Teaching and lesson planning creativity
How to boost your creativity
1. Breaks in lesson prep
For me, what works best is looking at all my lessons for that or the next day or week and then going away to do whatever else has to be done (e.g. have breakfast, file the lesson plans from the day before, or collect textbooks and tapes) before looking at it again. I’ll then sketch out some lesson plans and give my subconscious some more time while I travel to work, cue tapes etc, before making the final decision for how to structure the class and what range of teaching ideas to use. For lessons the next day, sleeping on it works even better (as long as you don’t consciously think about an observed or other difficult lesson too close to bedtime and so take away the “sleep” part of “sleep on it”!) This method not only gives your subconscious creativity time to get busy, but also allows for the different lessons and materials coming up in the day or week to help you think laterally about the seemingly unconnected lessons elsewhere in your schedule.
2. Switch everything off
Spend some time with no distractions at all, which especially means turning off electronic media such as the TV and music. Allowing your mind to wander free will help you come up with ideas, even if the process of thinking of them only starts during that “empty time” and actually comes out later when you are busy doing something else. Doing something that involves no particular thought at all is best, but if you are the kind of person who can’t do that, reading is better than TV as it allows your mind to move at its own speed and go its own way and doesn’t drag it back once it does wander (hopefully productively) off.
3. Do something physical that frees your mind up
Most people find that the best thing to do to empty the mind and leave it free to think of original ideas is to do something physical. Classic ones include walking and jogging (preferably in a situation without too many distractions, such as the countryside or a part of town that you know so well that you hardly notice it anymore). Other ones that work well for me are routine tasks like cleaning, ironing, filing and even rearranging and deleting files on the computer. In all cases, avoid distractions such as a walkman/ iPod or gym treadmill screen.
4. Abstract stuff
If silence and a book you can’t concentrate on just sets you to picking the fluff out of your belly button, that is not necessarily a bad thing as your unconscious is properly doing something much more useful! However, just like with meditation some people find that having something to concentrate on is better at clearing the mind than having nothing to concentrate on. As getting a catchy tune stuck in your head or wondering who the soap opera character will marry doesn’t leave room in your mind for anything else, it is probably best if this is something abstract such as a film that concentrates on the visuals more than the story, an abstract painting, or chillout or other music with no lyrics in English.
5. Get rid of distracting problems
Some people (and most of us at one time or another) find that cutting down on distractions and giving our mind time to think just sets it off worrying about trivial little things that are just as distracting as watching TV and a lot less relaxing. The same things can be just as distracting when trying to concentrate on your lesson planning or what is going on in class so you can improvise the next stage. There are tips below on how to keep your mind “on topic”, but the other approach is to start by cutting out all the things that could pop into your head when trying to think of something more important and original. I’ve written whole other articles on time management for teachers, so here I will limit myself to suggesting some time spent “clearing your life” before spending time on clearing your mind. It is also possible to combine the two by doing some mindless filing etc that has to be done while your brain is working subconsciously on whatever it is you need some ideas on. In terms of actual lesson prep, you can do something similar by getting all the routine parts of your prep such as cueing tapes out of the way and cutting down on time wasting stuff like cutting things up.
6. Take up a creative/ imaginative hobby
Learning to be creative in one field usually transfers easily to other parts of your life. If you find that just taking up the hobby doesn’t prompt you to express yourself in that medium, you might need to find a class, one to one teacher or friend to help you learn to express yourself. The experience of being taught should also of course be good experience for a teacher.
Moving onto how to actually set up a more conscious system of thinking of original ideas, brainstorming is the most well known one and still the simplest. The most straightforward way of brainstorming is to say and/ or write down every idea you can think of with no rejection or filtering of the ideas going on. Then try to group the ideas together (this may throw up more ideas in the same categories), get rid of the obvious chaff, and then choose the best. A similar system is drawing the ideas on mind maps/ spider diagrams.
8. Set a creativity goal
This can be connected to brainstorming, e.g. only stopping when you have come up with 50 possible ideas or 5 good ones (taking breaks and setting your mind free as suggested above if you need to). You will often find that it is the last in the series that is the most original. Similar challenges include using 5 new warmer ideas a month, finding a way to use all the activities in the book you have avoided before, and finding at least one way of adapting the ideas from an SLA book for your own classes.
9. Combine two things
For example, try to tie two stages together (like checking the homework and the warmer, or talking about how your weekend was and the grammar presentation) and use that to generate a game. A challenge like this is a great way of boosting creativity. This is because the aim is easy to define and explain to others if you need to, but the number of possible solutions is vast and so everyone should be able to come up with at least one. It should also provide new ideas by pushing you to the next level, however many new ideas you have already used up over the years.
10. Make variations
Another simple but open-ended way of setting your mind a challenge is to use something you have used many times before, but change it a little each time until it becomes something completely new.
11. Bring things in from other fields
This method is a little vaguer than the ones above but still gives you some help. Start a day, week or month thinking “I really want to use/ adapt something from the field of …” Good fields for ideas that can be used in an EFL class include drama, therapy, party games and board games.
12. Teach very different classes
Bringing seemingly unconnected ideas into your classes is something that you can also work on unconsciously. For example, by teaching classes such as young learners that always want games you should come up with some fun ideas that can also be used with adult and even business classes. The new challenge and adrenalin of doing something new should also make your brain more active all round.
13. Restrictions/ routines, and then break them
This is something else you can work on consciously or unconsciously. Restrictions such as needing to cover everything in the book or always starting with a warmer and needing a new one every week are great ways of forcing yourself to come up with new ways of coping with it. At the same time, though, getting rid of this restriction for at least one week and so operating outside the comfort zone of the teacher and students can be a real boost to your creativity.
14. Decide to stop doing that thing you always do
This can mean breaking the routine as mentioned above, throwing away a photocopiable resources book you use all the time, planning your lessons in a different way, abandoning a whole teaching methodology like PPP that is making your mind get stuck in a rut, or even just walking a different way to school.
15. Holiday/ complete change of routine
As most of us have neither the understanding boss nor the financial resources to take a 9 month sabbatical, more realistic options include trying management or teacher training for a while before going back to teaching, doing a summer school in the UK, doing a very short course such as the LCCI Teaching English for Business, or at least getting some hours or days off to go to a conference or teach observed Diploma lessons.
October 2008 | Filed under Methods
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.
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