The question is not whether or not we are creative; it is whether or not we have found the right medium to express our creativity in a way that matters to the world.
I have written before in my blogs and books about the idea of creative tension and how it can help us understand and diagnose the challenges and opportunities embedded in our relationships and work.
At the end of this week, I am stepping away from a team with whom I have worked for many years and with whom I have sustained a consistent, productive, and genuine creative tension.
From a startup trying to take a mobile communication product into high schools to a pivot into healthcare, an acquisition by a healthcare company, and finally to an acquisition of that company by an even bigger healthcare company, we have worked and grown and learned and iterated together for the better part of six years.
We all brought different skills and perspectives. Our ages varied. Our backgrounds varied. Our approaches to creativity and problem solving varied. Ultimately, however, we aligned around a set of principles that I now discuss as the elements of creative tension, but identified and learned largely through our work together. We didn’t know them and then practice them. We practiced them and came to know them.
Shared Purpose: There is a common goal that necessitates working together to accomplish.
Ownership: The collective owns the goal and understands various roles, responsibilities, skills, perspectives, and relationships needed to achieve the goal.
Commitment: All parties commit not only to the process of working together but to their individual roles and responsibilities in the work.
Teaching/Learning: Everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a learner.
Collective Action: The act of working together creates tension that informs the evolving purpose and nature of the work as a whole.
Reflection: The collective remains vigilant and reflective, as individuals and as a group, so that the tension remains creative and not destructive.
Creative tension is a constantly changing dynamic of a relationship – a relationship between people and the work they are trying to accomplish together.
For a visual, take a look at the images above and imagine yourself holding one end of the rubber band(s) with your colleague(s) holding the other. Sometimes, we are pulling the band(s) too tight. We introduce too much tension, reduce the flexibility of the rubber band, and introduce a fear that someone may drop their end and pop us with it, or even pull harder until it breaks. This is destructive tension caused by too much tension. Other times, we aren’t pulling much at all. The band is limp, without energy or possibility. This is destructive tension caused by an absence of tension.
Creative tension is all about finding that right degree of tautness in the band where there is energy, and sound, and possibility, and the people holding it are relating positively and actively to each other and the band itself. The right amount creative tension is always changing, just as we and our work and our lives outside of work are always changing.
As people change and as work changes, maintaining this creative tension requires constant vigilance – and as I have learned recently, simply may not always be maintainable. As I move on to a new startup, I feel the sincere loss of the creative tension of my team – although I look forward to helping build it with a new one. But, as our work and the organizations in which it has happened have evolved over the years, I found myself no longer able to generate the sense of purpose, ownership, and teaching/learning I needed to hold up my end of the rubber band, maintain my part of the creative tension.
For me then, I feel a responsibility to move on. I genuinely believe that this is the creative act even as it comes with a significant sense of loss.
I was at a meeting recently where attendees were discussing innovation and how and where - and even whether - it should happen in large organizations. To innovate or not to innovate…
As sides made their cases for and against, I offered a comment to the group that while we appeared to be presenting contradictory positions we actually agreed on the problems large organizations face in innovating. And, there wasn’t really any disagreement about whether they needed to. The difference in perspective was that one group saw the problems preventing innovation in large organizations as too big and too entrenched to solve and the other group thought they presented the perfect opportunity.
In response to my assessment, someone commented: “Yeah, this group is the realists and that group is the idealists.”
Everyone seemed to agree.
And, I guess I didn’t immediately disagree, but it seemed way too simple, and it bothered me for some reason. For starters, I don’t like being put into an idealist box - which of course is where I was - simply because I believe human-created problems are solvable by humans.
But, I let it go, and just started furiously taking notes on my phone about all the ways I felt that this seemingly simple comment presented a patently unhelpful view of innovation, organizations, and the world.
Why do we attribute realism to the point-of-view that things cannot, will not, and perhaps even should not change? Why is that realistic in today’s world?
Why do we attribute idealism - as the counter to realism - to people who believe things can and should change? In today’s world, isn’t that a lot more realistic?
Isn’t it realism to know that change is inevitable? That innovation is necessary to keep learning, stay competitive, and to keep up with customers and markets?
Is it really idealism to try and predict, invest in, and prepare for not just reacting to but leading that inevitable change?
An idealist should be more than a dreamer, and idealism should never just be an excuse to pretend difficult problems are any less complex than they really are - or to deny that their solutions should be grounded in reality.
