Monday, May 12, 2014

Case for Creativity

Throughout this past school year I've led some sessions called "Inside the Head's Head." In them I've been laying out my philosophy, ideas, vision, and tying it all to what's happening at St. John's. After I set the table with some remarks, the discussions would take off, sometimes in unexpected fashion. In many ways it really was like being inside my head, where things fly around all the time and I try to connect the pieces coherently as I consider multiple facets of each. The sessions were quite enjoyable, and some "groupies" appeared regularly. Along with giving me a chance to share my thoughts, I gained some insight into parents' thinking. Reflecting on the most recent forum, I realized that I need to spend much more time clarifying my explanation about one of the most pressing issues in education: creativity.

As we were talking about the notion of creativity, very quickly I could see that people were holding onto two limiting points regarding the topic. I don't say this as a criticism; the parents were willing, but they also have certain understanings that run through society as a whole. The first is that creativity refers to artistic endeavors. The second is that creativity is an innate, fixed attribute one either has or doesn't.

If we're going to consider creativity as a quality beyond the traditionally artistic, we need to consider possible definitions. Famed educational critic Sir Ken Robinson--perhaps the first voice to raise the issue via his TED presentation (the most viewed ever)--calls creativity "the process of having original ideas that have value." While I like the basic idea here, I quibble with certain elements. For example, value is quite a relative term. Also, students may have great ideas that are not truly original, except perhaps to them. Perhaps that is what Robinson means. Still I prefer a couple of other similar notions. In Creative Confidence Tom and David Kelley talk about creativity "using your imagination to create something new in the world." They move beyond this circular thought to see it as "looking beyond the status quo," with creative confidence an "inherently optimistic way of looking at what's possible." This echoes cartoonist and blogger Hugh MacLeod's definition: "Bringing new light to what life might be." I've been developing my own draft definition: Using one's talents to affect positive change which allows individuals and societies to flourish.

Each has its good and bad aspects. Most important, however, is what they have in common. First, they all ask us to consider the notion of creativity as something broader than the long-standing and limiting framework of artistic expression. It's about perspectives and orientation and action. It's about innovation and options and exploration. It's about determining what's better. Second, they imply--and further digging would let you see they believe--that everyone is innatiely creative in some form or fashion. The real issue is that we've been led to beleive, for various reasons, that we are not; and it also has not been emphasized as a necessary trait. To a certain degree, then, it's also a matter of mindset, and traditionally we've appraoched this with the typical fixed mindset.

Similarly, we must move beyond the notion that creativity is fixed. In that regard, it's no different than the notion many have held about intelligence. And we know through Carole Dweck's work that intelligence is mutable if approached the right way. Also, consider how,the concept of multiple intelligences and that we've come to understand that intelligence is individually distinct, diverse, and dynamic. Certainly the same truths apply to creativity. We can reveal and nurture all forms of creavity. Primarily by introducing the basics of design thinking, workshops based on the Kelley brothers' methods have helped hundreds feel more creative in their particular endeavors. Per the Kelleys, "Design thinking relies on the natural--and coachable--human ability to be intuitive, to,recognize patterns, and to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional." Creative Confidence has numerous examples. The brothers write, "People who use the creative techniques we outline are better able to apply their imagination to painting a picture of the future. They believe they have the ability to improve on existing ideas and to positively impact the world around them, whether at work or in their personal lives."

Therein lies the real point. As far as work goes, we've all seen the multiple surveys of CEOs and other sorts who point out the increased importance of creativity in the increasingly complex world marketplace. They see it as the number one criteria they seek in new hires, but they also say they can't find it in enough people. Certainly that's important. But I argue the real value is more essentially human than that--that it lies deep inside those qualities which help make us human. It ties to Pink's work on motivation being tied to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Our sense of those blossoms when we are being creative in any endeavor. It helps foster that sense of flow. It helps us to flourish and to thrive in all aspects of our lives. For that reason it should be an integral part of our educational mission.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Teachers I Most Appreciate On-Line

     For my annual post during Teacher Appreciation Week, I've decided to take a different approach. After all, in the past I've written about my two greatest teachers; and I often refer to other teachers, coaches, and colleagues. Usually they are figures from my past. Fortunately, I also have current mentors and role models. For this piece, I'm also thinking about how the digital revolution has opened incredible possibilities for learning. In that context my driving question becomes "What sort of teachers do I most appreciate on-line?" For me that means mainly blogs and Twitter.
     While perhaps I should not begin with the negative, I want to state right away what I don't like. It's not much--there are just two things--but they truly rankle. First, I don't like what I can only describe as a form of self-centeredness. It manifests itself in some key ways. Tweets are strictly self-promotional. In the same vein, someone requests information but never supplies information in response to someone else's queries. A person ignores basic etiquette. (Fortunately, I don't encounter too many people who operate this way; when I do, I choose to ignore.)  Second, I don't like pieces that are overly definitive, i.e. "The Six Surefire Ways to..." Nothing is that simple. At least nothing worthwhile. These two dislikes often overlap in ways that point at the heart of what I do like.
     As a place to learn, the true beauty of the digital world is access. That holds for both quantity and variety. Plus the information links in all sort of intentional and random fashion. The structure forces one to spin a web of meaning. Despite what some promise, ultimate answers remain elusive, perhaps non-existent. In that way it is analogous to life in ways few school curricula are.
     My favorite on-line teachers are those who not only acknowledge such intellectual murkiness but actually embrace it. They are the truly honest bloggers, the ones who are willing to share the struggle and thus admit their own shortcomings and even vulnerability. They dine upon a smorgasbord of feeds and draw nutrition from each. They are the Tweeters who share all types of resources and challenge each other in chats and celebrate the virtues of others.
     Society often confuses learning with achieving a certain end. To an extent this is accurate if we're talking short term or one has a simple task to complete. However, such a misconception underlies many of the problems with educational systems. We must understand and embrace the opposite notion. Optimal learning is not linear, zeroed in a particular goal. It loops, twists, starts and stops. It's also about unlearning. It's about having the guts to ask dangerous questions that may force answers which drive us off the intended course but right where we need to go at any given time on an endless journey.
     For a society to prosper fully, it needs a spirited life of the mind. That cannot be just pockets of citizenry. It must be the culture. Standard operating procedure. So those qualities of the teachers I most appreciate on-line? Exactly what we also need off-line. Those great teachers understand it's about truly meaningful learning.