By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Some people have a true gift and talent for drawing, painting, sculpting, singing, acting or dancing. We sometimes mistake this talented artistry as creativity. This makes it seem like creativity is something you’re born with, not something you learn. But that’s a myth — there’s a big difference between artistry and creativity. Creativity is about developing the power to make something from nothing.
Our research-based framework for 21st century skills focuses on the creative mindset as one of five essential skills for the 21st century. Let’s face it, in a world where every piece of information is available to us within three clicks of a mouse or three swipes on a phone, finding facts is easy. The biggest needs we anticipate for future success is the ability to use information to innovate and solve complex problems. That takes creativity.
As educators, it’s our job to figure out how to teach creativity to our students. In order to teach towards creativity, we have to disavow the myth that creativity is an innate trait bestowed on only the few, and begin breaking down its component parts so that we can integrate it into our instruction.
We’ve defined creativity as the capacity for students to cultivate their curiosity by questioning or imagining in order to contribute positive improvements or inventions to their world. We’ve identified four skills that work together to cultivate creativity: imagining, questioning, simulating, and appreciating ambiguity.
A vivid imagination is part of childhood development that is sparked around toddlerhood, as children learn about the world through play and pretend. To pretend that something is true, when it isn’t, for the purpose of exploration and understanding (as opposed to deceit — which would be lying, or as a joke — which could be satire). We've outlined three simple entry points to incorporate imagining into instruction:
These are not the only entry points, but they should be accessible to us at multiple levels of instruction, and across different content areas.
Like imagining, questioning is also a normal part of human development that emerges as early as some children can talk (the classic, “why, why, why, why?”) and often lasts through early elementary school. Once in school, this skill often atrophies as traditional methods of teaching are structured such that the teacher asks the questions and the students answer, rather than having the students ask questions and work together to explore possible answers. Asking questions is a key factor of curiosity, and curiosity is a key level towards creativity and problem solving. Let's look at three entry points for supporting students to being asking questions, rather than simply answering them:
Simulation or embodiments are powerful, physical ways to connect and internalize information though experiences. We will never know what it was really like to be on the Oregon Trail, or to fight in the American Revolution, or to live in a Hooverville during the Great Depression — but through simulated learning projects, we can approximate the experience to gain deeper insights. Whether we’re engaging in a short, impromptu learning activity, or a long term project, here are three entry points for simulating:
Whether it’s nature or nurture, as human beings, we’re always looking for the right answer. And in school, we typically reward this kind of thinking. When students believe that there is one right answer, they may fall into the trap that being right is the goal of learning, when in fact, being right means we haven’t learned anything new at all. There is no absolute right answer in real life, and if we can shift our thinking from looking for the right answer, to looking for the possible answers, we shift the purpose of learning from something that is singular and narrow to something that opens us up to new opportunities. Entry points toward appreciating ambiguity:
When we regularly engage our students in lessons strategically designed to support imagining, questioning, simulating, and appreciating ambiguity, they become more and more connected to the topic, and more authentically curious about the process. Their imaginations are sparked with new ideas, innovative solutions, and new questions. Each of these traits works toward developing the mindset of creativity — resilient in the face of challenging circumstances, curious about the world, and confident that there isn’t any problem too big to tackle, or too simple to ignore.
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
I recently provided the opening remarks for an institute with international educators about developing a 21st century pedagogy. As part of the talk, I wanted to draw a comparison between how I grew up and how kids are growing up today. I described how, when I was growing up, I had to use the card catalogue to find sources for my research paper, wait for film to be processed before I could see my pictures, and how I learned to type on a typewriter. These all seem like ancient technologies to us now, but it was a good reminder of how much has changed, and how quickly. The impact of these changes has made the world smaller, and more complicated as the advancement of technology has created more opportunities for globalization, instant communication with anyone in any time zone, and insights into the celebrations and challenges people experience around the world.
The reality is that the advancement of technology in the last twenty years has changed our culture in phenomenal and unpredictable ways, and we feel these changes acutely in schools. Whether it’s a challenge around developing and sticking to a cell phone policy for students, competing for time and attention in the YouTube generation, or how all of a sudden we find ourselves saying something like, “kids these days...” followed by something that was disappointing. As educators, we are confronted with the culture shift in powerful ways, and we know we have to do something about it.
