Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creativity, Disruptive Behavior, and Higher Education

My kids are playing with play clay while I type this. It's amazing how a simple thing can keep my almost-four-year-old and barely-two-year-old entertained for, well, an hour, tops. But the different things they can come up with to do with or imagine the play clay as being is amazing. It's a wonder to watch; my mind can't get around how they can keep themselves occupied with a pile of mushy stuff. 

And therein lies the problem. I've always considered myself a bit of a child at heart, but my children have taught me that there is a big difference between being a child and being childish or even immature. My kids are open, honest, imaginative, and inquisitive. Having fun, for my kids, is serious business, and they can concentrate quite hard and find great pleasure in a task as seemingly mundane as putting a cap on a marker or rolling out a piece of play clay.

This, of course, is nothing new nor revolutionary. No less than The Chronicle have featured academics who are looking to save childhood and play. But it is interesting to me to see where my kids may end up in 15 years. Rather, it terrifies me. 

I teach college freshman and sophomores. With my 200-level students, we talk about education and education reform. To kick things off, we watch Sir Ken Robinson's animated video "Changing Education Paradigms." He talks about, among other things, divergent thinking and how it is a skill that we lose the older (and more educated) we get. He asked the questions: How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? At this point in the video, I pause it and ask the students to offer their answers. The looks I get range from bored to mildly exasperated to outright hostility; the students are being asked a question with no direct application nor clear right answer. It is both unfamiliar and wholly unexpected. We're lucky, as a class, if we come up with 15. 

All save for one student last semester. He kept yelling out uses, even after we had moved on to watching the video again. This was a student who was constantly pushing and provoking me, either by saying outrageous things or asking what he thought were awkward questions. I welcomed his prodding as long as it didn't become disruptive which is never did. He was a smart kid hiding behind a smart-ass attitude and a heavy Southern accent. Every single one of his suggestions was a way he had used a paper clip to disrupt his high school classroom, drive his teacher insane, and mostly kill time and try to assuage boredom. 

I now use him as an example; what do you think, I ask my students, the reaction of his teachers were? He is disruptive, he is a nuisance, he is a trouble-maker, he is not school material. In other words, dumb. But this is obviously a smart and industrious kid who was bored out of his mind and found a way to make the time more enjoyable. Imagine, I tell my students, if a teacher had found a way to harness that creative and restless energy in a more productive way? Make something, as Sir Ken Robinson would say, that has value. What if he had listened to his teachers who told him that he didn't fit?

I equate it to George and Fred Weasley from the Harry Potter books; their pranks and tricks were ultimately useful and effective at fooling the Death Eaters. But they had to drop out of school in order to really achieve their goals. They really excelled at divergent thinking, but it was seen as disruptive behavior. I enjoy my disruptive students because they push me, they make the class lively, and they always make me smile; they approach learning with the abandon and enthusiasm of a child.

My classes this semester could use with a little more disruptive behavior. And I struggle with how to encourage divergent thinking in my own children without them being labeled as trouble-makers or disruptive influences in class. I want to support and help guide disruptive behavior because I don't want my kids to be staring at their writing prof like my students stare at me. I want my kids to remember that there is more than one use for a paper clip.

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