Teaching As a Dynamic, Participatory and Creative Act

Two educators discuss the need for a different narrative and approach to teaching, learning and professional development.

By: Elsa Fridman Randolph

Welcome to our newest series of exchanges between educators and Cohort 21 co-founders, Justin Medved and Garth Nichols. Justin is the Director of Learning, Innovation & Technology at the York School in Toronto, Canada. Garth is the Director of Teaching & Learning at Bayview Glen school, also in Toronto. Fed up with the inadequate opportunities for authentic, engaging and creative professional development, Justin and Garth started Cohort 21, which is a year long professional development experience, grounded in a design thinking framework, for CIS (Canadian Independent Schools) Ontario Educators who are looking to explore new tools, ideas and pedagogies. Justin and Garth are also coordinators for Project 2051, an initiative of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), spearheaded by Anne-Marie Kee, which aims to design strategy to meet the dual challenge of academic and business innovation. Project 2051 is an incubator that brings together schools’ academic and non-academic leaders and creates a cross-pollination environment that allows attendees the time and space to explore some of the bigger challenges facing schools today and in the future.

In this first installment, Garth and Justin explain the motivation behind starting Cohort 21 and the need it fills, and reflect on the current state of creativity in schools.

Connect with Justin and Garth on The Teachers Guild.


Elsa: Justin, Garth, hello! I’d like to start our conversation at the beginning — how did you guys meet and what was the motivation behind starting Cohort 21?

Garth: Justin and I first met when we were co-counselors volunteering at Camp Oochigeas — it is a camp for kids that are living with cancer. Needless to say it is an intensive 2 weeks, and Justin and I became very close friends. Soon afterwards, Justin began teaching abroad (Egypt), and I moved to teach at Brentwood College School on Vancouver Island. Eventually, we both returned to Toronto as teacher-leaders with a keen interest in professional development as it pertained to curriculum and teaching/learning with educational technology.

Justin: It was also during this time that the educational technology landscape exploded worldwide. There were so many new teaching and learning opportunities available for teachers to explore but little in the way of local guided professional development to help harness and make sense of it all.

Garth: We both felt that our current sources of professional development were not hitting the mark. Conferences that we attended left us wanting more. In fact, they were having very little lasting change in our own practice and falling short on how to implement it within our schools. Simply put, we wanted something different, deeper, sustained and personalized.

Justin: It was out of this desire that Cohort 21 was born. Cohort 21 is a year-long, professional development experience for teachers in the CIS Ontario community. It is comprised of four face-to-face sessions. Each session builds on the next to allow for a rich exploration, research and feedback sessions, and finally a presentation, or what we like to refer to as: “The end of the beginning of your journey.” Between these sessions, we have rich, highly interactive online engagement: we support and challenge our participants through Twitter, Google Hangouts, and our Google+ community. The purpose is to give teachers a place to design a piece of their professional practice with more detail, and what the Cohort 21 community does is provide the support, resources and feedback essential to make it a success. We often say that Cohort 21 is designed to be the professional development that “we would want to take” and that we as a team of facilitators learn just as much from our cohort as they do from us.

The infographic above describes the Cohort 21 journey and how the design thinking framework helps us create a rich and authentic professional learning experience for our participants.

Elsa: Wow, what a powerful experience! I’m wondering, what are some of the specifics you felt were missing from your sources of professional development? Why were they not hitting the mark?

Garth: Professional development usually falls into two categories, outside conferences, or called in experts. Either way, both experiences are generally larger chunks of time devoted to others who are doing the talking, thinking and elaborating. There may be a symposium, panel discussions, but largely professional development is something to witness, not to be a part of.

“Largely, professional development is something to witness, not to be a part of.” — Garth

Many times, the most valuable moments at conferences were those informal discussions in the hallway. Intrigued by the ideas just delivered by the experts, I, with other teachers, would excitedly discuss the possibilities. However, there was no mechanism of support or sustaining framework to help bring these ideas to fruition. This is what Cohort 21 provides.

Justin: One thing that is unique about Cohort 21 is that it is not rooted in discipline, subject area or developmental level. Each year we encourage teachers from across all grades and subject areas to apply. This diversity of experience and perspective allows for rich thinking and collaboration to flourish. It prevents a groupthink effect, and widens the conversation to the larger shifts that are happening to capital “E” education. In Cohort 21 we enable our teachers by surrounding them with the knowledge, tools and network to support them in an authentic year long “action plan.” We help them design a solution to a “real” learning challenge they are facing in their teaching. In order to ensure that all of this great learning is shared back with the wider teaching community we make blogging an important part of the process. You can check out all the great work and thinking on the member blogs and http://cohort21.com/action-plans/

Elsa: I’m struck by the parallels between how you explain what is wrong with professional development and some of the contemporary critiques of education; namely that learning is framed and experienced as a passive (and unengaging) act where students are witnesses or recipients of information rather than active creators in their own learning. This is a theme that we’ve seen addressed multiple times on The Teachers Guild platform (see some examples here, here and here).

We need a paradigm shift in how we frame teaching and learning — not as something to witness, digest, or regurgitate but as a dynamic, participatory, and creative act. Central to that shift are the notions of creative confidence, learning by doing and asking for forgiveness rather than permission. How do we cultivate these capacities and biases in teachers? Sorry, that’s a lot of questions wrapped up into one, let’s start with creative confidence.

