Blooming teachers

RSA Journal
Published in
13 min readMay 20, 2016

Empowering teachers to embrace their creativity in the classroom is the route to creating educational systems fit for the modern era

By Andy Hargreaves

Follow Andy on Twitter @hargreavesbc

On 22 February 2011, at 12.51pm, a monumental earthquake shook the city of Christchurch in New Zealand to its foundations. One hundred and eighty-five people lost their lives. Others lost family members, friends, limbs and homes.

Around 10,000 dwellings became uninhabitable. The city’s historic stone cathedral cracked apart and its tower collapsed in pieces. Three-quarters of the central business district was destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

After the dust had settled, the rebuilding had to begin. Some of this would inevitably be long term, and the giant cranes that now sweep across the city are symbols of the ongoing reconstruction. Other answers had to be more immediate.

Where would the city’s residents and future visitors shop, dine and do their banking when retail space had been all but eliminated? The response was a quickly constructed precinct called Re:START, where scores of old shipping containers have been refurbished, brightly repainted and stacked on top of one another to make a chic shopping district.

Where would the cathedral’s displaced congregation worship? The solution, devised by prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is the magnificent Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, erected on the edge of the most damaged part of the city.

It has not all been easy, of course. Bureaucracy, bickering and a few obstructive property owners sometimes made progress difficult. But the reconstruction of Christchurch is a compelling case of how and why creativity matters. Creativity isn’t just egocentric self-indulgence or oddball eccentricity. It is also the way we devise ingenious solutions to overwhelming social problems. Creativity counts when other social values also come into play like heritage, inclusion and sustainability. Creativity is a collective responsibility, not just an individual disposition.

Crises and social problems require many people to be creative, not just one or two. At this point in history, we need creativity, care and compassion on a scale that we have never witnessed before. How do we stem the spate of violence and shootings in the US? What is the best response to the global epidemic of physical and mental health problems among young people? Which technology companies will be the first to take the lead on dealing with the digital obsessions of children who are starting to average 10 hours of screen time a day? How can we respond in an agile and ethical way to oil shortages then oil gluts, to unemployment and economic stagnation, to the global refugee crisis, and to the surge of droughts, storms and floods as well as the climate-change processes behind them?

The case against creativity

Few people seem opposed to the idea or importance of creativity in principle. And as the 37 million views (and counting) of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? testify, masses of people are at the very least intrigued by it. In education, though, the greatest criticisms of the creativity movement have been matters of scale. We might be able to generate more creativity with an inspirational teacher or two, in a few schools here or there, or even in school networks of self-selected enthusiasts. But what about building entire systems of creativity where every teacher is capable and every student can benefit? How can we develop more creativity for all of them?

In the face of these challenges, many reformers in education have felt that it is better just to do something simpler and more familiar instead. If we couldn’t turn thousands of weak or mediocre teachers into brilliantly innovative ones, perhaps we could at least get them up to proficiency by training them to teach a three-part lesson properly or follow a curriculum script. So systems such as those in England and the US focused for many years on easily measurable priorities in basic skills linked to targets and testing to drive up the numbers that would increase student achievement and also reassure voters when the next election came around.

But the strategies didn’t work. On reliable, independent measures (not those produced by governments themselves), in the main, these strategies didn’t raise achievement results or narrow achievement gaps. While the compelling need for creativity, care and compassion across the world has been growing, the greatest global educational trend of the past two decades ran completely contrary to it, driven by the promise of short-term results.

For example, over the past two decades, US educational reform pursued a relentless drive to test every child (and almost every teacher) every year on a prescribed curriculum of basic literacy and mathematics. Education professionals campaigned against it by pointing to the harmful effects on student achievement, engagement and creativity, and on the ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers in public education. Researchers provided the evidence that backed teachers up. But the tipping point came when students and their families created an opt-out movement that made the tests inoperable and rendered their results useless. State governors suspended the tests, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stepped aside, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act has significantly eased testing pressures and accountability requirements. Thanks to creative student protests, US education is on the cusp of a new educational beginning. And in this respect, it is not alone.

A new narrative of educational change is emerging. This narrative embraces a vision of a large-scale system for learning that is more creative, inclusive and sustainable. It also envisions a different kind of teaching profession that is collaborative rather than individualistic, and that has its own needs for creativity too.

Creative visions and systems

How do we deliberately build whole systems of creativity? The answer is that it is already happening. In Ontario, Canada, where I currently serve as one of four advisers to its Premier, Kathleen Wynne, the province’s new vision, Achieving Excellence, stresses that educational excellence (and equity) must include the arts, sciences and a range of creative and entrepreneurial skills in digital citizenship and other domains. It aims to reach and engage with the many different ways that young people learn best, including those from the most disadvantaged populations such as Canada’s indigenous communities. Another key driver for improvement in the vision is achieving greater well-being — in mental, emotional and physical health — for all students and their teachers.

