CreativityIn a recent post, “Remixing Culture and 21st Century Skills,” we discussed the difficult balancing act teachers have between helping students learn today’s essential skills and teaching new skills required for future success. Our Creative Director Carl Potts, expands on these ideas to discuss how creative thinking can be fostered in our students.

Creative thinking is vital to student success in all subject areas. To prepare students for future success – in and beyond the classroom – they need to have techniques that foster creative innovation.

As educator, author and creativity expert Ken Robinson points out, we don’t even know what the world will be like in 5 years, yet our schools are now teaching kids who will be expected to work productively for forty or more years from now. The education we give kids today can’t possibly anticipate the information and skills they will need years down the road. However, if they have the tools to be creative and to innovate, they will have a much better chance of succeeding no matter how the world changes.

Here is a link to a great video presentation, “Do Schools Kill Creativity” that Robinson gave at a TED conference. Other Robinson videos can be seen on YouTube. I also recommend his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. …and just what exactly is creativity?

Based on the research I’ve done so far, here are some things that can be said about the slippery subject of creativity

  • Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating and it can be taught.
  • It is not restricted to the arts and it can be applied to any human endeavor.
  • It is not related to IQ (providing you have a minimum level of IQ).
  • To get into a creative mood, creative people often get into a “playful mood” to explore ideas for enjoyment.
  • One of the best combinations of environment and attitude to foster creative thinking is a quiet space and enough time to get into the proper “playful” and non-judgmental frame of mind. However, these conditions are not practical to use in a classroom environment.
  • Although it’s not appropriate for use in the classroom, in some cases, extreme pressure can create an environment where creativity springs to life. As NBC/Universal Vice President Marc Siry stated, “Creativity often involves connecting previously unrelated concepts, techniques, methods, or ideas, and coming up with an unexpected result. These types of connections happen best in an unstructured environment – which is why it’s tough for a big, mature company, laden with process, to be creative. It’s also why creativity often happens under pressure – when the rules go out the window, previously unthinkable connections can be made.”
  • Creativity is not the exclusive domain of the young. As Siry notes, it is often implied “that creativity is the province of the young – new ideas are more easily born in a mind free of learned behaviors. The inverse of that could be argued – with more total information in a person’s head, there’s more opportunity for new connections.”
  • Creativity and humor are linked. The way seemingly dissimilar ideas come together when brainstorming is similar to the way a punch line works in a joke. The humor in a punch line is often derived by shifting to a different frame of reference when coming to the end of a train of connected thoughts or events in a joke. You laugh at the movement of contact/juxtaposition between two frames of reference.
  • Mistakes are a vital part of the learning process. As a British proverb states: The man who does not make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.

Creativity in the classroom

At Teaching Matters, we often incorporate creative exercises into our programs in the form of brainstorming. Brainstorming can be an individual or group activity.

For group brainstorming to work well in the classroom environment, it’s vital to create a climate where students are not tied to, or judged by, the ideas they throw out off the top of their heads.

Students have to feel free to contribute without fear of being judged negatively by their peers or the teacher. You never know what may turn out to be a constructive contribution. Seemingly ridiculous thoughts may spark a chain reaction that leads to a creative solution or innovation.

So, teachers have to establish a non-judgmental climate. Hopefully, a non-judgmental brainstorming culture will eventually be established in the classroom and the need for teacher reinforcement of that attitude will be minimized.

Ideally, I’d like to put together a group of tools/techniques that enable students in an often boisterous classroom environment to be more creative and innovate across a wide range of subjects and endeavors. I’d also like to be able to measure the effects of adding creativity fostering techniques to various subjects. (That will be no easy feat!)

Any thoughts or ideas you have along these lines will be greatly appreciated.


For those interested in education innovation made possible by technology you must read Bill Tucker’s new  report  – Beyond the Bubble: Technology and the Future of Student Assessment.  Bill is reframing the debate between  two key education camps. 

Bill’s key idea is that, ultimately, we don’t have to choose between accountability systems and   instruction that addresses a broad array of skills and deep content.    Because whether you are Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, or Linda Darling Hammond, you have common ground on one thing. .. our assessments can be radically improved.     

Over the last eight years,  education  took major  steps towards holding schools accountable and measuring their progress.   But our actual assessments, for the most part, took a few steps back. We automated the most basic forms of assessment, and states stopped experiments in performance-based assessments designed to measure the higher-order thinking our kids need to succeed in the future.

 Now that the FEDS, the teachers union, and the governors, ALL agree that we need national standards – this conversation about investing seriously in assessment innovation is extremely timely and relevant. My vote for how to use some of this stimulus! 

For more discussion on this issue click here.

