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Stuttering

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A short story about my life as a teacher by Paul Carney

Stuttering
I remember being sat on the end of my marital bed sobbing like I’d never sobbed before. Great, heavy gasping sobs. I was in a bad state and I felt like I was in complete despair.
“We’ll sort something out,” my wife said unconvincingly as she lamely patted my back.
We had no money and I mean no money. I’d been a full-time student for the last four years and this was July; my grant money had run out. I’d been working every Saturday at a local supermarket and often others shifts too, but I’d taken the decision to give up my job because of the demands of my final degree show at University. It was short sighted of me, even selfish because the real reason I’d given it up was that I hated it, and after three years I was sick of working there. But I had a wife and two kids, responsibilities, and I couldn’t afford to stop working, especially since I knew I was ineligible for benefits. Life had caught me up and kicked me hard in the balls and my wife was pissed off at me.
“I’ll try to get some illustration w-work, send my C-C-CV out to agencies,” I stuttered.
“What good will that do?” My wife said angrily. “We need money now, not in three months time. We can’t afford for you to spending your time fucking drawing all day.”

This had been the theme of our arguments right through my time at University studying Design and Illustration. Monica, my wife, didn’t believe women should work when they had young kids, because children needed full-time care and attention. Apart from putting all the pressure on me to provide for them all, it had been a deeply troubling time for our marriage, since Monica couldn’t see any long term prospects for the family from me studying art.
But my immediate thought was; ‘How the hell was I going to feed the kids?’.
“You need a bloody job,” she hissed. “I’m sick of us being skint just so you can draw fucking hairdryers.” (This was an illustration I was working on at the time.)
To be fair to her, things had been bad for us financially for four years whilst I’d been at College and Uni and she had been very supportive in many ways. But when times are hard tempers flare.
A few days later an idea struck me that would change my life. I decided, after having a long heart to heart with a teacher at my Uni, to apply to train to become a teacher.
“I can just do it part-time, to fill in between freelance design work,” I said to Monica enthusiastically.
“It sounds great, but it still doesn’t help us in the short-term does it?” Monica said flatly.
“Er, er, I’ll get a b-bar job, but the great thing about this course is that I get a r-r-recruitment bursary because they’re shhhhh-ort of Design Tech-tech-nology teachers.”
“I thought you were doing art?”
“There a-a-aren’t any art teaching colleges around here. I’d have to go to L-Leeds or Newcastle and besides, if I do this I get the – b-bursary.”
“But what do you know about Technology?”
“N-Nothing.”

In retrospect, I wasn’t the best at making decisions.

So here I was, three months later, on my first teaching placement in a secondary school on the very same council estate I was living with my family and had lived on all my life. It was about as hard a school as I would ever work in in my twenty year teaching career and I knew nothing about what I was teaching.
“What are you like with Electronics?” my mentor Judy said.
“Er, er, a bit rrrusty,” I said in a profound understatement. I knew zilch about electronics.
“I’d like you to take the year 10 electronics unit,” Judy continued. “They’re making their own circuits using etching processes. Now you’ll be using acid baths so there’s a few health and safety concerns attached to them but don’t worry, Norman (the technician) and I will be on hand to help out.”
Long gone are the days when pupils etched their own circuits onto metal plates using portable acid baths, but in those days there was no such thing as a risk assessment or COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health). Well, there might have been, after all it was 1995, but no one told me and no one cared.
“Er, isn’t that the class with P-P-Peter Smythe in it?” I asked nervously.
“Yes,” Judy said, a flicker of cunning flashing from her eyes. I didn’t learn until a lot of years later that teachers often got the students to take classes they didn’t like teaching themselves. “But I’ll always be in the class with you, so don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

But I was worried. Very worried. Firstly, because I knew Peter Smythe and I knew his parents too. These were not the sort of people you messed with. They had little regard for the law or society in general and they hated schools and teachers. They only sent their kids to school because they had to and they might as well have sent them with a note saying; ‘please excuse Peter from every lesson you teach because he has a personality disorder that makes him want to destroy any nice thing you’ve ever wanted to do in a classroom.’
Secondly, I knew nothing about electronics and thirdly, I stuttered, especially when I was nervous.