Alternately, a realist shouldn’t passively accept that the current state is inevitable, and realism should never just be an excuse to lie prostrate in the face of difficult problems because, well, that’s just the way it is.
Innovation is messy work and organizations are messy places. The most innovative organizations need idealistic realists mixing it up every day with realistic idealists.
Anything that makes the people or the process sound any simpler may make innovation easier to talk about but can also make it a lot more difficult to achieve.
There are five key relationships that every creator needs to thrive. While these aren’t always a one-to-one match (i.e. one person, one relationship), they represent key inputs and a continuum of perspectives we all need to support, guide, and grow our creative practice.
Our supporters are the people whose primary investment is in us as people. Their support is unconditional. In other words, they support us whether our creative process, whatever it may be, is deemed successful or not. They keep us working when we have lost faith in ourselves.
Our collaborators are those who get into the creative mix with us. This can mean literally getting their hands dirty with us, or diving in to challenge us intellectually. Our collaborators are also creators and their creative process and outcomes are directly tied to our own.
3. Critical Friend
Our critical friends are deeply trusted peers. They can also be collaborators, but they often work in parallel, not directly with us. These are the people who see our work and our process most wholly and ask us the most challenging questions that push and refine our work. A critical friend could be a very different thinker or work in a different medium or discipline than we do.
At some point, our creative output needs to meet a market or a consumer of some sort. Our supporters, collaborators, and critical friends may tell their friends about us. Our promoters tell everyone who will listen. They step up and are bought into our creative output sufficiently to put their own name on it as an endorsement. Promoters can be developed organically, or perhaps even hired, depending on the creative context.
5. Respected Critic/Doubter
This one may be less intuitive, but our critics tap a different motivation than any of the other relationships here. They may even spur spite, indignation, and a desire to prove them wrong. These may seem odd things to want in our creative lives, but they have the potential to make us better creators. So, these are not the critics we dismiss simply because we think they don’t like us. These are people whose doubt of us matters to us in some way. In fact, it can even work if we are our own biggest critic/doubter as long as that motivates us rather than neutralizes our creativity.
I love this question, and I believe starting with it can open a world of possibility around addressing the most pressing issues, big and small, personal and public, work and life that we face each day. Here are some thoughts on how to release its implicit power:
Assume possibility. If we genuinely and openly explore “how,” we have the opportunity to both better understand the problem we are facing and to open the door to new solutions. We have to start from a place of faith and confidence in possibility. In turn, solution thinking done well also asks us to think critically about the rules and norms of the problem, the structure. We must analyze and understand better how we arrived at the present to deepen our understanding of how we might address it, not just incrementally, but substantively in the future.
Focus on strategy. To identify “how” substantively, we need to think strategically. When we try to solve problems by starting with what we should “do” then we miss the opportunity to transform the condition that generated the problem in the first place. We end up doing stuff that just gets us to the next iteration of the same problem. Strategy focuses on systems and structures and relationships that we must invest in in order to implement our transformative “how” more consistently, sustainably, and transformationally.
Align tactics. Clearly, at some point, we must “do” something. We just shouldn’t start there because our tactics are often rooted in the skills and perspectives and practices we are most familiar with, the ways we already “do.” It doesn’t take a big leap of logic to see that those ways aren’t going to be sufficient for transforming our problem. In fact, they may be part of it. While our existing skills, perspectives, and practices may be reinvested in or reorganized for incremental improvements, to transform conditions our tactics have to be rethought and reconsidered to align directly with our strategies. We need to “do” things differently, and to make that happen we will probably also need some new skills, perspectives, and practices in the mix.
Question creatively. Genuine belief in possibility begs us to be more creative. Creativity that can support the vastness of possibility starts with a willingness to question everything. This questioning isn’t about throwing out everything and starting over. In fact, it allows us the opportunity to identify and strengthen the core beliefs, the foundations upon which our work and relationships are built, the things we can’t and won’t change. At the same time, deep, creative questioning does allow us to identify ancillary assumptions about “how we do things” that, in fact, are just a matter of bad habit, culture, or climate issues. They might even live only at the small group or even individual levels of our organization or work but deeply impact our ability to accomplish our goals.
