Getting Creative in Our Materials
Should our learning materials be fostering L2 creativity–helping learners to develop and practice their creativity in English? This is a useful question to consider because creativity has become one of the primary buzzwords of the 21st century and is becoming increasingly valued by employers. Many recent writers have highlighted the importance of creativity in modern economies and how creativity is no longer considered as simply a personal expression of the self but also as a valued skill in the workplace. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida writes how “the creative class are... a fast-growing, highly-educated, and well-paid segment of the work force,” adding that these creative people are well-paid because creativity underpins the growth of modern idea-based societies. Modern economies are driven by creative people, often working in dispersed teams around the world communication using network technology where the language of creation is almost invariably English. For example, in his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman summarizes the new world where a design can be commissioned by a company in the United States and created jointly between engineers or other creators in China, India, or around the globe. But how can our language learning materials help to foster creativity, especially when it is being mediated through a foreign or second language?
One answer can be found in Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind which examines the nature of the creativity that employers are now looking for. Employers want workers to be able to:
- create a design (not just functionality)
- tell a story (not just make an argument)
- synthesize (not just analyze)
- play with ideas (not just be serious)
Pink and others have gone so far as to say that the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) is the new MBA and that many of the traditional skills and thinking styles of art and design have become valued skills in business. Design, telling a story, synthesizing, and playing with concepts are all skills that people learn through doing creative things, and these are skills that we can potentially develop in our students through our learning materials. As materials writers, we cannot award an MFA to our students, but we are in the position of being able to help them to be more creative in a foreign or second language. If people are using a second or foreign language, we want them to be able to express the natural human creative impulse, so that even when they are using a second language, they get a better job, help create a better world, and have the fun and excitement that creativity can bring to inner and outer life.
Recently I talked to Cameron Smith, a good example of a EFL material writer who has recognized these trends. Like many of these writers, he is naturally creative and interested in the creative process himself and has long been active in local drama and arts groups in Japan. About 3 years ago, Cameron changed the focus of one of his writing courses at Nagoya Women’s University from the traditional five paragraph academic essay to creative writing. While many schools would oppose a move away from traditional academic writing, the university supported his work, and it is clear that the development of L2 creativity within students and its facilitation by teachers is best supported by a corresponding flexible and creative attitude by schools and universities. “The department changed to put more of an emphasis on ‘expression’ because there was a realization that students wouldn’t actually be doing academic writing, so they may be better off using their English skills in other ways–trying something different.” Cameron now teaches his creative writing course every semester at Chubu University where the university is also very supportive.
Cameron looked at many learning materials for his courses and describes most existing short story writing materials for EFL students as simple exercises such as “describe a scene” or “describe a moment in your life,” usually appearing as a follow-up exercise to a reading exercise and often seeming like an afterthought. “While these exercises do help students to ‘express themselves,’ they offer insufficient support for structure... because similar to the way that an academic essay has structure, so a short story also has structure.”
Cameron developed his own effective approaches through trial and error in his classes. “In my first course, I was working with just two students and the three of us worked it out together... there were only a few students, so we decided to make the story together, and each student was in charge of a particular character and ideas about what should happen.” In addition, to support his classroom explorations of L2 creativity development, Cameron did a lot of reading-finding out how L1 writers do it and identifying the necessary components. Fostering creativity is not straightforward and this blend of classroom experimentation and theory may be the most effective way of developing good learning materials. Some of Cameron’s insights into developing materials for creative writing are outlined below.
Based on his reading and classroom experience, Cameron has developed materials to help the students to learn one appropriate structure for narratives following a standard four-point plot line. The story starts with a conflict because the main character wants something that they can’t get. Then there is a complication where the character tries to achieve the goal, but is frustrated. There is a crisis near the end where the character almost fails completely. This is evident in many movies and is the defining moment of the story. The story finishes with a resolving conclusion. This simple but effective structure provides a constraint for students that allows them to focus their writing energies more effectively, and Cameron constantly reiterates the importance of providing structural constraints of this type.
Cameron’s learning materials also try to help students develop strong characters in their stories. “A good character... is real in some way... has the same emotions as a well-developed human being.” But, of course, plot and character are interrelated, and Cameron cites the example of how his students created a story in which all the characters ended up happy together. He pointed out to the students that there was nothing dramatic and that nothing really happened at the end. “One student put his finger on a part of the script and said this character has to die. It was the other student’s character. But he was right.” Through continual resolution of situations like this, students develop their L2 creativity by engaging with the complex interaction of plot and character in English.
Another important area in teaching creative writing is vocabulary development. Cameron uses several types of exercises for vocabulary development.
- Awareness raising exercises help students to consider the impact of the same content expressed in different ways. e.g. Anna is very beautiful vs. Anna was absolutely stunning with long blonde hair.
- Vocabulary substitution exercises offer students alternative words for common actions.
e.g. say → shout, whisper
move → stomp, jump, walk, creep, crawl
Cameron designs activities to present this vocabulary and develop it creatively through different modalities (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic). For example, the words above can all be acted out in class.
- Production exercises help students to use vocabulary to create richer descriptions. e.g. Use the words in the box below to describe your own character.
One challenge that emerged in piloting the creative writing materials was the need to provide explicit explanations for other teachers for things that seemed obvious such as plot and character. Another challenge was responding to teachers who questioned what students should have learned by the end of the course. Including writing checklists in the learning materials were a useful way in responding to these teachers as well as providing a more explicit structure and learning pathway for students. Here is a simple example of a checklist where students can read their own or their students’ work. As well as providing a checkbox to show that the stage is included, space is also provided for comments and feedback.
Some readers may question whether creative writing has a place in EFL materials and argue that teachers should focus on development of basic skills. A counter-argument is that we need to engage the students in order to promote learning and that creative writing can achieve this, but there are potential advantages beyond engagement and motivation. Cameron says that students produce more: “In a similar essay writing course, students produce 2 sides of A4. In this creative writing course, the same students produce 8 sides of A4... their stories take longer to tell.” He also claims that “the grammatical accuracy of creative writing seems to be higher” but concedes that this needs more research. “One of the reasons is that the level of ownership is much higher and so they care about it much more, so they are much keener to express themselves.” Teaching creative writing may not be for everyone, but the call by society and employers for more creative people should probably be heard by all materials writers, especially in the current harsh economic situation. Cameron offers some straightforward advice: 1. Don’t be frightened about giving constraints on what students are to write. e.g. “I want you to write according to this plot format. I want you to have a character with the name, age, other characteristics ...”
Don’t be a snob. In a women’s university, the students may want to write a Mills and Boon story, but it’s not the teacher’s job to judge their taste, but rather to help the student to write a story that works.
Be persistent and patient. You can’t achieve good creative writing in one week.
In ways like this, by creating an environment where students can use their imagination and providing the structure for writing, material writers can perhaps help students to practice the L2 creativity that will support them in their future careers and lives. And perhaps, teachers who use your learning materials will experience what Cameron experiences–student stories that make him cry, make him laugh, or have an unpredicted twist–all great signs that L2 creativity is being developed.
Florida, R. (2003). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Friedman, T. (2006). The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. London: Penguin.
Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: How to Thrive in the New Conceptual Age. London: Cyan Books.