A Review of Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education

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For the month of January, I read Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education by Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica.

If you don't already know who Sir Ken Robinson is, I highly recommend checking out his TED Talk, Do Schools Kills Creativity? (I'm pretty sure it's the most popular TED talk of all time.) AND the short video, Changing Education Paradigms. Both are a great introduction to his general outlook on education.

For a more in depth look, read this book.

What's the book about?

The basic premise of Creative Schools is about transforming the current education system. Robinson makes it clear that education reform is not enough. We don’t need to reform a system that was not created for the world that we now live in. We need to transform the system. We need a revolution. And all revolutions start from the ground up.

He notes that the current education system was created on the principal of mass production–to meet the labor needs of the Industrial Revolution. But today we have technologies that can aid our students in their learning in innovative ways; we also have an economic need for creative thinkers, whereas information regurgitation is no longer relevant (in the age of Google).

…digital technologies are transforming how we all work, play, think, feel, and relate to each other. That revolution has barely begun. The old systems of education were not designed with this world in mind. Improving them by raising conventional standards will not meet the challenges we now face.
— Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools

This book takes a look at the standards movement and its effect in the classroom (on teacher performance and student anxiety levels, for example). It also looks at the implications of the standards movement on a large scale, noting its effect on economic issues such as unemployment, underemployment, and student debt.

Robinson argues that change will not come about from government legislation, but that it must come from within the education system itself. He says that if you are involved in the education of young people in any form or fashion, then YOU are the system and YOU have the ability to be the change that we so desperately need.

Is it worth reading?

Absolutely.

Sir Ken Robinson advocates for personalized, holistic, and creative approaches to learning. As a Montessori educator, this is the kind of education that I am passionate about. Let’s be honest: I kind of knew that I was going to love this book before I read it.

That being said, this book is filled with interesting and inspiring anecdotes describing educators from all over the world who have stepped outside of the box that is defined by the standards movement in order to educate students using more creative methods that have a lasting impact.

Furthermore, it offers practical advice on what changes need to be made and how to make them. He gives insight into what he believes makes a teacher exceptional, what an optimal curriculum looks like, and he even offers examples of alternative forms of assessment.

Did it challenge my views?

Robinson offered me a new perspective in regards to my methods of teaching in the classroom. He suggests that a balance of traditional and progressive approaches to education is essential in all subject areas in order to provide a dynamic education.

He points out that teachers should have a wide repertoire of approaches to education. Direct instruction is sometimes necessary, while at other times, facilitating group projects and exploratory activities are important.

As a Montessori educator, I lean toward progressive education. I see so much benefit from group work and collaboration, from giving students time and space to figure things out on their own, and from projects that engage students’ curiosity.

However, at times direct instruction and memorization are also necessary. It’s my job to know the appropriate times to use the appropriate techniques.

Effective teaching is a constant process of adjustment, judgment, and responding to the energy and engagement of the students.
— Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools

How did it inspire my work as an educator?

In Creative Schools, Robinson describes what he believes to be a well-balanced curriculum that would meet the educational needs of students in the 21st century. He says that a good curriculum should be interdisciplinary. It should include a balanced study of the arts, humanities, language arts, mathematics, physical education, and science.

He also expounds the importance of teaching our young people critical thinking skills:

Critical thinking always was important to human flourishing; it is becoming even more so. We are bombarded from every direction with information, opinions, ideas, and pitches for our attention. The Internet alone is the most ubiquitous source of information that humanity has devised, and it is growing exponentially. So too are the risks of confusion and obfuscation…the need has never been greater for [our young people] to separate fact from opinion, sense from nonsense, and honesty from deception.
— Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools

If that doesn’t ring true, I don’t know what does.

All of this got me thinking about what I believe to be the most essential and valuable disciplines that should make up a curriculum for 21st century elementary students. It’s a work in progress, but here’s what I’m leaning to at the moment:

Peace Education

I use this term as an umbrella for conflict resolution, social-emotional learning (SEL), and mindfulness. Peace education will ensure the wellbeing of our children now and of humankind in the future.

Geography & Humanities

Humanities education broadens and deepens students’ understanding of the world around us—its diversity, complexity, and traditions.
— Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools

As our world becomes evermore connected, this is critical.

Environmental Sciences

If we want our children to grow into adults who take care of our planet–our home– then we must teach them about it first. In addition to biology, botany, biomes, and physical geography studies, I believe this should include practical experience outside in the natural environment (gardening, scouting, bird watching, etc.)