Generate lots of solutions: Similar to our urgent need to “do” something, when we start generating solutions, we often have an urgent need to get to the “right” one as quickly as possible. Getting to the right answer, however, usually requires some combination of multiple creative answers. So, we need to generate a lot of possible answers, and some that even seem impossible, before we start whittling things down. The pressure of generating a volume of ideas (in the next five minutes brainstorm some ideas vs. in the next five minutes come up with 20 ideas) forces us to move our thinking beyond our normal parameters. We force ourselves to come up with outlandish ideas – which may just hold the nugget of wisdom that triggers the ultimate solution. It also just generally gets us out of our cognitive lane and frees our thinking.
Iterate. As we start to focus our creative ideas and narrow them down, we need to stay aware of when and how we start to get wedded to them and start building assumptions around them. As we feel that human need to get to the answer, we can inadvertently make the jump to what we believe it is and derail the creative process. We must remain open and flexible and continue to iterate on ideas rather than just carry them forward. In other words, we have to keep learning. Have we uncovered some new truth that changes our assumptions? Have we identified alternative strategies and tactics and are we staying open to those as they come? What are their implications on our previous strategies or tactics? Basically, we have to remain committed to creatively questioning throughout the process.
Engage diverse voices and ideas. To support the generation of lots of solutions, we should also engage diverse voices and perspectives. Generating a lot of the same kind of ideas from the same perspectives doesn’t get us anywhere. But, when we stop and engage stakeholders, and even non-stakeholders, in the ideation process, we generate more raw material to work with, and often material we never thought about, blinded by our own perspectives.
Develop shared purpose. Even though it is the last word in the question, solving for “how might we” starts with the idea of “we.” It’s the subject. It’s collective. We work with and through others. To solve the problems we need to solve and create the future we want to create, we must share a sense of purpose of what we are trying to accomplish. None of the other parts of this process will work fluidly if our purposes are not aligned. The process of creating is hard enough without facing the constant and unnamable stress and frustration of inadvertently working at cross-purposes. This is perhaps the most critical investment a leader can make.
Share responsibility and accountability. When we are trying to transform our work and/or the world, we must not just share purpose but ownership. “We” works at all levels of our creative process and related attempts at implementing new strategies and tactics. So, we must be intentional over time as we continue to ideate, iterate, and implement any change efforts, so that a sense of the collective remains. We will divvy up specific responsibilities, different people deploy different tactics, but we should continue to share accountability for achieving our strategy, driving toward our shared purpose throughout the creative process.
Those of us who were typically developing children pretended, played, danced, and colored and cut and pasted and taped with abandon. I see it every day with my own children ages 3 and 5. For most of us, supportive adults let all of that creativity happen, and even encouraged it. Creativity was part of our early development. It was a process. It wasn’t about the output.
I don’t know anyone who would look at the drawings or collages or sculptures of a 3 or 5 year old and evaluate whether or not they are creative: “No, honey, the way you taped that pipe cleaner next to that scribble mark is not very creative.” It seems odd to even conceive of making such a value judgment because most of us appreciate a child’s process, their exploration of materials, and early efforts at self-expression. That’s what kids are supposed to do.
Somewhere along the way, however, we do start judging. We start telling kids that this creativity of theirs is either good or bad - or, more specifically, they are good or bad at it – rather than reinforcing it as a valuable part of who they are and who they are becoming. We do this because we start judging their creativity as a product and lose the beauty and necessity of the process. In doing so, we actually push our kids away from the creative process as they get older.
To make matters worse, we also start to evaluate good or bad creativity relative to very specific and finite mediums. So, the kid who can draw or play an instrument is told he is creative. The kid who loves math or history or even science, on the other hand, is at least by contrast, if not explicitly, told he is not. Creativity perversely then becomes the exclusive realm of the arts. As a result, we again push most of our kids away from the creative process. Creativity is for some and not others.
Most of us have no idea how we have used creativity in a way that hurts the very idea we value. We see how “creative” people question, deconstruct, or synthesize things in ways that are unique. We appreciate ways that they interpret and express the world. But, we have lumped this all into a generic term. We should be more explicit about what we value in creativity.
We should tell people we appreciate how they thought about something, that their question was great. We should ask them how they came to think of or express an idea in a way we hadn’t thought of. We should celebrate and ask about their process for learning or organizing new information. We should try to understand how and where they arrived at some kind of divergent thinking.
Basically, we should be more creative about how we think about, acknowledge, and invest in creativity.
