Friday, March 11, 2011

Creative Leadership: A Challenge of our Times

If schools are to break out the crushing conformity that has resulted since technocrats and politicians captured the education agenda creative leaders will have to emerge. Creative leadership is the challenge of our times. This was the title of an article written by Loise Stoll and Julie Temperley based on their research in schools in the United Kingdom. I thank my good friend Paul Tegg for sending me their paper which I have used as the basis of my blog. So far there is little sign of such leadership emerging but there are a few points of growth that provide some hope.

'Learning is the core purpose of schools', Stoll and Timperley begin their paper, 'Creative Leadership: a Challenge of our Times', and continue with a quote from a book by Stoll and Dean Fink, 'It's About Learning and it's About Time': 'these days if you can't learn, unlearn and relearn , you're lost because sustainable and continuous learning is a given of the twenty-first century. And from the Delours UNESCO book they add , 'learning to learn is the key skill of the century'.

To achieve this, they believe, will demand significant changes in how teachers teach and that this 'new kind of learning fundamentally depends on creativity'.

By contrast teachers current development has lead to 'dependency and a lack of creativity ' -leading to a 'just show me what to do' attitude. The 'status quo is a very compelling state'.
Schools by their nature are conservative organisations.

The question they ask is what will it take to help schools promote creativity?

And this, they say, requires a fundamental challenge for school leadership. There is a need for leaders to consider what inhibits creative learning and what conditions are required to encourage it. This is more than problem solving and 'involves problem finding..actively scanning the environment for engage in more radical change as they strive to prepare their students for the future'. It requires the ability to 'think and act beyond boundaries that limit our effectiveness'. It requires of principals to 'being outward looking and more adventurous looking and thinking outside the box'.

This means principals being brave enough to take sensible risks so as to help teachers open up possibilities for thinking about things in different ways. This represents a new form of leadership, one that 'isn't top down: leading a team in such a way that it's not dictating and yet still scaffolding and supporting'. 'The initial modeling of of creative thinking needs to come from the top.'

It seems vital that principalsand their teachers connect with other schools to extend their thinking and to see alternative approaches.Teachers need to feel that they are trusted to try new ideas out - to take risks.

Stoll and Timperley identified nine conditions in the research in schools to allow learning focused innovation and creativity to thrive. Their set of conditions acts as a recipe which, in combination, produces the desired effect.

1 Model creativity and risk taking. Staff members are unlikely to take risks with new ideas if they constantly see their leaders being cautious. Leaders lead by example.

2 Stimulate a sense of urgency. 'Learning' they write,' occurs as a result of dissonance; when new ideas or situations don't fit with current beliefs or ways of working'. This dissonance becomes uncomfortable and creates a sense that something needs to be done - 'that the way we do things needs to be changed'; when things aren't working people become creative. 'Often it takes a crisis to promote action where there is inertia'. Creativity 'does not go with playing safe'.

3 Expose colleagues to new thinking and experiences. Creativity is stimulated in an environment of full of new ideas and experiences...bringing in new ideas is essential life blood in schools.. often teachers get stuck in routine monotony and don't feel they are encouraged to break out'. This means 'taking them out of their comfort zones; forcing them them to push boundaries of their thinking of what's possible.It may also mean swimming against the tide.'

4 Self consciously relinquish control. 'Schools, they write,'can feel like places of control where staff think they are being watched, both by senior teachers and external bodies'. High decile schools feel the weight of parent expectations and underachieving schools want their data to look better. Creativity is inhibited when people feel they are being continually checked on. There is a fear of letting colleagues, pupils, and parents down if they don't do what is expected and this suppresses natural creativity. This all relates to issues of trust and requires teachers 'being comfortable with each other to be able to speak their minds without being shot down in flames'. People need leeway to try things out but afterwards teachers need time to reflect and to share with others how it went.

5 People need time and space. Creative thinking is facilitated by time and the mental space for ideas to evolve and be fleshed out. They also found that some pressure of time seemed to be important to create that sense of urgency. It is a matter of balance. Setting targets is not a way to promote staff creativity. Targets seem to promote linear thinking. Teachers need space and time to use their imaginations to envision new possibilities. School environments that are vibrant and inspiring enhance creativity.

6 Promote individual and collaborative creative thinking and design. Stimulation of other people, is important to bounce ideas off and to share ideas. Other people are also valuable to challenge ideas . Private time is so valuable to work things out.

7 Set high expectations about the degree of creativity. 'Promoting and valuing innovation are critical to unlocking creative practices', the authors write. They found that often starting to think creatively bred a desire for greater creativity. This mind shift often came from the top of the school where a passionate interest in how learning and teaching could be different help spawn a culture that expected people to think differently. challenges of child centred and personalised learning stimulated creativity. Creative schools developed that feeling of breaking free from constraints. 'Confidence was seen by many as a prerequisite and gaining "permission" from senior leaders was seen as important.' Support when things weren't working out was also vital - that it is OK to make mistakes. 'Teachers like an environment where it is more than acceptable to do unusual and exiting things'. Leaders need to set the bar high and push people to be imaginative and to think originally.

