Redefining ‘creativity’ in the foreign language classroom

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I was taking part in a Twitter slow chat a while ago when someone started to wear their use of creativity in the classroom as a badge of honour. Worksheets should be ditched and one has to find ways to tap into learners’ natural sense of wonder and creativity. Then this someone went on to roll out the usual mantra about adults losing 70% of the creative power they used to have as children, etc. I don’t even have to write it – you have heard it all… And as usual everyone in the slow chat was applauding this person’s words, ‘chipping in’ with success stories involving great projects, posters, flags, personalised mugs, app-smashing, Tellagami, Yakit kids, iMovies, etc.

I don’t want to sound overly cynic but…what about ‘real’ creativity? The kind that L2 learners really have to engage in order to effectively learn the target language? Don’t get me wrong; these activities will do no harm if carried out sparingly, una tantum. I am concerned, however, when they are part and parcel of most lessons and when creativity is identified mostly or exclusively with their execution.

There are dimensions of creativity in foreign language learning which are more conducive to language acquisition than a lot – not all – of the digitally-assisted ‘creativity’ that goes on in many classroom these days. Drawing a mouth on a picture on an iPad and adding a pair of moustache and funny sound effects; spending a whole lesson or series of lessons or valuable homework sessions smashing Apps to illustrate a grammar point, narrate an event or describe your school; making a video of children singing an alphabet song performing an elaborate choreography (which maybe took 3 or 4 lessons to prepare)…is this the kind of creativity which really enhances learning and higher-order thinking ?

Creativity is a complex notion, especially in cognitive terms. This is why theorists have never really reached a consensual definition of this notion. There are scores of theories about and taxonomies of creativity (e.g. honing theory, conceptual blending, creative cognition, Implicit-Explicit), all fascinating and plausible, each emphasizing different facets of this very fuzzy concept.

As far as language learning is concerned, creativity is not about the product; it is about the process of learning. The process of understanding the way the target language works through creative thinking, by making hypotheses about the target language and seeking confirmation. Of creatively negotiating meaning when interacting with an L2 input source – whether a person, a text or a machine. Of ‘creating’ adaptive learning strategies to cope with and master the TL acquisition process. Of creatively compensating for lack of vocabulary or grammar through communication strategies (e.g. coinage or approximation). Of re-creating the target language sounds – this apparently lower order set of skills involving the same creativity required by using a musical instrument as we have to use our ear, tune our vocal chords effectively to the target language sounds. Finally, of creatively adapting to a foreign culture.

This type of creativity goes often unnoticed because most of it happens in our students’ heads, is taken for granted or, as I suspect it is very often the case, TRAGICALLY it is not even viewed as creativity. Moreover, it is not on display on the school’s website or the classroom walls; it does not pop out from a wall into your iPad and is not as glamorous and ‘wow’-inducing as a high-tech iMovie. Yet, this less visible form of creativity is the one that language teachers should prioritize in their classrooms. The one that Bloom would place at the top of his taxonomy pyramid.

When a project or making of artefacts – digital or not – taps MOSTLY into this kind of creativity by involving problem solving, divergent thinking, lots of metacognition, adaptive behavior, risk-taking and inductive strategies, then it will be likely to be conducive to TL acquisition.

Thus, creativity in the foreign language classroom – the kind that enhances L2 acquisition – ought to be primarily creativity with and through the language. When, on the other hand, creativity in MFL learning concerns itself regularly and substantially with the manipulation of digital or non-digital tools and takes a lot of classroom or homework time, one should really ask oneself: is the time and effort devoted to these activities justified in terms of gains in learning? And when teachers advance the notion that these activities enhance student motivation, one really has to worry; is this the best a teacher can do to motivate his/her students?

Viewed in this light, many of the traditional language teaching activities frowned upon by many ‘innovative’ educators are  at least as creative as the ones they propose – or more, as I advocate. Think about having to grapple with an L2 to L1 translation rife with unfamiliar words and the incredible amount of creativity it requires – with all the inferences one has to draw in order to decode the text. And how about having to convey complex ideas in the target language without knowing all the vocabulary needed and having to find ways to make the other person understand? And how about the creativity that essay writing involves ?

When the slow-chat ‘creativity-monger’ that inspired this post was inciting people to ‘ditch’ the worksheet she missed the whole point. She did not consider the fact that effective learning and high levels of creativity are not about the worksheet or the website or the App; but, rather, about the amount of semantic creativity that those learning tools bring about; because ultimately, learning and creativity in language learning are mainly about construction of meaning, risk-taking and adaptation. Even a good old worksheet can do wonders in this respect !

15 thoughts on “Redefining ‘creativity’ in the foreign language classroom

  1. I totally agree with you. Spending an inordinate amount of time on special effects in a video is not aiding a student’s understanding of the target language. And, more often than not, though the students producing their digital masterpiece *may* understand the language they’re using, those viewing it may not. There is a lot of scaffolding to be done in order to make this projects worthwhile. It can be done, but you really need to think through each and every step — the bottom line becomes this: How much target language are the students learning in producing the digital masterpiece? How much are the viewers learning? Is the time investment worth the payback?

  2. I find that getting rid of technology entirely – and going back to pen and paper – works wonders for concentration and engagement.

    You can even do ‘tech’ without the tech e.g. Paper Websites http://decentralisedteachingandlearning.com/low-tech-teaching-paper-websites/

    In my opinion, REAL creativity is mysterious but I think it comes from a place of solitude – when you have the ‘booming, buzzing’ confusion of smartphones/ tablets/ social media I’m not sure if its possible.

  3. Hi Gianfranco,

    I enjoy reading your posts because you cause a reaction and get people thinking about teaching methods. I too have been guilty of spending too much time on creative projects that in retrospect have not been worth the time and effort from a language learning perspective.

    Though I do feel that there is a place for creativity not to be confused with critical thinking. I believe that if language teachers and all teachers for that matter consider the 5 C’s when teaching – collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, compassion and communication. If teachers can move away from the traditional approach of the teacher being the expert and imparting knowledge and the over use of worksheet then we are helping to prepare our students for the 21st century and beyond.
    Thanks
    Tracy

  4. I think of creativity in the sense… “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

    What I mean is that creativity occurs when you have limited resources. Creativity is often smothered when there’s too much stuff…. why would you create something new when you have a surplus of stuff??

    And, as you mentioned.. “how about having to convey complex ideas in the target language without knowing all the vocabulary needed and having to find ways to make the other person understand?” that’s creativity.

  5. Yes! The world language teaching profession has become very focused on presentations, performances, and products – all in the name of creativity and language proficiency. I see this frequently in the PK-12 grades. However, the time devoted to these projects must be weighed against the language gains. Creativity IS present in the processes of language acquisition and skill development. We lose sight of this. Thanks for speaking up and questioning common beliefs and practices!

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