The apathy that we see in students has many causes. I am able to experience part of the problem first hand every August. On in-service days we have to sit for hours and play the role of students. Those days leave me tired, sore, and uninspired. That is what most days look like for our students and it is no wonder that they aren’t enthusiastic about school.
In my classroom, I have posted the creator spectrum below. Kids can recognize instantly that most of each school day is spent on the left side. Getting from the left to right side takes deliberate steps and preparation. It takes determined to practice and preparation to step from the left to the center and reflection and desire to move to the right side of the spectrum. Kids cannot be a passive part of this process. They want to get to the right. The most determined kids will get there no matter what. Most others will need our help to set them up for success.
Here is how this chart can start helping kids to think like creators:
Teacher In Charge
This category is the default mode of most teachers, myself as a science teacher included. It is a necessary evil in our world of standardized tests, siloed subjects, and subjective grades. Teachers have had their hands tied by being told what to teach and when kids should fit the same mold. The only way a class can work is for the teacher to be in charge. Grades become the motivation. The long term development of a student’s interests or abilities is ignored for a bottom-line letter grade.
Teacher-in-charge was born with school itself. There wasn’t any other option but to obey the teacher and learn what they knew. When school was a new idea, this was a great way to get people the basic skills we all agree we need. That was long before the internet and smartphones. There is still a role in the teacher-in-charge part of school. It’s overuse, however, is making our students bored, apathetic, and uninterested in learning. That is just the way it is now.
Every student that I have met says the want to move to the right from the ‘Teacher in Charge’ category. Their reasons for saying this are not all the same, however. My first year of explaining this spectrum to students was telling. Most 5th and 6th grade students wanted freedom to learn how to use the machines and make some cool stuff. They were eager to break out of the ‘Teacher in Charge’ category so they could do the interesting things they saw the other kids doing in past classes. 7th and 8th grade had a different attitude though. More of them saw the potential freedom to break out of their seats and be with their friends and socialize. The behaviours are developmentally appropriate but as a whole they were less ambitious and excited to do something new or different. Years of living in ‘Teacher in Charge’ school mode them less willing or able to strike out on their own. The attitude of a lot of the older students made it clear that they would only do the bare minimum without exception.
At my best in middle school science I was able to share responsibility for learning with students. I would give them topics and resources and they would use them to learn and show their learning in a unique way. In Innovative Arts, the ‘Shared Responsibility’ start in 6th grade. They are the open ended projects that they choose and customize.
Being creative is sometimes difficult for middle school students. Customizing a skeleton project creatively can be a big shift from what kids are used to. It is a battle between two attitudes. On one side is the reflexive “What do I have to do?” attitude that students develop when they have no control. On the other side is kid who is excited to do something impressive. This side is also scared, especially if they haven’t tried to do something unique in the past.
This is a very important moment!
Does the kid play it safe and complete a project that they know that will be easy? Do they try something new and risk failure or mistakes or having to spend a lot of time? It is time for the kids to start backing up their words with actions. They say they don’t like having teachers always in control so here is their chance. They need to have had practice brainstorming ideas for this point to work. If students are still afraid of mistakes at this point, they will play it safe. Elsewhere in this book explains the brainstorming practice, building creative confidence, and embracing of failures and mistakes that go into this moment.
If the kids decide to play it safe and easy at this point, it is much harder to get them to the creators mindset later on.
Creator in Charge
The goal of the entire class is to get students to this point. They know what they are interested in, what they want to work on, want to improve on, and then go to work more-or-less independently. The ultimate goal is to have kids enter the room and each work on their own projects and skills. Kids want to get to this point. They want to be unique, independent and impressive.
The skills that it takes to get there are tough to train into kids if they are uninterested and unwilling to do the work.