The space, time and doodle continuum

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Pete Greaves says it is not enough for teachers to be imaginative - they must make sure that pupils are too

A YEAR ago I was smug. Someone had seen the innovative way I delivered RE and wanted me to share it with other teachers at a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority meeting in London. But since then, my journey hasn't just taken me to the capital and back, but from smugness to questioning and changing how I teach. The result? A new dimension to my pupils' abilities.

I had always thought that the more imaginative I was, the more imaginatively they would respond. The other teachers who gathered round the table on that February morning at the QCA shared my view. We swapped exciting lesson ideas. But a single question from our QCA subject leader stopped us in our tracks: "So in what ways were the pupils' responses creative?"

As we were gently probed, we began to see the distinction between a creative input by teachers and a creative output by pupils. Lessons were put back in our bags as we realised how much prouder we were of our lesson plans than pupils' work.

At the end of the day, I was left with one lesson to submit. An RE lesson on Orthodox Christian worship in which I had spoken for about three minutes to introduce the topic, lit candles and incense, and put on some appropriate music.

Pupils were then given a large sheet of blank paper and time to reflect on the subject in calm and peace, encouraged to use their five senses in the same way as Greek Orthodox practice encourages its adherents to worship.

I look forward to this lesson every time I teach it because I know how many surprises there will be on those pieces of paper at the end. But had I really only done one lesson which gave pupils the opportunity to be creative in their own space?

Four words from the QCA definition of what made a pupil's response creative stuck with me: original, valuable, imaginative, purposeful. That is the approach I take to my own lesson planning - but how could I encourage it in my class? I decided I would try to lead them through the same process I go through myself.

The first thing I do is lock on to my teaching objective. This is where my "purpose" comes from. I always told my class the objective for each lesson, but perhaps sometimes didn't relate the lesson outcome to it. I began to make clearer the reason for any work they were asked to do.

Second, I have space to think, make notes and doodle. I never go from objective to lesson plan in a single leap, yet I ask pupils to go from input to output in the space of a few minutes. I decided that they needed to be able to make notes, think and doodle. Each pupil was given a large plain book in which they were allowed to write and to doodle while I talked.

This was hard: more than one pupil had their creative process ruined by an exasperated cry of "Put that pencil down!". I had to get used to something that had been anathema in my classroom since my first day as a teacher.

I told them to share the books with me if they wanted to, but never marked or intruded on this thought space. I began to detect how this thinking time was bringing individuality to their work, often not in the meat of their notes, but in the margins. Little comments and pictures betrayed a deeper thought process. Here was space for imagination.

The third thing I do is play to my strengths, so I saw that it was important to help pupils discover their own learning styles. I also introduced other accelerated learning techniques. I hoped that the more pupils developed their strengths, the more likely they would be to value their work.

Finally, I tried to be original, so I now wanted pupils to produce original responses. Taking my cue from that RE lesson, I collected materials that they could use to respond, filling shelves with paper and pens of all sizes and kinds, Plasticine, Lego and cubes, anything that might allow creative expression of learning. I wanted to make creativity an everyday response in my classroom, not an annual event.

So over the past few months, my Year 3 class have been teaching me how I can help them be creative. I have learned that I can still be as imaginative as I like, as long as I don't then tell them what to do in response. The more chances they are given to express themselves freely, the better they are doing.

I started with small things. After a museum trip, instead of being asked to fill in an evaluation sheet, they were given a blank page and asked to produce a mindmap of their morning. There was more detail than I could have hoped for, alongside comments such as: "I saw the sun shining through the snow."

I began to get the balance right between telling pupils what to do and giving them nothing to respond to. They know that whatever material they use, they have to explain to me how it shows their understanding of the lesson. I have far more space and time to discuss the lesson with pupils as they work. Plays, discussions, interviews and tapes all play their part and a digital camera has become a vital recording tool. Sometimes all that is needed is to give pupils space to reflect, then ask them to complete the sentence, "Looking at this today, I have learned...".

A year down the line, my pupils' exercise books are not so pretty, the classroom is not so quiet and the art area is not so tidy. But were I to find myself back at the QCA, I would be able to pull out photos, paintings, poems and reflections of my class and sit back with a very different kind of smugness.

Pete Greaves is literacy co-ordinator at Coleman primary school in Leicester. He would like to acknowledge the help and support of the head, staff and pupils there, along with Chris Corps of the standards team at Leicester City Council

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