Creative Schools: First Thoughts

I’ll admit it; it has been a tough week. How about you?  As these weeks and months of pandemic stressors drag on (and on and on), so many things seem harder. I just read a New York Times account of the dramatic increase in traffic deaths over the last two years, along with increases in violent crime, customer abuse of workers, and student misbehavior in school (February 15, 2022). They quote Albuquerque’s police chief, Harold Medina, as saying, “Everybody’s been pushed. This is one of the most stressful times in memory.” I believe it. Some of the things that made my week tough stemmed from organizations making decisions with consequences so problematic I kept thinking, “Did no one consider another way?” I know creativity can’t solve all things, but many times it helps.

I’ve written before about the unfortunate relationship between creativity and anxiety. Anxiety can make it harder to think flexibly, and even to recognize creative solutions when they are presented. But in times of stress, confidence in our ability to be creative can help. One of the more interesting studies I read last year indicated that teachers’ growth mindset around creativity—believing creativity can be developed—was associated with more positive feelings about teaching, despite uncertain and stressful circumstances (Anderson et al., 2021). Also, teachers’ belief in their own ability to be creative was related to their ability to recover and bounce back in the face of setbacks. Their perception of support of creativity in their environment was associated with personal joy in teaching. For these teachers, simply believing that they could be creative in their teaching, their students could grow in creativity, and their school environment supported creativity made it possible to move forward more optimistically. OK, it isn’t so simple, but don’t we all need that about now?

So, how do we build school communities where these beliefs are possible? I have written a lot about Amabile’s model of creativity, in which individual’s skills in a particular domain, creativity-relevant processes, and intrinsic motivation combine to support their creativity. She has outlined a parallel trio of supports that can be found building innovation in organizations: resources in the task domain, skills in innovation management, and motivation to innovate (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). That is, if an organization wants creativity to thrive, it must invest resources, develop skills, and support motivation for innovation. The total model is complex, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has studied it in schools, but it makes sense to me to at least consider how it may operate in that environment.

For today, let’s start by thinking about what it might look like to begin developing creativity-friendly skills at a school or district level. This is bigger than making sure folks know the rules for brainstorming. When Amabile and Pratt describe organizations as having skills, they refer to skills in innovation management, the skills needed to help an organization move from place A to new place B. Generally, these begin with skills held by those managing the organization. They include things such as flexibility in goal setting, work assignments that are well-matched to skills and interests of employees, supportive feedback on creative efforts, etc. In many businesses, at least, the notion that a business should change, grow, and innovate goes without saying. Not so in schools. In schools, creativity can be treated like an annoying interloper. The first “skill” necessary may be information about why creativity might be worth seeking, for everyone involved.

It is not unusual for teachers, parents, and school staff to hold a variety of beliefs around the nature of creativity, for example, whether it is found only in the arts or whether can be developed. And, of course, there are many concerns about how creativity can fit within the constraints of data demands and time constraints. Teachers in a creativity-supporting school environment need a broad understanding of how creativity may appear, in expected or unexpected, helpful or less-helpful ways. And this is just the beginning. Teachers are not the only people who need to understand what creativity looks like, why it is important, and how it fits into school. Parents, extended families, and school support staff all are part of the education climate we create. While everyone doesn’t need to know all the specific strategies for incorporating creativity in lesson planning, the organization will move forward more readily if everyone shares basic information on what creativity is, how we recognize it, how it can be developed and how it relates to learning.  Only when those ideas have been introduced, do more elaborate skills-development efforts make sense. But that is the stuff of blog posts to come!

Amabile, T. M. & Pratt, M. G. (2016). The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning. Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, 157-183.

Anderson, R. C., Bousselot, T., Katz-Buioncontro, J., & Todd, J. (2021). Generating buoyancy in a sea of uncertainty: Teachers creativity and well-being during the OCVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, Article 614774.

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