened to
students, I realized that American Japanese imprisonment was being treated like a
fact to be memorized. But the human understanding of the experience and its brutality was missing; this disturbed me since the past often repeats without understanding. Cunningham’s (2009) history teacher participants also gauged their students’
inability to empathize through classroom interactions and assignments. Like me,
these teachers creatively tailored and designed lessons to build the skill of empathy.
When designing the lesson, I first identified gaps in students’ understanding. I was familiar with these gaps since I taught two discussion sections, read course
papers, met regularly with fellow course facilitators, and attended every lecture. By
using their course content knowledge, I chose specific elements for the sound story
script. I was able to focus on bridging these gaps between the facts they knew and
the empathetic understanding many were able to grasp. Noting various limiting
factors, I chose the sound story as the best strategy for lesson delivery. The sound
story technique was ideal for the two hundred-student lecture because it felt very
personal. Yet it allowed each audience member emotional privacy. Additionally, the
informal performance troupe was not anxious about performing in front of a large
group since the audiences’ eyes would be closed.
I began to draft the script, retelling and interweaving the stories and facts I
heard while growing up. These included personal facts, like my grandmother being
pregnant with my father and caring for my toddler uncle when she was forcibly
removed from her home in San Francisco’s Japantown. My grandparents owned an
apartment building in this enclave and were forced to leave and move to a dirt-floor
shack in Arizona. Their property would be lost forever. With these details, I constructed
the framework of the story and started the script while they were home in San Francisco preparing to leave. Piecing these details together allowed me to imagine what
each of my family members must have felt like and I, knowing each of their personalities, created suitable dialogue.
Once the base of the story was filled, I included the historical context of open
hostility toward Japanese who were derogatorily referred to as “Japs.” Signs of hostility were not only permissible in actions and words but also in storefront windows
stating, “no Japs.” With this historical context, I also included facts students learned in
class, such as what happened on the warfront on the day my family members were
removed from their home. Then I added the personal touches and family memories.
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I included one important memory of my grandmother. As a small child, I
asked her if I could wear her kimono when I got married. She agreed but, after she
went to look for it, she realized she no longer had it: she was forced to leave it behind
with her many other possessions since she was only allowed an allotted number of
bags to carry. The moment she realized it was gone, a brief moment of sadness took
over her face, which she quickly replaced with a smile. She didn’t want me to relive
her pain and I never spoke of it again. Reverberations of pain from the past moved
forward into that present moment; she wanted to protect me from the pain and I
never wanted to cause her any more grief over the losses she experienced.
Once the script was completed, I presented the script to my fellow performers to achieve historical authenticity. Though they were not American Japanese a
couple of troupe members were familiar with the facts surrounding imprisonment.
Together they read through the script and we entered the three-dimensional lived
landscape of my family. We thought about their experience in that day and created
background noises appropriate for that time and space. We added walking sounds
and details to the radio announcement of Executive Order 9066, and we discussed
the emotional experiences of each of my family members. Connecting all of these
sounds and setting an emotional tone, we together built the soundscape for my family’s story. Through this process we engaged in the next steps of Cunningham’s (2007)
empathetic teaching cycle of reflecting on the draft script and refining it.
As I look back at the weaving of macro-level facts about wartime California
impacting my own family memories, I know I as a teacher purposefully shared these
personal facts to help students empathetically connect with this historic event. Similarly, Cunningham (2007) found her teachers designing lessons with the right proportion of content, emotion, and accessibility. Her research also showed that students
enjoyed and learned from teachers who shared their own historically based marginalization stories. As I consider this moment, I realize that students’ emotional reaction
in my class was based in part on risking to share my personal family story.
I am reminded of the emotional journey I had to enter into in order to understand the part of empathy that requires us to affectively understand another’s perspective. It was during performance rehearsals that I moved into the next steps of
the empathy teaching cycle (Cunningham, 2007) of practicing the lesson and experimenting anew. It was in these parts of the process, described below, that I felt, recreated, and embodied the emotions within the sound story script. It was in these
phases that I learned to empathetically connect at deeper and physical levels, which
enabled me to share that new understanding with my students.
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Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
Rehearsing & Performing
During the performance rehearsals, I took on the role of my grandmother. As
I read the lines, I could hear the intellectual understanding in my delivery but I couldn’t
convey the depth of emotion required. I wasn’t fully entering the emotional world of
my grandmother. I was reluctant. Yet I had an inner commitment to my grandmother
pushing me to engage more authentically. Since I was not a professional actress and
I needed help moving from just reading my lines to embodiment. I asked the drama
teacher of the informal performance troupe, whom I had worked and become friends
with for five years, to help me embody the words. She replied that to do so we must
enter my grandmother’s emotion through my body.
In our small practice room, she wrapped her arms around my torso and
pulled me west. Another fellow performer put her hands on my shoulders, look down
at me, and then also forcibly pushed me west. My feet began slipping. She pulled
harder. The teacher directed me to push east, moving toward the door, while reciting
my lines.
At first the words came only from my head, but then as I grew frustrated
my voice dropped deep into my belly. They pushed and pulled my body harder and
harder, and I tried to withstand the pressure and push more and more. I could feel the
physical strain on my body, my muscles resisting and pushing back; I ached. Finally,
I began to move beyond the barriers of hesitance and feel what my grandmother
must have felt as I was finally able to embody her emotions. It was in that moment I
realized how, with all her might, she struggled to protect her family, her toddler son,
and unborn child, my father. I felt her physical and emotional strength, and I know she
resisted. She was always strong. In that moment of both intellectually understanding
the context and physically experiencing oppression, I began to embody my grandmother’s strength as a powerful “agent of history” (Chan, 1991).
I could see the untold story of my grandmother’s agency and her courageous choices to be a present and loving figure to her family. She sacrificed her own
beloved possessions, her kimono and family photos, to prepare and pack the limited
bags for the baby on the way, my father. I caught a mere glimpse of her beauty and
the embodiment of frustration at the injustice of it all. It was during this exercise a
new story was born: a story of Gaman, the cultural practice of a deep commitment
to hope beyond seemingly unbearable circumstances and to embody patience and
dignity despite current struggles (Hirasuna, 2005). My grandmother’s story of Gaman
was sacred because it remained a mostly unnoticed part of American history, yet it
“lived, so to speak, in the arms and legs and bellies [of my family]…This story lay deep
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in the consciousness of the people” (Crites, 1971, p. 294). My grandmother’s perseverance, a story of a strong Nisei, meaning second-generation American Japanese,
protecting and sacrificing for her family, lived in my body and voice. During this place
of embodiment, of historical empathy, I could see the stories of agency and learned
to tell them from a new empathic understanding to my students.
It was this deeper understanding of my grandmother and the physical
feeling of oppression in my body that I performed that day in Asian American History class. The empathetic emotions and perspectives that I gained in the rehearsals
allowed me to fully engage with the students. I as a teacher had to learn alongside
my students to cultivate my own empathy so they could learn anew. The risk I had to
take as a teacher to fully embody my grandmother reminded me of Sleeter’s (2008,
2010) discovery of her family’s agency countering the racial hostility of the time. Both
Sleeter and I find that modeling for students and preservice teachers our own critical personal investigation is a key component of teaching. We as teachers must first
embark on our own journeys to model for our students the willingness to engage in
their own teaching practice.
Deconstructing the planning, rehearsal, and performance through narrative inquiry provided me the space to understand the process of using this sound
story teaching method in a history class. Now, as I consider adapting this method to
my new course, Social Justice and Education, I identify the essential elements I need
to prepare as a teacher as well as how to prepare my students to engage with this
method. Finally, I discuss the possible implications of using this method for teacher
education and K-12 classrooms.
I found the many preparations that I as a teacher had to go through to create the sound story lesson were essential to create the moment of deep empathetic
understanding in class. My preparations followed the similar process that Cunningham (2007) described in her empathetic teaching cycle. I engaged in the process of
observing my students, diagnosing their learning needs, and creating a lesson. As I
created the lesson, which involved writing the script, I immersed myself in context
details fully understanding with my intellect the historic situation. Additionally, digging into the storied lives of my family also unearthed lost stories of agency and
strength similar to Sleeter’s (2008) own discovery of agency in the complex lives of
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Sound Stories Cultivate Historic Empathy in Teachers and Students
her family. Writing the script allowed me to understand the affective experience of
my family members more fully. As I articulated and gave words to each of my family members’ experiences, I learned to give voice to their strength, which cultivated
empathy in myself through sound story making. My colleagues served as powerful
witnesses and helped me to further polish the script with rich details while I also considered my students’ learning needs.
During the rehearsal practice is when I as a teacher had to risk emotionally
for empathetic embodiment. Though my students never knew of our rehearsal preparations, the time we spent together was crucial. We practiced telling and retelling
the sound story. I grew. I learned as a granddaughter about my grandmother’s “world”
(Lugones, 1987). In the rehearsals I world traveled into the personal life of my grandmother, investigating her values and emotions, within the context of a hostile sociocultural, economic, political climate. Through risk taking, I more fully understood the
strength she embodied. My understanding as a granddaughter impacted my understanding as a teacher. These “worlds” I inhabited through the roles of granddaughter
and teacher began to inform one another and deepen my knowing (Lugones, 1987).
Throughout the rehearsal we as a performance troupe were also cultivating trust in
our practice. The relational trust we built helped us to rely on one another through
the in-class performance.