Don’t ever be fooled by those fancy documentaries on the telly that tell you how wonderful science is, because Biology is a twat. Oh it comes across as wonderful and awe inspiring, but behind your back it’s up to all sorts of scams and shenanigans. In my case it shuffled my families’ DNA deck and dealt us a Jack high. Not a terrible hand in the scheme of things I admit, but not a winner either. You see, Mother Nature decided to give most of the male members of my family a speech impediment.
I mean you can’t complain can you? It isn’t like we got Polycystic Kidney Disease like the men in my mates family inherited, but it’s just enough to blight your bloody social life and affect your prospects with the girls. Girls prefer dangerous, edgy bad boys. I was a Catholic choir boy who couldn’t get the words out of his mouth without spraying the poor girl with my spittle. My Dad stuttered, my two brothers stuttered and my cousins and uncles. Family gatherings were a hoot.
Just to clarify this; I don’t usually stutter much if I’m relaxed and confident, but when I’m nervous or speaking publicly I can still suffer badly. Imagine, every time you want to speak to a person in a shop, or a bar or ask someone a question you know you’re going to stutter. I had some speech therapy as a kid but essentially I learned how to duck and dive the full on stammer by developing a mind trick; basically a short melody of three notes I sang in my head before I spoke. I’d rehearse the words I wanted to say as the anxiety built up, play my melody in my head, then spit the words out. Doo wah wah.
Another trick I learned to avoid the stammering was by replacing it with the sound ‘er’. For some unfathomable reason I decided that starting every word with ‘er, er, er…’ was much better than starting it with ‘P-p-p..’
My stammer isn’t too bad now, but as a kid it was pretty awful and affected my confidence enormously. Mam used to send either me or my brother to the corner shop to get some things for tea, (dinner to everyone in the south of the UK) and she would always give us a note; a list of things she wanted. You’d think I’d make life easy for myself and just hand the note over in the shop, but as I grew older it became a cause of much shame if you were still using notes after the age of six. Now if I’d stopped and used some logic here I could have saved myself a lot of trouble because the chances are, only a minority of kids could ever see me handing a note over, whereas everyone would hear me stutter. But as I was to find out throughout my whole life, if there was a hard, difficult way to do something I’d find it.
Back in the sixties and early seventies most corner shops in the north still had counter service. You had to go and ask for what you wanted and the woman behind the counter (it was always a woman) would get it for you. As you can imagine, at tea-time (four o’clock in Teesside) the queue would be huge. I’d wait in the queue patiently for my turn, rehearsing my list of food items, getting ready to sing my little melody in my head, sweat running from my forehead and anxiety building. Finally, I’d get to the front, (doo wah wah)
“C-c-c-can I have a er, a er, er…’ (stop talking Paul you’re making a fool of yourself)
Sniggers erupt in the queue behind me and the woman just glares at me, after all there’s a lot of people waiting. And just to complete my humiliation, for some reason I think this is a great time to fidget with the crotch of my pants and rock backwards and forwards.
‘A p-p-p…’
The shop assistant is distracted by the bloke behind me who is pleading with her and glaring at me. ‘I only want some fag papers Mary.’
She turns to get the fag papers.
‘A p-p-packet of c-custard powder please.’
I’m thrilled. Relief comes surging through me and my anxiety levels instantly subside. But it’s not over yet. She hasn’t heard me. ‘What was that son?’
‘Oh no!’ Panic, panic, panic. ‘C-c-c-an I have a er, a er, a errr…’
Fidget, fidget, rock, rock.
‘Oh hey son I haven’t got time for this,’ she says impatiently. ‘Stand to one side and let me know when you’ve made your mind up.’
It sometimes took me bloody ages to get served and I never did make life easy for myself and just give her the note.

It didn’t get any easier at school. It was common for me to suffer from teasing and bullying on the playground. ‘C – C – Carney,’ they’d taunt. And that was just the teachers. In the seventies the big comedy acts at that time were Ronnie Barker’s ‘Arkwright’ in Open All Hours and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, both of whom featured parodies of stuttering. As far as the kids were concerned I was comedy gold. It’s difficult to be taken seriously when every time you speak someone is shouting; ‘Ger – ger – Granville!’ Young people these days seem to get counselling for the mildest of situations. For me bullying was a daily trial that you just had to endure and get on with. Another side effect of having a speech impediment is that it knocks your sense of timing out badly in conversations and it ruins your comedy timing completely.
I was in a Geography lesson in Fourth Year Seniors when I told my mate Martin a joke I’d heard. He laughed politely but at that moment the most gorgeous girl of my dreams, Jade Mansfield happened to sit in the seat right behind us and say; ‘Oooh is that a joke Paul? Tell us it!’
I went scarlet red of course and turned around to face her.
‘It’s ok, it wasn’t f-f-funny,’ I pleaded.
‘Carney’s got a good joke,’ Jade said softly as all the class now turned to face me. There was no getting out of it now.
Pause, perspiration, rock backwards and forwards, note to self to keep hands off testicles, melody – Doo wah wah: ’Er, er, a bloke g-g-goes to the opticians for an eye test. The o-o-optician says ‘look, look, look up to the sky what do you see?’ ‘The sun’, says the bloke. ‘Well how fffffffffffffffff, how ffffffffffffffffff, er, er, er how fffffffffffff…’
The excruciating silence could have been sliced and labelled with a charity sticker saying; ’Please help us save this poor boy’. The entire class began perspiring along with me, Jade, bless her, tried to get me to stop, holding her hands aloft, almost praying for me to end the agony. For the first time in my life, no one was laughing at my stutter, they were just desperate for me to finish the punchline, which most of them had worked out anyway. At that moment Mr Stringer, the class teacher walked in.
’Sorry I’m late everyone,’ he exclaims as he breezes into the room. The tension is broken and the class, in utter relief, turned to get their books and pens out of their bags. But I hadn’t finished.
‘HOW FAR DO YOU WANNA SEE LIKE?’ I bellowed loudly. No one laughed. Mr Stringer glared at me, his face contorted in outrage at this little pipsqueak of a boy being so rude to him.
“I beg your pardon young man?’ he cried indignantly. ‘How dare you speak to me like that? Get out and stand in the corridor.’
‘B-b-but sir….’
Cue guffaws of laughter from the whole class.

So why the hell I became a teacher I don’t know. I should have done a nice, quiet desk job, one that didn’t depend on my ability to communicate fluently and expertly with young people who might find it hilarious that their teacher stuttered. But I didn’t. I was here, in October 1995, facing a classroom full of the wildest, most disruptive children you’d ever meet. I knew nothing about the subject I was teaching and I was as nervous as hell. And when I got nervous, I stuttered.

