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the creativity gap

Helping students direct their own learning can open the doors to greater engagement, rather than chasing after marks, say some educators.Dmitriy Shironosov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Imagine, for a moment, that you're a student. You've been plucked out of your classroom and dropped into a new classroom, in an unknown country. Are you able to tell, from the way you are being taught, whether you're in a democratic or totalitarian state?

When community activist Julia Dalman heard Joel Westheimer, research chair in sociology of education at the University of Ottawa, describe this thought experiment during a keynote address, a lightbulb went off. Canadians often gripe about the perceived political apathy of youth. But Ms. Dalman suspected that students weren't to blame; how could they become politically engaged while spending their days in schools more likely to resemble a dictatorship than a democracy?

Ms. Dalman articulated her views on a panel organized by the Alberta Teachers' Association. Sure, students are taught facts about democracy in an effort to prepare them to be citizens, she argued. But this instruction occurs in an institution that isn't remotely democratic itself. Students are required to listen quietly to authority figures, stay in their seat until the bell rings, and complete their homework on time. "What kind of citizens are we creating if we are not modelling our schools after democracies, not allowing any student ownership over the way they learn?" Ms. Dalman explained in an interview.

Ms. Dalman's comments piqued the interest of Jean Stiles, principal of Jasper Place High School in Edmonton. After the panel, she approached Ms. Dalman and offered her a job on the spot, implementing programs that would democratize Jasper Place. What Ms. Dalman and Ms. Stiles didn't yet realize was how giving students more control over their school would encourage their creativity.

Ms. Dalman's first task was to launch Global Cafe, a student-run café on school grounds, in an effort to create a space at school that students truly owned. "Students control the profits from the café," she said. "They can put the money towards different projects proposed by students and teachers. It gives them a voice in the direction of the school."

As soon as Ms. Dalman began soliciting ideas from students for how to run the café, she was overwhelmed by their creativity. "They don't see barriers. Their ideas are huge. They are so creative," she said. For example, the students decided to run the café on a zero waste model, an ambitious and challenging goal.

While Ms. Dalman acts as a guide for the Global Cafe, even the smallest details are up to the students. They were in charge of picking furniture. When the students asked which brand of coffee they should serve, they were told to research the politics and ethics of coffee and make up their own minds.

The key to unlocking this creativity was to empower the students to question. "We assume that kids are naturally creative and that they know how to question the status quo. And they are not," said Ms. Stiles. "By the time we get them in high school they are just looking for marks, and we taught them to be like that."

After beginning the Global Cafe project, which is still in its early stages, Ms. Stiles turned her attention to Jasper High's curriculum. Ms. Stiles knew that if she hoped to foster creativity in the classroom, she needed to find a way to break out of the strict confines of the traditional approach to evaluation. "The kids who earn the best marks aren't always the most creative. They often only know how to achieve in the study-test-grade system. Take them out of that and they're lost," she says. "So we asked: How do we make it safe enough to fail at something? Those are the conditions that we need to make to move the creativity agenda forward."

Ms. Stiles and her colleagues started to tackle curriculum with a pilot project that allowed students to direct their own learning. In place of a standard set of lessons, assignments and exams, students were shown their learning outcomes and asked to design community-based projects that would achieve them. The project was so successful that the school is launching a larger, interdisciplinary project called Insight Education in September.

Ms. Stiles and Ms. Dalman believe that making curriculum relevant to students' lives is key to encouraging creativity. If students understand why a lesson is related to a real world issue, they are more likely to engage in the material deeply enough to think critically about it. "I just walked in on a class that was building parachutes," Ms. Stiles recalled. "The students may never need to build a parachute in their life. But they know the point is to learn about drag and pull. Often, however, we get too caught up in teaching the parachute."

This project-based style of learning is growing in popularity as schools across Canada attempt to empower their students to be more engaged learners and citizens. In his paper No Student Left Thinking, Dr. Westheimer urges schools to move away from teaching the facts of "good citizenship" and instead kindle critical thought. Dr. Westheimer argues that schools should be producing "individuals who know how to critically assess multiple perspectives. They are able to examine social, political, and economic structures and explore strategies for change that address root causes of problems."

"To encourage creativity we need to move away from a student population that is being bred to be specialists," says Ms. Dalman. "We need to tell them the importance of learning a lot about a little. To be proud generalists. To be able to see how many different issues fit together, within their own minds."

Special to The Globe and Mail