Through the sound-storied performance, the last stage of the cycle, we
shared our “world” knowledge. I offered to my students during the sound performance my new understanding. The sound waves I, and my fellow performers, emitted
that day crossed many worlds, my worlds, the performers’ worlds, and the students’
worlds. We collectively came to understand my grandmother’s story, my family’s story,
and the bigger story of American Japanese imprisonment. Our collective understanding was evident in the moment of transformation. “…Our stories do indeed vibrate
across the web and impact in ways that I will never be able to comprehend” (Cardinal,
2011 p. 87).
Each of these steps I took as a teacher align with Cunningham’s teaching
cycle and help articulate the process I took in order to create the lesson. Cunningham (2007) describes the cycle as a method that develops students’ empathy. However, I find this cycle helped me articulate the back-and-forth steps I took in order to
develop my own empathy. Understanding this process allows me to better teach my
students, as I develop a new sound story lesson for my new Social Justice and Education course.
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Understanding more of the teacher preparation process, I turn and focus on
student preparation for sound story telling. First I consider my new course students,
I think about their predominantly suburban and rural Midwestern cultural backgrounds, experiences, and values. I seek to understand their generational experiences
different than my own. I also examine their ability as a group to handle emotion, and
what they need to draw them into an empathetic understanding despite their resistance to exploring racial issues.
As I think about their resistance, I also consider my own struggle to experience the depth of oppression my grandmother lived during imprisonment. Perhaps
in some ways my students’ resistance is not unlike my own reluctance to fully experience the pain of racial oppression. My resistance however, was countered by my own
commitment to represent my grandmother accurately. I also had strong relational
bonds of trust with my informal performance troupe members, which we had built
over five years. Both of these factors allowed me to explore on a deep emotional level.
Unpacking this moment further and applying it to my new course, I realize I need to
find ways to bridge the experiential gap for my students and make their engagement
in this work personal. Additionally, I must cultivate trust with them so that they can
engage on new levels of empathetic understanding. These empathetic learnings will
better able to help them as they work with diverse students.
Through engaging in this cycle and sharing these critically researched
stories creatively through sound, teacher educators, pre-service teachers, and K-12
classroom teachers can develop multiple forms of empathetic understanding in telling their or their students’ critical family histories through the sound story medium.
“Experiencing the multiple subject positions that each of us inhabits and the multiple subject positions open to us” (Sleeter, 2008, p. 122), we can explore alongside
one another, together capturing the humanity and complexity of our worlds. Maxine
Greene (1993) writes: “…to keep speaking, to keep articulating, to devise metaphors
and images, as they feel their bodies moving, their feet making imprints as they move
toward others, as they try to see through others’ eyes” (p. 213).
This quote calls for more stories to be unearthed, stories of our students’ and
teachers’ “worlds” (Lugones, 1987). Speaking these unknown and untold stories into
existence in our preservice teacher and K-12 classrooms will create new understanding of their humanity, their bodies, their voices, their emotions, their family cultures
and those that lived in another historical time and place. Together we can strive to see
and be understood. Maxine Greene is inviting us into new possibilities where family
history sound stories are a “world traveling” pedagogical strategy, which cultivates
multiple forms of empathy in both teachers and students (Lugones).
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Cardinal, T. (2011). Stepping-stone or saving
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Sumer Seiki recently joined the Educational Studies Faculty at a Midwestern liberal art college. She obtained her
PhD in Education and Masters of Science in Plant Biology at
the University of California. Sumer’s current research explores
Asian American teacher narratives and relational counter hegemonic pedagogies within education. She teaches several
courses including: social justice in education, science methods, cultural diversity, and educational inquiry.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
The Promise of Creativity
Maxine E. Sprague and Jim Parsons, University of Alberta
In this paper, the authors discuss creativity and the impact it might have on teaching
and learning. The authors believe that imaginative play, at all ages, helps all people
(children especially) create healthy environments and spaces that expand their learning. The authors contend that teaching for imagination—which asks little more than
creating and trusting an ecological space that engenders it—seldom is considered
a priority. Given the emphasis on creativity in the real world and the virtual digital
world, the authors believe it is important to add to the body of knowledge through
continued research in this field.
The Promise of Creativity
“But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze.”
(Emerson, Ferguson, & Carr, 1987, p. 238)
In the summer of my sixth year a great expectation arose within me; something overwhelming was pending. I was up each morning at dawn, rushed
to the top of Dorchester Hill, a treeless knoll of grass and boulders, to await
the sun, my heart pounding. A kind of numinous expectancy loomed everywhere about and within me. A precise shift of brain function was afoot; my
biological system was preparing to shift my awareness from the pre-logical
operations of the child to the operational logic of later childhood, and an
awesome new dimension of life was ready to unfold. Instead, I was put in
school that fall. All year I sat at that desk, stunned, wondering at such a fate,
thinking over and over: something was supposed to happen, and it wasn’t
this. (Pearce, 1985, p. xiii)
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Maxine E. Sprague and Jim Parsons
A Need for Creativity
s a child, Pearce was eager to learn. Sadly, school didn’t match his burning
desire. Implicit in Pearce’s writing is the critical point: if we want children to
sustain an interest in learning, the desire to learn must come from within
each learner.
In The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life, Thomas Armstrong (2007) recounts the story of the Bronte family. In 1826, Reverend Patrick Bronte
brought a gift of 12 wounded toy soldiers to his 9-year old son. The gift expanded
beyond the father’s imagination. With Tolkien-like fervor, the four children—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—created imaginary worlds, even writing and editing
a magazine that outlined the languages and social structures of these worlds and
developing systems of government for their imagined realm. The vitality of these
worlds came alive in novels; Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and
Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. From a gift of twelve wounded soldiers, the children’s imagination created a world that expanded as they aged.
Our paper is about creativity’s impact on teaching and learning. We believe
children have an innate desire to learn. We believe imaginative play, at all ages, helps
children create healthy environments. As teachers, we are fundamentally interested
in schools and learning. Regrettably, we see school structures that crush children’s
imagination. Schools, our primary institution for shaping individual and community
values, are also the site for shaping a younger generation towards the citizens we
wish they might become. Children are taught by the formal and informal content and
pedagogy of school.
Certainly some have envisioned investing schools with creativity. As
reminded by an anonymous reviewer of this article, John Dewey’s early 20th century
child-centered learning included creative curricula, which Waldorf and Montessori
schools used to build experiential learning models. Creative curricula has knocked
on the door of North America’s mainstream educational system—the Open Classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s—promoted by those who value alternative educational approaches. As well, integration models that teach subjects through and with
the arts can improve student engagement, help students see themselves as creative,
and positively impact standardized test scores (Walker, Tabone, & Weltsek, 2011). This
said, today’s schools (Leyva, 2009) seem closer to Social Darwinism, where essentialist
ideals of meritocracy, selfishness, and competition ground curriculum policy such as
George Bush’s neoliberal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
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The Promise of Creativity
Not all curriculum policy is as blatant as NCLB. Longstreet and Shane (1993)
note a hidden curriculum, which includes the learning children derive from the “nature
and organizational design of the public school, as well as from the behaviors and attitudes of teachers and administrators” (p. 46). Eisner’s (1994) null curriculum includes
what we do not teach in schools and, by not teaching it, tell students what is important. Eisner argues that ignoring something is far from neutral. Implicit student and
teacher consequences exist for what is not taught and what processes are not used.
This no-place, we believe, is where creativity lives in today’s schools—part of a null
Judged by our schools’ actions, we prize literacy. In essence, every school
subject is a vocabulary lesson; students learn the lexicon of a subject but little about
the life processes that ground these subjects. School knowledge is narrower than it
need be, failing to encompass imagination and play—the two horsemen of creativity. We contend that teaching for imagination—which asks little more than creating
a space that engenders it—seldom is a priority. Instead, classrooms become artificial
contexts that pull children away from the “real world”—a dynamic, diverse, and disorderly space.
The real world is dynamic. Schools, in comparison, are often decontextualized from engaged, practical, real-world living actions. The gulf between decontextualized school cultures and problems that confound society has expanded to the point
where few children believe school is relevant. Armstrong (2007), ironically, believes
school helps children whose jobs will be to sit inertly at desks, expending minute
amounts of mental imaginative energy—a dystopian work depiction found in movies
like Office Space.
The real world is diverse. School curriculum, in comparison, seems to knead
diversity from children. Standardized exams, at their soulless heart, are founded on
compliance to standards that, by their nature, limit, fear, and work to remove diversity
from children in almost xenophobic ways. In short, school doesn’t prize creativity: it
seeks similarity and compliance to standards.
For Armstrong (2007), school children learn NOT to question too much, NOT
to think too differently from their peers, and NOT to be too creative. Instead, they
learn to submit to authority, follow bureaucratic conventions, compete against their
neighbors, see the world as dog-eat-dog, sit still, and keep their minds from wandering off topic. Educational anthropologist Jules Henry (1964) sees schools as our
most conservative cultural institution, a place where we surrender our babies to the
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Maxine E. Sprague and Jim Parsons
demands of competitive consumer society, where they learn to sit bored for hours
as they are pigeonholed into winners and losers without violently rebelling. Henry
believes the hidden curriculum is to face absurdity with patience—a skill needed in
The real world is disorderly. Schools, in comparison, are structured, organized, and predictable. Children enter and leave on predetermined schedules based
on birthdates. They move through semesters, grades, and outcomes in scaffold-like
sequence, driven by timelines. School is arbitrarily divided into distinct subjects with
minutes punctuated by bells. Weeks and months become reporting periods, where
final grades are allotted. Creativity seldom blossoms in rigid and contained frameworks—unless it is creative revolution, which carries consequences. Scientific creativity expert Sawyer (2006) notes, lived creativity requires space and time, flexibility,
work, and collaboration.
