Education Creation Group

A Creative Who is Leading for Creativity

 

Larry Audet

Throughout my adult life I have inherently known that I possess qualities that are less prevalent in others. I am more comfortable with risk-taking, always curious, and have the ability to quickly and effectively assess an individual. Along with these traits, I have several dispositions. I have attraction to complexity, refrain from judgment, rely on my intuition, and have a willingness to accommodate opposite or conflicting points of view.  It wasn’t until I began to study creativity that I realized these traits and dispositions were subjects of creativity research (Amabile & Khaire, 2008; Barron & Harrington, 1981; Puccio & Grivas, 2009; Shalley & Gilson, 2004; Sternberg, 2007).  As I gained knowledge about creativity, I began to understand that creativity was an important and natural part of me and affected my work as a school superintendent.

 

I was creative in my formative years, the time when I was learning to be a school leader. I was able to convert old ideas into new processes and products by testing my rhetoric on school principals and asking for their feedback. However I realized, at some point, that the reliance on the superintendent as the lone inventor was insufficient for solving the myriad of problems within a school district. Principals and teachers were closest to ideas about student learning and they were better equipped to help shape a system that expected creative outcomes in others. After making the decision to count on creative contributions from others, I began to offer creative leadership, the ability to lead for creativity in others.

 

I accepted responsibility for learning outside of the mainstream of traditional leadership because creativity could not be found in the department of educational leadership syllabi.  I learned to become fluent in disparate discourses including, motivational theory, creative leadership in the private sector, and traditional leadership in the public sector, all of which took years of experience to develop. My learning trajectory in acquiring skills necessary for creative leadership was at times painful and rewarding, laden with pitfalls and promise. The journey was not one that I would have chosen, the arc of this journey was not something I self-selected but it was through learning from suffering and celebrating that I gained the wisdom necessary to become a thoughtful executive leader of creativity (Sternberg, 2006).  I suffered from being isolated from my peers, being rejected by school boards, and feeling anxious about my relationships with those I supervised.

 

However, the more I learned about creativity, motivational theory and myself, the more I noticed a change in the people who worked under my care. The most noticeable differences were in my relationships with others and their psychological relationship with their work environment (Amabile, Conti, Coon, Lazenby, & Herron, 1996; Ekvall, 1983). Leaders throughout the district seemed more invigorated and they became better at multiple aspects of their practice because their confidence and attitudes improved.  Because I was counting on their creative contributions, they began acting on the belief that teachers were willing and capable of providing self-leadership, the intrinsically motivated behavior necessary for creativity. My personal passion for creativity began to scale to a district-wide value, cascading down to each level in the organization and eventually found its way to students. The few principals and teachers in the district, who were not able to authentically lead and teach for creativity, made the decision to look for employment in other districts that remained steeped in the dogma of traditional education.

 

We became more intentional in the hiring process by offering employment contracts to people who possessed traits and dispositions of creative individuals. We offered provisions for individuals to work in groups and engage in problem solving processes (Brophy, 2006; Choi & Thompson, 2005; Cooper & Jayatilaka, 2006; Cranston, 2011).  We expected people to communicate with each other, to be open to new ideas, constructively challenge each other's work, trust and help each other, and feel committed to the work they were doing (Amabile, Burnside, & Gryskiewcz, 1995).  These design teams worked together on a number of projects and solved important organizational problems. One creative idea included imagining, designing, and implementing a new schooling experience within our existing high school. The new school was named My Life School.

 

Several students were nominated to participate in this new schooling process based on their creative personality traits and dispositions. Teachers were allowed to take a principled risk by providing students with a large amount of autonomy in deciding what and how to go about accomplishing their work. They explained and helped our students understand the constraints between novelty (new ideas) and utility (appropriateness to the task at hand) (Runco, 2004).  Students were initially asked to think about creativity in their lives and learn for the purpose of being prepared for life rather than for the sole purpose of test taking.  

 

The change seemed difficult at times for everyone. One change was simply asking teachers to become life coaches. Teachers struggled with the shift from teacher to coach in their new relationship with students. Coaching was about supporting students and finding ways to encourage creativity and removing obstacles that impeded creativity. However, high expectations and continuous support yielded impressive results. Within the first eight days of school, students completed the small project, developed a website and listed their interests and passions and cataloged required subject curriculum goals for graduation.

 

Teachers required students to first practice completing a simple project that required creative ideation. Once students came to grips with the shift in their learning, they began imaging a number of possibilities. Some students wanted to become social entrepreneurs and create new opportunities for student gatherings with the purpose of giving back to their schools and community. Others wanted to become small business entrepreneurs by designing new ways for increasing commerce and adding capital to the student body fund. Three students decided to build a skateboard park. My Lifer’s, to the surprise of some teachers, took full responsibility for bridging their personal passions with prescribed learning goals.

 

Most students shifted their view on the role of the teacher. Teachers were viewed as a resource even if they were unable to coach students because of their lack of knowledge in domain specific areas. The coaches who were unfamiliar with skateboard parks asked mentors in the local and larger community for help. Community mentors provided relevant feedback and students’ ideas became more clear and creative with additional feedback opportunities. Students were positively stimulated and their desire to solve problems became more interesting, involving, and personally challenging. Students reported that by integrating their passions with course curriculum and making their learning visible, they were more intrinsically motivated to persevere through challenging work. However, these students were not enrolled in a suburban school or charter schools nor did they come from families of wealth. Rather, these were rural students who were truly disadvantaged.

 

All students in this school district qualify for free lunch. Many students had low self and creative efficacy and were in need of increasing their self-agency. One student came to the project feeling under-educated with a broken spirit. As teachers learned to teach for creativity (Beghetto, 2010), the same creativity enhancing forces described in the business sector stimulated students to a take a conscious act that required a leap from the known to alternatives (Pickard, 1990). One student, who was heading toward failure, designed and built a skateboard park and earned all the requirements for graduation by integrating required learning standards into his project. By the end of the year, he applied for and was accepted into a business college and is currently enrolled in the department of innovation and entrepreneurship.  The shift within this student seems to be scalable because everyone has creative potential. Moreover, once top management expresses having value for creativity in the organization, people seem more willing to invest in it.

 

Organizational creativity is a phenomenon that relies on commitment rather than compliance. It begins at the top and relies on a leader who acts with an enduring belief in the goodness of people and is willing let go of control. Creativity is built on being able to explore, which is a crucial thing to remember when considering students, their classroom, their school, and across their district. Organizational creativity can occur in schools with affluent and disadvantaged populations and from rural towns to urban cities.  The single most important determinant, despite scale, is when the creative leader decides to lead for creativity by stimulating people and helping them feel safe enough to risk and fail. If the same provisions were available for those who learn and teach in other schools, you would see the same eventual blossoming of ideas.

 

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