An Interview with Karin Oerlemans: Who was Frank Williams?

Sep 24, 2019 by

Karin Oerlemans

1) First of all, tell us about yourself- your education and experience.

I am a teacher – I say that intentionally.

First, because everyone understands what a teacher is, but also because it is what I do! Of course, these days I am less often in the classroom, and more often in the lecture hall or running professional development courses for teachers.

I began my teaching career as a high school English teacher in a low socio-economic district. Here I became increasingly frustrated with the number of students who were frequently absenting from school, missing valuable education and limiting their future life choices. Although from a poor area in Perth, Western Australia, these were often intelligent and creative students. I know this, you should have heard some of their excuses! But it drove me back to University, where I completed a Master of Education, focused on students with additional needs – my absenting and failing students.

My Masters research took the form of one-on-one interviews, and what I discovered took my life into a whole new direction. Resisting the urge to become a special needs educator, I became more and more interested in understanding how curriculum and school structures could accomplish the inclusion of these students and others like them. I completed my PhD in 2005. Since then I have moved regularly between the school sector and the University, always trying to understand how we as educators can best use curriculum in innovative and creative ways to build inclusive environments.

These days that includes the use of technology. I have completed several research studies on the use of technology to promote quality teaching and learning at the Tertiary level. However, I think technology is underutilised in schools, it could contribute so much to help teachers understand how they can build inclusive environments where all students can learn.

2) What are you trying to accomplish with your organization?

I am passionate about inclusive education and promoting it through my work, writing and research. I believe that all students have the right and ability to learn, and it is our role as educators to promote not only learning, but a lifelong love of learning, in inclusive environments that authentically models the kind of world we want for our children. This forms the foundation of my own practice.

And that is also the foundation of my organisation, Kairos Consultancy and Training, to add value through professional development to teachers and academics – helping passionate educators be the best they can be.

I do this through delivering a range of online, on demand and face-to-face professional learning courses, which provides them with the knowledge and skills to create inclusive environments where all students can learn.

You know education is not always easy – people from the outside just see the holidays and the early home time. But whether you are working in a school or University, education is hard work. It is late nights, and long days. Holidays spend resourcing new ways of doing their work better. There is never really any downtime as a teacher! And in all my years working across the various education sectors, I have not met many bad teachers or academics. What I have met is a lot of passionate educators, who don’t always know how to do what they need to do or have the spaces in which to be the best they can be.

So again, that is what my business is all about: Helping passionate educators be the best they can be, while creating the spaces through good policies and quality processes so that they can do what they best know how to do!

3) Now how does Frank Williams fit in?

I love the work of Frank Williams. It is one of my favourites and go to curriculum frameworks for working with students who are the out of the box thinkers. Those sometimes hard to manage students, and the ones that challenge us, so we need to challenge them!

One of my key courses is called Classroom Planning for Inclusion. In this course I take participants through three key curriculum frameworks used for classroom planning, proven successful in supporting the learning of all students. The three are Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy for congruent planning from learning goal to assessment; Frank Williams’ model of creativity for those challenging out of the box students; and June Maker’s model for gifted and talented students.

I intentionally chose those three models (there are at least another 50 evidenced-based models for teaching and learning that I am aware of, and there are others). I chose them because I wanted to start with where teachers were at, and most of them know of Bloom’s Taxonomy of the cognitive domain, even if they may not have used it. And there is a lot of information now about Carol Tomlinson’s work on differentiating the curriculum. But almost no-one has heard of Frank Williams or June Maker, and yet their work is critical in a better understanding of differentiation and how to establish an inclusive environment in your classroom. Their work is rich in strategies and understanding how students learn, how they can be creative, and how we can make environments that are authentic and that encourage risk taking.

4) What is Frank Williams most known for?

Here in Australia, his work is firmly established in the gifted and talented domain. And Williams himself took the model in this direction (1979). Williams admitted that it proved a fertile ground for testing the model’s validity and effectiveness (1986).

However, the initial focus of the model was designed to help teachers develop curriculum for the classroom that would meet the intellectual and emotional needs of young children, bringing together the cognitive and affective domains of learning, “leading toward uncovering their creative potential”.

He developed what he called his Cognitive-Affective Interaction Model in the late 1960s and published it in 1969 (Williams, 1969). An extensive kit, to support teachers in implementing the model was subsequently published a couple of years later. He was responding to the need to help teachers develop classroom lessons that encouraged students to use the divergent and creative elements of productive thinking.

5) What are some of his contributions to the realm of creativity?

