INTERVIEWS 2: Brian Barrett
Tendring Technology College
Brian Barrett is currently a teacher of Psychology at Tendring Technology College in England. He is American by birth and moved to the U.K. to get some experience in a foreign education system in order to help develop both personally and professionally, and is currently looking into completing a Master's degree in Creative Curriculum Development.
Creativity is one of Barrett's primary focuses in teaching. He has have been involved in creating and delivering workshops for the entire school as part of a creative curriculum group, mentored colleagues on creative lesson solutions, and prides himself in always finding new ways to teach lessons. He spends time researching the current trends on creativity in the classroom across many education systems, and has written a few articles about creativity as a catalyst for challenge within lessons as well.
Barrett feels that creative expression has declined, and that a majority of children are not exposed to creative opportunities.
"Why would a student need to be creative if the environment they are in does not require it?" he says. "All too often in education, students simply need to memorize information and recall said information on an assessment or standardized test. As every student has the capacity for creative thought processes, it is essential that they are in an environment that fosters those brain regions to most effectively develop.
"I feel the main cause for concern is that students, more and more, are not being taught in stimulating environments. I feel both educational and domestic environments are paramount in stimulating creativity, and are the cause for lack of creative expression in students."
We asked Barrett whether he thinks technology is also a cause for concern.
"Technology itself does not reduce creativity," he responded, "but the over-reliance on technology to do the thinking for students does negatively impact creativity. Think about the last time you saw a cashier calculate your change in their head and tell you without the register. I recently had this experience in a bar and I gave the bartender a tip. Think about how impersonal and disjointed learning math is as a result of the dependence of calculators. All you need to do is punch in some numbers and the device thinks for you. You then write down an answer with no understanding of how you got it.
"I see this on a daily basis with students in my lessons. Students constantly say they are not creative, but if they had more opportunities to develop those skills they could be. This is where technology can increase creativity. Since creativity is the result of a mosaic of cognitive processes, as long as these are developed a student can be creative.
"Technology can play a crucial role to help students display that creativity in a multitude of ways. Technology allows students to access a large quantity if information quickly, which helps them assess and contrast arguments which allow them to begin the process of problem solving. Even when students use Google, they still need to know how to search for relevant answers, and how to refine a search and make it efficient."
We then asked Barrett what advice he might give to educators looking to cultivate creative habits in their students.
"I would urge teachers to implement research-based problem solving projects that force students to incorporate all aspects involved with creativity," Barrett says. "I give my students a question they are going to be assessed on. For instance, 'Devise and carry out a study into a topic in social psychology.' Leaving it open to each student's individual interests enables engagement and motivates them because the teacher is not rigidly telling them what to do."
Barrett says these types of projects and questions help students learn in a more organic and natural process, one that enables them to succeed across the disciplines.
"I know of teachers who have implemented this strategy in multiple subjects, including math, English, history, psychology, and economics.
"With history, for example, giving students critical thinking and problem solving opportunities can develop key components of creativity. I show my students a picture of Japan dated 1930. Next I give them X amount of time to find out 5 key facts about Japan which have to cover several issues: economic, geographic, cultural, social, and militaristic. I then ask them what problems Japan is going to have to deal with in the next 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years. Students also need to think about how Japan could solve these issues in a realistic way. In discussions, students have described the Invasion of Manchuria by Japan, which is a topic on their exams. Think of how different this method is compared to simply reading or watching a video or lecturing. It is this level of activity I would urge teachers to implement in their classrooms. The rewards and confidence students develop is inspiring."
So, assuming you are appropriately fostering creativity in your students, can you measure your progress as an educator?
Since creativity is more of a "mosaic of cognitive processes" than a single brain function, Barrett says, it can be assessed and should be the focus of curricula.
"Assessments need to focus on evaluating a student's ability to perform various cognitive processes, including problem solving, critical thinking, assessing, making judgements, assimilating new information, pattern processing, comparing and contrasting ideas, application of evidence, risk taking, adaptability, perseverance and reflection," he says. "An assessment focused on these issues would be more in-line with what employers continually say they need in future employees."
Barrett believes a creativity assessment platform needs to be developed that is rigorous, unpredictable, and accessible for all students, and measures how well students are prepared to face a future that has yet to be defined.
