The Student as Creator – Making Patterns, Not Just Following Patterns

We talk a lot about what we want students to achieve. Sometimes the students hear the details and sometimes they hear “Do your work, pass your courses, get your degree, wave paper in air, throw hat, profit.” Now, of course, sometimes they hear that because that’s what we say – or that’s what their environment, the people around them, even the employers say.

The image above is a Chinese-inspired maze pattern. Composed of simple elements, it can become complex quickly. If you built a hedge maze along these lines you could probably keep a lot of people lost for some time, simply because they wouldn’t necessarily be able to decompose the maze to the simple patterns, work out the composition and then solve the problem.

I can teach someone to follow a maze easily. In fact, this is probably done by the time they’ve finished school. Jump on the track, do your work, stay inside the lines, keep walking until you find the goal. Teaching someone to be able to step back, observe the patterns and then arrive at the goal more efficiently can also be taught, or it can arrive with experience. But, going further, being able to look at the maze and construct a brand new maze, potentially with new patterns or composition techniques, requires inspiration. You can reach this point with a fantastic brain and a lifetime of experience (we must have been able to do this) but, these days, we can also teach students abstraction, thinking, the right way to go about a problem so that they move beyond following the hedges or being able to build exactly the same kind of maze again.

This brings the student into a new mode of thinking: as a creator, rather than a pattern matcher or a follower. It is, by far, the hardest things to teach as it requires you to concentrate on providing an environment that supports and encourages creativity, as well as making sure that no-one is trying to build mazes that defy gravity, or where you can walk through concrete walls. (I note that these initial grounding constraints may relax later on – once people have a good grasp of the basics, creativity can take them to places where you can walk through walls.)

Of course, focussing on the mechanics of getting the piece of paper at the end of the degree, as if this was the objective, doesn’t lead to the right way of thinking. Getting into the right space requires us to focus on what should really be happening: the successful transfer of knowledge, the building of frameworks for knowledge development and a robust basis for creative and critical thought. This can, and does, occur spontaneously – but trying to make it happen more often results in a much larger group of people who can, potentially, change the world.

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