Watch this (adaptive) space

23 February 2018

Greg Klerkx reflects on the types of adaptive practice being utilised by the teachers and practitioners involved in My Creative School

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It’s been a thrill for the My Creative School team to observe participating schools' Creative Catalyst projects in action over the past few weeks. There’s a remarkable range of activity underway; from pop-up Mayan jungles to mysterious hot air balloons and tabula rasa spaces just for teachers to think – on their own, or with an artist – about their work.

In my last My Creative School blog post, I introduced the idea of adaptive practice. Complementary to reflective practice, adaptive practice is action-orientated: when an effective way of working emerges – whether an individual activity or exercise or a wholesale philosophy – how can we ensure that we adapt our planning and delivery to accommodate it? This cyclical notion of self-reflection leading to constant improvement of teaching and learning is central to My Creative School.

Thus far in the work we’ve seen, adaptive practice can be viewed in light of three broad categories: Collaboration, Use of Space, and Use of Time.

Collaboration

We have seen little of the traditional artist-educator model thus far in this second year of My Creative School, wherein an external practitioner is hired to bring in their artistic ‘toolkit’ and to deliver an art/drama/dance/etc. session, with the teacher largely responsible for behaviour management. This model of practice has a place, but it rarely leads to longer-term positive change in teaching practice and pupil learning.

Across the Creative Catalyst projects, it remains the case that practitioners are largely the ones delivering the creative content while teachers provide subject context and general classroom support. But this is shifting. "She is showing us how to do it so that we can take these ideas on ourselves," said one teacher of their practitioner, while that practitioner said the scale of their project was taking her out of her comfort zone yet forcing her to 'not worry that it might go wrong.’ Both responses reflect a shared sense of risk-taking that we’ve seen in all Creative Catalyst projects to date, which is right on the money where My Creative School is concerned!

Some things to think about:

  • If your practitioner/teacher team is still working in a more traditional ‘artist-educator’ mode as described above, what would it be like to swap roles? E.g. the teacher leading artistic content while the practitioner documents and supports? What would it feel like to not worry about how well this went, and to simply learn by trying?
  • If there’s something successful you see your teacher/practitioner do in a session – a way of using sound, their body, language etc. – can you find time at the end of each session to tease that out and then try it yourself next time around with the other person observing and reflecting?

Use of space

A number of Creative Catalyst projects are taking advantage of spare classrooms, corridors, storage rooms and outdoor spaces as locations for playing and experimenting. But even schools without such relative luxuries are finding that moving (or even removing) tables, chairs and decorations in active classrooms can have a transformative effect on how pupils learn.

In some cases, teachers said they found it challenging to get over the ‘fear factor’ of children sprawling on floors, taping things to walls, and generally making a mess. "I could see how much the children loved it, but honestly, it made me nervous," said one teacher. What she found encouraging, however, was the enthusiastic response from colleagues: comments like ‘that’s fantastic!’ and ‘loving this!’ helped to build confidence and spur bolder uses of physical space. No one ever said that being a creative risk-taker was easy!

In particularly small or crowded classrooms, using physical space differently sometimes involved moving pupils and not furniture; switching from solo to small group to whole group activity and each time asking children to find new places to work in the classroom. Soundscapes, dramatic tableaux, and body percussion are also being used to encourage pupils to consider themselves as part of the physical learning environment.

Some things to think about:

  • How far have you pushed the envelope when it comes to innovative use of physical space in your project? Can you build an extra ‘push’ into each subsequent session, even if that push is incremental?
  • If your school has constraints or concerns around using school spaces differently, can you create an agreement for how such transformations are to be managed? E.g. all spaces to be returned to their original state after X time of day, or on a given date. Can you find ways for other teachers and pupils to benefit from these transformations, thus potentially increasing buy-in and participation?
  • What can you do creatively with what’s already in your classroom? What can be moved, removed, repositioned, reconfigured? How can you involve your pupils in this conversation and even get them to do the reconfiguring as part of an activity?

Use of time

Schools are possibly the most time-constrained work environments in modern life. Pupils must arrive and depart at given times and must move between subject spaces at set turns of the clock. Even the tiniest wrench in this temporal system can cause chaos.

Little surprise, then, that time – for planning, for reflection, for delivery – has been the biggest challenge across the Creative Catalyst projects to date. Practitioners in particular often felt frustrated by time and schedule constraints. ‘There was so much more I wanted to do!’ and ‘reflection and debriefing felt squeezed’ were common sentiments. Teachers also expressed anxiousness around time. ‘I still need to hit my targets,’ said more than one.

Fortunately, we’ve also seen a tremendous amount of adaptive practice around the use of time. In many cases, we’ve seen ambitious session plans tweaked or sometimes radically remade on the fly due to time constraints. It’s wonderful to watch truly in-sync teacher/practitioner teams improvise together. Other projects have sought to make a virtue of schedule consistency, with children looking forward to the same games, puzzles and creative activities week after week.

In many ways, the use of time is the issue around which much Creative Catalyst work is beginning to gel. Practitioners have said they’re feeling more relaxed about the perceived need to deliver every creative activity in their plan; teachers are seeking out more time to plan and reflect. The payoff is the direct, measurable effect of creative activity on individual pupil learning. "So often his writing journal was blank," said a teacher of one challenging pupil, "but today he was still writing when everyone else was nearly out the door."

Some things to think about:

  • How much ‘flex’ is your team building into its session plans? Could you create short and long versions of an activity that allow you more freedom to pursue promising areas of pupil interest while still delivering desired work?
  • If your project feels too time-constrained, could you create a ‘time map’ of the school day or week and try to identify extra time ‘spaces’ you might be able to work, whether for planning, delivery or reflection?

Watch this (adaptive) space

We are excited to see how each Creative Catalyst project evolves from here, and we’ll be returning to schools in March to further soak in the creative glory.

But now is also the time to begin considering how each Creative Catalyst team can distil its practice learning: what has each partner learned from the other, what’s been developed together, what’s been adapted from existing practice, and what’s entirely new. Excitingly, we have many examples already of teachers and practitioners asking each other for practice tips: how to transform spaces on the cheap, how to manage classroom behaviour with style, how to use movement and voice as ways into engagement. This list can only grow.

Final things to think about:

  • What 10 things do you know now that you didn’t before this project? How and when were they learned in the project, and what effect have they had?
  • What 5 things will you – as a teacher or practitioner – do differently in your own practice as a result of this work?
  • If you as a team had to share your practice learning in an INSET, how could you do so as creatively and fluidly as possible?


Image credit: street art by Daan Botlek, via Neatorama