Teacher Planning Doesn’t Have To Stifle Creativity In Schools


by Grant Wiggins, Authenticeducation

A recent query via Twitter asked a question we often hear: isn’t UbD (or any planning process) antithetical to such approaches as project-based learning and inquiry-based learning, since you can’t and shouldn’t plan for an unknown serendipitous result?

More generally, isn’t there something faintly oppressive and hampering of creativity in such planning approaches? In short: no.

The question conflates planning with micro-managing. We plan – whether in the family, on the playing field, for battle, or for musical production – in order to achieve desirable results, in the face of uncertainty and opportunity. But that in no way means we advocate rigid recipes.

Let me explain.

A plan is a framework for clarifying purposes and the best means of causing them, in order to achieve the most satisfying and appropriate outcome. The ‘outcome’ here is not a specific pre-determined event/result but a set of desired conditions. Thus, if the goal is to have students investigate their own questions via projects and inquiries, we must plan for “satisfying outcomes of inquiry” so that the most optimal specific results occur.

We therefore provide students with research advice, researchable question guidelines, and rubrics related to inquiry and presentation. We further might ask students to check in along the way with note-cards, drafts, and dress rehearsals. We do not know the specific outcome, nor do we mandate a particular approach, but we properly plan (and help students plan) to achieve satisfying results – regardless of each student’s particular question, methods, or form of communication of results.

As I mentioned in my post on models, there seems to be a confusion on the part of some educators about the role of examples, criteria, and guidance in achieving creative excellence. You need multiple models to inspire and focus; you need deliberately-designed experiences to escape habit and formulae.

Creativity by design is not a contradiction in terms, in short.

As anyone who has ever attended a workshop run by IDEO or a class in acting or drawing, creativity is fostered and made more likely by some deliberate moves and modeling offered by master teachers. Mere free thinking doesn’t often yield much. I find it odd that so many teachers think that merely liberating students from constraints is the key to creative expression and true learning. Dewey lamented this endlessly, because many of the proponents of progressive education fell into this mistake and hurt the cause.

On the contrary, creativity requires working with and through constraints: think of haiku and architecture – not to mention genuinely creative experimental science. Perhaps teachers who talk this way are simply compensating for the micro-management kids often face today at home and in school. But quality work rarely comes from just being given free time and no guidance or standards.

Practically speaking, then, in UbD the teacher-designer states the goal for the inquiry: “Successful inquiry is the goal of this unit, and success means that the student has both made important personal discoveries, and achieved some interesting findings or results. The student will communicate their findings/products in a way that is engaging to other students.”

With such a goal in hand, we can easily imagine a few other UbD elements: Essential Questions:

What’s interesting here?

Why does this matter (if only to me)?

How can I make my inquiry and findings of interest to others?

Understandings: If you look closely enough and engage yourself enough in the setting, there is always an intriguing and important question, problem, unknown, or uncertainty lurking underneath what is already known. Just because it interests you doesn’t mean it interests others; empathize with your audience.

Criteria for the project: a researchable question of substance, a methodical approach to the research and presentation, a defensible finding/result/solution/product, an engaging presentation These elements then suggest some helpful protocols, resources, mini-lessons and feedback sessions that would need to be built in, by design, to optimize the student experience.

Without in any way hampering creativity.

I am all for there being times in which we just mess round and see what comes up, but your ability to see anew depends upon preparation and planning. Pasteur famously said it well: Chance favors the prepared mind.

Building in time for playful imagining and a removal of habitual constraints is also vital. But note the phrasing: we build in time for it by design, just as we formulate rules for brainstorming as part of an explicit and well thought-out plan.

Thus, to turn the need for creative moments into a philosophy of anti-planning just makes no sense.

Image attribution flickr user wootangclassroom