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Making fun part of the equation

Creativity is the buzz word in education at the moment. The current curriculum has lost its muse, and not just because the time left for art, music and drama has been squeezed by the other subject areas. It seems we are lacking a creative spark in the way we teach a raft of subjects. So what can be done to put the creative experience back into the curriculum?

After much debate, some useful interpretations of "creative" have emerged.

The National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education published its report, All our Futures; Creativity, Culture and Education in 1999. It defines the elements of creative activity as; using imagination, a fashioning process, pursuing purpose, being original and judging value (see www.artscampaign.org.ukcampaignseducation).

In 2002 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) produced a resource pack that identified the types of skills involved in learning creatively. These are: questioning and challenging; making connections and seeing relationships; envisaging what might be; playing with ideas, representing ideas and evaluating the effects of ideas. They also pointed out that, for children, original may not mean unique, but should mean new to them (see also www.ncaction.org.ukcreativity).

If learners are to develop these skills in any meaningful way it seems to me they must have opportunities to work on tasks in a productive and iterative way. They need to create something, play with it, and develop it - ideally with feedback from a teacher. This might put you in mind of "project" work, especially in the traditionally creative areas like design technology, art or music. But with a little imagination, and some digital support, this approach to learning can be adopted in some apparently unlikely contexts.

Take a recent example of work by Rob Beswetherick at John Cabot City Technology College, Bristol, and Stephen Godwin, now at the Open University. They recently wrote a paper titled: An investigation into the balance of prescription, experiment and play when learning about the properties of quadratic functions with ICT for Research in Mathematics education.I have reproduced the title in full as it may be the only time you read a sentence with play and quadratic functions in it! In their study, Year 10 pupils used Omnigraph to experiment with quadratic functions. In a set of four lessons, mixing teacher demonstration and guided play, some of these pupils created as many as 70 representations of variations of quadratic functions. Moreover, the ones who produced the most graphs tended to do better on the paper-and-pencil test that ended the lessons. There is no doubt from the video evidence that these learners were engaged in the task. They were practising the creative skills the QCA identified.

No doubt the key to the success of this activity was the careful management of the learning sequence by a skilled teacher. Aimless play with powerful software is unlikely to lead to this kind of learning. However, without the editability, automatic functions, dynamic display, and multiple representations of data that ICT is able to offer, these lessons could not have been enacted in the way they were. As it was, a well-designed piece of education software supported children in making and manipulating representations of complex ideas that they could then play with to develop their understanding. Surely this is at the heart of learning creatively?

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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