Learning through creative thinking


How can creative thinking support improved student learning? What does best practice in teaching and assessing creativity look like, particularly amongst diverse groups of students?

In this episode, we hear from Christine Cawsey, the Principal of Rooty Hill High School in Western Sydney, recently recognised as one of the 40 Most Innovative Schools in Australia. Christine is a life member of the NSW Secondary Principals' Council and the co-author of Learning for Leadership.

Christine provides insight into how teachers can incorporate creative thinking into their pedagogies.

Credits: Recording and production by Jennifer Macey (Audiocraft), editing by Andy Maher, and voiceovers by Sally Kohlmayer. This episode was recorded in 2018. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.


Image: Christine Cawsey
Edspresso Episode 5: Learning through creative thinking, with Christine Cawsey.


Welcome to the Edspresso series, from the New South Wales Department of Education. These short podcasts are part of the Education for a Changing World Initiative. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technology such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us and what this might mean for education.

How can creative thinking support improved student learning? What does best practice in teaching and assessing it look like? In this episode, we'll hear from Christine Cawsey, the Principal of Rooty Hill High School in Western Sydney, which was recently recognised as one of the 40 most innovative schools in Australia.

Christine is a life member of the New South Wales Secondary Principals Council and the co-author of 'Learning for Leadership'. Drawing on her experience at Rooty Hill, Christine provides insight into how teachers can incorporate creative thinking into their pedagogies and foster creativity amongst diverse groups of students.

Christine Cawsey:

I'm Christine Cawsey, the principal of Rooty High School. We've been thinking about defining creative thinking for probably close to six or seven years now. In response to the ACARA benchmarks that talk about the importance of critical and creative thinking that comes straight from the Melbourne Declaration.

In our thinking, we've been really privileged to work with Professor Bill Lucas and his colleague Professor Ellen Spencer. And they've defined creative thinking in ways that we find very accessible in our school. They've defined five dispositions of thinking; the first two people easily understand as being creative thinking and that's to be imaginative and inquisitive.

Their research shows that that is supported by three other very critical features of creative thinking and one is to be persistent and to stick with it, in a sense to be almost critical of one's work. That's even further influenced by the need to be disciplined, which requires both critical and creative thinking.

And then, the last one that they define is to be actually collaborative, because genuine creation rarely happens on one's own and it requires approximations, so you can't teach creative thinking without critical thinking and you can't teach critical thinking without creative thinking, because they're entwined.

It's emerged more slowly than I thought it would but we're now there. At a juncture where we decide whether we want to have a more expansive education system because we live in a more expansive world or whether we want to narrow that system and to identify perhaps only one or two core skills that students need to be taught at school.

So, why do I think it's important? Because I actually believe thinking with speaking are the two fundamentals. Children obviously think before they can speak. The idea that people talk about doing
teaching thinking in the wait 'til university I read recently, to me, it just seems to be completely denying the reality, that almost every parent and certainly all teachers know, is that every day is a thinking day.

I think, when we are thinking about problem-solving or reasoning or any thinking activity, they all are so interlinked with each other and skills like reasoning, they're just sort of fundamental fundamentals, and sometimes we try to separate them and say, "look there's this bank of skills we call problem-solving."

But problem-solving is a type of thinking. And it's often a very creative type of thinking and often doesn't have one answer. Part of the problem is if we deny that we're really just focusing on factual recall and it won't be enough, especially in an AI augmented world.

I have a fundamental belief, supported now by evidence that we can not only teach creativity but we're in a very lucky position where we now can also assess it. And we can assess it in a range of ways. When we think about whether creative thinking and critical thinking are domain-specific, the question that we come back to is, are there ways of knowing, doing and being specific skills and capabilities that are taught within each subject or domain that are not taught or learnt in other subjects?

And I think, there is a generic body of skill that everybody needs. For me the fundamental here isn't about curriculum, it's about assessment. And it's an area where I think we as a country not done as well as we could have.

The work that the VCAA has done is to, at the request of the Victorian government, to actually see whether creative and critical thinking can be mapped on learning progressions and students can complete assessment in relation that.

The strength of that, it's opt-in. The strength of that is that it's done by teachers in classrooms.

I'm actually in favour of us developing these kinds of assessments very much so, because they do give us a really strong formative base and they do show us development over time. What I don't want to see is us to take this as another opportunity to say, "Every student has to do it and do it on this day under these secure conditions."

Because actually, that's not how thinking works, and in my opinion also not necessarily how reading works.

One person cannot teach every student. One person even can't work with every teacher. The model that I prefer is for us to run very effective professional learning, registered and highly accomplished, where highly educated teachers solve the problem within their own subject and faculty of how to teach and assess.

I do believe that creativity, critical thinking, ICT platforms, whatever it is, reading, should be taught within subjects by teachers who know how to adapt whatever materials and tools are available to the best learning intentions and success criteria for their own classes.

So, in terms of critical and creative thinking, but particularly creative thinking, we think you can teach it across the curriculum, so it is a platform at Rooty Hill High School. But we also think that some areas of the school emphasise some types of thinking more than others.
So, problem-solving is seen more often in some subjects than it is in others. Really critical reasoning that's based on deep deconstruction of text, predictive behaviours with text to say, "Well, what's likely to happen next," those are more likely to be seen in the humanities and that skill of really developing that deeply.

Obviously, in the sciences there's a range that include not only hypothesising, which is quite a creative skill but then experimenting, testing, approximating.

So, science is potentially one of the most creative subjects in the curriculum. So, I suppose that the short answer is, there certainly are generic creative and critical thinking skills, but there are very particular ones that you see emphasised in different subjects, particularly as you progress through the secondary school.

I don't see creative thinking as being part of a crowded curriculum any more than I see reading as being part of a crowded curriculum. In secondary schools, you read to learn, you can't do any subject unless you can read it. So, it's a fundamental underpinning. So is thinking. They're not 'either, ors'. We call it the weft in the weave, the capabilities, literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, use of ICT, they are the weft on which the weave of each subject is threaded. And we feel very clear that it is never going to be either, or. A curriculum crowded with using skills to de-construct content to me is a great curriculum.

There is some evidence from some research done about eight to ten years ago that the pedagogy in some disadvantaged schools focused more on factual learning and more what we would call the sort of traditional work-sheet based learning.

I don't think that research holds up as much now. There are many schools and disadvantaged but also very affluent schools that are so worried about the testing regime that they have turned the curriculum into a way to beat the test. Some really hard decisions have to be made by principals of schools and their teaching teams, and also the community, about whether you narrow the curriculum to do the test or whether you expand it, so that students have the general knowledge, have the creative thinking, have all of those skills to be able to undertake whatever assessment they are doing.

I went to school at a time when we were moving from a very structured learn it, repeat it academic curriculum to one where we were really being asked to think for ourselves. I am delighted that I was taught by great teachers of the 1970s who came into our schools and they actually encouraged you to think outside the box, to think more creatively, to find your originality in your answer, there is room always to be thinking, room always to take an intellectual approach to the work, room always to encourage students to do the same, to be creative and critical thinkers, not just for school but for their lives.

And having been at Rooty Hill for so long now and looking at where our ex-students are, many here have taken that advice on board and done some amazing things with their lives.


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World Initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website.


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