Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Creative Limits?

       Recently I finished re-reading Bruce Nussbaum's Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. Towards the end he writes,

We need to trade in an economics of efficiency for an economics of creativity. Because creativity and uncertainty exist outside the dominant economic model, there is little room for encouraging the role that start-ups play in economic growth. Yet it's start-ups--and larger corporations that haven't lost their connection to their founders--that are, by and large, driving modern innovation and job creation. Why shouldn't our economic model reflect that? We should be moving away from a model of economics based on the 'culture of control' that is embedded in the efficient market theory toward a new model that embraces a 'culture of chance' (237).
I saw that I had made a note: "Could make for great link to education. Blog post?" I'd never written the post, but the ideas certainly have threaded their way throughout this entire blog. A little bit later, Nussbaum raises a question with which I've also struggled: "How do we assess creativity?" (252). He cites several encouraging examples, ranging from portfolios to certain types of performance tasks. I'm proud to say that we use many of them here at St. John's. At the same time, though, while such assessments mark clear improvement in this area, I found myself thinking about how they can set us up for the same traps that have plagued education for so long.
     Soon after, I posted this Tweet:
Responses were varied. One I particularly appreciated came from Adam Fachler, who sent me a link to a piece by Grant Wiggins.
His response captures how, as great as it can be, sometimes Twitter is per its nature an unsatisfactory medium. This topic is not one explored well in short-form thinking. I also know that I won't have done it justice when this post ends.
       A response from Lee Finklestein captured part of the dilemma:
I completely agree with Lee, but I also think we need to extend his thinking in some clear and important directions. Beyond creativity being so highly contextual and nuanced, any time we apply standards and/or expectations in any form, we create limiting frameworks. They can affect how we assess, and they can greatly influence--consciously or subconsciously--the work of the creator. We automatically look for certain qualities and/or we try to please the audience. It becomes that much harder for us to see with an open, uncluttered mind. That is especially true when the assessment has some sort of stake attached to it. The subsequent anxiety can stifle the creativity even more. After all, we know the countless stories of those--especially artists such as Picasso or Pollock--who suffered rejection. I suspect the majority of us don't really accept the creative until somehow it has survived to become nearly mainstream because that artist not only touched upon something so human, but also managed to persevere. And how do you measure that?
       Let's take a concrete example from a junior level high school English class. Think about how you would have dealt with this. The course focuses on various aspects of language--what it is, how we use it, the various issues. For their first essay the students were told to write on any topic related to the novel they'd read. No rubric existed, but students were told to explore the boundaries of language and take some chances. Most students make some noble attempts, but for the most part stayed within fairly universal essay structures. Except one young lady. She wrote her essay on a box. I don't mean on a box, as in the topic was a box. I mean literally on a box. An introductory paragraph was on the top. Each side has a paragraph on it. She had set it up so the order made sense depending on where you chose to begin. In the middle of each side was a small door. When you opened the door, you found a small icon about the paragraph's primary example. The bottom of the box had a concluding paragraph. I wish I had a picture so you could see just how beautiful it was, and it was intellectually profound. But I have to admit, when I first received it, I wasn't sure what in the world to do with it in terms of assessment...even though I recognized the true creativity. I also admired the student's guts. Not surprisingly, when she received positive feedback, more students took such risks. If I had been using a typical rubric, would she have created such a work? Perhaps. If she had, how would I have graded her? I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this and can follow the lead to the logical conclusion of the fear mentioned at end of my first paragraph.
       The question for education, then, is quite daunting, especially if we truly consider the implications. Yes, we have to wonder about how we assess creativity. Perhaps more importantly, we need to ask--and answer quite honestly--how creative we ourselves are willing to be.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Employee Sketchnotes from Summer Reading

       This past summer our employees chose from a menu of books for their "required" professional reading. The titles people chose were Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, Susan Cain's Quiet; Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators, Sir Ken Robinson's Creative Schools, 's Mahzarin Banaji's Blindspot, Marilee Adams' Teaching That Changes Lives, and Todd Rose's The End of Average. On our first day back people broke into small groups. (Some books had several groups; some one.) I then gave each group one poster-sized sheet of paper. The task: to produce a single-page sketchnote synthesis of their book. You can see all the results below. Once again, I'm blown away by the St. John's people.
       To share and expand the conversation, groups posted their sheets at various points around the school. When they did, another sheet of paper was put up for people to pose thought and questions so that we could expand each group's conversation. Now I invite you to do the same in the comments section of this post.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Joy of Summer Endiing

