Creative Systems Theory Applied to Learning Environments

When I was in graduate school I wrote a paper on the premise that children’s temperaments should predict something about their learning styles. At the time I recall that my instructor thought that I had not taken the idea far enough and in fact in retrospect, I barely scratched the surface of what seems obvious to me now. As I sat down to approach this question once again using the personality typology laid out in Creative Systems Theory, my thought was to compare and somehow link current learning style theory with this temperament typology. It then occurred to me that the link is present within the theory. It isn’t so much about finding how learning styles match up with the different temperament types, as it is about creating learning environments that are “friendly” and stimulating to all types of learners (i.e. Personalities). So what are those differences and what are their implications for a responsive classroom? The following is a brief description of each temperament style and some conjecture about what will best serve each in a learning setting.

These temperament styles as posited in Creative Systems Theory are part of a much larger body of work including notions of cultural development and cyclic patterns. They are best understood in this larger context but are a part of the theory that can be lifted, if you will and applied to individuals and organizations.

There are three major energetic axes: Early-Axis, Middle-Axis and Late-Axis (also referred to as Early, Middle, Late). Within each there are aspects of upper and lower, inner and outer, which can make for huge diversity within the axis. Though these are reflective of a progression in a developmental sense within individuals, one is not more evolved or advanced than another. Rather, they are considered to be parts of the creative whole, thus each axis brings it’s own unique contribution to any creative process. Additionally we all have access to all of these parts within ourselves, but there is “a place that we are most at home” and that is seen to be our native temperament. The energetic axes are drawn from the creative process. Creative System theory asserts that the creative process follows a cycle over time that very simply described begins with a period of inspiration (Early phase), manifestation (Middle phase) and refinement (Late phase). Each of us has one of these phases that feels most native to us and is reflected as our temperament. There are mitigating factors and variables that create great variance within the same temperament and allow for wondrous individuality. The following descriptions are meant as guidelines to personality that will enhance understanding and communication; they are not intended as a means to place children in boxes and thus narrow our relationships to them. This theory was developed with adults as the focus but I have come to believe that one can distinguish them at quite an early age and thus have no concerns about applying them to the teaching young children.

So Early, Middle, Late, what are they? More appropriately who are they? Let me start with a brief descriptions of each axis, then I will address the question of what each needs in a learning environment.

In Early-Axis the primary intelligence is the imaginal intelligence. It is the stuff that dreams are made of; innovation, invention, imagination. Often those who are called dreamers, artist, or “artist types” are Earlys; they may seem oblivious to those around them. The everyday tedium of clean up and worry about how neat a paper looks is probably not on their radar. But speaking of radar – no doubt an Early invented it- in this axis you will find computer “geeks”; math whizzes (the ones who understand far beyond most of their teachers) poets, musicians and visual artists. ‘Earlys’ are very connected in their bodies and are characterized by fluid though not always graceful movement; they can appear gangly at times and almost “un-jointed”.

In reading this, one might say: “that sounds like most kids I know, especially young-ones.” In fact, that is true, young children are in an Early-axis stage of development that overlays their native temperament, but as you read the rest of the descriptions I think that you will be able to distinguish personality from developmental characteristics.

The primary intelligence of Middle-axis is emotional intelligence. These are the children who don’t have to learn empathy, they can teach it from a very early age. Some will use their understanding of others to create struggle. These children are relationally oriented and often want to please the teacher or they may prefer to struggle with the teacher. They are generally very loyal, sometimes to a fault. This axis is characterized by isometric tension between opposite poles, a sense of struggle and control come out of this. And oddly enough a kind of solidness comes out of this, it is as if the Middle-axis personality is holding two walls apart. They can’t move very far and they probably won’t move very fast, but they will be solid. These are the children in your class who are dependable (sometimes dependably rebellious) but they tend to have a kind of stability about them, they are the ones who later may be referred to as “salt of tire earth”. They are usually incremental learners and can sometimes appear plodding, even a bit oafish. They may contribute by modifying an existing idea or building on someone else’s in the classroom. Middles with certain aspects can be quite athletic and strong; their agility looks muscular in comparison to the more fluid agility that may be present in Early. These will be children with a strong sense of right and wrong; fairness will be important to them. They are also likely to be the ones who remember the routine of the classroom and may not like it to change (again this reflects the needs of many young children due to developmental stage), Middles are not generally children who push themselves hard and may need external structure and spark to get them going and to get them to finish. These are often the children who say things like: “Have I done enough?”; “Can I do this tomorrow?”; “Do I have to?”. Middle-axis children generally are quite comfortable in groups and tend to do well with the group nature of a classroom. I have found that building a personal relationship with such children can go a long way in motivating them to learn.