‘Okay everyone, s-s-settle down please,’ I said belying my complete lack of confidence. It became the norm for children to have to line up outside the classroom before a lesson, but in those days, and especially in practical lessons such as Design Technology, the students just wandered in and sat down in an ad-hoc fashion.
No one paid any attention to me. They were strewn around the workshop in all manner of positions; a gang of lads at the back, some girls slouched over desks at the front and a few nice lads sitting quietly and talking.
‘In your seats everyone, the lesson’s about to begin,’ I said shouted louder. The group began to pay a little more attention and a few sat down in their chairs, but the lads at the back completely ignored me.
‘Are you new Sir?’ Said a bubbly girl with bright red hair as she turned to discuss my newness to her mates.
‘Yes I’m new,’ I said wondering how the hell I was going to get the classes attention.
‘Has Miss Thompson left?’
‘No, I’m still here Gemma,’ Miss Thompson said as she furiously scribbled notes about my performance.
“Just start without them Sir,” a grim faced, but well presented boy said at the front. “They never listen anyway.”
I ignored him, but I had discovered something about myself; I hated being ignored.
“You boys at that back, b-break up the conversation and sit d-d-down please,” I barked authoritatively.
They dispersed and moved to their seats. All apart from one boy; Peter Smythe.
“How many times do you want me to sit d-d-down?” He mocked with an impudent grin on his face. His mates laughed out loud as the blood rushed to my cheeks in embarrassment.
“Now then Peter, that’s enough of that!” Judy Thompson interjected from the back of the room, before I’d had a chance to reply.
“Sorry Miss,” he said with a smirk on his face.
And like so many times in my life before or since that moment I let his comment go and continued with my lesson because to fight back against everyone who mocked my impediment would mean I’d spend my life fighting and I didn’t want to do that.
I don’t remember a great deal about the lesson itself other than the fact that Peter Smythe was a complete pain in the arse for the whole lesson. He demoralised me, undermined my authority and stripped my confidence. After the lesson had ended I felt completely exhausted.

“That went well Paul!” Judy exclaimed after the lesson. “Your first one! Give yourself a pat on the back.”
“Really? You think so? But Peter Smythe was awful and some of the cheekiness from the boys towards me was dreadful. It was all I could not not to shout at them,” I protested.
“You get used to it,” she said knowingly. “They don’t mean any harm and once they get to know you you’ll be fine. Trust me you did well for a first lesson.”
“Do you think my speech impediment was bad?” I asked anxiously.
“What speech impediment?” She asked genuinely. “It sounded alright to me, you have a very powerful, commanding voice. The kids will pick up on any slightest little thing, don’t let that get to you or you won’t last long in this job.”
As I walked home I tried to give myself a talking to, shake off my feelings of negativity about my first lesson but I couldn’t. I didn’t know it then but I was a perfectionist, nothing I could have done would have been good enough for me. I always spotted every flaw in myself and was too self-critical. I had done well. Not many people could have taught that class without shouting and screaming in rage at them, but that wasn’t what modern teaching was about. Everyone in these children’s lives either shouted at them or were violent towards them, that would only make them shout back at me. I had to find ways of making them respect my authority without resorting to confrontation, which I felt was possible with most of them, but Peter Smythe? He would be the cause of a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights.

I’d naively believed that I would only work part-time as a teacher, to fill in between art jobs, but as I was soon discover, teaching took over my whole life and brought me to the edge of a nervous breakdown on more than one occasion. Peter Smythe and many more like him had not finished with me yet. But then neither was I with them.

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Memory & learning blog 3 – MARGE

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notes from the pdf MARGE

by neuroscientist Arthur Shimamura. Thanks to Daniel Willingham for posting this.

Learning is the ability to acquire knowledge from sensory experiences, where learning is perceptual (reading an x-ray), conceptual (linking new facts & ideas to existing knowledge), and skill learning.

Efficient learning depends on top-down processing which is the active use of the existing knowledge to guide the brain as to what to process.

Bottom up processing is where the teacher distributes facts while the student attempts to rote memorise them. It is the most inefficient form of learning.

A well organised memory system is built around an organised framework, where links are formed between information centres. (White matter to grey matter). The stronger the (white matter) connection the better it is remembered because these links between information are as important as the information itself.

Our brains determine how new facts fit into existing knowledge (schemas) and so memory processing distributes new information according to what we already know.

M – Motivate

The trick to remembering is to expand the spectrum of pleasure-seeking experiences and place ourselves in new learning situations. Placing yourself in a new context is perfect for this because it breaks you away from your habits of mind. Intrinsic motivation of things you are interested in will motivate you to remember them better. Using trips, galleries, stimulating resources, stories (which are organised schemas), personal opinion (which engages emotional brain circuits) and big questions to arouse curiosity will help. Web-based resources are a great entry-level gateway to conceptual information. Learning is best when it is pleasurable and engaging. The best way to encourage active learning is to get moving!

A – Attend (attention)

if we aren’t paying attention and our thoughts are scattered and our ability to process new information is diminished. The most critical problem for new learning is mind wandering and only 40-46% of students are paying attention at any one time. So student engagement is essential at the start of the lesson where you need to consider goal orientated questions, demonstrations or real-world examples. Also, breaking the lesson into sections via demonstrations or new material is important.

Also important is chunking, where we organise information into meaningful smaller units that are easier to remember. If we link these chunks to existing schemas then they become easier to remember.

Mind palaces or journey’s also are a great way to remember complex information.

R – Relate

Conceptual learning requires: 1. Activation of information in working memory 2. Relational binding of that information 3. Memory consolidation by reactivating and relating it to existing information.

This means that we need to relate new information to what we know. Do this by the Three C’s method: categorise, compare and contrast.

So when learning anything new try to recall anything you know of that is related to help you catalogue and assimilate it into what you already know. Learning is facilitated by finding similarities (comparing) and differences (contrasting) between new material and what you already know.

