When Teachers Make Room For Their Own Curiosity They Defend It For Children

Karen Brennan makes the case that when teachers discover their own creativity they're more able to protect space for student creativity in their classrooms. (iStock/luckyvector)

Dr. Karen Brennan has long been fascinated by learning environments that encourage kids to be curious. She’s spent her career thinking about how students develop computational thinking, and what makes a learning environment fertile for kids to show their ingenuity. She developed ScratchEd, an online platform to support educators using Scratch in their classrooms, and has studied elements of effective teaching through MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten research group. Now she's a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, leading the Creative Computing Lab.

Since Scratch launched 12 years ago, users have created 43 million projects. That’s a lot of creativity on display. From studying the way kids use the platform, as well as effective classrooms, Brennan has seen four crucial ingredients to curiosity:

  • Pursue a question that matters to the learner
  • Create different representations of an evolving understanding
  • Participate in a community of learners
  • Constantly reflect on the learning

Scratch is an interactive community where kids can use evolving programming skills to showcase their creativity. But not every child has access to Scratch or to environments that foster this type of curiosity and independence. That’s where teachers come in.

“The role of the teacher is essential if we really want to make this learning accessible to everyone,” Brennan said at the Building Learning Communities conference. She cited a seminal book on teaching by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

"There can be no significant innovation in education that does not have at its center the attitudes of teachers, and it is an illusion to think otherwise. The beliefs, feelings, and assumptions of teachers are the air of a learning environment; they determine the quality of life within it."

Given the critical role teachers play in creating spaces where curiosity thrives, Brennan has spent years observing skilled teachers as they do the work. She noticed that in the most creative, curiosity-filled classrooms teachers actively design opportunities to:

  • Cultivate curiosity – Are young people designing questions, asking questions?
  • Create – This could take many forms.
  • Collaborate – Learn from and with others
  • Contemplate – "We know there's no learning without reflection," Brennan said. "What are the opportunities to think about their thinking?"

But it’s much easier to list elements of a creative classroom than to deal with the common roadblocks to creating that space. Brennan put forward three scenarios in which a teacher encounters a stumbling block, as well as some strategies teachers she has worked with used to get past them.

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Case Study #1:

Angela has just introduced her class of 7th-grade students to Scratch, offering them a brief introduction to how Scratch works and then inviting them to create an interactive book report based on something they have read this year. She expects the project to take several days and is excited to see which books her students will choose and how they will bring them to life with Scratch. At the end of the first day, Angela tours the classroom to see how projects are progressing. She talks with a student who has stopped working on their project and is playing a game. When she asks how things are going, the student—who has created a somewhat minimal project—proclaims, “I’m finished!” What advice would you give Angela?

Asking the simple question: "And what else could you do?" had impressive effects in the classrooms Brennan observed. It was the nudge students needed to think more expansively.

"That simple act of intervening with a question led to much more detail in the project," Brennan said. "Suddenly you've got interactive sound, lightning bolts, a 'Fancy mode.'"

Another technique successful teachers employed was to offer bad ideas. The teacher offers the worst ideas they can think of to the student, paradoxically sparking more ingenuity.

"What was so interesting about this strategy is it connects to business literature that bad ideas lead to good ideas," Brennan said.

Case Study #2:

Guillermo has recently started teaching his first high school computer science course: a visual-arts-based introduction to programming with the Processing language. He has enjoyed preparing for the course, learning programming as he goes, and wants his students to enjoy the same type of creative exploration. Each day, Guillermo introduces a new concept and the students create self-directed projects based on the concept. As the course progresses and the concepts become more complicated, his students have an increasing number of questions—questions that he sometimes does not know how to answer. He is committed to open-ended work, but is anxious about not being able to help all students. What advice would you give Guillermo?

This scenario is all too common in classrooms, especially when a teacher is new to a course. And it often makes many educators nervous. But it’s also the perfect opportunity to go on a learning journey together, modeling how to find quality resources and information when stuck.

Brennan’s research showed two strategies in particular helped with this type of situation. First, have students help one another. It takes the pressure off of the teacher as the "one who knows," and encourages collaboration, communication and creativity among peers. One way to do this might be with snowball sharing, soliciting ideas on the problem from peers.

The second strategy that worked was "midnight notes," stickies left on projects that pointed to a resource or idea that would further the project. This worked especially well when students were encouraged to leave midnight notes on one another's projects.

In the last scenario, a grade three teacher was having difficulty getting students to incorporate feedback into their projects.

Brennan’s research found that when students have an authentic audience for their work they were more likely to incorporate feedback. One teacher developed a “works in progress showcase” just before the end of the project, when parents, community members and administration came into the classroom and talked with students about their projects. Afterwards, the students still had time to change their projects based on their interactions and feedback.

Other teachers gave each student a list of questions to reflect on in whatever modality they chose: writing, drawing, making a video. This helped them keep a running journal of how their learning was progressing.

Brennan believes fostering creativity is an important goal in classrooms. Along with other researchers and economic analysts, she sees the world changing, requiring more flexible thinking, ingenuity, communication and collaboration skills. She also understands how mandates and required curricula can work against creativity, which is why she urges teachers who want to see more creative thinking in their students to first start with themselves.

“You need to design opportunities for yourself or for the teachers you support,” Brennan said, because without curiosity in teachers’ lives, it’s difficult to create that type of environment for students. In fact, her last recommendation to the teachers gathered at BLC quoted a teacher from the Bronx who said:

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“Find your own voice, find your own path, find your own creativity. And then be willing to stand up and defend it for students.”