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October 28, 2021

Originality – are we encouraging it in our classrooms?

Author: Dr. Zeenath Reza Khan, Assistant Professor of Cyber Ethics at Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

When running a workshop for a primary class once, instead of asking students to take out pencils to write, I asked them to find some way to write (a task). In my mind, I imagined students would simply take out their pencils. Little did I know how creative and original students could be. From crayons to chalks, to markers, color pencils, highlighters; some went the extra mile and did away with paper altogether and took out their writing doodle boards or whiteboards!

Isn’t it strange that we want students to be innovative, creative, and be original when we assess them but how often do we actually, explicitly teach originality? How often do we actually, explicitly encourage, recognize or validate originality?

There are some schooling systems that to date depend heavily on rote learning and regurgitating what’s in the books to show achievement of said learning outcomes. I have heard said many times that we need to have more rules to “streamline” our students. In art class, students often have to “see” and practice. In sports, techniques are practiced, and students are trained. In experiments, students are asked to “repeat” them till they get the said results.

How often do we stop to really encourage problem-solving instead of simply answering a question or making suggestions? 

There needs to be a balance when encouraging originality

We encourage our students to engage with the content, but how often do we as educators entertain and encourage students to critique content? Even when it comes to grades, we as educators are sometimes expected to have to defend or explain why our class’s marks are not normalized – what is the “benchmark” we are following when grading?

But then again, there must be a balance. In the race to encourage originality, we cannot do away with structure in a classroom either (imagine Kindergarten Cop scene with Arnold Schwarzenegger and kids running all over the room and him, literally!).

Everything we do has to have balance. Originality is vital in making students feel more confident of themselves, allowing them to realize their own potential, do help them grow. I have often seen when students are allowed to be original in the way they answer in class or how they choose to do their assessments, they are the most engaged with maximum content-matter understanding and applicability.

Thinking out of the box

I was never the norm and that can be scary, sometimes disheartening, and even discouraging. But I have also been lucky because I had parents who celebrated me for me, my teachers (some of them) delighted in my thinking and questioning, my friends who encouraged me and made me feel loved.

It is vital that as educators, we do our bit to make students feel comfortable, appreciated, seen, and encouraged when they think “outside the box”.

I found that in fact, something even as simple as a playlist of activities for a particular lesson can really encourage students to become partners in their own learning journey – deciding what activity they will do, in which order, and how. While this usually follows some structured teaching, the majority of the class time is spent on this type of activity where I am truly only a facilitator of their learning, rather than a “lecturer”.

Would you imagine a guitar and singer if I mentioned a software system analysis subject? But there it is – from poems to skits in French, to songs and even raps, I have had students present their understanding of the planning phase of a system development life cycle, and later confirming the reason they did remember the steps was because of the way each was presented by different teams in class!

When students reach a level of comfort with content, they develop confidence and passion for learning that surpasses grades and marks.  I had students come to me worried about their marks not because it was low but because they were afraid that meant they had not understood something when they were confident, they had. I have seen this attitude open doors for healthy, capacity-building conversations that are coated in integrity. Students who have reached this level rarely even think about academic misconduct because to them their own learning and what that means for their future outweighs marks.

Originality needs to be encouraged at a young age

Originality needs to start young. Every time we tell a child “that’s not how it’s done”, we should stop to think, “isn’t it? Or, couldn’t it just be another way I didn’t know was possible?” If we are able to provide a safe space for students to try their hand at being original without being shut down, and at the same time encourage higher-order thinking and deeper learning, we are sure to help build a culture of integrity that cannot be threatened by one bad grade or one poor teaching practice in the future.

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