Teach Like a Montessori Champion

Montessori independence poster

In 1907, Maria Montessori was asked to set up a daycare centre in San Lorenzo, a district in Rome. The centre was located in a housing project in a slum area. 60 children, aged three to seven, joined the centre, while their illiterate parents were working. Montessori described her pupils:

Tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; their faces were expressionless, with bewildered eyes as though they had never seen anything in their lives. They were indeed poor, abandoned children who had grown up … with nothing to stimulate their minds. (Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, p. 129.)

More than 100 years later, many educators working in disadvantaged communities might recognise such a description. However, today’s solution looks very different to what Montessori came up with. Most academically successful schools in low income communities nowadays rely on direct instruction, where every detail in the learning environment is controlled by the teacher. One such approach is described in Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. This book has been an invaluable source of guidance for thousands of educators around the world.

However, having worked with teachers in low income communities across England, the United States, many communities in India, Peru and elsewhere, a few questions were bothering me. I was thinking about the six year old student that struggles to pay attention and keeps disrupting others in the classroom every day. If this boy is regularly told off by the teacher, asked to sit separately in the corner or outside in the corridor, how is this affecting him? Why is he behaving this way? His teachers do not want to exclude him, but feel they have no other option. They have to think about all students in the class and support everyone’s learning. So what to do about it?

And then think about the rest of the students in the classroom tightly controlled by the teacher. What happens when the teacher leaves? How would the students behave? If life is based on choice, then students need to learn to make their own choices. Are they learning to make choices independently?

Questions such as these sparked an interest in me to look for alternative solutions. It took me many years to begin understanding the basic ideas of Montessori education – because her approach is so different. I would like to share some of these ideas I have explored on this journey. Please don’t misunderstand me: I do not consider myself an expert in Montessori education. However, I thought it would be worthwhile to contribute to a conversation about teaching and learning in low income communities. Based on my understanding, I do think that Montessori has something unique to contribute to the challenges we have been discussing for many years.

To understand Montessori’s contribution to our current challenges, it is helpful to begin with a very brief historical account.

Maria Montessori with a childMaria Montessori was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School. She began working with children in mental health hospitals. A special school was set up for them in 1898 and Montessori became its director. She used many teaching materials developed by Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, two leaders in the field of special education at the time, whose approach she had studied in London and Paris.

A few years later, Montessori took her students to be tested in exams alongside children that attended mainstream schools. Everyone was shocked that Montessori’s students with special needs were able to read and write just as well as the other children!

In the daycare centre in San Lorenzo, Montessori was able to observe how ‘normal’ children would respond to the learning materials she had used with children that had special needs. The response was amazing. Children showed an incredible degree of concentration when working with the materials. Afterwards, they seemed rested, satisfied and happy. Initially Montessori had no plans to teach reading and writing to such small children, most of them aged four or five. However, the illiterate parents begged her and she gave children some sandpaper letters. They showed great enthusiasm. Some of them began sounding out the letters and putting together words. Soon, they had learned to write. It took them about six months to begin reading words. They began reading with a real explosion of energy. All of this was unexpected to Montessori. However, she set up three more schools in the next two years and observed similar results there.

Nowadays, Montessori schools are usually viewed as an expensive alternative available to families that can afford private schools. Anne Frank, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, P. Diddy, Prince William and Prince Harry all learned in Montessori schools. However, being aware of the roots of Montessori education can help us understand how this unique approach might be relevant today, as we’re trying to serve all children from diverse communities.

Montessori The Science Behind the GeniusAngeline Lillard, one of the pre-eminent Montessori scholars of our time, characterises the basic principles of Montessori education. Largely relying on Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, I would like to summarise each idea, say a few words about how it works and why. (The first chapter from the book can be downloaded here.)

When the basic principles work together, the result is beautiful. The teacher can teach students either individually or in small groups (usually of two to five students). At the same time, other students learn independently. This can be observed in this short video, recorded at Cornerstone Montessori School which serves a community of multicultural and economically diverse families. More than half of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school is located in St. Paul, Minnesota: https://youtu.be/S0HlI7dmOzU.

The first key idea of Montessori education is multi-age classrooms: children learn together typically in three year groups. 3-6 year old students learn in one classroom, 6-9 year olds in the next and 9-12 year olds in yet another classroom. This multi-age grouping is important for a few different reasons. Children learn through observation and imitation. When they see other children, and especially slightly older children, work with materials, this will be an important source of learning for them. Montessori recommended having about 30 children in one classroom; one of the reasons: this ensures there is enough stimulation through observation. Learning by observation is an accepted idea today, but it was initially proven in the early 1960s by the psychologist Albert Bandura. Children were shown films of an adult hitting a “Bobo” doll (see caption below, picture source: Wikipedia).

Bobo_Doll_Deneyi

Researchers observed that shortly afterwards, children were likely to behave toward the doll as the adult had. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

When one child learns from another, this is valuable to both: including the one doing the teaching. In one experiment, college students were divided into three groups. In the first group, students were read a passage and were then tested. In the second group, they were told that they would have to teach the same ideas to other students, but in fact they did not have to. The third group were taught the idea and asked to actually teach the content to other students. Not surprisingly, the students who prepared to teach and did actually teach it did best when they were tested for understanding. The second group that prepared to teach it but did not were second best. Those who just read the passage performed worse than the other two groups. (Annis, 1983, cited in Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius).

Here is a short video showing children of different ages learning together: https://vimeo.com/78630288#t=782s

The second key idea is that Montessori classrooms include a special set of educational materials. The materials have been carefully designed and tested. Montessori observed how children engaged with the materials. Some of the materials appeared much more interesting and useful to children than others; Montessori discarded or redesigned materials that were not engaging for children. She paid close attention to making materials simple and engaging.

Pink towerTake the Pink Tower, for example. The only thing that changes is the length of the side of each cube. This draws the child’s attention to the variable that changes. Many of the materials are also self-corrective. The child will notice when he has made a mistake, such as placing a smaller cube underneath a larger cube in the Pink Tower.

