Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New Zealand Teachers –to be creative make use of outsiders.

New Zealand - we ought to be at the cutting edge of change.

I  chose the title with great thought for a number of reasons.
Society is at the edge of new creative age – an age of ideas that will replace the current information age – which in turn replaced an industrial age. Ironically many organisations still have their genesis in this industrial top down era; one premised on predictability and measurement. In the school situation this is seen in the current emphasis on standards and targets. School structures, age cohorts, ability grouping, streaming, fragmented subjects, all reflect this factory era.
So we are at the edge of a new era of learning – the cutting edge of change but schools are being pressurized to retreat into the past. New learning lies at the edge of chaos not in the certainty of past thinking.
 I also chose the title because I have always felt at the edge of teaching and now, at the edge of my career. Some would say well past my sell by date!
But any success I have had over the years has been being an outsider. At first I was an itinerant science adviser (later an art adviser) and this meant I escaped the conformity of expectations that classroom teachers have to live with.
I have come to really value the importance of ‘outsider’ thinking.
When I went teaching for a few years ago I found my ignorance of current teaching procedures an advantage. I chose to ignore advice to divide my students into abilitygroups for reading and maths – this was a practice unheard of in science andart teaching. Rather I chose to help students personally as required and placed my emphasis on inquiry teaching. As an adviser I was also fortunate to be able to observe the few creative teachers who integrated skill teaching with their contextual studies.
All schools ought to have a copy of Elwyn's recently reprinted book ( from  NZCER) 
This approach wasbest represented by the teaching of Elwyn Richardson and those who followed asimilar approach who saw their classrooms as communities of scientists and artist exploring  and expressing ideas about their environment; teaching that valuedthe ‘voice’ of individual learners. Today this has come to be called ‘personalised learning’.  The writing of David Perkins sums up the idea of integrating skill teaching so as to play the game of real learning. Recently Michael Fullan, one the guru of top down innovation, has recantedand now believes that real innovationcan only come from tapping the insights of what he calls ‘deviant teachers’. The trouble is the school environments are not conducive to encouraging such deviants – rather the opposite1
Today schools arefull of formulaic ‘best practice’ clone like conformist teaching. Intentional teaching, success criteria, WALTS, exemplars are all part of this ‘official’ approach. What has been forgotten is that education should celebrate individuality not conformity; should develop students’ gifts and talents not measuring standardized achievement based on imposed standards. League tables will make it worse.
We are seeing the ‘McDonaldisation ‘of education.
When I was appointed a principal (during the introduction of Tomorrows Schools) having never been a principal my ignorance, my ‘outsider’ view, was again an advantage but try as hard as I could I found that many teaches were en-cultured into a traditional way of doing things.
If schools are to be seen as hothouses of creativity and innovation then they need to tap into ideas from outsiders.
A recent book (‘Imagine- How Creativity Works’ by Jonah Lehrer) is well worth the read.(See also Steven Johnson’s book ‘WhereGood Ideas Come From’).
Lehrer dedicates one chapter to the importance of outsider thinking in successful businesses and his ideas are extremely important to school leaders. Successful businesses make real use of outsider ideas to escape the conformity of past expectations. He writes that people deep inside an organisation suffer from an intellectual handicap. It is only when problems are shared with outsiders that new solutions can be found.
In the past I learnt that innovative schools made use of advisers more that conformist schools – but advisers in earlier days were not simply transmitters of officially approved ideas as is the case today. I also learnt that great ideas come from people on the edge – art advisers, early education teachers, Maori educators, special needs teachers, innovative businesses; education is too important to be left to teachers.
‘The world is full of natural outsiders,’ writes Lehrer, ‘we refer to them as young people. The virtue of youth is that the young don’t know enough to be insiders, cynical with expertise.’ ‘This is why’, he writes, ‘many fields from physics to punk rock have been defined by their most immature members. The young know less that why they invent more.’
He continues, ‘Why are young….more creative? One possibility is that time steals ingenuity that the imagination starts to wither but this is not the case – we are not biologically destined to get less creative.’ The young have the advantage that they are haven’t become encultured or weighted down with too much convention wisdom, they’re more likely to rebel against the status quo.’
The trouble is that with time people start to repeat themselves and they become insiders. This is what seems to happen to many principals but this doesn’t have to happen. ‘We can continue to innovate for our entire careers, ‘Lehrer writes, ‘as long as we work to maintain the perspective of the outsider.’
Being an outsider is a state of mind but it is not easy to maintain or cultivate in our present compliance regulatory educational environment but it can be done – if we work with others. Also the internal structures and expectations of schools, the obsessive teamwork, and desire for consistency destroy any possibility of tapping ‘outsider’ thinking.
To really be innovative we have to leave behind much of what we have believed to be true. Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. Creativity is all too often traded for efficiency and consistency.
School leaders need to encourage experimentation (and learn from failure) and value open-mindedness – be more willing to realize there are different ways of interpreting situations. Creativity, it seems, is a side effect of experiencing and valuing differences.  Rather than neat solutions leaders need to value surprise and even confusion – this is the area where creativity is to be found. When we come to believe we don’t know all the answers then we are open to new ideas. You suddenly notice ideas you previously ignored.
The trouble with all this is that we live in world that worships ‘insiders’ says Lehrer. The answer is to ignore what you already know. ‘Knowledge can be a subtle curse’, he writes.  ‘Through what we know we learn all the reasons why the world cannot be changed. We get used to our failures and imperfections. We become numb to the possibilities of something new. In fact, the only way to remain creative over time – to not be undone by our experience- is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t understand’.
Schools need to make use of ‘outsider’ thinking. They need the expertise of people from different backgrounds – to share ideas with others who have different perspectives.
Schools need to all work together and to tap into the ideas of creative outsiders or to fail alone. The most innovative businesses are a mix of the familiar and the unexpected. Such environments are neither fully predictable nor fully anarchic.
The best learning is at the edge of chaos.
The best ideas come from the edge of chaos rather than erecting walls and establishing hierarchies that keep people in their place stifling conversation, dissent and sharing of ideas and, in the process, making it harder expand the collective imagination of all involved.
And as an aside there is research that indicates that many teachers find it hard to accommodate creative students in their classes. ’The point is’, Lehrer writes, ‘the typical school isn’t designed for self-expression’… ‘Everyone agrees that creativity is a key skill for the twenty first century but we are not teaching our kids this skill.’
An obsession with standards and league tables is exactly the wrong way to go. Imagination is too important to be ignored.  There is no test for the future we can teach to. Creativity is a skill that never goes out of style. No text book for ingenuity, no lesson plans for divergent thinking. Rather they must be discovered; a child has to learn by doing.
It is time for schools to focus on developing the gifts and talents of all students; it is time for schools to contribute to creating the kind of culture that won’t hold us back.
This blog is my small attempt to share an ‘outsiders’ view for those schools open considering as yet unrealised alternatives.
Be great to get feedback!