Verbal and Visual mediators are effective to create arbitrary associations to help us remember such as mnemonics, acronyms and visual associations such as wild imaginative mental pictures. Metaphors and Analogies can be used to connect new schemas to existing ones, such as comparing a camera to the human eye.

Another technique is to group information into meaningful hierarchies.

And rather than note taking in lessons, provide partial outlines that includes the main heading, sub-headings, titles, key words, topics. Students then fill in detailed facts.

Concept or mind maps also help to create mental hierarchies though they mustn’t be overly complex.

G – Generate

Think it, say it, teach it. By repeating the information you’ve just learned out loud things will stick better in your memory. Describe it to someone else and you strengthen it even further. You need to repeatedly use and reactivate learned information to create strong neural connections. But it’s not as good to simply restate or repeat what is being taught because you have to re-phrase it into your own words. Re-reading text books and highlighting key sections is a low-value memory exercise. But closing the textbook and trying to retrieve it from memory doubles retention. Rephrase the knowledge in creative, interesting and original ways to learn it best.

E – Evaluate

Metacognition is the ability to evaluate our own mental processes. We are constantly doing this to assimilate what is happening around us and decide on future actions.

There are two types of knowing: familiarity and recall. We don’t naturally recollect everything we learn, so we should test memory at intervals (minutes, hours, days, weeks etc.) Insert opportunities to retrieve information during class time by asking open ended questions that students must reply to individually and discretely. Anything that stimulates active responses such as clickers, mini-whiteboards etc. improves recall.

Of courses mini-quizzes and tests at regular intervals are good but so are other things such as doing a short presentation, speaking, making visuals, diagrams, recording or reading and re-writing the information in your own words.

You can also extend the earlier visual associations and mind palaces by creating flash cards of the information you want to learn then adding imaginative images to them.

Interleaving is where you mix-up and alter the order of learning. Think of it like exercising, where instead of doing thirty minutes on the treadmill then the rowing machine then the exercise bike, you do three ten minute cycles of each one. You learn different topics and subjects then test yourself on previous subject learning not the one you have just learned.

Lastly, you have to be cautious to not over-focus in specific brain regions, such as left or right brain learning.

Another important factor is that the student must be an active participant in learning to create a top-down processing model.

How to draw an eye

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As a teacher I’d constantly get asked how to draw eyes and it was always on people’s wish lists of things they’d love to be able to do.

So here goes:

1. Study the eye closely then simplify and break it down into simple shapes and edges. Try to identify the detail inside the shapes and where the dark and light tones are.

2. Sketch out the basic shapes that make up the structure of the eye (you have to work these out for yourself!). For an eye it’s an oval and a circle.

3. Now measure the proportions of your shapes to make sure they are the right size. If they aren’t – change them.

4. Lightly sketch details inside the eye (and outside of it if you like).

5. On a scrap piece of paper, practice shading a small rectangle from light to dark so that it blends smoothly without gaps.

6. Now look back again at the subject, studying where the light and dark areas are.

7. Apply shading smoothly to your drawing to match the dark and light areas on the subject.

8. Look at the whole drawing, adding detail, making improvements and eliminating any obvious errors.

And that’s it! You should have a drawing that resembles an eye to a greater or lesser degree. The more you do it the better you will get.

And here’s the important thing: to draw anything else, simply replace the word eye with something else you’d like to draw.

You see, if you WANTED to draw an eye then you’ll try to learn how. So once you can do that you can use exactly the same principle to draw anything else.

In art, motivation is critical.

Explaining Creativity in education

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Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says we can be creative or Creative. Small ‘c’ creativity he describes as that which does not lead to a change in the symbolic domain of the culture; so small scale, personal acts of indulging in a playful, intuitive process would be creative. But when creative acts are accepted by the culture and lead to a transformation of the symbolic domain they become Creative. Creativity with a capital ‘C’ therefore is; ‘to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added into the culture’.

A lone genius might produce incredible creative acts, but unless they are accepted by the wider culture they will remain creative not Creative. Also, if a Creative act falls out of cultural acceptance then its creative influence is lost. So creativity can be viewed as both personal and original to oneself, whilst at the same time it can also be a more significant act when it leads to change or influence in wider culture. This implies that creativity is both intrinsic and extrinsic. It is systematic as well as being an individual phenomenon.

This is not to undermine the value of small c creativity to the individual. Almost all creative acts will never lead to wider change in the culture, but their importance is in what they bring to the emotional well-being of the person doing them. Engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to have considerable impact on well-being. And in addition, they may be valued as Creative at a later date, just as Van Gogh’s or Mendel’s work was.

Knowledge
Factual knowledge is one of the four pillars of knowledge; factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognition. Each of the four domains are important, but you might argue that some subjects are weighted more toward factual knowledge, others towards skills and others towards conceptual. (I think all subjects require metacognition.)

In education, it isn’t enough to simply label lessons as creative activities and hope a creative person will come out of it. Teaching science in a brightly coloured suit with lots of bangs and explosions won’t lead to any increased creative ability. What we need to do is to determine what we mean by creativity within our own domain and understand the factors and approaches that can lead to it. (In mathematics I’m reliably informed, innovation occurs at a paradox or areas of uncertainty.)

A strong factual knowledge base and an ability to communicate that knowledge to peers is vital to Creativity. In the rigid domains of maths and science it is virtually impossible to make a Creative contribution without internalising the fundamental knowledge of the domain. That said, having a wide factual knowledge base on its own isn’t enough because Critical Thinking & the Understanding to apply that factual knowledge through problem solving for example are also important. This is an area where information outside of pure factual knowledge, logic and reasoning is often important because problems aren’t only solved in linear ways but in abstract, conceptual ways too and this where creative thinking becomes important.