The cylinders help the child to learn visual discrimination of size. The cylinders progress in height and diameter from small to large. When the child picks up each cylinder, she is also preparing herself to learn to write, and to hold the pencil in her hand.

Theorem of Pythagoras

Many of the materials combine a concrete or sensorial aspect with an abstract idea. For example, the sensorial material to learn the Pythagoras’ theorem is quite fascinating. The child can visually see that the square of the hypotenuse (the opposite side of the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

In primary school (or elementary, in the US), the curriculum is structured around Five Great Lessons. The themes include: the Story of Universe, the Coming of Life, the Coming of Humans, the Story of Writing and the Story of Number. These lessons provide coherence to the curriculum and help children organise ideas they learn about. A similar principle is used in the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

The third basic principle in Montessori education is student chosen work in long time blocks. This is probably the one idea that was most difficult for me to begin to understand.

I could not understand why children should choose their learning activities instead of teachers. The first reason has to do with motivation. In one study by Iyengar and Lepper, 7- to 9-year-olds were asked to solve anagrams. One group could choose what they made anagrams of: they were given categories such as animals, foods, parties; six categories in total. A second group was told that the category had been chosen by the experimented. A third group was informed that their mothers had made the choice. What had in fact happened was that all children solved anagrams representing the group that the free-choice group had made. Children in the group that had chosen the category solved twice as many anagrams as children in the other two groups. Another interesting finding was this. After the anagram task, children had some time to play freely. Children in the first group that were able to choose the category spent much more time freely choosing to solve anagrams compared to children in the other two groups. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

Another reason for allowing children to choose their own work is provided by the research of Richard De Charms. He distinguished between “origin” and “pawn” classrooms. In an origin classroom, the students appear to have some say about what is going on. Teachers in such classrooms are like “authoritative” parents. They are warm and accepting, but they also require children to follow clear and consistent rules. In “pawn” classrooms, children are controlled by the teacher. Again, if we use the parenting analogy, this teacher uses an “authoritarian” parenting style. De Charms found out that in “origin” classrooms children are much more internally motivated and feel a greater sense of personal responsibility. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

This sort of research is aligned with what Maria Montessori observed when she developed her teaching model. She saw that children were thrilled to work with the same learning materials over and over again. Sometimes children aged three to four would spend half an hour working with the same material. Older children could spend a couple of hours working on the same materials, or even a couple of days.

However, to say that the child chooses freely each learning task is not entirely accurate. There are many specific rules that need to be followed. Children need to choose among the material that is in the classroom, and among the materials that they have been taught how to use. Also, they are required to be constructive and responsible. What happens when children misbehave?

Do not apply the rule of non-interference when the children are still the prey of all their different naughtinesses. Don’t let them climb on the windows, the furniture, etc. You must interfere at this stage. At this stage the teacher must be a policeman. The policeman has to defend the honest citizens against the disturbers. (Montessori, 1989, p. 16)

If a child misbehaves, one of the things the teacher might do is to restrict her choice. She might have to stay by the side of the teacher for the entire morning, without the right to choose what she wants to work on.

Another key point is this: the teacher’s role in guiding students’ choices is vital. If a student has not chosen to work on mathematics (or any other subject) for a while, the teacher would talk to her about it. The role of the Montessori teacher is to observe and inspire an interest. For example, here is a video of a weekly meeting that the teacher has with the student to discuss the work she has done: https://vimeo.com/78726178#t=336s

The fourth basic principle of Montessori education is collaboration. Children aged three to six tend to work side by side, without really working together. However, children aged six and older want to work together with others. Here is a video with some examples of collaborative work: https://vimeo.com/78630288#t=8s

Current educational research supports the observations that Montessori made 100 years ago. The Nature of Learning is a recent book that summarises the basic conclusions about effective learning environments. One of the conclusions is that learning is a social activity. “Effective learning is not purely a ‘solo’ activity but essentially a ‘distributed’ one: individual knowledge construction occurs throughout processes of interaction, negotiation and cooperation.” (Dumont, Istance, Benavides (eds), The Nature of Learning, p. 15.) Neuroscience also shows that the human brain is primed for interaction. Self-study and personal discovery are valuable, but learning mainly depends on interacting with others.

There is, of course, also a more sceptical view of collaborative work. I recently came across a funny picture on social media about group projects. It had a pie chart and responses to the question: What I learn from group projects? The answers were: how to work with other people – a tiny slice of the pie chart; the information – a little bit; how to do entire projects on my own – a lot; how much I hate people – a lot. Although this pie chart was just made up by someone as a joke, there is probably some truth in it. If children are not taught how to work together, they don’t know how to do it. This skill does not appear miraculously. It has to be modelled, practised and analysed: for example, how they can divide up tasks in a way that is helpful and sensible. Without explicit instruction, children are likely to struggle with truly collaborative learning tasks.

The fifth principle of Montessori education is the absence of grades and tests. This is a complex topic, especially in today’s environment, where schools are held accountable through standardised tests as well as external evaluations. Self-assessment and formative assessment by the teacher play an important role in the Montessori classroom. How this works exactly is a bit complicated, and I am unable to explain the ideas briefly.

One might wonder whether students that have learned in Montessori schools without any grades and tests struggle once they join a traditional secondary school later on, where they would be certainly tested and examined. A study by Dohrmann and colleagues explore the high school outcomes for students that came from public Montessori elementary schools. This was conducted in Milwaukee Public Schools from 1997 to 2001. One group of students had participated in public Montessori schools from preschool through 5th grade. They were matched with a comparison group on the basis of gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and high school attended. The Montessori group had significantly higher scores in Mathematics and science. No significant differences were found in English, social studies and grade point average. A recently published longitudinal study by Angeline Lillard which concluded that Montessori pre-schools elevate and equalise child outcomes can be found here; various other research summaries of Montessori education are here.

The final basic principle of Montessori education is individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills. This is where I come back to the question that had been bothering me: how to support the six year old boy who is struggling to sit down, track the teacher, and learn at the same pace as the rest of the class?

