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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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.

 

Putting Parental Fear in Perspective

band-aid-on-knee

When I was around eight years of age i lived in a relatively small village in England. At weekends and during the vacations it was common for me to head off around a mile away from home to go to play at the homes of two of my best friends – ALONE! Part of the route was by a small path that ran between fields, another part through a wood and another part beside the main road through the village that had no pavements. Once I’d met up with my friends we would sometimes play in fields, sometimes head in to the woods. There was a fluctuating group of boys and girls. We climbed trees, skidded down hills, skinned our knees and bashed our elbows. We got in to scrapes and solved our own issues. Inevitably, sometimes people fell out with each other and had disagreements. When those times happened it was deeply important to us, but we figured out between ourselves how to solve those conflicts and repair friendships.

Often our play entailed creating fantasy worlds of our own, our vivid imaginations blending to concoct amazing scenarios. One day we might be spies, another day city planners creating a new nirvana. At such times, we’d often lose all track of time. We were all tasked with responsibilities to reach home in time for meals (with consequences if we failed). Of course, we had no phones and most of the time no money (so, no phoning home with excuses for why we would come late). So, if you were tight on time, you ran – simple.

Young people tend to roll their eyes when people like me talk about our childhoods and our experiences or the vast differences between our childhoods and theirs. However, I tell this little tale with some very genuine concerns that what today’s young are missing out on were the learning environment for the very skills, competencies and character traits considered to be most important in the Industry 4.0 environment; emotional intelligence, resilience, problem solving, communication, interpersonal skills and creativity.

The shift, across the world, to helicopter parenting and wrapping children in cotton wool is a response to very real and driving fear for parents. This is terribly sad and ironic when we consider that the world in which children are growing up is actually safer when considering data on crime etc. Worse, as it has always been, children are more at risk statistically from people they know within their homes than they are from strangers in the outside environment.

If children are given freedom, will they get in to scrapes and problems? Yes, almost certainly – we did. But, solving those problems, working through the implications of our own actions was a very big part of our learning and development. And, almost always the implications are really not so terrible.

Data today about how little time children get to spend outside is deeply worrying. To me, it’s inevitable to find direct correlations between these changes in the process of growing up, exposure to nature, levels of independent activity and the increasing levels of compulsive behaviours, depression and mental illness as well as the challenges that flow from over-sensitivity to setbacks, disappointments and life challenges.

Ironically, with hours of computer games and social networking exposure, I would hazard that in some ways children today are at greater risk in the very state their parents are keeping them to ensure their safety. With growing pollution (and in Asian cities summer heat) the temptation to use these as justifications for the children being in for many hours, staring at screens is obvious.

Lenore Skenazy became famous, or rather infamous, in the US a few years ago when she let her child ride on the subway unaccompanied. The media went in to a frenzy as she was labeled ‘the worst mother in the world.’ To her credit, she didn’t roll over, but rather has spent the time since expanding on her approach as a philosophy she calls ‘free-range parenting.’

Here’s a video of an interview she gave last year, sharing her views.

Lenore and others have created an organisation in the US that seeks to work with schools and parents to provide help and to encourage loosening of the reins:
Let Grow

Can we bring these ideas in to other parts of the world effectively?

To help with some of this, researchers have identified four types of parenting style:

  • Authoritarian.
  • Authoritative.
  • Permissive.
  • Uninvolved.

A detailed discussion of the four styles I’ll save for another post, but there are some good summaries available through searches online.

As educators, we have to meet children and parents where they are and not where we wish they might be. This means that if children have been used to sheltered, helicopter parenting, then we have to understand that’s the starting position. However, if we are serious about a responsibility to educate and develop the “whole child” then we need to pay close and careful attention to;

a) What we can do to educate and support parents to be realistic and support their children in the most responsible ways (and this includes making sure that teachers are informed and playing their part, including sharing a consistent message)
b) What we can do to expand the horizons of children, to help them to develop the characteristics of independence and interdependence, as well as creating an engaging environment in the school that enables children to develop and practice character, real problem solving.

Childhood has the potential to be such a special time in a person’s life. When we deny children a natural childhood we don’t only deny them all that’s good, but we deny them so much of the growth and learning that will enable them to be their best and to grow up living effective lives. Free the children!

New Beginnings

Disruptive education roundtable

As much as we may want to believe that we can plan and map out our lives and that things like goal setting put us in control of our own destiny, fate can often have other plans for us. personally, i don’t believe that means we should stop making plans, having a future focus or taking actions towards our determined purpose. I think the more we do that, the greater our ability to refocus, adapt and strike out on a new path when fate does intervene.

The personal events in my life in early 2018 impacted every aspect of my life in every way possible. Professionally, it meant a period away from work. International Schools Partnership (ISP) had only just completed the acquisition of Tenby Schools around 6 weeks before and we should have been fully immersed in integration at that time. When it was time for me to re-engage I had undertaken a new role for ISP focusing on business development.  This wasn’t necessarily a route i would have automatically pursued, but actually gave me a lot of interesting learning which will be invaluable in the future. However, it wasn’t necessarily a career route that i would naturally have chosen. However, one thing it did give me was space and time, along with the inputs and guidance of a London based outplacement consultant to really get some clarity of thought on what i want to do. I hope that I still have 15-20 years to contribute professionally to the world!