Ontario is not alone. In 2015, I worked on a team of four with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to review Scotland’s national Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) that had been 10 years in the making. CfE centres on four capacities of what it means to be a Scottish learner and citizen. First is that successful learners are enthusiastic, motivated, determined and open to new learning. Second, confident individuals are ambitious, have self-respect, hold strong values and beliefs, and develop emotional, mental and physical well-being. Third, responsible citizens demonstrate respect for others and participate in political, economic, social and cultural life. And finally, effective contributors are enterprising, resilient and self-reliant.

These are not just paper pronouncements. We saw them in schools we visited where children spoke confidently about their learning and about why they were learning particular things. We saw inspiring interdisciplinary projects on topics like the making of Harris Tweed in island crofting (or cottage) industries. There was drama and expressive dance for young children, elements that had almost completely disappeared in the old narratives of standardised testing and curriculum prescription. We were also impressed by the positive regard that students showed for the out-of-school learning experiences that were the right of every child in the system.

The School of the Future framework in Norway proposes another four learning competencies: subject-specific competencies; competencies of metacognition (being able to reflect on what and how one is learning and why); competencies of communication, interaction and participation focused on cooperation and problem-solving; and competencies of being able to explore and create in ways that incorporate critical thinking and problem-solving in cooperation with others.

The world is waking up. This new vision or narrative of change is spreading fast. The countries and systems embracing and advancing it are not ahead of the curve. They are the curve. It is countries that continue to rely on the old narrative of individual competition, narrowly defined content and top-down systems of inspection and control that are falling behind.

Creative learning in creative systems is not just about technological innovation and economic skills. The new narrative of creativity does not adopt irresponsible stances of disruptive innovation that dismiss or destroy the past and proclaim that schools are broken. It does not make exaggerated comparisons between bad versions of old things (boring classes in ‘factory’ schools) with exemplary cases of digital new things (showcase schools under charismatic leaders). The new narratives don’t propose introducing ‘disruptive’ technology at breakneck speed to try and bypass teachers and teaching and go straight to the learner. Indeed, in their September 2015 report Students, Computers and Learning: Making The Connection, the OECD found that “countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their results”. The new narratives of educational change combine creativity with care, compassion and community. They address the development of the person, the society and the community, as well as the skills that are needed for the economy. The governments of high-performing Singapore and Finland grasp that teachers are nation builders. Within England, there is now a network of over 150 schools supporting the education of the ‘whole child’. The development of the whole person in a process of lifelong learning has long been valued as cura personalis in the Catholic Jesuit tradition, and as Bildung (the cultural formation and maturation of the person) among German and Scandinavian systems.

In the terms of the classic 1996 UNESCO report Learning: The Treasure Within, children must learn not only how to know and do things, but also how to be, and how to live together. And this is why, on any scale, a vision of creative and caring learning is unimaginable without creative and caring teachers and teaching.

Creative cultures of teaching

This leads us to the second systemic question: how can lots of teachers, not just a few, realise the vision of being creative in an effective way?

One common response is simply to say teachers need to be given more freedom and autonomy to make the judgements they think are best. Certainly, giving teachers little or no autonomy and prescribing the details of what they should teach does nothing to bring out the creative best in teachers. Indeed, it drives some of our most inspiring teachers out of the classroom altogether.

But will more autonomy automatically yield better results? One answer is that teachers will have more autonomy if schools are given more autonomy, like the academies, free schools and charter schools in England, Sweden and the US, for example. But school autonomy is deceptive. It might give school owners and school leaders more autonomy over budgets and staffing decisions, but individual owners can be just as tyrannical as centralized bureaucracies. The urge for owners to run their schools with teachers who are young, compliant, inexpensive and temporary is hard to resist. School autonomy can sometimes lead to greater teacher autonomy, but in a results-centred and profit-driven environment, the opposite often turns out to be the case.

So perhaps we should just give autonomy to the teachers, pure and simple. Take off the testing shackles and let their spirits soar! But individual autonomy in a profession can lead to awful practice as easily as excellent work. Just ask the university students who have seen vast variations in the quality of their lecturers.

Since the 1970s, research has shown that when teachers spend almost all their time teaching and thinking about teaching alone, they become more conservative, not more creative. They get no feedback or ideas from anyone else. There is no moral support for those moments when children will not do as they are told or when lessons fall flat. The only way colleagues know what teachers are doing is by the noise that children make that penetrates through the classroom walls. So in cultures of individualism, teachers learn to keep the noise down, avoiding any risks that might irk their peers.

