Creativity – Key Skill

Wired to Create Crop

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him …..a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create and create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. he must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Pearl S. Buck
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes

Educators today are very fond of parading and selling the emphasis given to the development of creativity in their schools. Many have declared its importance through values, mission or vision of the school. This has been partly a response to the work of people like Dr Ken Robinson (highlighting the ways in which education kills creativity) and the recognition that creativity figures highly in most lists of the core skills that employers look for both now and in the future from their workforce.

However, I’ve really seen very little attempt by most educators to define what is really meant by creativity, what it would look like if a student had it and the best ways to ensure that school experiences nurture and cultivate it. How many schools could give an honest appraisal of how well they are achieving this aim?

The picture and quote above come from the best book I’ve read so far this year. As I read it I was continually mindful of this inclination towards creativity that is espoused by educators, but how the lack of detail or clarity suggests that these are simply nice words given little deep thought or introspection

The starting point is to acknowledge the types of creativity the world, business and schools want. in addition, as Dr Ken Robinson has highlighted over many years, the young infant doesn’t lack for creativity. A small child doesn’t need to be taught divergent thinking. When a child runs around the house or garden with a stick that is one second a gun, the next a flying broomstick, the next a walking stick and the next a cricket bat they show all the attributes of creativity.

The reality is that a lot of divergent thinking is not welcome in the classroom. Teachers fear the divergent thinking child. In fact, one chapter of the book shares research where children who were more creative divergent thinkers were among the least popular with their teachers, while their more compliant, obedient and passive peers were top in the popularity stakes. So, the child who is going to retain their creativity will need the resilience to deal with unpopularity and the treatment meted out to them by all around for ‘not playing the game.’

I had a very personal experience of this in primary school. I moved in to the classroom of a teacher I found incredibly frustrating. Her attention was all on power and control. It was a place where you spoke when ordered to do so, where obedience was the golden rule. I dared to ask questions and even after being given all the visual warning signals I continued to ask questions when dissatisfied with the dismissive responses i was getting. As time went on, the relationship between me and that teacher became more and more adversarial. Worse, she sought to turn my classmates against me with sarcasm and hints that I was stopping the class from moving forward (and the perception being that progress forward through the syllabus is what everyone’s supposed to care about). It all escalated to the point where the teacher suddenly took out a large roll of sellotape and taped my mouth shut. The sense of humiliation and belittling was horrendous. I received the message loud and clear that my curiosity, my desire to know things and understand some things deeper was not welcome in a classroom. Rather, classrooms were places where ‘playing by the rules’ counted above anything else and the punishments for daring to step out of line could be barbaric.

Creativity is challenging by its very nature. In 1959 Isaac Asimov pointed out that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Many companies have had to take hard looks at their cultures to understand how they can create more ‘safe space’ for creativity. However, the focus on getting stuff done, continual movement of all in a common, shared direction in schools means that it’s majorly stifled in both teachers and students. Therefore, I conclude that any school that glibly declares it applauds creativity, but doesn’t ask itself serious questions and introspect continually is likely to be short-changing students.

Sadly, this gets brushed off by pointing out the inclusion of music, art and drama in the syllabus of the school and even that students can take these subjects through to examination levels. Also, much of the ‘creative time’ is pushed to extra curricular activities. A keen eye watching most schools’  annual talent competition would notice two significant things;

a) The levels of real, true creativity exhibited are minimal. The fact that a child can produce a reasonable rendition of a popular song or dance is hardly representative of creativity, and
b) Almost all the talent on show will have been acquired by the child outside the school, not in it.

The ability to point to a handful of children with some degree of mastery playing the piano or violin, putting on a staged musical or writing a poem for the school yearbook or displaying a watercolour of three pointy mountains and a rising sun does not represent proof that the school inculcates creativity in its students. The fact that many of those things might be done in very formulaic, pre-precribed and predictable ways may actually be indicative of quite the reverse.

As the various chapters of the book highlight, creativity is not neat and clean and certainly not formulaic. Rather, it comes out of daydreaming, mindfulness and developing an awareness of the working of one’s own mind. Invariably (but not exclusively) it flows from and is most often found in those who have undergone some suffering and had the strength to battle through to the other side of their personal challenges. If schools are truly positive for creativity they need to think carefully about how they support students to build resilience and grit.