This principle is well aligned with decades of educational research. The Nature of Learning, cited above, describes one of the key features of effective learning environments as this: the learning environment needs to be acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it, including their prior knowledge. This idea is quite obvious. Every teacher has probably experienced that when students are asked to do something that is far too difficult for them, they are likely to struggle and give up. If students are asked to do something that is far too easy for them, they are likely to be bored and might also give up. So every learning task, in an ideal learning environment, is appropriately challenging for students.

I am not naïve to think that this happens all the time in a Montessori school. It would be fascinating to study whether students freely choose learning activities that are appropriately challenging to them. However, the Montessori environment makes it possible to take individual differences in prior knowledge into account. Students can choose, with their teacher’s guidance, different learning tasks, and work on these individually or in small groups.

To summarise, Montessori education is characterised by the following six principles:

  1. Multi-age classrooms
  2. A special set of educational materials
  3. Student chosen work in long time blocks
  4. Collaboration
  5. The absence of grades and tests
  6. Individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills

I believe Montessori education provides an inspiring vision for the future of learning. There is evidence that this approach would work with children from diverse backgrounds, including from low-income communities. This makes me think that more high quality Montessori schools are needed. More research is needed too, in order to evaluate how these principles work in practice (e.g. do students in fact choose appropriately challenging tasks).

I would like to finish with three recommendations. First, Angeline Lillard’s book Montessori: The science behind the Genius is a great place to start exploring the philosophy and practice, and how this is supported by decades of research on teaching and learning. Montessoriguide.org is a video resource where you can see what this practice looks like. Finally, Wildflower Schools are an ecosystem of decentralised Montessori micro-schools that support children, teachers and parents (a picture from Wild Rose school in Cambridge is below). The Wildflower Foundation is led by Matt Kramer, the former co-CEO of Teach For America.

Montessori Cambridge

I am working with a group of friends and colleagues to set up the first Wildflower Schools in London. Please reach out to me if you want to join this effort.

So what do you think: could Montessori education be a different answer to supporting student learning and independence, including in low income communities?

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Looking for wisdom and empathy

artur-and-alvaro-in-peru

Political events in 2016 have been screaming at us: WAKE UP!! Britons slammed the door in the face of their EU neighbours. Americans threw a rock (in the shape of Donald Trump) to smash the windows of the political establishment. Dissatisfaction with politics as usual is evident around the world. 

What to do about it?

On one side of the political divide, people are feeling hopeless and shocked: how is it possible that someone like Trump won? On the other side, people have been feeling hopeless for a long time: Obama promised change, but so many communities are still facing poverty and racial tensions. Where is the change that was promised? How can the government be trusted? A similar scenario is played out in many countries besides the United States.

Many political leaders have failed to live up to expectations – or even listen to the concerns of ordinary people. In the US, this is what has made voters angry and turn to Trump. But the promises of Trump and other anti-politicians are exaggerated and hollow. They promise change but can they really make change happen?

As we have seen with Obama and will probably see with Trump, one person can (at best) inspire change, but making change happen takes time and is difficult. First, there are always pressures that favour status quo and undermine all change efforts. Second, today’s societies are complex and change makers are needed at all levels: in national and local governments, in businesses, non-profits, social enterprises and voluntary organisations, in the media, etc. Third, people are easily drawn to simple solutions, which are compelling but often misguided or inadequate. 

Here are three examples to illustrate the point of complex problems and simplistic solutions that don’t work.

The loss of manufacturing jobs

Complex problem: Many Trump voters live in communities that are suffering because manufacturing jobs have disappeared. 20 million Americans worked in manufacturing in 1977. Today, this figure is 12 million. Some of the jobs have been lost to other countries (e.g. China), some have been lost because of technological advances. Over the same time period, many new jobs have been created, especially in the services sector. During the Obama presidency, more than 9 million new jobs were created. However, these were often jobs in other locations and required different skill-sets.

Simple solution: Abolishing free trade agreements and putting up tariffs, as Trump has suggested.

Likely outcome: The impact of free trade has been extensively researched. Tariffs will likely harm US consumers who are currently buying cheaper goods from China and elsewhere, such as clothes and phones. Longer term, the industries that are being protected will suffer because there is less pressure for them to innovate.

Better solution: Improving education and re-training people, so that they can work in health care, leisure and hospitality, retail, construction and other areas where jobs will be growing. Supporting the relocation of families to areas with more jobs and not enough qualified people.

Here are two graphs to illustrate the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US and the likely growth of jobs in other sectors.

us-and-german-manufacturing

us-likely-job-growth

(Source: McKinsey)

Improving education

Complex problem: There is dissatisfaction with the quality of education systems around the world. In the United States, 82% of students graduated with a regular high school diploma four years after they started 9th grade. The achievement gap is huge: children in extreme poverty are half as likely to graduate from high school, and one tenth as likely to graduate from college as students from the most affluent communities.

Simple solution: A myriad of education policies shape the school system in different states in the US (read more here and here). Arguably, the main driver that influences behaviour in schools is accountability. Schools and teachers are being held accountable for the academic achievement of their students and this data is shared publicly.

Likely outcome: Test scores may go up over time, but this does not mean that the quality of learning has changed. Test scores can be improved by teaching to the test, by expelling lower-performing students, etc. However, teachers do not necessarily have better skills to teach in ways that improves student learning.

Better solution: Invest in the quality of all teachers. Prioritise the sort of professional development that is known to improve student learning outcomes: it needs to be long-term (at least 15 hours, but preferably 50 hours, over 6 months), practical (related to the content of what is being taught), evidence-based, externally supported by experts, etc.

What kind of teachers’ professional development helps learners?

effective-cpd-for-teachers

(Source: Prof Rob Coe.)

Supporting farmers

This example is from a very different context, but it also highlights how complex problems cannot be solved with simplistic solutions.

Complex problem: Millions of poor people in many African countries live in rural areas and work as smallholder farmers. They don’t have a stable income, they often experience poverty and suffer from malnutrition.

Simple solution: Give them food aid.