For the Late-axis personality, rational, intelligence is primary. These are often children who are naturally popular in a group. “Lates”, are graceful and often posses a natural poise and sophistication. They are generally very verbally articulate and “think well on their feet”. A Late may display talent in the visual arts, music or dance. Both visual art and physical art will tend to reflect a refinement or new twist on existing form. This differs from the Early, where you will see more raw innovation. Late axis children are often perfectionist and pay keen attention to how others see them. They are most alert to what is outside of them; they measure things by objective criteria and are the axis most connected to form. They like things well defined, formed, not amorphous or mushy. The part of the creative process that is home to them is the refinement of form, so the final phase of an idea or project is where they will shine.

Environments and Elements to Enhance Learning for Different Styles

What does an Early need to best enhance learning?

Since Earlies tend to be self-starters and know innately what interests them they thrive in an environment where the educator acts as a resource person. The adult in this case would provide the equipment, materials and references (from hooks to internet) so that the learner can follow his or her interests. For many Early students another helpful contribution from an adult will be guidance in follow through to complete a phase of learning. Since the beginning stages of the creative cycle are the juiciest for an Early one may find this student lingering in the beginning stages of one or many learning endeavors. A gift to an Early student may be imparting the skills to move through the Middle and Late stages of a creative project or learning task.

The innovative nature of Earlies and their ability to see vast connections among things will often result in a unique interpretation of an assignment. Because of this, teachers should be prepared to flex the boundaries and the viewpoint from which an assignment is regarded Though this may require a stretch if you as a teacher are not of similar temperament, it is necessary for the Early student to do his best learning and often results in fantastic and unexpected educational outcomes. This is the crux of letting an Early shine.

In addition to or perhaps as an adjunct to the support for completing a process, the Early may at times need help staying focused on a topic or area of teaming. That same ability to see all things as connected may make it difficult for the Early student to choose a path and stay with it. This may require a balancing act between allowing the student to follow his or her interest and delineating boundary to help them complete something required. When an Early does connect with something that grabs their attention you may find them “hyper focuses’ to the exclusion of all else. Earlys do not like having their rhythms interrupted and may benefit from warning of a coming transition. Whenever possible these students will do best if allowed to shape their own schedule regarding what to complete when. This does not wean they cannot adapt to a classroom schedule, but built into that schedule should be room for this student to self direct. Related to the flexibility I spoke of before, the culminating form of a learning assignment should he open to interpretation, perhaps a painting, a poem, an improvisational music or dance piece; the form needs to fit the “language” of the temperament.

And what does a Middle student need?

Much more structure than the Early, Middles tend to think quite concretely and learn in the same manner. They may need help getting started as they are most adept at the middle stages of the process. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it” might be the middle motto. This is not to say that a middle student will always be on task or complete their work, but they seem to benefit from clear parameters and a sense of what is expected. Unlike the Early who relishes a blank date, the Middle student will likely be stymied by it.

Middies generally have a fairly easy time adapting to the typical classroom setting (this may be partly due to the fact that many of that temperament are drawn to teaching so many classrooms reflect a Middle-axis sensibility). Middle-axis children do not mind rules, in fact they tend to feel safer with them and may test mercilessly if they are not clearly stated. Middles often like learning that is active and experiential. They seem to benefit from having a task modeled for them, but beware they may take everything you say literally so the trick is modeling and communicating that they should use their own thinking. I recently asked a group of five year olds to think of their favorite number from 1-9, after going around and letting several of them share their number I demonstrated the task we were to do with that number. I carefully selected the number 4 since no one had chosen that one, as I went around to check their progress several of the Middle students had carefully completed the task with the number 4 disregarding their favorite number. Perhaps I can chalk this up to the difficulty of communicating to five year olds but it nonetheless illustrates my point.

Middles often do well in team learning situations, ideally the team would include all of the temperaments, the Early energy to inspire a middle to start and the Late energy to help carry them through to the finish. The completion of a process may be somewhat of a problem for Middles and is most likely to appear in the form of skimping on the final polish As a teacher you are likely to get “B” work, where the Middle has moved through the main work phase and said “good enough”. While the notion of “good enough” may be growth enhancing and healthy for a perfectionist, in a Middle it is sometimes settling for less than they are capable of doing. Middles benefit from high expectations and may need to be asked to do something again or refine what has been done (edit that draft one more time or take time to practice that poem you are to recite).