ABCMany teachers in the schools we support received Teacher Data Reports last week. This report is a DOE initiative to give teachers and school administrators information about the individual teacher’s impact on student test scores as compared to their peers.

Reactions on the ground.… Ouch!

To put it plainly … many teachers were really upset.

“There are so many things that a teacher does beyond preparing students to pass a math or reading test that can’t be measured…How can this possibly measure a teacher’s value add!? ” A reaction from one of our own professional developers at Teaching Matters.

But I  find  this report to be pretty complex. So before we reject it, we need to understand what it is and then discuss the merits and the potential improvements.

Teacher Data Report – What does it measure?

In two words.  Teacher Contribution. 

This is an attempt to measure the teacher’s impact on students test scores. It does this by trying to eliminate the effects on test scores caused by  measurable factors that are out of the teacher’s control. For example:

  • Student’s prior year reading and math scores, attendance, free lunch status, race, special ed status
  • Unusual items like “student is new to school”
  • And even something called “classroom effects” like the “percentage of class who attended summer school” or “percentage retained”

The report predicts what test scores a student is likely to receive given all these effects by  using ten years worth of historical data. For example, Jenny with this history and within this classroom would be predicted to get the following score _______.

Then, it compares the score Jenny actually received with the predicted score. The difference is called the Teacher Contribution.

Predicted score + Teacher contribution = Actual Test score

The teacher’s contribution is then calculated for all students and compared to other similar teachers (same number of years of experience teaching the same subject). You are provided the following data. Compared to your peers are you in the top 20%, or in the middle at 60 % or in the bottom 30% of teacher contribution.

Why is the DOE doing this?

Research has now proven that teachers have a significant impact on how well students actually do on tests. Ironic, because many teachers feel the test doesn’t capture what students are learning in their classrooms, but actually the tests do capture the fact that teaching and teachers really matter most to student learning and performance on tests. So while teachers may feel the tests don’t adequately measure what you teach, they do capture that the teacher has a big impact on student performance. In fact, the difference between the lowest and highest performing teachers (measured by tests) is almost entire grade level of movement. Students move only half a year versus 1.5 years.

So teacher impact is important, yet there are few easy, reliable measures of teacher quality available.
New York is trying to be a thought leader in developing these metrics.

Couple of Questions …

So if I may, I would like to ask a couple of questions .

To move to teacher value ad assessments shouldn’t we move to testing system that occurs at the end of the cycle with the same teacher? Now, we know many teachers are drilling  the first part of the year and “teaching” the second part. What if they could really plan for the test over the course of an entire year …   and then be measured on their success.

Is it likely that teachers of students with mostly threes and fours on the test will find it difficult to make that top 20 %. Might these teachers find their “teacher contribution” is not showing up. If children can read adequately, teachers should be spending time more on higher order skills that are not currently measured by the test than worrying about moving high 3s to 4s on a test of reading.  (That is my view anyway.)

Will teachers who spend time working to impact those factors “outside of their control” – get penalized by this model? Remember, the goal was to eliminate the impact of factors outside a teacher’s control from the calculation of teacher contribution. Of course higher attendance will increase performance, but it will also raise the bar for what the student needs to achieve if a teacher successfully raises attendence.  Just a thought. Maybe that is not significant.

The data also breaks down performance by subgroups. How does this work if a teacher has only a few students in a particular group?  Is the data reliable?  I am hoping someone more statistically inclined can speak to that and help me better understand the issues here.

A final thought….

No one should look at data without first getting their own assumptions on the table first. If you as a principal find that you were not able to accurately predict your teachers ranking… all you have learned is that you need a lot more information.

Maybe you haven’t had time to visit the classroom or look at the student work being produced in it this year …   maybe that is part of the problem. 

What you do you think about this initiative?  What are the potential benefits and/or pitfalls for our students?

remixI’m always interested in helping teachers master that difficult balancing act between helping students learn today’s essential skills and teaching new skills required for future success. I found Lessig’s new book REMIX and Lessig’s TED talk pretty illuminating. It offered me a new way to think about the importance of ideas like the Read / Write WEB and why we should promote learning through student generated content – even for our most struggling students.

REMIX describes how participation in society and “culture creation” shifted from active (all of us doing it) to passive (big companies creating it and us watching and listening) many years ago. The original technologies of broadcast made us passive listeners rather than active creators. Now – it has shifted back to active, but our kids also have the tools of the broadcast media companies at their disposal.

Lessig offers John Phillip Souza’s prescient testimony against the dangers of the “talking machine” to explain the dangers of passive culture.

Talking MachineThese talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left.