As the quote at the beginning highlighted, creativity often flows from heightened sensitivity. All too often, today’s schools teach such sensitive children to tone down their emotions, to put a lid on strong feelings and to learn to conceal or bottle up those feelings that would make them stand out.

In fact, this may highlight the area that requires most effort in schools. All too often, it’s just not cool to stand out, to be different or to show behaviour or thinking that is outside the norm. Instead, school cultures emphasise conformity, fitting in and complying. many spend way more time drilling children for ‘march past’ etc for sports day than in activities that develop and expand on ability to think differently.

Visions, missions and values are not meant to be just nice phrases that are tripped out, displayed on websites, brochures and hall walls. Rather, they should be treated as touchstones against which a school community is continually testing itself.  The work of school leadership around these driving principles is never done. They should be continuously introspecting and leading the debate, encouraging a willingness to publicly challenge, question and innovate – a process akin to peeling an infinite onion.

It’s time to get creative about how we develop creativity in schools.

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School Through the Eyes of Others

Pillars

Early in my experience of heading a school for the first time, I vividly remember the experience of a meeting with a prospective parent who had come in to discuss the possibility of admitting his son in the new school that was soon to open.

I met him in the reception area, shook hands and we headed through to my office. Nothing at all unusual at this stage, though conversation wasn’t exactly flowing. The gentleman was tending to answer questions in short or mono-syllabic responses. As we sat down in our seats I noticed that he was sweating slightly across his forehead and also that he was breathing from very high in his chest. As we started to talk he picked up a brochure and it was clear the paper was fluttering in his hand. Our discussion continued to be disjointed.

I paused, took a deep breath and asked, “Are you feeling uncomfortable?

He laughed, breathed and asked if it was really so obvious. He then admitted that his own school experiences had been rather traumatic, including some very unpleasant experiences in the Headmaster’s office. I smiled at him, told him mine wasn’t all a bed of roses either and suggested that we might have a walking meeting around the school grounds instead of sitting in the office.

We headed out of the door, walked for about 40 minutes with conversation flowing freely in a very relaxed manner. He made clear within about 5 minutes that he would be admitting his son. In the rest of our conversation we simply got to know each other better and, along the way, he shared some of the experiences he’d had in school that he’d only realised on that day had stuck with him in ways that were deep and powerful.

I share this memory because I have often felt that as a profession those in education are not always as good as we might be at seeing the education experience through others’ eyes. When educators do see the experiences in schools through the eyes of pupils or parents, too often there’s a temptation to be dismissive, to suggest that it is what it is and others should adapt. In the words of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people we need to do a better job of seeking first to understand and then to be understood. That doesn’t mean educators don’t have a right to be heard and understood, but is a matter of sequence and priority.

Recently, I read of an interesting story from the world of design thinking. The design company IDEO had been invited to consult for a hospital to look at how they might redesign the entire patient experience. IDEO are renowned for not taking half measures. Among other things, one of their designers actually checked himself in to the hospital as a patient and documented his experiences. When it came time for IDEO to present to the management, instead of a fancy presentation full of ideas and recommendations, they were shown a six minute video of nothing but the ceiling of a hospital ward.

They understood immediately that this is the mind-numbing reality for patients (for hours, not six minutes). This galvanized all the personnel of the hospital, not just the management, to work actively with the designers to come up with alternatives, to see the hospital experience from the perception of users. They came up with an enormous number of implementable ideas, because of a high sense of ownership. The ideas generated didn’t necessarily require big budgets, but made significant differences.

If we applied similar approaches to our schools, what might be achieved? If we treated everything that goes on as open to question and exploration, what might we change? What excuses about curriculum, budgets, time and others’ expectations would we put to one side?

This is not about terribly complex solutions. It’s about simple things that when all added together could add up to a big deal. School leadership and/ or outside inputs can lead the way, but i believe ownership will be far greater if the people in the school are a critical part of the movement. It’s important to make it fun, make it playful and very positive. Try things out. There’s hardly likely to be lots of dangerous downside on any changes, so better to go ahead and take action.

Change in schools doesn’t have to be about high cost IT or technology interventions.  If it’s motivated and driven with continual reference to the school’s values, vision and mission and from this perspective of ‘user experience’ it can gain its own momentum that will make change and innovation a way of daily life in the school.

(Would schools built for little people to be comfortable in have great big pillars like in the picture above? Worth thinking about.)

