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What a Day for a Daydream:
Allowing for Surprise and Creativity in Learning

by Darron Davies

What is it that really makes our heads turn and our hearts pump? What is it in education that really grabs us and makes us continue? What moves us and makes the day to day routine even more meaningful?

It is important at times to step back and simply reflect on what moves us within education. What deep experiences have challenged our views on teaching and learning and sent us into deep thought and new challenges? What smaller experiences build into an amalgam of fascinating experiences?

The process of being a teacher carries with it great potential for learning and one should carry the role of being a learner into and through a career. What informed us as a learner, prior to being a teacher, should also inform us a teacher going through learning.

We should think about how we have learned, how others learn and what there is still to learn – even if this is at times spurious, unknown and subsumed within the daily grind.

As M. Scott Peck consistently emphasises we must stop and reflect. We must reflect upon what has happened and give room for thoughts to gather, connect or vanish into the ether. In this way we can get closer to what we have really valued and what may infact be guiding us as teachers and learners on a subtle level.

My growth as a teacher and a learner has consistently been a process of moving beyond the fads. It has been a journey of finding a deeper and newer territory in which the richness of daily life is not categorised and subsumed within a taxonomy or an acronym.

Rather, it has been a delight in the grey areas of education and, in particular, the moments in which learners, and myself, have seen beyond what can often be limiting structures.

These are the moments that have ‘moved’ me – those of surprise in which the student has far exceeded my or his or her expectations. These are the times in which all we have learned is suspended. It is as if it can be thrown away – we are basking in a shared and delightful experience.

A number of years ago a friend and I were directing a fellow with Down's Syndrome and another actor through an improvised scene. We were suggesting possibilities from the sidelines and coaching both actors – "that’s great, keep following that idea, see what comes to mind".

We were totally staggered when the fellow, so comfortable within his role, started to speak clearly. His experience of an enlarged tongue and staccato speech had gone. He spoke eloquently and sounded unlike we had ever heard him before.

Over the years this fellow has experienced a dramatic change in his speech and in his confidence. He has been taken seriously and moved well beyond the role of a clown. This is an example of what can transpire when people are given support and room to move in a way that is comfortable to them.

My expectations when working with people with a disability – and the general student population – have increasingly been challenged over the years. The main constant in my teaching experience has been that of surprise – how often students can exceed their expectations and mine.

Nowadays I look with a sideway glance at educational theory. Sometimes it connects but very often it feels way off the mark. I look at charts that map student/teacher learning styles and cringe. Is that how we let ourselves be defined? Maybe it is time, as emphasised by Guy Claxton, to really embrace the fuller sides to learning:

Learning is a much wider, richer concept than is captured within current models of education and training.

- Guy Claxton, Wise Up – The Challenge of Lifelong Learning, Bloomsbury,1999.

In another moment in corridor of a north Yorkshire school I was faced with a student who was quite upset. He had just had a temper tantrum in class. I was at my wit's end with his behaviour and his effect upon others. Counsellors had been called. All the proper processes had been put in place. I had tried all sorts of responses. None were working.

A more experienced teacher came along – a quite eccentric man – and he started speaking to the thirteen year old who was close to tears. Somehow it transpired that it was the boy’s birthday. Beyond the rules of the classroom, beyond the limit of mine and others’ feelings, this teacher pulled out a pound coin and said to the fellow, "Go up the street and buy yourself a chip buttee (chips in a bread roll) for your birthday." This was a great moment of compassion. It was a joy to witness. The boy was moved and supported. A release was found well beyond the etiquette of the school.

It is worth being ‘left field’. The seemingly irrational cannot always be met with a rationalised and proper psychological response. Maybe as teachers we should just gun it or fly it at times – who cares for the consequences? We are dealing with people – compassion does not necessarily come in a pre-packaged form!

Compassion can for example be quite risky. Whenever I think of the meaning of compassion I think about the photos of Dorothea Lange. I am drawn to her lesser-seen and much underrated images of Japanese internees shortly after the events of Pearl Harbour. In a hotbed environment – not dissimilar to post September 11 – Lange took extremely dignified and humane shots of the Japanese internees. These people were depicted as humane. Lange chose to go against the trend and capture a moment and its truth.

Many is a time that I have dumped a lesson plan and gone with the feel within a classroom, supporting the students as we explore new territory. Once in a midlands school within the U.K. we were exploring what it would feel like to time travel back to a different time – in this case medieval England.