       In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free" (48). I immediately thought of Twain's famous line, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education. Also, perhaps because school is shortly to resume--teachers come back Tuesday--the line made me think about the joys of summer.
       I've always worked through the summer*, especially now that I lead a school. But it's a very different kind of pace and energy. The hours shift, and while there is plenty to do, the tugs are not as urgent or multi-directional. Basically, summer provides a gift of time. Time to read, to reflect, to dream. It's restorative. It creates space for moments of serendipity, of random connections. The professional and the personal no longer feel in frantic competition. Instead, they sometimes feed each other symbiotically. I had one such moment this summer on our family vacation. We had hiked to Inspiration Point in the Grand Tetons. As we gazed across Jenny Lake towards the distant horizon, suddenly a puzzle I'd been struggling with at school came together for me.
       Coates' reference to the library suggest another way summer benefits me so much: I have the chance to read even more voraciously than usual. Beyond that, consider the way I go at it. I have a running list of books I hope to read. It's rather esoteric, built as I see different things I find at all interesting. During the school year, I choose from it quite pointedly, picking books I see as a priority for work. But during the summer I choose more randomly, checking the public library's database to see what's available. When I go to pick up my selections, I usually end up with something unplanned. In fact, two of my favorite books from this summer (McKeown's Essentialism and Seelig's Insight Out) were ones I discovered near something else I was getting.
       When I enjoy such moments that feed my autodidactic self, I wonder why school can't be more that way. Why we can't allow students to set more of the agenda, to pursue their own interests, to make it all more personal. And I think we can...to a degree. While school should be about kids, it can't be all kid driven for one simple reason. Kids don't know. Or, more accurately, they don't know enough. Just as I rely on mentors and experts to steer my learning to a certain degree, kids need that even more. As with most of life, the challenge lies in finding that sweet spot between structure and freedom, between the individual and the collective. In various forms it has vexed philosophers for millennia.
       And it's all wonderful, important reverie, the likes of which educators really only have time for in the summer. Then we jump back into the reality of doing the work. And this is not a lament. Quite the opposite, actually. As Coates reminds us, engaging in in the work of life immerses us in "the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope" (71). Life is not a thought experiment. It's the hands-on, make-a-mess, clean-it-up, learn-and-do-better work of helping young people make a life. What work could have more meaning and purpose? So no matter how many joys fill the summer, one of the greatest always comes when it ends.

*Contrary to what it seems the general public thinks, I've never known any good teachers who don't work on school stuff in some form or fashion during the summer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Litmus Test for Leadership

       In many ways, leadership is complicated. And the larger the organization, the more public the role, the more complicated it becomes. Still, no matter what variables, it's multi-faceted. Psychology, sociology, vision, small details, policy--we could create a lengthy list of all the elements a leader must consider. That said, leadership can be distilled to one overarching objective: fostering and preserving the desired culture.The litmus test comes when something or someone threatens that delicate framework.
       Observing the US presidential campaign this year has provided some important lessons in leadership. Now, I suspect you may be thinking that I am about to join either the anti-Trump or anti-Clinton side. I'm not. Nor am I about to defend and/or support either one of them. I could, but I won't, even though I have my opinions. But I am going to focus on Trump's campaign in making my argument because it captures a larger question about leadership: when to take the strongest possible stance despite the possibility of personal loss.
       While many express surprise at his becoming the nominee, perhaps we shouldn't be. After all, in deciding to follow, people often become a cult of personality. (Anyone else remember the song by Living Colour?) Plus Trump has tapped into what seem increased levels of frustration, fear, and loss. Those are much easier to whip up than confidence and optimism, meaning they can overwhelm rationality. Ironically, in a very basic way--though coming at it from a very different angle--Trump is delivering the same message that Obama used to fuel his successful run in 2008--that politics as usual is broken and we need change.
       Of course, that very different angle is what has so many people upset about Trump. His comments and tweets on just about every topic have infuriated people. These include many prominent Republicans; they worry that they have lost their party and may never get it back. People like party leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell state their "strong disagreement" with things that Trump says, but they go only so far in their denunciation. As leaders--as the educators of their followers--everything they do sends messages subtle and overt.
       I understand the political delicacy of their position. But I also know, no matter how hard it may be, what I would need to do with an employee who were to rip at my school's cultural threads. It's part of honoring all those who have built something and all those who strive to preserve its best qualities. If the leader doesn't do that, it slowly crumbles and then collapses.
       Meanwhile, many wonder if the latest Trump-ism will be the straw that breaks the back of his campaign.  I wonder at what point supposed leaders have flunked the litmus test.