creative pedagogies

We can teach it so much better once we know what it is

‘Critical’ and ‘creative’ are commonly used terms, but shared understandings of these terms are less frequent. Critical and creative thinking (CCT) refers to two broad types of thinking that manifest in different ways and draw upon different combinations of knowledge and skills depending on the context and purpose. This explains the many slightly differing definitions you will find attached to the terms if you go looking.  Boiled down, critical thinking means evaluating ideas (especially claims and arguments), tools, methods, or products in reasoned ways, while creative thinking means making mental connections between and generating new ideas, tools, methods, or products for an intended effect. They’re different types of thinking but go well together. We believe developing young people’s CCT is a key purpose of education – and that teachers should be taught to teach CCT in a ‘deliberately incidental’ way.

CCT is not just important for Australia to stay internationally competitive or because there is increasing demand for employees with CCT skills. Thinking creatively and critically makes our world, and the lives we live, better. CCT gives meaning to much of what students learn at school. The OECD attributes such importance to CCT that it is introducing a standardised assessment of CCT this year. And of course, ACARA sees its importance, too; CCT is one of the seven General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

So, it was with interest that we noted the findings of a recently published study by Carter and Buchanan. The 185 NSW primary teachers they surveyed agreed that the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum (Version 8.4) – which include CCT – were important, but the teachers were not confident in their knowledge of these capabilities. Almost half of the teachers reported that they did not understand the General Capabilities. Most reported teaching the General Capabilities only occasionally or not at all; and of the 37 teachers who were interviewed in the study, only 2 said they taught General Capabilities explicitly. 

Of all the reported excerpts about how Carter and Buchanan’s interviewees said they taught the General Capabilities, several of the General Capabilities were referenced but there was not a single mention of teaching CCT. The teachers cited – understandably – that a lack of professional development was the impediment to their understanding of the General Capabilities. It is not surprising that teachers would struggle with CCT particularly, given questions about the adequacy of teacher education in relation to teaching CCT.

A lack of clarity about CCT is pervasive. The more you read in this area, whether it is the scholarly literature or the grey literature, the more you can be forgiven for wondering if there is any kind of thinking that CCT does not include! We see the lack of definitional clarity around CCT as a significant barrier to confident and effective CCT teaching – but not an obstacle that quality teacher education and professional development cannot help teachers to overcome.

We argue that helping teachers to develop a deep understanding of CCT (much deeper than we can cover in this post) is important because of what well-established educational psychology principles – drawing on cognitive, social, and behavioural psychology – tell us. Only when teachers deeply understand the conceptual structures of CCT will they be able to teach CCT effectively.

Higher-order skills such as CCT are not the product of natural maturation and social interactions, and can therefore be thought of as biologically secondary skills. Cognitive psychology tells us that biologically secondary knowledge and skills should be taught explicitly, in order for the learning to be efficient and effective. This means that to most effectively develop students’ CCT, teachers need to teach CCT deliberately. This involves drawing attention to, explaining, and illustrating the concepts and skills involved (e.g., for critical thinking these might include evaluate, reason, argument, analyse, evidence, logic, conclusion, or the term critical itself; for creative thinking these might include imagination, brainstorm, open-minded, flexible, method, adapt, concept map, synthesise, or the term creative itself). The particular concepts, skills, explanations, and demonstrations will, of course, depend on the learners’ development, prior learning, and interests, and the learning area (or domain) knowledge being drawn on.

Cognitive psychology also tells us that CCT skills are not ‘generic strategies’, learnable in a content vacuum; they require content knowledge. To teach CCT in a knowledge-based way, teachers need to have a particularly deep understanding of CCT – so they can recognise and harness as many opportunities as possible to teach CCT skills utilising the domain knowledge they are teaching. Only by doing this as often as possible, in as many different learning areas as possible, can teachers encourage learners to engage in CCT habitually and ‘generally’. CCT skills taught in isolated CCT focused programs – if new skills are learned at all – do not generalise.

Social and behavioural psychology has much to contribute to teachers’ ability to establish CCT as socially normative thinking practices. To encourage children (and the adults they become) to engage in CCT in the various situations where it’s desirable to do so, teachers should frequently and explicitly model CCT skills, drawing attention to and labelling the specific skills they are using; provide plentiful and varied opportunities for learners to engage in the skills themselves, prompting and guiding where necessary; and try to ensure that the learners feel good (natural positive reinforcement) when they engage in those skills.