Some Middles are encouraged by some healthy competition, but fostering too much of this may have them back off and give up. If a Middle is more lower and inner (aspects that: will be described later) they may shut down in the face of competition even though they are very capable. Many middles will struggle with, for lack of a better word, laziness tin my experience they also detest being called so). I think this comes from being in the middle, it is difficult to get started and energy wanes towards the finish. There is a sort of heaviness to Middle energy that provides their stability and at times their inertness. I can speak of this from my own experience as one of this temperament. Often I am inspired to ideas but getting started to manifest them feels like an uphill climb, then once I have started I can chug along (good middle term) quite well until I near completion then I begin to feel my energy fading away from a project, finishing can be as difficult at times as starting. What often helps for Middle students is a connection to the teacher, feeling seen and cared about. The emotional component of Middle needs to be fed in the learning environment or they can fade away. Building a relationship with a Middle student often provides the purpose they need to move through the creative cycle. If the sense of connection to the teacher is strong then the Middle student will do his or her best in order not to disappoint. This “pleasing” behavior sometimes gets a bad rap in our society and in the culture of education; it can be seen as not fostering the student’s independence or uniqueness. But the gift of Middle is not uniqueness, it is emotional attentiveness, community and stability. Pleasing others is sometimes a gift and more importantly can help connect the student to his or her own creative abilities.

What do Late-axis children need in the classroom environment?

Late-axis children connect most readily to the end product of creation because of this they are sometimes frustrated by the long road to get there. In the learning process this can sometimes stop them before they begin I think this relates to their perfectionist tendency; they do not wish to start something that they cannot complete with perfection. This seems especially true in the younger years when children’s ability to manifest form does not match their ability to imagine it. In their mind’s eye they can see the finished product but they do not yet possess the skills to produce it. These children often seem quite protective of themselves around their perceived lacking and may avoid things i” which they feel they cannot excel.

The Late children who I have worked with in the five to six age range seem to benefit from having time to watch for a while. I notice that many of them like to learn new things “in private”. If they feel lacking they tend to withdraw from participation rather than be seen as incompetent. But they will go home and practice something or find ways to quietly and privately acquire a new skill. Frequently, Late children learn things quickly and are highly competent in a classroom setting. In older children you will often see a facility with words that make them good writers and orators. Late-axis children are highly aware of who has what skills and knowledge and are often driven by a sense of competition. This can be a strong internal motivator for many Lates.

Late-axis children seem to thrive on a certain amount of order in the classroom, both physical and relational. These children are the ones who are likely to go home and report that another child was wasting the group’s time and that their opportunity for learning was being disrupted (probably not in those exact words). Late students have high expectations of their teachers and resent a teacher who is unprepared or does not stimulate their learning. Older Late-axis students that I have talked with win say that they need to respect their teacher in order to learn from them. The basis of this respect is usually related to knowledge of the subject and organization of information being offered. As a Middle-axis teacher of young children I think I have made the mistake of not offering enough academic rigor for Late-axis children. My more Middle perspective was that young children mainly need nurturance and time to play; not true for all. In fact, Late-axis children, though often shy of things they do not know, seem to thrive on academic mastery. I have found that Late-axis children benefit from opportunities to demonstrate their learning through performance. This may take the form of reading to a group what they have written, acting something out, or being videotaped.

Characteristics of Early, Middle, and Late-Axis Children

Early Axis Children

Strengths/Attributes

Innovative, imaginative, visionary, improvisational; tend to have a “whole cloth view”

Operate primarily from imaginal intelligence, may be quite kinesthetic (this is not the only axis where you will find this)

Tend to be more self-focused than other focused. If absorbed in something they may be oblivious to others. Often these children seem to be “in their own world”.

May have difficulty connecting socially or difficulty even grasping social convention.

May seek solitude more often than other children; usually feel quite comfortable alone

Creation is original- These children are usually excited by a “blank slate”.

May identify or connect with animals or nature more than humans; they are able to see the interconnectedness of things.

May be highly sensitive to sensory stimulus, e.g. loud noises, bright lights, itchy clothing his can also show up in other axes with certain aspects present)

Generally have a low tolerance for boredom and repetitive tasks. These children seek new experience and may respond to an assignment with a completely new idea (usually related but a novel approach).

Fluidity characterizes this style; may be noted in movement, voice, and choice of clothing.

Likely to withdraw from, ignore or not register conflict unless it feels relevant to them (they may fight vehemently for a cause they believe in). Resolution of conflict may be nonverbal — engage in play and “watch the conflict melt away”

Marching to the beat of one’s own drum typifies this axis.

Challenges

Difficulty relating socially; this can sometimes impede others’ understanding of these children. They may be surprised and hurt by a social or relational expectation that did not register for them.

These children may have difficulty adapting to a classroom setting that asks them to sit for long periods of time. Being able to move their bodies and sit or stand in different positions may greatly enhance their processing.