Creativity doesn’t just spring from a person when more and more factual knowledge is added. If it did then the most knowledgeable people would be the most creative and that just isn’t true. In fact the reverse is often true. Naive people coming to a profession with a fresh mind and new insight, who challenge the status quo are often the ones who make a significant breakthrough. (Yes they will have a level of expertise or they couldn’t understand the problem). Sometimes belligerence and sheer dogged determination lead to Creativity rather than possessing the most knowledge. Often it’s good fortune, sometimes it’s playfulness and sometimes its a collaborative effort. Creativity is very diverse.

Of course some researchers such as Sweller have argued that certain skills such as creativity have ‘evolved’ in our species over time and that we tend to find them easier as a result. But surely our species have developed varying degrees of creativity and is dependent on the individual. Yes we have utilised some skills over a longer period of time and constructed complex knowledge domains as a result of discovery, invention and innovation which are difficult to master, but again, this is individual. Some find learning academic subjects much easier than being creative. I can say that in my twenty years of teaching both Art and Maths I found that very often, students who were bright in academic subjects struggled to be creative and imaginative in art and vice-versa. In generalising our abilities we are on thin ice with the ‘creativity is easy’ argument and miss the point. Acts of creativity, invention and discovery are clearly extremely difficult or we wouldn’t struggle so much to make them. Treating creativity as a by-product of greater knowledge is to misunderstand the very nature of it.

The domain is vital to determining creativity.
Some domains are by their nature, aligned more naturally with little c creativity. Domains such as the arts, sports, areas of languages and some humanities involve greater modes of expression, earlier creative use of their knowledge base and can be employed at a more successful level (in terms of acceptance by the culture) with less expertise. (Think popular music.) The expert knowledge threshold is lower because the demand for new, innovative product is centred on things such as style, fashion and taste. This must irk classically trained musicians who earn a pittance compared to a millionaire pop star who can only play three chords.

In academia, domains that have more quantifiable measurement usually take precedence over ones that do not. There is a greater factual knowledge base to assimilate before innovation can be made. Academia values things that effect real change or where change can be seen, over one’s that are more ambiguous and harder to measure. Not necessarily because they add more value, but because they can be verified more easily. You might argue that knowledge domains that bring medical technological innovation and the like are more important, but then others might argue that more intrinsic things such as morality, purpose and quality of life are. We tend to accept the benefits of some change more easily than others. We can see the benefits of building a new motorway much more readily than we see its costs to air quality and environment. We tend to value the striker much more than the defender; the public installation sculptor much more than the embroiderer. This does not mean that more rigidly organised domains do not require creativity or that less-rigid domains don’t need a firm knowledge base. It is impossible to understand creativity within a domain without understanding the structure of that domain and how it operates with regard to new ideas.

This notion is supported by influential psychologist Daniel Willingham who states that the processes of thinking are entwined with domain knowledge and nested in subject matter. Trying to teach critical thinking skills as a separate entity or leaving thinking processes to chance by not teaching them at all is flawed.

Further considerations to creativity
The single most important factor to developing creative people is to instill a sense of curiosity, motivation, awe and wonder about their subject. If that is present then anything is possible. When we are motivated we’ll build bridges; when we aren’t we’ll give up and sit on the bank wondering how to get to the other side. Of course, it helps if you know what bridges are and how to make them and that is why a strong, factual knowledge base is vital, but the desire to connect two remote areas of land is what leads us to invent bridges in the first place.

Creativity is also dependent on environment. In ‘reactive’ conservative domains, only a few items are accepted and novelty is usually rejected. In proactive domains novelty is encouraged and stimulated. The environment of the extrinsic creativity must also support the development of ideas and in this way funding and an open, flexible atmosphere to change is necessary.

Summary
What all of this means is that creativity isn’t restricted to the acts of an individual. Creativity (big C) does not act in isolation. It is a collection of variables; some of which are; creating the right environment for it to happen, stimulating innovative thinking, understanding the market forces or audience, identifying the correct problems, asking the right questions, serendipity, building teams, leadership and understanding the content of the domain to name a few.

If we are to be Creative then people need to understand creative processes in relation to our subject. Rather than using the generic term creativity, we can employ the key creative processes than drive it. Scientist Robert Root Bernstein and others have identified thirteen creative thinking tools that are generic to all or most subject domains to a greater or lesser degree. Many of these have strong foundations in academic research. I’ve identified these:

Visualisation,
Adaptation,
Observation,
Knowledge,
Collaboration,
Alternative viewpoints,
Serendipity,
Methodical,
Trial and error

But there are more. These processes have led to many of the most innovative, ground-breaking discoveries and inventions of humankind. They crop up time and time again as the central process by which Creativity occurs. But do we ever teach these processes in schools or colleges? I think we do, but only indirectly and even then we could teach them much more effectively if we valued them more.

“Understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital,” Daniel Willingham writes. “It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.”

Critical thinking, the ability to critically analyse an argument depends on logic and reasoning, but also, according to Kerry Walters in his book Re-thinking & Reason, it requires more flexible approaches such as imagination and intuition.

Visualisation, an imagination dependent cognitive process, is a profoundly important tool for mathematicians, scientists and artists alike. In maths we use it to help us make predictions, in science to understand an organism and in art to invent and imagine. But do we teach it as an important thinking tool that should be learned? Do students know how and why visualisation is so important in this field? Do they know how can they become better at it? The same can be said for adaptation, observation and all of the other processes I’ve mentioned. They have been identified as crucial to helping us be more creative; much academic research has been done on many of them, yet we don’t directly teach them.

Why is that?

