INTERVIEWS 4: Geraldine Smythe
Geraldine Smythe is the former owner and operator of an art school called Abrakadoodle. Now she is focusing on a program called culturebooster, a curriculum and integrated crowdfunding platform with a back end suite of teacher tools to teach business and career skills to various students in different age categories.
A high achiever, passionate about getting tools to other teachers, Geraldine is now getting ready to publish a report called "Failing Fast: the key to cultivating a 100% captivated classroom" which aims to keep creative skills at the forefront for helping students to learn to generate skills that will serve them for a lifetime, in the face of changing job and technology opportunities.
Geraldine has spent a lot of time thinking about how creativity impacts the classroom, so does she think that class time should be more responsive to when students get a creative urge?
"Yes," says Geraldine, "but not in the traditional classroom and that's what's really the problem I think right now there is a revolution going on (at least in the US) in terms of 'how teaching should happen' we are definitely trying to be at the forefront of that. We spent the last seven years delivering curriculums to students and seeing how that works in our classes. There is a structure to it that is enquiry-driven and right now the primary structure really is more of a lecture-based classroom. I think that's a big problem."
This teacher is not a huge fan of immovable lesson plans either. She says, "With a lecture-based, pre-distilled lesson plan the teachers feels they need to 'get out' information to the students. They have a rigid outlook on how their time is structured and they don't allow for a lot of creative output, or any input for that matter; it's really just a 'broadcast'."
Geraldine's current program is called Boosting Creative Communities Using Innovative Educational Tools. Previously she worked on a program called Abrakadoodle which provided art classes as a secondary program to learning institutions. This allowed her to be a guest (a contractor) at several places of learning where she was able to watch how the employed teachers engaged their classes, and also how the administrators expected them to behave.
She explains, "Even at the earliest level, teachers were coming in, having planned a lesson, and wanting to 'tell the lesson' to the students. The teachers who were more playful and more creative did much better with the students, and that's because they were more in line with how students really learn – in other words, students really learn by asking questions and by interjecting. It is very easy to get off topic, so it is important to have a certain structure, a classroom flow that will be successful for an enquiry-driven classroom.
"I do think it's incredibly important that there's more time allowed for creative thought than the current teaching method allows. Our current teaching method is in line with the 'broadcast' method of communicating information that the baby boomers grew up with. They grew up with information being broadcast to them by a 'boob tube' and they simply had to absorb it, not being able to react back to it. Now we are in this age of the internet where you do interact with it, and lots of our classrooms haven't kept up with this."
Geraldine mentions a few apps that she finds useful that might be resources that other teachers might enjoy using. "A current program I speak about is called culturebooster. It is all about providing a free curriculum for the teachers to help them give real world job skills to students by giving them a classroom structure where they can talk about and work on projects that are going to directly benefit their community. This program is a platform, but has a backend suite of teacher tools too. This is a great way for teachers to get business education and project management education into their classrooms.
"In terms of other useful programs, we tend to use a lot of the Google suites. Our team is all over the country and we work together through Google Hangout we use Google Drive to share our documents and to edit them, both on the marketing side and the curriculum side. We also use the Google calendar-sync when we are going to have meetings. So we find these very effective tools.
Geraldine mentions that there are so many new tools being created every month that teachers might be able to utilise and share.
"Another tool that I particularly love as a teacher who likes to put my thoughts into place and that's Evernote. There are veracious levels of user-ship from free through to paid, I use it as a free application on my Android phone (again, I have a Google-based smartphone that syncs everything) so Evernote is a really great way for me to be able to collect thoughts when I'm 'on the fly'. It acts like a little dictation machine or it can capture pictures, so if I see something that might be useful to help teach a concept to somebody I can snap a shot and then edit it with a caption and notes. I can even record lectures and conferences on Evernote and type notes in business meetings."
Geraldine continues, "A tool which takes things one layer deeper would be Dragon Naturally Speaking. It's a learning curve to get it to work well, and in the US it cost about $60 to get a home edition and I use it to write all our reports and books. Over time, it trains to your voice so it starts typing things according to context, so it gets used to the ways that you speak as well – not just the individual words. It will even put your words into proper sentences for you."
"There's something about seeing things in writing which makes things feel a bit more 'real' so when you are 'talking your thoughts out' it suddenly starts to feel a bit more important. This makes you think more carefully about how you put your thoughts together. The program also allows you to edit on the fly – it's a very quick way to gather high-quality written materials. Teachers could use it for simple, one sheet lesson plans, or for putting together reports. People even use it for their email responses! It's not free, but I highly recommend it."
Project-based learning is a buzz-phrase that is being discussed in many online (and other) forums. Geraldine has some ideas about this trend, moving forward.
