“Teaching Creative and Critical Thinking”

KASpaces: Rethinking Educational Infrastructure and Teacher Development

April 28, 2022

Oftentimes in educational conferences in the Philippines and abroad, I am drawn to discussions on inventive ways to get students to learn; how to make them think creatively, how to develop inquiry in their minds, and develop opinions, critiques, and a highly developed appreciation of the things around them, instead of just pushing the “Like” button.

For over half a century, I have taught and lectured teachers and students and, more recently, under the auspices of our educational organization, Synergeia. Every time I am in front of an audience, I test reactions to what I say or project onscreen. I look for what engages an audience, what makes them linger in my phrases, what makes an impact in the way I juxtapose sentences or pause for effect.

Teaching creativity in the advanced world oftentimes means having each student or teacher in front of a computer screen learning the most creative app with often colorful and cheerful greetings. Oftentimes, the presentation is fast-clipped, reflective of the fast pacing of their society. It is assumed that each participant has a level of technical savvy to be at a screen not aided and can fix any glitch when it happens. Any teacher will be enthused to add to one’s teaching arsenal how to get students to be engaged.

But I come from the Philippines and poverty rears its obstructive head at any attempt to improve creative learning. For example, in a recent Zoom class that I had with a class on improving English grammar about 100 kilometers north of Manila, where I am, the class has selected students who showed high interest in the selected subjects and had access or ownership to a cell phone, which would be their video screens for the next hour. That lessened the class to half, or a total of 20 students. The attendance number would later decline throughout the hour. There were brownouts, or electric stoppage, which cancelled the participation of four or five students Then there was the matter of weak signals. Students connected intermittently and when they decided to find a steady signal, they resorted to climb a tree or run up the side of a mountain to secure a signal. When, finally, the remainder of the students made it so far, connected, there were issues of self-confidence and inability to speak with confidence. They needed goading and eventually responded and interacted. But that was only with 15 minutes left. Clearly, any sort of modern act of inclusion in creative teaching will hardly work in the Philippine setting. Let me therefore share with you what I do in an underdeveloped country without the accoutrements of creating the impossible.

First, I welcome the return of face-to-face teaching. I welcome that because of the very faulty Zoom teaching and the failed modules that were distributed throughout the country, in lieu of a teacher’s absence.

Next, I welcome the return of teachers renewing basic reading lessons The pandemic has significantly decreased the reading and comprehension skills of students. If the national scores before the pandemic showed students behind, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the accompanying school disruption. With the return of face-to-face classes, we are back with the opportunity to increase reading and comprehension and, in like manner, lay the groundwork for creative thinking. I will share with you some low-tech but effective teaching methods that I’ve used to spawn creative thinking and inquiry. These methods include using visuals employing storytelling establish a reading mandate, accessibility to libraries, proving art materials, and visiting museums. I

In the area of visuals in a few weeks I will have an exhibition of my organization’s library, the Ortigas Library, an exhibition of 100 vintage photographs of the tribal people of the Mountain Province in the North. It will be in a high school in a small town known for having graduated high achieving students. The principal welcomed the exhibition, stating that test scores of her students have plummeted again due to the pandemic, and she needed another way to reach the students who have been without a schooling discipline and schedule. She believes the never-seen photographs of the students’ ancestors in their native dress, events, and local architecture that they no longer see will be a revelation to their identity and ignite a learning moment.

Storytelling. Teachers have been taught to develop an authoritarian reserve in their teaching. That, to me, is a prescription to failure. I have been successful communicating to students when I relate a personal story or insight. Personal storytelling decreases the unequal relationship between students and teachers, an informal manner of relating events and people, especially if they mirror the experiences of the students, are the wedges to securing access to the student’s mind.

A reading mandate. To be creative and to have an opinion means to have read much to reach such a level. Reading and the corresponding comprehension scores in the country are abysmal. If in the past, the level of television watching exceeded study and school time hours, now there is additional video gaming and mindless watching that wipes out the hours for potential reading.

