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Concept-based learning can put creative thinking into the curriculum

Throw the right kind of spanner into the works with concept-based learning, says Jonathan Lear...

  • Concept-based learning can put creative thinking into the curriculum

It’s a bit of an odd thing, but as I’m sitting down to write this piece about developing children’s creative thinking, I’ve got a definite sense of having to begin by justifying why this might be a good/desirable or even achievable thing to be doing in the first place.

Now, this could just be my paranoia, but it feels like the perceived woolliness of creativity doesn’t sit well with the current clamour for a knowledge-rich curriculum.

Before getting into this, I’d like to set my stall out in terms of the whole knowledge richness thing.

First of all, I’m a big fan. I really like it. In fact, I think it’s the foundation for thinking about anything. You can’t think creatively if you’ve got nothing in your head to think about – knowledge comes first, creative thinking follows. Or at least it can do.

In terms of defining what we’re talking about here, I think it’s worth dusting off a document that is currently tucked away in the national archives.

The Personal Learning and Thinking skills framework was an ultimately ill-fated attempt to outline the qualities, skills or attributes needed for success in learning and life.

The framework consisted of six groups of skills, and creative thinking was defined as follows…

Young people:

  • generate ideas and explore possibilities
  • ask questions to extend their thinking
  • connect their own and others’ ideas and experiences in inventive ways
  • question their own and others’ assumptions
  • try out alternatives or new solutions and follow ideas through
  • adapt ideas as circumstances change

The main reason why this sort of stuff has become unpopular (despite its apparent desirability) seems to be to do with the fact that you can’t possibly predict what ‘skills’ someone might need in the future – so why bother trying?

At face value, this seems a bit defeatist, but the core of the argument rests on the idea that it doesn’t make sense to waste time on teaching something that we’re not certain will be of any use anyway.

After all, there are a great deal of other more pressing things to be getting on with, and we can’t do it all.

It would be hard to argue against this kind of pragmatism, except for the fact that it’s based on the assumption that there are teachers and schools out there who are happily setting aside lesson time to teach children how to think creatively.

Now I can’t speak for everyone, but I have worked with a lot of schools and I’ve never met anyone who does this.

It’s never the main event, and no one is planning lessons on how to ‘explore possibilities’ – mainly because we know that it doesn’t work.

I don’t believe that creative thinking can be taught explicitly, but at the same time, we should be wary of dismissing an idea out of hand just because it might not be as straightforward as we’d like.

New perspective

When we’re faced with a new curriculum or even newer inspection framework, it’s tempting to look back on what we’ve done before as being old hat or maybe a bit naive.

Sometimes though, it’s not that the original idea or intention was bad, just that it needs a different perspective.

It may well be that generic learning and thinking skills such as creative thinking were originally intended to be the focus of curriculum, but for me, they should always represent the by-product.

An effective curriculum has the development of knowledge at its heart, but it also creates the conditions for creative thinking to develop too.

This can be achieved in a number of ways: firstly, we can look to create opportunity within individual subjects.

Maths is a good example of just how effective this can be – if children have learnt a new concept, we’d avoid the temptation to move on to whatever might be next, and instead would throw just the right kind of spanner into the works to push them into thinking harder about the thing they can already do.

We might call it mastery, but this is essentially creative thinking in maths – exploring possibilities, making connections, adapting, overcoming barriers – it’s all there.

Whether we replicate this approach across the curriculum is another matter, but if not, why not?

For me though, before we get into individual subjects, we should spend a bit of time considering the curriculum itself, or more specifically, the way that we present the curriculum to our children.

For as long as I can remember, the majority of primary schools have adopted a topic-based approach to curriculum design.

An example of this from my own school would be a Y6 geography topic we called ‘The force of nature’.

After coming up with the jazzy topic name, we set about looking for cross-curricular links, and when our topic map was sufficiently joined up, we then thought about the outcomes that we’d want the children to produce.

It’s a pretty traditional way of working, but after reflecting on this process, it struck us that while it was undeniably a creative approach, it was all about our creativity rather than the children’s.

To get to grips with this imbalance, we developed the idea of concept-based learning – a curriculum model framed around an enquiry process.

In terms of curriculum coverage, not a lot changed.

In this geography example, we still covered volcanoes and earthquakes, but rather than immediately go for cross-curricular links, we instead identified philosophical concepts that we could explore through that particular bit of curriculum…

Following this, the concepts were then used to make connections with other curriculum areas.

If we were looking at art for example, then I can leave behind the papier-mâché volcano and instead use any artworks that explore one or more of the concepts.

Equally, in English, rather than scrape around for a high-quality text about natural disasters, I could go for any book that dealt with themes of adversity, change, or any one of the other concepts.

To complete the process, we then created an enquiry question that would frame the concepts and give the children a starting point for their enquiry.

In terms of the children’s ownership, this is not dissimilar to the process we went through before. It’s still the teacher who comes up with the concepts and enquiry question, not the children.

The key difference between this and a topic-based approach, however, is in what happens when the enquiry begins.

Rather than being passive recipients of our creativity, the children are actively involved from the outset. The enquiry question is specifically designed to encourage more questions and thoughts – something that continues throughout the process.

As individual subject disciplines are developed and the children become more knowledgeable, they have the opportunity to explore the concepts, generate ideas, challenge assumptions and deepen their understanding, all while making connections between what they know and their broader understanding of the world.

Developing this model hasn’t guaranteed the development of creative thinking, but it has created the foundations and, if nothing else, it’s repositioned the children as the ones who need to do the thinking rather than us.

In the words of one of our Y6 girls: ‘We did all the work, and the teachers did nothing!’. Just the way it should be.

Jonathan Lear has worked in inner city schools for over 20 years as a teacher and deputy. He is a speaker and Associate of Independent Thinking. His latest book, The Monkey-Proof Box: Curriculum design for building knowledge, developing creative thinking and promoting independence, is published by Independent Thinking Press.

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