Thursday, August 30, 2012
Making the most of Team work in schools as a means to develop creative thinking
New Yorkbestselling author Jonah Lehrer, in his book ‘Imagine’, has an interestingchapter on team work or collaborative learning in organisations.Team work in schools all too often seems to me to be increasingly about conforming team members to school expectations; about ensuring all members are on the same page.
Such expectations can have, according to Lehrer, limiting effects on tapping individual members’ creativity in schools this can result in clone like teaching.
Consistency is all very well to ensure quality but it ought not to be at the expense of creativity. When I used to visit classrooms with teachers I always asked them to consider each classrooms ‘CC ratings’ – one eye to observe consistency the other to note individual creativity.
Teaching isa creative activity with lots of variables to cater for and the value of teamwork planning, Lehrer writes, is to connect member’s imaginations through collaboration. The group (or teaching team) according to Lehrer ‘is not just a collection of individual’s talents. Instead, it is a chance to for those talents to exceed themselves, to produce something greater than anyone thought possible’.
Lehrer is interested ‘why some groups are more than a sum of their parts.’ And importantly there is ‘evidence group creativity in organisations is becoming more necessary… solutions can only be found by working with other people.’ Today 99% of scientific breakthroughs are achieved through teamwork ‘requiring the expertise of people from different backgrounds who bridge the gaps between disciplines’.
Lehrer considers why some stage productions are more successful than others. It all boils down to the degree of ‘social intimacy’ of the people working together – the relationships between the collaborators. When there are poor relationships musicals were likely to fail but if they knew each other too well the work also suffered. The best teams were a mix of old friends and ‘newbies’. People seem to want to work with their friends but this it seems is the wrong thing to do. If you want to make something special,and avoid ‘group think’ you need new people – outsiders!
It seems creative solutions require the view of people who do not ‘know what to do’. In creative organisations (and ought not schools to be seen as creative organisations?) innovation ‘emerges when people of diverse backgrounds work together’
Really creative organisations like Apple have realized that the best collaborations happen by accident and have arranged their ‘campuses’ so that it is impossible not to run into others. One sociologist calls these meetings ‘third places’. Throughout history shared places ‘have played an outsized role in the history of new ideas from coffeehouses of eighteenth century England… to the Left Bank of modernist Paris’. ‘Random conversations are a constant source of ideas’. ‘The most innovative teams are mixture of the familiar and unexpected’.
Creative organisations have structured their spaces to allow such interactions to happen – even considering the placement of toilets! Schools by contrast have traditionally separated children in age cohorts, ability groups, and by fragmented subjects – all isolated from the immediate environment.
As well creative organisations recognise that their most creative employees are well connected and have the ability ‘to suck up ideas like vacuum cleaners’. Schools ought to value these ‘creative swipers’ because through them new ideas enter the system from elsewhere. The teachers that need to be valued are whateducationalist Mitchel Fullan called, in his latest book, ‘deviants’.
As Lehrer observes ‘the best stuff happens when someone tells you something you didn’t already know’.’ Innovative systems’, computer scientist Christopher Langton once observed, ‘constantly veer towards the edge of chaos’; environments that are neither fully predictable of fully anarchic. Schools and individual classrooms are in the same position.
Creativity occurs at the edge of chaos
In the most creative teams the entire teams feel responsible for ‘catching mistakes’ – ‘to learn from the mistakes of others’ - able to criticize others ideas. Lehrer mentions the problem with traditional brainstorming, where ideas are accepted uncritically – the ‘freewheeling of ideas’ saying it is important to debate and criticize each other’s ideas. Dissent in group sessions can dramatically expand creative potential – even if the dissent is wrong. Obviously criticism should never get out of control – one idea is that any criticism should contain a new idea that builds on the flaws of the previous contributor. Many good ideas come after meetings when things have cooled down! Such meetings involve difficult conversations and disorientating surprises but as one film producer said ‘no one said making a good film was easy’
There is a message here for school or team leaders – ‘you need to hire the best folks and get out of the way’ – unless you want your own ideas ‘rubber stamped’! Creative leaders value the individual ‘voices’ of team members and respect their learning identity – as hopefully do the teachers in their classrooms.
Like any creative organisations schools need to bring in ‘flesh blood’ and incorporate new ‘voices’; they need to ‘allow the inexperienced to ask naive questions and to come up with plenty of impractical suggestions’. Organisation need these weird people – ‘you need to tolerate a certain kind of ..weirdness.’Schools are, by their nature, fairly conformist environments. Every opportunity ought to be created to allow ideas that might just make learning for teachers and students more fun.
Contrary to a common phrase, ‘there is no” I” in TEAM, if there isn’t then schools are in trouble – they will remain idea or imagination free environments.