I have been quite strict on a reading mandate. Whenever I go around the provinces, I just impose. I just tell the teachers there shall be no video and TV watching for the whole school week and watching is only allowed on weekends after homework is completed and for a few hours. My Draconian law is hard to implement, given the supervision parents and teachers have to do. But what has to be impressed is there must be reading time for at least a half hour each day. A book to read and later to report are also compulsory. Reading regains the flow of time in imbibing words in sentence and paragraph constructions, and, most importantly, in understanding the import of the author’s overall message. Reading has no abrupt ending like TikTok, as it leads a reader through stories that may have taken several days to finish reading. A student’s mind is rewired from the immediacy offered by video to a steady, more realistic pace of digesting the written text and making sense of it. Likewise, with TV’s dulling powers, reading has an engaging quality, raising questions and even greater thought and rumination on the matter. 

Access to libraries. Libraries are under-utilized in my country. There are city and school libraries that are mostly free to enter and use. There are a fair number of libraries throughout the country and, unfortunately, much of the reading fare in them are dated. Nonetheless, there are good reading books still and there are current newspapers and magazines to read. Students must be acquainted with libraries as a place for reading and as a place for solace. In recent times, libraries, like the Ortigas Library, which I work in, have been visited to borrow books and documents that straighten and clarify the flurry of false news now besetting us.

Access to museums. The treasures in museums are undoubtedly a way to stimulate creative and critical thinking. Not all student visitors get that experience. The ways of a child’s socialization at home or at school affect the way stimuli is received as in a visit to a museum. A visit, nonetheless, is a departure from a normal day, allowing students to gaze at master artworks or ancient artifacts, spurring thought to wander and reflect. The mind is most supple to receiving wider dimensions of creative and critical thinking in a museum setting.

Lastly, access to art supplies. Art therapy has been used successfully in drawing and drawing out emotional expressions in children affected by external factors, such as war. So it is to devote time in school or at home sharing coloring pencils, paint brushes, and paper. This is a new world of communication for the student other than the written text. It stimulates students and, for some, it may lead a path to an artistic streak or vocation in the future.

For underdeveloped countries like the Philippines with a failed educational system, these low-tech methods of developing creative and critical thinking still manage to stimulate students in that direction

Lastly, the steep learning decline in students…. distributing modules in lieu of teachers’ absence, the faulty learning through cell phones and screens affected by no signals or weak signals have been a severe setback for education in the Philippines. We are ever more aware now that face-to-face teaching led by a well-trained dedicated corps of teachers and, mind you, parents, are the only and most effective way to spark the genius inherent in each student. 

John Silva

Executive Director, Ortigas Foundation


A Case Study on the Municipality of Siayan

Everyday, whenever Mayor Josecor enters his office and talks to his staff, or wherever he may be touring around the Siayan, extending services, people couldn’t help but notice his friendly and kind demeanor. People would say “Palagi yan siya nakasmile.” “Ang gaan niya kausap.” And people, knowing how difficult and tiring his role in the society is, couldn’t help but wonder,

“What is his secret?”

When I asked Mayor Josecor about this, he couldn’t help but laugh as if I just asked the most silly question. But after a silent moment, he began telling his story…

“For 9 years, I have been serving Siayan. I started in 2012 when I was hired by the previous mayor as part of the municipal workforce. And in 2019 until the present, I am honoured to be elected as the Siayan mayor.

Since becoming a mayor, I have always inculcated in my mind that I have to equip myself, first and foremost, then my subordinates, with knowledge, confidence and motivation to perform our roles in making Siayan a progressive municipality.  It has become my routine to always motivate my subordinates in going to work, and I also get my motivation from them. In fact, I do not want them to be intimidated by my presence or be afraid of me. I always tell them they are free to speak their minds in whatever they think could be for the greater good of the people in Siayan. If there is someone that should be scared, it should be me as I am the one with the biggest obligation.

This has been my principle in leading Siayan and I always enjoy every experience I have as the mayor- everytime I tour around the barangays, every encounter with the people and whenever I ask them for the services they wanted to enjoy. One time, when I went to a barangay, a father asked me to help me cure his son’s illness and I replied that “I am no doctor but I will come back for you.”  I definitely did and when I came back, I brought food, toys, and medical services free for everyone.”