Considering Creativity
Creativity’s potential has not always been ignored. Joy P. Guilford’s 1950
American Psychological Association presidential address called on colleagues to
increase creativity research. At the same time, others recognized that creativity differed from intelligence (Cropley & Cropley, 2009; Kaufman, 2009; Sawyer, 2006). Creativity research expanded from psychology to sociology, anthropology, history (Sawyer, 2006), and neuroscience (Kaufman, 2009). To date, a body of research (Kaufman,
2009; Plucker, Beghetto, & Dow, 2004; Runco, 2007; Sawyer, 2006) indicates that creativity is complex and diverse.
We are responding to Guilford’s call to consider creativity in schools. In this
article, we discuss creativity with respect to individuals, the environment, and schooling. Our work briefly overviews creativity literature to better understand research
findings within school contexts, and to invite educators to consider how creativity
might be wisely interjected into classrooms.
Guilford (1967) believed creativity was a natural and valuable societal
resource (Runco, 2007) and proposed two kinds of thinking—convergent (single
solutions, closed-ended tasks) and divergent (multiple solutions, open-ended tasks).
He links divergent thinking to creativity; but suggests, “creative potential is very complex” (p. 169) and cannot be attributed solely to divergent thinking.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
The Promise of Creativity
The first 20-30 years of creativity research followed individualist approaches
consistent with prevailing psychological theories and a cultural bias toward European
high art genres (Sawyer, 2006). Sawyer (2010) supports a contextual approach more
accepted during the last 30-40 years, which calls for socio-cultural and constructivist
perspectives of creativity. We suggest a third alternative—an ecological model discussed later in this paper—that more effectively infuses creativity into children’s lives.
A major challenge for creativity researchers is agreeing on a definition.
Plucker et al. (2004) reviewed 90 articles on creativity, noting that only 38 percent
explicitly defined creativity. Definitions generally fall into two categories referred to
as Big-C creativity (socially valued products) and little-c creativity (everyday activities)
(Kaufman, 2009; Sawyer, 2006). Little-c creativity suggests that anyone can create
ideas or products; Big-C creativity is defined by two characteristics: (a) the product or
idea is unique and (b) appropriate to the situation—however appropriate is defined.
There is general agreement that creativity, regardless of age of entry into a
particular field, requires ten years’ experience in that domain (Kaufman, 2009; Sawyer, 2006). Time and experiences are needed to develop expertise through learning
domain-specific tools, conventions, techniques, languages, and instruments. Creativity might also follow the 10,000-Hour rule (Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson’s
theory) that success arrives when someone spends 10,000 hours practicing (Gladwell,
Plucker et al. (2004) suggest that “creativity mythologies” abound: only certain individuals, commonly portrayed as loners, are born creative; creativity intertwines with negative social and psychological thinking; creativity is a “soft” concept;
and groups are more creatively productive than individuals. Believing a definition
would benefit researchers and educators, Plucker and colleagues propose: “Creativity
is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or
group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a
social context” (p. 90).
Although debate surrounding creativity mythologies persist, many researchers do not equate creativity with oddity. Kaufman (2009) notes that creativity involves
ideas, products, and processes found within individuals, groups, or even society.
Sawyer (2006) adds that creativity can be culturally, socially, and historically situated.
Egan (2005) suggests that creativity can be defined on a continuum “from a creative
adaptation to a dynamic alteration” (p. 162). In short, creativity can be discovered in
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Exploring the Assessment of Creativity
Connecting creativity to curriculum can be difficult, because learning is usually assessed corporately; everyone writes the same exam or does the same assignment, and individuals are graded against each other. Such assessment homogenizes
production. Combining this tradition with the lack of an agreed-upon creativity definition presents assessment challenges for educators. In keeping with our Western educational tradition, if one believes creativity is crucial to a student’s curricular experience, it must be assessed. However, there is irony in assessing creativity—if it is an
individual attribute—using corporate testing models. As a result, assessing creativity
becomes complex.
E. Paul Torrance, perhaps the educator most connected to creativity, separated himself from the 1950s view that creativity was fixed at birth by developing
creativity tests and exploring how creativity might be taught (Kaufman, 2009; Sawyer, 2006). The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) are based on Guilford’s FFOE
model of divergent thinking, fluency (number of responses), flexibility (differing
responses), originality (unusual ideas), and elaboration (developing ideas). Shively
(2011) embraces Guilford’s FFOE model, believing that shared vocabulary gives children the language needed to become meta-cognitive about creativity and communicate creative ideas. Although widely used as a creativity test and reported to predict
adult creative achievement (Millar, Dahl, & Kauffman, 2011), the TTCT are limited by a
focus on divergent thinking, a lack of content area assessment (Sawyer, 2010), and the
extensive administration and scoring training required (Baldwin, 2010).
Other creativity assessments and programs have been developed; however,
no single test or program has demonstrated increased creative ability or predicted,
with certainty, real-life creative production. Creative achievement includes complex
interactions using convergent and divergent thinking throughout creative processes
(Sawyer, 2006). A review of creativity literature reveals that relationships between
IQ (intelligence quotient), which may account for less than 10 percent of career success (Millar & Dahl, 2011), and CQ (creativity quotient) have not been fully explicated,
partly because creativity is shaped within context and partly because obvious challenges exist measuring such divergent concepts (Batey & Furnham, 2006). Research
contends that creativity is multi-faceted and requires multi-method research designs.
Reflecting on the Creativity Literature
Our review of the literature suggests that current thinking about creativity is rooted within individual constructs. Clearly, a Western/European bias toward
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individual, loner, eminent, genius, fine art creativity permeates creativity research
and influences what creativity is perceived to be, especially in the mirror Henry (1964)
holds up to Western schooling.
Perhaps our critique of creativity research might help others understand it
better. For example, if we treat creative people like odd, disruptive individuals whose
creative actions differ from curriculum goals, our hopes of working with children to
celebrate diversity in hospitable ways might never be realized. As idealistic as it may
sound, we believe educational communities can embrace and celebrate human differences. We believe teachers should aspire to idealistic, even utopian, standards that
inspire children to celebrate diversity.
It interests us that creativity is often described as complex and divergent—a
construct that educators simply have difficulty comprehending. Any haphazard, serendipitous poking around on YouTube suggests that creative displays are far from
odd, rare, or complex. The range of creative endeavors humans engage in and share
is rich and varied, living alongside schooling but seeming not to influence schooling
in powerful ways.
Is it possible that creativity is less complex and more pervasive than we envision? Do we envision it as rare and complex because we see it through a tradition
that carries norms of homogenization and compliance? Do we turn an unconsciously
blind eye to rich creative experiences all around us because of the hegemony of a
dominant liberal culture? Are we like aviators who crash in the desert and starve,
unable to see plentiful—but uncommon to their experience—food around them?
Unraveling the Individualistic View of Creativity
Our thinking about creativity aligns with Howard Gardner’s (1983) work;
he believes creativity is a kind of intelligence people use naturally. Gardner lists
eight “intelligences” in his seminal book, Frames of Mind. Two are highly privileged
in schools—linguistic intelligence (reading, writing, and speaking) and logical-mathematical intelligence (reasoning, calculating, and experimenting). Gardner’s lessknown intelligences include spatial (imagining, drawing, designing), bodily-kinesthetic (crafting, acting, displaying physical abilities), musical (listening, composing,
playing instruments), interpersonal (empathizing, negotiating, cooperating), intrapersonal (self-understanding, reflecting, feeling), and naturalist intelligences (discriminating, classifying, nurturing living things).
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All these intelligences are creative; however, students who speak, write,
or reason well are rewarded in schools. Perhaps even more creative children—who
see things as pictures, not words, experience things physically—are disadvantaged.
Teachers believe they value creativity but have limited ideas about creativity (Skiba,
Tan, Sternberg, & Grigorenko, 2010) and seldom appreciate behaviors associated with
creativity—disruptiveness, nonconformity, and impulsivity (Cropley & Cropley, 2009;
Kaufman 2009). Teachers, often cultured not to prize creative but off-curricular activities, seldom move past standardized curriculum. Who can blame them? The curriculum is sanctioned powerfully and legally into their work. Unfortunately, exceedingly
creative children may be labeled learning disabled, ADD (attention deficit disorder),
or even autistic. As Henry (1964) implies, school seldom makes life easy for non-traditional students.
Exploring Compliant Acquiescent Disorder (CAD), Westheimer (2010) highlights the acceptance of increased medicalization of youth based on authoritarian
relationships. He defines CAD as people failing to be outraged when outrage is needed
and notes that student compliance is so expected that anything else represents ODD
(Operational Defiance Disorder) and is treated by medication. Kaufman (2009) discusses “mad” genius mythologies, noting that hearsay, inconclusive research, and reliance on anecdotal evidence fuels erroneous connections between mental illness and
creativity. Such mythologies prevail as we diagnose illnesses to explain why some
children don’t fit school. Rather than spreading anxiety, fear, shame, or superiority
among children and parents by testing to discover what’s wrong with or unusual about
kids, we should be asking: What is right with kids? What would schools that fit all children look like?
