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Learning as a Creative Activity

October 4, 2009

I like mnemonic devices. Whenever I’m trying to remember something, I find it much easier if I have a word or sentence or rhyme to associate it with. Although these devices don’t always work for me—“Thirty days hath September” is all I can remember, so I always have to look at the calendar—I can still name the Great Lakes decades after moving away from Detroit by remembering HOMES for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.

I’ve always needed to develop my own memory aids, even when the topic is something I’m deeply interested in. I developed a mnemonic for remembering the six themes of fun in learning, although it does require spelling the final word, camaraderie, backwards.

C • Choice
R • Relevance
E • Engagement
A • Active Learning
T • Teacher Attitude
E • Eiredaramac (Camaraderie)

I like this acronym because genuine engaged learning is a creative act that is also building the skills of innovation. The connections learners make among and within subjects and with their lives are the things that make learning stick so that it can be accessed and used. It’s like brain Velcro©. A lot goes into a brain, but without those little hooks created to capture the information, much of what seemed like learning at the time just slides off. I also envision a brain dump somewhere inside the head, where all that disconnected knowledge is just puddling and piling up and getting all muddled. There are lots of things I know I learned once upon a time, at least long enough to write a paper or pass a test, but when I didn’t get actively engaged in remembering and associating and using the learning, they were lost.

Engagement is a key element of fun in learning. Going to school and getting a piece of paper that shows you passed your courses and successfully graduated is very different from going to school and doing all that you can to be truly engaged in the experience. Anyone who’s ever been in school knows this, yet it’s easy to forget and slip into the tell-me-what-to-do mode of being a compliant student whose fervent hope is just to pass the class.

Being a engaged learner who goes beyond requirements is more work. It takes more time. But the skill of being able to connect what you are learning to other disciplines and to other aspects of life is a crucial one to develop. It is also much more satisfying and empowering to be truly engaged. Recent research into how innovators think—a six-year study of 3,000 creative executives—found five “discovery skills” related to their success. The key skill, associating, was deemed to be the most significant “because new ideas aren’t created without connecting problems or ideas in ways that they haven’t been connected before” (reported in “How Do Innovators Think?” by Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review online, 9/28/2009).

Engaged learning is a deliberate intellectual decision that can help you develop the skill of associating. I often tell my students that if I were the queen of education, I would only have two grades: cares or doesn’t care. I also tell them that I can generally tell the difference quite easily. They can too. Each of us knows when we’ve put effort into our work and when we have not. “If we care, our work Can Always Reveal Effort,” a poster I remember from elementary school said.

Think about a time when you were truly engaged in learning something (in or out of school). What can you learn about yourself from those times when you were deeply interested in learning?

In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.
•Henry Miller,
The Books in My Life

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