strengths-based creativity: a total experience

By Bill Rossi, Merge Director

Relevancy in learning means that at any time the student’s experience needs to contain meaning for her. The student needs to be met where she is, and met with something she cares about, something that’s exciting to her. For it to contain meaning it has to touch or move her in some emotional way so she can be stimulated by the experience and motivated to further explore it.

As this process begins to develop in her she will, in her exploration, be stimulated to communicate her needs for clarification, a perspective, or other input from the teacher. If encouraged and assisted she will gain the confidence to initiate her own thinking and formulate some of her own ideas, which should be a major goal of education. As her guides, we need to help her see how this subject that she’s beginning to ingest and digest affects not only her but her community or group.

An Existential, Practical Basis

Relevant learning also needs to have a real existential basis or practicality to it: the child has to have a place to put it in her life, by which I mean she has to be able to use it based on what she is feeling, not as some theoretical, intellectual point. As teachers we then play a critical part in making concrete connections between what is being taught and its history or tradition.

If the student is allowed this experience she will naturally begin to form her thoughts in a way that her intelligence will develop, and she will be able to form and ask theoretical questions in order to solve them. But if we present the theoretical and intellectual information without providing a meaningful experience for her learning, we will have put the cart before the horse: we won’t have given her enough of an emotional, practical, experiential base to make the correct sense of the information.

Integrated Learning Creates a Gestalt: A True Story

Providing this experience helps to create a gestalt, which is defined as a physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts. The following story illustrates a gestalt, a highly desirable integrated way of learning, and also demonstrates a traditional reaction to this kind of environment. Many years ago we had a small percussion workshop in our after school program for young children led by a percussionist from Ghana. During the first session the children formed a semi-circle of kids around him, and each had a drum.

The teacher played the rhythm and the children either tried to copy what he was playing or simply listened and then tried to get it on their own. It wasn’t important that they copy exactly what he was doing at first; they were free to feel the rhythm in a personal way such as dancing or playing a part of the beat while moving their bodies. The teacher frequently repeated the rhythm, watching each student and then giving individual help as he intuited the way in which they were starting to put the rhythm together. Through repetition the kids were learning the beats specifically, but the process was one of call and response — and fun.

Somewhat into the session a new child was brought into the class by his mother. The other children kept working with the rhythm as the teacher showed the new child the beat the other kids were learning, playing the rhythm so that he could begin to participate. The new child was so stimulated and happy to be there that he spontaneously began to dance around the drum.

Depressing Creativity

His mother became alarmed and expressed her dismay that her child was not sitting in his seat trying to play exactly the way the teacher had shown. We told her that the first stage of her child’s learning was to ingest and feel the rhythm, and that it was much more important that he first do this in an enjoyable way rather than sit in a chair and mimic the hand movements.

We let her know that when he was ready to put the rhythm into his own hands, it would be quite natural for him to sit down and play and he would then be much more accepting of the technical aspects. We added that this was a valuable process in which he was engaged, one that would provide a deeper, more meaningful learning experience.

Unfortunately, she didn’t accept this explanation and couldn’t tolerate this style of learning and teaching. Even though she saw that the other students were indeed learning in this way, she pulled her child from the class. We felt this to be unfortunate for the child, but it does show a certain thinking that is prevalent in traditional ways of teaching, a thinking that is not only counterproductive in children’s learning but can ultimately depress a student’s creativity.

Again, the after school environment is a perfect place to infuse the oxygen found in a strengths-based approach. When the teacher engages with students as a mentor, creatively bringing out and developing students' strengths, the community becomes positive and inclusive.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing – Duke Ellington lyrics