On being wrong

This is a wondeful TED talks video from Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error”. In it she talks about how hard we work to avoid being wrong and the problems this causes.

I was going to write something there about creativity and making mistakes, but I think perhaps she is making a different point; we all adopt points of view of the world and at times can be reluctant to let them go. Our desire to be right often blocks our ability to hear another person or accept another possibility.

“If you want to rediscover wonder you have to step out of that tiny, terrified space of ‘rightness’ and look around at each other, and look out at the vastness and complexity of the universe and say ‘wow……I don’t know……….maybe I’m wrong.’

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Creators not consumers

“Creators not consumers” was the mantra when I first worked with Play.Train in the early 1990’s. What drove us was the wish to encourage young people to recognise and value their own abilities to create, make, do, sing, think and question. We wanted them to know that it was not there role in life to become passive consumers of other people’s thinking – the ones who made it onto TV – that there own minds were full of ideas.

I have just seen a similar phrase today in a report from a conference “Primary Curriculum Visions” October 2010 (notes from it available here). In a presentation by Professor Mick Waters looking at ways of ‘Approaching Knowledge’ at the top of the list is

“help children to see themselves as producers-not consumers of knowledge”

I believe that making , doing and exploring materials at a young age totally enhances a child’s confidence in their own abilities and awakens their own thirst for discovery.

Sadly with the demise of the UK’s play facilities, children could have few opportunities to do this outside of school. If they have to sit down in lessons, only get to work on  a small scale at table tops , only get to handle clay they make a uniform pot, then go home to play indoors or watch TV. Where then will this burning desire to discover the world be ignited?

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Here’s one I didn’t make earlier

I was a huge Blue Peter fan as a kid (for non UK readers it is our longest running children’s TV programme which began in the 1960’s) I couldn’t wait to see what the latest arts project would be. A pen holder from a washing up liquid bottle? A Christmas decoration from a coat hanger? Or an amazing set of furniture for your Cindy doll? Oh the excitement!

Trouble was, I never had all the proper stuff. Sticky back plastic. Split pin paper clips. Bits of felt. We were not big on stationary and fancy arts and crafts materials in our house; these were the days before Hobby Craft and the Pound Shop.

I remember the burning desire to make the thing as it appeared on the programme; I worked and worked, trying to approximate the materials and dreaming that it would turn out the same. I usually ended up very upset and deflated rather than feeling creatively uplifted.

It took me years to realise these things were made by professional people behind the scenes.

I am not knocking the ideas, they were great and they obviously hit the spot with me as I was desperate to make them. I loved making things. Did they help my creativity I wonder? In some ways it taught me about techniques, gave me ideas and made me think about how I could do it without all the right materials. More often I felt very frustrated and ended up in tears!

I often wonder if that’s why I got into working with children, I remembered the deep frustation and desire of wanting to make things. I wanted to help them feel the delight of that without having to compare it to a prescribed finished product. I wanted them to have space for their own journey of exploration to unfold.

I wonder how many of you had your creativity squashed at an early age because you were asked to make a copy of something someone else had made – and ‘failed’ by making your own creation!

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Choosing a theme

Bendy Creations

Teachers often choose a theme for a half term and base as many lesson plans as possible round it. The idea is it’s more imaginative, more fun and gets

children (and teachers) thinking across subjects and not keeping them in separate boxes.

I applaud the move on one level BUT you could be getting so much MORE from this way of working. Too many teachers are choosing the theme themselves or at best, sitting the kids on the carpet and asking them what they are interested in. The result is the same old, same old themes are coming up again and again ‘Pirates, High School Musical, TV Soaps, dinosaurs……….’

These aren’t that bad I suppose. The thing is, is you ask children straight they often tell you what they think is acceptable, or repeat what their mates say.

I ran a training day recently and , so that the planning part of it could be put to practical use immediately, I asked the teachers to come with lists of the things their classes were fascinated by. What a BORING list of things they had. I knew they had done exactly what I hoped they wouldn’t do – sat the kids on the carpet, having done nothing creative with them and said ‘what kind of things are you interested in?’

Instead of the planning being dynamic and interesting, they tried to reel off the things they already knew so well ‘Pirate masks, a treasure hunt, maps………’


Just asking outright may work with some year 5’s and 6’s, though I still don’t think it’s ideal, but year 1’s or reception will have a hard time with that.

Here’s the alternative, the much more exciting for everyone, even you, alternative.