Such programs are what Mayor Josecor had been promoting in Siayan- programs that are anchored in eradicating poverty.  Mayor Josecor knew that it is not one-man fight and it is not his battle alone, as he believed, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.  Hence, with the help of the strengthened and empowered Local School Board and respectable organizations like Synergeia Foundation, strategies and activities are being undertaken to fully reach their vision for Siayan.

“Since we cannot give what we do not have, we made sure to fill our cups,”  Mayor Josecor started when he explained the reason why they frequently attend capacity-building workshops which always results in LSB members eagerly proposing programs afterwards. These programs always result in  long-term outcomes such as the production of Siayan’s greatest treasures. To Mayor Josecor, the good-natured people from his workplace and Siayan, in general, are what he considers to be the first on the line for according to him “There is just so much goodness found among the Subanen people (Siayan IP’s).” Another treasure Mayor Josecor considers is the crystallization of Bahay Pasilungan– a shelter where students living from Far-flung area could answer their modules; and the Siayan’s ‘Pangase wine,’ the pride of Subanen people, in addition to its already rich culture.

“We are doing our best to preserve these treasures and celebrate them every Araw ng Subanen especially the Pangase wine to which we are finding ways to preserve the taste and quality.” He detailed.

However, more than these treasures Mayor Josecor had mentioned, he still believed that the greatest treasure and riches one could possess is acquiring education.

“I firmly believe when Dr. Jose Rizal said that “the youth are the hope of the mother land.” Education is the key to success. For our community to succeed and eradicate poverty, the key factor is education.  Thus, we have to educate our people, orient its impact, and fight the obstacles that hinder it. As a part of the government, my role is to provide any means necessary for the constituents especially the youth to get quality education.”

In the case of Siayan, the greatest challenge Mayor Josecor has encountered in the light of Education is the poor academic performance among Siayan’s school children. This was the turning point of Mayor Josecor’s platform as Education champion and as his career as a mayor. That was when he decided to take the driver’s seat in the education and face the battle head-on. With the help of LSB, SGC, Synergeia Inc., and other NGO, they designed strategies and activities in identifying the proper intervention for the many challenges they face.

Mayor Josecor showed support to the SGCs, parents, and teachers by conducting trainings, education summits and programs aimed to improve Education in all its aspect. A program they had yet to actualize is a tutorial activity for all the slow and non-readers.  Incentives will be given to those learners who would show progress in their academic performances. The pandemic however became an impediment to currently realize this plan. However, it became an opportunity to focus on the basics first- health and then eventually move on to other matters. With the support coming from UNICEF and World Vision, Mayor Josecor utilized the Special Education Fund for good education governance and projects such as handwashing facilities, comfort rooms, facilities for teachers, and health services were delivered to the frontliners in the academe.  Module printing assistance and school supplies were also part of the projects during this pandemic.

“Whatever we can do for our students to attain quality education, we do it,”  Mayor firmly stated.

Indeed, Mayor Josecor is more than just words and is a man of actions. His efforts, along with the Local School Board were manifested when the LSB had a consistent and even increased rating since the previous mayor, Mayor Villarosa.

Figure 1. Local School Board Rating 2018-2021

In addition, the SGC performance, as well, had increased. Its rating of 3.2 in 2017 became 4.3 in 2021. More SGC projects such as Bahay Pasilungan, tutorial activities, etc. and involvements in school activities and programs had been the cause of such valuable increase in rating, as well as in enrolment increase.

Figure 2. School Governing Council Rating 2017-2021

Furthermore, Enrolment in Siayan had increased by 30% from the S.Y. 2017-2021 because of the mentioned projects and programs conducted by the LSB and the SGC.

Figure 3. Percentage of Enrolmentment from S.Y. 2017-2021

Being called as the poorest municipality was Mayor Josecor’s primary motivation in everyday challenges. According to him, “It pains me a lot but as Siayan’s leader, I can’t show any sign of weaknesses, especially to my subordinates and my constituents so I serve my people with a smile. Actually, that is my secret, serving my people with a smile.”