By taking a developmentally appropriate cognitive, social, and behavioural approach to teaching CCT – a ‘deliberately incidental’ approach – teachers can teach students not only what it means to think creatively and critically, but also that these are expected and valued ways of thinking. However, if teachers don’t have a deep understanding of what CCT is, they can’t fully harness the power of educational psychology principles to maximise the development of their students’ CCT. We believe that improved teacher education and professional development is needed to help many teachers feel confident enough to teach CCT in knowledge-based, explicit, and socially normalising ways.

We hope that any introduction of standardised testing of CCT skills encourages a more widespread focus on knowledge-based, explicit teaching of CCT. The OECD’s assertion that the “PISA assessment will examine students’ capacities to generate diverse and original ideas, and to evaluate and improve ideas, across a range of contexts” gives us some hope. Whether or not standardised testing of CCT is introduced in Australia, we hope all Australian teachers will get the support they need to develop a deep understanding of CCT and ‘deliberately incidental’ CCT pedagogies.

Overall, we hope that, in the future, all teachers will feel well prepared to teach CCT in a way that contributes to a society in which thinking creatively and critically in all domains of life is the wonderful norm.

From left to right: Kylie Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy at La Trobe University’s School of Education. Her background includes secondary teaching in science, psychology, and relationships education, and university teaching in research literacy, critical evidence-based practice, and pragmatic research methodology. Kylie is passionate about critically-informed teaching, including finding ways to support more inclusive and effective teaching of CCT. Follow her on Twitter @KylieMurphyEd or on LinkedIn. Steve Murphy is the Director of Professional Practice & School Partnerships at La Trobe University’s School of Education. He has extensive experience as a STEM educator and educational leader in schools. He researches rural education, with a particular focus on STEM education in rural schools and preparing teachers to work in rural communities. Follow Steve on LinkedIn or on Twitter @MurphyRuralEd. Nathaniel Swain is a teacher, instructional coach, and researcher with expertise in language, literacy, instructional practices, and cognitive science. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity called Think Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium. Nathaniel currently teaches Foundation at Brandon Park Primary, where he is also a Science of Learning Specialist. He is excited to be joining La Trobe University’s School of Education as a Senior Lecturer in January 2023. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain.

New help for regional students thinking of taking a gap year

Taking a gap year is a popular choice for school leavers, and may be even more so in the current pandemic climate. However, research tells us when regional students take a gap year they are much less likely to transition on to university than their metropolitan counterparts who take a gap year.

We are not against gap years or think university is the best educational future for school leavers, but we are concerned that gap years seem to be perpetuating educational inequity for regional students. So, we wanted to look more closely at what is happening and design a resource that could specifically help regional students explore their post school options in creative new ways.

What is happening with regional students and gap years?

According to a recent, large-scale study:

  • In NSW, over 40% of regional students with an ATAR over 75 are not going to university from school (compared with 26% in metropolitan areas)
  • In NSW, approximately 50% of regional high school students will take a gap year, yet only 5% of this gap year group will transition to university This is a significantly lower rate of transition to university compared to metropolitan students who take gap years.

One possible reason for this may be the amount of information available to support decision making around taking a gap year. If you type “Why Take a Gap Year?” into Google, you will receive around 155,000 pages selling gap year programs or selling university attendance; the sites rationalise gap years in terms of adventure, improving skills, widening horizons and self-discovery. But we know from the large-scale study, that the main reasons for NSW regional students choosing a gap year over immediate university attendance will be:-

  • financial costs of university – worry about future debt for fees and how to pay for living costs while studying
  • social costs of moving away from family and home
  • indecision about what and where to study

We wanted to help regional students through the process of thinking about taking a gap year -from what they might want from a gap year, to helping them develop an understanding of what university is about, to correcting known misconceptions about gap years and university experiences.

Re-framing the gap year for regional students in NSW – our research project

The NSW Department of Education is investing over half a million dollars in our research project to help regional students with their gap year decision making. The project brings together a consortium of education academics and equity practitioners from the University of Sydney, the University of Canberra, the University of Wollongong and the Country Education Foundation

Our aim is to establish new forms of supportive digital communications for regional students and their parents. The non-branded resources we are creating and making available from this project are not intended to actively dissuade or encourage regional students to take a gap year, rather they are designed to help students understand options and help them through a decision-making process.

Pilot and production work are already underway. You can check out the episodes and resources we have so far created here.  Episodes include how to manage income and expenses, how to get your head around actually going to university, gap year needs and wants, and making the most of your time before university.