As seemingly divergent as creativity is thought to be and despite research
findings dispelling creativity mythologies, the image of society’s solitary eccentrics—
the “mad genius” or “tormented artist” (Kaufman, 2009) who lives on the margins of
society’s accepted behaviors—prevails. These definitions seem to share an uncritically individualistic view of creativity. Thus, schools remain institutions where creativity is limited to lone pursuits acceptable only in certain subjects, and creative behaviors are seen as blocking education’s smooth workings, which we critique as centered
upon all children doing similar things at similar times.
Exploring the Ecology of Creativity
As mentioned, we believe an ecological perspective holds promise for infusing creativity into children’s lives. Renowned psychologist Bronfenbrenner (1981)
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pioneered the field of human ecology—“the social fabric that nurtures and sustains
our capacity to live and work together effectively and to raise our children to become
competent and compassionate members of society” (p. 38). Bronfenbrenner’s (2005)
bioecological model illustrates his theory that humans live within a set of systems
similar to nested Russian dolls. Individuals influence, and are influenced by, an everwidening circle of systems. Bronfenbrenner proposes that family, peers, neighborhood, and school (micro-system) and the reciprocal relationships (mesosytem) that
develop between them profoundly affect children’s social, psychological, and behavioral development. A child’s ever-expanding world—the community (exosystem) and
cultural forces (macrosystem), bounded by multiple dimensions of time (chronosystem)—creates further opportunities for reciprocal influences between the systems.
Bronfenbrenner believes, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her” (Brendtro, 2006, p. 165). To flourish and develop as creative individuals, children must be surrounded by adults who unconditionally accept
them, believe in their creative potential, and—with wild abandon—capably model
creativity. Creativity is nurtured through harmonious, multi-directional relationships—the social fabric of our lives. Opportunities to nurture creativity begin before
birth and continue throughout childhood, adulthood, and the twilight years.
Contrary to the belief that creative people are loners, children from larger
families are generally accepted to be more creative, possibly because of less parental
supervision and more opportunity for group interaction and imaginative play. Like
the Brontes, children who develop imaginary friends or invent imaginary worlds
(paracosms) are often more creative. Creative children also tend to be contrarian,
which might explain why teachers find them challenging to work with in classroom
settings designed for compliance. Conformity does not encourage the kind of creativity we advocate.
We believe creativity is enhanced through sharing dialogic spaces. Russian
philosopher Bakhtin (1981), a pioneer of dialogic theory, posited that written and
spoken languages carry history and the values of the speaker. Reflective and collective meaning making in Bakhtin’s conception of dialogic occur through interactions
with others and with self; past dialogues merge with the present to shape the future.
Such is the creative path.
Education is essentially a dialogic experience; teachers and students infuse
personal histories into a space already permeated with others’ historical views.
Through dialogical interactions, thoughts and ideas are explored and evaluated in
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the present and extended into the future. Bakhtin encouraged us to live dialogically,
“as one who is evolving and developing, a person who learns from life” (p. 10). In
his book, Mind Expanding: Teaching for Thinking and Creativity in Primary Education,
Wegerif (2010) advises: “Teaching for thinking, creativity and learning is hard because
it requires that the teacher also has to think seriously about things, respond creatively
to events and love to learn” (p. 131). “Successful teaching for thinking . . . is more centrally about the quality of relationships and about drawing children into dialogue”
(p. 141).
By thoughtfully designing school environments and working in a spirit of
collaboration and acceptance, schools can become creative learning spaces.
Creativity and Digital Technologies
The strong call for creativity in 21st century literacy, along with a push to utilize technology more fully in schools, is challenging because it seems market driven,
aimed at economic prosperity perhaps more than doing what’s best for children in
schools. Questions arise about technology: Does technology actually help or hinder
creativity? Is the push to use more technology driven by sound educational research
or corporate consumerism? Do the demands of technology on teachers (searching for
information, designing and preparing print and digital materials, completing forms,
communicating with stakeholders) steal time from meaningful interactions with
children and the deep pondering critical to understanding each student’s learning
In a 2011 public lecture in Edmonton, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle (Alone
Together: Why We expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other), notes that
in the 1970s she and other MIT researchers explored tasks that might keep computers busy such as preparing taxes, academic writing, and games. However, suggests
Turkle, the tables have turned and computers now keep us busy: “It is as though we
are their killer app” (Gariépy, 2011, p. 6).
When technology supports curriculum, and is not curriculum itself, many
dynamic, diverse, and delightfully disorderly ways creatively engage children in learning. However, we worry that technology has become so elegant and accessible that it
steals time from other tools of creativity—drawing, painting, sculpting, constructing,
playing, dialoguing, daydreaming, and exploring. We are concerned about questionable educational practices: students cutting and pasting others’ work, infringing on
copyrights; slideshow presentation software used to write essays, confusing flashy for
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insightful; interactive white boards (IWB) used as lecture tools; and the proliferation
of fancy, time-consuming applications that do not support meaningful learning.
Technology changes how children play. Advanced technology toys make
the sounds, play the tunes, do the talking—all different from children who create
their own universes—as we noted about the Brontes’ toy soldiers and the imagination involved in playing with them. Do built-in bells and whistles cannibalize mindful
activities—creating actions, feelings, responses, and imaginary worlds—that emerge
because older toys don’t do things? Are imaginary worlds becoming less common or
simply changing based on available tools?
We are also concerned about the effects of communication technologies
and virtual worlds on interpersonal relationships. A June 2011 Angus Reid poll indicated: “More than one third (38%) of our members find people talking on a cell phone
loudly very annoying.” Our own observations suggest that individuals commonly participate in digital and virtual interactions at the expense of face-to-face relations. Is
the promise of minimized communication with multiple users in digital spaces satisfying? An analysis of over 19 million Twitter accounts revealed, “only 21 percent of
Twitter users are actual True Twitter Users,” defined as a user who has tweeted at least
10 times, follows at least 10 people, and has at least 10 followers (Barracuda Labs,
2010). Because technological formats shape language, do abbreviated tweets, text
messages, suspended face-to-face conversations, and enticing virtual worlds diminish the art of conversation and inhibit the growth of personal relationships vital to creative development.
It would also seem a loss to us if emerging personalized education results
in computers assuming the teacher’s role. The Internet abounds with applications—
often intuitive software, adapting to skill levels and providing mini-tutorials—to teach
and practice skills aimed at standardized test achievement. Although the Alberta
Teachers Association (ATA) does not support the use of private, for-profit sites, schools
worldwide subscribe, driven by high-stakes exam practice. We believe technology carries potential to support a balance between skill practice and inquiry experiences. We
see unexplored creative potential for sharing technology spaces, working in groups.
Technology integration requires thoughtful partnering with children as active participants in rich learning experiences.
Research suggests that technology is better used to support curriculum
than be the curriculum (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor, 2006). What hidden (Longstreet
& Shane, 1993) or null (Eisner, 1994) curriculum surrounds technology integration?
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Where will our relationships with and through technology lead? How is our creative
potential affected by technology? Does technology control us or do we control it?
Designing Spaces Where Creativity Flourishes
For many reasons, some intentional and others accidental, education has
been structured around a system of individualism—standardized testing, teacher
accountability, grades, rewards, surveillance, competition, evaluation, and hierarchies of power that destroy intrinsic motivation and creativity (Hennessey, 2010). The
current emphasis on standardized tests and acquisition of 21st century skills, to get
ahead, have created angst for teachers ensnared in a dichotomy between their professional insights about how best to support children’s learning and the constraints
of historical educational trappings.
Although our notion of what it means to be educated and how we educate
children requires serious consideration beyond this paper, this discussion is crucial to
deciding how we build creativity into curriculum. Here, we use a human ecological
perspective to consider spaces that create fertile conditions for nurturing creativity.
Our intent is not to provide a creativity recipe or formula, but to inspire change. We
are interested in finding new ways for teachers and students to live together in the
world by creating educational spaces based on dialogic relationships and respect for
ourselves, others, and nature.
We need a new vision of learning places as creativity enabling spaces. In
these spaces, children form positive connections and relationships with other learners; opportunities abound for play and imagination; critical, evaluative, and creative
thinking are practiced; problem finding is as essential as problem solving; multiple
perspectives trump right answers; content is integrated across subject areas; questions are encouraged and honored; passion, curiosity, wonder, awe, and serendipity
abound; and learning is negotiated through respectful, free-flowing dialogue. Teachers are not gatekeepers or knowledge purveyors, but can learn alongside students
as they provide expertise, guidance, and opportunities—ever mindful of the seriousness of their responsibilities and need to be continually guided by wisdom (Craft,
This optimistic vision leaves us with a question: How do teachers design for
creativity in practical ways? Undoubtedly, the first step is to consider our attitudes
and beliefs about creativity. Children sense real. They know if diversity and creativity
are appreciated and if they, as individuals, are valued and respected. Teachers must
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value and model creativity (Dollinger, Burke, & Gump, 2007), be open to experiences
(Kaufman, 2009), and committed to doing what is best for children. They must be flexible, energetic, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, passionate about learning, and adept
at research-based pedagogical methodologies (Renzulli & De Wet, 2010). In other
words, teachers must demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and attributes expected of
them as professionals.
However, knowing and acquiring skills does not ensure that teachers will
use these abilities to enhance creativity in their classrooms. Another layer must be
addressed; teachers need to model and encourage qualities of humanness—acceptance, kindness, empathy, tolerance, inclusivity, diversity, connection, self-expression,
humility, and respectfulness—within themselves and their students. The learning
space must feel safe to all students; it should invite experimentation, risk-taking, mistakes, multiple perspectives, and conflict resolution. Richards (2010) reminds us that
children should feel free to “be themselves, get involved, take a chance, be wrong, act
a little strange without censure . . . and display their all-too-eager enthusiasm” and
teachers must learn to “cherish diversity . . . to value the unique and shiny pieces of the
mosaic they represent while also developing the overall picture” (pp. 217–219, 224).
