By Dr Lindsay Hetherington– SciCulture tutor
As with everyone, this was not what I had planned for my April. If the coronavirus situation hadn’t evolved and spread as it did, I would have now been packing to travel to Malta, to teach and learn with colleagues and students from Universities Malta, Norway, Greece, the Netherlands, and England on the SciCulture intensive course. But now, suddenly, I am exiled, working and teaching from home, and I have had to really change the way I approach my teaching practice, in ways I’m still untangling.
With the lockdown closing schools and university campuses across the world, I find myself in the strange position of rapidly adapting my teaching in two new ways: I’m planning and teaching an online course that needs to replace the school experience for my student teachers (I’m a secondary science specialist), and I’m home-schooling my 6-year-old (and keeping my 3 year old happy and learning, too). So, I got to thinking: Am I using the features of creative pedagogies in new ways as I respond to this challenge? How? Why? What can I learn from this?
I’ve always seen dialogue and creativity as crucial to science, and to science education, and I have relished the chance in the last few years to work with arts educators to witness their approach to this and try and incorporate anything I usefully can. In my research, I’m particularly interested in emphasizing the role of the learning material itself in the interactions through which we learn1, but am I practicing what I preach?
I am going to pick out an experience I had teaching my son, and see what creative pedagogies were/weren’t apparent in the way the learning emerged.
Writing isn’t my 6 year old’s favourite thing. Neither is Art. He’d do Maths all day long if he couldn’t play football/Pokémon. So my heart sank a little when I read that his home school activity for the week was to read a beautiful poem, “Tell Me a Dragon” by Jackie Morris, make his own dragon/dragons, and to write his own poem or story about them, despite the fact that I thought the activity was really great. As expected, we started out with a mild interest in the story. He was quite happy drawing a dragon (the Pokémon Draganite, obviously), and then came the writing. We sat down and carefully read the poem together and tried to notice how they made it sound exciting and interesting.
W: “My Dragon is Orange and has Sharp Teeth, I’ll write that down”.
Me: “OK, but can we use any exciting adjectives to describe it to make it sound super exciting?”. Shall we do a WAGOLL like at school? What does the story do? What does A Good One Look Like?
W: Sigh. “Orange describes it, it’s orange. And has sharp teeth.”
So, he wrote that down!!
Balance and navigation are about giving sufficient structure while leaving enough freedom for pupils to be creative. I’d given him the structure; he freely decided his sentence was enough. He wrote it down, then said, “I’d have finished that a lot quicker without all your talking Mummy”.
I’ve discovered being a teacher-parent is involving a lot of compromises. I have to tame my frustrations and sometimes, so does my son!
So, the next day I approached the writing bit of the day with considerable trepidation. We’d made some more dragons with string and paint sticks, and he’d got all excited and added all sorts of features to them, and then made his dragon ‘battle’ mine. My youngest got involved and there was a much discussion of whether we were allowed to draw on extra features. We all felt like this was play and got lost in the moment – immersed in what we were doing in creating new additions to the dragons we’d drawn. Then came the writing: could we use those exciting ideas from our play? I wanted to give him a chance to choose what to write, but also to help him get some of those lovely ideas he’d been so excited about onto paper.
I think that our play with the paper dragons and the dialogue surrounding it is a lovely example of embodied dialogue – we made a story together with our dragons; we’d all discussed together what they could do and how they would interact. So, we got out the book and pencil and I just asked him to describe his dragons. He bounded around the sofa (see pic) exclaiming “My dragon has match-thrower claws! My dragon shrinks really small then EXPLODES!” whilst I wrote down some of his ideas on a scrap of paper. Then, we talked about some of the ideas in the book, but I prompted with broader questions – not, what words can you use, but ‘what does your dragon do, in the book, they sometimes compare the dragons to other things – can you compare yours to something else to help explain how big or small it is?’ He decided how to describe them, and what he wanted to say about them. I wrote down some spellings (he clearly decided for himself in using those if he needed and not if he thought he didn’t…). And he produced a really cool story in the end.
For me, what is fascinating in this story is the importance of the interplay of the material, we ‘made’ dragons with our dialogue and created the story. We needed the structure of the story, as an example to help us write, but the activity really took flight when we combined that structure with the freedom present in our playtime and it was really important (and difficult) for me to let him own the activity and choose to only write a simple sentence for his first one, and use ideas, comparisons, and words that wouldn’t be the ones I would pick, giving him the personal freedom to do the work he is able to produce and to learn from! In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that home-schooling requires creative pedagogy, an interplay of balance and navigation, empowerment and agency, play and dialogue.
But, crucially, it also requires creative mindsets within the roles of the parent/child and teacher/learner.