Creative conflict is the ability to agree to disagree, and use the disruption of a disagreement to make your work better. It relies on the partners in disagreement to both be on top of their game, both of them respectful of the other's views on how something might be made better.
Teachers seek this creative, quality feedback discourse every day in their students' work. But every month I bump into another educator who will not "believe" that the practice I'm sharing with them will make their students' outcomes better. The frustration of practice being negated by a simple "I don't believe this will work with my students / in math / in this school" is hard for me to mask - if you want to know one of my 'buttons', press this one.
The video clip I show in return, helps those who don't understand creative conflict get the point, without having to take it personally. It also shows the subtle difference between simply taking research "as is", and having a critical eye on the research.
Barenboim's masterclass pianist plays at a dynamic which is not written in the piece (like a teacher choosing to ignore what a piece of research says). When pushed on why he does it, he says: "because I like it". Barenboim has two options in his potential reply. One would be:
"But the manuscript says this, so play it like that".
This is the musical equivalent of what might be said by the emergent research-led cabal who wouldn't have a teacher teach a certain way unless it had been researched robustly that way first.
Instead, Barenboim asks him to reflect, to think about why he's taking the manuscript / the research and interpreting it differently, in his own style. It's an example of the fine line between virtuoso and just getting it wrong, in spite of what the manuscript suggests you might do for 'success'. And the clip makes the subtle, nuanced point in a way far more subtle and nuanced than most edu-speak can ever manage.
No grades (ever), no sitting down at desks, and harnessing student boredom as a motivator to create and explore might seem an odd recipe for academic success and entry to university, but that is exactly what one of Scotland's newest schools is attempting to do.
Drumdruan Upper School was created a few years ago by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, star of many a Hollywood blockbuster and forever in my mind the terrifying Witch in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The school extends a Steiner education beyond the age of 14, and takes students through to their University years. The Observer has published a fascinating and detailed account of some of the recipe that makes this a special place and, above all, has bowled over the traditionally conservative schools inspectorate:
That is not what happened: the inspectors sat in the classes and watched the students. And if you watch the students at Drumduan, you soon notice they are confident, articulate, highly motivated and respectful. These are, in fact, the words used by the inspectors in their subsequent report. You might even believe the students at Drumduan wanted to be there. The inspectors clearly felt so, but it was when they had retired to an office to confer that Krzysztof, a master of the spontaneous gesture, delivered the coup de grace. He sang to them.
Music is something of a hallmark at Drumduan, where children participate in regular workshops – often on instruments like a wheelie bin – and start each day singing in four-part harmonies. “We were rehearsing in another room, and I said: ‘This song is terrific, we have to show these inspectors,’” Krzysztof recalls. “So we burst into their office – they were a bit alarmed – and I said: ‘I’m sorry, we’ve just got to sing this song to you.’” The song was “Media Vita”, a medieval score of haunting beauty that reduced the inspectors to tears, according to Krzysztof. Bowled over by their praise – he is a man whose emotions are close to the surface – Krzysztof asked if he could give them a hug, probably a first for all of them.
“There’s no grading, no testing at all,” Tilda had explained to me earlier. “My children are now 17, and they will go through this school without any tests at any time, so it’s incredibly art-based, practical learning. For example, they learn their science by building a Canadian canoe, or making a knife, or caramelising onions. And they’re all happy 17-year-olds. I can’t believe it – happy and inspired.”
Almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. In a country that has in many ways never felt so optimistic and excited about its future, this should be a momentous wakeup call, a call-to-arms for the whole community. The line comes from the opening page of Sir Ian Wood’s report on how employers and education might manage a genuine culture of partnership, and answering this claim was the palpable bone of contention during an evening last week of discussion, talks and food, with some of Scotland’s education leaders and management, at SELMAS.
In Scotland, based on my experience and the stories told at Thursday night’s event, I’d suggest that there are three fatal blows to closing an achievement gap, most of them rooted in how education and business choose to play with each other. I'm going to walk through them over a few blog posts to come:
1. For some schools and businesses there is a lack of interest in partnering - the “what’s in it for me” just isn’t visible.