I understand why so many adults say that they aren’t creative. I just don’t buy it. We’ve been brainwashed by an evaluative and arbitrarily narrow use of the word. We need to reclaim creativity in each of our lives and work. We need to stop seeing creativity as the developmental realm of the child or the specific domain of the arts.
Creativity is within all of us, and all of us will be better off when more of us accept it, and put it into action.
Reposting a blog about my book Creating Matters: Reflections on Art, Business, and Life (so far) originally posted here by Seton Catholic Schools' Chief Academic Officer William H. Hughes Ph.D.
Anderson William’s book Creating Matters is gaining traction. We are using Creating Matters as a guide in the development of the Seton Catholic Schools Academic Team.
Creating Matters is helping us to think differently about our work as educators: our priorities, relationships, and what we are creating – in this case high performing schools and effective leaders.
The world has always belonged to learners. Creating, building creative relationships, and purposefully reflecting can generate continuous learning and help us think differently about transforming a school, a business or one’s life.
We have to think differently or we won’t grow and understand the changing world around us. Lifelong learning opens our minds exposes us to new vantage points, more things to see, to touch, to explore. Lifelong learning is hard work. It is not for everyone, but for those who commit, the joy and engagement makes one’s life better.
To sustain lifelong learning, we must depend on our creativity. Creativity defines the nature of our relationships. It puts our learning into action. It is a philosophy of how we see the world and our role in it. Creativity will determine whether our efforts will ultimately create impact, whether we transform schools and build new leaders, and pass that work to a new generation.
Creating anything new starts with asking questions: questioning the perceptions of the others, the sources of accepted fact; the thinking that verified it; and how we rethink the work of transforming schools from scratch. Too many schools and districts are great examples of organizations that have failed over time to recreate themselves while convincing themselves they are better than the facts show. In the case of Seton Catholic Schools, Creating Matters guides us in creating with a focus on what kids should be learning and becoming: creative, lifelong learners who are ready to change and engage in their community. Isn’t that what schools are charged with doing?
Schools in transformation must ask this question: If we are starting from scratch and wanted the kids to become lifelong learners, is what we are doing now what we would design from scratch? Answering this question and wrestling with its implications require us to be more creative, to have stronger relationships that survive the necessary arguments and conflicts, and to build our work on a model of creating rather than constantly fixing.
At Seton, we are seeing some bright spots in teaching and learning along with better student engagement with faculty who are starting from scratch. We are collectively creating and questioning our own assumptions, learning new skills and creating lifelong learning across our school community. When we bring this shared purpose and focus to our classrooms and students, the transformation is palpable. We are building a community of students, faculty and staff who are committing to lifelong learning and to creating the kinds of schools where that commitment is put into practice.
Read Creating Matters and then put it into practice. This isn’t about “seven easy steps to a better you” or some other seemingly simple approach to creativity or leadership. It’s about renewing your awareness of who you are and what you can do when you commit to creating what matters in school, business, or most importantly, life.
by Teri Dary, Anderson Williams, and Terry Pickeral, Special Olympics Project UNIFY Consultants
In our last blog, we focused on what creative tension means in the context of relationships between young people and adults in our schools. We outlined core principles and assumptions that are critical for this work, and discussed how the roles for young people and adults shift in the creative tension model.
This blog presents a series of real-world examples that demonstrate the use of a creative tension in carrying out intergenerational work within the school context. There are a few key ideas to keep an eye on. First, each example shows youth and adults working toward shared goals, with young people being viewed as meaningful contributors and partners in the process. Second, supporting their shared goals, you will see how personal goals and aspirations align with and support their collective work. Finally, each values the other’s experiences, perceptions, skills, beliefs, and ideas and understands that they are critical to achieving personal and shared goals.
Ultimately, these examples are intended to demonstrate the varying ways schools and systems can support and nurture collaboration and shared outcomes between youth and adults.
Curriculum and Instructional Design
A high school chemistry teacher created a more connected learning process by organizing unit information on his white board by the content standards, and then highlighting for the students where each of these standards were addressed in labs, quizzes, class activities, homework, and tests. Rather than simply posting the standards, this is an active, dynamic process to help students understand how each discreet learning element ties to the bigger picture and connects to other learning. These connections then play out in quizzes, homework, and summative labs, which guide students in determining their level of understanding and focuses on demonstrating mastery rather than just obtaining a grade and moving on. Students are making decisions about how and when to study based on this knowledge and are better prepared to guide their own learning. Alternately, the teacher continuously engages students in the process of learning from design to assessment, helping them better understand how everything fits together and their role in both teaching and learning.