Sources
Creativity: flow & the psychology of invention and discovery, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sparks of Genius; the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people, Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein
Springs of creativity, Rutherford Aris, H. Ted Davis, Roger H. Stewer.
Discovering, inventing & problem solving on the frontiers of science, Robert Root-Bernstein.

Kerry S. Walters, Re-thinking Reason

Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel Willingham

Why increasing factual knowledge doesn’t automatically lead to greater creative insight & why simply being creative doesn’t either

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Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says we can be creative or Creative. Small ‘c’ creativity he describes as that which does not lead to a change in the symbolic domain of the culture; so small scale, personal acts of indulging in a playful, intuitive process would be creative. But when creative acts are accepted by the culture and lead to a transformation of the symbolic domain they become Creative. Creativity with a capital ‘C’ therefore is; ‘to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added into the culture’.

A lone genius might produce incredible creative acts, but unless they are accepted by the wider culture they will remain creative not Creative. Also, if a Creative act falls out of cultural acceptance then its creative influence is lost. So creativity can be viewed as both personal and original to oneself, whilst at the same time it can also be a more significant act when it leads to change or influence in wider culture. This implies that creativity is both intrinsic and extrinsic. It is systematic as well as being an individual phenomenon.

This is not to undermine the value of small c creativity to the individual. Almost all creative acts will never lead to wider change in the culture, but their importance is in what they bring to the emotional well-being of the person doing them. Engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to have considerable impact on well-being. And in addition, they may be valued as Creative at a later date, just as Van Gogh’s or Mendel’s work was.

Knowledge
Factual knowledge is one of the four pillars of knowledge; factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognition. Each of the four domains are important, but you might argue that some subjects are weighted more toward factual knowledge, others towards skills and others towards conceptual. (I think all subjects require metacognition.)

In education, it isn’t enough to simply label lessons as creative activities and hope a creative person will come out of it. Teaching science in a brightly coloured suit with lots of bangs and explosions won’t lead to any increased creative ability. What we need to do is to determine what we mean by creativity within our own domain and understand the factors and approaches that can lead to it. (In mathematics I’m reliably informed, innovation occurs at a paradox or areas of uncertainty.)

A strong factual knowledge base and an ability to communicate that knowledge to peers is vital to Creativity. In the rigid domains of maths and science it is virtually impossible to make a Creative contribution without internalising the fundamental knowledge of the domain. That said, having a wide knowledge base on its own isn’t enough because Critical Thinking & problem solving are also important. This is an area where information outside of pure knowledge, logic and reasoning is often important because problems aren’t only solved in linear ways but in abstract, conceptual ways too and this where creative thinking becomes important.

Creativity doesn’t just spring from a person when more and more knowledge is added. If it did then the most knowledgeable people would be the most creative and that just isn’t true. In fact the reverse is often true. Naive people coming to a profession with a fresh mind and new insight, who challenge the status quo are often the ones who make a significant breakthrough. Sometimes belligerence and sheer dogged determination lead to Creativity. Often it’s good fortune, sometimes it’s playfulness and sometimes its a collaborative effort.

Of course some researchers such as Sweller have argued that certain skills such as creativity have ‘evolved’ in our species over time and that we tend to find them easier as a result. But surely our species have developed varying degrees of creativity and is dependent on the individual. Yes we have utilised some skills over a longer period of time and constructed complex knowledge domains as a result of discovery, invention and innovation which are difficult to master, but again, this is individual. Some find learning academic subjects much easier than being creative. I can say that in my twenty years of teaching both Art and Maths I found that very often, students who were bright in academic subjects struggled to be creative and imaginative in art and vice-versa. In generalising our abilities we are on thin ice with the ‘creativity is easy’ argument and miss the point. Acts of creativity, invention and discovery are clearly extremely difficult or we wouldn’t struggle so much to make them.

The domain is vital to determining creativity
Some domains are by their nature, aligned more naturally with little c creativity. Domains such as the arts, sports, areas of languages and some humanities involve greater modes of expression, earlier creative use of their knowledge base and can be employed at a more successful level (in terms of acceptance by the culture) with less expertise. (Think popular music.) The expert knowledge threshold is lower because the demand for new, innovative product is centred on style, fashion and taste. This must irk classically trained musicians who earn a pittance compared to a millionaire pop star who can only play three chords.

In academia, domains that have more quantifiable measurement usually take precedence over ones that do not. There is a greater factual knowledge base to assimilate before innovation can be made. Academia values things that effect real change or where change can be seen, over one’s that are more ambiguous and harder to measure. Not necessarily because they add more value, but because they can be verified more easily. You might argue that knowledge domains that bring medical technological innovation and the like are more important, but then others might argue that more intrinsic things such as morality, purpose and quality of life are. We tend to accept the benefits of some change more easily than others. We can see the benefits of building a new motorway much more readily than we see its costs to air quality and environment. We tend to value the striker much more than the defender; the public installation sculptor much more than the embroiderer. This does not mean that more rigidly organised domains do not require creativity or that less-rigid domains don’t need a firm knowledge base. It is impossible to understand creativity within a domain without understanding the structure of that domain and how it operates with regard to new ideas.

This notion is supported by influential psychologist Daniel Willingham who states that the processes of thinking are entwined with domain knowledge and nested in subject matter. Trying to teach critical thinking skills as a separate entity or leaving thinking processes to chance by not teaching them at all is flawed.

Further considerations to creativity
The single most important factor to developing creative people is to instill a sense of curiosity, motivation, awe and wonder about their subject. If that is present then anything is possible. When we are motivated we’ll build bridges; when we aren’t we’ll give up and sit on the bank wondering how to get to the other side. Of course, it helps if you know what bridges are and how to make them and that is why a strong, factual knowledge base is vital, but the desire to connect two remote areas of land is what leads us to invent bridges in the first place.

