Monday, November 8, 2010

More Than One Right Answer

There's a video showing up lately in the different places I'm visiting on the Internet.  It's an RSA talk by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert, called Changing Educational Paradigms.  This is surely a subject that's outside the scope of my experience and this blog, but there are certain things he said during the talk that speak to what I think about when I'm working with or creating programming for children.

"Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.  Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym, but it’s an essential capacity for creativity.  It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways of interpreting a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent way.  To see multiple answers not just one."
There is also another interesting RSA talk I recently watched called The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  It's a talk given by Dan Pink and although it is focused on workplace motivation, I think there are some parallels to a school setting. 
"[This study on what motivates people] has been replicated over and over and over again by psychologists, by sociologists, and economists.  For simple, straightforward tasks, those kinds of incentives, 'if you do this then you get that,' they are great.  For tasks that are an algorithmic set of rules, where you have to get a right answer [emphasis mine] if/then rewards, carrots and sticks – outstanding.  But when the task gets more complicated, when it requires some conceptual, creative thinking, those kinds of motivators demonstrably don’t work. […] There are three factors that the science shows that lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction.  Autonomy, mastery, purpose."
My purpose in Math in Your Feet is to create opportunities for children to develop a level of mastery using the language of percussive dance to solve problems in a creative context. This context is naturally open ended and a place where there is more than one right answer, indeed an infinite number of right answers.  My philosophy is to give children limits (defined work space, four and/or eight beats only) and some tools (elements of percussive dance, a clearly defined process) and then let them work it out from there. 

The students work with a partner.  As early as the second day of our residency, students are taking control of their ideas, making choices, collaborating, and creating.  During their creative work time, I say over and over, "There are no right or wrong answers, only choices that have to be made.  What works, what doesn't work? Decide that and go from there..." 
What can you create within the limits that I set?  The 'answer' for each pair/team of students is two four-beat dance patterns sequenced into an eight-beat pattern and transformed with reflection or rotation symmetry or sometimes both.  In the many years I've been doing this, I've never seen the same pattern twice but they are all 'right' answers.  In fact, by the end of their time with me, many classes understand the potential of this structure so well that they still have ideas they want to try, directions in which they want to go. 
By the end of our week, children begin to understand and see that their ideas are ones "that have value."  I ask them if they are proud of the work they have done in their week with me (in both dance and math) and the answer is always a resounding

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