For years, Albert Einstein’s saying “Imagination is more important than knowledge” adorned my office wall. It acted as a reminder that creativity in the classroom is critical to success. I believe that knowledge is fundamental, but what you do with that knowledge is what truly matters. I also believe that being creative is what makes us uniquely human. As Rav Soloveitchik writes in Halachic Man, “If the Torah then chose to relate to man the tale of creation, we may clearly derive one law from this manner of procedure, that man is obligated to engage in creation.”
Creativity is not the exclusive province of dreamers and creators, artists, musicians, actors and authors. It involves problem solving, flexible thinking and approaching challenges in non-routine ways. It is a survival skill, and one that, in our rapidly changing and complex world, is needed more than ever. A 2010 IBM study of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries found that “chief executives believe that—more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision—successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity.” A recent report from the World Economic Forum also found creativity to be the third most essential skill companies seek in 2020, with critical thinking being second and complex problem solving being first.
If our students are to thrive in their world, we must nurture their innate creativity and teach them how to apply it. I have dedicated much of my own life to integrating creativity into education. I have done so as a teacher, educational consultant and principal. I trained teachers in project-based learning (PBL) and utilized PBL in many of my courses to make the subject more meaningful and nurture individual creativity. I developed and taught classes on innovation and design and built a makerspace with my own hands.
But experience has taught me that it is not enough just to be a creative educator. A school must have creative leadership so that creativity can flourish. An administration can either build many walls for teachers to exhaustingly climb over or build bridges for them to cross effortlessly from original idea to new idea. The educational leaders of a school determine whether creativity thrives or dies. As a new head of school, I know I must have a creative team and be strategic to ensure that creativity thrives at our school. Here are four methods I’ve used.
Hire Creative People
If you want creative people on your team, hire them. Most educational leaders don’t have the luxury of hiring a new staff when they take on a new position, but when hiring opportunities arise, they should strive to hire creative people. It starts with the job posting. Most postings are boring and generic. To attract creative people, write a job posting that is far from generic (read more here: bit.ly/creativepost). Next, find out if applicants have the creative chops you are looking for. Have them read an article that shares your vision and ask what they think of it. I like “Willing to be Disturbed” by Margaret J. Wheatley (bit.ly/mjwheatley). Throw out a few problems you have tackled and ask how they would handle them. Do they illustrate flexible thinking? Ask what they did differently from others in their previous role. Are they curious? When you take them on a tour of the school, do they ask deep questions and point out things that make your school unique? If you like what you hear and see, hire them and make sure you nurture their creativity so that they can cultivate the creativity of others. Also, never forget the creative people already on your team. If you are fortunate like me to have landed a position with some amazingly creative educators, you must always work hard at nurturing and supporting their creativity.
Let an Idea Breathe
At the inaugural Prizmah conference last year in Chicago, attendees were treated to the wisdom of improvisational theater and how it can apply to our schools. There is no question that many of the “rules” of improv can help cultivate creativity among your staff. For example, the fundamental “yes, and” rule of improv has been instituted in our admin meetings, as explained below.
To support creativity, a staff needs to be encouraged and supported to ask, “What if?” They need to wonder with you and each other. However, a person asking “what if” can feel very vulnerable, as the first “what if” question is likely a very raw idea. That is where “yes, and” comes in. In improv, when an actor begins the scene with an idea, it is the job of the other actors to agree with whatever is suggested and add to it. For example, an actor might start a scene saying, “This grocery has the best selection of gefilte fish,” and another actor will respond, “Yes, and they are famous for their all-you-can-eat gefilte fish bar.”
Natural agreement, support and contribution are the goals with staff when using this technique, and if they need to start with actually using the words “yes, and,” that is perfectly fine. A staff member might suggest at a meeting, as did one of ours, “What if we had a Chanukah event in a room full of black lights.” Another staff member could say, “Yes, and we can hire LED dancers.” Then another staff member says, “Yes, and we can call it spread the light” and so on and so forth until an amazing event happens for the school. It is a simple yet fundamental technique to give a potentially great idea room to breathe and grow that might otherwise be stifled with a dismissive “yes, but,” or worse, “no.”
Create a Structure for Ideas to Develop
In order to nurture creativity, you need a system and structure to cultivate ideas. That can be setting aside time for brainstorming and professional development on design thinking, providing micro-grants for new ideas, or, as in our case, creating a schoolwide structure for innovation.
Last summer, driven by a desire to create a sustainable system of innovation in our school and supported by a grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, Akiba-Schechter began the process of creating the first research and development department in a Jewish day school. Our R&D Department studies, prototypes, researches and scales new teaching and learning approaches, practices and systems that advance relevant learning for our students and the field of education. It is a system that ensures new programs, models and ideas are thoughtfully implemented and sustained. In many companies, R&D departments play an integral role in the life cycle of a product. For us, we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and in teacher and student learning. Creating this structure for innovation has given us a process to foster new ideas.
If an R&D Department sounds like a tall order, start with an hour a week or month to meet with any staff interested in trying something new. Use the “yes, and” approach to hear those ideas, and see what happens next. For those considering building a new department, I suggest reading R&D Your School: How to Start, Grow, and Sustain Your School’s Innovation Engine by Dr. Shabbi Luthra and Scot Hoffman, who trained us to get R&D off the ground at our school.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink reports that modern research identifies three key components of job satisfaction: autonomy, mastery and purpose. These factors lead to intrinsic motivation, which is conducive to creativity. I have yet to meet an educator who does not feel the work has purpose. If a school supports ongoing learning for their staff (and they should), mastery should be part and parcel of the educators’ experience. It is autonomy that many schools need to look at more closely.
Autonomy is the need to be the driver of your life or work. Satisfaction comes from a degree of control over what one does and how one does it. Autonomy does not mean that accountability is out the window, just that how you reach your goals is a lot more flexible.
Pink advocates for a results-only work environment or ROWE, where employees don’t have schedules and can get the work done how they want, when they want and where they want. In a tech company, where ROWE originated, this makes sense. A school is different because, in most cases, staff needs to be in place at certain times. Nevertheless, there is still room for autonomy as long as your school is not a teach-to-the-test, sit-and-be-quiet-behind-a-desk-all-day, standardized-curriculum-with-formulaic-methods type of school.
At Akiba-Schechter, our methods and models challenge our staff. I don’t mean they are difficult for them, but they require skill and dedication to execute. Our classrooms are multiage by design (read more here: prizmah.org/breaking-age-barrier), inquiry-based learning is at the core of much of the learning, our preschool is Reggi-inspired, and we are pedagogically guided by the principle that we teach children, not subjects. There are general curricular goals to achieve, and our academic expectations are high. Implementing our personalized approach requires great creativity in order to adapt the educational goals and methods for each student’s needs and interests.
Despite our emphasis on pedagogy and individualized learning, we ensure that teachers have the autonomy to pursue their own interests in the classroom as well as employ their individual expertise to reach each child. When a teacher says they would like to teach Mishnah alongside contemporary law, we support it. Bring maker activities into the science or Tanakh classroom? Absolutely! Design an escape room to teach grammar? No one is going to stop you!
Our staff and teachers remind me daily of Robert Frost’s statement, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” The key to keeping it that way is to give teachers and staff room to imagine, to create and to shine.