A core component of the structure for this chemistry class is having students work in groups that stay the same throughout each unit. Groups are encouraged to apply critical thinking in labs and class assignments by altering variables and designing their own labs to produce desired results. In ensuring all students are contributing team members, everyone in the group is responsible for teaching as well as learning from others in the process.
The result? Creative tension between the students and teacher in working toward shared goals has substantially increased learning, engagement, and ownership of the teaching and learning process by both the teacher and students.
Basic Lesson Planning
We were reading “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger recently and he shared an example of a teacher who recognized the challenge of engaging students when teachers ask all the questions (and hold all the answers). He wanted students to ask the questions in class, so they would own the process of finding the answer. So, for one lesson, instead of asking “how long will it take to fill that bucket with water” and having the students complete a worksheet with prompts and places for calculations and so forth, the teacher took a video, a long video, of water dripping into a bucket and showed it to his students. It was mundane and redundant and monotonous and felt weird, like nothing was happening. Finally, almost exasperated, the students asked for themselves: “how long is it going to take to fill that bucket!?” Now that the students had asked, they also actually were intrigued and interested in finding out. As a result, the students built their solution not only from their own question, but from the shared experience of watching that water drip into the bucket. They wanted an answer, so they worked to find it.
One high school we worked with, like many around the country, was experiencing significant demographic shifts with a huge influx of students and families from Latin America. They knew many of their parents did not speak English, but also knew that they were sending home important information about the school, about their students, and so forth that the parents could not read. For starters, they knew they needed to translate their materials into Spanish.
They contacted a nearby university and through their Multicultural Center found college students eager to assist. However, the university students requested that high school students in Spanish classes also be engaged in translating the various communications to parents. As a result, the school, Spanish teachers, high school students, and college students all worked together, sharing and enhancing each others’ skills and awareness of the issue. To do so required some changes in process for each and required creative tension among all to make it successful.
Ultimately, the university students working with a countywide nonprofit established English classes for Latino families.
A high school leadership class was designed to provide students an opportunity to learn and practice valuable leadership skills by addressing issues in their school and community. One group of students in the class decided they were concerned about students’ ability to transition from the overly structured high school environment to the unstructured college environment. They had never experienced or practiced the decision-making that comes with such freedom.
To address this issue, they decided seniors should be able to have open campus lunch, to practice some additional independence. The group worked with their teacher to review board policy and school rules, surveyed local businesses, and developed an open campus proposal. (This process in and of itself was also an exercise in independence.) The principal gave permission to work on the project and provided a set of criteria that would need to be met. Additional provisions were made to address concerns raised by teachers, community members, and local businesses. Based on this work, the students developed a district policy and succeeded in getting the policy passed by the school board, allowing seniors to leave campus during lunch.
Working across systems is inherent to working intergenerationally and requires the ability to generate creative tension rather than destructive. Complaints or protests or otherwise by the students could have just as easily shut down the opportunity and the solution they sought. Working together allowed it to come to fruition. Additionally, this process and the additional trust and responsibility provided to seniors generated improvements in school climate more broadly.
A group of high school students working with a community based organization began to research and ask questions about why only a handful of students at their school went to college each year, when they knew the numbers were vastly greater at other public schools across town. When they first raised the subject with their principal, she was immediately defensive and tried to shut down any avenues for continued research and organizing. In response, the youth requested a series of meetings with her to discuss the issue, their research, and their concerns; just with her, no pressure and no real need to be defensive in front of teachers, colleagues, etc. Ultimately, the principal became the schools’ biggest advocate for college access and, working with her students and her counseling staff, doubled the number of students who made it to college in one year. Their work together was highlighted in a documentary called “College on the Brain.” With their initial questions, the students had accidentally created a destructive tension scenario, because the principal did not feel safe to have the discussion without going on the defensive. Reaching out and clarifying their desire to work together and articulating how improving college access could be a shared goal for students, counselors and the principal, the students moved toward creative tension and enabled a powerful example of intergenerational work.