Could Emotional Intelligence help us build a better world and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

SDG

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) encompasses a number of skills that have been highlighted as being among the most important in an Industry 4.0 world – and therefore among the most important skills we need to help children to acquire during their education.

In turn, there is a massive task in the world to ensure that quality education is available to every child. This goal is driven most visibly through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Bringing these two things together, here’s a conference video from the United Nations that actually explored the ways in which EQ can be harnessed in order to achieve the SDGs. It brings together some of the world’s leading experts on EQ, including Daniel Goleman.

Emotional Intelligence has been shown to foster empathy, contribute to violence prevention and peacebuilding post-conflict, improve interpersonal relationships and communication, make people more self-aware about their own feelings and the feelings

Source: Could Emotional Intelligence help us build a better world and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

The Library as Core of a School

Library

“Lifelong learning is the core of all we do and a key part of our school’s values.”

Yada yada. I call inconsistency on any school that doesn’t put its library at the very core of its school in terms of physical focus, time spent, focus, teacher focus, employee skills and seniority. In many schools today the library is the ONLY place where a child can be free to pursue the learning that interests and enthuses them, instead of learning what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told, as deep as they’re told.

I’ve been writing on this issue for many years – here are couple of articles that are nearly 8 years old:
Technology Changing the Concept of Libraries
Role of Librarians in the Twenty First Century

(The first one might be interesting reading for those with short memories at The Shri Ram School, Aravali!!)

However, what’s the reality of libraries I’ve seen in schools across a number of countries?

a) A library in an English medium school where the librarian didn’t speak English,
b) An occasion where I sought to persuade English teachers to take over control of a school library – all resisted as they saw this as a demotion, humiliating and a move away from teaching that would be terminal for their careers,
c) A school library that was often used as a storage space for used stage scenery and props, kept locked through most of the school day,
d) A great big clue – the number of international schools where the librarian is part of the administrative staff headcount, not academic (meaning that as well as being employed on salaries much lower than teachers, they have little or no contact with teachers, especially on academic matters, are excluded from meetings on academic matters and are treated as ‘keeper of the books’.
e) No feedback related to the library in school reporting to parents (meaning that children are taught to think the library unimportant – in fact time there is seen as a ‘free period’.

To be fair, I’ve also seen some very enlightening and positive practices. However, many of these involved people who were not traditional librarians trained through the conventional routes;

a) A librarian who made it a significant part of her role to improve the reading abilities of every child in the school, backing up this work with annual reading competence tests (with a page included in the annual reporting to parents),
b) A librarian who regularly created special displays for holidays, festivals, special public events (e.g. Olympics), with colourful visual displays, relevant library resources on the topic and registers of relevant websites that students can access to learn more,
c) Similar to b), special displays related to particular children’s authors,
d) A librarian who created a maker space, including a 3-D printer,
e) A school in Gurugram, India that has opened its school library outside school hours for the use of pupils and family members. This is especially valuable in environments where public libraries don’t exist.
f) A school librarian who had read every book in the library! He used to have conversations with children when they returned books. For example, he might ask if they had enjoyed the ending of a book. If the evidence was they hadn’t made it to the end of the book he’d probe further to find out why. If it had proved too challenging, but they liked the genre, he would suggest an alternative and actually take them to the shelf where that book was located.
g) A school library that kept an online catalogue of the learning resources that provided scope for the pupils to write reviews, suggestions and recommendations that would guide the reading habits of their peers,
h) A library that kept a full record of all books read/ withdrawn by a pupil over an academic year and provided a report to parents at year end on what the progression suggested about their reading habits (and what they might do the following year to advance their reading).

Lifelong learners as grownups are likely to have had the opportunity as children to learn how to find resources, how to use resources to set up trails to related resources and how to pursue personal interests and fascinations to considerable depths. This includes exploring different perspectives and views on issues. Libraries are the best places for young people to acquire these skills.

This is why i suggest that the treatment of a school’s library tells a lot about that school’s real approach to the education of the whole child, the acquisition of Twenty First Century skills and the development of the habits of lifelong learning. Many schools have a very long way to go to make their actions match their words.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a very good short article from the US, published just last week on the subject;
eSchool News: 10 Reasons School Librarians Are More Important Than Ever

 

The Responsibility Vacuum

 

There are things happening in the world that I think should worry us all. Those things have been a long time coming, but their implications are potentially very alarming. In short, I fear that if movement continues in the current direction the implications could be terrible, and all that despite the fact that it should have been such a good time. So much has been happening in the world for the last 20-30 years that should be setting humanity up for a world in which there is space and time to deal with challenges like global warming and to continue in the eradication of poverty while empowering humans to take ownership and responsibility for their lives like never before.

