About Shannon Smith

Hey There! I am a teaching Vice Principal at W. Erskine Johnston PS in Kanata, Ontario.

think about the box

We are taught to think inside the box. Then we are taught to think outside the box. What I want us to ask is, Who put the box there?¬† — Ellen Langer “On Becoming an Artist”, 2006

"Shipping Containers" Some rights reserved by racoles on flickr

Lateral and divergent thinking¬†foster the conditions¬†that facilitate creativity, to be sure.¬† But the old cliche of “thinking outside the box” is getting tired and I wonder if it doesn’t need some rest.¬† Besides, can you ever truly think outside the box?¬†

Wouldn’t it be more productive to think differently about the box — to acknowledge but¬†query the constraints?¬† Take an ecological perspective — think about the role we play in creating and defining those constraints, both for ourselves and for others.¬†

In “Developing Leaders for a World of Uncertainty (Rotman Magazine, Fall 2010), Andrew Day and Kevin Power explore Ecological vs. Analytical Thinking:

  • Ecological thinking looks for patterns and interdependencies, while analytical thinking values historical data and analysis and identifies problems and solutions.¬†
  • Ecological thinking assumes complex, non-linear relationships as opposed to analytical thinking, which assumes cause, effect and linear relationships.¬†
  • The focus in on description rather than explanation with ecological thinking.¬† Analytical thinking reduces the phenomena down to individual issues.
  • Ecological thinking values curiosity, insight and intuition while analytical thinking seeks to restore or improve on the status quo.
  • Ecological thinking works creatively with paradox, uncertainty and contradiction, while analytical thinking seeks certainty and stability.
  • With ecological thinking, the focus is on WHAT, while the analytical perspective is focused on WHY.

I think that the ecological approach is one that offers our students greater opportunities to develop the skills and mindset necessary to thrive in our complex world.  What about you?

a new mindset

Shannon's Freedom by Louise Martin

Shannon's Freedom by Louise Martin

One myth is that only special people are creative.¬† This is not true.¬† Everyone is born with tremendous capacities for creativity.¬† The trick is to develop these capacities.¬† Creativity is very much like literacy.¬† We take it for granted that nearly everybody can learn to read and write.¬† If a person can’t read or write, you don’t assume that this person is incapable of it, just that he or she hasn’t learned how to do it.¬† The same is true of creativity.¬† When people say they aren’t creative, it’s often because they don’t know what’s involved or how creativity works in practice.¬†¬† —¬†Sir Ken Robinson

In an earlier post, “Did you play today?”, I discussed an article from last spring’s issue of the Rotman Magazine (Rotman School of Management).¬† Here I am going to share thoughts related to another article from the same issue — “Aesthetic Intelligence:¬† What businesses can learn from the arts”, by Constance Goodwin and Rochelle Mucha.¬† Although the authors are concerned with businesses in general, my focus will be on what the article offers to those of us in the field of education.

Aesthetic Intelligence (AI)

If they want to produce students equipped with the skills they will need to navigate the information-rich world we currently live in, schools will need to become places where inquiry, creativity and innovation are expected and encouraged. ¬† Suggesting we have much to learn from the arts, where improvisation, flexibility, collaboration and play are integral processes, Goodwin and Mucha propose an artistic mindset, “Aesthetic Intelligence”, in response to the complex, technology-saturated world in which we live.¬† Aesthetic Intelligence includes the following elements: Presence, Auhenticity and Synthesis. ¬†For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the concept of “presence”, but the entire Rotman article is well worth a read.

Think, Feel, See

Being present entails a capacity to be available to engage, to be ready for accidents and for the unexpected.¬† Being present means being conscious of self, others and the environment.¬† — Goodwin and Mucha

When the pace becomes frenetic, being¬†mindful and staying in the moment at all times can become a challenge.¬† Feeling pulled in myriad different directions can create a situation in which we flip to autopilot to get through the day, essentially removing ourselves from the activities and people around us.¬† Working with students, we need to attune ourselves to their needs to be fully present to them throughout the day.¬† Students know when we are there for them — they feel cared for and valued.