What has been clear to me throughout the process has been that i remain as passionate, committed and dedicated as I ever was to bringing about change and reform in education that more closely aligns the learning experiences of young people with their needs to flourish, excel and fulfil their potential in a world that changes ever more rapidly. In order for that to happen for young people requires that schools become better places to work where the creative talents of teachers can be honed and released. This, in turn requires major upgrade in the support and development for those who take up leadership roles and positions in education.

I’ve concluded that i cannot make the impact I want or challenge entrenched orthodoxy as much as i might wish whilst employed by any single school or schooling organisation. So, whilst still potentially open to business development opportunities for ISP, I am setting out on the road less traveled as an independent education consultant, coach, trainer, writer and with the freedom to take up projects alone or in collaboration with others that excite me and where i believe real impact can be achieved.

I cannot thank enough ISP, my former colleagues and team at Tenby (especially the Principals and the Central Office team) and particularly Charles Robinson, ISP Group Business Development Director for their support and help in what were, at times, challenging and dark months.

Reinventing yourself professionally is an amazing experience. One part fear, one part excitement it challenged me to question so much about myself. There are those who say it’s wrong for people to define and identify themselves so greatly with who they are professionally. However, it’s something i always knew and accepted about myself – I am what i do and I will always assess myself on the basis of the extent to which i believe I’m making a difference in education.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended events that reinforced imy beliefs that this is right for me now. One of them I’ll be writing about in a separate post. Yesterday, I attended a Roundtable meeting in Kuala Lumpur entitled “Disruptive Education.” 50 or so people from all sorts of areas associated with education, both public and private sector. A few present wanted to challenge the use of the word “disruptive” as being overly negative. It’s understandable that many will want to believe that all we need to do is a bit of evolutionary change, incremental tweaking around the edges. However, I’m even more convinced than ever that we need significant change and we have to rapidly increase the pace at which we bring those changes.

I’ve decided to keep my base in Kuala Lumpur. Over three years here I’ve come to love the place and the people. It’s also got all the strategic accessibility of Singapore with a fraction of the cost of living! I did consider a move back to India, but sad to tell all my Indian friends that with the history of my lungs a permanent move there just would never have worked. The air quality was bad when I left 6 years ago, but it’s way worse now. However, from here I believe I can work across a large swathe of Asia, and that will undoubtedly include India.

In terms of exactly what I’ll be offering, that will emerge over the next few weeks and I will be writing more with some of my plans. However, in the meantime, I am very much available to anyone who wants to reach out for discussions. There are already some interesting and very exciting ideas under discussion. I know life won’t be getting boring any time soon.

For anyone who does want to reach out to me to discuss projects or ideas, please, for now, do so on my personal email address: markp.india@gmail.com

 

Tidying the Toys in the Sandpit

sandpit

It’s very rare that you can bring together a room full of educators to talk about where we should be going in education without pretty universal agreement that the status quo is not acceptable. All will agree – things must change! In such circumstances you then really have to wonder why so little really does change.

When there is change, I would argue that almost all of it really amounts to little more than twiddling at the edges. Somehow, despite the voiced acknowledgement of the need for significant changes, we just really haven’t changed anything very much. I find this the equivalent of lining up the toys in the sandpit. It’s still the same sandpit and the same toys and it can only be a matter of moments before those toys are thrown all over the sandpit just like before, with no evidence remaining of how tidy they were.

99% of change and reform in schools and in education is pretty much the same.  Incrementalism is the norm. So, a teacher or group of teachers take a process or a policy. Debate it to death. Tweak it a bit and then move on to the next thing. If enough of these little tweaks happen in a school, then the school gets tagged with the label ‘progressive.’ To some, that’s praise – to some, an insult implying that they just leave well alone.

Often these initiatives are so fragile and minimal that a change of personnel and the phrase, “this is how we used to do it,” can be enough to make them disappear leaving no evidence – just like the toys in the sandpit. The response from parents and students is often a rolling of the eyes and phrases like, “I wish they’d make up their minds what they’re doing.”

Attempts to reform, bring real change or to get people to look at education in different ways also come up against big challenges. I have noticed an invidious process whereby something new gets attacked with the challenge, “prove it works.” This leads to paralysis by data and supposed research. One striking recent example is in relation to Grit. This was a concept expounded on particularly by Angela Duckworth and expanded in her book:

Angela Duckworth – Grit

I found this book very thought provoking and intuitively felt that the ideas in it were valuable and had a real place in education. However, subsequently, since that book was published there seem to have been a whole bunch of ‘experts’ who have been hell-bent on refuting the key points behind the ideas. Their tools are to “teach” the principles of Grit to children and then “Test” to see what impact that has on students’ achievements. To me, this is just awful science, little to do with education and also deliberately distorts the intentions behind the original ideas. For example, if Grit gets built in to the values and principles in a school and that results in a pupil sticking through tough times in a job or a marriage 25 years later  – how can you have tested for that? How do you put a value on that? Also, what exactly are you testing for? Whether children produce higher/ better academic outcomes because this particular material was taught? I’m really not sure that was ever the idea.