As the Pearce writing suggests at the beginning of this paper, strong evidence exists that creativity flourishes through intrinsic motivation across all age
groups (Hennessey, 2010; Kasof, Chen, Himsel, & Greenberger, 2007). Why are external reward systems (prizes, competition, and high-stakes testing) commonly used
to motivate students to perform, produce, and behave? Appearing to work in the
short term and effective when expecting right answers (Hennessey, 2010), external
rewards seldom have lasting effects. They inhibit people from experiencing flow state
described by renowned creativity researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (2008), in his
seminal Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience as peak performance; individuals
become so absorbed in creative pursuits that time stands still and personal cares and
distractions fade away.
Although highly desirable for enabling creativity, intrinsic motivation can
be elusive—especially for children shaped by external rewards. Intrinsic motivation
finds enjoyment learning through self-direction, independence, collegial interactions, active engagement, individual choice (Hennessey, 2010), and group negotiations. Intrinsic motivation requires attention and hard work; it is a growth process
encouraged by enabling children to self-monitor, regulate their attitudes and behaviors, and evaluate the ideas and products they generate. Intrinsic motivation and personal growth flourish when children feel learning is being done with them, not to
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them. Schools should be spaces were creativity is intrinsically motivated and peak
performance follows authentic engagement in collaborative pursuits driven by the
learners’ interests and passions.
How do we help children develop intrinsic motivation? Children develop intrinsic motivation as they come to know themselves. Through dialogic interactions with
self and others, children learn to engage in the inner dialogue and creative self-discovery that resulted in the Bronte children’s imaginary worlds. Children need many
opportunities to explore ideas with others; dialogue around quality literature; journal
about wonderings, curiosities, insights, and questions; and practice respectful communication. Exploring innovative ways to share ideas and understandings reduces
the monotony of projects, presentations, and displays that all turn out the same. Lines
that delineate subjects must be smudged to help children see connections across
subject areas. When children are offered ideas, encouragement, and open-ended
inquiries, endless possibilities invite engagement and enrich learning.
How do we design creative physical spaces? Learning spaces, resource-rich
artifacts, print materials, digital media, playthings, tools, and materials invite exploration and engagement. Group and individual workspaces that support collaboration
and enable reflection (Fairweather & Cramond, 2010) are designed and rearranged
by student needs. Here, multiple layers abound; the physical environment extends
beyond classrooms into community, nature, and world. Abundant opportunities
for interactions with others—field and subject experts, artistic and cultural experiences, and real-world engagements—expose children to what is and what can be.
Outdoor experiences allow space for children to slow down, observe, and be inspired
by nature’s intricacies. These experiences rouse possibility thinking (Craft, 2010) and
nurture creativity by revealing dynamic, diverse, and disorderly landscapes inherent
in our physical, social, cultural, and ecological world.
Summary and Final Thoughts
Creativity research has historically been divided into two distinct approaches,
cognitive and social; and four categories commonly known as P’s—Person, Process,
Product, and Press (Gangadharbatla, 2010), with two additional P’s—Phase and Problem—added by Cropley and Cropley (2009). Alternatively, Csikszentmihalyi’s (1999)
systems theory, a convergence model of multiple components (systems), focuses on
interactions among individuals (persons), domain (culture) and field (society/gatekeepers). For Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is the process of altering memes, the tiny
components of domain handed down from former generations. Gangadharbatla
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(2010) believes technology should be an additional separate component of Csikszentmihalyi’s systems as “technology is a defining feature of the human condition”
(p. 225). Peppler and Solomou (2011) note that the expert panel (field) that gatekeeps
the domain in the systems model is not as relevant in social media where members
monitor contributions and creative ideas spread via dialogue.
We agree with the community-based foundation of Csikszentmihalyi’s
(1999) work. We believe, as he, that dialogue can powerfully blend creativity into
schools. The role of dialogue in opening spaces informed by the historical beliefs and
values inherent in written and spoken languages is a central theme of Bakhtin’s (1981)
dialogic theory. If we accept history influences our creativity dialogue, we no longer
need to emphasize the novel or complex; we can free ourselves to see the bits, pieces,
and sparks of creativity contained within the whole. Perhaps then we will be more
open to seeing and celebrating creativity and determined to design creative, ecological, learning spaces, in the spirit of Bronfenbrenner (2005), where all individuals feel
accepted and valued.
Because education addresses the whole child; nurtures future citizens; and
is concerned with developing inclusive, engaging, and technologically supported
learning environments, making good sense of research findings should be important
to educators. Education can facilitate change and renew creative dimensions within
our educative experiences; or, possibly erode emphases that already exist. How can
we creatively work within education to edify society? Our research review raises many
questions and confirms that more research is needed to inform and facilitate creativity-based educative experiences.
Implications for Further Research
Cropley and Cropley (2009) see “widespread agreement that the world
needs novelty, change, and innovation” (p. 2). Given movement towards agreement
on a definition and the advent of multidisciplinary approaches, an exciting era for
creativity research unfolds. Notably, we need a definition of creativity hospitable to a
maximum number of creative expressions; that definition might work best if it has a
hard shell outside with a soft, gooey inside.
More research is needed into individual characteristics that influence creative performance; influences of gender, age, family, culture, society, and socio-economic status; correlations/fluctuations of IQ and CQ (Kaufman, 2009); bidirectional
relationships between health and creativity (Runco, 2007); creativity assessments;
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and technologies. As educators, we urgently need research into innovative educational practices that nurture creativity in children to prepare them for adulthood in a
fast-paced, competitive, global community.
This phrase is italicized because, while commonly trotted out as a rationale
for bridging creativity into our curricula, we have issues accepting the philosophy
embedded within it. We must be careful not to accept unconsidered mythologies
that drive us toward particular aims—as we suggested with a belief that creativity
resides within odd individuals. We must generously and humbly—and dare we say
creatively—challenge educational models that already exist within the goals we
seek. We believe we can see and use creativity to revivify the imaginative creation of
worlds, ideas, and possibilities that offer a balm to what we see as stultifying aspects
of education that render the curriculum inhospitable to many children—those that
Howard Gardner suggests do not measure up to the two most oft-used indicators of
school success—written literacy and logical/rational thinking.
Educators must build broader curricula that encourage all children to think
outside the box. As cliché as it sounds, thinking outside the box holds the possibility of
creating new boxes with all the walls that make boxes both useful and limiting. How
do we, as educators, eradicate our own narrowness and push ourselves towards a
new way of exploring possibilities? How can we challenge the pedagogy and content
of the curriculum and use our challenges to call for more rather than less creativity?
We don’t want kids to fit into the educational bog—we want them to lead us out of it.
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Millar, G., & Dahl, C. (2011). The power of creativity. ATA Magazine, 9(3). Retrieved from
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through the pursuit of ideal acts of learning. In R. A. Beghetto & J. C. Kaufman
(Eds.), Nurturing creativity in the classroom
(pp. 24–72). New York: Cambridge University Press.
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LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
The Promise of Creativity
Maxine Sprague has over 15 years of teaching and shared
leadership experience. She recently completed her Master
of Education in Educational Studies degree with Honors at
the University of Alberta. Maxine received the 2011 Junior
Achievement Educator of the Year Award for her work in developing students’ financial literacy through small business
start-ups. Her interests include inquiry-based learning, digital
technologies, creativity and innovation, human ecology, and
sustainable living.
Jim Parsons has been a professor in the Department of
Secondary Education since 1976. He teaches social studies
education and research design. His recent work has been in
the areas of teacher education, student engagement, and instructional leadership.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
Center for Creative Learning
All individuals, working alone or in collaboration with others, have creative characteristics, but activate and apply them in varied ways, at different times, and in response
to differing tasks and conditions. A shift from asking, “How creative are you?” to the
challenging question, “How are you creative?” moves us beyond looking at level of
creativity (“high, average, or low”) and to consider style of creativity (varied ways of
expressing and applying creativity). Understanding each student’s unique creative
strengths enables educators to differentiate learning and instruction effectively for
creativity and innovation as well as for other important educational outcomes.
any people view creativity as a rare and elusive kind of “genius,” found
only in the life and work of a small number of exceptional people—renowned artists, writers, or inventors, for example, excluding both the
majority of adults and (other than a few exceptional prodigies) children or youth.
Theorists and researchers believed that creativity was primarily, or even exclusively,
determined by internal traits or characteristics evident in those few “creatively gifted”
More recently, however, advances in theory and research have led to a new
understanding, in which we view all people as demonstrating a variety of creative
characteristics and preferences, varying in degree and expression. Individuals, working alone and in collaboration with others, activate and draw on those characteristics
in different ways, at different times, and in response to differing tasks and conditions
(Treffinger, Schoonover, & Selby, 2013; Treffinger, Young, Selby, & Shepardson, 2002).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
Experienced teachers certainly know students who are creative, but who
differ in many other ways. Some are quiet and reflective. Others are outgoing and
love interaction, sometimes to the distraction of others. Some express their creativity spontaneously in writing, art, theater, music or a combination of those. Yet others
apply their imagination carefully in science and the exploration of ideas (e.g., Gardner,
1993). They may even give up other interests to pursue their passion.