Language

Students need to be well versed in all aspects of literacy. They need to know how to properly, intelligently, and thoroughly communicate their thoughts and ideas to others. They should be fluent readers who are able to learn from others and be inspired just by picking up a good book.

Mathematics

Mathematics is a language that is common to all of humankind.

Computer Science

Computer programming, or “coding” is the language of our future. Our students must learn to be creators of digital technology, not just passive consumers.

The Arts

Learning in and about the arts is essential to intellectual development. The arts illustrate the diversity of intelligence and provide practical ways of promoting it. The arts are among the most vivid expressions of human culture. To understand the experience of other cultures, we need to engage with their music, visual art, dance, and verbal and performing arts…Engaging with the arts of others is the most vibrant way of seeing and feeling the world as they do.
— Sir Ken Robinson, Creative Schools

Final thoughts?

I would definitely recommend Creative Schools: A Grassroots Revolution to Transforming Education to any educator who is interested in doing their part to change the education system and to move away from the standards movement.

Buy it. Read it. Absolutely.

I look forward to reading your thoughts about the book in the comments!

Reflections of a First Year Teacher

My first year as a Montessori elementary school teacher has officially come to a close.

What a ride! They say time flies when you're having fun, and indeed, it did. Children who were complete strangers to me a year ago have become the people (aside from my family) whose well-being I contemplate most. 

I finished the school year feeling grateful to have a career that motivates & inspires me, pushes & challenges me, and allows me to make a small, but significant contribution to the world. 

There were good days, fun days, as well as stressful days when tears were shed. Some days made me question my chosen profession, while others confirmed it entirely.

As a class, we bonded, and we settled into a routine. We became a community–the students taking the lead on decision-making and learning to sort through disagreements on their own. I assisted and offered guidance when necessary, but ultimately took a back seat.

We made art, we wrote poetry, we cooked, we dissected, we played, we made music, we danced, we mentored, we presented, we challenged ourselves & each other.

This was a year that I will always remember and look back on fondly. It will always be my first.

Smooth seas never made a skillful sailor.

This was my mantra for most of the year, because challenges are inevitable. They make us stronger  & wiser when we face them head on. Only through persistence and commitment will you begin to see the fruits of your labor. But YOU WILL! 

So, what were some of the challenges I faced in my first year of teaching?

  • Busyness. Much of the year felt busy and hectic. I often felt as though I could barely keep up with all that was going on around the school and couldn't focus on my students and their individual needs as much as I wanted to. The students were busy. They were given a lot of responsibility to plan & prepare events & other activities throughout the year. Responsibility is key in a Montessori environment because it teaches children, in a natural way, to contribute to their community–to be an active participant. However, I also believe that it's in the times of quiet & calm that children are truly free to conjure up, express, and act on their unique ideas & interests.
  • Students' lack of confidence. This one came as a surprise to me. As a first year teacher, right out of my Montessori training, of course I was thrilled to get to know the students and their individual interests. I wanted to know what they were excited to learn about! I observed, listened, and conversed with them in hopes of learning what they loved that might possibly fuel their learning. For the most part, this worked. Children became inspired and engaged, because they were interested! But, as it turns out, there are a few children out there who truly lack a confidence in their work and in their learning abilities. As much as I tried to stoke the flame, they wouldn't admit an interest, they wouldn't latch on and let themselves become excited about an idea. In this case, all I could really do was to focus on building their confidence any time I saw the opportunity. And with persistence, I did see moments where these children were proud of an accomplishment, no matter how small. And I feel good about that.
  • Being in a 6-12 year old classroom, where the idea of an "upper elementary" and a "lower elementary" also existed. The mixed-age classrooms that are essential to a Montessori education are one of the aspects that I love most. I LOVE seeing older children helping younger children and practicing their leadership skills, while the younger children are inspired by the work they see the older ones doing. This is so evident in a 6-12 environment. You've probably seen for yourself just how much a 6 year old looks up to a 12 year old! It brings so much collaboration into the classroom. Many Montessori schools divide their elementary programs into "lower elementary" for the 6-9 year olds and "upper elementary" for the 9-12 year olds. Our school doesn't do that, yet somehow, the terms "lower el" and "upper el" were a part of my students' lexicon from the beginning. This caused a mental division among our students that, I feel, persisted in our classroom throughout the year. I even found myself using the terms on occasion, as much as I tried to refrain. And so, for unity's sake, I'm going to do my best in the coming year to let those terms fade into distant memory...