Creativity is also dependent on environment. In ‘reactive’ conservative domains, only a few items are accepted and novelty is usually rejected. In proactive domains novelty is encouraged and stimulated. The environment of the extrinsic creativity must also support the development of ideas and in this way funding and an open, flexible atmosphere to change is necessary.

Summary
What all of this means is that creativity isn’t restricted to the acts of an individual. Creativity (big C) does not act in isolation. It is a collection of variables; some of which are; creating the right environment for it to happen, stimulating innovative thinking, understanding the market forces or audience, identifying the correct problems, asking the right questions, serendipity, building teams, leadership and understanding the content of the domain to name a few.

If we are to be Creative then people need to understand creative processes in relation to our subject. Rather than using the generic term creativity, we can employ the key creative processes than drive it. Scientist Robert Root Bernstein and others have identified thirteen creative thinking tools that are generic to all or most subject domains to a greater or lesser degree. Many of these have strong foundations in academic research. I’ve identified these:

Visualisation,
Adaptation,
Observation,
Knowledge,
Collaboration,
Alternative viewpoints,
Serendipity,
Methodical,
Trial and error

But there are more. These processes have led to many of the most innovative, ground-breaking discoveries and inventions of humankind. They crop up time and time again as the central process by which Creativity occurs. But do we ever teach these processes in schools or colleges? I think we do, but only indirectly and even then we could teach them much more effectively if we valued them more.

“Understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital,” Daniel Willingham writes. “It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.”

Critical thinking, the ability to critically analyse an argument depends on logic and reasoning, but also, according to Kerry Walters in his book Re-thinking & Reason, it requires more flexible approaches such as imagination and intuition.

Visualisation, an imagination dependent cognitive process, is a profoundly important tool for mathematicians, scientists and artists alike. In maths we use it to help us make predictions, in science to understand an organism and in art to invent and imagine. But do we teach it as an important thinking tool that should be learned? Do students know how and why visualisation is so important in this field? Do they know how can they become better at it? The same can be said for adaptation, observation and all of the other processes I’ve mentioned. They have been identified as crucial to helping us be more creative; much academic research has been done on many of them, yet we don’t directly teach them.

Why is that?

Sources
Creativity: flow & the psychology of invention and discovery, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sparks of Genius; the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people, Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein
Springs of creativity, Rutherford Aris, H. Ted Davis, Roger H. Stewer.
Discovering, inventing & problem solving on the frontiers of science, Robert Root-Bernstein.

Kerry S. Walters, Re-thinking Reason

Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel Willingham

10 Classroom Strategies for Enhancing Memory

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This article is based on an article by Christopher Pappas for the eLearning Industry (Instructional Design -7 strategies for eLearning Professionals). I’ve used some of his methods and added my own.

If we want students to remember our lessons we have to ensure they have effectively processed the information, encoded it and then give them enough time and the skills to retrieve it. People do this at different rates and speeds and in different ways so there isn’t a one size fits all approach. I used to say to my students; ‘teachers fill your head full of facts everyday but they rarely teach you how to remember them.

With difficult concepts, students are much likely to access their familiarity memory first. They’ll think; ‘oh I know this from somewhere,’ then try to wrack their brains to access their semantic memory for recalling facts. So the more memory techniques they can use the more likely they are to remember. So in no particular order of importance:

1. Involve all the senses. Encode the information into visual forms by writing it down, drawing diagrams, illustrations, charts and maps etc. Make computer based audio and video presentations, speak, sing or use poetry/rap to verbalise the information, use particular scents and smells to associate with different knowledge domains, make tactile physical movements to form associations. Best for big concepts, or harder, longer more complex information. Creativity aids memory processing and recall.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat and revisit. This is probably the most effective and quickest way of encoding shorter pieces of information. But the information has to be revisited and recalled at different intervals both in the lesson and at future times in order to be retrieved. We do this through testing of course and testing is a very important way of helping us to remember things. This can also be effectively done by getting students to repeat the information to each other in pairs or small groups because aurally repeating the information out loud helps encoding. Repetition doesn’t have to be dull and boring drilling. Anything that repeats and reiterates the knowledge in our minds helps; including quizzes, games and presentations.

3. Use it! Active retrieval is more effective than merely repeating information. If students don’t use the knowledge or it is considered a low priority to them then students will push the information further down into deeper memories, away from immediate recall.

4. Simplify. Break complex information into smaller sections. Prioritise information and get rid of unnecessary clutter. Organise the lesson information succinctly. Structure the content to create flow.

Get pupils to make summaries or paraphrase each chunk of information in their own words so they encode the information more effectively and can retrieve it more easily.

5. Visual chunking. Chunking is where you take basic familiar elements and associate them together in a more complex whole. Visual chunking is where you associate images sounds and feelings in your mind with the information you’re trying to remember. Mind palaces are an excellent form of visual chunking but you could try linking each fact to a familiar object. If you can remember ten familiar common items you can then associate numbers with them. One swan, two shoe etc. Then visualise the fact you want to remember with the number, and the item, then add an action. One swan is waddling over the formula for speed. Two shoes are tapping on the the value of pi, etc. After ten you can use 11 swans doing something else, and keep going.

6. Utilise Schemas. Use familiar knowledge and concepts to make associations with new information. For example, relating new facts through football to a soccer mad fan might help them remember it more easily. You can of course create new Schemas! Or use analogies and metaphors to familiar things, for example the electrical current is like a water slide, if we add narrower lanes and more loops and turns we increase the resistance.