2. For other schools and businesses, there is a lack of knowledge on how to partner and what to partner on - “the what’s in it for me” is maybe agreed upon in principle, the enthusiasm is there, but what the “it” might be is the challenge.
A large part of NoTosh's time with schools is spent helping leaders and teachers decide upon common languages of learning. Having a shared vocabulary to describe what we're doing means we spend less time working out what we mean, and more time talking through the nuances of what makes one piece of practice exceptional and another less so - and we can all then improve together, based on what works best.
Feedback is arguably the one element that everyone says "we do that well already, and we do a lot of it!". We have trouble sometimes even engaging teachers to want to think about this more than 10 minutes, because everyone feels they're "feedbacking to death" already. It is seen as a given that feedback is the element that, when done well, can improve the quality of learning more than anything else.
But it's not that feedback is important that is worth exploring. The interesting part is seeing how to engage students in peer- and self-assessment much more, and to make any teacher-led assessment worthwhile. Recently, I've been working with schools where the main battle is getting students to see peer- and self-assessment as being just as important as teacher feedback.
Alex Quigley's school have been exploring how to seam quality feedback throughout the institution, through a whole-school approach to feedback. And this feedback policy has, in fact, replaced their marking policy. His latest blog post is a rich example of how to go about a whole-school language of learning around one element - feedback - and reap the benefits of a coordinated approach in the way that each department then adapts this for their own context.
Reggie Watts breaks me up every time I hear the beginning of this TED Talk. It's funny because, so many times before, I've heard this kind of faux-erudite nonsense from self-proclaimed intelligentsia, in an unfunny context. It comes from people who want to look smart, instead of just being smart. Click play and read along...:
"... and that's one of the things that I enjoy most about this convention. It's not so much, as so little as to do with what everything is. (Laughter) But it is within our self-interest to understand the topography of our lives unto ourselves. (Laughter) The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living. (Laughter) Common knowledge, but important nonetheless. (Laughter) As we face fear in these times, and fear is all around us, we also have anti-fear. It's hard to imagine or measure. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis. But we feel as though there are times when a lot of us -- you know what I'm say'n? But -- you know what I'm say'n? Cuz, like, as a hip hop thing, you know what I'm say'n, TED be rock'n -- you know what I'm say'n. Like so I wrote a song, and I hope you guys dig it. It's a song about people and sasquatches -- (Laughter) -- and other French science stuff. That's French science. Okay, here we go. ♫
Watts is then just smart.
Would you rather look smart or be smart? For the past decade I've been a fiendish reader of all things simplicity, especially the art of making complex ideas simple. I've often been off the mark on that one, but not for wont of trying. I take solace from the fact that most policy on education, most curricula, most education research is written in such a way as to render its content useless for the people who need to understand it most.
"But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling."
I'll admit this now. I've not read the book. Nor have I actually read the sentence that I just copied and pasted here. Why? Because it's not really the point of this post.
The point of this post is to place an intellectual earworm in your mind, ready for Monday morning, or the next time you turn finger to keyboard, pen to paper, to convince anyone to do anything. No-one cares how smart you try to show yourself to be, how smart your strategy might look, how smart your tech programme appears to be. They care how smart all of it really is, meaning your job is to share it in as simple a way as possible.
(The readability score of this blog post, without Proust, is 80. #fistbump)
In short: you don't know what you don't know. And given that you do not know you don't know it, there's no way for you to ask specific-enough a question to get a specific answer back, from Google or for a friend. It is the theory behind the much simpler concept I came up with, of "Ungoogleable Thinking".
I write the Masters course at Charles Sturt Uni on Designing Spaces for Learning. The key concept above is described in this video clip. It's simple, and at the same time one of the most complex concepts for my students to get their heads around.
The key point made in the video is what my team and I have tried to show through our work with schools: as you cannot seek out the answers to questions you cannot ask, you need another way to 'bump into' those unknown unknowns. The only two ways to do this are chance (have someone tell you something you didn't know - but that means a lot of teacher talk to get to a few morsels of new stuff for a whole class) or you enter into a voyage of discovery - everything else is going to be stuff you know you don't know, or that you know already.