Meet Lucy and Michael, two students in a twelve-member playwriting
group working on an original script. The students were selected for their writing skills,
interest in theater, and observed creativity; nonetheless, each approached the project
and working in a group differently. Their differences were clear, for example, in their
responses to one assignment. The group had been working for several weeks, first
generating hundreds of ideas for a story, and then focusing, regrouping, refocusing,
and finally reaching consensus on a story idea. They were assigned to take a week to
develop their ideas for a completed story outline, describe who the main characters
might be, and write a brief description of those characters.
At the next meeting, group members shared their plot outlines and character
descriptions. When Lucy’s turn came, she pulled out a large bundle of printed pages,
and announced proudly that she had spent the week writing a completed script. She
summarized her plot and character ideas, and noted that there was no need to do
any more work. The rest of the group was taken aback by this announcement, and
were concerned that Lucy’s script would be adopted without consideration of any
of their input. In her usual vocal way, Lucy announced that their input wasn’t really
needed since the script was finished, and that it made no sense to continue working
and wasting time. The group could just move on to writing the music and lyrics to
go with her script. Seeking to avert conflict, the teacher pointed out that not all the
group members had been heard, so a decision was not yet appropriate. Somewhat
reluctantly, Lucy agreed, and the reports continued. When it came time for his report,
Michael pulled from his jeans a crumpled piece of paper filled with scrawled notes. He
proceeded to outline a completely new story, with entirely different characters from
those selected at the previous session. At once, the group exploded, with Lucy leading the charge. How could he even think of changing the story after so much work
had gone into what had already been decided? Michael, replied: “Easy, this is a better
idea, people will really like it.”
When the teacher finally regained control of the meeting, discussion continued, with the group breaking into camps around Lucy and Michael. The teacher
pointed out that some of Michael’s original ideas could be worked into the story,
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Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
while using the structure of Lucy’s script would save work and help focus their ideas;
the composite, with input from several others, would result in a stronger story. After
some discussion the group adopted that plan, and while neither Lucy nor Michael
was entirely happy, they were brought on board.
Both of these students were able to make positive contributions to the overall effort of the group. Each was beginning to explore his or her abilities as writers
and as potential problem solvers. Each had demonstrated skill in writing to at least
one nominating teacher, and had demonstrated real interest and commitment to the
school’s theater program. Yet their approaches to the assignment, and the ways they
interacted with each other, were all different; each brought unique personal characteristics to the creative efforts of the group.
Because of the infinite ways creativity can be expressed, our approach to
creativity focuses on understanding the complex contributions of personality, interests, and style to creative expression and productivity. Understanding each student’s
strengths, interests, and experiences, enables educators to differentiate learning and
instruction effectively for creativity and innovation as well as for other important educational outcomes. Our approach involves a simple but powerful shift in thinking,
from asking the question, “How creative are you?” to the challenging question, “How
are you creative?” Such a shift challenges us to move beyond looking at level of creat­
ivity (“high, average, or low” creativity) in order to consider style of creativity (varied
ways of expressing and applying creativity; e.g., Isaksen, 2004; Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 2011; Treffinger, Selby, & Isaksen, 2008).
Reexamining Level of Creativity
Many efforts have been made to develop and use assessment tools to sort,
classify, or label people in relation to their level of creativity. Tests, checklists, and rating scales encompassing literally hundreds of characteristics abound in the literature
(e.g., Davis, 2005; Plucker & Makel, 2010; Plucker & Renzulli, 1999; Treffinger et al.,
2002). Davis (2005) catalogued more than 200 characteristics often reported as indicative of creativity, and a database on our website ( includes
annotations of more than 70 different instruments. Viewing creativity as natural and
positive has enabled closer and more constructive study of the characteristics or traits
associated with creativity in the person (e.g., Selby, Shaw, & Houtz, 2005). Treffinger
and colleagues (2002) reviewed more than 300 characteristics cited in the literature,
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Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
and proposed that: “Characteristics vary within and among people and across disciplines. No one person possesses all the characteristics nor does anyone display them
all the time. … Many of these characteristics can be taught and nurtured” (p. 7.).
Considering how these characteristics might inform classroom practice, we
regrouped the list into four categories, depicted in Figure 1. We concluded that creativity can result when individuals and groups generate many ideas, are able to dig
deeper into those ideas, are willing and able to listen to their own inner voice, and
have the motivation, openness, and courage to explore new and unusual ideas.
Digging Deeper
into Ideas
Openness and
Courage to
Explore Ideas
Listening to One’s
“Inner Voice”
Fig. 1: Four categories of personal creativity characteristics
(Treffinger et al., 2002)
The first category, Generating Ideas, includes those characteristics most often
associated with divergent or creative thinking. They include characteristics associated
with fluency, flexibility, originality, elaboration, and metaphorical thinking. Michael
brought the group the ability to generate many original ideas; he stretched their
thinking, moving away from the familiar to new and unusual possibilities, looking
at the challenge in unexpected ways and from unexpected viewpoints. As the group
began to look more closely at the work each of the twelve members had submitted,
they chose the best ideas and combined them with the initial story idea, making the
product richer, more detailed, and more interesting.
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Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
Digging Deeper Into Ideas involves what is usually called convergent or critical thinking. Creative behaviors in this category include: analyzing, synthesizing, reorganizing, redefining, evaluating, and finding relationships. This was Lucy’s strength,
and as she “dug deeper,” she demonstrated a desire to resolve ambiguity, make the
complex simple, and to bring order from disorder.
Openness and Courage to Explore Ideas relates to problem and aesthetic sensitivity, curiosity, sense of humor, playfulness, imagination, the ability to fantasize,
openness to experience, tolerance for ambiguity, risk-taking, tenacity, sensitivity,
intuition, adaptability, and willingness to grow. Various members of the writing group
demonstrated many of these traits. Their curiosity and sense of humor seemed endless, as was Michael’s tolerance for ambiguity and risk-taking.
Finally, Listening to One’s “Inner Voice” involves a person’s level of motivation,
self-confidence, and persistence. Again, this is a trait displayed by many of the young
writers while working in the group. They believed that they were creative and showed
a strong desire to create. Their self-confidence, self-efficacy, sense of purpose, and
passion drove them forward. They understood their own strengths, and worked hard
towards worthwhile goals. They focused on key tasks to the exclusion of most distractions, sometimes even losing sight of time, place, personal discomfort, and the social
expectations of others.
Problem-Solving Style:
Discovering Your Creative Self
The shift in thinking toward the question, “How are you creative?” redirects
our efforts to understand creativity beyond sorting, ranking, or labeling individuals
based on their (presumed) level of creative ability. This approach enables us to consider unique and varied ways in which individuals express and use their creativity. It
has opened new directions for research and practice that challenge us to consider
style of creativity and personal preferences that promote creative productivity (Tref­
finger et al., 2008).
Selby, Treffinger, and Isaksen (2007a, 2007b) drew on research and theory
in the areas of psychological type, cognitive style, and creativity to develop a model
of problem-solving style. They described the construct of problem-solving styles as
a unique set of preferences and behaviors an individual brings to situations in which
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Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
he or she must deal with problems or manage change. They defined problem-solving
styles as “consistent individual differences in the ways people prefer to plan and carry
out generating and focusing activities, in order to gain clarity, produce ideas, and
prepare for action” (2007a, pp. 1–2).
This model (distinct from, and more focused than generic or omnibus learning style models) involves three independent dimensions (Orientation to Change,
Manner of Processing, and Ways of Deciding) that influence how individuals behave
when solving problems or managing change. Each dimension involves two styles
that describe differences in the ways people define problems, gather and select data,
generate ideas, focus their thinking, and select and implement solutions (Treffinger,
Selby, Isaksen, & Crumel, 2007). Each style emphasizes strengths that may contribute
to effective problem solving, and identifies potential limitations or “blind spots” that
may hinder effectiveness.
The Orientation to Change dimension is a continuum anchored by two
styles: the Explorer and the Developer. Explorers seek novelty, search widely for information regarding any task, prefer flexible structures (especially when they can design
and manage those structures themselves), and prefer to keep authority at arm’s
length. They are often seen as unconventional and may appear to be unconcerned
with rules and external regulations. Developers prefer to generate a few workable,
detailed options, approach change in a gradual, efficient, or methodical manner,
focus their search strategies based on relevance to the task as given, and are comfortable working within existing structures and with the guidance of authority.
The Manner of Processing dimension involves the External and Internal processing styles. Individuals who prefer the External style are engaged by social interaction. They gain energy from discussion and sharing ideas, enjoy building on the ideas
of others, and are action-oriented (perhaps before giving careful consideration to
those actions). On the other hand, individuals who prefer the Internal style draw their
energy from reflection and weighing options carefully and thoroughly. They prefer
processing tasks privately before sharing or engaging in discussion, and may become
engrossed with inner events and ideas.
Ways of Deciding, the third dimension of problem-solving style, involves the
Person and Task styles. Person-oriented decision makers look first at harmony and
personal relations, considering the human impact of problems and challenges. They
are sensitive and caring when responding to individuals about their ideas, working
to avoid or ease group conflicts and considering the personal impact of decisions.
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Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
Task-oriented decision makers look first to the quality of outcomes or results, emphasizing rigor and objective analysis. They keep people and their ideas separate, and
respond to ideas not individuals. They tend to look first at what is lacking or needs
improvement and may not attend to others’ feelings in tense situations.