Access to all of the resources is free and anyone can use them.

The innovative aspect of this research project

If you visit our Gap Year resources, you will notice every ‘episode’ provides a ‘call to action’ for

  • Year 12 students,
  • young people already on a gap year, and
  • families and support networks of gap year decision makers. 

The ‘call to action’ sections help participants work in a space that invites, through co creation, ways to conceptualize, critique and to problem solve using creative ways of thinking and knowing. They support regional students in making informed, accurate decisions about taking a gap year and going to university.

When we design the calls to action, we draw on theoretical and yet practical dramatic and theatrical traditions. For example, in drama the use of ‘conscious alley’ (a dramatization activity where both sides of your conscience are speaking to one another), this thinking routine gives our students a chance to problematise, analyse, imagine and make plausible difficult and sometimes uncomfortable decisions about their educational futures. This approach works in concert with many drama and creative pedagogies, with (all call to actions are different), providing tools to give decision makers agency and processes that help reduce the ‘noise’ and anxiety of market-driven information available regarding gap years.

We want young people and their families to use the tools we offer to ‘think differently’ about taking a gap year. It is this use of creative pedagogies for critical, cultural social marketing purposes that is the real innovation in our project. 

Using creative pedagogies

A key feature in our project is the use of creative pedagogies. If we want young people and their families to ‘think differently’ about gap years, there needs to be different knowledge and different thinking tools offered to help with decision making. Creative pedagogies can be tailored to this task.

There are three guiding principles in the facilitation of creative pedagogies in this project and they work to create doable, teachable, actionable knowledge. Our gap year decision makers need to get hands-on resources that are eminently doable and in and of, the moment.  Students need to feel a connection to what they are being offered, and they need space for connection and collaboration.  This is why our resources are largely online and digital.

Connections are created by responding to key messages, and applying them to their own decision making, in structured conversations and activities such as KWL Charts, conversational prompts, planning templates and empathy mapping.  The project is about ensuring our gap year decision makers are ready to engage with all that university has to offer them

We know there are substantive links between creativity and student success for decision makers to understand the gap year and the university world and their place in it. Learning by imagining can be a powerful tool and complement generative learning strategies like our calls to action.  It is our hope that our gap year decision makers will be able to actively construct meaning from diverse and complex information and develop it into relevant and actionable knowledge; this is the key to our generative model of creative pedagogy

Alison Grove O’Grady is the Program Director (combined degrees) and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, Sydney School of Education and Social Work. Alison teaches and researches across a range of areas including Pedagogy and Practices, English Curriculum and Creativity Teacher Artistry. Alison’s PhD examined the teaching philosophies of pre-service and graduate drama teachers and how they use language to orient to theories of social justice. Alison is involved in an international research project that examines the effectiveness of applied theatre in professional learning for history teachers. Alison is currently working on an interdisciplinary project that facilitates a critical consciousness of human rights in personal practice using drama. Alison brings to the project expertise in foundational and creative pedagogies that will ensure the resource design and content is pedagogically effective.

Samantha McMahon is an Academic Fellow, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney and lead CI for the “re-inventing the gap year” project. Sam is an educational sociologist; her research explores how engagement with multiple knowledges effects the equity of student experience. Her research includes participation in The AIME Research Partnership (the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) and NSW public primary and high schools. Sam brings to the project expertise in epistemology and sociology of knowledge and research experience in the fields of widening participation and outreach and digital resource design and production. Samantha is on Twitter @McMahonSam_

Catherine (Kate) Smyth is a Senior Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, where she coordinates and teaches HSIE K-6 curriculum (Human Society and its Environment) in both the B.Ed. and Masters of Teaching primary teacher education programs. Kate works extensively in developing, facilitating and supporting primary teacher professional learning collaborations in rural and urban schools in NSW. Since 2008, Kate’s sustained interests in regional education is evidenced in her involvement in an ongoing academic partnership with rural schools in the Lismore area. Previously, Catherine worked as a primary teacher in NSW, the Solomon Islands and Kuwait and as a project officer in HSIE curriculum. Kate was primary history advisor for the Australian Curriculum: History; her research and PhD explore history teaching and learning in the primary classroom and she is particularly interested in the role that ICT and creativity play in activating historical knowledge. Kate brings to the project expertise in creative and digital pedagogies and a wealth of experience working with regional schools. Kate is on Twitter @SmythCatherine