-John Philip Sousa

Sousa believed that children could develop a deep understanding of artistic work because they were actively engaged in making their own. And as talking machines (and big media) removed the need to sing and share music, people would become less able to interpret what they were hearing.

Today, our kids are creating again, but not always from scratch. They are in fact, turning off the TV in large numbers, and getting online to create and remix swaths of video, music, and other media (their culture.) As they remix, they reinterpret, and perhaps they learn. They offer us a glimpse of where culture creation is going. They are also breaking the law in the process… copyright law.

Why does this matter to us as educators?

We are required to ensure that kids master specific content and skills. But if the underpinnings of the culture and content creation emerging in the 21st century is one that is largely made by us (a difficult idea to really wrap your head around) and not just purchased and passively consumed from large media companies – what skills do our students need? Think about it.

We know that this generation is already forcing a change on many businesses, and creating whole new 21st century jobs etc. Journalists are having to become bloggers, marketing executives are finding that they can’t just tell us what to buy, but are having to become online community facilitators, etc. (“No sage on the stage” doesn’t just apply to teachers anymore). These are signs of the new communication, collaboration, creativity, analysis and information literacy skills .. espoused by ISTE and other groups.

The saving grace here is that many of our kids are leading the way. They are learning some of these skills, essentially unmediated… in spite of schools that ban the practice, and in spite of copyright laws that render them criminals…

For a few other choice examples of remixed content (created by kids but not approved for your students) see lessig’s video talk TED talk.

And for those who are accountability advocates – we can’t ignore this because it feels impossible to measure. If anything, this offers a direction for assessment innovation – assessing performance, innovation, and creative thinking. Until that we can measure these new cultural participatory basic skills, …we will narrow instruction if we only teach to the test. So in the meantime, allow your kids to remix a little after the test is over. (See www.fanfiction.org)

The Dell 9 Inch Mini; Mini

The Dell 9 Inch Mini

Let’s face it. Budgets are tight. But New York City is now offering a Dell Mini laptops for $375 on the FAMIS purchasing system. That means for the price of a cart, you can now outfit 100 kids with a laptop. We are on our way to ubiquitous access in schools. If you can afford the cost of refreshing one grade level a year… you are a one to one school.

If you still can’t afford it, how can you get your parents involved?

Many parents are willing to pay for their students to get access to technology in school, especially if they can bring them home. It’s worth asking.

When we are so focused on closing the achievement gap, where do 21st century skills fit in?

I don’t believe in getting too strident over the merits of one teaching approach over another, especially when there are strong camps on either side. Whole language, phonics, New Math, back-to-basics, critical thinking skills vs content. The truth often lies somewhere in the middle. Students need a range of approaches. (The research proves it is the quality of the teacher that matters most in the long run anyway.)

I feel this very much applies to the balancing act between core content and skills (traditionally taught) and new 21st century skills being espoused by groups like ISTE and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

We have worked hard at Teaching Matters to find a balance between helping teachers address core content and new skills. We know you can teach the big key ideas of the Bill of Rights while teaching advanced skills like research, synthesis, and off and online collaborative learning.

But we should keep it real for those in the classroom.

The balance takes more time and it can cut into content coverage of required standards – that is standards that show up on tests.

In content areas like social studies the standards are chock full of information most of us arguably can survive without in the 21st century. Boy I would welcome a chance to take a red pen to these standards. The New York Social Studies Standards do a really great job of delineating critical thinking and new skills, such that the partnership for 21st century skills used them as a basis for their work around ICT skills in social studies. But they also include a kitchen sink full of content to cover. And again, I believe in content! It’s context! It is something to hang your hat on. But give us some power standards please!

But actually, this is not the old debate that I want to address. As an educator working with urban school teachers, we have a much bigger challenge.

It is not just a question of deep rather than wide. It’s a whole bunch of students that can’t comprehend what they read… Be that a test, a text book, or a web page.

These kids are playing catch up. They struggle with reading and score low on tests of academic vocabulary. But we expect them to become information literate, synthesize key ideas, learn to select among different sources for reliability, and construct their own complex, nuanced understandings of big ideas.

Students struggling with reading comprehension:

  • require focused instruction on the unfamiliar vocabulary
  • need to access text resources at their reading level  –(time consuming to find)
  • deep, meaningful, relevant (but structured) learning experiences that ensure struggling readers can access key content ideas and information …

They also need  to participate in 21st century learning and have access to

  • multiple and varied sources
  • choice in their learning activities
  • opportunities to collaborate, discuss, create and analyze  — off and online

For me, the incentive to figure this out is that it is the latter list  — that make teaching the basics palatable for students who have often given up after struggling with reading  well into adolescence.