Likely outcome: This will provide short-term relief to farmers and their families, but is unlikely to help them get out of poverty longer term. It does little to improve the resilience of farmers to survive during periods of drought. (On the other hand, this solution may benefit agriculture producers in countries where ‘food aid’ is produced. For example: between 1991 and 2009, US has provided $3.2bn of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. 94% of this, worth $3bn, has been in the form of food aid. In 2008, 99% of food aid came from within the USA. Furthermore: because of transport and packaging, it cost $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid from the US to Ethiopia. Source: Oxfam.)

Better solution: (1) Supporting farmers with credit, so that they can buy high quality seeds and fertilizers. (2) Deliver seeds and fertilizers to local villages, because distances are vast and transportation is often underdeveloped. (3) Train the farmers so that they can maximise the yields from their farm. (4) Create access to markets, for example, through a network of local village markets, where farmers can sell their produce and earn an income. One Acre Fund has already served more than 300,000 families with this solution. The income of the families has gone up by more than 50%. 

Are we doomed?

Each of these problems discussed above requires a thoughtful solution. Soundbites don’t bring manufacturing jobs back; simplistic policies are not enough to make a difference to learning outcomes. Wisdom is needed. By wisdom I mean the ability to understand issues, use knowledge and solve genuine, complex problems.

At this point, I can imagine despair. “People are not educated enough to come up with these wise solutions and put them into practice. If they were, we would have seen more progress.”

According to the latest international surveys, roughly one in twelve young people can read, understand and critically evaluate a somewhat complex text. One in eight can use their mathematical knowledge to solve real-life problems. One in nine can creatively solve somewhat complex problems. These are average figures for the wealthy members of the OECD, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc (PISA, 2012). In poorer countries such as Brazil or Malaysia, roughly one in hundred students can read critically and solve somewhat complex problems.

So are we doomed?

Perhaps not.

Imagine a conversation about the quality of education 200 years ago. At that time, 12% of world population was literate, according to estimates. (In Great Britain, that figure was around 50% and in a few countries like the Netherlands, around 85% of people were literate. But in the world as a whole, one in eight was literate.) Today, 85% of the world population is literate. Who would have believed it 200 years ago?

literate-population

(Source: Our World in Data.)

Or take another example. In 1950, about half of all primary school aged children around the world were actually in school. Today, this figure is 91%. (Source.) Would you have believed it in 1950 that this was going to be possible?

So while I am sad and worried about the state of the world, I am also optimistic. Unbelievable advances are possible over the course of our lifetime, if we harness the resources and talents that are available. The question is: do we want to do it? Do we want to work together with people who may have different views, perhaps also different values? That is where empathy comes in. Empathy means understanding the feelings and perspectives of other people. This is the foundation of good communication, teamwork and leadership.

Empathy

Like many others, I have also recently reflected on the need to engage with, and listen to, people who have different views. Not argue to change someone’s mind, but listen and engage. I am reminded of Daniel Dennett’s comments on how to argue intelligently. Dennett suggests these four steps which help compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Imagine what political debates and social media conversations would be like if these steps were followed? Or how the 24 hour news media could be a force for good if they tried to understand people with diverse views, instead of promoting their own ideology?

We are not doomed. In many schools around the world, children are already learning how to disagree respectfully and how to understand people with different points of view. In social and emotional learning programmes, children learn to identify and express their emotions, to solve problems with their friends and family members, to manage their emotions and calm down. Second Step is one such programme, backed by robust research. One of the skills children practise is how to calm down: by using their personal stop signal, by naming the feeling (thereby beginning to control the emotion) and by breathing deeply, counting or using positive self-talk. Children learn that they need to calm down before beginning to solve an emotional problem with their friend or family member!

When speaking about this kind of work, some of my friends have said: “I wish I had learned these skills when I was younger!” Indeed, imagine what would happen in families, schools and workplaces when more people learn to understand each others’ perspectives. When we learn to listen to each other.

(At this point, I am not going to comment on the immigration debate, or the rise of race and religious hate crime. Both of these topics are highly relevant to what I have discussed above, but they probably need a separate post.)

***

One day, all people can fulfil their potential and become positive contributors to the world. To achieve this dream, we need more wisdom and greater empathy.

This is my personal reason why I work to support the development of wisdom and empathy, problem solving and teamwork among their students. This is why we are creating learning resources and supporting the professional development of teachers

Incredible progress has already been made over the past 50, 100, 200 years. Let us try to speed up as we move towards that better world.

Take action now

Luxury or necessity? Critical thinking and problem solving should be at the core of learning for all

This article appeared in Unlocking a world of potential, a publication by British Council.

Even in a world where most children are still learning basic skills, critical thinking and problem solving can and should be taught.

In a low-income community in South Delhi, India, students are reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Today’s discussion is about the Potions Master. The teacher encourages students to think independently. ‘I don’t want solutions which the author gave you. I want you to be thinking, to be imagining of a better solution.’ What happens next? It is visible that students are thinking hard; they are trying to come up with different answers. Deeper learning is happening. You can see an inspiring video of this classroom here.

Learning to think critically and solve problems is not easy, but classrooms like this one suggest that all children are capable of it. However, the reality in most schools around the world is quite different. Even if children were capable of critical thinking and problem solving, they are currently not mastering these skills. Only four out of ten primary school students reach a basic level of competence in numeracy, literacy and science. Given this reality, what is the role of critical thinking and problem solving? Can these skills be taught at all?

learning-challenge-report2

Percentage of children who reach a basic learning level in reading, writing and arithmetic. Each country is represented by a circle sized in proportion to its population. Click here to see the interactive infographic or here to read The Learning Challenge report.

The meaning of critical thinking and problem solving

Cognitive scientists suggest there are three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving. Critical thinking is a specific way of thinking. This means that reasoning may be uncritical or critical, and the same applies for the other two types of thinking. It is critical if it has three features:

Effective – critical thinking avoids common mistakes such as only seeing one side of an issue, discounting new evidence when it conflicts with your previously held views, reasoning from passion rather than logic, and failing to support statements with evidence.

Novel – critical thinking involves thinking in new ways, not just remembering solutions or situations that are similar enough to guide you.

Self-directed – critical thinking involves thinking independently, in a way that is not overly controlled by anyone else, such as a teacher.