Students, parents and schools around the country have created and implemented R-Word campaigns to eradicate the derogatory use of the word “retard” in their schools. With the goal of making schools safer and more equitable for all students, an R-Word campaign sends a powerful message, but one that is only made powerful by the commitment of students, teachers, school leaders, and parents. In other words, it is a community effort. Typically, these campaigns begin as a conversation between students and teachers who then get commitment from school administrators. In developing a plan and a kickoff on Spread the Word to End the Word Day, the school community works together to create banners and posters, to get food, to get commitment signatures and so forth. As a result, schools that have gone through this process of working together and worked toward a more inclusive school environment have seen dramatic improvements in school climate and reduction in bullying.
There are clearly many ways each school can begin to incorporate creative tension to enhance intergenerational work. And, they all begin with a shared goal among young people and adults around a creating an engaging teaching and learning environment where all students and adults have opportunities to contribute meaningfully. The key is to begin. Start from where you are, start small, and seek continuous improvement.
In our February 18 blog, we clarified the distinction between creative tension and destructive tension as they relate to our relationships and our work in schools. And, our example was focused on the relationships among adults in a school.
In this blog, we focus on what creative tension means specifically for the relationship between young people and adults in our schools. For starters, we cannot develop real creative tension unless we change the way we see young people and their role in education.
What would happen if we decided our students were our partners in education, rather than mere recipients of it? What if we believed they had something to teach us? To teach each other? What if our goals were shared goals and our accountability collective? What if education were intergenerational work?
How would this change the relationships between students and adults in a school?
Imagine a student and a teacher holding opposite ends of a rubber band. As each pulls away or comes closer, the tension in the band changes. It moves. It makes sound. It has energy.
But, if one pulls too hard, the energy generates fear and uncertainty in the other (What happens if she lets go? I’m gonna get popped!). Movement becomes limited. The energy becomes bound. The band is taut. It is not productive. This is destructive tension.
Now, what happens if one relaxes the tension on his end? The band goes limp. It has no energy, no sound, no movement. It sags. What does this mean for the one left holding it? What about the one who let go? This lack of shared tension (energy) results in destructive tension.
In creative tension, the energy each person contributes is dynamic and dependent upon each individual's personal goals, their collective goals, their relationship and their trust in each other. It is constantly changing. So, to remain productive, we have to constantly communicate the tension we need and listen to others as they do the same. Our relationships then must become more dynamic and multifaceted such that the right tension becomes both intentional and intuitive.
So, what does intergenerational work mean? Intergenerational work is neither about young people nor adults. Intergenerational work is about the work. It is a change strategy that believes that different generations bring critical experiences, perspectives, skills, and relationships to the work that the others do not. And, to effectively achieve our goals, to do our work, we need all of us working together.
Perhaps the most established model of intergenerational organizing comes from Southern Echo in Mississippi. While their community organizing model does not directly translate to schools, its descriptions of what intergenerational means are informative.
According to Southern Echo, intergenerational means:
1. Bringing younger and older people together in the work on the same basis. This principle is simply about building a collaborative approach to the way our schools function. It is as true for intergenerational relationships as it is for relationships between adults. Maybe that's why we struggle with “motivating” students. Rather than imposing our goals and ways of functioning on students, we should engage students with us, not simply try to convince them to do what we want them to do in the ways we want them to do it (on our basis). There is no creative tension in that approach. Our schools could follow a wise mantra often repeated by the youth leaders of Project UNIFY: “Nothing about us without us.” In this, there is creative tension.
2. Enabling younger and older people to develop the skills and tools of organizing work and leadership development, side by side, so that in the process they can learn to work together, learn to respect each other, and overcome the fear and suspicion of each that is deeply rooted in the culture. This principle means that each young person and adult has the opportunity and obligation to bring his skills and develop his weaknesses for the betterment of the collective. The right tension depends then on the positive and negative expectations one has for self and others. For example, a student may have higher expectations for himself (+) and but has a teacher with lower (-), leading to a (+-) relationship. This dynamic happens just as readily in the opposite direction as well. As a result, energy and strategies for skill development and creation of goals are misaligned and destructive tension rules. Maintaining creative tension in intergenerational work means nurturing collaborative partnerships that build upon inequitable skills, with youth and adults both learning from and teaching each other.
The roots of this dynamic between youth and adults, however, are deeply rooted in our culture, so addressing them effectively is indeed counter-culture and demands fidelity and consistency, and a touch of a counter-cultural spirit.
