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Mr Collins and the ping pong balls: a lesson about creativity from the dark days of 1988

I'd like to share with you an experience from my time as a child at school. It is a story about a teacher, a lesson, something I learned. You can put the handkerchief away as this isn't a sob story, and you don't need to jot anything down as it doesn't represent a masterclass in teaching from a lost age. It is an experience that was accidently inspiring and formative, in spite of what may have been intended, rather than because of it. It is the story of Mr Collins, a ping pong ball and a DT lesson.

First a bit of context. The date is a little fuzzy, but it was possibly 1988 (once I've explained you'll see it certainly has a 1988 feel to it) and I was in Year 2 at my first school in South Staffordshire. That's what upwardly mobile Eighties families called (and still call) parts of Wolverhampton. I was probably seven years old and was a child fairly unmoved by the whole 'school' thing. My class teacher was the aforementioned Mr Collins. At this point, I will say I don't remember liking Mr Collins very much. I was terrified of his 'black book' (yes, he actually had one), he loathed the rip of Velcro on my shoes, and even then I knew there was something sinister about the way he pronounced 'years' as 'yerrrrs'. Shudder. All of which is beside the point, of course, but it does give extra weight to the fact that I remember some of his lessons thirty years later.

The most memorable were the DT lessons on construction. The task was simple: to build a machine that would lift a ping pong ball from the floor to the table top. We had several afternoons to complete this task. We could build the machine from timber, plastic pipes, ropes and so on that he supplied and to construct it, we were to use actual tools: drills, saws, hammers – take your pick, little ones. By now, you can see what I mean by a 1988 kind of vibe. Indeed, the teaching input was of a similar fashion. Beyond Mr Collins explaining the task and setting us to work, there was little more to it. This is what I mean by accidentally inspiring. He sat at his desk doing proper teacher work such as hearing children read; we happily set about sawing, hammering and generally being busy with tools. 

When I have recounted this story to student teachers, I have quite enjoyed their general sense of astonishment. What, he just left you to get on with it? How would you have learnt anything from that? What an awful teacher! And while this story might induce some wry smiles from more experienced teachers, disbelieving at how far teaching has progressed since that day in 1988, I have grown to understand the impact it had on me as a child. 

While Mr Collins sat back, we were free to work. My partner Daniel and I learnt, not from our teacher, but from working with each other. We found out what worked (and what didn't) when attaching two pieces of wood; we used what we remembered from playing with technical Lego to help us build a pulley system to raise a platform to lift the ball. No, our machine didn't work when it came to the final test – the ball kept rolling off as it lifted – but we realised what would have worked from seeing it not work, if that makes sense. Failure was our teacher.

The point of this is not to romanticise my school days. I feel the astonishment of my students when they hear about Mr Collins and the ping pong ball demonstrates the fact that this kind of independent learning – an unstructured, child-led learning challenge – is so rare in primary education today that it stands out as to seem eccentric, almost radical. As archaic as the methods seem to us, in another light they are almost deliciously edgy and modern. Mr Collins was a genius! Accidentally. This is creative problem solving and risk taking, and applied to real doing with hammers and saws. The teacher took a backseat, the children worked independently, supporting each other when they faced an obstacle. No, we certainly couldn't have learnt to read this way, but it was (accidentally) a powerful way of getting us to think for ourselves.

As a child, this taught me that I was good at creative problem solving, that trial and error is satisfying and failure is a part of success. For someone who snoozed through much of school, this was something that I really woke up for and I genuinely think this helped me see myself as someone who was good at creative thinking. As a teacher, the lesson is just as powerful. It teaches me this kind of problem solving task is something that can help children thrive. Given the right tools, children are quite capable of teaching themselves in some circumstances. It is our responsibility as teachers to give them the time and opportunity to do it meaningfully. It is not just an ideological point about teaching and creativity: being creative is an experience that can change a child's perception of themselves in ways we don't expect. 

Over the next few weeks, I am going to write more about creativity looking at it's place in primary education and how we might reimagine literacy teaching to give children more ownership. Please feel free to join in the conversation.

Keywords: creativity, primary education, creative, problem solving 


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