But, where are we instead? There are certainly the warning signs that humankind is on the path at an accelerating rate towards a very dark time. Why the fear?

The pictures above are of two pages from the reading material I collected from a Covey Leadership Foundations training programme i attended around ten years ago. I had taken the materials out , as I do from time to time, to review. I find that every time i do this i find something new, can check in on my progress on issues and the commitments that I’d made to myself. These two pages leapt out at me this afternoon and I found myself wondering – if you set up many of the people being handed power in many countries of the world today, how do they stack up against these thirteen behaviours of high-trust leaders? Quite frankly, I’m not going to name the country leaders, but I can think of some who probably fail massively against every one of these thirteen  behaviours.

So, the two questions I found myself thinking about were – in a world where the people are handing power to such low-trust leaders, what does that say about the world today, and what does it suggest about where we’re going in the future? And, as an educator, I can’t help asking what the education systems have done that contributed to people who elect such low-trust leaders?

An optimist might suggest that bad leaders being raised to political high office doesn’t matter, provided there are strong, high quality leaders in other areas, particularly in business. Some would argue that so much of the real power today is now invested in business, when the market capitalisation and cashflow of many major corporations exceed the GDP of many nations. However, when we consider that many of those feckless political leaders owe their elevation to business leaders who have put them on their thrones to serve their business interests, when we see scandals like Enron or Theranos or the actions of banks and financial companies, then business leaders may not be the saviours for the future.

Further, one might say that who are the leaders in politics or business doesn’t really matter as long as people are moral and ethical within their families and their close communities. Many want to believe that their happiness and contentment in life is not dependent upon what’s happening in politics, business, the country or the world.

However, I believe that today there is a slow, dawning realisation that this ostrich thinking has created a ‘crabs in the bucket’ scenario for the vast majority of people. Information about just how daunting are the challenges facing the world from;
a) global warming and climate change,
b) increasing shift of wealth to those already most successful, leaving middle class westerners with stagnating wealth and the younger generation destined to be worse off than their parents’ generation,
c) the vulnerability of millions of jobs (and the financial security they represent) from advances in artificial intelligence and other technologies,
d) the tipping point of no return in terms of personal freedom and liberty as technology enables ‘big brother’ to destroy personal privacy (CCTV, facial recognition, elimination of cash etc.)
e) build ups of lethal, powerful weaponry in the hands of low trust world leaders.

History has shown us what can happen in such circumstances, when uncertainty and insecurity reach extremes. The vast majority of people like to believe on the way up, when life is rosy, that they’re creating their success. However, when uncertainty and insecurity start to snowball, people want to be relieved of their responsibility and accountability for their own lives. ‘Strong’ leaders who ramp up the fear of ‘others’ (anyone not like us) will happily convince them that in return for giving them power, they will be the paternal, benevolent leader who will protect them and relieve them of their responsibilities for themselves. Today, we are seeing different versions of this happening throughout the world. Whether you divide people on religious grounds, blame the ills on drug dealers and users or influx of foreigners. All amount to the same thing.

The evidence is that this is working for people in positions of power. Will it always? Perhaps the worst risks will come when those in power seek to use their positions to achieve aims and goals outside their own countries/ domains. This brings power operations in to conflict with each other eventually. Again, history suggests that the ‘little guys’ are the biggest losers from such situations.

Some readers may find this all rather negative. If there is hope, I believe it lies in this issue of trust. Because, the past also suggests that leaders don’t get to be in control and power indefinitely when their approaches are based on low trust strategies.

Recently, I heard a speaker in a blog post (sorry, I can’t remember the source) talking of responsibility as response ability – the awareness that I have the ability, the freedom, capability and the awareness to be responsible, responsive.  a person with responsibility doesn’t blame others for the state of anything, and doesn’t look for others to provide the solutions to life’s challenges.