In the creation of our own model curricula, we spend a lot of time worrying about these issues. Balancing student choice, self direction and critical thinking with the structures sometimes required to provide learning experience accessible to our most struggling learners.

Technology already offers a lot of ways to support students struggling with reading comprehension issues, but those tools are not supported on the tests.  Those tests are not digital.  You can’t click and have the question read to you if you can’t read it. You need to be able to read it anyway – let’s face it.

Worse yet, the technology is continuing to raise the bar and require new skills that go way beyond reading comprehension.

How do you balance traditional and core skills with 21st century skills?

How do you address the needs of  students that struggle with skills as basic as reading comprehension in that context?

Opening the XO'sLaptops are getting cheaper by the minute. In setting the bar to deliver the world’s first $100 laptop, Nicholas Negroponte, Chairman of One Laptop Per Child, inspired the development of an entire class of low cost machines now available to schools. Low cost laptops from $200 to $350 are now hitting the market. Furthermore, one developer is now promising a $75 unit by 2009.

With one-to-one computing fast becoming an affordable reality for schools, it is essential that we carefully consider what has and has not worked in prior implementations so we do not repeat past mistakes. Teaching Matters is in the process of piloting low cost laptops. We are carefully monitoring and documenting (via an online blog) what is and is not working for classrooms.

One-to-One Computing: Does It Even Matter?

The jury is still out on the benefits of one-to-one computing. Many educators believe that until we seamlessly integrate technology into schools, we will not adequately prepare students for life and work in the 21st century. Others see technology as largely irrelevant to student achievement. It is in fact true that when new technologies are introduced into classrooms their use is often emphasized above learning. Goldman, Cole, and Syer (1999) note that “the technology learning curve tends to eclipse content learning temporarily; both kids and teachers seem to orient to technology until they become comfortable.” Furthermore, as reported by the New York Times, school districts often drop one-to-one computing because they end up spending too much time and money on repair and maintenance.

In a 2004 article, Lorrie Jackson, noted expert on one-to-one education, summarized research provided by The Center for Applied Research in Education Technology (CARET) that shows the positive effects of one-to-one computing on learning including: (1) increased quality and quantity in writing, (2) greater student collaboration, and (3) greater teacher awareness of student progress. She went on to offer several reasons why schools invest in one-to-one environments. They include improving student engagement, complementing project-based learning, and taking advantage of teachable moments among others.

At Teaching Matters we believe that creating effective one-to-one learning environments requires: (1) a redesign of the curricula to incorporate technology to address specific teaching and learning challenges, (2) professional development that focuses first and foremost on improving teaching practice in the core curriculum areas and (3) implementation of both traditional and performance based assessments to capture data on whether enriched learning has indeed taken place.

Teaching Matters Pilots the XO in Harlem

OLPC StudentsTeaching Matters recently announced an important and exciting experiment to test the implications and promise of the OLPC XO laptop for writing instruction. Working in collaboration with Kappa IV, a small middle school in Harlem, we have provided enough XO laptops to sixth grade students to explore three important questions:

  1. Will middle school students accept low cost XO laptops as an alternative to the more costly high end devices?
  2. Will the XO laptop reduce a school’s Total Cost of Ownership (e.g., cost of hardware, maintenance, and training)?
  3. Will the XO implemented with curriculum designed for one-to-one classroom environments improve student learning?

The XO laptops have been introduced with our web-based middle school literacy curriculum and professional development program, Writing Matters. The program takes full advantage of the power of these computing devices to make learning relevant and engaging for students while supporting teachers’ focus on instruction. Online commentator Wayan Vota writes, “This is the first OLPC pilot that I know of where the implementing organization is looking at Total Cost of Ownership, teacher adoption, and learning outcomes…”

Lynette Guastaferro, Executive Director for Teaching Matters, shares, “It’s important to experiment with these new low cost options in combination with content that is designed to make best use of the technology. The learning environments that work will be those that support teacher effectiveness, not software that attempts to ‘teacher proof’ instruction. It is exciting to design learning environments with this perspective.”

In its March 2008 newsletter, The Fund for Public Schools acknowledged our test with the Department of Education (DOE) as an ambitious initiative worth watching. The article went on to say that such public-private partnerships allow the DOE to “pursue flexible and innovative solutions to provide an excellent education to all of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students.”

Teaching Matters will soon be supporting pilots of OLPC and other low cost computing options in schools across the City. If you are interested in seeing this technology in action, and want to stay up to date on these initiatives, visit the OLPC in NYC Blog. If you are a school leader who would like to visit a school piloting an OLPC laptop, please email: lowcostcomputing@teachingmatters.org.