Busting myths of creativity in education

mythsofcreativityEducation isn’t the most creative or innovative sector of society. Sure, we have classrooms within our system and schools around the country known for innovative practices. Generally, though, the field of education is firmly rooted in an industrial model and not too willing to change.

As a superintendent, I work with those in my district to embrace a more progressive vision of education (Make School Different) and want to see our students, teachers and school leaders embrace a growth mindset where creativity and innovation bring about the changes so necessary in our system. Recently, I’ve been exploring the idea of innovation in education (blog post, Edcamp Hershey, upcoming #currichat on August 5), and when I heard that David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas is scheduled to be the featured speaker at the PASA Education Congress in 2016, I wanted to give the book a read. The ideas in the book, backed by examples from research, provide every kind of leader with the basis for rewriting the myths of creativity found in his/her organization.

Of the 10 myths, 4 stand out to me as particularly applicable to education:

  • The Expert Myth: Great ideas only come from people with an expertise in the problem. A diversity of perspectives, including those not in the domain area of the problem, bring about the most creative solutions. There is a bit of irony, however, in this myth relevant to education — all of the tinkering from policymakers, mostly considered non-experts in the field. In fact, policymakers do a pretty good job of ignoring the real “experts” — teachers, students and administrators – those with an insider perspective, too often without a voice at the policy level (we bear some of the responsibility for this).
  • The Breed Myth: The fixed mindset that only those with some special genes or born talent can develop creative or innovative ideas. In education, we take this myth a step further and believe only those with titles can/should be doing the creative/innovative work. Since becoming a superintendent in January 2015, I find that people often associate some kind of magical power with the title.
  • The Eureka Myth: Great ideas appear out of nowhere. Great ideas have a history of incubation where divergent ideas and thoughts are synthesized, resulting in something creative or innovative. In education, we are far too reactionary, generating mediocre solutions, typically in isolation, pressed by some sort of “urgency.” The need for idea incubation tells us we should slow down the train of urgency, and take the time to collaborate with other minds (experts and non-experts in education) to generate the most powerful solutions.
  • The Constraints Myth: Access to unlimited resources improves the quality of creative/innovative solutions. There isn’t a place on earth where resources are unlimited, least of all in education. Constraints on resources provide inspiration to be as creative and innovative as possible. Innovation, after all, is generating novel solutions using the resources you have while finding ways around the resources you don’t have.

Based on what David tells us about the myths of creativity, what can educational leaders change now to foster more creativity and innovation in the organization?

  • Engage a more diverse set of stakeholders – teachers, students, parents, board members (the expert myth) around problems of “significance” – those matters that will have a long-term, high impact on our vision and mission for education. How do we want teaching and learning to change? How can we engage a variety of stakeholders, particularly students, in these conversations and decisions? How does the constraint of time play into our decision making (the constraints myth and the eureka myth)? Time is actually on our side, I believe. “Urgency” is often fabricated by others, and we too easily respond while we push aside the more significant issues we ought to be dealing with. Time is also an invaluable opportunity to connect with other (sometimes opposing) viewpoints, and synthesize new and old ideas, arriving at the best creative solution (the breed myth).
  • Work to create a school/district culture where a flat hierarchy exists (the breed myth). We can do this by engaging the stakeholders mentioned above, getting out of the office and onto the front lines where the day-to-day work is happening. When we can make people feel good about their work and appreciated, perceptions that leadership titles and hierarchy correlate with creative and innovative ideas will be busted.
  • View every constraint (financial resources, human resources, time) as an opportunity to be creative and innovative (the constraints myth). Just about anything is possible if we’re willing to put in the time and the hard work to get there. Along the way, we’ll need to push back on the myths of creativity.

What are the barriers to creativity and innovation in your organization? How do you work to debunk the myths of creativity?<

Want to learn more about all 10 myths of creativity? In addition to consulting David’s book, to to the Change This site, and download  Rewriting the Myths of Creativity.

Check out David’s podcast on leadership, innovation and strategy, LDRLB, on iTunes and Twitter. This is one of my favorite podcasts, with interesting guests, thought provoking ideas and useful takeaways.

