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How can we help learners ‘think out of the box’?

By Yasaara Kaluaratchi

Dr. Ayomi Irugalbandara

Creativity is a skill that enables students to apply their imagination to generate ideas, questions, and hypotheses; to experiment with alternatives; and to evaluate their own and their peers’ ideas, final products, and processes. To gain more insight on how to foster creativity in our younger generation, we spoke to a senior lecturer at the Open University of Colombo specialising in aesthetic education and educational psychology – Dr. Ayomi Irugalbandara.

How do you personally define creativity?

Based on my personal interpretation as an educator, the following characteristics can be noted; creativity is a process, therefore, inevitably it involves students, classrooms, and learning. Creativity is the capability of students to solve problems or to devise ideas and products independently or via teamwork that are considered both novel and valuable by their teachers and their peers. My personal viewpoint identifies a purposeful, everyday dimension to creative thinking, understanding it as a way of behaving towards particular tasks.

How can teachers foster creativity in the classroom?

Development of creative thinking skills is a worldwide trend now. In Singapore, for example, all teaching includes a focus on the development of 21st Century capabilities such as civic literacy, global consciousness and cross-cultural skills, critical and inventive thinking, and communication, collaboration, and information skills. Similarly, in the UK, all subjects include the objectives of producing creative work, exploring ideas and recording experiences, helping students to become proficient in analysis and design, and to better understand historical and cultural development. In New Zealand, curriculum encourages students to link their own imaginations, thoughts, and feelings with practice and history in ways that give voice to the cultural diversity of New Zealand. In Australia, curriculum is designed to connect students with creative, practical, and cognitive processes that stimulate and support imagination and the exploration of beliefs, feelings, behaviours, and relationships across many situations and contexts. 

In many classrooms around the world, teachers are teaching (and students are learning) in more innovative and engaging ways, with documented improvements both in terms of students’ learning outcomes and their total development. One approach, which is increasingly gaining ground, is that of drama-based teaching and learning. Rather than telling our students what to do, providing pre-determined input and then checking that they can do it or have learned it, the approach involves providing situations, stimuli, and interactive experiences that require students to take initiatives, solve problems, collaborate and share responsibility, and respond appropriately to each other’s input.

These are key elements of the kind of social skills and responsibilities that young people need beyond the classroom in the workplace and in their lives. They need to be capable of making their own choices in the moment, of handling themselves in changing situations, contexts, and interactions, whether we adults are around or not. 

In classrooms around the world it is increasingly being recognised as an approach that provides opportunities for integrating and engaging learning experience in a dynamic way that allows students to explore ideas, to solve problems and to express themselves through adopting imagined roles and playing out imagined or reality-based experiences. This approach hands a good share of the responsibility over to the students themselves, allowing them to explore possibilities and make choices that have effect in a safe, respectful, stimulating, and nurturing environment

What are the challenges teachers face?

Considering the Sri Lankan context, development of creativity is a challenge for all teachers. First, the Sri Lankan school curriculum has given priority to the knowledge of subject content rather than improving subject-specific skills.  The World Bank Report 2011 specifically identified the fact that Sri Lankan teachers had not understood the importance of creative competencies of instruction as part of the secondary curriculum.  The emphasis on creativity proposed by the 1972 reforms have failed to challenge Sri Lanka’s exam-driven culture; the consistent emphasis on summative examinations has led to an “examination syndrome” among school students. 

Secondly, teachers’ instructional guides in Sri Lanka do not align with current thinking and demands, such as support building self-confidence skills, encouraging creativity and critical thinking skills, engaging students in creative problem-solving or decision-making skills, supporting development of emotional intelligence and empathy, or supporting healthy minds and wellbeing. Classrooms are places where students take notes, improve content knowledge, and improve exam scores.

“I believe learning is a recall of thinking, which could be ‘transferred’ for different phenomena, rather than a series of facts recalled for an examination. Being able ‘to think’ means students can apply wise judgment or produce a logical critique. The goal of teaching is to prepare students to be wise by guiding them towards how to make sound decisions and exercise logical judgment. The skills students need to be taught to do this include the ability to judge the reliability of a source; identify expectations, generalisations, and bias; identify implication in language use; understand the purpose of a written or spoken text; identify the audience; and make critical judgments about the relative effectiveness of various strategies used to meet the purpose of the text.”

