Dr. Yumiko Murai on Creative Learning, Re-envisioning Pedagogy and Assessment

May 31, 2020

By Shaila Shams and Poh Tan

Dr. Yumiko Murai is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Technology and Learning Design program at the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University. Her research focuses on designing and studying technological tools, programs, and environments that support learner motivation and confidence through online and in-person creative activities. Prior to SFU, Dr. Murai worked as a learning researcher at MIT Playful Journey Lab and Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, designing and conducting online and in-person professional development programs and assessments for maker and computer science educators. She holds an Ed.D. in Communication in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Murai shared her journey from a music educator to a researcher and how her experiences from her music classes inspired her to pursue an Ed.D and to explore creative learning approaches in education.

Welcome to SFU Dr. Murai. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I joined the Educational Technology and Learning Design program at SFU as an assistant professor this January. Prior to joining SFU, I received Ed.D. in Communication from Teachers College, Columbia University and worked as a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. I started my journey in the field of education as an educator in informal learning spaces conducting a choir and teaching vocal performance in community spaces in Japan. As much as I loved music itself, I was fascinated by how the collective process of making music helped people cultivate their motivation, interests, and voice, and enabled them to unlock their potentials beyond music. I pursued a doctoral degree because I wanted to better understand the mechanism of motivational development and the role of a community in cultivating people’s interest and confidence. I explored that question in online learning environments for my dissertation. As a postdoc at M.I.T., I had the opportunity to work with researchers and designers who explore how play and creation can contribute in the field of education. I noticed that such an approach to learning, which we often call “creative learning,” embodies the type of learning environments that I had been trying to understand and design, ever since my experience in music. Now, I am very interested in the role of creative learning in opening up multiple pathways into learning and how it can be incorporated into existing in- and out-of-school environments.

Please share the type of research that you will be conducting as our newest faculty member at the faculty of Education.

I believe every person deserves an opportunity to engage in creative learning. While most of us mainly learn using the creative learning approach when we are little (Creative learning is modeled after how kindergarteners learn), as we grow older it tends to be less and less present in our educational environments. Thus, I am currently very interested in exploring ways to integrate the creative learning approach in the ongoing educational programs, weather classroom environments, science camps, robotics programs, etc. In particular, I am interested in the role of assessment in creative learning environments. Assessment is often a major concern when considering to fully integrate creative learning approach into the educational practices.

At M.I.T., I was part of a collaborative design project to reenvision assessment for maker classroom, where researchers, designers, and teachers worked together to design assessment that is process-oriented and student-involved, while providing formative and summative feedback to improve learning. More details can be found on this page https://makered.org/beyondrubrics/. I would like to continue exploring the questions of what assessment can be in the creative learning environments, how students can be an agent of assessment, and how reenvisioning pedagogy and assessment to incorporate creative learning may help promote equity and access in education.

Great to know about your very interesting research. One of your research projects is on Building Content Understanding through Creative Coding. Can you please share with us what is this project about and what called you to this project?

This project was born out of a project Shinshu Makers Fellow Program. I was involved in the development of an open online course on creative learning (lcl.media.mit.edu). I realized that even though the course was intended for “global community of educators,” very few people were participating from non-English speaking countries including my home country, Japan. So, in collaboration with the prefectural board of education in Nagano (Shinshu) and the local university and a company, I started to explore different ways for school teachers in Japan, who are interested in coding education and creative learning, to participate and take advantage of open online resources, and  designed a hybrid (online and face-to-face)  professional development program for them. The professional development takes a practice-based approach, where teachers were first immersed in creative learning process themselves and designed an activity to try in their schools. They prepared and implemented the design as they regularly communicated with other participants over the online conferencing. The heart of the program was to create a safe space for teachers to learn from trying out something new, reflect, and iterate on their ideas, and to develop the teacher community where they can support each other as they try a new approach at their schools. We have witnessed a number of transformations in teachers’ attitudes towards technology, teaching approach, and their own learning processes. This year, we are running the third iteration of the program and collecting stories of the teachers from three cohorts to examine the impact of professional development in teacher practice and learning.

Building Content Understanding through Creative Coding was a project that emerged out of a conversation with teachers who participated in the professional development described above. Even though they were convinced about the value of the creative learning approach, it was not easy to integrate it into the core curriculum that they had to follow. To explore the solution to this challenge, I conducted design-based research in collaboration with teachers as well as the local universities. We conducted multiple design meetings with the teachers who participated in the professional development to create a curriculum unit that incorporates creative learning as well as supports students to achieve the specific curriculum goals of the unit. By iterating the design through three design tryouts, we identified design principles and one sample unit that any teachers can try out.

What would you like to suggest to educators interested in fostering creative learning in their classrooms?

The scholar who coined the term creative learning, Mitch Resnick, often talks about principles of environments that support creative learning: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Among those, I think Play is a particularly important and challenging one that requires special attention. Play in this context does not just mean games or emotionally fun activities; it also means taking risks to explore the unknown and learning from the mistakes. Creating a learning environment where each learner can safely take risks and learn from mistakes is not easy given that educators are often pressured by time constraints and the risk of losing learners’ motivation. One way to support play is, as one of the teachers who participated in professional development has nicely put it, “teaching by not teaching.” This does not mean educators should back off and not do anything; rather, instead of responding to students’ questions and needs too quickly, support them discover answers by themselves by pointing them to resources, connect students who can help each other, and ask questions to guide their exploration. Once such a culture of play is established in the room, I think creative learning will naturally happen.

We are almost at the end of our interview. What would you like to say to the future graduate students who are interested in this field?

This is something I am telling myself every day as well. I think it is important that we, whether as a student of creative learning or a researcher who tries to deepen understanding about it or a learner who likes to practice creative learning, continue to have the first-hand experience of engaging in creative learning and reflect on the experience. At M.I.T., one of the groups that I was in was developing a technology for creative learning called Scratch. The researchers and developers of that group hosted a weekly gathering called “recess” (what a clever name!) where, in each week, one member of the group shared something that they knew already or were learning, for example, juggling, puppet making, board games, etc. with other members. One of the goals of this was to help themselves constantly learn something new and reflect on the process, so that they could keep their heads fresh about what it is like to learn a new thing, through creative learning. I think it is important to put oneself in a situation like that as we often end up spending a lot of time just consuming knowledge.