She explains, "Project-based learning is all about experimenting. We are in this interactive world now and things have sped up so much because people are now able to get immediate feedback. In the classroom a student will write a paper, hand it in by the deadline and then it's the weekend. The student might have other thoughts about that paper that they want to add, but can't, because the deadline has now passed.
"If the student had the chance to have a discussion with their teacher about the paper to gain their perspective on certain sections, it would probably not be for a week, or even longer! By then, it was usually just an arbitrary grade the student would get back, with maybe only one or two sentences of commenting here and there. This was not a particularly effective way of learning because the student was in the moment when they were writing the paper, and quick feedback would have been more helpful to their learning process. That way, the student can more quickly assess whether their thinking is clear or accurate or inaccurate.
"The thing about project-based learning is that the student is learning in real time. If they attempt to do something and it doesn't stick and nobody is interested in it (such as in the business world) that is very real, very immediate feedback. This says to the student, "something didn't work".
The student then has to go back to the drawing board to figure something else out. It might just be that the product is fine, but the business forgot to tell people about it, or they didn't get it out to enough people. Or maybe they didn't get the product out to the right people. Project-based learning allows the student to go back and identify the exact spots where the problems lie and isolate where they think they have failed. Based on this immediate feedback, the student can quickly improve what their actions are.
"That ability to experiment is so far removed from today's classroom it's depressing. Right now in the US there is this horrible trend of 'teaching to the test' – it's all about making sure students get the right answer but in the real world, there are multiple right answers. It's a very different thing to be prepared and achieve an 'A' in a classroom than it is to be prepared and hit a home run with a product in the marketplace.
We are training people in learning environments to do the opposite of what is actually needed in the marketplace, so the result is that we are getting a huge disconnect with students coming out of college or university and not having the right skills to be able to perform in the real world, in the jobs that they would really like to be in."
Geraldine is very armament on one thing. She says, "It is extremely important to be able to experiment and teaching to a test is reducing students to 'one answer' rather than allowing them to experiment." Geraldine was one of the co-founders of a project called Failing Fast, a system that aims to give teachers the responsibility to make sure their students are given every possible chance to succeed in this rapidly evolving culture of technology and change.
This teacher mentions how she used to express her creativity as a child. She says, "I used to love playing dress ups and role playing! I didn't know that's what it was called at the time, of course. I really enjoyed the theatre of it." So have times changed? With the focus on technology and social media now, are we failing our kids in terms of basic creative pursuits?
Geraldine says maybe. "It's even more fundamental than that. Students are not allowed to 'play' anymore. They are 'scheduled' to play. That doesn't help; that's an adult schedule. Scheduling play-dates, scheduling piano lessons or painting after school, or French classes – there's no open play time! I know that in our neighbourhood seven years ago, we moved specifically thinking that there would be a lot of kids there. As it turns out, there are only two other children living in the area who are allowed to go 'out and about'. It seems to me that all the other parents in the area are freaked out by having their kids outdoors and playing."
Child learners grow up to be adult students, but many adults feel that children today may have less avenue than ever to express themselves the way they did decades ago.
"When I was a kid, we used to go out in gangs! There would be 15 or 20 of us and sometimes we'd spilt up into two groups because somebody didn't want to play 'cops and robbers' and somebody else didn't want to play 'Charlie's Angels' or whatever the game was at the time. So one group would go off and do its own thing. We had so much playtime! We had hours and hours of dress ups and role playing with all of the other kids who lived in the neighbourhood. Everybody was outside, and now I can see none of that going on. I live in Texas and it's hot, so people can be outside but every parent is very worried about safety. I feel this is an adult-driven thing, not a kid-driven thing.
How do the restrictions placed on contemporary (Gen Z) children affect them as they grow into adult learners?
"The kids are still kids. I think they have been relegated to smaller, indoor spaces and so now as a result the most entertaining thing they come across is the computer. So, it becomes a real effort to get them off the computer. Our son loves his computer and we are constantly trying to get him to do other, more physical things and to get outside and play with his friends. It is tough. I feel it's a societal thing at this point, everybody is a bit over-sensitive to this sort of stuff."
So does Geraldine believe that it's important for creative students to have creative experiences early in life in order to express their talents properly and to thrive?
"Personally, I don't think it's essential that parents be creative but I definitely think it's important that they understand that it's really more about them having a respect for the different personalities that students can have. So, as long as they give their students space to be able to have some free time to 'play' (whether adults or children) and are open-minded about letting their students take that 'play' to its natural end. I think that's far more important than the parents being creative themselves. I think that everybody is creative in their own way. Some people might think "I am not creative" because they think that 'creativity' is being able to paint, or something very narrow."
Geraldine continues, "However, creativity can come in so many forms. It could mean great communications skills with people, but perhaps that person may not be able to draw a picture. Creativity comes in loads of different forms. Teachers just really need to be conscious of the differences in their students' personalities and to know that their students are individuals. Teachers just need to give their students the space to express that."