Do some creative work with the children, let them freely make whatever they want to for a morning. Provide them with boxes, junk, paper, feathers, pipe cleaners………. How will they know what to do? Kids just like to make stuff. Very few will even have to stop to think what to make. If you are too scared t do that, find a simple template, something that they can adapt to their own design (I have a couple I use, I will try and post some ‘how to’s and images when I figure out how)

When the children are in creative flow and talking about the things they have made, shared their ideas and inventions, THAT is when you will know what they are fascinated by underneath the TV programmes and computer games.

It might take a couple of session before you can really pick a theme, but it will be worth the wait, because the conclusion you reach will be far more engaging and dynamic than anything you would have come up with yourself.


My latest example.

A year 1 class. I show them how to make a simple bendy paper shape I call a ‘bendy beast’ Once they have made the template, the can bend it to make it into bracelets, hats, flowers, or keep it straight and make a snake, a bridge……..almost anything.

They loved making these and then one child mentioned that they were like Slinkies – the metal coil spring toy that walks down stairs by itself. The name Slinky spread through the class and in feedback time they all called their inventions ‘Slinkies’. ‘My slinky was found on a boat going to Africa’ ‘My slinky has gone out of control, I think it needs a brain’ etc.

After one session , we didn’t feel  ready to set the theme; we weren’t sure if they just liked the name, or if they really were fascinated by the idea of slinkies.

For the next session, we did some more making, but without any guidance, they just made whatever they wanted. The Slinky idea was still strong and they made all kinds of homes and vehicles for the slinkies they had made the session before.

So, now we are clearer, we can definitely build on the slinky idea. I am taking in some metal slinkies next time and we are going to sit and plan some exciting starting point for the next weeks work.

‘Animals’ was the original theme for the term, but now we can find out what animals look like slinkies, where do they live, how are they like slinkies? We’ve got creative writing, we can weave maths into it and we want to do some outdoor work cos some of the children were imagining what would happen if their slinky was lost in the woods at the edge of the school grounds.

And we aren’t even going to have to talk to the children about a ‘theme’ as such, they are completely fired up about their slinkies and want to do work about them.

The theme is more powerful because it came out of the children, it’s in the moment and dynamic. The teachers have to think a bit more but the children are doing much of the thinking too, which is the whole point.


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Teaching creatively or teaching for creativity?

Recently on a training course we were all asked to make a simple paper helicopter from a template. We all worked away at cutting out, heads down, concentrating. The finished things all did what they should and were fun…….well, for about a minute.

The next instruction was to ‘make something that flies and use this venue as your inspiration’. Wow! The room came alive, we bustled about the place, exploring a table packed with interesting materials, talking excitedly. What a difference. Afterwards, the room was buzzing with excitement and 35 crazy flying machines.

See what I mean? The first exercise gave people something to take part in, but the idea came from the trainer asked little of the participants. The second way, the participants had to respond, to think, communicate and express a unique part of themselves.

The template guaranteed a degree of success -that it would probably fly, but it did not allow any deviation from the set pattern. Templates have some value in teaching a technique; templates can also help really un-confident people to have a go and not feel too threatened. I often use a template as an introduction to a group, they are not as prescriptive as the helicopter but they can put people at ease, they can express themselves more when they are comfortable.

The second way meant the tutors did less structured planning and it was more exciting, and engaging for the participants: it allowed us to express ourselves. To make our flying inventions we laughed, shared ideas, materials and encouraged each other, all without a word from the trainers. Wouldn’t this approach make learning more engaging for children too?

I have met many teachers adamant that they teach creatively, which usually means they have worked hard all weekend coming up with a paper mache version of the Eiffel Tower so that the children can measure it for a maths lesson (ok, I can’t think of a proper example off the top of my head, but I’ll come back with one).

Instead of all the ideas coming from you and being set at the beginning, why not start a lesson with a question, a puzzle or a task. ‘How can we find out how tall the Eiffel Tower is?’ ‘What would you like to learn about measuring things?’ ‘What shall we do with these modelling materials?’ (I will try to think of some more, or perhaps you can add some)

I hope the answers will pleasantly surprise you

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Artswork = Teamwork

Making a bamboo shark enables group work

A comment I hear often is that teachers struggle to get classes working together; attempting to put children into groups to do a task can sometimes end in chaos.
I find that when the children have set their own task and been given the option to choose who to work with, then the group work becomes much more focussed.
One of the most positive things that comes out of my projects is how well the children work together; there is a great sense of group achievement when everyone is involved in making something.
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