Creativity outshines gloomy dictatorial past

Before the break of the Soviet rule, the classroom atmosphere in Lithuania was extremely strict; Questions were not encouraged, noise was not allowed and challenging the knowledge and authority of teachers was preposterous. Even 25 years later, some of these traditions are still intact in the school system.

By Annastashia Goolsby

Vilnius, Lithuania: From combining chemistry with journalism to mathematics with architecture, the educational system of Lithuania is undergoing a transformation with the implementation of a project intended to bring more creative teaching techniques into primary and secondary schools.

Through learning, the children are encouraged to explore their imagination that has been locked away for decades. This includes having students reenact historical events in costume, acting as journalists by interviewing people on the street to describe Lithium and going to lakes and rivers for hands-on biology experiments.

A Russian-speaking class at Sofijos Kovalevskajos Secondary School being taught Lithuanian through journalistic creativity. Photo: Lina

A Russian-speaking class at Sofijos Kovalevskajos Secondary School being taught Lithuanian through journalistic creativity. Photo: Lina Pavalkytė

Creative Partnerships is a €4.6 million program that was implemented as an initiative by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania in October 2011. This three-year project is financed by the European Social Fund and state budget of Lithuania to change and expand the views from theory-based and conventional learning processes at school.

–It is a serious investment to the creativity of children and society that brings professionals from the cultural and creative sectors to work in close partnerships with schools helping them to deal with real challenges. This means bringing incredible amounts of creative energy to schools and providing them with the confidence to experiment with learning processes that they wouldn‘t develop on their own, says Milda Laužikaitė, Project Manager of Creative Partnerships in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian initiative was developed in collaboration with the British Creativity, Culture and Education and is based on the positive experience of the United Kingdom Creative Partnerships program, which was originally implemented in 2002 with nearly 6,000 participating schools, more than 125,000 teachers and 1.4 million students.

As a result of the eight-year UK project, 92 percent of head teachers have seen an improvement in pupils’ confidence and communication skills, 87 percent have seen improvement in pupils’ motivation and 94 percent of head teachers have seen an improvement in the teaching skills of their teachers, according to a survey by the British Market Research Bureau.

Why Lithuania needs Creative Partnerships

–It has been acknowledged over the world for more than a decade that traditional educational systems cease to respond to the needs of the society and need some very essential changes, says Milda Laužikaitė.

Graffiti on a wall no more than 200 meters from Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija. Photo: Alexandria Molony

Graffiti on a wall no more than 200 meters from Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija. Photo: Alexandria Molony

Lithuania is no exception.

–The education system has to change constantly and although it is moving in that direction, some want it to stop and return to the old system. Obviously, it takes time getting used to the dynamics of a new education system unlike during the Soviet times when the rules were clear and strictly defined. Modern education direct the attention of the learner to their skills, but the majority of learning in Lithuania is still rote memorization, says Donatas Kriukas, Creative Partnerships supervising teacher at Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija.

Such as in Lithuania, one of the directions for change is to see a system with a strong school community that has the ability to cooperate and constantly rethink and review learning practices in order for them to be meaningful to the pupils.

–The kids think their job is to just sit through classes and use as little energy as possible; so there is no attention in the classroom. On the other hand, I sat through a few of them and they are just so boring. I left the class thinking to myself, ’what have I learned?’ I was sitting there for 45 minutes and I’m a focused adult, but it just went in one ear and out the other. The teachers are so rushed to go through a chapter, it seems as if it’s their job just to say things and get through a book in four months regardless if anyone understands it, says Julija Ladygienė, creative agent at Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija.

Lack of motivation by teachers and students, exclusion among children in classrooms and low self-esteem are some of the most prominent issues faced in Lithuanian schools.

With more than 4,000 students, approximately 150 creative practitioners and 70 creative agents, there are 100 Lithuanian schools that are participating in the Creative Partnerships program and undergoing changes in teaching methods, according to the Creative Partnerships brochure.

–Now more than ever we don’t know what the future is. If you want to prepare a child for the future, suddenly they don’t need to know every mathematical equation; they need to be able to adapt, to find information, to use that information for their benefit and to be able to work with others, says Julija Ladygienė.

What is the role of a creative agent?

–Creative agents are specially trained representatives chosen based on their creativity and management skills from the creative sector who play a key role bringing together schools and creative practitioners and acting as catalysts to accelerate change, according to the Creative Partnerships brochure. Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 9.32.05 AM

At the beginning of the school year, an agent goes to their assigned school that is in need of improvement, and working with the creating teacher they draw a plan of action under clear guidance from Creative Partnerships. Then, the first step is the self-evaluation process that takes about one month, in which the creative agent and teacher organise a series of seminars regarding different areas of learning, school structure and organization.

After that, the teachers who are interested and want to participate further, decide which students will get involved in the project. On deciding which students, there are two requirements: they have to have problems, such as behavioral, subject wise or learning difficulty, and they have to have potential for solving the problem.