Many teachers, schools, and even districts have begun adopting the concept of preparing students to be global citizens as we recognize that students who are currently in 6th grade will be 25 years old in the year 2030, and that this generation of students will be the adults who deal with climate change, global economics, and the impact of massive voluntary and forced migrations. So the question becomes, what do kids these days need to learn and be able to do in order to feel prepared for the future where they will be leaders?
Using the Global Mindset Framework
This question is always a motivation for me to think critically about cultivating a curriculum with 21st century skills. In its current iteration, our research-based Global Mindset Framework includes 20 skills and capacities for global thinking that can be used to develop a thoughtful 21st century curriculum by transforming 20th century assignments into dynamic 21st century projects. Using the framework to guide or develop a unit plan or project can quickly transform our curriculum and instruction.
One way we can begin to transform our curriculum is by acknowledging that our current curricula are most often focused on a traditional 20th century set of thinking skills connected to Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation). Even in spinoffs like Marzano or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or our own Rigormeter, we see Bloom as the foundational underpinning of most learning goals, content standards, and teacher objectives. This is great, because teaching toward global citizenship or towards 21st century skills absolutely requires students to be logical, rational, and critical thinkers.
Small, deliberate changes
To begin transforming our curriculum, we’ll want to consider adding one new skill from each Mindset of the framework. By making small, deliberate changes to a simple task, we can transform a basic 20th century task into a dynamic 21st century project in a very short period of time.
Our first step is to begin with a basic task that we have taught in the past, or one we’re thinking of teaching in the near future. Let’s imagine that we’re teaching middle school Science and are in the middle of a unit on the solar system. Maybe the students’ assignment would be something like this: compare and contrast the features of the planets. We can easily locate this task in the Critical Mindset with a focus on analysis.
As we move on, we’ll want to add an element of the Collaborative Mindset. We can scan the list of collaborative skills and pick any one that seems interesting, relevant to the students or the task, or easily connected. For this example, I’ve selected multiple modalities. This means that students will work together and communicate their learning in different ways — through writing, speaking, drawing, and so on. How can they use multiple modalities to compare and contrast the characteristics of the nine planets? They could create a chart, use a program like Powerpoint or Google Slides to design a visual presentation, or they can present something aloud. That’s three modalities — that seems good.
Next, let’s add a skill from the Creative Mindset, keeping in mind that creativity isn’t about artistic ability, it’s about the ability to innovate and develop something new. The skills within creativity help students to think in stages that build toward innovation and imagination. For our unit on the solar system, let’s select the questioning skill. How can questioning connect to students’ comparison and contrast of the solar system and a presentation? Well, maybe part of their presentation includes questions that they’ve asked and found the answers to. This is a good skill because it will help students to focus on key facts and create more opportunities for them to take responsibility for their learning.
Next comes the Caring Mindset. We want students to be socially and emotionally engaged with themselves and each other, so we’re looking for opportunities to build these skills directly in our instruction. One element we can focus on is building confidence. It makes sense that if students are developing a project that includes an oral presentation, they may get a little nervous, shy or uncomfortable. That’s okay! We want to push students to be brave and confident, and school should be a safe place for that experimentation. As a teacher, I’ll ask myself — what I can build into the project that will help students develop confidence? With an opportunity to practice their presentation and get some structured feedback from another student on their team, they may improve their presentation skills and gain more confidence, and can reflect on their process (before, during and after the final presentation).
Finally, we get to the Global Mindset. I'll go through the exact same process and imagine how I can connect a skill from this mindset with the task at hand. Let’s go with real-world problem-solving. Students may think knowing about the planets or doing a presentation is an unimportant assignment, but framing this as a real-world experience can make the topic more engaging, more interdisciplinary, and more relevant. We can make a connection between their work in the classroom and the work of individuals in various careers. We can offer a scenario to students that includes a role for them to play, an imagined audience to present to, and a real-world format where this topic would apply. For our project, let’s imagine that our students are Scientists and Engineers presenting their findings to the UN in an effort to complete an international space mission.
Our reimagined, 21st century project
Let’s look at how our project has transformed. When we started, our 20th century task was to compare and contrast the features of the planets. Our revised, 21st century task looks more like this:
You are on an elite team of Scientists and Engineers who have been assigned the responsibility of developing a proposal for an international space mission to one planet in our solar system for the UN Assembly. As a team, you'll do the following:
This process can be used in any content area and is a fantastic way to explore the transition from 20th century to 21st century learning. As educators, we have a special opportunity during this unique time period to think deeply about today's students as tomorrow's leaders. What type of learning experiences do they need to lead in the future?