How can teachers overcome these challenges?

In this context, new approaches to teaching and learning are needed; different platforms from which students can create their own knowledge, make their own meaning, always exploring and reviewing their knowledge. It is vital, therefore, to continue the dialogue to which this discussion contributes; not only in relation to refining and supporting students’ skills but also in putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to build an education system that is fit for the 21st Century and beyond.

What can parents do to help children express themselves creatively?

Parents play a key role in ensuring students’ preparation for their future lives. As we know most students in Sri Lanka are pressured because of their parents. They continuously feel that their parents are trying to force them to perform better academically. Children’s development is more than the marks they achieve in assessment tasks, and measures of a successful education should include holistic assessment of students’ performance. Therefore, I would like to recommend the following guidelines for parents:

  • Parents need to know the difference between engaged and disengaged behaviours, and to understand how to create situations in which children feel comfortable with themselves as learners
  • Schools need to promote open communication with parents and provide guidance about how to interpret grades and reports to help parents construct realistic expectations for their children and strengthen their ability to support their children in school
  • To address the struggle that some parents have in assessing their children’s capability, it may be helpful for schools to offer parent seminars, parent-teacher meetings, or peer-group interventions that explain approaches for making contact with their children’s teachers and developing trusting and supportive relationships with them
  • Parents need to talk with their children about the school’s day-to-day activities and help to ensure that their children are happy in school. Schools can provide parents with questions or sentence starters to get their children talking to them about their learning 
  • Parents need to encourage their children to plan accurate schedules for short and long-term projects, and they need to give them free time for leisure activities, which allow them to be relaxed

What is your message to parents, educators, and policymakers?

I would like to give a positive message to the relevant authorities. First, for policymakers, please ensure enhancement of teaching quality. The Ministry of Education (MoE) could take action to raise awareness of the potential benefits of the development of creative thinking skills in everyday teaching. It would be useful for education authorities to have a creativity improvement plan, developed and supervised on an ongoing basis and forming part of schools’ responsibility requests. The MoE also needs to confirm that they have the capacity and proficiency to guide and support schools as they develop and implement such creativity development plans, which should be externally revised every year. Perhaps the most critical situation is the adverse impact of the continuous exam pressure on creativity skills development in Sri Lankan students. According to the Family Health Bureau (Annual Report on Family Health Bureau, 2016) parental pressure for their children to achieve academic excellence and the potential economic distress of those children who fail to achieve excellent results are two key circumstances rated as highly stressful by adolescents themselves. It would therefore be useful for the MoE to consider other countries’ best practices in education. 

Finally, policymakers need to take immediate action on the development of teacher education standards in the Sri Lankan education system. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka lacks standards for teachers, which means that teacher education is a field with very few practical statements to guide effective practice. Teachers themselves are the primary gatekeepers who facilitate and shape children’s learning, perspectives, and capabilities. I argue that creativity must be a key focus of teachers’ practice and guiding teacher standards.  

For educators, I would like to suggest to them to reflect on their practice and to improve their practice, focusing on the practical dimension of teaching creatively as well as on assessment, and to reconsider the importance of lesson planning. I believe that teachers need opportunities to practise new techniques, assessments, and ways of lesson planning; teachers are more positive and more effective when they feel prepared in these areas. 

Apart from that, school administrators need to provide efficient infrastructure and facilities for teaching all the subjects. Schools must continue to offer and to increase openings for creative activities, and one significant way to achieve this is to provide appropriate space for expression. As we know that school principals play a leading role in promoting effective and high-performing schools; therefore, school principals need to create a suitable school climate which provides freedom for teachers to work productively and innovatively, motivating their performance. The physical context and environment, including technology, teaching and learning resources, instruments, and extra resources, are also vital for the success of creative outcome. 

Dr. Ayomi Irugalbandara is a qualified and dedicated researcher and lecturer in aesthetic education with over 18 years of experience. She has a PhD from the Queensland University of Technology and a Master’s in Education from Colombo. Dr. Irugalbandara is a senior lecturer at the Open University of Colombo and a visiting lecturer at University of Colombo and Prospects Academy, Sri Lanka.

(The writer is reading for her doctorate in education. She has over a decade of experience in the education sector as a lecturer, mentor, and facilitator specialised in educational psychology, currently serving as the Director of Academics at Prospects Academy, Colombo, Sri Lanka)