3. It is often necessary to create a learning process and a work strategy that ensure younger people develop the capacity to do the work without being intimidated, overrun or outright controlled by the older people in the group. “Control” and “exercise of authority” are great temptations for older people, even for those who have long been in the struggle and strongly believe in the intergenerational model. Culturally, young people are taught to defer power to adults and adults are typically rewarded personally and professionally for acquiring power. It is deeply rooted in our education systems and our economy. So, breaking out of that dynamic does not happen quickly or easily. Having a shared intergenerational model and shared understanding of and commitment to the resulting creative tension is critical for the work to take root. It cannot be ad hoc. Young people and adults both need to own it, respect it, celebrate it, and call on it when they feel that it is not being executed with fidelity.
There are some important assumptions that are inherent to this work:
In our next blog we will focus on a couple of case studies where creative tension and effective intergenerational work have improved school climate and outcomes.
Written by: Anderson Williams, Teri Dary, and Terry Pickeral
originally published by the Learning First Alliance
The problem with public education is that there isn’t enough tension. The other problem with public education is that there’s too much tension. And, perhaps the biggest problem is that both of these are correct; and we don’t distinguish between creative tension and destructive tension.
Without distinguishing between the two, we cannot intentionally build structures and relationships that create the systems our students need: systems of shared leadership, strategic risk-taking, and mutual responsibility. Systems of creative tension. Instead, we more commonly build top-down structures that generate destructive tension and bottom-up structures to avoid, relieve, or push back against them.
At all levels and relationships, public education is replete with destructive tension. Whether it’s the policymaker focusing on test scores he has no control over, the School Board trying to improve classroom practice it has no experience with, or the district administrator trying to empower principals who have systematically been disempowered, we lack the structures and processes to support creative tension. So, our tension becomes destructive, structural stress, which becomes a self-fulfilling and redundant system of production.
So, what are the key differences between a structure that produces destructive tension and one that generates creative tension?
The following shows two possibilities for some relatively simply planning among school faculty to improve student outcomes. While this just illustrates the start of planning, the same models and considerations can be extended through all stages of action, reflection, assessment, and improvement.
Making a Plan: The Destructive Tension Approach
A principal is approached by a group of teachers who are concerned about increased expectations to provide interventions and supports for students with intellectual disabilities, but without any additional planning time for new strategies. The principal listened to their concerns and then explained the rationale he used when making this decision. He assured them it was the right decision for their school. The principal recommended that the teachers use their current individual prep time to collaborate with other staff and develop individualized plans to meet students' needs. He asked to see their plans at the next staff meeting.
Making a Plan: The Creative Tension Approach
A principal is approached by a group of teachers who are concerned about increased expectations to provide interventions and supports for students with intellectual disabilities without additional time to develop and plan for the new strategies. The principal adds this topic to the agenda of a staff meeting scheduled for the next week.
In that meeting, he asks staff to consider what each is doing in their classroom to ensure all learners have equitable access to instruction in meeting their individual needs. (Reflection) Through the discussion, the staff begins to recognize that too many learners are not finding success and that staff as a whole uses a fairly narrow range of interventions. (Ownership)
Together with the principal, they agree on a shared goal to adopt a wider variety of interventions and supports to increase student success and identify the ones they want to focus on first. (Purpose) As part of this, they make a plan to have fellow teachers who are experts in the priority areas provide brief peer-to-peer professional development opportunities during each staff meeting. Over time, they aspire to have each teacher share their successes and challenges with the group. (Commitment, Teaching/Learning)
The principal and staff develop a plan to allocate time for teachers to plan for implementation and engage a teacher coach to provide modeling and time to practice and refine their skills. (Collective Action)
The principal and staff schedule regular, frequent opportunities to reflect and refine practice individually, with the coach, and in professional learning communities. (Reflection)
To reduce the destructive tension that often undercuts efforts to improve how our schools function, intentional practices that nurture creative tension need to be imbedded throughout the relationships within the school and across a school system.
These relationships include not only adults, but also the young people as the largest stakeholder in public education. In their absence as a constituent in the variables of the creative tension model, we will never build structurally creative systems. Keep an eye out for our next blog to focus on creative tension among young people and adults.
Written by: Anderson Williams, Teri Dary, and Terry Pickeral
originally published by the Learning First Alliance