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Creative Challenge

Chaz Pugliese 1

When his parents said they wanted him to become a lawyer, he threatened them with a career as a musician to make teaching sound like a sensible choice. But for Chaz Pugliese, now a teacher, trainer and author, creativity is not just a way to solve family impasses. It is the key that could give teachers access to the classroom’s holy grail: student motivation. Below, Chaz talks to Claudia Civinini about his philosophy, his work and his latest book – Creating Motivation.

How did you develop your ideas on creativity and motivation in the classroom?
Well, I’ve been interested in creativity for a very long time. For starters, I remember picking up De Bono’s Lateral Thinking when I was still in my low teens and being intrigued by it. Then when I was a little older I was introduced to jazz music and I started playing the guitar. Jazz is the epitome of creativity in that musicians have to improvise new music as they go along. Also, when I was studying to become a teacher, I had some wonderful trainers who constantly encouraged us to design our own exercises, and I really liked experimenting with lots of different things, so that must’ve stuck somehow. About a decade later, I found myself researching the possible link between the teacher’s creativity and the students’ motivation.

According to your experience as a teacher trainer, what are the two most important challenges that teachers face in the classroom, and how can these be addressed?
It seems to me that, in general, teachers the world over are generally overworked, underpaid, on the verge of burn-out and nobody seems to care! There’s way too much emphasis on tests and exams. The main challenge most teachers face is to find ways that would help them keep their motivation and stay mentally sane. That said, another challenge for teachers is getting students to pay attention, to focus, to be mindful. This is why in my last book (Creating Motivation, just out with Helbling), a whole chapter deals with exercises to help the teachers strengthen their students’ concentration.

What are the main academic influences in your work?
For motivational issues in the ELT domain, apart from Dörnyei’s work, I’ve been influenced by Ema Ushioda. Carol Dweck and Alan Mc Lean have also been very inspiring. In mainstream psychology, Carl Rogers’s work on self-actualisation and peak experience, and creativity researchers Richard Sternberg, David Perkins and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I’ve been also inspired by the work of Parker J. Palmer in the US, among others.

Since it is an important skill for our students, how can we teach creativity? And how can we learn it?
What’s needed is motivation (ask yourself: what’s your excuse for being creative?), attitude (it helps if you remain flexible and open-minded, and if you’re willing to suspend judgement and embrace risks) and knowledge (of one’s field). You also need strategies. A key one I’ve used over the years is called simplicity, which is basically doing and achieving more with less. As far as teaching creativity to the students, we can certainly design tasks that combine language learning with creativity. For example, using pictures of works of art – or instrumental music – for creative writing purposes.

What needs to change, in your opinion, in the education system to foster students’ motivation?

Learners want to be stimulated, challenged, surprised – they don’t necessarily want to be tested all the time. Just recently I was talking to a teacher who decided to quit her job because her director of studies wanted her to test the students after each class! It’s common sense, isn’t it, she told me, after all, if teachers spend all their time testing, when would they teach? Besides, exams encourage conformity, which is not terribly exciting. Students play it safe, they avoid taking risks, and the grade has become the most important thing.

Your framework to develop student motivation includes Group, Priming and Surprise – a GPS for teachers, as you call it. Could you expand on this?

I developed the GPS framework by trying to look at which tasks or pedagogical activities result in motivation and which don’t – and why? So I asked my students those questions, and I just stood back and listened. What they told me time and again is that they find motivating those tasks that result in ‘friendship’ (their word), tasks that foster group cohesiveness, group spirit, bonding. So, that’s the G of the framework. Second, they appreciate exercises that help them refine their focus, be it at the beginning of a lesson or whenever their concentration starts wandering. In other words, they want to be primed for learning. Third, they like tasks that stimulate them, that stretch them beyond the language learning element per se. They want to be surprised, they don’t want tasks that ‘smack of ‘school’, as they put it.

Your manifesto for creativity in language teaching spans over 24 points. If you had to choose just three, which ones would you pick?

If I must pick three:

– Teaching is a conversation between human beings regulated by the sound of the human voice (and not by materials, tests, etc). This is not trying to trivialise teaching, far from it. What I’m saying is that good teaching is based on and depends on dialogue, interpersonal dialogue, because that’s what it is, in essence.

– Walking into the classroom with a plan but also with a ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude.

– Creative teachers have to take sensible risks. Whenever you try something new in class you’re taking risks – the students might not ‘bite’, the activity might fall flat on its face. So, persevering is very important.