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!

Language Development with a One-Year-Old

Today I want to share an activity on our shelves that my one-year old absolutely LOVES and is perfect for language development. For his 1st birthday, I bought Oliver a set of wooden animal magnets. I love this particular set–made by French toy maker, Vilac and beautifully designed by Nathalie Lété–because they are painted to look realistic instead of cartoonish. This is an important part of the Montessori philosophy–children need to first be introduced to realistic images instead of cartoon images in order to have a good understanding of what the image actually represents. There is a great post about the reasons for using beautiful and realistic images over at How We Montessori. The fun cartoon images can come later!

I found a large, galvanized tray to keep the magnets on. Another great thing about this work is that we don't lose the pieces very often. They stay put on the tray! When I first put this together, I had no idea that it would become one of Oliver's most used and loved "toys."

In the beginning, he loved manipulating the magnets on the tray. I would point and name the animals. One day, my sweet boy repeated the word "donkey." I was awestruck! "He can say donkey! Oliver can say donkey!" It wasn't long before I could say, "Bring me the donkey," and he would do just that. 

Naturally, I then wanted to see what would happen if I asked him to bring me other animals. In no time at all, this animal magnet distance game was a household favorite! 

Sometimes, he still confuses some of the animals. When this happens, I will isolate three animals at a time–pointing at and naming them. I think it's also important to note (and you might have noticed in the video), that anytime Oliver brings the wrong animal, I don't make a big deal about him being wrong. Instead, I name the animal that he did bring me, and we continue playing. It's important that he learns that it's okay to make mistakes and that we learn from them.

Isolating three animals at a time–bunny rabbit, iguana, ladybug.

Isolating three animals at a time–bunny rabbit, iguana, ladybug.

If possible, I try to show multiple examples of a particular animal in order to reinforce what the images represent. 

This Painting with Picasso board book from the Mini-Masters series has another realistic image of a donkey.

This Painting with Picasso board book from the Mini-Masters series has another realistic image of a donkey.

Once Oliver seems to know all the animals in this set, I plan to change them out for a new set of animals. l also want to try fruits, veggies, shapes, vehicles, etc.

MagnaFun is another brand that makes several great sets of magnets. These Melissa & Doug shape magnets are nice, too.

And of course, it's super important for children to have real-life experiences with animals (or fruits, veggies, etc.) in addition to activities like this. Petting zoos are educational and always great fun with the littles!

What language development activities have you tried? Let me know in the comments. I'm always looking for new 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!

What Do You Do With An Idea?

Back in October, my sister sent me this book for my birthday­­–a particularly endearing gift to a first-year Montessori teacher trying to grow her collection of children’s books. It is now a treasured item on my shelf.

I have read this aloud to my students several times now. My class includes children ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old, but this is a story for all. The youngest children adore the charming illustrations, and the older ones are able to engage in thoughtful discussion about the book’s message.

In What Do You Do With an Idea?, author Kobi Yamada invites his reader to see an idea as something magical, beautiful, and fun. His story encourages you to be proud of your idea, and to give it your time & attention so that it will grow. A small idea has the potential to grow into a BIG idea that can make a positive impact in the world. 

Through her stunning illustrations, Mea Besom expressed this message in a very creative way.

Her images stimulate questions such as: 

“Why do you think the illustrator chose to draw an egg to represent an idea?”

"How would you draw an idea?"

“Why do you think the pictures were drawn in mostly black & white throughout the story until the end when the entire page is filled with a beautiful burst of color?”

Some of my students shared their own ideas—big and small. And we even discussed what it means to nurture an idea.

This is a lovely story and a well-loved gift! Thanks, Jenn!

What are some of your favorite children’s books? Please share in the comments! 

Montessori & the Imagination

Last week I had the opportunity to volunteer at the 2013 International Montessori Congress which was held right here in Portland, Oregon. It was a momentous occasion; Montessorians from all around the world gathered together to learn from each other and to celebrate the Montessori community.

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As a volunteer, I was fortunate enough to sit in on one of the lectures. I heard Sarah Werner Andrews, AMI Primary Trainer at MNW, speak about the development of the imagination and the role of pretend play in a Montessori environment. 

This is such a fascinating subject to me because, as Mrs. Andrews pointed out, many Montessori teachers and parents, as well as critics of the philosophy, often believe that Dr. Montessori discouraged imaginative play. It is true, of course, that a Montessori environment provides students with reality-based "works", but does that mean that Dr. Montessori did not feel that it was important to develop the child's imagination? 

"We cannot make discoveries unless we can first imagine what we are seeking. We must not think that the imagination works only through fairy tales. All the intellect works like a form of the imagination. Imagination is the real substance of our intelligence. All theory and all progress comes from the mind's capacity to construct something." -Maria Montessori, The Child, Society and the World , Chapter 3

Clearly, Maria Montessori did see the importance of developing the child's imagination. She just believed that, in order to do so, we must provide the child with new, reality-based experiences. For instance, one comparison that was given in the lecture was that of a child who is given a pretend kitchen, pretend cooking utensils, and pretend food versus a child who is given actual cooking utensils, actual ingredients, and who can perform the actual work of making bread. 

In this comparison, the child with the pretend kitchen is using his imagination so that he may "cook", whereas the child who is actually doing the work of making bread is free to use his imagination in other ways. In other words, by giving the child reality-based experiences such as cooking, we are able to free his imagination so that he may use it to conjure up new ideas. 

This lecture certainly provided food for thought. I look forward to delving further into the writings of Dr. Montessori so that I can better understand her views on the imagination of the child. 

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.