Teaching kids to think creatively

TRAINING THE BRAIN

Teaching kids to think creatively

Well-structured games and a mix of activities can make children imagine, predict, reason and remember, writes Sonali Bhatia

Turn a picnic into a learning experience – and learning into a picnic! Participants at Sutradhar’s workshop on Teaching Thinking found out how to do just that, with a mix of activities that focus on getting children to imagine, predict, reason and remember.
“Children are obviously excited about going on a picnic,” said Ms. Bela Sood, who conducted the workshop.

‘Teachers and parents can harness this enthusiasm to enhance memory and sequencing skills and increase the child’s sense of responsibility.” This can be achieved with a simple timeline, which begins the evening before the picnic. Thus, you could have: “6 PM – Go with Mummy to buy fruit and bread -> 7 PM – Wash the tiffin box ... “ and so on. This helps the child to understand the connection between planning and implementing and gives her or him a feeling of being in control of the event.

Stimulating The Brain

Positive feelings are necessary for the thinking process to take place smoothly. “The main factor affecting thinking is the brain,” Ms Sood explained. “It is scientifically established that being happy and relaxed while thinking leads to an upward flow of blood to the cerebrum, which supports thinking. If the child is not happy or relaxed, there will be a downward flow of blood to the limbic system. The limbic system deals with the fight or flight response. Either the child will rebel (fight) or desire to run away (flight) – but not learn. When you create an atmosphere which is scary for a child, the child will not think.”

Another aspect of the brain which teachers need to keep in mind is the left-brain right-brain combination. While the left brain deals with logic, the right-brain is mainly concerned with creativity. When teachers conduct activities that combine both the left and the right brain, thinking is optimised. Simple physical exercises like standing up with the hands held behind the head, and attempting to touch the right knee with the left elbow and vice versa helps stimulate the combination. For those who are able to, taking down notes using each hand in turn is also helpful – often, children are discouraged from using their left hand to write with, but should the child be naturally ambidextrous, this stimulates thinking.

Participants played games like join the dots – the catch being that they had to play with their eyes closed! They realised how they used a mixture of reasoning and inventiveness to perform this task – that is, a combination of the left and right brain.

Factors

To design activities that facilitate thinking, the teacher must remember that the activity should kindle the following: interest, attention, suggestion, reasoning, conclusion, and test. For example, the activity ‘straw houses’ required participants, in groups of six members, to build a house of drinking straws. Houses had to be three-dimensional, as tall as possible and as sturdy as possible. At first, participants, recalling the story of the Three Little Pigs, thought their houses would not stand. Upon trying various ideas from group members, they were surprised to find that they could, in fact, fashion appropriate houses! Once the factors were in place, the problem could be solved.

In the discussion that followed, participants analysed what it was that had really got them thinking. While some said they felt responsible for the outcome of the group’s efforts, others enjoyed the challenge of proving that something that seemed impossible was, in fact, achievable. Ms Sood reminded them to keep being thinking individuals – emphasising that the students’ thinking potential is directly proportionate to the teachers’ thinking potential.

Empathetic Teacher

When a teacher strives to increase the thinking potential of students, day-to-day interactions get transformed.

Say the teacher asks, “Where does a cow live?” and the child’s response is: “On the road,” the teacher does not immediately brand it as a mistake. Instead, the reasons why the child gave such an answer (that’s where the child usually sees a cow!) are analyzed and further thinking is encouraged.

Thus, mistakes are seen as ‘teachable moments’ and a thinking teacher also understands that it is permissible for students to forget information or instructions sometimes.

“We forgive ourselves when we can’t recall something and need to be reminded,” Ms Sood pointed out. “Similarly, we are quite cheerful when we need to remind our colleagues or other adults about something. Why, then, do we get so upset and accusatory when a student forgets? Children are trying to process so many bits of information during the school day – it is natural that they forget sometimes.”
The challenge is for the teacher to present information in such a way that it is easy for a child to remember.

Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning to enhance memory, a combination of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning is necessary. For example, when teaching the concept of ‘domestic and wild animals’, instead of staying in the classroom with the textbook and blackboard, it helps to take the children outdoors – to the playground, for example, and segregate areas that represent ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’. Then, using either toys and puppets or role-play by the children themselves, various ‘animals’ move around in their respective territories, making the idea of ‘domestic’ and ‘wild’ come to life.

To demonstrate that each child’s birthday occurs once a year, students can stand in a circle based on their birthdays. Then, the one whose birthday it is that day takes the globe and runs around the entire circle and back to his/her place, indicating that the next birthday will occur once everyone else has had their respective birthday. This gives a kinaesthetic experience of a year corresponding to the earth going around the sun once.

A simple game incorporating visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning is ‘idli dosa vada’.  Students stand in a circle, and a gesture is assigned to ‘idli’, one to ‘dosa’ and another to ‘vada’. The teacher then says ‘idli’ and performs the gesture, with the students following. Slowly, the teacher tries to confuse students by mixing up the gestures – saying ‘idli’ and performing the gesture for ‘vada’, for example. Students have to be alert and continue to perform the appropriate gestures themselves. The game is a lot of fun and is a light-hearted way to transition from one subject to the next – helping with absorbing information.

Thinking Classroom

The first step to processing, remembering and retrieving information is comprehension. It is easier to recall something that you have understood, than something that you have not comprehended. Ms Sood demonstrated this with the nursery rhyme, “Little Miss Muffet.” She performed the rhyme as a puppet show, and made sure all participants knew what a ‘tuffet’ is and what ‘whey’ is. She pointed out that when students simply parrot information without being familiar with the concepts included, remembering the information is stressful.

“It’s very important to be clear when teaching concepts,” Ms. Sood emphasised. “Take the concept of colour. If you give a small child a red ball and say that it is red, the child does not know whether ‘red’ refers to the object itself, the shape or the colour.” She demonstrated a method of teaching colour where it is a variable that changes. Taking a clear plastic cup, she filled it with water and held it up for participants to see. Once everyone had seen it, she dipped a brush filled with red paint in it, and announced that the water had turned ‘red’.

In the thinking classroom, concepts are taught clearly and instructions are imparted lucidly as well. “It is best to break up instructions into four-step actions that children perform,” Ms. Sood suggested. “For example, children can be advised what to do First, Next, Then, Last.” So, at lunch time, children can be instructed thus: First, spread the napkin on the desk. Next, put your lunch box on it. Then, open your lunch box. Last, eat your lunch. Such instructions can be used for teaching subjects – like in mathematical operations – First, add the figures in the unit column. Next, write the carry over ... and so on. Should the task require more than four steps, it can be broken up into mini-tasks of four steps each. Planning instructions in this way helps the teacher be more precise and the students be more comfortable while performing tasks.

Generating thinking

Once children are trained to think, worksheets and puzzles are modified a bit to include extra thinking. For example, if the topic is CLOTHES and the worksheet asks the child to match the following: (socks with feet, hat with head and so on), there could also be ‘odd one out’ like the picture of a tree – which does not fit in at all. The child has to then exhibit an overall grasp of the topic by pointing out the misfit.
Thus, children are challenged to think more within the comfort zone of a familiar concept, which they have understood. “It is important to have all activities at a Developmentally Appropriate Level,” Ms Sood emphasized. Over-reaching leads to anxiety, and under-reaching to boredom, both not conducive to thinking.

Problem Solving

Creative thinking stems from basic thinking skills. The characteristics of creative thinking are that it is imaginative and original, with a purpose and value. Participants enjoyed the game of ‘flip the circle’, to stimulate their creative thinking and problem solving skills. First, they stood in a circle, facing inward, holding hands. Then, they had to turn around and face outward – without letting go of each others’ hands! After several participants pooled their ideas, the group hit on the solution of how each member had to turn around to achieve the objective.

At the end of the day, participants had to sum up the workshop in one word or phrase – and all agreed that it was ‘enlightening and fun’, proving that thinking puts joy into learning!

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