Last week, teachers in Maine were on vacation. April vacation falls during the week of Patriots’ Day, usually 6-8 weeks before the end of the school year. I sometimes hear complaints from my non-teacher friends about the frequency or timing of school vacations. “Why do you need time off? Summer vacation is coming up.” Now I would never assume that teaching is the toughest profession that requires planned ‘down times’ and other jobs do not. That would be arrogant and inaccurate. But the fact that other professions do not schedule breaks should not take away from what I believe is an important time for teachers and students…scheduled vacations.
We ask a lot of our schools and our teachers. We hand them an incredible amount of responsibility for equalizing all of the challenges faced by our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, to produce students who are all expected to meet the same standards. For those of us who take that responsibility seriously, it generates an incredible amount of stress. Stress, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is often a call to action, an impetus for change and growth. But a constant state of stress is not a healthy thing, not for the sufferer, and not for those around them.
We can often find our most creative thinking comes from a merging of intense critical problem solving followed by periods of relaxation. Researcher Robert Epstein asserts that when we place ourselves in situations in which we feel challenged-situations in which we are likely to fail to some extent, that it forces our brains to assess which behaviors are effective and extinguishes those that are less effective. This can lead us to trying out new ideas when frustrated by older, less efficient ones. I think this can adequately describe daily life inside a classroom of 20+ individuals with differing needs that we are trying to address. So after weeks on end of hard work and problem solving, can scheduled breaks/vacations help make us more creative in our thinking towards teaching?
Author Jonah Lehrer suggests that, “People are more likely to have a big breakthrough when they’re relaxed… That’s when you turn your attention inward and maybe hear the voice that’s been there, but you just haven’t taken a moment to notice it.” In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, he shares examples of people who gain creative insights when periods of hard work were followed by periods of relaxation. He shares some research on how different parts of the brain are activated by each activity and compliment the creative process. (Though his book was pulled out of publication for some fabrication of quotes and plagiarism of quotes-it is still a fascinating exploration of the creative process.)
Scientists call that relaxed time following a period of problem solving the “incubation period” for ideas. This time actually distracts our subconscious mind from the fixation on problem solving and allows your mind to wander and experience new insights. As Lehrer asserts, “When our minds are at ease–when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain–we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.” So our brains need periods of distraction to direct new patterns of thinking-we relax some areas of our brains and activate others when we allow our minds time to relax.
Neuroscientist, Alice Flaherty suggests that levels of dopamine are increased with relaxed and pleasurable activity and that higher levels of dopamine leads to more creativity. She claims, “People vary in terms of their level of creative drive according to the activity of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.” So our bodies need a break from work and need to engage in recreation, exercise and pleasurable activity in order to increase dopamine. We need our ‘down time’.
Sure this can come in short bursts of evenings or weekends, but we often have other responsibilities that demand our attention outside of the classroom. We don’t often schedule relaxing breaks or give ourselves some much needed “me” time. We often have families or other jobs that require our attention. It is often easier to relax when we have prolonged periods of time that aren’t over scheduled with jobs and tasks, when we don’t feel guilty about ‘doing nothing’! When we break out of our ‘routines’ we are allowing our brains to work differently. Different is good!
Researchers also note that creative ideas which spring from relaxed states are often fleeting and that it is important to capture it when it occurs. When you are out on a run, or relaxing at the beach or lying late in bed and those creative juices are simmering, it is vital that you have some way to note or record ideas that emerge. I keep a notebook next to my bed and in my purse for those times. I also recently started using an app on my phone to record ideas when I am out running or walking. I refused to let myself feel guilt during the past week of vacation when I wanted to lie in awhile longer, or just sit and listen to birds or go for long walks and let some daily tasks just wait. I tried to do as little school work as possible and found myself ‘chomping at the bit’ by the end of break to try out some new ideas.
I’m not a scientist, and I know this is an oversimplification of the neuroscientific brain processes, but it is a start in my thinking. It supports the common sense hypothesis I hold that to be the best teachers we can be, we need to live full, rich lives. We cannot give what we don’t have. We cannot think outside of the box, when we are trapped in the box.
Most teachers I know are busy, multi-taskers. We are also purposeful in what we choose to do. I think it is important to be reminded that relaxing is purposeful, that it is good for you, and what is good for you could ultimately be good for your students. You don’t have to take my word for it. Do your own reading and action research (or inaction!) and see what you find. Just be sure to keep a notebook handy when those creative ideas start flowing! That’s my prescription for creative teaching for this week!
Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: how creativity works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
What’s on My Book Radar?
With vacation week, came some increased time for reading. I had read Kate Messner’s book Real Revision as I looked at the writing process through author’s eyes, but I hadn’t yet read any of her works of fiction. One, Capture the Flag, made it to the Maine Student Book Award List for last year, but I just hadn’t gotten to it. A recent book fair at one of my schools led me to purchase Eye of the Storm, which had made it to several other states’ book award lists. So I started reading the former by myself, and the latter with my son. I must say, they each pulled me right in and I am anxious to see how the strong child characters she has created will resolve some immensely adult problems!