This is where a teacher can curate resources, and provoke learners, to such an extent that we can take a safe guess that students will bump into concepts that they didn't know they didn't know. And when this happens, the learner needs to connect this new concept to what they know before, thereby creating new understanding and knowledge.
This means that, while useful some of the time, the traditional "understanding by design" project is unlikely to ever facilitate deeper learning of the "unknown unknown" variety. Why? Because the teacher has defined the end point and an ever-convergent route of arriving there for the students.
In our design thinking work, we tend to look at much fuzzier problem areas, leading to multiple routes to several potential outcomes. Learning goals are not met at the end of the project, therefore - there are too many potential routes to showing understanding or problem-solving for even the most expansive rubric to be usable. Instead, success criteria are met during a much more predictable period of immersion, where the resources curated by the teacher are highly likely to help learners understand their prior knowledge (known knowns) and stuff they knew they didn't know, but can find out to help them answer key questions (known unknowns). A troubling provocation is often the launchpad for students to try and take prior knowledge and new ideas, to try and create something new.
It is only at the point of students making their own independent synthesis of the rich information they've gleaned, that a potential disjunction might be created, a point at which the student wants to dive deeper or off at a tangent to explore a much fuzzier area of their understanding of the world.
If ever you are seeking ways to help every student hit their zone of proximal development, then Hatchuel and Weil's C-K Theory is not a bad place to start (though you might need more than 28 minutes of reading and viewing to get it, and see how your practice might change thanks to it!).
I can't stand it when people say they want to "think out of the box". I try my best to hide the pain on my face, muscles enter involuntary spasm, and I smile back knowing that the mission ahead is going to be a delicate one. It was adman legendaire Gerry Farrell, last Friday, who helped me understand why my buttocks clench in disappointment on hearing this. You see: it's the boxes we live with that forceus to be creative in the first place.
As Gerry explained in a talk in Edinburgh, ads people tend to have the same boxes for every creative project:
the budget is always going to be $5000, not $50,000;
the timescale will always be next week, not next month;
the product is the one the client has to sell, not the one the adman wishes he could sell for them.
Well, most of my work isn't with admen. It's with other creative folk and above all teachers. Educators. The ones who work with kids. They would dream of a budget of $5000 (well, anything, really). That marking is due tomorrow, not next week. The product I have is the class of thirty-three weans in front of me at 9am tomorrow, and the day after, and we only have a few chances, if that, to do our best by them. If this particular 'campaign' falls down, the cost to us all is a heavy one.
But Gerry's point - that the boxes we live by make us creative - still stands. The key is working out what the important boxes are, so that we can work well within them. Here's my non-exhaustive list of creative constraints that teachers can revel in, in order to create invigorating learning experiences for and with their young charges:
The Curriculum A curriculum is not some burden that we must carry. It can be a creative stimulus. What happens if you take page 6 with page 27, and bash them together to come up with a new project idea? So, until this point in time "we've always taught Introduction to Algebra in the third week of October". Why? What makes people do that? Ask 'why' often enough (at least five times) and most afficionados of ithasalwaysbeendonethiswayitis will be stuck for words, and explanations. Now you can start to innovate with your curriculum. Why? Why not?
Assessments Teachers and students have no idea how lucky we are. The admen would sell their grannies if they had a success criteria, printed out in advance, and laminated, to tell them what a good campaign should look like. Students can do what admen would do with such criteria - go way beyond them to keep the client happy and get the next gig. The trick is making sure that the students really understand what's meant by all the twaddle that makes up the ridiculous adjectival foreplay of most formal success criteria.
The boss says no The boss doesn't know any better until you show them, until you sell them the benefits of your idea, not just the endless features of your idea. If the benefit is clearly better learning for your youngsters, any professional outfit would encourage you to get on with it and not bother the boss with silly questions and posturing anyway. If you're in doubt, try Steve Jobs' quote for size:
"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use. "Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."