Think about the students and their writing group. Michael always sought
novelty, and could be counted on to generate many original ideas, sometimes to the
annoyance of others, or in disregard of decisions that had already been agreed to. The
deadline for the script mattered less to him than the fun he had with his new idea. He
was eager to share this idea with others, and couldn’t understand why they did not see
the logic of his new approach to the challenge. To Michael, structure was an annoyance to ignore when possible. When compelled to follow a set structure, he would
give it the least attention possible. Lucy, on the other hand, found that structure was
important in guiding her efforts. She expected that each challenge would include
some structure, when that was not the case, she would develop her own structure
before proceeding. Lucy was also willing to share her thoughts, and was considered
the most social of the group. She had methodically and efficiently brought the whole
project to a conclusion. Like Michael, she couldn’t understand why others didn’t see
the logic of her structure and her solution to the challenge.
Theory and research on problem-solving style helps educators to recognize
that creativity can be expressed and applied in many ways, or that there are many
ways to be creative. The more aware individuals are of their own style characteristics,
the more effective they can be in solving problems or managing change, whether
working alone or in a group (e.g., Treffinger, 2007). In addition, awareness of style
characteristics of students enhances educators’ ability to respond effectively and in
varied ways to students’ needs.
Implications for Practice
Teachers or trainers who seek to nurture creativity in their students can differentiate instruction based on both the level and style characteristics of their students. Training in the tools and processes associated with the creative and analytical
skills needed for creativity, innovation, and problem solving can result in increased
creative productivity, both with children and adults, and for individuals and teams
(Isaksen et al., 2011; Sternberg, Jarvin, & Grigorenko, 2009; Torrance 1987, 1995; Treffinger et al., 2012).
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
With students whose creative characteristics may not yet be evident, instruction can focus on building basic understanding of creative tools and processes, as
well as content knowledge in areas of interest. We identify two basic sets of tools: one
for generating options and another for focusing our thinking. Individuals or groups
use the generating tools to produce many, varied, or unusual possibilities, to develop
new and interesting combinations of possibilities, or to add richness and detail to
new possibilities. Brainstorming is an example of a widely known and commonly
used idea-generating tool, but there are also numerous other tools for that purpose.
For focusing ideas, many people are familiar with an evaluation matrix (or “grid”), but
again, there are several tools for analyzing, organizing, refining, developing, prioritizing, evaluating, or selecting options. For more information about a variety of generating and focusing tools with educational applications, see Treffinger and Nassab
(2011) or Treffinger et al. (2006).
Learners whose potential is starting to emerge need opportunities to practice applying the basic tools and problem-solving methods, to build competence
and confidence in their use and application. Some students need more advanced
opportunities, as they are more able to express and apply their creative strengths in
addressing challenges that are closer to real life. As students’ creative characteristics
emerge and mature, appropriate and challenging instruction extends from teaching
and practicing basic tools to learning and applying a structured Creative Problem
Solving (CPS) process (e.g., Isaksen et al., 2011; Treffinger, Isaksen, & Dorval, 2006). In
addition to practice problems relating directly to curriculum areas and sample “practice problems” based on realistic everyday situations and challenges, engaging applications of CPS are available in such non-profit educational programs as the Future
Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI; see:
Students who demonstrate significant strengths in all four categories of personal characteristics are likely already to be actively engaged in creative projects and
building a portfolio of creative accomplishments, exhibiting the self-direction and
self-regulation typical of professionals in any field. New opportunities for creative
activity will be diverse and varied, but also strongly personalized for each student,
and the challenge for educators, parents, or mentors may be to help find and make
new connections and resources. At this level, students (working individually or as part
of a highly motivated, focused team) can apply the tools and process skills they have
learned to optimize their creative productivity in ways that draw on their unique personal strengths and style preferences.
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Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
Clarity about definitions, characteristics, styles, and their implications for
practice helps professionals and the public to “navigate” the breadth, depth, complexity, and elusiveness of “creativity,” and to communicate more effectively. Many
people have their own ideas about what makes someone or something creative,
and may not often realize that they may not be in agreement even though they may
be using the same words. Confusion about creativity, without the benefit of a clear,
explicit understanding of its nature and characteristics, can also be challenging in the
classroom dialogue between teachers and students. When a teacher tells students
“to be creative,” or to do an assignment “creatively,” there may be no shared understanding of what “creativity” actually involves. When we better understand and value
each person’s style preference for creativity, and provide support for people and their
products, our communication about creativity will be enhanced, and classrooms may
become richer, more interesting, exciting and productive places in which to learn.
When working with students who are engaged in a complex, open-ended
problem-solving project, think about the characteristics that set each student apart
from others. As a result of your study of personal creativity characteristics and styles,
we invite you to consider several important follow-up questions:
What characteristics do your students display that are associated with level
of creativity? What problem-solving style preferences do they display?
How might educators, parents, or community leaders facilitate the recognition and nurture of creativity in children and youth (and, for that matter, in
themselves)? What might you suggest to them that will help them recognize
the strengths of each group member?
How might individuals work together to recognize and use their diverse creative strengths to enhance or maximize their productivity?
Searching for and recognizing the personal characteristics and style preferences of students is an extensive, but engaging and worthwhile challenge. It is also
not an end point, but a starting point for deliberate instruction in process tools that
will lead to making the goal of “nurturing creativity and innovation” more than a matter of lip service in education.
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Donald J. Treffinger, Edwin C. Selby, and Patricia F. Schoonover
Davis, G. A. (2005). Creativity is forever (5th ed.).
Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.
Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds. New York:
Basic Books.
Isaksen, S. G. (2004). The progress and potential of the creativity level-style distinction:
Implications for research and practice. In:
In W. Haukedal & B. Kuvaas. (Eds.). Creativity and problem solving in the context of
business management. (pp. 40–71). Bergen, Norway: Fagbokforlaget.
Isaksen, S. G., Dorval, S. G., & Treffinger, D. J.
(2011). Creative approaches to problem
solving (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Plucker, J. A., & Makel, M. C. (2010). Assessment
of creativity. In: J. C. Kaufman & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.). The Cambridge handbook of
creativity. (pp. 48–73). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Plucker, J. A., & Renzulli, J. S. (1999). Psychometric approaches to the study of creativity.
In: R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creat­
ivity (pp. 35–60). New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Selby, E., Shaw, E., & Houtz, J. (2005). The creative personality. Gifted Child Quarterly,
49, 4, 300–314.
Selby, E. Treffinger, D., & Isaksen, S. (2007a).
Technical manual — VIEW: An assessment
of problem solving style (2nd ed.). Sarasota,
FL: Center for Creative Learning, Inc.
Selby, E. Treffinger, D., & Isaksen, S. (2007b).
Facilitator guide — VIEW: An assessment
of problem solving style (2nd ed.). Sarasota,
FL: Center for Creative Learning, Inc.
Sternberg, R. J., Jarvin, L., & Grigorenko, E. L.
(2009). Teaching for wisdom, intelligence,
creativity and success. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Torrance, E. P. (1987). Teaching for creativity.
In S. G. Isaksen (Ed.), Frontiers of creativity
research: Beyond the basics (pp. 189–215).
Buffalo, NY: Bearly Limited.
Torrance, E. P. (1995). Why fly? A philosophy of
creativity. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Treffinger, D. J. (2007). Impact of style awareness on team performance. Melbourne,
FL: Future Problem Solving Program
Treffinger, D. J., Isaksen, S. G., & Dorval, K. B.
(2006). Creative problem solving: An introduction (4th ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Treffinger, D. J., & Nassab, C. A. (2011). Facilitator’s guide: Generating and focusing tools.
(Combined set). Sarasota, FL: Center for
Creative Learning. [available as PDF from].
Treffinger, D. J., Nassab, C. A., Schoonover, P. F.,
Selby, E. C., Shepardson, C. A., Wittig, C. V.
et al. (2006). The CPS Kit. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Treffinger, D. J., Schoonover, P. F., & Selby, E. C.
(2013). Educating for creativity and innovation. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.
Treffinger, D., Selby, E., & Isaksen, S. (2008).
Understanding individual problem-solving style: A key to learning and applying
creative problem solving. Learning and
Individual Differences, 18, 390–401.
Treffinger, D., Selby, E., Isaksen, S., & Crumel, J.
(2007). An introduction to problem-solving
style. Sarasota, FL: Center for Creative
learning, Inc.
Treffinger, D., Young, G., Selby, E., & Shepardson C. (2002). Assessing Creativity: A guide
for educators. Storrs, CT: The National
Research Center on the Gifted and
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Creativity in the Person: Contemporary Perspectives
Donald J. Treffinger
is the President of the Center for
Creative Learning, Inc., in Sarasota, Florida. He holds the Ph.D.
in Educational Psychology from Cornell University. In June
2009 Dr. Treffinger received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Winnipeg. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 books and monographs, including Creative Problem Solving: An Introduction and Creative Approaches
to Problem Solving, and more than 350 articles. Dr. Treffinger
served as a member of the faculty of Purdue University, the
University of Kansas, and Buffalo State College.
Edwin C. Selby
is an Adjunct Professor of Education at
New York’s Fordham University and an Associate with the Center for Creative Learning in Sarasota, Florida, and was formerly
a music and drama teacher. Dr. Selby is the principal author of
VIEW: An assessment of problem solving style and has published
articles on style and on Creative Problem Solving. He lectures
and offers seminars and workshops, helping individuals and
groups become more effective at solving problems. Currently,
Dr. Selby is the President of the Sussex County Charter School
for Technology Board of Trustees, in Sparta, New Jersey.