I think his main contribution is the development of his 3-dimensional morphological model, often shown as a 3-sided cube, including the curriculum, 18 tested and valid teaching strategies, to provoke 8 intellective and affective student behaviours. This represents a total of 864 possible different interactions to occur in the primary classroom where teachers would teach most, if not all subjects! That’s a lot of opportunity for creativity. Let me explain a bit more.

The first dimension is the curriculum content across 6 subjects in his original diagram. Although as he later pointed out, this could be expanded and should include any content or subject matter to be covered. The second dimension is the 18 teaching strategies, or modes of teaching. He also called these the teacher behaviours, as this is how the teacher would be interacting with the content in order elicit the student behaviours. The 18 teaching strategies encourage divergent thinking and focus on challenging the status quo, risk taking and not accepting things at face value. They encourage students to critically engage, to be reflective and to use meta-analysis. They are not new, but these were the final ones he selected to include in the model, as having been demonstrated through empirical analysis of the research to produce the required creativity.

The final dimension is the key one – the 8 student behaviours. Here Williams brought together the cognitive and affective domains of learning because he recognised, they are of course impossible to separate. Creative thinking happens when there is connection between them and the opportunity for divergent thinking, that is opportunity for exploring the many ways and not being constrained by the ‘right answer’.

By the way – people often call his 8-student behaviours a taxonomy – as though it is hierarchical. Williams himself was very clear about this. His model is morphological –each dimension is intended to interact with the others. Hence the cube, not a hierarchical list.

6) What are some of his thoughts on inclusion and mainstreaming?

That’s an interesting question, and not one he addressed directly. He conducted a significant body of his research on his model with gifted and talented students. His model comprehensively included the teaching strategies that could be used across the curriculum content to produce the divergent creative thinking associated with this group of students.

But he later stated that this was not the original intention of his model, that it was developed to provide creative and divergent thinking and feeling for “all typical, average learners” (his words!). And a decade later he reiterated this stance and added that whilst the field of gifted and talented education was useful for testing the model and its associated practices, that it was time they were spread to mainstream education where they were intended to be used, so that every student in the classroom could work up to capacity. But he said that the inclusive classroom would only work if teachers were well prepared and had access to the professional development and resources often only associated with ‘gifted’ programs.

7) Differentiation is one of those difficult words to get a handle on- in terms of definition- did Frank Williams leave us with any insights?

I think his work strongly reflects the belief that all children can learn, can be creative, can flourish. At any age. Remember his work in the early 1960s was with young children. This was revolutionary at a time when Bloom’s taxonomy assured us that creative thinking was a higher order thinking skill, and Piaget’s model of child development taught us that children at that age were concrete thinkers.

And here is Frank Williams telling us that contrary to this accepted belief, young children were capable of creative thinking, to be imaginative, inventive, flexible and perceptive at their own intellectual level. Perhaps not at a sophisticated level, but still highly original.

I think his motivation in creating the model was to develop a way for teachers to plan learning experiences that would encourage those cognitive and affective thinking processes associated with the child’s creative potential. For any child. At any level. And I think that’s the essence of differentiation.

8) Tough question- why is his work not well known?

I can only speculate as to why it is, but I suspect having become attached to the education of gifted and talented students, it became impossible to extract it back into the mainstream. If you search where he is published, it is almost always in this arena. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I came across it there myself in the early 2000s, but it has limited the potential his work has to offer the mainstream classroom teacher.

What attracted me to his work initially, was the 18 detailed teaching strategies and lesson examples. Quite a few of them I already used – but I loved the intentionality of them for planning creative thinking. And I was immediately struck by the idea that this was more than just possible with gifted students, but all students.

So, I began to use it in my classes, especially my lower ability classes – and I loved the results! It would be great if his work were more widely known. When I introduce it in my professional development courses, I always get the same response, “I love Williams’ framework, it really works, why have I not heard of it before?”

9) What have I neglected to ask?

What are you doing to further promote Frank William’s work?

I am so glad you asked! Other than including information about Williams’ model on my organisations’ website (KairosCT.com), with more to come, and including it as a key framework in the PD courses. I have also just finished writing a book, tentatively called Curriculum Journeys:  A journey through the world of curriculum frameworks for the inclusive education of ALL students. A bit of a long title, but you get the picture! Frank Williams’ model is one of seven frameworks I have included in the text. The book shows how the seven frameworks are still relevant today and can be used to help teachers create authentically inclusive classrooms in the 21st century classroom. Included throughout the book, is a consideration of how to utilise each of the frameworks to better and more intentionally incorporate digital technologies in the classroom.

I think it is time we firmly bring Williams’ model out from under the gifted and talented umbrella and put it back where it belongs, in the inclusive classroom – but with a 21st century twist.

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