Interview with Prof. Guy Claxton

Interview with Professor Guy Claxton

Professor Guy Claxton, who has a Cambridge ‘first’ and an Oxford doctorate, is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences and the Royal Society of Arts Emeritus Professor of the Learning Sciences at the University of Winchester, where he co-directed the Centre for Real-World Learning. He is also a renown author of many books and articles.  In addition, Guy has pioneered practical methods of education that maximize school achievement whilst also developing the capacity and confidence for lifelong learning.

He was in Singapore on 17 & 18 February 2017 to conduct the first Thinking Conference for 2017, organized by Nurture Craft where he conducted a workshop and seminar for teachers and parents.

We caught up with him and here’s what he had to say about Creativity and Learning for the future economy.

Question : Prof Claxton, in Singapore’s education system, we are striving for “teach less to learn more”. How do we balance substance/content with time for creativity?

People often think there is some competition between teaching content and teaching processes like imagination, creativity and so on. But I don’t think we have to think that way. I think it is much better to think about how to bring the essence of creativity into normal lessons in the classroom. So we escape from this feeling that we have to choose between whether we have to pay attention to the content and the knowledge the children need or whether we build their life skills or their 21st century skills. All my work is about trying to find what happens in the middle when you bring those two intentions together, like how do we do both at once, not how do we keep them separate.

Question : What are some limitations to creativity?

I think there are some limitations in people’s minds when they start to think about creativity. I think a lot of people, certainly in my country, associate creativity with the arts – they think of songs, dance, theatre, film, poetry and expressive arts. And I think that is a pity because I think creativity is bigger than that. I want people to be able to think creatively to be able to have the possibility to think broadly, like I want my police officer to be able to think like that, and not be a robot. I want my medical practitioner to be able to think like that, not just a one-track mind. I want the person who fixes my car to have a creative aspect to their mind, so that if something doesn’t work, they can say, “That’s interesting, maybe it’s this or maybe it’s that, maybe we should try something else.”  So I think having a broad view of how creativity enriches everybody’s life, even a mother with a little baby who won’t go to sleep, it’s so important to be able to think – ok, 5 things didn’t work, what else could I try. What could be a sixth or seventh thing…to have that sense of inner resourcefulness. So that’s one of the limitations to creativity.

Another one is that creativity is somehow a special part of people’s minds – some people have a lot of, and some people don’t, like we think Einstein, Mozart or Shakespeare were creative but not little me. And I think that is also a limitation because everybody needs creativity. A mother who comes up with a smart way, and say maybe this might work, even though it sounds whacky or silly. Someone showed me a video the other day of the way he has discovered a way to get his grandchildren, who had trouble sleeping, to sleep. He puts them right next to a blender in the kitchen, switches the blender on and it’s something about that noise, the loud background noise, which they found soothing. So that was creative – like where did the idea come from. So if we can escape these mindsets that limit us, than I think we can do justice to the concept of creativity.


Question : In your talk, you mentioned the phrase “Making improvement, not attainment”. How can we change our mindset to achieve this paradigm shift in a society that rewards attainment or achievements?

I think there are things we can do in schools to shift that focus on attainment or achievements, to the focus on improvement, by, for example, changing the nature of testing. But of course achievement and success are important, but the best kinds of success are dependent upon being able to at least tolerate or enjoy the process of improvement. Success takes time, struggles, and having to admit that your first attempt wasn’t perfect, that you could improve on what you are doing. So if we can build children’s interest and enthusiasm for being in the fight rather than just being the winner, then we help them become more successful. Any sports coach, like interest, you have to get your athletes to enjoy their struggle to improve their personal best; if you are a swimmer or footballer or a runner or whoever it might be, you can’t be the person who just wants to win the race. In fact, that focus on achievement is all that you care about, then you are less likely to be the winner paradoxically. So if you are constantly focused on improvement, then you’ll do much better.

There was an interesting study, that Carol Dweck has carried out, which is changing the form of assessment, in order to encourage children’s interest in improvement and in struggle. She worked with a software company that was developing 2 computer versions of a math feedback program. Kids will get a set of 10 problems and they will get feedback from them. But the feedback was different for the 2 versions. In the conventional version, the computer was smart enough to be able to tell how long the students took to answer the problems and whether they got them correct. And also whether they grappled intelligently with the problems, like if they could ask for clues or hints, and then the program could tell if they made good use of the information.