Something is not only valid because you can do it, then test for it and prove some outcome in the traditional tests that have always been a part of the academic system. I would really want to see a far more optimistic, open and positive attitude towards change and new ideas.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how all real change can get closed down by narrow blinkered testing for ‘proof of impact.’ Then, that tempts people to focus only on the little incremental changes, the little tweaks.

I want to see us being far more bold, challenging and questioning big issues. In the coming weeks i have a whole bunch of these where I want to raise the questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hope that I can stimulate debates and discussions that will shift the needle. I would also love to hear from readers with your ideas for the big things in education and schooling that we can and should challenge or question. Let’s bring forward the debates on these issues.

 

Machiavelli

Machiavelli

Few figures in history have got a harsher rap than Mr Niccolo Machiavelli. In today’s language we use his name as a pejorative label for all the worst characteristics we see in leaders.

However, I believe he’s been harshly judged, especially when one considers the historical context of the time when he was writing. This was a man who understood that when you are in a position of power, or aspire to power (even if with the best of intentions), you’re going to catch dirt and cannot naively sit back and believe that the rest of the world will benignly orient itself around your goals.

The following is one of my favourite quotes from Machiavelli. Reading it I’m reminded so frequently of the benchmarks I always sought to apply when there were failures or mistakes in a team i was leading. What type of mistake was it? Was it a first, or was there a pattern? The last line is also a valuable reminder to me that I had better not ever be tempted to settle for self-pity or acceptance of status quo. It’s my life and my duty to do bold things with it. A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.

I also believe that as educators we have to ensure that students spend time immersed in thoughtful contemplation on such writings, exploring their applicability in their own lives.  Only through the exploration of such ideas can they develop the inner compass that will equip them to thrive in a world that changes ever more rapidly.

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger
(it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively.
Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength
to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

Niccolo Machiavelli
16th Century Philosopher

 

From Flat, to Fast, to Deep

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman wrote “The World is Flat”, a book that had a massive impact when it came to people’s understanding of the world, economics, globalisation and the forces that were shaping the world and how that shaping was likely to emerge in the future. He also went on to write other books, such as “Hot, Flat and Crowded” looking at the environment, impact of population growth and global warming. These days he writes for the New York Times, especially on foreign affairs and issues of globalisation.

Recently, he sat down for a very interesting interview discussion with James Manyika, Chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to embed the interview video here, but the link here will take you directly to it.

//players.brightcove.net/1971571337001/HkOJqCPWdb_default/index.html?videoId=6009094435001

The work that Friedman does entails gazing in to the future and trying to predict where we’re headed. it’s far from an exact science, so inevitably he’s been, at times, subject to a fair share of criticism. Nevertheless, he’s also been very good at predicting certain trends.

As educators, our task principally is to prepare young people for the future. Also, there are many questions that students have about what’s currently happening in the world and it’s important that teachers are equipped to respond intelligently and in an informed manner.

If we look at the views of commentators like Stephen Pinker there’s never been a better time to be alive. The world is becoming a better and better place to live. Admittedly, he can point to enormous strides in recent years in the reduction of absolute poverty in the world, improvements in numbers and proportion of children getting education, reductions in child mortality, reduced levels of deaths through war and conflict.

However, especially for those living in the West it’s hard to believe in this positive message. There’s growing anger and disaffection, especially among the middle classes. For the first time in a long time, we see life expectancy creeping down in countries like the US, we see a young generation who almost certainly will not achieve the wealth levels of their parents and middle classes whose real wealth levels are in decline as wages stagnate and real costs of living rise (all exacerbated by beliefs about what represents minimal living standards).

This anguish is manifested through more extreme polarisation of political attitudes, rise of extremists and demands to roll back globalisation in favour of protectionism. Instead of embracing the benefits of open trade, the inclinations are now towards erecting real and virtual barriers, walls and restrictions.

In the interview Friedman talks of the anguish of people acting out their humiliation and questing for dignity. For a blue collar middle class worker in Britain or USA the fact that children aren’t dying as often in Africa, or the resurgence of Asian economies don’t matter a jot when they feel they’re robbed of the promised riches of ‘the American dream’ that they believe was theirs by birthright. Ironically, I suspect that economic progress in Asia, the Middle East and Africa is the very best possibility for those people in the longer term as it will slow down the natural flows of those who feel the need to migrate. Finding more than adequate opportunities at home, they’ll feel less need to head west.

Rightly, Friedman highlights the significance and need for leadership in these times.

Worth a watch.

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