"I once asked a lead history examiner why there was not a more creative assessment for students in England," Barrett says. "He replied, 'It will be too difficult to standardize it and it would cost too much money and time to develop it. The government wants a reliable quick way to measure how well it is doing in regards to improving students results.' How can we expect anything to improve when governments cannot accept that things need to change or refuse because it will cost too much money? The definition of madness is to do the same things over and over and expect different results. It is time to change the way we assess students."
Creativity is paramount to anything the current education systems in the United States and England, among others, have developed. The focus in these places is on results. If a certain percentage of students do not achieve a set grade, the learning institution is failing. How can such a shallow focus and measure prepare students for anything but taking tests? How often in a job does a boss ask his employees, tell me all you know about the League of Nations? I am reminded of a cartoon I recently found. In the picture there is a job interview for a business job with a recent college graduate. The interviewer asks, "What life skills do you have that will help with this job?" The student responds, "Tests...I can pass tests." I think this epitomizes the current climate and culture that over emphasizes the importance of said tests. I understand the need to have assessments but it is essential for the future of societies that people are able to be creative in ways that appropriately prepare them for life, being taught and assessed on creative skills then we would see a different kind of world.
With regards to the barriers I have encountered with creative teaching there are two key issues. First and foremost students are simply spoon fed in other classes so when they arrive in my class and have to think for themselves they find it a struggle and resist and withdraw. I takes a few weeks before they get used to it and deal with the frustration they feel about how I answer questions with questions. I try to help them appreciate the uneasiness they feel and embrace it. I know I am not the only teacher who finds creativity essential, but the majority of teachers in my school usually refer to the second key barrier to creative education: exams.
In order for creativity to thrive we need to have a complete educational paradigm shift in how we stigmatize creativity and regard it as an ability for the arts that has no place in core subjects such as Math, English, and Science.
In order to promote creativity, Barrett urges, education needs to be more organic and free flowing. "How free are students when they have to be herded around by a bell? Why not let students go between classes as they see fit or do away with rigid schedules and let them learn at their own pace? What if a group of students want to learn more about photosynthesis—could they not stay and talk more with their teacher?"
Barrett says class time could be structured in a more "elementary fashion" in which learning through discovery enables students to develop creatively.
"It is amazing how much resistance I get when I bring my class outside to help them understand a topic. I was told it was not conducive to learning. Excuse me? Why not? Maybe other teachers need to be more creative and take risks."
Adult students were at one time, children. Could it be essential to foster creativity very early on in life? "It has long been understood that the most important factor in student achievement is parental involvement," he says. "Parental involvement is as essential to academic success as vitamins are to the body. This holds true for creativity.
"I have some friends who have two children. They have decided to limit his use of technology and promote his own independence and interests in the arts. They focus on educational toys, musical instruments, art sets and just discovering. They only let him watch television for an hour a day and are actively involved with him. They read to him often and help promote his imagination. He could speak clearly and intelligently six months earlier than other children, and his mom tells me his confidence is such that he easily approaches other kids and makes friends. His level of imaginative play is what many children need to develop, as imagination is a key component of creativity. Parents need to understand the importance of getting children to have imaginative play, discover, and make mistakes."
Lastly, Barrett spoke about the value of creativity in a person's educational and professional careers.
"I think creativity has been undervalued with regards to a majority of professions and jobs. People sometimes are creative and have no awareness of how or why they are creative. All academia is focused on is about grades and statistics that tell everyone you are smart."
"The focus on academic success is not conducive to societal progress. Innovation and patents are stalling at a time when our society needs to develop something the world needs. The world needs to view and create something that will help preserve our planet, how can that happen if all students leave college with is the ability to pass tests?"
"I am afraid this is not shifting; if anything, it is shifting more towards the assessment side. In the United Kingdom, a new curriculum is being introduced by 2015 that focuses on rote memorization and being assessed after a two-year course by a timed essay exam. All a student needs to do to pass these courses is Google facts and regurgitate them. Many education institutions in America take this route of standardized tests that dictates the evaluation of the school and the teacher.
"Until our society gets over this attachment with having to quantify every aspect of learning, we will lag behind nations like Finland and fall behind the world with innovation and discovery."