Morphing from status quo to creative disruptions in the classroom

Lynn Yau is Director of Learning and CEO of The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection, an award-winning bilingual Learning Theatre. She talks to us about how their approach to teaching for creativity can transform traditional teaching methods in China.

A group of students lying on the ground of a concrete balcony, looking up and there are colourful ropes coming from the ceiling down to the balcony ledge.

Hong Kong is a vibrant city of 7.3m people living in just over 1,000 sq. km of land. Our high-level efficiency in many facets of life, including education, means that in the OECD’s PISA tests, our students are consistently top scorers. These engines have been well oiled, and we have a routinised approach to teaching and learning. How can we delve into our young people’s creativity, we wondered? After all, the world is becoming increasingly complex.

Over the past 14 years, we have been researching pedagogies that could be adapted to the local context, respecting Chinese values yet applying them with an innovative lens. In the main, students in local schools learn through traditional teaching much more than inquiry-based learning. How can we change that?

It had to be teaching for creativity.

Three key questions guided our thinking:

  1. How do we shift a traditional teaching habit of mind into a creative one enabling schools to develop creative learning environments in the classroom?
  2. How can we engage both teachers and creative practitioners to truly collaborate in co-designing & co-creating lessons to foster student-centred learning?
  3. How do we deploy the powers of the arts beyond performance & exhibitions to support cross-curriculum learning and motivate students?

Our past decade has been spent in deep observation and continuous trial & error in schools across a wide range of socio-economic status. Earlier on, we developed a simple yet effective list of seven Tools & Skills[1] for student exploration in the classroom for after school hours learning. Graduating into KPIs in 2015, we pushed ahead with following up on children and young people to witness their growth. A yawning gap, however, was how the impact could be consolidated, expanded and sustained. We needed a solid yet practical model.

Creative Learning Project Background

The Jockey Club Arts-based Cross-curriculum Creative Learning Project (2021-2024) dovetailed years of experiences, needs and solutions into a generic creative learning system. While existing tools & skills still form the basic platform for both training the trainers & students, Lucas’ research of the five-dimensional model of creative habits of mind was adopted as an upward ladder spanning the project timeframe.

In this pilot, 10 primary schools, 600 students, 20 teachers & 13 creative practitioners are the key stakeholders. Training the trainers is a major focus with regular parents’ workshops to ensure that the voices and views of students become part of the learning.

Insights from a Hong Kong Context

In the past two years, we have seen that in order for student-centred learning across the curriculum to take root, and not just tick the box, the environment had to morph from status quo to creative disruptions.

  1. Move the value of the arts as after school activities into core learning within actual curriculum hours
  2. Link the arts to core subjects selected by teachers. A large proportion of our teachers commented that before the project, they have seldom had the opportunity to speak to, let alone understand, the portfolio of other colleagues. Teaching for creativity has meant that within the school, conversations have changed. By doing so, an alternative culture is beginning to seep into staff rooms
  3. Locate creative practitioners who are looking to expand their own practice to beyond skills-based teaching & techniques and product-oriented accomplishments
  4. Seek out Principals who are open-minded and exploring change for student-directed learning. These Principals are the key to a school culture shift through reducing teaching time for teachers for lesson planning and debriefing alongside the creative practitioners
  5. Physically transferring students out of the regular classroom to other more flexible spaces clears a formulaic habit of mind, preparing them for new stimuli. Classroom management can be successfully achieved here
  6. Give hard-working and dedicated teachers breathing and head space. For too long, teachers have been bound by timetables that support boxed-in thinking and textbooks that seldom look beyond its content albeit they attempt to provide a worldview. Real and authentic learning is the key
  7. Offer choice to students. Ready-made packaged materials, while good for easy access and distribution, can dull minds. Give way to materials “stations” in which students choose their preferences
  8. Emphasise process-oriented teaching as this is where the learning truly takes place. Chasing after products continuously lowers the value of teaching for creativity
  9. “Learning by doing” is championed locally yet we have witnessed some over zealousness. For a student-centred classroom, learning by doing needs to be punctuated by regularly pausing, discussing and reflecting before the cycle begins again for teachers & students alike. This 4-part action needs to be structured into lesson plans
  10. Finally, the axiom of “Less is More” is all too true. Over the two years, one school after another has realised that while reduced content for deeper engagement seemingly achieves less over a shorter period of time, learning actually reaps greater rewards & benefits over time as students cultivate a habit of thinking for themselves by themselves.

Lynn Yau, Director of Learning/CEO, The Absolutely Fabulous Theatre Connection

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[1] AFTEC’s 7 Tools & Skills: Observe, Listen, Feel, Reflect, Imagine, Interpret & Value.

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