Children, creativity, community & teacher leadership

Maybe it’s my creative gene trying to dig out from under the imperfect storm of information input, but I’m feeling a connection among several conversations I’ve heard and bits of reading I’ve done over the past several weeks. At the risk of practicing brinksmanship, here’s what’s swirling around…

 Last April, future-thinker Sir Ken Robinson proposed (before an international audience of school superintendents) that Creativity be given equal billing on the 21st Century educational marquee with Literacy and Numeracy. Our dialog artists in the TLN Forum ruminated on Sir Ken’s ideas at length, and we published an excerpt as part of TLN’s weekly contribution to Teacher Magazine online. Here are two comments from that discussion about teaching (or developing) creativity in the classroom:

[Ellen, a charter school teacher] – Creativity SHOULD be present in all curriculums and content areas. In my mind, “teaching” creativity is simply bringing the content to the creator and encouraging interaction between the two, resulting in something new. I see creativity as residing at the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Certainly synthesis is a creative act? I see creativity as following the train of “what if,” and giving kids permission to try out their hypotheses and find out what happens.

[Anthony, a science coach in an inner city school system] – Creativity builds on a foundation of skill and knowledge that must itself be built through hard study. But in my mind, the student who leaves having memorized the textbook has not been truly educated, even if he has passed every exam. The problems of tomorrow are not going to be solved with the knowledge of yesterday. The problems arise fresh each day, and creativity is our best chance for success.

Many TLN’ers have also been reading the widely discussed Atlantic magazine article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” A decade ago, I would have said it’s a pretty quick read, but author Nicholas Carr’s point (at least in part) is that the definition of “a pretty quick read” is changing rapidly. It’s probably down to about 50 words? Carr writes (I’ve broken up the long paragraph for easy reading):

Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different.

The kind of deep reading that  a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.

Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.

Then there’s the Utne Reader (a most excellent compendium) which chose “the future of creativity” as its theme for July-August 2008. The title article by Adam Larson considers, among other things, a possible cultural shift in our definition of creativity away from a concept of individual imagination toward a marketplace where commercial manufacturers feed us “an endless stream of stock imagery and flashy distractions.”

Larson quotes from poet Dana Gioia’s 2007 commencement speech at Stanford University: “Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” Larson also notes that many graduates of the Class of 2007 wondered why such an unfamous person was speaking to them. Larson shares some thoughts of Ed Miller, a senior staffer at the Alliance for Childhood, who believes our culture is fundamentally changing the experience of childhood, and by doing so we are “robbing kids of their birthright: the access to free, unstructured play of their own making.”

By “free and unstructured play,” [Miller] means activity that is unencumbered by adult direction and does not depend on manufactured items or rules imposed by someone other than the kids themselves. He is referring to the kind of play that is not dependent on meddling or praise or validation from well-meaning parents on the sidelines.

In fact, free and unstructured play is so encompassing for children that the entire adult world evaporates; children lose themselves in their own world completely. Most anyone who’s ever jolted a child out of this state with a call for lunch or bedtime would attest that the child’s reaction is akin to being awakened from a dream.

This type of play, both potent and transporting, has all but disappeared from contemporary childhood, Miller observes. And cognitive scientists, who investigate the basic logic that allows children to learn so much about the world so quickly, are worried.

Basic logic also “allows children to envision possible future worlds, very different from the worlds we inhabit now, and to bring those worlds into being,” says Alison Gopnik, an international leader in the field of children’s learning and author of The Scientist in the Crib (Harper Paperbacks, 2000). “This ability to imagine alternative possibilities and make them real—literally to change the world—is a deeply important part of our evolutionary inheritance.”

And finally (I’ve likely lost 80% of the audience by now, including Nicholas Carr), a note on what we might do about all this, from another recent reading.

A colleague of mine, known for her creative thinking and the ability to see the likeness in seemingly unlike things (one definition of a poet?), has me reading a new book by Peter Block, a well-known business consultant who’s become interested in ways to help communities increase their ability to steer their own futures — rather than rely on mass media and the mass market of “stock imagery.”

Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, expands on ideas contained in a 2005 guide used in his hometown of Cincinnati  to promote community dialog and action. I quote from the guide, rather than the book, because you can download it in PDF format for free, and it’s a wonderful freebie indeed.

The guide is titled Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation. This is the brief introduction.

This booklet a set of ideas and tools designed to restore and reconcile our community by shifting the nature of the public conversation. The public conversation is those conversations that are not held in private. It is the one we hold when we gather in meetings and in large events, and the one that occurs in the media. Our intention is to create the possibility of an alternative future by creating a public conversation based on communal accountability and commitment. This is the essence of what restores community. Restoration and its new possibility is what can make a difference in those places where history and the past seem overridingly restraining.

Accountability. The dominant existing public conversation is retributive, not restorative. It is void of accountability and soft on commitment. In this way it drives us apart, it does not bring us together. The existing conversation is about entitlement, not accountability. To be accountable, among other things, means you act as an owner and part creator of whatever it is that you wish to improve. In the absence of this, you are in the position of effect, not cause; a powerless stance.

Commitment. To be committed means you are willing to make a promise with no expectation of return; a promise void of barter and not conditional on another’s action. In the absence of this, you are constantly in the position of reacting to the choices of others. The cost of constantly reacting is increased cynicism.

In another article, Block proposes that the role of LEADER “belongs right up there with cook, carpenter, artist, and landscape designer. It is a capacity that can be learned by all of us, with a small amount of teaching, and an agreement to practice. The ultimate do-it-yourself movement.”

Block’s ideas about building community around important agendas and actions apply equally well to school districts, school buildings, and professional learning teams and communities. Perhaps you can see the school connection in this excerpt from page 8 of his downloadable 30-page booklet:

The leader’s task is to design the place and experience of these occasions to move the culture toward shared ownership. This is in contrast to the conventional ideology of the default culture about leadership:

  • Leader and top are essential
  •  The future destination can be blueprinted
  • The work is to bring others on board
  • More measurement produces better results People need more training
  • Rewards are related to outcomes
  • What worked elsewhere can work here
  • The future is a problem to be solved

The conventional thinking holds the leader responsible for assuring that these beliefs are planned and implemented. All of these have face validity, but they have unintended consequences. They are the beliefs that support patriarchy and the dominion of a benevolent monarch. This creates a level of isolation, entitlement, and passivity that our communities cannot afford to carry.

If you are a teacher reading this, whether or not you define yourself as a “teacher leader,” you might well ask yourself: Do I have a role in ensuring that we protect, nurture and promote the creativity and imagination of the children who are our students? If you think you might, these readings and conversations I’ve pointed to could be one place to begin. To hear more voices of thoughtful teachers, you might look here and here and here.

— John Norton