Make School Different @ #KTI2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.57.31 PMThis past week, I had the pleasure of speaking to this year’s class of Keystone Technology Innovators (#kti2015). It was a pleasure to speak with such a group of dynamic and dedicated educators! A bonus: three teachers from Salisbury Township School District were present – Jen Brinson (@jbrinson21), a KTI Lead Learner; Linda Helfrich (@LindaHelfrich), 5th grade teacher from HST; and Laura DosSantos (@LDos322), World Language Department Chair and Spanish teacher. We as a district are very proud of you for your work with our students and receiving this recognition!

The topic of the talk was Make School Different, and there were lots of opportunities for the STARS to engage by exploring ways they can make school different and committing to something for 2015-16 by the end of the talk. The conversation on the #kti2015 hashtag is embedded in the Storify below along with the Today’s Meet conversation and resources shared during the talk. Lastly, I’ve shared the slides from the presentation. Thanks to Ross Cooper (@rosscoops31) for help in designing the builds for the presentation (of which you don’t see in the Slideshare). KTI is an awesome breath of fresh air for teachers! Thanks to Ann Noonen (@anoonen) and the KTI Lead Learners for all you do to make this a transformative week for PA educators!

Storify of #kti2015 during the talk…

Todaysmeet backchannel

Additional resources mentioned in the talk

Slides from Slideshare



What I learned about innovation at Edcamp Hershey – #sweetpd

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 7.05.54 PMA few weeks ago I shared some thoughts on innovation in a post titled Curious about innovation in K12. Attending Edcamp Hershey today, my colleagues and I took advantage of the opportunity to engage in a conversation with educators about this topic by offering a session, How do we lead innovation? — supporting curriculum, instruction and assessment. Thanks to my leadership colleagues Ross Cooper (@rosscoops31), Ken Parliman (@kenparliman) and Rob Sawicki (@sms8thgradess) for sharing in the conversation as well.

The session went well and I was particularly pleased with the way we structured it. We started with a modification of the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), asking the participants to brainstorm questions around the topic of innovation. After generating as many questions as possible in the allotted time, we asked them to add the 3 most important questions to the session document. Be sure to click through to see what we came up with. The questions then provided the fuel for an extended conversation that lasted around 40 minutes.

Reflecting on the hour, here are my three takeaways and a question:

  • Innovation is context dependent. What is innovative in one classroom or school may not necessarily be innovative in another context, for example, an online learning environment. This can also make it challenging to define innovation and messy to implement it.
  • Engage students in conversations. This was also a theme from the last Edcamp I attended. It’s easy to forget about the students, but as we move forward, more clearly defining innovative practices for our leaders, students and teachers, we cannot forget this voice.
  • Innovation must be grounded in a WHY. Innovation for innovations sake is not OK. How is the work tied to what students should know and be able to do? If the innovation is not, then it’s probably not worth doing or needs to be modified so it can be mapped to standards.
  • Where are the leaders? Yes…anyone can be a leader, and clearly the participants are teacher-leaders in their school contexts. I mean the school leaders. If we are ever to achieve change that is system-wide we need to have school leaders understanding the value of having these conversations and following them up with action plans. Engaging the leaders (and parents and students) is the only way we will move beyond pockets of innovative teachers. I am grateful we have leaders on the team willing to engage in this important conversation.

Be sure to check out the document for more questions as well as resources shared by several of the participants.

Are you engaging stakeholders in the important conversation about innovation? Why is this important?


Work of significance – What’s your superpower?

superpowersEarlier this summer, I crafted a post titled What’s your leadership focus?  In the post, I challenged us as leaders to not be driven solely by the urgent and the important, but to make room for the significant – work that will have a long-lasting impact, beyond that which is just urgent or important.