7. Scenarios and stories help people pair semantic facts with episodic memory and we recall episodic memories much more easily. Why not get students to create stories from sequences of information or use mnemonics. So the order of the planets could be My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.

8. Mood and Motivation are powerful way to remember anything, so if a student is emotionally connected they are more likely to remember something. Make emotional connections that are relatable to help move information more easily into recall. Also, create a positive environment and use praise appropriately and sparingly at opportune times to make students feel good. We remember nice things! (Unfortunately we also remember bad things but we won’t go there!).

9. Time. Give pupils time to process, encode, store new information. Very bright students have strong neural connections that make recall easy, but others need time to embed them. Don’t judge the whole class by the speed of the fastest student to recall it. Some students memorise quickly using only repeat and recall but others need more diverse methods and more time.

10. Stage fright. And to finish I’d like to mention the phenomena of stage fright. I have to remember lots of lyrics and chord sequences to songs for performance. I use lots of techniques to help make them easily able to be recalled and at home I think I’ve got them off by heart. But go onstage look at the audience and the mind can go blank. This can happen in an exam too so try to calm down, settle the fear hormones flooding through your system and focus on something I call an anchor point. For my songs it’s the first line and I’ll construct a visual image in my head of what the the line means. If I’ve got the image in my head I’m fine.

The problem with Cognitive Load Theory for general learning

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This article is my own summary interpretation of the paper; Cognitive Load Theory, what does it mean for learning designers? By Walkergrove 2014.

Cognitive Load Theory is a well researched, well proven and generally unchallenged practice of instruction that demonstrates a strong and lasting influence on learners in many educational situations such as when complex tasks or large pieces of information need to be processed. But it is far from being a universal model for all teaching subjects and there is considerable debate over many of its principles.

One of the most significant criticisms of CLT is that researchers are unable to standardise a method of measurement for what constitutes cognitive load. Participants of the studies are asked to rate their load on a scale or physiological measurements are used (physical reactions to load). Both methods are highly subjective and vary from participant to participant. What constitutes cognitive overload or underload to me might not apply to you. In a class full of learners of differing abilities how do you tell? What is stressful for me is a thrill for someone else. One effective solution might be for each learner to have control of the cognitive load themselves (metacognition and independent learning?).

Cognitive load describes the burden placed upon the working memory by a task or information. It dates back to George Miller’s paper ‘the magical number seven’ from 1956. He thought that our short term memory is only able to process seven items before a decrease in retention but recent research has lowered this to about four for most learners. Learners can experience cognitive overload or cognitive underload.

In the 1980’s educational psychologist John Sweller used empirical studies of information processing to identify a set of principles that formed his theory of cognitive overload or CLT. His aim was to identify more effective ways of teaching maths and science and he proposed that a lack of learning occurs when the total amount of load induced by the learning environment exceeds the capacity of the learner. Other researchers quickly applied this to other areas where instructional learning takes precedent.

CLT assumes that working memory has a limited processing capacity, that long term memory is responsible for holding large amounts of information over longer periods of time and that people organise, understand and categorise information into constructs of information called Schemas. He identified three types of cognitive load; intrinsic (the difficulty of the task) extraneous (avoidable external information) and germane load used to construct Schemas. In CLT, the sum total of these working loads must not exceed the capacity of working memory. Proponents of CLT quickly considered it a universal theory to learning across all domains, media and learners.

However, further reviews of the evidence submitted by CLT researchers Clark, Nguyen and Sweller (2006) found that every study they used related to sciences, maths or complex processes and many of the lessons examined were very short. There has been a lack of research into the longer-term performance of those who have learned using CLT. The experimental data presented in the studies is in question also since the tests were all carried out immediately after the lesson and do not measure the long term effects of CLT. It may be that CLT is most effective for cramming before a test for example. The principle studies that led to the development of CLT were only involved with the teaching of complex mathematical and scientific problems. Yet it has been universally applied to all instruction without significant further research into its application to non-scientific or process-driven problems. Similarly there is a lack of research into long-term gains through the application of CLT principles.

Much of CLT has been adopted by eager enthusiasts uncritically yet many questions remain. The technique of chunking information is widely used for example yet there is little guidance on what a manageable sized chunk is and in any case this is surely likely to vary from student to student. Of course as a teacher I would want to break down complex information into smaller parts, but how small? Are the sizes the same for everybody? Another issue in question is whether the intrinsic cognitive load can be altered through instructional elements.

What is also relevant is the phenomenon of expertise reversal: that pitching your lessons at low levels actually depresses learning for those with more expertise. (Common sense?) This means that creating materials that have a low difficulty level could cause similar problems as cognitive overload. So it might seem that differentiation of learning is actually counter-productive to the whole class’s learning. This might be true, but again, these studies compared the whole class’s learning outcomes with lower level instruction. Targeted differentiation for isolated groups weren’t measured and again, we’re left with the feeling that the researchers are generalising whole group trends. The conclusion could be drawn that instructional materials cannot be the same for all learners, that there must be varying degrees of difficulty. If you pitch your lessons too low people won’t learn enough, pitch it too high and they will be overloaded. (Isn’t this just what every teacher knows anyway?)

To paraphrase: CLT has been shown to be very effective for teaching complex information. By paraphrasing complex information into smaller Schemas you can avoid cognitive overload and increase the amount learned. By breaking information into smaller manageable sections and ensuring that these sections are the right size for learners to manage (the Goldilocks syndrome) you should increase the effect of your teaching. However, CLT isn’t proven to work for other aspects of learning and in any case, cognitive load is difficult to measure and varies from person to person.