I don't have the time I do believe you have the same time as that person, over there, who's done the cool thing you want to do. And we've already established you're as smart as them. You have different priorities, that's all. Get them straight, and you'll never say "I don't have time for that" again. You will only be left saying "that's a great idea, but it's not for me, right now. I'm busy transforming the world with this idea over here."
Most of the best ideas come quickly as the result of a well-identified pain point. When the pain's at fever pitch, I've seen teams of six people create 226 ideas in 10 minutes flat. If I'd given them a day, instead of 10 minutes, we'd have come up with six ideas.
What other creative constraints are there? What other boxes should we stop thinking outside of, and start jumping into?
In an election year, a time of miracle cures and vested interests pushing their cargo cults, we should pay heed to the Devil’s Advocate’s role in “suggest[ing] natural explanations for alleged miracles, and even to bring forward human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted heroic virtues”. When we are presented with the latest miracle cure for all our educational ills – be it teaching ‘character’; possessing a ‘growth mindset’; the latest technological wizardry; the latest research evidence; a new school structure or savior school leader; or even a newly ordained Secretary of State for Education – we should seek out natural explanations and ask challenging questions.
I left a comment on the post, with a caveat on the way the role of devil's advocate is taken, that I've learned over the past 8 years working in both education and in creative product teams:
I've had a mixed relationship with the devil's advocate role (and even the film ;-). I've found it useful before, when I've been it, but always wondered why I was irked when someone started with the phrase "just to be the devil's advocate...". It was reading Stanford creativity researcher, James Adams' Conceptual Blockbusting and then Tom Kelley's Ten Faces of Innovation that I discovered why that particular blanket role is not as helpful as approaching it with a specific goal in mind. Kelley's suggestion is that it can be approached from one of these ten creative team roles, roles I recognise in the creative industry teams I've worked in. I've talked about the effort in avoiding a black and white, yes and no "devil's advocate" type role in my new book, How To Come Up With Great Ideas.
One of the key reasons for doing this, is that when most (unskilled) devil's advocates adopt that role, the put the onus of proving or disproving a state on the person making the suggestion, meaning that, over time, there is more chance that people resist making potentially risky or alternative suggestions to the status quo.
In short: it can kill creativity and innovation. When people play the devil's advocate well, they are often the ones presenting the evidence that might suggest an alternative viewpoint, and opening an opportunity for learning. When they just state the opposite, based on gut feel or personal opinion, it can be the most demoralising blow to people trying to advance their own knowledge, their team or the field.
This clip is a wonderful example of agile leadership. In the moment of panic, the conductor takes control, not with a baton or by stopping the orchestra, but with a beautiful embracing smile, and a jovial reassurance that she would manage.
Pires then takes the leadership role on, summoning her memory, her expertise, talent and prior learning, to tackle the new concerto she hadn't been prepared to play in the first place.
When we talk about failure in learning, it is vital that we talk about failure and what we learn from it. Failure for failure's sake is a tragedy. Pires had 'done her homework' and knew the other concerto (and probably many others) by heart, from experience. She had also done her homework in being able to 'make the show go on', regardless. But no doubt, she'll rehearse with the orchestra before future live performances, she'll make the time to have that preparatory phone call. Thankfully, her learning gives her the opportunity, post-performance, to try again and get it right.
Most learning in school, though, does not give time for failure to be learned from. Instead, even though half or more of the students in the classroom may have scope for improvement, teachers feel compelled to "move on", to "get on" to the next piece of content, or to get onto the test. Really, in an ideal world, the student makes the decision about when they are 'done', ready to move on to the next thing, and often they will know what that next thing is.
Where the teacher holds all the planning in their hands, though, when the teacher perceives curriculum and success criteria as teacher-destined documents, and not as documents to flesh out hand in hand with students, this 'ideal world' does not happen.
Make the first step of 2015 towards letting students really do their homework: give them the curricular and success criteria tools we've normally kept behind the teacher's desk, and work out with them how their projects, their ideas and their ambitions meet them halfway.
School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.