This past week, I sat down with two of my colleagues (@lfuinihetten and @rosscoops31) to do some significant work – identify our primary and secondary superpowers – those aspects of leadership we do best and consequently bring to the team. The activity was significant from my perspective because it allowed me to (1) develop a theory about the complementary relationship between the superpowers of Lynn and me; and (2) better understand what Ross will bring to our smaller and larger team. Having this new-found knowledge will help me understand what each needs as a leader and how I can best support their work. I now have a better understanding of the strengths from which they lead.

First the process. You may be wondering where this idea of “superpowers” is coming from. It might conjure up images of cartoons, but it is based on a process (and a set of cards called “What’s your superpower?”) developed by @SYPartners. After following the process outlined in each deck of cards, individuals ends up with a primary superpower and a secondary superpower. (We set up our process to identify two secondary superpowers instead of just one.)

After we identified our individual superpowers we had a very engaging conversation. Here is what I learned:

  • The most effective collaborations are driven by complementary superpowers. My primary superpower is Vision followed by my two secondary superpowers, Provocation and Problem Solving. This makes sense. I like to imagine and create the future, defining the end-in-mind and working with others to create a path (basically a series of problems that need solving) to realizing that future. Along the way, I like to provoke thought (good and bad) with different and unusual ideas. Lynn arrived at Systems Thinking as her primary superpower and Empathy and Problem Solving as secondary superpowers. Through the conversation, I came to wonder if our highly effective relationship is due to our complementary superpowers. Her Systems Thinking and Empathy balance my Vision and Provocation. The glue that holds these complementary strengths together is our one similarity – Problem Solving – to create a synergy that allows us to get done just about anything.
  • Work that may seem insignificant will pay off in the future. Some leaders might look down on something like the superpower activity. It’s just a “game” that detracts from the “real urgent and important work.” But getting to know people and build relationships is one of the most significant things a leaders can do. Even if you’ve been working with the same people for years, there are still things you may not know about them. What’s really behind their individual successes? What superpowers do they have that you can leverage and learn from? If you’ve got new people on your team, something like the superpower activity provides time to get to know everyone, discover what makes them tick and how you can best support their work into the future. Ross brings Creative Thinking to the mix and also shares two superpowers in common with Lynn and me – Systems Thinking and Provocation. Learning more about these two leaders was time well spent!

Our full compliment of leaders throughout the district has changed over the past 6 months. Of 11 administrators on the instructional team, we have 6 in new roles, 3 new faces to the district. I am curious to learn the superpowers of all the leaders on our team and how they complement and augment those of Lynn, Ross and me. I believe the outcome will show that we have a team with a diverse set of primary and secondary superpowers, ready to tackle any challenge!

What are your superpowers and how do they complement and augment those of other leaders on your team? What work of significance will you do to build relationships on your leadership team?


Are we developing leaders for the 21st century?

leadershipQsDo we have an educational leadership crisis? Are we developing educational leaders – in our schools and in our universities – for a world that was? Or for a world that is to be? In her TED talk, Roselinde Torres shares her research around the questions – What makes a great leader in the 21st century? What are successful leaders doing? She discovered that 21st century leadership is defined by 3 questions (here focus was on leadership in general, not necessarily educational leadership):

  • Where are you looking to anticipate change? Great leaders see around corners. They anticipate change. They shape the future by connecting with people and experiences that help reveal the organization’s gaps and develop plans for action.
  • What is the diversity measure of your network? Great leaders move beyond their comfort zone and develop the  capacity to build relationships with people who are very different – politically, culturally, biologically, physically, socio-economically? Great leaders understand that having a diverse network is a source of solutions and pattern identification.
  • Are you courageous enough to abandon the past? Great leaders dare to be different. They take risks, and they have the emotional stamina to withstand being told their ideas are naive, reckless and even stupid.

If answering these three questions sheds light on the effectiveness of leadership in the 21st century, how are we doing in the field of educational leadership? How are educational leaders anticipating change? Or are we waiting for it to be sent to us from Harrisburg or Washington? How are we connecting and what are we learning from those connections? How is our diverse network helping us to anticipate change in the field of education? Are we prepared to abandon the past as many nodes in our diverse networks paint a radically different picture for the future of K12 education? Are our schools and universities developing school leaders for the 21st century?