I was a potato farmer and students had entered my field. All seriousness went out the window when I started challenging them on their silly clothes and ties – "What are those?’ This sent us into fits of laughter – even one student rolling on the floor with belly laughter.

I’m sure the students learned how different cultures and times might see clothing. Most importantly we all had the opportunity of sharing some really funny moments. These experiences will linger. Like the thirteen-year-old student who must remember the time in which role-playing Humpty Dumpty he quite unexpectedly replied to the question – "What is the best thing about being an egg?" with "Getting laid". The class went into hysterics. He was surprised at his wit. Maybe after all this time he can recall how it was possible to do something unexpected that really works. Just ask an average musician what moves them. Some of the funniest things I have seen and heard have been unscripted and would never have worked on paper.

I guess risk has been at the base of many of my really interesting experiences within schools – times when I have no longer cared about being in control or following the set structure. The students and I simply shared our humanity and saw what our humanity had to offer.

On the contrast many of my worse experiences in schools have been those in which teachers have subtly and overtly reminded students of their place. I will never forget a country school that I visited last year. The teacher was handing back assignments by calling out names and throwing the assignments on the floor. Students had to bend down to pick them up. I wondered what she would have done if I had have done this to her in the staffroom.

I have often felt most alone in schools where many people have known their place and there is little room to move. Here people take their roles too seriously and there is a deep undercurrent of hierarchy, place and politics. How often do we address the fact that some of the biggest bullies in schools are in fact its teachers?

Risk and surprise are often undervalued in education because they cannot be predicted or easily measured. The stresses and strains of day-to-day life subvert risk and teachers operate privately and rarely share their experiences. ‘Surprise’ may be seen as extraneous or be marginalised into the realm of the arts. Or surprise may be seen as an offence – that which disrupts the order of the day. Rarely is it seen as valuable – an embodiment of the many subtle forms of knowing and knowledge that we carry around and can release at the most unexpected of times, in any subject.

While there is clearly a place for facts and figures in schools it takes a brave teacher and a brave school to fly in the face of conventions that often systematise learning. To embrace the hidden areas of learning – areas such as imagination and intuition – and to allow room for them to grow and transform curricula is a great yet modern challenge.

This means embracing the hidden surprises in learning and being prepared to value and allow room for creativity within curricula. It does not mean structuring further arts programs. It means finding the arts within and across the curricula and valuing the role of the unmeasurable. Just what may students come up with within the science classroom? What skills does this indicate? Where can we go with this knowledge and these skills? Some of the great learners in schools are also teachers. How can we incorporate these skills, these interests, and these hobbies into the culture?

This means more than writing clever value statements. It means being prepared to follow the curriculum yet also allow room for changes. It means giving students room to explore ideas in their own ways even if at times it may not be totally clear where the learning is going. All this requires courage and a way of finding language that supports the hidden sides of learning, not as platitudes – "support creativity" – but as real events in which teachers and students are allowed to follow imaginative paths. This creates a shared journey in which lessons move in new ways, teacher notes are at times discarded and the classroom community becomes one that goes with a means rather than always pursuing an end.

It is by embracing the means and its many tangents that schools can model the truth of creativity – the process, the journey, the challenge that is able to shift and is motivated by real emotion. Just ask a scientist what motivates him or her. Very often it is the journey and the unknown.

It is the journey and the unknown that motivates me to take on an essayistic style. If I knew where I was going I would present facts and figures as bullet points. I can explore ideas and words. I can dignify my experience – that which may just connect with the experience of others. I am also moved as I reflect upon my experience. Surely these are similar journeys we can offer to our students.

Isn’t education very much about these feelings? Why then do we allow such rigid structures to be imposed?

Isn’t it time that we said that we don’t know all there is to know about learning and instead embraced the joy of the journey rather than new and controlling fad? The unknown is motivating. Who is at the exact point and place in their career that they initially imagined? Maybe we should loosen up – go with the Flow as so beautifully documented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

Jerome Singer, the Yale psychologist who has studied daydreaming and mental imagery more than perhaps any other scientist, has shown that daydreaming is a skill that many children never learn to use. Yet daydreaming not only helps create emotional order by compensating in imagination for unpleasant reality – as when a person can reduce frustration and aggression against someone who has caused injury by visualizing a situation in which the aggressor is punished – but it also allows children (and adults) to rehearse imaginary situations so that the best strategy for confronting them can be adopted, alternative options considered, unanticipated consequences discovered – all results that help increase the complexity of consciousness. And, of course, when used with skill, daydreaming can be very enjoyable.

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Harper Collins, 1996.

Darron Davies

© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009


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