The first version was like, if you got 10 out of 10 and they got the answers quickly, then the computer will say, “Haha, well done. 10 brain points for your today. You are very smart.” But if you only got 4 right, and you took a long time to get them right, then the response would be “Oh, you’re not very good at this, are you? No brain points for you.” That’s the conventional form of assessment. Then the other version was the opposite. This is the smart thing. If you got 10 out of 10 right quickly, then the computer gives you a sad face. And it says, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I must have given you problems that were far too easy for you. What a shame. I am sorry to have wasted your time. No brain points for you today, I’m afraid. Would you like to try something a little more difficult?”  But if you got 4 out of 10 and took a bit of time, but you grappled intelligently with the problems, then you get a smiley face, and the computer program says, “You worked very hard on those, haven’t you? I like the way you thought about those problems. Well done, 10 brain points for you.”

The result of this was that all the students did better, the high achievers hated the second system, because they can’t get the easy approval and reward. But after a little while, everybody finds it more interesting. There’s a greater level of engagement, more rapid improvement, more intelligent grappling and ultimately more winners with the second reward system than the first reward system. So it’s a practical example to show that if teachers change their attitude, then you could swim against the tide of the society, and you can create people who are better and deeper winners, because they know about how to get there. They care about how to get there rather than just having arrived.

Question : How do we train our students to go beyond being book-smart to becoming more street-smart and building resilience, curiosity and self-efficacy?

Well, there are just all kids of little things which you can do in the classroom. First of all, it must be gradual. Secondly, teachers have to understand that what we are talking about here are Habits of Mind, the emphasis is on habits. Habits are things you got used to doing, that it has become part of your natural way of doing, and they are learnt, and we can change habits, they are not a life sentence. They are not structural. They are just things that we got used to doing it this way. Sometimes in school, students are used to being lazy and being rescued, and used to only valuing easy success. And we can change that habit, provided we do little things and we are consistent in our approach. It’s just like being a good parent, you set the ground rules and you say you ain’t going no place as you are only two years old, so get use to it. Start asking for the children’s opinions a bit more, getting them to work together, to collaborate more;  you start making it more interesting for them to go for challenges rather than to take the easy way. You start using words like “This is going to be tricky for you. I’ve got a really interesting problem for you here.” So you just make your whole language, your whole attitude in the classrooom, making challenges interesting. Kids know that. When they are little and try to stack up the little cups in a tower, they are interested in the difficulty of getting the extra cup on the top. They don’t mind too much if the tower falls down, because they get another go. They get fed up eventually but they have resilience and perseverance, so we need to build on that in all kinds of little ways.

Question : If you were the Singapore Minister for Education, what would you do then?

Well, first of all, I would think that it was one of my most important jobs to model being a learner. So I would demand every month, 5 minutes on prime time Singapore television,  to talk to the nation, particularly to the children, so that would have to be before bedtime, about what my current grapple problem is, as a Minister for Education. Right from the top, everyone has things they don’t understand, things they struggle and need help with, so I would want to be a role model.

Then, I would put a lot of attention and resource into a much stronger form of professional development, for teachers. It would be required and consistent with the philosophy and desired outcome of education, it would be very well resourced, and it would be very well monitored. I have an English friend who makes this suggestion that make teachers very angry. It’s like every year, in order to retain your salary points, you have to prove and demonstrate how the quality of your teaching has improved over the course of the year. If you can’t prove it, you lost 10% of your salary. You could make it slightly more friendly, like you don’t get a salary increment. There’s the punitive version and you incentivize innovation and progression. And I would make it compulsory for school principals to attend regular workshops where people like me were talking to them, explaining about what it takes to make Singapore the world leader in learning-powered education, in education for the innovative economy. There’s a lot of practical knowledge and wisdom that people like myself, Dr Art Costa, Dr Henry Toi and Howard Gardner have that governments need to take seriously. I would want to kidnap the Minister for Education and take him to an island for 2 weeks and brainwash him. So that he really understands what these aspirations mean, and I would wake him up every morning and slap him on the face and say “Are you serious? Do you mean it when you say we want creative, collaborative, innovative, self-reliant citizens? If you are serious, this is what you have to do.”

Thank you.

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