Survey Results from "Learning about Teaching" Tripod Survey

Survey Results from "Learning about Teaching" Tripod Survey

In the recently released, “Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project” funded by the Gates Foundation, students were shown to know the factors that led to effective teaching.¬† Not surprisingly, students who scored in the 75th percentile on assessments of math, science and agreed with statements such as “My teacher in this class makes me feel¬†that s/he¬†really cares about me”, “My teacher really tries to undestand how students feel about things” and “My teacher respects my ideas and suggestions”.¬† Being present requires us to be flexible in our thinking, open to experiencing the unexpected and learning from our mistakes.¬† When students see us being present with them — thinking, feeling and seeing through interacting with them, they will feel safer to take risks, experiment with new ideas and learn through making mistakes. ¬†Likewise, when we are present with our colleagues, we make possible greater collaboration and risk-taking to expand our teaching practices.

Throughout the day, I am always conscious of ‘fazing out” or tuning out for a bit, usually in the mid-afternoon. ¬†There are many things that I can do to address this:

  • Ensure that I eat something healthy at appropriate times, instead of allowing my body to crash because I got too busy earlier in the day to eat.
  • Schedule myself a “check-out” break so that I have a few minutes to faze out and shut down to rest and refresh. ¬†I blogged recently about the importance of play at work, and a bit of diversion in the late afternoon, which coincides with our second nutrition break, is a welcome break.
  • Get into the classrooms when I am noticing myself checking out. ¬†I always find it refreshing to step into the classroom or out onto the yard to interact with kids. ¬†Without even noticing it, I find myself re-energized and ready to be more fully present afterwards.

Next time you are slipping into robotic response mode, find out what it is that helps you re-connect and become more fully present at work.  Through being present with each other, responding authentically and taking risks, we create an environment for students, staff and ourselves to develop our creative capacities.

a note regarding the image: ¬†This painting is the work of Louise Martin, who teaches primary French Immersion at a school in Ottawa’s west end. ¬†When I worked with Louise, she reminded me of the importance of being present with students and staff. ¬†We had many wonderful conversations and she created this painting, which my husband bought for me for Christmas 2 years ago.

Travel Knowingly: The journey towards discovering your organization’s Element

In November a group from the Ottawa Carleton District School Board attended the Creativity World Forum (#cwf2010) in Oklahoma. ¬†The OCDSB’s “Lead the Way” initiative is concerned with rethinking notions leadership in order to recognize, celebrate and encourage creativity and leadership on a grass-roots level, thus creating the conditions for greater creativity and innovation across our District. ¬†While in Oklahoma, we heard from¬†Sir Ken Robinson (a livescribe recording of one session is here). I wanted to share a recent @sirkenrobinson response to a question posed using the hashtag #askSKR on twitter because it made me reflect on the “Lead the Way” project and the most enduring and sustaining connections made during our trip to Oklahoma — those made amongst the OCDSB group members as we got to know each other better during the forum.¬† Have a view (4 minutes well-spent):

In this short video, Sir Ken offers us plenty to ponder with respect to our own journey to finding our element, and I also found myself thinking about “Lead the Way” as a collective journey to finding our District’s element.

A District Wide Element – Some Navigational Tools

Its really a two-way journey, as I see it. ¬†The first is, its an inward journey. ¬†If you are interested in finding your element, you have to spend time with yourself. ¬†You have to reflect, you have to look inward …. ¬†You have to spend time with your own dreams …. ¬†Whatever process aids your reflection, that’s a key part of this journey to your element — it is to look inward and to be with yourself and to find time to reflect on your own interests, your own passions… the times when perhaps you felt most centred… ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† – Sir Ken Robinson, askSKR#6

In some earlier posts, I¬†reflected on my experiences at the Creativity World Forum¬†—¬†“the future is unwritten”¬†, Creativity World Forum and Sitting on the edge of a paradigm shift.¬† All of these are examples of my own inward journey. ¬†In many ways, the “Lead the Way” initiative at the OCDSB began as an inward journey, and continues to have that quality too. ¬†Five years ago a survey was conducted to determine a new leadership narrative for the District. ¬†The survey revealed that there were many employee groups within the District who felt that their experiences were not reflected in our old articulation of leadership. ¬†Clearly it was time to “change the conversation” in order to uncover the conditions within which our District might find its element. ¬†Our new leadership narrative followed the survey:
Leadership is exemplified by people who are able to impact those around them in a positive way.  Our leaders are energetic, empathetic, motivated, trustworthy, knowledgeable and good communicators.  Our leaders share a common vision in their commitment to all students.  Our leaders understand that their role is one of support.  They lead by example, they seek input, and they listen.  As an organization, we encourage and foster these qualities.  In challenging and prosperous times, we are defined by the relationships we build.