Synergeia Drives Youth Towards Peace-Building in Muslim Mindanao

Good local governance champion Synergeia Foundation, Inc. is on a mission to empower community members especially women and youth to actively participate in policy formulation and implementation in their local governments. With focus on Mindanao, the project called Breaking Ascent of Violent Extremism for Youth or “BRAVE for the New Generation ” was funded by Global Center on Cooperative Security (GCCS). Working to achieve lasting security by advancing inclusive, human rights–based policies, partnerships, and practices to address the root causes of violent extremism, GCCS partnered with Syneregia to promote community involvement which supports women and youth empowerment, good governance and trust among citizens and their government. Together with stakeholders, they will build capacities of local youth leaders and youth in communities to be active agents of peace.

The role of youth in building long lasting peace

In a recent Report of the United Nations Secretary-General on Youth, Peace, and Security, two key findings were (1) There is a growing recognition of young people’s essential role in peace and security. It is encouraging to see many instances in which Governments, United Nations entities, civil society actors and others are stepping up to implement resolution 2250 (2015);  and (2) Core challenges remain, including structural barriers limiting the participation of young people and their capacity to influence decision-making; violations of their human rights; and insufficient investment in facilitating their inclusion and empowerment.

BRAVE for the New Generation will create a space for the youth to interact with peers from the same age groups where their ideas will be valued and respected. This will give them greater freedom in sharing their ideas without inhibition. Arts, culture and heritage will be the vehicles in which mobilization, empowerment, and capacity building will be delivered so the youth can express their ideas, insights, dreams and aspirations for peace.

The project believes that an appreciation of cultural diversity can foster fairer, inclusive and pluralistic societies and that an understanding of their heritage can strengthen a sense of identity and desire of the young to protect their communities by resisting attempts on violence. Activities such as painting, music and dance will resonate with the theme that people matter and it is the responsibility of everyone to ensure that their families and friends live in peaceful and safe communities.

Sangguniang Kabataan crucial in local governance

One critical political element is the Sangguniang Kabataan or SK. Created through the Philippine Law Republic Act 7160 in 1992 to mobilize youth participation in governance, the SK can engage, empower and propel the youth in nation-building.

Composed of eight young residents aged 15 to 21 years old who are elected in every village, it is envisioned that the SK can harness the potential of youth to actively participate in the prevention of violent extremism, become leaders for bringing peace and positive change in their communities. The project looks at them as an important organizational foundation upon which this partnership will leverage capacity building for the youth through the use of arts, culture and heritage to demonstrate their ideals and perspectives in how sustainable peace can be achieved in their communities.

A festival that boosts the youth’s strengths

With themes about education for all, justice for all, good governance, unity in diversity, and good citizenry, SK leaders and youth members will be able to express their individual and collective strengths, adding value to community peace-building through drawing, photography, poetry, short films using cell phones, memes, and indigenous music.

Art will be the starting point for trainings and workshops on initiating and supporting programs on peace building, preventing violent extremism, and, promoting good governance. SK’s advocacies reflected on artworks will be springboard to developing action programs which every village can implement. With Synergeia’s help, these will be brought to municipal governments and barangay leaders for support in setting up a mechanism to mentor and monitor the SK in program implementation.

Communities unite for peace

Communities in Southern Philippines embrace the BRAVE for the New Generation. They are Balindong, Kapatagan, Marantao, Piagapo, Saguiaran, Taraka, Upi, Mangudadatu, Buldon, Cagayan de Oro, Jolo and Marawi. The project aims that the positive impacts to these communities will help influence, shape and revolutionize this movement for making each person a piece for peace and elevate the youth sector’s participation in nation-building.

“We express our deepest gratitude to our partners, our mayors and our communities for embarking on a mission with us to help make each of our youth a piece for peace. This endeavor is made more meaningful with the cooperation of our beloved youth, the Sangguniang Kabataan leaders and members. Indeed the future looks bright with our young generation working for sustainable peace in their respective localities,” said Dr. Milwida M. Guevara, President and Chief Executive Officer of Synergeia Foundation, Inc.