Too often, we tend to think of creativity as the exclusive arena of the prodigies, the artists and those select few visited by the proverbial muse. So many teachers don’t view themselves as creative, yet what is more creative than helping children form and develop knowledge and understanding of themselves and their world? I would love to hear your thoughts on the role of creativity in your profession.

Garth: I don’t think creativity is a role to be played, but rather a raw material that needs to be mined within our schools. Teachers can feel hemmed in by curriculum standards, expectations, and school-wide initiatives, and sometimes these can be so overpowering that they can feel powerless, or just not have the drive to create on their own, much less ask for it from their students. Much of teachers’ energy is spent on delivering these and meeting policy requirements, marking and reporting.

I don’t think creativity is a role to be played, but rather a raw material that needs to be mined within our schools.” — Garth

Justin: I think it is often “assumed” that everyone is creative and that creative ideas will always naturally emerge. I think what we are learning is that there are many cultural and systemic factors that help nurture creativity and they need some element of stewardship. We cannot expect people to reach for the stars if we put a ceiling in their way.

“…there are many cultural and systemic factors that help nurture creativity and they need some element of stewardship. We cannot expect people to reach for the stars if we put a ceiling in their way.” — Justin

Garth: Sometimes, teachers aren’t told what is possible. This ‘system’ of rote, test-centric learning, can be reinforced from the top-down, and by the way PD is structured, as I mentioned above; there can be little to inspire creativity, little by way of “I want to do that, try that, get my students to attempt this or that…”. But I agree with you, Elsa, teachers have at their disposal a great venue to deliver creative experiences for their students’ learning.

Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “original thoughts and ideas that have value.” I see so much potential for creativity when the expertise and experience of teachers meet the interests and ideas of students. If we, as teachers, can position the curriculum as the medium through which our students experience the world, understand their role and impact within it, then the focus shifts away from curriculum and more towards the students. Once this shift has happened, teachers can access the creativity within themselves and their students.

Justin: One of the great challenges schools face is “how” to create a culture that enables creativity and innovation to flow among faculty and staff. Schools and teachers have never been good at seeing themselves as “labs” and “designers”. Traditionally we have waited for journals and “research” to tell us what to do or where to spend time and energy. While there is an important place for that rigorous research process to help inform our practice I think it can co-exist along-side a “teacher as designer” ethos. The degree to which a school can nurture and support a culture of designing, testing, iterating and sharing learning experiments will be the degree to which a school is meeting the innovation challenge.

“Traditionally we have waited for journals and “research” to tell us what to do or where to spend time and energy. While there is an important place for that rigorous research process to help inform our practice I think it can co-exist along-side a “teacher as designer” ethos. The degree to which a school can nurture and support a culture of designing, testing, iterating and sharing learning experiments will be the degree to which a school is meeting the innovation challenge.” — Justin

Garth: Creativity also has to be a part of the entire organization. Exhibiting creative thinking is something everyone throughout the learning organization must do. One of the most powerful aspects of creative thinking is exploring and refining one’s thinking and approaches.

I have found that design thinking protocols are a way of thinking and doing that foster creative thinking. The more schools, administration, teachers, students and parents can be given opportunities to see this approach in action, model it, practice it and apply it, the more creativity and creative thinking will become a cultural habit.

Elsa: Such great and provocative insights, you have both given me much to think about. I loved the notion of framing the curriculum as a medium for understanding rather than a prescribed set of content, Garth; I imagine the immense sense of ownership, engagement, and sense of agency that would result on the part of both teachers and students. Justin, I couldn’t agree more with you about the need to pair rigor with experimentation. To conclude this first piece, I’d like to know, from both of you, if you feel creatively satisfied?

Garth: Creatively satisfied…hmmm. That is a challenging thing. For me, I feel like I am still just learning how to be a creative thinker. I am more open to ideas, questioning them, criticizing them, repositioning them, and exploring answers to them. I feel that each stage of the design thinking process is there; however, there is tons of room to refine towards mastery.

Justin: I have often use the word “facilitator” to describe the kind of role that Garth and I play within Cohort 21 and Project 2051. More recently though I have begun to use the word “architect” as I feel it better describes the way we approach designing professional learning experiences. Architects must take into consideration so many different factors when designing a building or space. So too must educators when designing a solution to a learning problem or experience that is designed to yield a particular outcome. This is where the “creative” part comes into play. Design is all about creativity and I feel so satisfied at the end of each year when the teachers I work with both at The York School and Cohort 21 let me know how my “design” of their learning experience has yielded growth in some way.

Garth: I will close with expressing my gratitude for the people I work with and the learning that I do in my role as Director of Teaching and Learning at Bayview Glen, and my work with Cohort 21 and the CAIS Project 2051. The teachers, the students, the participants continually keep the opportunities available for thinking creatively, being creative, and looking to foster it in others. That’s what makes it so engaging.

Justin: To echo Garth’s comments, I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do and work within such great organizations as The York School, CIS Ontario and CAIS. The learning never stops and that’s just the way I like it :)

“The learning never stops and that’s just the way I like it” — Justin

Elsa: Justin, Garth, thank you both so much for taking the time to share your insights.

The Teachers Guild

Teachers are the innovators education has been waiting for

Elsa Fridman Randolph

Written by

@rethinkedteam co-founder & storyteller @TeachersGuild. I believe in the power of stories to ignite empathy, creativity & change — share yours with me?

The Teachers Guild

Teachers are the innovators education has been waiting for

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