The problem of schools as workplaces, part 3

The problem of schools as workplaces, part 3

If Keith Sawyer’s study of group creativity outlines the essential elements of innovative workplaces, it seems that most educational systems present some structural impediments.  Here are a few:

Policies – a well-run school often has clear policies that are understood and generally respected by all.  These policies ensure fairness, predictability and efficiency.  They also define roles, thus reducing the potential for conflict.  It’s difficult to argue against the importance of encoding these principles in institutional policies, but consider also that policies reduce or even eliminate the potential for spontaneity, which is at the heart of creativity and innovation.

Planning – an organization’s strategic plan sets out measurable goals and details the means to achieve them.  While positive and necessary for any organization, strategic plans can become an obstacle to creativity and innovation if achievement of the goals are absolutes.  For many educational organizations, veering from the strategic plan or not achieving its objectives is considered as failure, and failure is usually seen as very negative.  Administrators are hired and fired based on the “success” of the strategic plan, but rarely on the innovation that emerges from the climate of creativity in their institutions. Schools thrive on predictability, in spite of the fact that many, if not most, of humanity’s greatest advancements occurred when individuals and groups veered from the plan.

This focus on planning is equally true at the classroom level.  Teachers must plan a semester, a term or even a complete year.  Lessons are also prepared, sometimes weeks or months in advance.

Deviating from the plan can be risky for an administrator or a teacher, but deviating is precisely when the most important creative moments occur.

Hierarchy – in most schools, goals and procedures are set by principals and directors, often in response to directives that come from a higher authority.  Implementation of these goals and procedures follows a strict and clear line of responsibility.  Sawyer claims that creativity and innovation are far less possible in such rigid structures.  When goal-setting and decision-making are decentralized, a greater number of members participate in the organization’s activities and contribute more to its innovations.  The greater the participation, the greater the chance that of creative thinking and innovation will emerge.

Time – Creativity and innovation cannot be ordered or planned.  They happen.  And that can take time.  Schools, more than most organizations, operate on a strict clock.  Ask any teacher (or administrator) and they will confirm that time is about the scarcest resource in the institution.  School days cannot be prolonged and the term has a fixed end date.  Bells and buzzers ensure that class timing is precise to the minute or even to the second.  Such rigid timeframes are serious impediments to creativity.

Focus on results – Anyone reading this text has experienced on a very personal level the importance of quantifiable results in the educational system.  One arbitrary number can distinguish a pass from a fail, but it doesn’t stop there.  In some jurisdictions, pass and fail rates can mean dismissal for teachers or administrators, or perhaps withdrawal of operational finding.  A school’s reputation often reflects the proportion of students who pass, and their average grade.  Add this focus on numbers to the time constraints, and there is just no space for experimentation or the inevitable failures that are an inherent part of the creative and innovative process.

Compartmentalization – Everything about educational organization promotes compartmentalization.  Members of governing bodies are rarely seen in schools; administrators work in segregated wings, and teachers are often organized into departments.  Support staff are all but invisible.  This promotes a sector-to-sector homogeneity of working environments and discourages the kinds of casual, unstructured contact in a workplace that can lead to creativity and innovation.


Given the rigid environments in which many educators work, it is surprising that so many manage to establish creative environments for their learners.  Their success comes almost in spite of the structures in which they work.  From this perspective, it seems that advancements in creativity and innovation in education can be attributed more to the initiatives of individual educators than to the organizations that employ them.  This needs to change.

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all formula for establishing a more creative and innovative organization.  Sawyer’s very point is that each organization must see all of its parts as necessary collaborative contributors to the innovations that should be its raison d’être.  For educational institutions, this means questioning some of the absolutes that characterize most educational workplaces :

  • How can we allow and even encourage deviation from the plan without compromising fairness and order?
  • How can roles be broadened, diversified and softened in an attempt to make our institutions less hierarchical? Why can’t administrators also be educators and teachers managers?  Do support staff contribute sufficiently to planning, experimentation, and development?
  • Can we loosen the shackles of our schedules without creating institutional chaos?
  • Must we continuously quantify results as we do or is there another way to measure success? How can a school see failure – both institutional and individual – positively?
  • How can we experiment more and allow the results to percolate throughout the school?
  • Can we shake up our organizational structures to ensure greater heterogeneity in day-to-day work contacts?

The answer to some of these questions may be “no”, or at best a perplexed glance.  The members of the educational organization may see the value in making some of the changes without knowing if or how they can be done.  A willingness to consider all options and devoting time and resources to the consideration of such questions is what is required for the organization to implement a culture of innovation.

It’s becoming a cliché to say that the future lies in a solid education, but this cliché, perhaps more than most, is true.  The summer of 2018, with massive forest fires, prolonged heatwaves around the world, flooding, and other severe weather events has provided plenty of evidence that the climate is changing.  Armed conflict, civil unrest and terrorism are still threats to peace.  Increasing inequality throughout the world will bring tension and conflict in unpredictable ways.  All of these problems are developing at an ever-accelerating pace.  For the most part, educators have accepted that the traditional role of transferring knowledge and skills from teacher to student will be insufficient if our hope is to develop creative and innovative thinkers who can tackle these issues and navigate the world of tomorrow.  While there has been some inspiring progress in the classroom, schools as places of work remain strangely stuck in another time.  It’s time to start reorganizing educational structures so that their employees work in the atmosphere of creativity and innovation that they wish to provide in their classrooms.