Ironically, in a culture of individual autonomy, teachers actually become more alike. They take fewer risks and their results are relatively weak because they don’t have access to other teachers’ strategies that could help their students. Here and there, a few individuals may stand out from the rest and they are the ones that students always remember. But like the nine-year-old boy in the movie Home Alone, although it makes good entertainment to see an extremely resourceful young man repeatedly repel intruders from his house, you wouldn’t want to build a whole crime-fighting strategy on this idea. Try the educational equivalent of this kind of individual ingenuity and eventually you’ll just burn out because it is too hard to create everything by yourself.

So what else is there other than autonomy and no autonomy? In our book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Michael Fullan and I propose a third way forward: collective autonomy. Teachers who operate in cultures of collective autonomy have more independence from bureaucratic or market-driven interference, but less independence from each other. In the culture of collective autonomy, most teachers still make the vast majority of their decisions alone in their own classes. But the basis of these decisions, the knowledge that informs them, including knowledge about their students, is developed and shared with other colleagues.

And it works. Collective autonomy has more impact than individual autonomy. Or, to put it another way, the social capital of the group and how it works together adds value to the accumulated human capital of individuals. In a classic paper ‘The Missing Link in School Reform’ in the November 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, business professor Carrie Leana reported on the impact of more than 1,000 elementary school teachers in New York City on their children’s mathematics attainment. She took measures of teachers’ individual human capital — their qualifications and skills — and also their social capital in terms of how much they collaborated with their colleagues in relation to teaching and learning issues, as well as how much they trusted one another. Two of her key findings were that teachers with high social capital scores increased their mathematics scores by 5.7% more than teachers with lower social capital scores; and teachers with low individual ability raised their performance to the standard of average teachers elsewhere if there was strong social capital in their schools.

So how can we use deliberate strategies on a large scale to get the sort of high social capital (or collective autonomy) that leads to improvement and innovation?

In the Pacific Northwest of the US, my Boston College colleagues and I are working with a regional educational development centre, Education Northwest, to build collaboration among teachers who work in isolated rural schools. As in other countries, many rural communities in the US experience high rates of poverty. The teachers in these communities are often the only ones who teach their subject or their grade. They live far away from other teachers who could help them. So here, the schools and their systems have co-designed a network that has been focusing on increasing students’ engagement with their learning and their communities. They are designing more inspiring learning materials and experiences with other schools, through face- to-face and online interaction. In an interview in the aptly named Daily Yonder, one of the network’s teachers, Christina Spriggs, who teaches in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, describes her experience in the network as “inspiring and rejuvenating” and she has seen the positive impact on students’ achievement and engagement in her school.

Just north of Idaho, Alberta, Canada, is one of the highest- performing education systems in the world according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results of student achievement. The government worked in partnership with the Alberta Teachers’ Association for 14 years to stimulate and support teacher-designed innovations in 95% of the province’s schools. It did this by allocating 2% of the budget to provide time and coordination for teachers to collaborate with each other within and across their schools; by requiring participants to inquire into the impact of their innovations; and by setting the expectation that schools had to share their results with others. According to the OECD’s international comparisons of teaching and learning conditions, Alberta teachers are not only more likely to report participating in collaborative professional learning than teachers in other countries; they also report that this increases teachers’ confidence in their own abilities.

In England, the London Borough of Hackney moved from being the worst-performing local authority in 2002 to performing well above average on all key indicators 10 years later. In Uplifting Leadership, Alan Boyle, Alma Harris and I describe the reasons for unusually high performance in business, sport and education. Hackney, we found, used strategies that included expecting and resourcing schools to support other schools that were struggling. This applied even though the schools competed with each other for students. Collaborating with competitors in this way led to all the schools improving. As a result, more and more Hackney parents started sending their children to schools in the borough rather than outside it. This made the schools and the community even stronger.

These are not the only examples that exist. They are just a few of the ones we have supported and studied directly. What they show is that creative learning and teaching can occur in large-scale systems. They show that international narratives and visions of educational reform are now starting to embrace principles of creativity, care and community rather than opposing them or subordinating them to standardized treatments of easily measurable basic skills. Creativity, we are seeing, is a collective responsibility, not an individual characteristic. Creative learners need many creative teachers who work together effectively for the good of all their students. A system that empowers teachers in this way usually results from deliberate design, not just luck or circumstance. Creative learning and teaching call for creative system designs too.

It needn’t take an earthquake to trigger a collective creative response. More often, what is required is the quiet commitment and courage of many ordinary people to oppose or opt out of the wrong things, and to invest in well-designed alternatives that will produce a better quality of life for everyone.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal: Issue 1 2016



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