Building Creative Schools

I recently retired after 35 years at Eastern Michigan University (OK, I’m teaching again this semester, but that’s another story). Even this state of not-quite-retired has caused me to think back on my years at EMU, in roles from beginning assistant professor to interim dean, in times of near-explosive growth and periods of retrenchment. The forces impacting the department have changed constantly: enrollment, rules for accreditation, university strategic directions, state mandates and budgets, the political landscape, personalities of university personnel, and on and on. There have been times when our department and college faced change with creativity, innovation, and camaraderie—other times, not so much.

It is easy to think about creativity as an individual phenomenon. Throughout history, men and women have solved problems, made discoveries, and expressed ideas in ways that inspired awe and prompted change. It can be trickier to think about creativity within organizations. What causes—or allows—groups of people to approach their tasks with creativity rather than clinging to the security of past practices? What kinds of organizations support creativity in individuals while also working toward collective change and innovation? What changes in my department allowed us to work productively together and which ones squashed innovation?

I wish I had the answers to all those questions, but I have some clues. One of the more interesting parts of the latest revisions of Creativity in the Classroom is that I added a chapter on creative schools. I wanted to know what research tells us about moving from supporting creativity in individual classrooms to supporting creative schools and districts, how we support creativity in teachers as well as their students. Much of the research on creativity in organizations is based in businesses, where innovation is essential to success. School communities can be a bit more ambivalent. I suspect if you looked in the mission statements of most schools or districts, you’d find the word “creativity,” probably paired with “critical thinking” or “problem solving” or “21st century skills.” Certainly, no school or district is likely to suggest they oppose creativity, at least not in public.  But the truth is not so simple. If we actually want creativity, we open ourselves up to the unknown. Creativity in classrooms invites students to give answers we aren’t expecting and ask questions we can’t answer. Creativity in schools can lead to questions about why we do things the way we do, or suggestions that we rethink school routines and structures, big and small. Creativity can be the enemy of stability, or at least of unchanging ways. Amidst the stressors of busy school lives, are we ready for that? I hope so.

What might a creative school look like ? A school that wants to move toward a creativity-supportive structure would have staff who recognize that creativity and innovation can be risky, that there will be mistakes, and that things will feel uncomfortable—and want to do it anyway. It will have a climate genuinely open to new ideas, without the familiar refrains of “But we tried that once” or “But X won’t like that.” Perhaps in such a school, “Yes, but…” could be replaced by “Yes, and…”, at least much of the time. In a school organization motivated to toward creativity and innovation, groups of staff would be charged to examine local issues using strategies that support fluent and flexible thinking, and to seek out creative and effective plans rather than quick and easy ones. Some such schools might see themselves as modeling what education might become, leading into new ways to think about teaching and learning. No school or district will do these things perfectly, but for a school to move toward a schoolwide culture of creativity, at least a critical mass of staff must believe it is possible and valuable. If you are reading this and thinking, “That’s never going to happen in my school,” don’t be discouraged. There are many types of organizations. If your whole school organization isn’t yet motivated toward creativity, perhaps a group of teachers might be. You can be the organization that works together to support creativity in your piece of the world, even if it is a small piece. It is a place to begin.

For the next few posts, I’ll share some ideas about building creative communities in school. I’d love to hear about yours.

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