01 Feb 2019

Alex Hems: Head's Blog Feb 1 2019

A2.SMY AlexHems096 Crop 250wHow can we encourage creativity and risk-taking? 

We know that the capacity to think creatively is one of the qualities most valued by employers, and we all know, in our own working lives, how central it is to our ability to solve the day to day problems that we encounter, or to facing the bigger issues of life and work. So how do we best instil this in our young people?

In our conversations about this amongst the staff at school a common theme is a desire to encourage our students to be willing to take a risk, to have a go and accept that there is every chance they might be wrong, but that that is not necessarily a bad thing. A suggestion to ‘have a go’ is often with immense reluctance. When we are willing to accept the possibility of failure, and recognise that it might take us several attempts to get to the right answer, or best solution, we are naturally going to feel more comfortable with the possibility that we might not be ‘right’ the first time.

Perhaps part of the issue is too much attention on the end result, without valuing the process that leads there.  We marvel at the apparently effortless grace of a dancer or the breath-taking passing shot down the line that line that wins a game, without adding up the hours of pain and practice that made those performances possible.  Of course, professionalism demands that excellence appears easy, but we all know that without preparation, we will not perform to our best, whether in a meeting, in a crucial presentation or speech, on stage, or in an exam. That is something that we as adults have learned through experience, sometimes painfully. Learning through experience demands that we give time to reflection and evaluation, to an acknowledgement of the process of learning. Similarly, I believe that creativity, the capacity to ask ‘what if?’ has to be founded on a secure basis of knowledge, and a willingness to be persistent, because of course the first ‘what if?’ proposition might not lead anywhere at all, nor indeed the second, or third. There is a good reason why many Nobel Laureates are well advanced in years; problem solving takes time.  

When I taught Latin, I would often hear ‘I don’t understand the dative/ablative/ subjunctive…’ or indeed, simply ‘I don’t get this.’ Of course as a teacher one then tries to explain again, perhaps using a different example, or by going back to basics. So often, however, what is needed is for the student to have learned to recognise a set of endings, or terminology, or times tables etc, before they can start to apply and hence understand them. The teacher’s explanation and the student’s willingness to listen, learn and apply, have to go hand in hand. Learning off by heart has become very unfashionable. Certainly I am glad that creativity is valued in the modern classroom, alongside collaboration, different styles of learning and teaching and an encouragement to question, but we should never lose sight of how important secure foundations are, and some of that security can only come from an element of sheer hard work and a willingness to practise.

So to return to creativity – we want to encourage our students to reflect on their own learning processes, the metacognition that enables us to identify how we learn and how we have arrived at an answer. We want them to know that it is fine to fail, and indeed necessary, as long as failure is seen as a step along the way to progress. We want our students to ask ‘what if…?’ in every classroom, but we also want them to know enough to enable them to frame a good question.  None of this of course happens over night, but rather grows in a culture where high expectations and trust sit side by side, and where adults are open about their own learning experiences. This is a challenge for us all in education, as the growing inclination is to want answers more and more quickly. The readily available information at our fingertips is no substitute for knowledge absorbed and internalised through practice and reflection.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh

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