When young people choose what to study, they can think critically by considering multiple perspectives: the opinion of family members, possible job openings, wages and graduation placement rates. A recent international survey suggests that fewer than half of young people have the necessary knowledge about all of these different perspectives.

Effective thinking also involves an open mind: being open to new evidence even if it is in conflict with one’s previously held views. For example, some people think that HIV spreads by sharing baths, towels or cutlery, or using the same toilets or swimming pools. In fact, none of this is true. But discrimination continues in many communities, even if people’s views are based on misinformation and prejudices. How will people react when they are presented with evidence on how HIV really spreads? It is not easy to change one’s mind, especially if the issue is very emotional. That’s why the attitude of having an open mind and being open to new evidence needs to be practised at school, so that it becomes a habit.

Is it important?

Critical thinking and problem solving may sound like terms that a young philosophy student would talk about at university, but actually these are important skills for everyone.

One of the main reasons is an economic one: it is about jobs and livelihoods. Critical thinking enables people to make better decisions and improve their livelihood. This is vital for everyone. For example, 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and are farmers. Being able to think critically about different approaches to water and grassland management may boost productivity and increase income. In some communities, adopting different breeds has grown milk yields by 65 per cent, and better grassland management has doubled the income of herders.

The economic argument has far-reaching implications. Because of technological change and productivity growth, the nature of work is changing in agriculture and many other industries. A growing proportion of jobs now require teams of people working together to solve unique problems, as opposed to routine problems. However, relatively few students learn these skills at school. In most countries, fewer than one in ten (15-year-old) students are able to solve fairly complex problems creatively, according to the PISA tests in 2012. 

creative-problem-solving-pisa

Creative problem solving among 15-year-olds

According to management consultants McKinsey & Co, 75 million young people around the world are unemployed and a shortfall of 85 million high and middle-skilled workers is expected by 2020. In a recent international survey, four out of ten employers said a skills shortage is a leading reason for entry-level vacancies. Alongside general work ethic and teamwork skills, problem solving is among the skills that are highly valued among employers – but where the competence of new hirees does not meet expectations.

Critical thinking and problem solving are also important for another reason, which goes far beyond jobs. The purpose of education is also about enabling learners to fulfil their potential and make a positive contribution to the world. Better critical thinking and problem solving would enable both.

Can it be taught?

This brings us to the question: if critical thinking and problem solving are important, can these skills be taught?

General critical thinking programmes have been relatively popular in the past. These have often focused on learning ‘how to think’, but research suggests that this approach usually brings about a modest benefit. Why? Critical thinking is not a general skill; you always think about something. Being able to think critically about historical events does not mean that the same person is able to think critically about the nuances of farming. Both critical thinking strategies and content knowledge are needed.

Therefore, a more promising approach involves integrating critical thinking in to subjects. Critical thinking strategies – such as looking at an issue from multiple perspectives – need to be made explicit by the teacher, and practised extensively by students.

All of the above can only be achieved if we invest in high quality professional learning programmes for teachers. How to model critical thinking, how to ask open questions, and how to provide feedback that enables students to solve non-routine problems. Teachers need new skills and better tools to meet these expectations. Curriculum resources have to be redesigned with critical thinking and problem solving in mind. And finally, the focus of exams needs to shift to evaluate these skills as well.

If students learn how to think critically and solve problems, it would make a big difference to their livelihood and happiness. This is not a question of luxury.

The puzzle of how teachers learn best

How do teachers learn best? What is the best way to improve professional practice so that this has a positive effect on student learning outcomes? These questions have been puzzling me for years and here is why.

A newly qualified teacher was having a really tough time at school. He was teaching in a secondary school in a socioeconomically deprived area. The reality was quite bleak, he told me a few years ago: his students were not paying any attention to him. Our conversation happened one evening in Birmingham, during a seminar that my colleagues and I had organised. The next day we visited a school – and it blew his mind. It was the first time he had seen a high performing secondary school that served students in a very challenging context. These boys and girls, despite the challenges of poverty in their community, were learning amazingly well!

About a year later, the same teacher told me that this had been a turning point in his teaching career. He started truly believing that all of his students could succeed in school. He said he just had to continue learning and reflecting how to improve his teaching practice.

synergies-trip-to-new-york

This story inspired me but also made me think. Teachers learn in many different ways. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. Observing excellent teachers may have had a big impact on him, but it appeared to have less impact on many others. So I kept wondering: what are the best ways to support the professional learning of teachers?

About a year ago I was in Shanghai, one of the world’s top performing school systems. I came across a surprising answer as to why their students are doing so well. Teachers spend about a third (!) of their working time learning together and collaborating with their colleagues. This is an interesting decision: class sizes are larger in Shanghai (35 or more students in each class, source) and therefore, teachers have fewer lessons each week. This creates more time for teachers, which they spend preparing lessons together with their colleagues, and participating in various professional learning programmes.

This lesson from Shanghai seems consistent with the results of the most recent international survey of teachers and headteachers (TALIS, 2013). The countries where learning outcomes have improved most rapidly tend to invest more in the professional development of their teachers. For example, in England, most teachers had attended courses and workshops, but relatively few had participated in research, observed teachers in other schools or taken qualification programmes. Overall, these participation figures in England are quite similar to international averages, but well below countries that invest more heavily in teachers’ professional learning (e.g. Estonia and Singapore, no comparable data exists on Shanghai).

talis-participation-in-cpd

Participation in different types of professional development activities (TALIS, 2013)

Investing in professional development is likely to pay off, but what is the best way of spending this time and money? In the same international survey (TALIS, 2013), teachers’ views on the impact of professional development activities were explored. Across all countries and almost all professional development activities, most teachers thought it had a positive impact on their teaching! For example, six out of ten teachers in England had attended professional development activities focused on improving knowledge and understanding of their subject field. Of all these people, nine out of ten thought this training had a moderate or large positive impact on their teaching.

This is interesting, but does it explain what kind of professional development is most effective? Professor Robert Coe: “We do not know a lot about the impact of teachers’ CPD on students’ learning outcomes, but what we do know suggests two things: that the right kind of CPD can produce big benefits for learners, and that most of the CPD undertaken by teachers is not this kind.” The table below summarises research on the criteria of highly effective CPD, as described in two recent reports (by CUREE and by Rob Coe).