There will always be challenges. Challenges are good. The key is to not let them become overwhelming. It is so important to stay motivated and inspired. I've found that reading Dr. Montessori's books as well as the lovely blogs written by other educators, teachers, and Montessorians often renews my vigor. Sometimes for me, finding time to spend outdoors will do the trick. Sometimes, rest. 

Right now, I have big life changes underway. Summer break couldn't have come at a more opportune time, as I need to rest, organize, and plan for the future. So I am doing just that.

I'm also working on a new creative project that I'm excited about, and I look forward to sharing that with you further down the road. 

I would love to hear about how you overcame particular challenges throughout the school year. What did you learn in your first year teaching (no matter when that was)? What keeps you motivated and inspired? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments. Let's be motivation & encouragement for each other!

Jane Goodall: A Real Life Hero

Original photograph by Michael Nichols via nationalgeographic.com.

Original photograph by Michael Nichols via nationalgeographic.com.

Today is Dr. Jane Goodall's 81st birthday! She is truly an inspirational human being. She is a life long learner, and she has done so much good in the world. She famously studied chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania and has spent much of her life working to protect this endangered species. At 81 years old, she continues to travel the world to educate and to advocate on behalf of all endangered species. 

I recently had a student in my elementary class choose to research Jane Goodall. She was inspired to learn more after I read aloud a book about Jane. Initially, I think the student was mostly excited to learn more about the chimpanzees, but it was great to see her grow interested in Jane, too! The student even brought to school a recent article from the New York Times magazine about Jane. I LOVE when students are thinking about what they are learning at school, even when they are at home!

Children in the elementary years are searching for heroes or people in the world they can look up to. Of course, they love Batman and Princess Elsa, but they also love learning about REAL LIFE heroes. They love being inspired by things that other people have done! And that is why it is so important to introduce them to people all around the world–from all backgrounds and all periods throughout history–who have done and are doing amazing things!

What makes Jane Goodall a real life hero? Well, as a scientist she spent years studying the chimpanzees in order to better understand them. She learned that– like human beings–they have individual personalities, and they express deep emotions. She also passionately believes that they are meant to live in the wild. Consequently, she has spent her life as a great advocate for the wellbeing of the chimpanzees, as well as for the conservation of their natural habitats. 

 I just watched this lovely video from National Geographic all about Jane in celebration of her birthday, and I encourage you to give it a view as well. 

If you want to learn more about Jane Goodall or are interested in the work her nonprofit organization is doing, check out the The Jane Goodall Institute

Perhaps you or someone you know who is passionate about animals and animal rights might even be interested in one of the awesome internships they offer!

Happy 81st Birthday, Dr. Jane Goodall! Thanks for being a real life hero!

Leaf Classification and Color Resist Leaf Art

Leaf Class.jpg

Botany studies are such a fun part of the Montessori elementary curriculum!

I've been going through the Montessori leaf classification lessons lately. I'm also delving into some fine arts work focusing on the elements of design. My students will start out by examining different artists' use of lines in their artwork.

And because, Cosmic Education is interdisciplinary, I figured: why not combine art & scientific classification? Thus, I am planning a color resist leaf classification drawing, emphasizing the use of lines to show the venation of the leaves. 

What?! Why does that sound so complicated? It's a super simple activity, really. You have likely done color resist art before. It's when you draw with crayons, and then go over your drawing with watercolor. The crayon wax and the watercolor resist–meaning, they don't mix. 

Instead of regular crayons, we'll be using my Prismacolor Premier colored pencils to draw the outline of the leaves & the veins, then we will fill in the lamina of the leaves with the watercolor pastels. 

My students LOVE to use my special Caran d'Ache watercolor pastels. They aren't cheap (and they are my personal set), so I only bring them out occasionally. Judging by the kids reactions, you'd think they were magic! But if I'm honest, I love them just as much as they do. And for good reason. They are easy to use, and they yield beautiful results. I mean, you really can't go wrong.

You just color with them, as you would with any crayon. Then go back over the color with a wet paintbrush, and watch them turn into watercolor.

And when they have finished their leafy works of art, we'll discuss how they used various kinds of lines to draw the veins in each of the leaves–thick lines, thin lines, curved lines, smudged lines, and so on.

Gradually the time comes when the plant world no longer gives to the child a mere impression of greenery, sprinkled with the brilliancy of other colors, but as he walks around, wherever his eyes rest on a plant, on a leaf, on a flower, he recognizes a friend: ‘Yes, I know you, and all the details about you.’
— Mario Montessori, The Botanical Cards. NAMTA journal vol. 23 no. 2