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!

Algorithms & Programs in the Elementary Classroom

In case you didn't already know, I love the Montessori approach to education. I love the beautiful materials, the hands-on work, and the mixed-age classrooms. Most of all, I love following the interests of the child.

 In fact, this year I've decided to step outside my comfort zone that is the typical Montessori curriculum in order to "follow the child." 

Several of my students have expressed a keen interest in learning to code. And admittedly, computer programming is not an area of expertise for me. However, I always want to do what I can to foster the interests and curiosities of my students. 

And so, earlier in the year I went to a code.org workshop to learn about their coding curriculum. I discovered that–in many ways–it works really well with the Montessori philosophy of education. You can read more of my thoughts on that here, but the gist of it is that the code.org curriculum includes quite a lot of hands-on activities that come before the more abstract computer work.

Thus far, we've done two hands-on, "unplugged" activities, both of which proved to be educational and engaging at the same time. My students are already asking for more coding lessons!

The first activity was called Graph Paper Programming. Much like a typical Montessori lesson, I started by introducing new vocabulary to the students:

  • algorithm- a list of steps you can follow to finish a task

  • program- an algorithm that has been coded into something that can be run by a machine

The students went on to create programs on graph paper grids that their friends could decipher by acting as the "machine." They started this process on small 4 x 4 graph paper grids.

At the end of the lesson, I challenged them to create their own design on a large piece of graph paper, write a code for it, and see if their friends could reproduce the design by following their code. They worked diligently on these designs & codes over the next week. Here are the results:

For the 2nd "unplugged" activity, Real Life Algorithms, I challenged them to write out algorithms (or a list of steps) for daily tasks such as making a PB&J sandwich, dusting the geography shelf in classroom, or planting a flower. The idea behind this activity is to understand that a program won't work properly–or at all–if the algorithm is not in logical order or if it missing a step in the process.

Then came the real fun. They cut out the pieces on this worksheet, put the steps in a logical order, and got to make & fly paper airplanes following the algorithms they pieced together.

These "unplugged" activities are great for exploring basic programming concepts. And now I am excited to try out our first coding lesson on the computer this week! Updates to follow!

If you'd like to try out one of the code.org courses in your classroom (or homeschool), their curriculum is available online here, and it's completely free!

I'd love to hear any feedback from others who have tried code.org OR any other coding curriculum. What works for your students? Let's share ideas!

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!