How can teachers develop a creative environment which enables children to flourish?

We meet one of our eight Creativity Collaboratives, Billesley Primary School, who are exploring how a creative environment enables pupils to flourish.

I’m Johanne Clifton and our Creativity Collaborative is a network of schools in the West Midlands, part of the Elliot Foundation Academies Trust. The lead school is Billesley Primary School, an outstanding school with a rich heritage of working closely with creative practitioners on curriculum development and innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Our collaborative also includes partnerships with Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company and Open Theatre with the evaluation led by Victoria Kinsella and Emma Nenadic at Birmingham City University.

What are you exploring?

Our research question asks, “how can teachers create an environment which enables children to flourish and fulfil their creative potential?” We see this as a process of:

  • empowering teachers in the post-covid landscape where the focus has been on catch up programmes
  • considering the narrowed curriculum offer in order to ‘close the gaps’ in academic learning
  • giving young people the opportunity to communicate with each other in a meaningful way rather than simply interact on a functional basis

Our concern is that an opportunity to look at a more meaningful curriculum will be missed in the rush to ‘catch up’ through specific closed educational programmes such as phonics. This is not to say that there is no value in strong phonics teaching. Simply that this is only one element of a broader programme of study and approach to pedagogy.

As a result of limited social interaction, would a focus on a narrowed catch-up curriculum mean that children were losing out? The opportunity to think deeply, to make connections and to be heard are essential for children to feel they have a voice. For children with significant learning needs, the isolation and lack of support services has been particularly poignant.

Tell us about your progress so far

During our initial baseline discussions at the start of our Collaborative’s journey, we realised that we needed time to explore the terms “creativity” and “creativity in teaching”. We held several network events for teachers in a range of local heritage centres to explore our own creativity and to find out about the wealth of heritage and culture on our doorstep. We had made a deliberate choice to focus on the heritage of the Black Country which is less well-known. One of the things we had picked up was that there was an assumption that there ‘was nothing round here’ when thinking about the locality of the school when in fact there was a wealth of resources nearby. As a group of teachers, we identified common themes that had encouraged or blocked our own creative journeys such as the support of a significant person and access to materials, including books and paper as well as spaces, however small. Our discussions were powerful and emotional, sharing forgotten childhood experiences and special moments.

What’s next?

We are now looking at how we take our learning forward and sharpen our focus through refining our research question further. We intend to look at:

  1. how we recognise creativity
  2. how we respond to it
  3. what difference this makes to our teaching

One of the recurring themes coming through from teachers’ feedback is how they didn’t realise how much their children are capable of. How do we take what we have observed so far and, without the norms of academic criteria, recognise the learning that has taken place? How do we identify the important aspects of creativity in teaching so that we can apply that learning in other aspects of the curriculum and wider school life.

Year 2 of our Collaborative journey sees us entering our growth phase, where we look at implementing a deeper partnership with our creative partners. Each school has spent a day with both Open Theatre and Stan’s Cafe finding out more about the possibilities of deepening our understanding of communication and challenging curricula models. The plan is that four of our schools will work with Open Theatre for one day a week each. During the day, practitioners will work with groups of children and staff on non-verbal communication through physical movement.

Four other schools will be working with Stan’s Cafe on the curriculum through a sequence of longer-term programmes; working for six weeks on a piece with a creative practitioner, followed by six weeks led by teachers, then a return piece led by the same creative practitioner. We will be using the model of joint planning at the start of any piece of work, at least one formal mid-point review and an end point review for each cycle of work. The evaluation process through reflective discussions and pupil voice will continue.

One of the challenges we will be working on next year is to include headteachers more explicitly in the conversation. Currently, due to the project lead’s role as Director of Curriculum, the Creativity Collaborative research is part of the academy trust’s improvement plan but not identified explicitly on each school’s development plan. This suggests that headteachers are not fully aware of the potential of the programme to instigate significant change. Perhaps the senior leaders who are leading on the Collaborative have not had the opportunity to share their learning enough at leadership meetings. We intend to achieve this, in part, through specific professional development opportunities. Open Theatre, for example, have proposed that the four headteachers join one of their days in a school and participate in the workshop, followed by a reflection session. This opportunity would also be offered to all staff within the host school.

Over the next year, how do we take those powerful moments of delight and recognition, those emotional turning points and move beyond into extrapolating common themes and ideas that we can apply beyond our encounters with creative partners and into classroom practice?

Johanne Clifton is Director of Curriculum at the Elliot Foundation
Twitter @johannemica @ElliotFndtn

Angela Watson is Lead Practitioner at Billesley Primary School, Evidence Lead in Education at Billesley Research School and Regional Arts Lead
Twitter @BPrimary @BillesleySchool

Find out more about the Creativity Collaboratives here.

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