Patricia F. Schoonover teaches in the School of Education, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and is an Associate of the Center for Creative Learning in Sarasota, Florida. She
teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on CPS, works in
the field with educators, and serves as a consultant for schools
and other organizations. Dr. Schoonover’s research, writing,
and training interests focus on creativity, CPS, creativity style
preferences, and leadership; she has published articles on creativity and style, authored a number of instructional resources
on standards and thinking skills, and co-authored the CPS Kit.
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The Journey From Trepidation to Theory:
P-12 Teacher Researchers and Creativity
Jenice L. View, George Mason University
Mary Stone Hanley, Hanley Arts & Associates
Stacia Stribling, George Mason University
Elizabeth DeMulder, George Mason University
There is typically no expectation of creativity in the context of teacher professional
development programs. Yet, the Common Core Curriculum and other constructs demand that teachers exhibit considerable creativity in curriculum and instruction. The
challenge then for teacher educators is to support each learner’s individual growth
toward greater cognitive complexity. This research examined the experience of a
group of P-12 classroom teachers who explored the use of the arts to nurture their
own creative processes, classroom research, understanding of difference, particularly
race and culture, and instructional practices in the context of a graduate teacher professional development program.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages--and it is easier to stay at home.
(Brooks, 1967, p. 1)
his paper describes a research study that examined the experience of a
group of P-12 classroom teachers who explored the use of the arts to nurture their own creative processes, their classroom research, their understanding of difference, particularly race and culture, and their instructional practices
in the context of a graduate teacher professional development program. Four faculty
colleagues in the same graduate program conducted the research in two parts. Two
interviewed people of diverse races about their schooling experiences; wrote poetry
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jenice L. View, Mary Stone Hanley, Stacia Stribling, and Elizabeth DeMulder
using the data; and created a video of a reading of the poetry. Two colleagues subsequently showed the video to their graduate students who are in-service teachers.
The students discussed the form and content and wrote poetry after they had interviewed parents and teachers from cultural backgrounds other than their own. This
article primarily describes the process after the video was produced.
Theoretical Frameworks
Six important frameworks helped us to situate and understand our work:
creativity theories (e.g., Beghetto & Kaufman, 2007; Doyle, 2011; Egan, 1992; Runco,
1966); counternarrative as described in critical race theory (e.g., Decuir & Dixson,
2004; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Lynn et al., 2002); artsbased educational research (e.g., Barone, 2008; Barone & Eisner, 1997; Cahnmann,
2003; Eisner, 1980, 1995, 2008; Leggo, 2008); dialogical instruction and learning (e.g.,
Shor, 1992, Wink, 2005); Bloom’s Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwhol in Krathwohl,
2002; Bümen, 2007); and constructive-developmental adult development theory
(e.g., Kegan, 1982; Mezirow, 1990, 1991).
Creativity Theories
Egan (1992) contends that imagination calls for flexibility in thought and
an integration of emotionality, rationality, and meaning. Egan describes meaningmaking as a dynamic process which uses multiple components stating,
[facts] mix in with the complex of shifting emotions, memories, intentions,
and so on that constitute our mental lives…All kinds of associations curl
around each new fact, there is endless blending and coalescing, and this
activity involves the imagination. The more energetic and lively the imagination, the more are facts constantly finding themselves in new combinations
and taking on new emotional colouring as we use them to think of possibilities, of possible worlds. (p. 50)
Doyle (2011) describes a creative episode as having an initial problem, progressing through a process that ends in success, which can then be judged by others. Runco (1966) defines creativity as manifested in the intentions and motivation to
“transform the objective world into original interpretations, coupled with the ability
to decide when this is useful and when it is not” (p. 4). Creativity need not be judged
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The Journey From Trepidation to Theory: P-12 Teacher Researchers and Creativity
by others; judgment is based on personal criteria. Beghetto and Kaufman (2007) build
on Runco’s work by theorizing a continuum of creativity that begins with mini-c, that
may advance to little-c (everyday creativity) and big-C (eminent or field changing)
processes of creativity. They define mini-c creativity as:
…the novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences,
actions, and events [which] need not be original or (even meaningful) to
others. Indeed, the judgment of novelty and meaningfulness that constitutes mini-c creativity is an intrapersonal judgment. (p. 73)
The authors further state that mini-c creativity is central to meaning-making: Little-c creativity is the sort inherent in everyday activities, that manifests on a
smaller scale than big-C creativity, and Beghetto and Kaufman give the difference
between Charlie Parker (big-C), who changed jazz with his innovations and a local
jazz band (little-c) that creates music, but has not significantly changed the field of
music; nevertheless, little-c and big-C creativity are formed initially by the important
intrapersonal work in mini-c creativity.
Bloom’s Taxonomy
Created in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom, the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives has long been a popular tool for designing and classifying educational goals,
objectives, and standards. The original Taxonomy consisted of six categories and
subcategories, organized in a hierarchical framework of ability and skill development
(Krathwohl, 2002).
A 2000 revision changed Bloom’s nouns (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) to verbs (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating) to state more clearly the process for achieving
more advanced learning outcomes (Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, n.d.). Most important
to this study, however, is the assignment of “creating”—or the process of putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a
new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing—as the highest
order outcome in learning.
Educational theorists engaged in critical race theory (Decuir & Dixson, 2004;
Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Lynn et al., 2002) propose the use of counter-narrative
LEARNing Landscapes | Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 2012
Jenice L. View, Mary Stone Hanley, Stacia Stribling, and Elizabeth DeMulder
to reveal the lived experience of race in education. In so doing, educators may gain
a view of being and meaning that the experience of race provokes. Delgado and
Stefancic (2001) assert that counter-narrative “aims to cast doubt on the validity of
accepted premises or myths, especially ones held by the majority” (p. 144). Hence,
counter-narratives in the educational context may be a means to portray the multiple layers and intersections of race (and other forms of difference) in the culture of
For the purposes of this study, researchers were interested both in the ways
of using counter-narrative to uplift the stories of people previously unknown to the
listener, and in the possibilities of creating counter-narratives through a process of
arts-based educational research.
Arts-Based Educational Research (ABER)
Arts-based educational research, the use of the elements and practices of
the arts to inform our understanding of education, is a perfect complementary framework to produce CRT counter-narratives: Through ABER researchers might touch subjectivities. Eisner (2008) asserts that ABER works to “apply the arts in some productive way to help us understand more imaginatively and more emotionally problems
and practices that warrant attention in our schools” (p. 18). Barone and Eisner (1997)
describe attributes of ABER that connect directly to counter-narratives by constructing a virtual space that “possesses a capacity to pull the person who experiences it
into an alternative reality,” which is the goal of critical race theorists and arts-based
researchers alike (p. 73). In addition, historically the arts have often represented social
justice. Barone (2008) asserts that ABER can be used to contest worldviews and “influence the public consciousness by critiquing the politically conventional and the
socially orthodox” (p. 36). Thus, ABER may provoke percipients to imagine an experience of race in education outside of their own frame of reference, or to some degree
unsettle emotional and cognitive barriers that limit their ability to empathize.
A subset of ABER theory is poetic inquiry. Cahnmann (2003) posits that the
use of poetry in qualitative research provides opportunities to express meaning in
innovative and insightful ways that are not accessible in other forms. Poets use metaphor, rhythm, alliteration, and other means to represent ideas and emotions that are
multi-layered. In effect, a poetic representation provides a thick description (Geertz,
1973) of the poet/researcher’s interpretation of events.
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The Journey From Trepidation to Theory: P-12 Teacher Researchers and Creativity
Dialogical Instruction and Learning and Constructive-Developmental
Adult Development Theory
Dialogical instruction and learning is an ancient form of schooling in which
all people are free to ask questions, offer claims, and to share power in an argument
(such as Socratic dialogues). The goal of dialogic instruction and learning is social
transformation. From among more recent theorists and practitioners (e.g., Vygotsky,
Bakhtin, and Freire as referenced in Renshaw, 2004), the authors drew on the work of
Joan Wink (2005), a White expert classroom teacher using dialogical instruction and
learning with diverse student populations whose lived experience is similar to the
setting of this research.
Constructive-developmental theorists (e.g., Kegan, 1982; Mezirow, 1991)
suggest that transformative learning and development occur for individuals in contexts that support meaning-making through critical reflection. Embedded in these
theories is the assumption that development moves hierarchically from simple to
more complex and elastic cognitions as a result of this meaning-making. Through
critical reflection that includes perspective taking and dialogue with others, individuals often arrive at “a more inclusive, differentiated, permeable and integrated perspective” (Mezirow, 1990, p. 14).
As four faculty colleagues, we wondered how an iterative process of artsbased educational research could help P-12 classroom teachers develop understanding of “difference” in order to offer more effective classroom instruction to diverse
student populations. Two of us, Hanley and View (2010), used poetry to describe our
research on race in education; Stribling and DeMulder then considered “difference” by
incorporating Hanley and View’s poetic counter-narratives of critical race theory and
through dialogic instruction and learning explored how the experience of poetrywriting-as-data-analysis might affect graduate students in their roles as artists and
We focused on the goals of transformative adult education (Mezirow, 1990)
and how teachers can improve their creativity as a part of their own growth as teachers
in the service of their students’ development. Our thesis was that to change teacher
practice, teachers must experience what a creative practice looks like; therefore by
engaging teachers in an explicitly creative process, they might develop awareness of
how to change their practice in ways that would offer enriched learning opportunities through creative exploration in their own classrooms. Teacher educators need
to consider the kinds of curricular experiences that effectively support teachers to
engage in this work.
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