Last spring the OCDSB hosted an appreciative inquiry event — “Make a Positive Impact” — another part of our inward journey. ¬†We sent individuals, including parents, community partners, and staff from a variety of employee groups from across the District out on buses to visit sites and schools looking for what it is that we are already doing really well to support learning. ¬†I truly believe that adopting an appreciative inquiry lens enables us to get to know the best of what we are as a District, especially as it pertains to discovering our District’s element.
In his short video, Sir Ken also discusses the other side of the journey towards finding your element:

The second part of the journey is an outward journey. ¬†I don’t mean this is sequential … but the second part of the journey is outward. ¬†It is to try things that you didn’t try before. ¬†If there are things you always wanted to do, then what are they and what would prevent you from doing that? ¬†And its not just to try things at random, but to travel knowingly — to try new experiences, but to evaluate them and to reflect on them at the same time. ¬† ¬† — Sir Ken Robinson, askSRK#6

I am really excited by some of the “outward journey” things happening within the OCDSB recently. ¬†Each “Lead the Way” event evolves slightly so that we are constantly experimenting with format, space, content and participants. ¬†The most recent event last night, designed to celebrate Administration and Support Staff (Office Administrators, Educational Assistants, Custodians, Library Technicians, etc…) was a huge success with over 200 participants coming together in a festive atmosphere to share stories, learn about creative initiatives from across the District, and to catch up with old friends. ¬†Above all, the evening was about relationships — the foundational piece of our organization.

The “Lead the Way” events are also an integral part of our outward journey as an organization because the key components of the events are the displays and presentations highlighting creative and innovative practices from all across the District. ¬†They reveal individuals and groups moving us forward by trying new things — new approaches to encourage learning at its very best. ¬†As participants in the events hear about these practices, a field of possibilities is opened up and we are asked to consider, (to echo Sir Ken’s words) “what would prevent you from doing that?”

And that process of looking outward and looking inward, I believe, has the elements that are needed to discover your element. ¬†— Sir Ken Robinson, askSKR#6

Did you play today?

Creativity requires taking and switching between different perspectives, and play facilitates exploring different perspectives, creating alternate worlds, assuming different roles, enacting different identities, and also taking all these, and the players themselves, out of the cognitive contexts in which they normally operate.¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† — Mainemelis and Ronson, 2010

image cc by Wootang01 on flickr

If you are like me at this time of year, you are more than ready for the winter break.  With less than two weeks to go, I am mindful of feeling emotionally and intellectually drained.  I am also amazed at how, despite feeling caput, I am energized when I step into the classroom and immerse myself in a fun lesson or activity with students.

Engaging through play

In the Spring, 2010 issue of the Rotman Magazine, Charalampos Mainemelis and Sarah Ronson discuss notions of play, creativity and engagement in their article, “Ideas are Born in Fields of Play:¬† Creativity & Play in Organizations”.¬† They suggest that play manifests itself in our busy work environments in two ways:

1.  Play as diversion.  This is when employees check out periodically to engage in diversionary activities such as catching up on Facebook.  Rather than being a waste of time, the authors argue that this type of play is beneficial:

Such play provides mental breaks, which are important for incubation — the stage of the creative process that involves unconscious processing and the free recombination of ideas….¬† In addition, a moment of fun with colleagues helps team members break down hierarchical boundaries and relate to one another in a personal way.

When we step outside our traditional work roles and engage in interactions not typical of our work, we engage in play.¬† The challenge is to maintain the benefit of these playful, diversionary moments after they are finished and we are back to our ‘real work’. ¬†This holds true for education. ¬†We can use play to engage both students and colleagues, but what can we do to maintain the atmosphere of trust engendered by instances of playfulness?