8 Use failure as a learning opportunity. Teachers, the authors observed,worry a great deal about the risks associated with experimenting with new ideas. By valuing the things that go wrong there is an opportunity to limit such worries- 'if it doesn't work we can learn from it'. It needs an environment 'where you can fail..the freedom to explore, to take risks to make mistakes and to learn from them'. 'Teachers need to feel they can have a go is OK if you don't get it right the first time'.

9 Keep referring to core values. While creative thinking is exciting staying close to core values appears to provide the bedrock for success. The authors write that, 'being clear and explicit about values and holding them in a steady state offers a context and stable point of reference for people. 'Knowing that everyone is moving towards the same goals and vision keep you going'.

Some Question and issuers to be resolved.

A recurrent theme in the project was the teachers attitudes towards risk. Teachers live in a high stakes environment with children's learning being the chips which teachers feel they are gambling with.

The impact of creative leadership is bound up with the principals notions and values of creativity and how it might be measured. Is it that teachers creativity is enhance, or it its contribution to students' learning. What measures could be used? Each school in the project was asked to develop its own measures.

What are social conditions conducive for school leaders to be creative? What is needed is a mix time and space mixed with the ebb and flow of conversation in groups with others starting out to be creative?

What exactly is seen as creative? Is it new solutions or adapting others ideas, or both?

There are different levels of creativity ranging from incremental to radical and transformational; minor tweaking or a complete overall.

What are the next steps?
Bringing about deep and meaningful change to learning practices is one of school leadership's greatest challenges. Leading for change is rooted in current reality and at the same time as dealing with the future'.

Tensions also exist between the conceptions politicians, the media and the wider community have about the purpose of education and how schools can best improve.

Leaders also have tensions to cope with between what they believe is important to prepare students for the future and what external agents expect them to do ,and frequently judge them by.

It seems it all depend on the belief's of the school leaders.
Developing creative leadership is certainly, as the authors title suggest, a challenge for our times.

Creativity in the past relied on creative teachers working with other like minds in other schools; today this challenge has been passed on to principals.

Will enough principals be creative and courageous enough to contribute creative students to solve problem beyond current thinking?

Networking with other principals to gain mutual strength is the only way forward.


Anonymous said...

All those leadership courses run through MoE contracts - so where are the leaders?

Bruce Hammonds said...

We need "real" leadership with a capital "L" - leaders who can reach beyond their own school to give courage to others to take the risks necessary to develop true education - one premised on developing all students talents -not just those kids who currently "fit". Most of our current school leaders are "peace time" leaders!

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
Your words and thoughts of others in your blog are exactly how I've been trying to define leadership as being. It's going to be an incredible challenge to find those leaders and put them in the right places. Thanks for guiding me towards the article, I'll take a look.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Leanne, as you say real leadership is an incredible challenge - one requiring the ability to see ahead. And individuals with the courage to do something. When you read the latest Ministry Charter requirements we need such leaders now!

Anonymous said...

Creative leadership in education is a rare thing - we have , with few exceptions, timid leaders at best. Tony Gurr's points are right on the mark - schools are about teaching not learning. There is little faith that, given the right conditions and leadership at all levels, students would learn by themselves.

RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry said...

While networking with other principals certainly is helpful for support and as a source of ideas, the type of creativity talked about cannot wait for a top-down approach. It's more important for those who facilitate learning and co-create such environments with their participants to become more connected.
Best regards,
RJ Johnson

Bruce Hammonds said...

I fear you are right R L Johnson.

Principal networking is only part of the solution -to work they need to share, or be led by, a vision of better things to come. The trouble is most school principals are too focussed on their own schools reputation spending too much time proving to the powers that be ( their BOTs or the Ministry or ERO) that they are are doing a great job as seen through the eyes of others. With this outlook networking would lead to greater conservatism.

And I agree that new ideas emerge out of the actions of those involved in teaching. Innovations bubble up only if they have support and when others recognize such new ideas are in line with what they also want to do.

Leaders ( at any level) arrange conditions for such creativity to emerge and then do their best to help positive idea work - such ideas spread like a benign vision.

This is how ideas spread - but all too often current organisations do their best to crush any ideas that rock the boat or challenge current power structures.

As you say it is about co-creation.

Anonymous said...

Current principalship is nothing to do with leading ( to a creative 21stC concept of learning); it is more to do with them complying to outside agendas and then conforming their teachers. Mostly is is still old fashioned 'command control' - 'top down leading'. Simply management. And they are good at it!