By DR. ROBERTA LENGER KANG
We often think about learning like a marathon, as if it's this long, long race where everyone begins at the same starting line, sets their pace, and runs at that pace for a long time until they arrive at the finish line. But there’s a problem with this analogy. The problem is that learning does not typically happen in consistent, incremental stages. Instead, learning happens in fits and starts, and in the best situations, it is the result of being deeply curious about a subject, topic, or theme and engaging in a productive intellectual challenge. In fact, when we really get down to it, learning isn’t like running a marathon at all! If learning is like running, then it’s probably a lot more like jumping hurdles.
When jumping hurdles, runners begin at the starting line and then sprint as fast as they can towards the first obstacle they have to overcome. If they’re successful, they continue to sprint forward. If they are not successful, the hurdle falls down, or worse — they fall down. Then they have to pick themselves back up and start again. Runners who can overcome all of the hurdles sprint through each stage on the track. Runners who cannot fall behind abruptly, and sometimes, permanently.
To train runners in hurdles, coaches help them practice by providing a set of smaller obstacles along the track, and train them through practice sessions where they develop specific strategies that will refine their skills. Coaches watch the moves the runners make while they’re jumping, and study these moves to give the runners actionable feedback about ways they can adjust their footing, their stance, and their speed — all of which help them to become better at the sport. This is the same kind of training and support that checks for understanding provide for students.
Checks for understanding are micro assessments that teachers can build into their lessons to ensure that students are developing the strength, skills, and strategies necessary to overcome the academic obstacles that will be presented in a long-term project, assessment, or high-stakes test. They are mini-hurdles that can help a teacher determine which students are sprinting ahead, which have minor gaps in understanding, and which are struggling to make sense of the lesson content or skills.
Traditional instruction organizes the procedure of a lesson so that the teacher presents on the important topic of the day, the students engage in practice related to that topic, and then go home. Everyone holds their breath and hopes that the students do well on the quiz at the end of the week. In our analogy, this model would be equivalent to a coach turning away from a race, hoping their runner is able to finish. Students, like runners, need three things from their teachers to increase their speed, strength, flexibility, and stamina.
1. Tasks that gradually increase in difficulty
Like a coach who lays out smaller hurdles on the track to teach runners about basic techniques, teachers can provide short tasks for students at strategic points in a lesson. One simple structure for a lesson would be to include one check at the beginning of the lesson, one in the middle, and one at the end of the class period. The opening check serves as a baseline understanding of what students remember from a previous lesson, and assesses their prior knowledge or current thinking about a topic. The mid-lesson check becomes a moment to micro-assess their understanding of the essential learning of the lesson. What must students understand in order to meet the learning target or objective? Finally, an end of lesson check gives us vital information about how students are leaving the class. This check informs our instruction for the next day’s lesson.
2. Actionable feedback for micro adjustments
We often assume that assessments always equal grades. But just like not all runs are races, not all tasks need to come with the heavy weight of a graded assignment. Small and simple assessments designed as checks for understanding provide key insights into students’ knowledge while it’s in formation. This is critical to helping teachers understand how students are making meaning, as well as how they’re interpreting (or misinterpreting) the content. Rather than focusing on how many points to provide, consider ways of providing students with actionable feedback that includes micro adjustments. Micro adjustments may include offering students a suggested next step, pointing out something they did well, or giving a tip as to what would have made their response more complete. The goal is to move away from evaluative feedback like “good job” or “needs work” and move into actionable feedback, which gives students a concrete next step to practice. When we get good at building checks for understanding into our lessons, we can design our lesson sequence to build on the feedback we give students in the moment.
3. Celebration of progress
As many runners can attest, marking personal progress is critical to building confidence even when someone else crosses the finish line first. As educators, it is essential that we are able to note specific areas of improvement for students at all levels. We can make connections between their gains and future successes, which increases their investment in their learning and can help them to set short- and long-term goals.
There is no shortage of strategies for checks for understanding. Below is an example of one of our favorite sequences using US Government as an example topic.
There are countless ways to monitor our students’ learning. When we are engaging in beginning, middle, and end of lesson checks for understanding, we have so many opportunities to notice our students’ process and progress, to reflect with them, to encourage them, and to help them leap over the obstacles they encounter on their learning journey.