2.¬† Play as engagement.¬† This is the type of play that is part of the everyday work you do.¬† For instance, musicians play when they work together to write music — they mix sounds and experiment with combinations, using imagination and creativity.

Within the context of education, where are there opportunities for harnessing diversionary play and introducing more play as engagement, in our classrooms and our learning experiences?

Playing with Creativity

Mainemelis and Ronson explore the cognitive processes that engender creativity through playful experiences  Four of the processes they discuss relate directly to learning and education:

  • Problem Framing: Reframing problems to allow for multiple possible solutions is a¬†basis for creative activity.¬† In play, as in improvisation in musical composition or dramatic performance, problems are reframed in many unique ways, allowing for the proliferation of creative responses.
  • Divergent Thinking: Through play space is created for shifts in perspective, another condition for creativity.
  • Mental Transformations: When the way we think is flexible and open to change, we open a door to creativity.¬† In play, we take risks and open ourselves to imagining new possibilities.
  • Experimentation: When risk is lowered through play, the ideal conditions for experimentation and improvisation come into existence.

Think about the types of learning experiences we offer our students.  How many of them include these elements?  Below are a few examples of activities through which students (and teaching staff) might unleash their creative capacities:

  • providing legos or other building materials for students to explore and construct models of things, events or processes, such as a model of the economic process (raw materials to your dinner plate, for instance) ¬†Here is a link to a student interviewed by Wes Fryer regarding Lego and Creativity
  • providing truly open-ended questions in math class (For instance, “how much candy gets distributed at Halloween?”) and allowing students to struggle with determining which variables are important and relevant.
  • encouraging students to assume the role of detective or when approaching a problem in science (or any other) class (“What happened here?”)
  • making time in the computer lab for students to pursue creative interests (blogging, animation, recording music, etc…)

What other activities have you tried or seen that would qualify as playful and therefore open to creative approaches?

fall flat on your face please (from time to time)

strategic dono cc shannoninottawa on flickr

strategic dono cc shannoninottawa on flickr

So, I want you to think back to your most recent moment of failure.¬† I don’t mean your inability to defeat theme 3 level 17 in Angry Birds.¬† Unless you were playing on the big screen at a stadium in front of scores of onlookers, many of whom could whip you soundly.¬† I am talking about a failure that is out there – like face planting off¬†your buddy’s¬†unicycle¬†in front of the neighbourhood children at a street bbq.¬† The type of fail that, if captured on video, would easily garner epic status on fail blog.¬† Got it?¬† At the time, did you wish you could vanish into thin air?

I bet you can chuckle about it now though.  Maybe you even learned a thing or two about yourself through the experience.

Last summer I experienced several moments of failure as I learned to windsurf.

One afternoon I¬†caught some wind and before I realized it, ¬† I was out past the drop and the water was too deep to walk the board back to shore.¬† Smack! I dropped the sail and hurtled headfirst into the water behind it.¬† Scanning the shoreline, I saw several folks at neighbouring cottages sitting by the water, no doubt¬†enjoying the entertainment,¬†refreshments in hand.¬†¬†On our own dock sat¬†my¬†two loving children¬†waving gleefully and giving me the “thumbs-up!” sign.¬† Thank goodness for unwavering support!

I honestly wanted to cry.¬† I spent the next 40 minutes struggling to get myself back to shore, falling over and over.¬† Over the course of that¬†time, I realized that my experience was not unlike that of students who struggle in their learning. ¬† I didn’t like the experience at first, but something in it — possibly the mere distance between myself and the shore — motivated me to dig deep and commit to the achieving some level of mastery, which, according to Daniel Pink, is one of the three elements of genuine motivation.¬† It also provided me with a fresh perspective on the role of struggle and failure in learning.¬† As educators, I think it is important to fall flat on our faces from time to time.

If you’ve never failed …

Pam Fitzgerald, trustee with the OCDSB, shared this video with me earlier this week.¬† Viewed 1.5 million times on youtube and shared extensively across twitter and facebook, it asks us to consider the role of failure and struggle in our lives.¬† I like the feel-good message.¬†¬†And, I¬†think that students need to struggle and fail from time to time.¬† I worry that we take away too many opportunities for our students to develop the resilience, adaptability and resourcefulness¬†skills that they need to navigate our current information-rich world when we guide them through their learning and¬†employ on the “gradual release of responsibility” model excessively.¬† Too often it is¬†overly gradual and we don’t spend quality time developing collaboration and independence.