Unfortunately, relatively few teachers have access to this sort of professional learning opportunities. According to the TALIS survey, one in three teachers in England had participated in collaborative learning activities or research with other teachers. One in five had taken part in CPD over an extended period of time (taking place on several occasions spread out over several weeks or months).

These questions were explored further in a survey of teachers conducted in England by V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder of the University of Cambridge in 2010 (source). They asked teachers about the features of the professional development activities they had participated in over the previous 12 months. Here is what they found.

features-of-cpd

Features of CPD that teachers have access to in England (Opfer and Pedder, 2010)

It appears that most teachers have attended lectures or presentations, but relatively few have actively practised using pupil materials or engaged in extended problem solving. Opfer and Pedder conclude: “There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers thought that CPD would have a positive impact on pupils’ learning and achievement.”

“There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap.”

— V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder

And so we are left with this fundamental challenge. Significant improvements in learning outcomes cannot be mandated by policymakers, they will happen only if teachers are able to improve their teaching practice in a meaningful way. This takes time and effort – there is no other way. Teachers are most likely to learn best when learning is sustained so that they can try out new practices and explore evidence of trying new things. Learning is likely to be more effective when it is collaborative, active, informed by research and supported by external networks.

This is not an easy recipe for success, but it is worth trying.

Reinvent teachers’ professional development

New and more effective models of teachers’ professional learning are needed. These have to take into account the challenging reality, including long working hours, the pressure of inspections and exams. Creative Generation is an organisation trying to reinvent teachers’ continuing professional development. We hope that our efforts contribute to teachers regaining a sense of professionalism and experiencing the beauty of learning in their classrooms more often.

Imagine for a minute that you are Andy Murray. You are a top player and a real professional. Your strength is in returning the serve really well and your backhand strike is great. But maybe you’re thinking you need to improve your forehand shot. What sort of training or professional development will enable you to achieve this? It’s probably a combination of focused practice, being attentive to your mistakes, and trying to get feedback from an expert coach. You might spend time analysing videos of tennis legends with the best forehand shot, as well as recordings of your own shots, to identify small steps for improvement.

Admittedly tennis and teaching are not exactly the same. However, both are complex skills. So why is professional learning for teachers so different? In a recent survey, 77% of teachers in England reported that they had attended in-school workshops or seminars. Most frequently, this involved listening to lectures or presentations (67%). Less than one in five teachers have been involved in more active forms of CPD such as practising the use of pupil materials (17%), extended problem-solving (9%) or demonstrating a lesson, unit or skill (6%, Opfer, 2010). Wouldn’t it be odd to ask Andy Murray to attend a lecture on forehand technique that involves little or no practice?

Teacher CPD needs to be reinvented, because most existing programmes have clear limitations. One off trainings or workshops are simply too short to have an impact on teacher practice. Whole school CPD sessions are often not relevant enough for many teachers. In order to be relevant and helpful, sessions should be active and ideally, subject-related. General sessions for all teachers are useful up to a point. It is important, for example, to know the main principles of formative assessment – the need to be specific and clear with feedback messages, or the importance of providing helpful feedback in manageable units, in order to avoid cognitive overload etc (Shute, 2007). These ideas are necessary but not sufficient to improve one’s teaching. What would be even more valuable is the opportunity for teachers to improve their knowledge of how pupils learn their subject best. For example, if a student is struggling to compare and simplify fractions, how do you provide useful suggestions that will move the learner forward? Unfortunately, surveys suggest that few teachers currently have access to practical and subject-specific professional development opportunities.

At Creative Generation, we’re trying to reinvent teacher CPD and make sure that more primary teachers have access to high-quality, affordable professional learning opportunities. What do we mean by high quality? Evidence suggests that CPD is likely to help teachers improve their practice and have a real impact on learning outcomes when the following criteria are met:

  • Intense – at least 15 hours (preferably 50) of professional learning
  • Sustained – over at least two terms
  • Content focused – allowing teachers to improve their knowledge of subject content and how students learn it
  • Active – teachers have opportunities to try new practices and discuss how they work
  • Supported – external feedback and networks are required to improve and sustain one’s practice
  • Evidence-based – promotes strategies supported by robust evaluation evidence (Coe, 2013)

Even if programmes are built upon a solid understanding of what makes teacher CPD effective, two challenges remain: time and motivation. Given the current climate of high-stakes testing and inspections, as well as the huge workload that primary teachers are experiencing, how will anyone find the time and motivation to engage with this?

Lack of time is the most important constraint. As the recent DFE survey indicated, primary classroom teachers work, on average, 59 hours per week (DfE, 2014). If teachers feel that CPD is irrelevant, it will be considered a waste of time. Any successful programme needs to be practical and relevant enough so that teachers feel they’re winning back time. One solution is to ask teachers to bring their lesson planning to the CPD sessions. This would enable teachers to collaborate on their planning and immediately implement the ideas they’ve learned during the trainings.

Motivation is the other major constraint. Without motivation, there cannot be effective learning. This is true for students as well as adults. Is there a solution to this? Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. Motivation depends on many complex factors. In case of teachers and their CPD, however, one big idea emerges. Teachers in England were asked a few years ago about the most important reasons for taking part in CPD. What were the two most crucial factors? Positive impact on pupils’ learning and improved achievement for pupils (Opfer, 2010). Therefore, teachers need the opportunity to learn relevant knowledge, practise the new skills, and ultimately improve their impact on pupils’ learning outcomes.

A couple of years ago I was in an English lesson taught by a friend of mine. In front of the classroom, a six-year-old boy was giving a speech. He could pick any topic, and the only requirement was that he had to speak, as loudly and clearly as possible, for one minute. By the way, English was not his first language and he had been learning it for less than a year. After about 30 seconds, he ran out of words. So he just stood there, arms crossed, until the minute was up. When he was done, his classmates began giving him feedback. They said a few things he had done well and some things he could perhaps improve. Finally, the teacher shared his comments. He reminded everyone that a couple of weeks before the same boy had been too scared to say anything in front of the class. He had just stood there and started crying. Now, even though this time he could not speak for the full minute, he had made huge progress. It was obvious that the teacher was immensely proud of the boy. The boy was still standing in front of the classroom, smiling.

