Focus and Creativity

Last week I picked up a copy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s re-release of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and InventionIt is an interesting read, but it goes way too much into the psychology of creativity without the component of learning that I love so much. I’m not sure that I actually gave it enough of a chance, but as I read it I started feeling like I was way off of the path of my own passion. However, there was a passage in my reading that struck me enough that I felt the need to mark it for further contemplation:

If we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned. And attention is a limited resource: There is just so much information we can process at any given time. Exactly how much we don’t know, but it is clear that, for instance, we cannot learn physics and music at the same time. Nor can we learn well while we do the other things that need to be done and require attention, like taking a shower, dressing, cooking breakfast, driving a car, talking to our spouse, and so forth. The point is, a great deal of our limited supply of attention is committed to the tasks of surviving from one day to the next. Over an entire lifetime, the amount of attention left over for learning a symbolic domain – such as music or physics – is a fraction of this already small amount.

To me, this passage was very interesting because of the way that we compartmentalize education. English, math, science, and the other subjects have their own little corners of the world, and most schools do not attempt integration between the subjects. Yet this way of presenting subjects and ideas pulls our attention in many different areas in one single day; it is no wonder that understanding of any of the subject areas goes down.

However, when we argue the case like this we run into the oft-repeated argument of which subjects are the most important. As Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out, many subjects have been cut from education programs on the grounds that they aren’t as important and should not be given as much student attention as math, english, and science. It seems to me that this is the wrong way to view the problem; rather than argue about which subjects are the most important to justify cutting other subjects, educators should be finding ways to integrate the subjects to fit all learning areas into a comprehensive whole.

For example, I have heard of many early childhood educators setting up a restaurant environment in their classroom. Children create menus (language and writing), figure out prices and count out money (math), cook food (measurement), take orders (social skills and writing), set tables and pour drinks (life skills), and many other activities in one single environmental setting. This integration of skills and subject areas not only helps the children focus their attention, but also puts learning in the context of real life – an important aspect of motivating children to learn.

Admittedly, Csikszentmihalyi is talking about in-depth knowledge about a specific field, but the implications of the passage do need to be thought about in terms of education as a whole. This is, after all, where the majority of education reformer’s claims come from – attention paid to one subject takes away from attention paid to another. But it has been shown through alternative forms of schooling that subject matter, when integrated, can be used to solve a variety of problems and can even be used to create things that children have only dreamt about. As children get older and their interests become more focused, then the argument toward specialization can be made because the older child’s interests are more specialized. But even then, compartmentalizing subjects and knowledge doesn’t help with creativity and education in the long run. My own journey to educate myself has taken me into the realm of psychology, education, philosophy, room decor, science, logic, technology, and other areas. It has been a winding journey through many different disciplines, and I have learned a lot more on my own than I have through the compartmentalized lessons that I have received in college. By freeing myself to explore many areas of knowledge, I have been able to make connections between disciplines to create an integrated picture of what education should look like. This is the kind of knowledge that should be available to others as well, and only by integrating our subject matter can we achieve this kind of deep understanding of the world around us.


focus and creativity

Rewards vs. Cognitive Skills

In the Dan Pink video that I posted about a week ago, he said something that interested me: he said that rewards motivate mechanical skills, or skills that do not require much brain power or reasoning. Rewards actually hinder cognitive skills and make it harder to reason through a problem.

One of the things I love about kids is their ability to reason. You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old has the ability to reason very well, but they do. They don’t understand general, abstract statements, but they do understand that we perform an action for a specific reason. We clean up our toys so that we don’t trip on them and fall. We walk when we are inside so that we don’t trip and fall. We don’t jump on the bed because we might fall off and bump our heads!

If we can assign purpose to our actions, we become much better at assigning goals to ourselves. Our brains become better at reasoning through the steps that we need to take to reach a desired end because we have trained it to think that way. In contrast, doing something for a reward does not train our mind to look at the bigger picture or the higher goal. We can’t even reason through the steps we need to take to reach that reward, much less the goal, because we are so intently focused on the reward. It is almost like tunnel vision. The process of learning how to reason through steps or creating a goal is a practiced skill, though. We have to practice using the reasoning part of our mind in order for it to work well.

Learning cognitive skills is vital for a child of any age, but especially so for young children who are just learning about how the world works. If we simply tell them that we don’t want them to behave in a certain way and bribe them with rewards, then they don’t truly understand why we are asking them to behave a certain way. Understanding leads to a change in behavior, but at the same time it is important to remember that it takes 21-30 days to create a new habit. That means that it may take 21-30 days of a teacher explaining over and over the reasoning behind a certain action before the child makes a habit of behaving in the desired way. Even with the added benefit of an explanation that fuels the reasoning skills, the child may not stop behaving in the undesired way right away. It takes time and a lot of patience on the part of the teacher to actually teach children the correct social way to behave, and do it in a way that stimulates the cognitive skills of the child.

Motivation, Play, and Observation

As we have seen in the past few posts, one of the keys to motivation is the welling up inside us of a desire to achieve a certain goal. That was the point of the last post, in which I described my frustration with school. In a classroom, the goals can come from the teacher or from the student. It is the job of the teacher to use observation to discover the desires of the students and develop goals to achieve based on those desires.

