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.
While teachers aim to create educational environments that prepare graduates who can join an adult world in need of creative thinking and innovation, outside the classroom, many teachers work in organizational structures that leave little room for creativity and innovation. In other words, what we would like to accomplish in our classrooms, we don’t always experience in our jobs.
Creativity expert Keith Sawyer has spent the better part of his career studying the dynamics of groups and the resulting scope of creativity and innovation. His book Group Genius details the best practices that organizations must adopt if they hope to be vibrant, creative engines of innovation. It could be argued that Sawyer’s observations and examples focus mainly on organizational structures in the worlds of business, the arts, and even non-profits, and not specifically on schools. However, the principles he identifies apply to all organizations. Indeed, educators at any level, from primary school to university, will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their institutions in the scenarios Sawyer describes.
Specifically, according to Sawyer, a creative and innovation organization will accord importance to these elements:
- Effective collaboration – the leitmotif throughout the book, and in all of Sawyer’s research findings, is that the concept of a lone genius is a total myth. All creativity and innovation is the result of collaboration, virtual or in real time, immediate or over time, implicit or implicit, planned or spontaneous. An organization that values creativity also values the importance of collaboration.
- Heterogeneity of collaboration – when like-minded people interact, the potential for innovation is limited. Interaction amongst people whose experiences and approaches are different enhances the potential for creative thinking.
- A shared common goal – particularly when it comes to planned collaboration, “flow” and the effective generation of ideas occurs when the individuals involved share a common goal, though the means to reach the goal may diverge.
- A good balance of planning and improvisation – planning creates vision, purpose and a comfortable structure in which to work, but improvisation is a richer context for creative thinking. A creative organization needs both.
- Time – creativity and innovation cannot be ordered within a specific timeframe. They happen when the factors are right. That can take time, and can often be quite elusive.
- Failure – the importance of failure cannot be underestimated. It is not always negative; rather it can be a rich source of valuable knowledge. An organization that values creativity and innovation also values its moments of failure.
- Bottom-up structures – when the priorities of an organization originate amongst the members on the ground, it is more likely to be creative. Bottom-up structures ensure adhesion to the priorities of the organization, and greater participation in goal-setting and peer management.
- Physical and social work structures that promote spontaneous conversation – when people work in silos, they are less likely to be confronted with ideas, experiences and visions different from their own. This inhibits creative thinking. When members of an organization interact spontaneously and regularly with each other, creative thinking is more likely to emerge.
- An innovation lab or innovation units that remain connected at all times to every level of the organization – All too often, the mandate to innovate is conferred upon a specific group of individuals. Sawyer’s study reveals that greater success occurs when participants in an innovation unit come from all parts of the organization and remain connected to their “other” job. This also ensures a greater level of heterogeneity in the innovation unit (see “heterogeneity of collaboration” above). Moreover, rotating a multitude of employees in and out of the innovation unit can be beneficial, as can spreading the objective of innovation throughout many parts of the organization.
Many educators can proudly tick off some or all of these elements when they look around their classrooms. Sadly, the same is not often true of the organizations in which they work. It is in this sense, the teaching environment can be significantly different from a teacher’s work environment.
Indeed, schools as work organizations can be tightly controlled and highly conservative environments that many argue could use a good dose of creative thinking.
Educators are given the task of preparing students for the challenges of the future, and it is a dauntingly tall order considering the unpredictability of the future in this rapidly evolving world. Experts agree that now, more than ever, a teacher’s job is no longer only to impart knowledge, but also to prepare graduates who can think critically, experiment freely, collaborate effectively, create knowledge, and participate constructively in the teams that will face the problems of tomorrow. As researchers such as Ken Robinson, Tina Seelig and Keith Sawyer claim, this is what creativity and innovation are all about. They have written volumes detailing what is at stake and each offers some inspiring ways of educating for creativity and innovation in a fast-paced world.
Add to these studies countless workshops, lectures and conferences designed to help teachers move from the traditional role of imparter of knowledge to that of an educational guide who steers twenty-first century learners towards their own discovery of knowledge. This twenty-first century role can be very motivating, particularly when it works! However, this vision of the classroom can be a lot more difficult to achieve than it may seem. Many well intentioned educators do a commendable job of keeping a steady eye on this goal, but don’t succeed as they would like to. Indeed, the pedagogical practices that underlie creative thinking can be vexingly difficult to implement.
Like all matters in education, the obstacles are complex and multiple: technology, social factors, individual student profiles and funding are only some of the challenges that affect successes and failures in the classroom. However, when it comes to educating for creativity and innovation, are our educational structures also to blame? Is there a fundamental contradiction between the conservatism of schools as organizations and what many teachers attempt to achieve in the classroom?
Curiosity is the drive to know or to learn something. It’s a simple definition and we all recognize what it means.
What happens in the brain when a person’s curiosity is piqued is a whole other matter. Neuroscientist Matthias Gruber explains that curiosity activates the brain’s “wanting” system, in the same way any other type of anticipation does. It also activates the memory centres, which appears to have an effect on learning. The surprising finding is that during the period between a person’s curiosity being stimulated and the curiosity being satisfied, any type of learning that takes place – not just learning related to the subject of curiosity – is much better retained.
The take-away is that piquing students’ curiosity not only helps to maintain motivation, it is also strongly instrumental in consolidating all the learning.
Watch Gruber’s talk here:
Out of the blue comes this article on CNN’s website about neuroscience and creativity.
Dr. Charles Limb’s work shows that when jazz players get into “the zone,” the regions of their brain that allow for creativity become active at the same time as the areas responsible for inhibition and self-control in the prefrontal cortex are shut down.
Limb also shows that the same is true for other types of improvisational artistic expression.
There is an important lesson here because the relationship between an (over)active prefrontal cortex and inhibited creativity goes a long way to explaining why children tend to play a lot more than adults. As our brains mature, we have a better capacity to self-monitor and inhibit the free thinking of childhood.
As the article explains, practice allows for easier access to “the zone.” In other words, adults need to practice playing! How about it?