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:
- Youth need to be viewed, developed, and supported as meaningful contributors to the school and wider community, not as problems to be “fixed.”
- Youth and adults each need to develop their own personal goals and aspirations related to their work in education.
- Both youth and adults need to fully embody the conviction that each has valuable experiences, perceptions, skills, beliefs, and ideas.
- Youth and adults must develop shared goals.
- Schools and systems must adopt policies, practices, and expectations that support and nurture collaboration and shared outcomes.
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