Experiencing these moments when students have visibly learned and grown – this is the beauty of learning. We need to reinvent teachers’ professional learning and ensure that high-quality, affordable CPD enables more teachers to experience the beauty of learning more often.

***

The professional development programmes of Creative Generation are focused on improving learning outcomes in primary English and mathematics, especially problem solving, comprehension and critical thinking. If you’re interested in finding out more, please email me.

This article was originally published in ‘Primary Voice’.

Learning to solve problems

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“Robots – memorising formulas, regurgitating facts. Pretending that we understood when we didn’t have a clue. Playing by the rules of the examiner. That’s before we met Mr G, who rescued us from the education system that failed us all. He was a teacher who relished making you think, and not telling you the answer. The one whose enthusiasm was contagious.”

This quote is from last year’s ‘My Education’ report. Could a teacher hope for higher praise from a pupil? She says that because of her teacher, she has discovered the beauty of mathematics and learned how to think.

Thinking is not easy. Teaching pupils how to think is much harder than getting them to remember things. “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” This is one of the main findings from cognitive science, as summarised by Daniel Willingham in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

Cognitive scientists have tested this with numerous experiments, concluding that the brain is far better suited to support the ability to see and move, as opposed to think. For example, consider this paradox. “A teacher tells the students that there will be an unexpected test next week, but the test will be a surprise. They will not know the day of the test until it actually happens.” Can you figure out when the test will be?

I was asked this many years ago, when I was being interviewed for a place to study at university. The interviewer, a charming, eccentric man – chain-smoked through the interview, and was constantly drinking this strong, smoky tea – encouraged me to think, step-by-step. Could the test be on Friday? Why not? If not Friday, then how about Thursday? With some guiding questions and encouragement, I eventually managed to solve the paradox. (Click here to read more about this paradox.)

The value of problem solving

But if teaching how to think is hard, is it worth the effort? Many educators will probably agree that the ability to think is valuable in itself. Thinking will enable us fulfil our unique human potential. However, beyond this intrinsic value, thinking is also valuable in practical terms.

Consider the chart below: the number of jobs in the US economy that require working collaboratively to solve non-routine problems grew dramatically from 1960 to 2000. (Source: The Learning Society report by Cisco.)

Nonroutine tasks.jpg

In the original research paper, a task was defined as routine if “it can be accomplished by machines following explicit programmed rules”. For example, moving a windshield into place on an assembly line, and many other tasks where you do the same thing over and over again. As is evident form the graph, these tasks have been declining most rapidly since the 1980s. In contrast, nonroutine interactive tasks have been growing quickly. This is where you have to solve new problems, while interacting with other people.

There is nothing radically new about the so-called 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity etc. However, the reality is that far more people, compared to just 20-30 years ago, need to master these skills to earn a living.

McKinsey & Co recently conducted a major survey across Europe. The idea was to find out which skills are valued by employers but missing among young people. In most countries surveyed, the picture was quite similar. Pretty consistently, among the top four missing skills were: problem solving and analysis, teamwork, spoken communication, and work ethic.

Somewhat surprisingly, lack of skills was perceived as a less urgent issue in the United Kingdom compared to Germany, France and other European countries. Yet, just a few months ago, there were 940,000 unemployed 16 to 24 year olds in the United Kingdom. Youth unemployment rate was 21 percent. Young people need better skills (in the UK, especially vocational skills) to match the needs of employers. This is a very complex problem to solve – which in itself is further evidence about the importance of collaborative problem solving.

Problem solving in mathematics

How can one learn to solve problems like the one I was asked in my university interview? Let us start by exploring how problem solving can be taught and learned in the context of one subject, mathematics, and then look at other subjects. The following recommendations are based on a practice guide published by What Works Clearinghouse in the US. After careful review of numerous research papers, the panel of experts put together a list of recommendations to teach problem solving in mathematics in grades 4-8.

Recommendation 1: Prepare problems and use them in whole-class instruction

The idea here is to find both routine and non-routine problems for students to solve. Non-routine meaning problems for “which there is not a predictable, well-rehearsed approach or pathway explicitly suggested by the task, task instructions, or a worked-out example”. A couple of useful links: sample problems can be found from the Illuminations site, the Math Forum, practice problems from PISA etc. When selecting which problems to use, it is important to ensure that students will understand the problem. If they don’t know the context or language, then their problem solving capacity is taken up by trying to understand what is meant by the question. Teachers can anticipate these issues, and select problems with familiar contexts. Also, it may be helpful to reword problems, using words that are connected to pupils’ previous experiences.

It is also helpful to consider students’ previous knowledge of mathematical content when selecting problem-solving tasks. Problems aligned with the current unit often require skills taught in previous years. It may be useful to review skills learned earlier, which are needed to solve the problem. Struggling students are likely to find it especially useful.

Recommendation 2: Assist students in monitoring and reflecting on the problem-solving process.

Another useful strategy is to provide students with a list of prompts that help them think during problem solving. They can be in the form of questions or simple tasks lists. (See a couple of examples below, from the same practice guide.)

Problem solving prompts.jpg

There are a few different ways in which prompts can be shared with pupils. They can be posted on the board, included on worksheets, listed on index cards. In addition, teachers can play the helpful role of modelling (thinking aloud) how to monitor and reflect on the problem-solving process.

Recommendation 3: Teach students how to use visual representations.

This is another simple technique with robust research evidence. Selecting (appropriate) visual representations is likely to be very helpful. For example, schematic diagrams are useful for ratio and proportion problems, percent bars for percent problems, strip diagrams for comparison and fraction problems etc.

Here is an example from the same practice guide. “There are 4 adults and 2 children who need to cross the river. A small boat is available that can hold either 1 adult or 1 or 2 small children. Everyone can row the boat. How many one-way trips does it take for all of them to cross the river?”

