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Creativity and System Leadership

As much as we hear experts and presenters talk about the need for creativity in education in an incessantly dynamic and interconnected world, we see rather dimly when it comes to how to catalyse it. We say, “Yes! We need more creativity in education!,” yet, when it comes to action on this front, we’re waiting to be told how to do it, as if there were some road map or how-to manual to which we all should have access. A creativity toolkit, perhaps? The standards-based movement looks at creativity and tries to codify it by writing a standard around it, then integrating that standard into individual ‘creative’ learning opportunities. While some parameters are arguably helpful, actual prescription is simply a continuation of how we’ve always ‘done school.’ Stated otherwise, continuing to do what we are currently doing, but doing it somehow more brilliantly, is not likely to produce very different outcomes. This ‘default setting,’ if you will, is what Roger Martin (University of Toronto) refers to as the ‘knowledge funnel.’

The reason we’re having a problem determining how to become more creative is due to our encountering a challenge that is systemic in nature. We will struggle to unleash students’ (and our) creative potential until we focus more intentionally on “how to catalyse and guide systemic change at a scale commensurate with the scale of problems we face” (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015, 28). In other words, the wicked problem we face is the system itself, and what we require is a relentless focus on system leadership to change it. Preparation for system leadership, however, seems conspicuously absent from current leadership programmes that serve international schools; rather, extant programmes are orientated more toward our taken-for-granted assumptions about leadership. Consequently, we have a leadership model that is reliable, but not necessarily valid in today’s world. What we need is a model that is both reliable and valid. Again, Roger Martin has much to say about this balance, or what he terms integrative thinking.

In order for us to advance creativity in schools, part of what needs to happen is a mindset shift toward creating space for change, rather than marching through a traditional strategic plan. Being a systems leader, then, is inherently about creativity. System leadership is creational in nature.

If we are to move toward catalysing creativity in international schools, we need to focus more intentionally on nurturing the core capabilities of system leaders. The aforementioned SSIR article proposes the following three capabilities that system leaders develop (as a learning process, since the best system leaders are also relentless learners), as a means of enabling collective leadership amongst those with whom they work:

(1) seeing the larger system

(2) fostering reflection and more generative conversations

(3) shifting the collective focus from reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future

By seeing the larger system is meant a perspective that allows organisations to work for the health of the entire system rather than to focus myopically on symptomatic fixes for individual pieces, which often tends to be the case in schools. We constantly move to fix one piece, then another, and yet another. We end up immersed in reactive problem-solving. Insofar as fostering reflection and generative conversations are concerned, we may say that, quite simply, we need to hold up the mirror and see our taken-for-granted assumptions, while appreciating how our own mental models may limit us. It is just possible that we may be wrong about our assumptions, and that may be a frightening thought. Indeed, to many it may seem a weakness, yet it is a strength in systems-based thinking. Finally, shifting from reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future is not just a subtle shift in collective mindset; it is how we reach success in catalysing creativity in system leadership. That shift, however, is not easy (nor should it be), given that systems change “often starts with conditions that are undesirable,” as the authors of the SSIR piece state (29). Happily, however, “artful system leaders help people move beyond just reacting to these problems by building positive visions for the future. […] Equally important as building an inspiring vision, however, is the ability to face difficult truths about the present reality” (29).

What is our present reality, when it comes to creativity in international schools? What are our ‘difficult truths?’ I submit that most of them are tied to the notion of curricular restraints, irrespective of specific curriculum followed. We become chained to the prescriptive reality of curricular necessities, quite possibly to the detriment of our students’ learning as well as our own. In other words, we seem to engage the discussion of creativity from within specific curricular contexts (enter your curriculum here), but have we considered that that very context is but part of a far larger system on which we rarely focus? Consider the following [and admittedly paraphrased] quote, which I’ve heard from more than one head over the past six months: “If I have to choose between X and [training in the curriculum that our school follows], there is no choice. I will choose training in the curriculum that our school follows.” This citation is appropriately exemplary of a leadership model that is reliable, but quite possibly not valid, when it comes to the needs of our students. And so the current system perpetuates itself.

We must begin to ask ourselves some very pointed questions, such as “What do we really want to create?” and “What exists today?” In between these two questions, we will find enough to produce a creative tension that can serve as the spark for the next stage in our evolution as international schools. To be consistent with my narrative here, we (membership association world) should be seeking the ‘difficult truths’ about conferences, such as whether the traditional formats and scope are both reliable and valid. We want to foster reflection and generative conversation around professional development, and we aspire to co-create the future of conferences.

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