May have difficulty with prescribed assignments particularly if they have become repetitive. Having the flexibility to craft their own form may help.

Others may inappropriately project loneliness on these children because of their comfort with solitude and their lack of social awareness.

They may actually feel lonely at times in an environment that doesn’t honor their needs.

May be vulnerable around their creations because of a lack of boundary between themselves and what they create.

Too much external control or inflexibility may squelch the germinal creative spark.

Sometimes these children can get lost in their imaginal reality and may need help following through to the final stages of a task. They may also need help understanding why this is important.

May have difficulty learning from a teacher whom they feel does not respect them.

Middle Axis Children

Strengths/Attributes

Solid dependable, steady, persevering.

Relationship / other oriented; most likely to be concerned if another is liking them. (This does not mean that all middle axis children are extroverts). Inclusive of others.

Live out of feelings of connection to others and strong sense of loyalty. Often kind and generous, they consider others’ feelings and friendship important.

Frequently use feeling or relational language

May be most comfortable with a prescribed structure to operate within (e.g. clear parameters for an assignment vs. open- ended). Tend to be concrete thinkers and communicators.

Creativity tends to manifest through application and modification more than origination.

May enjoy games or sports as a participant or a spectator. There is enjoyment in competition and teamwork; winning is important but not essential.

Tend to be more conforming not wanting to stand out too much in dress or behavior. These children are not likely to be trendsetters, though they may have some awareness of what is fashionable.

May be very adaptive or rebellious, in each case they are reacting in relation to the other person. Striving to please or struggling against.

Issues of equality and justice are important. Usually very sensitive to how others are being treated (may side with the “underdog”)

Often have a high need for control which nay manifest covertly or overtly

In conflict these children are likely to want to work things out. They may be quick to apologize and try to make things right, fearing loss of the relationship.

Challenges

May have difficulty making decisions and trusting their own point of view.

May get stuck by polarizing off another viewpoint (in kids this may show up as rebelliousness, or a need to be in opposition). Stubbornness is a common trait

Drive to be humble may impede achievement – “tooting their own horn” is not commonly in the repertoire of a middle axis child who may actually diminish his or her own achievements.

May settle for mediocre when he/she could do better.

Emotion based view may be difficult for others to understand or may be viewed by others as sentimental and non-objective. (May in fact cloud objectivity at times)

Drive to please others my may get in the way of these children meeting their own needs.

Interest in helping others may be stronger than interest in their own work.

Concrete orientation may make it difficult for this child to think abstractly.

May be loyal to a fault, maintaining a relationship or activity out of loyalty and obligation rather than a true wish to continue.

Ambivalence is common; decision-making may be difficult. Struggle typifies this axis.

Late Axis Children

Strengths/Attributes

Refined; polished

Often verbally articulate, quick and succinct in communication (can “think on their feel”).

May speak very persuasively. May be very style conscious and well dressed. Two things can confuse this when looking at children and young people: first is the influence of trends, e.g. tattered jeans may be very fashionable; second is that young children’s dress is often influenced by their parents. One clue is if the child seems “at home” in his/her stylish clothing.

Tend to be neat and meticulous

Often popular with classmates, tending to be smooth and competent socially. May be socially outgoing.

Frequently set the trends or subscribe to the most current trends.

Often good at setting goals and achieving them.

Conscious of others’ reaction to them and the image that they convey. (Different from the middle axis more emotional concern with others, this tends to focus on how others are viewing them).

Enjoy being “on stage” or at least are comfortable “on stage”

Often good at synthesizing information

Tend to focus on the rational/material; value objectivity.

In conflict prefer to keep emotions out of it and deal with the objective facts. It is also important that they be heard precisely.

Often highly competitive

Tend to focus on the finishing and refinement of the creation

Challenges

Can be perfectionistic (sometimes rigid); feeling like a failure if they do not achieve their perceived best.

May have difficulty with depth in relationship, understanding the surface of emotions more readily.

May appear aloof.

May have trouble “taking their smile off” and receiving support or help because of their need to appear perfect and on top of things.

May be impatient with others perceived slowness.

Competitiveness may get in the way of their trying new things. They may turn away from things that don’t come easily or in which they fear they won’t excel.

May be hard for these children to have “loosen up” and not feel like they have to perform.

May have difficulty learning from a teacher whom they do not respect as doing his/her best

They may write someone off whom they see as emotional or irrational.

Generally have a high need to win for the sake of winning.

Focus on finishing/refinement may sometimes produce a quality “product” which reflects little originality.

Typical school settings are often contexts in which late students are reinforced in such a way that they are not encouraged to appreciate/tap into other parts of themselves.

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