If we don’t let go …

I’m not suggesting that the gradual release model has no place in learning, but I wonder if we haven’t fallen into the mistaken belief that it should be employed across all areas of the curriculum.¬† What can we do to provide an environment where struggle is valued and failure is a learning experience, where students come to collaboration through a genuine need to connect with others and learn with them?¬† I’m talking about a learning space where fun and discovery go hand in hand with inquiry, critical thinking and collaboration.¬† What conditions need to be present to make struggle enjoyable and failure motivating?

Thinking about play and inquiry has dove-tailed recently with a project that has me thinking about games in education and what we can learn from our students’ experiences with gaming.¬† I will end with sharing two blog posts that have me thinking for a future post: @melaniemcbride “Gamification, Gaming, Edugames:¬† Keeping it Real” and @cleanapple “What teachers can learn from video games:¬† Gaming is a literacy”.¬† I would love to hear your thoughts and / or recommendations for further reading with regards to struggle, motivation and learning.

If we don’t water the rocks …

In spring 2005, Death Valley, California, experienced unprecedented rainfall. This resulted in an explosion of colour as dormant wildflower seeds burst to life across the normally barren landscape.

In addition to my duties as Vice Principal, I teach the Writer’s Workshop to Grade 8 students at W. Erskine Johnston PS. ¬†The sole guideline directing my approach is my belief that¬†feedback establishes my relationship with the students and moves them forward in their writing. ¬†For the first several weeks, the only feedback I provided to students was written comments – no rubric, no mark assigned — always identifying several things that worked and one area of focus for improvement next time. ¬†Click on the thumbnail below to view a sample of the feedback:

Feedback to Julia WW Week 2 click to enlarge

Feedback on WW Week 2 click to enlarge

My goal was only to establish trust and an environment where students would feel safe to take greater risks in their writing.  It is now December and I have yet to correct or comment on spelling or grammar errors, other than to encourage students to read their work out loud or into a voice recorder to listen for fluidity, voice and word choice.  This feedback requires a great deal of time and I feel fortunate that I have the time to give. And, it has worked for most of the students.  The writing they submit is on or above grade level, according to the rubrics we have developed together over the past few weeks.

However, there are a couple of students who consistently submit their work late and one student who was not submitting anything unless I sat with her at recess to make up for what she hadn’t handed in on time. ¬†Over the weeks, that one student submitted nothing on her own. ¬†She just wasn’t engaged and the forced writing sessions were not producing the quality of work I had a hunch she was capable of writing. ¬†And, man, was it frustrating!

She was a rock.  And, while I watered the students all around her with individualized, precise feedback, she was steadfast.

One week, while other students wrote diligently in their notebooks, I looked over at her and thought, “I’m going to lose my mind with this one”. ¬†I felt frustrated that, despite the effort that I was putting into providing feedback and crafting lessons that were engaging enough to hook the rest of the students, she refused to join in. It was time to have a serious chat about her “writer’s block”.

I asked what types of activities give her enjoyment and her answers revealed to me that she is a very creative individual who enjoys playing a variety of instruments, including the trombone and the piano. ¬†I also learned that she loves to read, especially fiction — bildungsroman to be precise. ¬†I told her that I had a hunch she would be a fantastic writer and I promised to provide only positive and instructive feedback — no marks for the next little while. ¬†I asked her to devote 20 minutes that night to writing and told her I would find her the next morning to see what she produced. ¬†She wrote one page and it was excellent — original and interesting. ¬†I genuinely enjoyed reading it, provided encouraging feedback and asked her to do the same thing the following night. ¬†She did and again it was great. ¬†Then the third night.

Each week students are responsible for submitting 3 pages of writing.  On the due date, she handed me her folder with five pages of writing.

Five!

Yes, it is sometimes difficult and frustrating, but if we don’t “water the rocks”, what potential will be missed?

image:  Desert Gold cc by ChuckThePhotographer on flickr