–At Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija, we chose the ninth grade because they are students who came from all different schools; they don’t have class identity or class mentality and usually find it difficult to adapt in a new environment. Another group is a class of students who come from families of divorce, says Julija Ladygienė.

With the selected classes, the creative agent and teacher work until December creating projects that are not yet specifically targeted to one group. Then depending on the school, a number of projects are chosenfor approval by the Creative Partnerships office; Specific specialists are chosen to get familiar with the projects, make any Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 9.29.15 AMsuggestions and after a final approval by the Creative Partnerships office, the specific projects begin in the classroom in February until the second week of May.

Depending on what each school wants to personally achieve, they can have one big project, two projects or even three. At Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija in the heart of the capital, there are three different projects for three classes, 90 students, 15 teachers and three creative practitioners.

What is the role of a creative practitioner?

–Creative practitioners are professionals from different fields of the creative sector who are working in schools to share their knowledge and creative skills alongside teachers and learners on projects, according to the Creative Partnerships brochure.

For the three projects in place at Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija, each has its own creative practitioner: a radio DJ for chemistry, a singer for stage performance and an architect for mathematics.

Every creative practitioner has their own reason and method to applying their professional background in the classroom.

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 9.27.57 AM–One of the main challenges since the school system has changed so much from the Soviet rule, is that now the children are much more brave. They know about their own rights and they are not afraid of the teachers like we were. You really have to work hard to motivate the kids, says Lina Pavalkytė, creative practitioner at Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija and Sofijos Kovalevskajos Secondary School.

Having worked in radio for 10 years, Lina Pavalkytė collaborates with the chemistry teacher to implement her journalistic skills by having the students create a radio reportage. After an instructed experiment with the teacher, she has the students develop a reportage based on the outcome. They are required to use all the knowledge they learned about chemistry but are also allowed to use their imagination to create crazy funny stories.

–For me, it is my task is to find motivation for the children; why they should learn chemistry and why it is interesting. The idea is not just to read a book or listen to teachers anymore. It can be interesting and you can tell an interesting story about chemistry; you can use humor, songs, stories and creativity in such a dull topic, says Lina Pavalkytė.

Being Euranet coordinator at Žinių radijuje, Lina Pavalkytė is responsible for the smooth running of all journalists, preparing topics of discussion for the show and communicating with foreign partners. Photo: Annastashia Goolsby

Being Euranet coordinator at Žinių radijuje, Lina Pavalkytė is responsible for the smooth running of all journalists, preparing topics of discussion for the show and communicating with foreign partners. Photo: Annastashia Goolsby

Lina Pavalkytė is not the only creative practitioner who wants students to formulate their own opinion and use their imagination. For the stage performance class at Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija, the Creative Partnerships office approved a professional singer who has been performing for more than 10 years in the ritual folk group Kulgrinda.

–I want everyone to feel that they can sing because it gives confidence, teaches criticism, expands their sense of humor, creates talents, allows improvisation and creates a sense of togetherness. In my class, I try to make the children’s folklore an interesting lesson by having them create movies and theatrical performances with a Lithuanian folk theme, says Laurita Peleniūtė, creative practitioner at Vilniaus Salomėjos Nėries Gimnazija.

The reaction in Lithuania

After being implemented for only a little more than a year and only half way through the program, there are some general trends of changes that have developed when creative practitioners start to work at schools.

–Teachers and pupils learn a lot about each other; the silent children come to the front to take responsibility and leadership, the relationships in class improve, pupils get more confidence and they discover abilities that did not manifest in traditional classroom settings. Teachers explore a wide range of roles and discover new ways of teaching, exploring unusual learning spaces, connecting theories to everyday contexts and referring to individual experience of the pupils, says Milda Laužikaitė.

However, not everything comes as easily as hoped. Many teachers take offense when a creative practitioner comes into their classroom that they have been teaching in for 20 years and are required to take teaching advice from an outsider.

–There was a moment when I couldn’t communicate with this one teacher and I felt her aversion toward me. Poor relations between the teacher and practitioner make the project a very difficult job and at this point the students do not appreciate the teacher and the teacher does not appreciate the children. It is very difficult to work together when there is no mutual respect and the teacher does not want to work with me; but I try to make every effort to focus on the children rather than on relationships, says Laurita Peleniūtė.

Although the implementation of Creative Partnerships is only lasting three years and finishes at the end of 2014, there is still the hope that at least some aspects of the project are permanent.

— After the project we will have hundreds of creative professionals and thousands of teachers who have experience working together and exploring creative approaches to learning. In my view, their experience and know-how is going to be one of the main legacies of the project, together with very concrete activities, methods and lesson plans that participating schools document and share with others, says Milda Laužikaitė.

Creative agent, Julija Ladygienė, speaks about the Lithuanian education system and Creative Partnerships.