Sunday, April 13, 2014

What Can School Leaders Learn from Pixar? Inviting Candor and Criticism to Be Creative

What does it take to create a “sustainable creative culture,” in an institution like public schools? The fact that many public schools exist just as they did a hundred years ago is an indication that they are often more about self-preservation than engaging in innovation. In other words, school systems are more often interested in work that is derivative rather than innovative. Not much is new in education reform because of this. It is a monumental failure to create a "sustainable creative culture" that could tackle some of our most serious problems in education today.

The pendulum metaphor is very familiar to most seasoned educators because they have seen reforms come and go and come and go, and most often these "reforms" are simply old ideas dressed differently. This pendulum metaphor persists because there's not really anything new in today's reforms; they are simply the old reforms or derivatives of old reforms. As Michael Fullan points out,
“If you’re in education long enough, you’re likely to get hit by the same pendulum multiple times." 
No reforms ever stick because we keep doing the same old things such as revising standards, chasing more difficult tests, or revamping teacher evaluations among many others. While this work is important, it isn't really reform. We aren't innovating because public education, schools and districts, aren't structured to innovate. They do not have sustainable creative cultures that foster innovation. We begin embracing innovation by developing what Ed Catmull describes in his new book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, this “sustainable creative culture.”

According to Catmull, a most important ingredient in this creative culture is fostering a place where “people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms.” To create that culture, school leaders need to embrace “candor.” Candor is defined as the “quality of being open and honest in expression; frankness.” Candor, in other words, is inviting others to be open about their opinions, criticisms, and ideas. Sadly, public education, for all its calling for stakeholder buy-in is often more about defending and marketing someone’s pet reform project or idea rather than honestly seeking other educators' input or opinions. This is why that education pendulum continues to hit us multiple times. Candor is not invited and is often not allowed. If we really want to move education initiatives beyond the derivative to the innovative, then education leaders need be courageous and invite candor into their schools and districts.

How can school leaders invite candor into their schools and districts? Catmull offers an easy way to do that: You “institutionalize candor” so that it is part of the ritual and practice of the school. You can begin this by engaging in three simple practices.
  • Tear down the “top-down hierarchy” and top-down reform driven processes that currently exist, and stop trying to defend initiatives that, if they are so darn beneficial, they should stand up to criticism and candor on their own. Too often educational leadership is more about pushing and marketing ideas instead of approaching the problems we face in schools creatively. Instead, let’s subject all these educational initiatives to the full force of candor and criticism. If they survive intact, then they must be good. If not, then they weren't worth the paper on which they're written.
  • Invite straight talk as a rule. Nothing is sacred and off limits. Too often, those sitting in meetings are afraid to speak their minds because of the political consequences. It’s true! In public education if you get the reputation of speaking your mind, you are often defined as “not a team player” or worse. You are cast aside as an outcast and troublemaker. Educational leaders like to talk big about buy-in, and that they sought feedback, but some of them politically destroy those who don’t agree with them. Candor means you have the guts to listen to criticism and recognize when it is valid.
  • Bring people together often to discuss school or district initiatives for the purpose of straight talk. Educators, for the most part, are by nature passionate people who care a great deal about what they do. Encourage them to identify the problems they see and be entirely candid. School leaders must be willing to courageously listen and not resort to being defensive. Allow the discussion and criticism to happen instead of shutting it down. Be flexible and willing to revise accordingly, and possibly even let go. It should never be about ego; it should be about improving education for kids.
I wish that I could be as optimistic about the education reforms swirling about---Common Core, Technology, Testing, Accountability, etc. Sadly, I am not. Fundamentally, public education is still more about institutional self-preservation than engaging in creative approaches to the problems the system faces. If we’re going to move to sustaining a creative culture that can tackle 21st century issues, then we have to become courageous school leaders and invite candor into our schools and districts.

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