How can English teachers inspire creativity in the classroom?

The following article comes from Tim Hawkins, Head Of English at MiSK Schools in Middle-East. 

Inspirational educator Sir Ken Robinson once spoke, highly passionately, about the detrimental impact that standardised testing has had on teaching and learning in schools. He explained how, in relation to what he saw as the ‘pandemic’ of attention deficit disorders (and please note the inverted commas), creativity was being compromised in exchange for preparing students for the inevitable, linear, standardised tests at any given checkpoint.

This is something I have watched and witnessed firsthand at schools across the world and inevitably, while teachers become under more pressure to deliver results at GCSE, A level and the soon to be adopted T Level, some of the components of what should be essential to a balanced, enriched 21st century curriculum are parked to one side to satisfy a swathe of the latest government or OFSTED criteria. Now, the self-imposed hierarchy of subjects, with maths and science at the top; drama and dance at the bottom, juxtaposes the dwindling importance of the creative subjects against the so-called ‘practical’ ones which are promoted as ‘the ones students need to get a good job’. But ironically, as the C19 pandemic has shown, when we are locked down and closed off from society, we seem to turn to the Arts. Some people like to creatively virtue signal with social media posts highlighting their newly-learned-instrument skills, others (like me) simply turned to binge watching TV shows on Netflix.

But my point is that covid has reminded us the importance that creativity, including art, music, literature and media, has in all our lives. And if that’s the case, why does this seem to be sacrificed at the alter of rote learning, cold, hard facts for lessons and standardised testing? As the Romantic poet John Keats decried in his epic poem Lamia, ‘Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings’.

So surely, here in the 2020s, there has to be a middle ground where the importance of creativity can be delivered to students in a way which also prepares them for examinations later down the line.

It’s one conundrum which I have been trying to solve and one which, finally, I feel relatively confident in approaching thanks, in part, to Keats and Sir Ken. Currently, I’m fortunate enough to work at a progressive school where the phrase ‘disruptive curriculum’ has been an inspirational mantra. And while we still have to make sure our students are ready for their summer examinations, I have been able to develop my own idea of what 21st century curriculum and assessment model should like.

My starting point was, oddly enough, memories of my own sons and the invented games they played when they were young. These were typical, childhood games which ‘daddy had to play’ and involved a set of rules and challenges so complex that only a three-year-old could understand them. Monsters had to be tackled and defeated… unless they were wearing green… you needed to stand on one leg to defeat some baddies… Some needed a piece of ancient scroll and a flute to be charmed (don’t ask, I think the Nintendo game Zelda may have had something to do with it)… My point is that it was incredibly complex and creative.

By taking this childhood sandbox of design, I dropped the teacher ego, looked at where subjects had commonality and saw where my English lessons could develop and inspire creativity in a group of Year 10 lads whose priority was squarely in the maths and science bracket. I moved away from the conventional teaching model and looked at how I could let the students drive and design the lessons. I gave them a loose rubric and let them develop a creative and rewarding experience where they would set the conditions for success, determine the outcomes and, more importantly, develop a cross-curricula learning experience which was engaging.

So what, specifically, did we do?

We built a world.

Tlon.

Each student was told to design a country within the world of Tlon. They were given 18 points to ‘spend’ on developing six categories (Education, Military, Economy, Industry, Resources and Agriculture), with a score of three being ‘average’ and one being the minimum.

Monsters had to be tackled and defeated.

Students then had to develop their country and figure out for themselves how they could boost their stats to protect their country. One spent a lesson on Garage Band composing and writing a national anthem; his logic being that a song would make people more patriotic and therefore boost his military score as he could use conscription. Another student wrote a press release detailing how his universities were looking at developing exploration into space and seeing if there are other forms of intelligent life in the same solar system (there is another group also doing the same project; different world, same solar system).

Histories of countries are being written and now the group has decided to hold something akin to the MUN; where representatives will introduce themselves to other countries, form alliances, ask for help and, with some resource-rich lands, offer goods and services in exchange for technology, advancement or protection. There are plans for random events to happen; a country may be hit by an earthquake and lose its farmlands, so the student ambassador will have to meet the UN, with speech prepared, to ask for aid.

It’s all horrendously complicated and, just like my sons’ games 15 years ago, has layers which are constantly developing.

So, what is the point? For me, it’s simple. The students are engaged. They’ve gone from having no creative ideas to building their own world. Without realising, they’ve looked at a huge array of cross-curricular subjects through a creative lens; geography, music, history, computer design, to name but a few, and applied it all to a structure of their own making which aligns with the requirements of English Language IGCSE. They’ve felt and seen the value in competition alongside creative collaboration for a project entirely of their own making and design but, and significantly more importantly, they’ve enjoyed it.

And so have I.

Author: Tim Hawkins

Head Of Senior School English, Middle-east

Tim has been teaching English and running departments for longer than he cares to remember. While he’s currently focused on his NPQH, he has also worked towards psychology qualifications and enjoys designing and investigating behaviour management, assessment and attainment strategies. A self-confessed data-nerd, he completed his Post Graduate Diploma in Education, several data analysis courses and qualified as a clinical hypnotherapist. Tim also enjoys writing RPG scenarios around the Cthulhu mythos when the spare time arrives.

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