This morning I have been doing a little more research into emergent curriculum – research that I have been wanting to do for a while but have not really found the time to do. Because this blog has taken the direction that it has – into the realm of creativity, motivation, and interest – concepts of emergent curriculum are highly relevant.

The concept that I want to address today is that of play. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, children really don’t need a lot of motivation to play. They do it automatically. When we observe children during their play, we find that they explore many different concepts and ideas during their play. They explore building, going to the doctor, having a birthday party, going to the movies, a restaurant, or any of the other experiences that have been memorable to them. Our job, as teachers, is to pick out the themes of their play and use those themes to develop activities and lessons that can extend their learning through this play into other areas.

A key point about using play to develop learning activities is to make sure that children have enough time to dive deep into their play. Remember that some key points about allowing children to be creative include time, tools, and tolerance. In the book Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice, Susan Stacey writes:

Emergent curriculum places extremely high value on play as a generator for curriculum. Play provides an opportunity for children’s exploration, problem solving, incubation and development of big ideas, and therefore, learning. It also provides the teacher, as researcher, a prime opportunity to watch and listen carefully in order to generate further understanding of the individual child. All of which means that for children to fully develop their ideas and for the teachers to watch, interact, and write notes, a generous amount of time must be allotted to play.

While children are playing, it is important to write notes about observations that are made and responses that are given as teachers interact to clarify the child’s understanding of what they are doing. This process is talked about more in-depth by Stacey, who gives a few examples of interactions between children and teachers and the way that teachers have used their observations. One key feature about using observations is communication between teachers in the classroom. Teachers should be in sync about the direction they want to take an interest of the children. An example that Stacey gives is of a girl creating a face with eyes made out of buttons. The girl explains that when the buttons are covered with tape, the eyes can’t see. There were several different directions that teachers could have taken this observation, including how the body works, how eyes work, etc. They decided to focus on perspective taking, not just visually, but socially and emotionally as well. The teachers then came up with environment modifications and activities that could be done to extend thinking about perspective taking.

Doing observations and using them to extend ideas such as this are motivating to the teacher and to the student. The teacher gets the opportunity to develop learning activities in the context of what the child is already showing an interest in, which means that the teacher gets the opportunity to think creatively about the direction that the classroom is going. The child is motivated because their own interests and ideas are being used to stimulate learning in the classroom – and they get to play. As teachers, we should all know how motivating it is for children when we become involved in their play. As teachers interact with students, children gather around and play seems to take on a life of its own. Asking children open-ended questions during these times of interaction gives the teacher an unending spring of information with which to plan learning experiences, and keeps the classroom alive.


Talking About Emergent Curriculum and Creativity

I recently began putting together the concrete pieces of what a creative classroom looks like. One piece is the curriculum and teaching style. I picked up a book that I have had for awhile: Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice by Susan Stacey. On page five, Stacey outlines her assumptions about emergent curriculum:

  • While framed by the teacher, it is child initiated, allowing for collaborations between children and teachers, and giving everyone a voice.
  • It is responsive to the child, thereby allowing teachers to build on existing interests.
  • In its practice, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator, taking what she sees and hears, and bringing to children the opportunity to discover more, dig deeper, and construct further knowledge.
  • It is flexible in that curriculum planning, rather than being done well in advance, is constantly developing. Curriculum is dynamic, neither stagnant nor repetitive.
  • It enables children’s learning and teachers’ thinking to be made visible through varied forms of documentation.
  • It builds upon the theories of the recognized theorists in our field: the work of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky supports the philosophy of emergent curriculum. Practices embedded in emergent curriculum make visible the work of these theorists – no longer is it contained only in early childhood texts.

Some of these points have been discussed before on this blog, but  most have not. But the framework of assumptions gives a picture of a classroom that exhibits many of the qualities of creativity that have been discussed on this blog.

curriculum creativity

Do We Take “Safety” Too Far?

During my research this morning, I ran across this article by Deb Curtis, an author of the book I am reading currently, “Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments.” There were three things that struck me while reading the article that I wanted to discuss here.

The main thing that struck me was the way that the director mentioned involved the entire staff in discussions of safety. I can relate to the reasons that are given for this collaboration, and this article motivates me to try to encourage this type of collaboration in my own place of work.

The second point that struck me was the idea that children will only try things that they are capable of doing. This doesn’t mean that they may fail while doing it, but it does mean that, as teachers, we should give children a little more freedom to experiment, experience, and discover. The important thing to remember, as a teacher, is that sometimes this experimentation does require supervision, but there is a huge difference between supervision and simply telling a child “no” because of your fears.

The third point that struck me was the level of involvement of the parents, and it makes me realize on a whole new level how important parental involvement in a childcare setting is. The more informed and involved parents are, the less likely it is that there will be contention over certain points.

I love that I am learning all of this (especially the parental involvement part) because it resolves a lot of questions that I have had regarding issues that directors can face when it comes to liability. When parents and staff are on the same page as far as safety concerns go, that can go a long way in establishing a foundation in which to offer the most to the children that you can.