Updated: Apr 5
A note from James...
At AITS, we understand that how we prepare the classroom before we start a workshop has an impact on students’ engagement in the activities we run.
Our environment shapes our behaviour in it. Whether it be our silence in an art gallery, shouting in a stadium or eating with our hands at a McDonalds - what we do is instructed by where we do it (try eating like that at a posh restaurant). This is no different in the classroom, where visible and invisible factors instruct the student how to behave.
When given the task of making a creative classroom, teachers will often look toward the setup of the physical space - the arrangement of furniture or wall decorations. It’s a good place to start.
In their book The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman describe the familiar classroom setup as a throwback to the Industrial Revolution ‘in which the curriculum was regularized, children listened to chalkboard lectures, and school bells replicated the factory bells that signalled a change of shift’.
Putting desks in rows, having no visual distractions and placing restrictions on talking might be productive in some ways, but ask a student their opinions in that space and they will probably clamp up or be very succinct. Ask them to be creative, and it will most certainly be an uphill battle.
The notion of a learning environment doesn’t stop at the tangible elements though. The attitudes and behaviours of the teachers and school staff themselves: how they speak, present themselves, want to be addressed and the rules they set - all of these can affect a young person’s creative thinking.
To make a space that encourages creativity, we need to change students’ expectations by shaking up the environment they are used to.
In AITS workshops, students call us by our first names. We opt to use sports halls or drama studios, or if we do have to use a classroom, we push tables back and arrange chairs in a circle.
The first few activities we do in a session are carefully chosen and structured to shape the environment for fun, failure and creative risk-taking. We might start a session with a game of ‘No S’, in which the group is split into two lines and the first player from each line sits opposite each other. A scenario is chosen - a job interview, for example - and the two must have a conversation without using any words with an ’S’ in. The game is stopped after the first attempt and the rest of the group are asked what they are waiting for. “A word with an S in” they answer. We explain that the participants who failed have actually made us feel good, and in doing so have in fact won. With activities like this we change a young person’s relationship to failure. We help them become friends with it - a critical element in creativity.
Getting the balance right between teacher and collaborator is important. In sessions, we lead games but do not jump to provide answers or prescribed ideas for scenes or dialogue. Instead we ask curious questions after activities, giving students space to make their own creative discoveries and formulate their own answers. The late great author and educator Sir Ken Robinson put it perfectly in saying ‘the role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel they’re valued’.
How we prepare our learning environment is just as important as the activities we run in it. By making changes to our classroom and our own behaviour in them, we can fashion a setting where children can play, be vulnerable and present ideas without fear of judgement or getting things wrong.
Although AITS workshops are focussed on drama, we believe there is an opportunity to use these ideas in teaching any subject - whether it be changing the seating, adding activities that encourage failure or asking more curious questions. Could you challenge your own learning environment?