I quite like this first visual representation.

Problem solving river1.jpg

It’s a nice little drawing, but the only issue is that it lacks relevant details for actually solving the problem and it includes some irrelevant details. This next one does a better job.

Problem solving river2.jpg

Recommendation 4: Expose students to multiple problem-solving strategies.

Evidence suggests that if you know how to use multiple strategies, you are likely to be more successful. That’s why it is important for teachers to provide instruction in multiple strategies, sometimes even using unsuccessful strategies. This will enable pupils understand that in some situations one needs to try more than one approach to solve a problem. Providing students with worked examples so that they can compare multiple strategies next to each other is another useful practice. This is an important takeaway: research has shown that studying worked examples is a time-efficient way of learning multiple problem-solving strategies.

Recommendation 5: Help students recognise and articulate mathematical concepts and notation.

Mathematical concepts and notation, once pupils are comfortable with them, will help them think about the problem. As always, one should pay attention to pupils’ prior knowledge of concepts and notation, and start from there. When observing the way pupils are solving the problem, teachers can look for opportunities to call out when they use mathematical concepts and notation. Another idea is to use small-group activities so that pupils can discuss the process how they had solved a problem in a worked example, and importantly, the reasoning behind each step.

The full practice guide on mathematical problem solving includes more detailed guidance, along with numerous examples, and ways to overcome common roadblocks in implementing these ideas. This very helpful guide can be downloaded here. Besides mathematics resources, What Works Clearinghouse also includes practice guides and helpful reports and reviews on many other subjects.

Transferring the skill of problem-solving

As we have seen, research has some helpful suggestions how to develop problem solving in mathematics. But is this skill transferable? If students become proficient in mathematical problem solving, will they be able to solve problems in other subjects?

Transferring problem-solving skills to different domains is difficult. In a wonderful article (“Critical thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”), Daniel Willingham reviews evidence about the impact of various critical thinking programmes and suggests some reasons why their success has been limited. Critical thinking and problem solving are not general skills that can be applied to any situation, after they have been learned. “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.” Willingham cites that programmes including puzzles like those found on IQ tests report gains in IQ scores, but no significant gains in solving other types of problems.

Does this mean that problem-solving and critical thinking should not be taught? Well, they can be taught and learned, but not easily. The fact that more than 55 percent of students in Shanghai who took part in PISA 2012 were judged to be highly proficient in mathematical problem solving should give us encouragement. This compares to 12 percent of students across OECD and 13 percent of students in the UK who are able to reach this level.

As Willingham concludes in the article mentioned above, there are thinking strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. This does not mean that the ability to solve problems or think critically will then automatically translate to other domains. It does only if one has sufficient knowledge in the other domain and sufficient practice in using these thinking skills with different types of problems.

Helping your pupils become critical thinkers and problems-solvers is a worthwhile aim. With a lot of attention to domain knowledge and smart, diligent practice over a long period of time, it should be an achievable goal.

If dogs can learn it, then human beings can too. This is an actual advert I saw in the park 🙂

Problem Solving For Dogs.jpg

Better start now

This happened about two weeks ago. I get a phone call from my wife a few minutes after she left home on her bike. “I was hit by a car. The guy just didn’t see me.” My heart sank.

This was the third time in the past couple of years that someone very close to me had been in a cycling accident. Luckily, my wife, my sister and my best friend all survived and are doing fine.

Moments like this have reminded me: whatever I really want to do in life, I better start now.

I left my job at Teach For All in December. In many ways, I had the best job you could imagine. Together with an awesome team, we were supporting the professional development of teachers and school leaders around the world. We were making a difference, and we had fun. My colleagues were some of the nicest, smartest and most hard-working people I’ve ever met. Plus, I was able to travel the world, visit some pretty incredible schools in about a dozen countries. A couple of months ago, we were in Shanghai, the world’s top-performing school system. I’ve been to some really innovative schools, in places like the US and India, showing today what the future of education will look like. As well as many amazing schools up and down the country here in England. I think I learned more in my previous job than I could have done anywhere else.

(Here are some of the schools I have visited in the past 5 years.)

classrooms-around-the-world

So why leave a fantastic job and jump into the unknown, by starting a new education charity? Is it because of the freedom that being an entrepreneur gives you (being your own boss!), or the hope of making a mark on the world, or making more money? (Just for the record, I have taken a big pay cut and don’t yet have a secure salary for this year.)

I think most importantly, it’s about seeing a need and feeling that something can be done about it.

Every morning I hear news about South Sudan, or youth unemployment in Europe, or the popularity of Golden Dawn in Greece. Which makes me wonder: how will our complex global and local challenges be solved if the next generation is not smarter and more creative than we are?

I’m thinking about all of my friends in education who are working really hard, many of them making huge personal sacrifices. They’re making a difference, no doubt about it. But despite their best efforts, the challenge of improving the quality of education is still huge. Across the OECD, more than one in five 15-year-old students have not mastered basic skills in mathematics. Fewer than one in ten can understand and critically evaluate an unfamiliar text (PISA 2012).

So what can I do to support schools and help make learning more effective? What would help improve academic achievement while ensuring that students are learning the knowledge, skills and personal attributes they most need for life? Can this be done without expecting a super-human effort from teachers and school leaders?

There are no magical solutions. However, as Professor Robert Coe explains in his excellent essay (text, video), high quality professional development for teachers can make a real difference on student learning. A CUREE / Pearson report on research evidence highlights the sort of professional development likely to improve student outcomes: it needs to be collaborative, supported by specialist expertise, focused on aspirations for students, sustained over time and exploring evidence from trying new things.

At Creative Generation, we will be piloting a new, intensive professional development programme for teachers. 10 days per year, 4 teachers per school. Engaging with education research, trying out new practices, evaluating how the new teaching approaches have an impact on student learning, reflecting on what works (or doesn’t) and why. Over time, supporting the professional development of colleagues in your school.

I decided to leave an amazing job and start a new education charity to tackle a really complex challenge. And, of course, because of the prize. Seeing students fulfil their potential and become positive contributors to the world. Seeing a new creative generation emerge.