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.

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?

Creativity World Forum #cwf2010

cwf2010This week I am fortunate to be part of an 11-member delegation from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) attending the Creativity World Forum (#cwf2010) in Oklahoma City.  The story of why we are here and the journey thus far is an interesting one.  You can read a bit about that journey and the Lead the Way campaign here.  At the heart of the Lead the Way project is the understanding that all individuals within our organization has creative and unique capacities and ideas that need to be recognized, valued and tapped into.  By encouraging individuals and groups to explore and expand those creative capacities, we create a culture of engagement where people feel valued and engaged in ongoing learning.  The benefits to the organization are myriad and, although Lead the Way is now in its’ fifth year, we are really only at the beginning stages of realizing the potential for this approach.

What about Student Achievement?

As a public school board, the OCDSB is committed first and foremost to supporting student achievement across the District.  This is precisely the driving force behind the Lead the Way project.  As witnessed by the unanticipated interest — registration for the CWF is double what it was anticipated to be — people from across the globe and in a variety of industries are recognizing the critical role that creative and innovative thinking plays and will continue to play in this century.  Last spring, the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto explored the necessity of adopting an artistic mind-set for business leaders today, as well as the importance of developing that mind-set in leaders of tomorrow.  In the opening article, Rotman Dean Roger Martin discusses the role of an ‘artistic alternative’ in response to today’s complex world:

Effectively dealing with the challenges of the modern world — rather than with the narrow sub-segments of them — demands artistic capacity.  Without the explicit development of qualititative thought, sophisticated mental operations like judgement in the face of uncertainty, coping with ambiguity, balancing consequences, and responding effectively to surprise will remain ellusive.  No matter what we do for a living, we need to go beyond using our knowledge as a recipe and aim higher than crunching quantitative data to produce single point answers. (Rotman Magazine, Spring 2010, p. 7)

The point is simple.  In a complex world, the approach Martin coins as the ‘artistic alternative’ enables individuals to tap into their own perhaps previously undervalued capacities to understand, process and respond using a fuller set of senses.  The creative response is critical in the complex world.  If we, as an educational organization, are meant to support student achievement, we must cultivate the learning environment that will foster the artistic mind-set.

Not a top-down strategy

Rather than seeing this as an urgent call for another top-down initiative, our project has been, and must continue to be, somewhat grassroots in its approach.  Instead of developing a creativity policy and an accompanying set of procedures, Lead the Way is constantly looking for avenues through which all individuals in our District — parents, teachers, educational assistants, custodians, principals, community partners, etc… — can tap into their own creative capacities.  Through recognizing current practices that model the creative approach, we hope that creative and innovative thinking will spread throughout the District, like a spark that catches and sets the whole place ablaze.  If individuals and groups across the District engage in creative approaches to the every day, our learning environments will be enriched and will provide the inspiration and motivation to keep the momentum going.  Students will benefit from seeing the adults with whom they work engaged in risk-taking through the use of innovative and unique approaches to learning.

Now, good morning, Oklahoma!  If I were Wayne Coyne, where would I be …