Unknown said...

What a fantastic article. You describe my own feelings about my role as a teacher, too - being an outsider, different, having to conform, and it knocking the stuffing out of me at times. The seminal moment for me was when a Deputy Principal called me into her office and told me I was not longer to refer to my students as 'you guys'. This is what she thought was important. At that point I realised I was in the wrong school and maybe even the wrong job. But I still hold out hope and will go back to work soon and try in another school that is less rigid and more open to harnessing people's talents. Thank you for reminding me that this is a good thing.

Danielle Hart said...

Yes, was discussing this very thing yesterday, and was asked 'which teachers do you remember best - which ones had the most profound effect on your life?'. Of course I answered it was the rebels and the 'deviants', the ones who brought their own brand of creativity and personality to the role. So I could't agree more, education should celebrate individuality not conformity!

Teacher as Transformer said...

Bruce, this article is a provocative and timely post. I like your term: The Macdonaldisation of Education. We are so determined to fit everything neatly into box.

We need more creativity and innovation which can only be done as Dianne suggested by harnessing people's talents.

Take care,


Allan Alach said...

Life in an ideal world….. let's keep the flame burning until the educational dark ages are past.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I have to be honest my blog was based on ideas I used from Jonah Lehrer's book 'Imagine'. I have another two or so in my mind to write based on the book as I feel it makes a powerful contribution to the kind of future thinking we need in educatiuon.

You are so right Dianne - a lot of current schooling is anti creative - for kids and teachers.

I agree with you as well Danielle- only the deviants enable real change.

It is , as you say Teacher as Transformer, all about developing kids gifts and talents.

We are currenty heading into the 'dark ages' that Allan mentions.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.