Early in this piece I referred to the impact of education in such world experiences. In the last 30-40 years a lot has been done to expand education to a bigger and bigger proportion of the world’s population. However, so far, too many now have access to school, but not necessarily education. Much more must happen to ensure that education for the majority is built upon developing critical thinking skills, empathy and emotional intelligence and a generation of young people who genuinely embrace their right and duty to take full and complete responsibility for their own lives. On Friday we saw the biggest demonstrations yet across the world from young people striking from school to take to the streets to demand action on human impact on global warming. This is encouraging. We are seeing first signs of young people in the US turning against the politicians on the issues of gun control after the awful pattern of shootings in schools which cannot be rationalised away by thinking, educated people.

So, there is hope, and educators must understand the role that they have to play.

 

Mobiles in Schools

In secondary schools today, few issues are likely to generate more heat and angst than those that relate to mobile phones. The ‘right approach’ is as fought over in schools as it is in many homes.

At one extreme are those who simply say mobile phones have no place in schools and pupils should be banned from bringing them to school. This can get reactions and kick back from both students and parents. It also, all too often, brings an encouragement to subterfuge and dishonesty as students work to find ways to get around the strict rules.

The premise for such arguments is students can’t be trusted and have inadequate self-control. Also, it says that the mobile phone has nothing (or little of benefit) to offer to the learning process in school and the downside is distraction and disengagement from the learning process.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe children should have full freedom to carry phones in school. Such approaches usually emphasise on expectations of appropriate mobile phone etiquette, common-sense and responsibility, rather than strict rules around phones.

The starting point for those at this end of the spectrum is high expectations of students, their ability to acquire the skills to master their own phone use responsibly and to do what’s right in their own best interests for effective use of their learning time in school. Also, there’s a strong belief that whether we like or not these children are going to live and grow in an environment where the mobile phone is so ubiquitous, so embedded that the process of learning to control the phone needs to start as early as possible.

There are, of course, many shades of perspective in between these two extremes. However, if there’s one thing that is common in my experience, it’s that when you talk with people they struggle to determine whether their approach is right. Are they making the best decision? We’re all fumbling in the dark on this one a bit.

The video above shows one perspective – a scheme that has moved from theatres and concert venues to schools. In many ways this solution comes from the ‘they can’t be trusted’ mindset. Allowed to carry their own phones through the day children won’t engage effectively with their peers, they will undermine their own ability to build effective interpersonal skills. When we think about it, the reason performers found this solution appealing was because they were offended by audiences’ divided attention, and also that they wanted to prevent recordings being circulated freely to others. It could be argued that educators are in the business of sharing knowledge, and therefore should not be taking steps that limit the spread (if they really believed students might circulate recordings of their lectures!) or that educators should want to create learning experiences that hold students’ attention, are engaging and don’t fear distraction by phones.

I’m very interested to know what others think on this. Is the mobile phone, and particularly social networking so pervasive and addicting that personal discipline cannot be the way forward for children? Are these actually bigger issues for adults who are digital immigrants than for the digital natives for whom choices about how to keep the phone in perspective in their lives is a part of growing up?

It could be argued that, in the face of learning experiences that are boring and uninspiring, early generations of children didn’t need mobile phones to be distracted. From solitary pursuits like gazing out of the window or doodling, to participatory processes of cheeky note passing, hangman or battleships my own school days saw plenty of ways to be distracted long before the arrival of mobile phones.

So, are you a hard-liner, a soft touch advocate or something in between? Please share your thoughts.

 

Who Said Lectures Are Useless?

There are plenty of people in education who want to suggest that the lecture offers a very poor way of learning, is old-fashioned and out of date. However, I suspect that none of those people have ever taken the time to watch Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University holding a lecture theatre of students spellbound in the palm of his hand.

His subject is Human Behavioural Biology and you might think there would be few takers for such lectures on Youtube. However, if you go and check out the lecture above, you’ll see it currently has over 3.2 million views. Sapolsky’s appeal is that he makes what he does look incredibly easy, and that’s a fine art. He takes complex subjects and through stories, humour and superb delivery makes them accessible.

We are truly living in an amazing world today. For those with the energy, the commitment and motivation and willingness to allot the time, learning can be gained from such a source for nothing more than the cost of internet bandwidth.

This is not just one lecture, but the first in a series of 25. That’s a lot of hours investment, but these days Youtube does offer the scope to speed up such videos. Even running at 1.25X speed cuts the time by 20%, without any loss of comprehension.

Before anyone asks – yes, I’ve watched them all. And it was worth it.

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