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BFTP: Features of school cultures that embrace creativity

Does your school’s culture inhibit or encourage creativity in its students and employees? Often formed over dozens of years, the values, habits, and climates of school buildings are incredibly difficult to change. Culture outlasts teachers and administrators; lean and rich budget years; and a vast array of new programs, theories, and strategic plans.

I would never discourage anyone from attempting to change a school culture - especially one that is having a negative impact on students and/or staff. But sane people also look for jobs where a positive culture already exists. Were I looking for a school in which to work (or in which to enroll my children), I’d be looking for some of these attributes:

  1. School climate. Funny how a person can sense the safety, friendliness, and sense of caring within minutes of walking into a school. Little things like cleanliness, open doors to classrooms, laughter, respectful talk, presence of volunteers, and genuine smiles from both adults and kids are the barometers of school climate.

  2. Student work is honored. The hallways, display cases, and teacher bulletin boards should all be used to show and recognize products and accomplishments of the students currently in the school. OK, you can have a wall of famed alumni or old sports trophies, but make sure today’s kids get a chance to share their original work and ideas publicly as well. This also goes for the virtual hallways of the school website.

  3. Public contests and fairs. Science fairs, history days, math competitions, knowledge bowls, speech contests, inventors’ competitions and a host of other possibilities should play a role in students’ educational experiences at all grade levels. A public display of creativity and innovation gives students the opportunity to display the courage needed to be a change agent.

  4. Arts for all in the elementary. In our mad rush to insure all students are capable of demonstrating the “one right answer mentality” on standardized tests, elementary schools have misguidedly cut regular art, music, and physical education opportunities to obtain more time for direct reading and math instruction. Schools that maintain arts offerings for all students maintain the chances for all students to demonstrate creativity.

  5. Elective and extracurricular offerings. What happens in class is important. But so is what happens during the other eighteen hours of the day. Elementary schools need to offer after-school clubs and activities that develop social skills and interests. Secondary schools must be rich with art, sports, technology education, music, and community service choices that develop individual talents, leadership, pride in accomplishment, and pragmatic innovative problem-solving abilities.

  6. Good libraries. The quality of the library is the clearest sign of how much a school values reading, teaching for independent thinking, and lifelong learning. A trained librarian and a welcoming environment with a well-used collection of current physical books and magazines - along with e-resources and minimally filtered Internet access tell a parent that the teachers and principal value more than the memorization of facts from a text book, that a diversity of ideas and opinions is important, and that reading is not just necessary, but pleasurable and important. And that creativity is valued both in production and appreciation.

  7. Open classrooms. There are two facets to open classrooms. The first is the classroom with an open door, uncovered windows, and guests within - parents, volunteers, specialists. The second facet of the open classroom involves openness to new ideas and expressions. Lively discussions and open-ended genuine questions are the hallmarks of this openness.

  8. Project-based learning. Demonstrating competencies through projects and performance are the primary opportunity that students have to practice all three elements of creativity: originality, effectiveness, and craftsmanship. When authentically assessed using a formative assessment strategy, student creativity grow. 

  9. Technology used to create, not just consume. Aligned to this project-based model is how technologies are being used in the classroom. Is that table just an e-book or video monitor or is it used to produce original graphics, podcasts, videos, writings, and other communications?

  10. Commitment to professional development. The amount of exciting research on effective teaching practices and schools is overwhelming. Brain-based research, reflective practice, systematic examination of student work, strategies for working with disengaged students, and the effective use of technology are some of the findings that can have a positive impact on how to best teach children. But research doesn’t do any good if it stays in the  university or journal. Good schools give financial priority to teaching teachers how to improve their practice. These schools honor the knowledge and professionalism of their teaching staff by finding means for teachers to work together in Professional Learning Communities on a regular basis during work hours.

  11. Individual teacher quality. Overall school ratings may be deceptive. Five-star teachers who promote creativity can be found in one-star schools and one-star teachers who primarily teach to the test can be found in five-star schools. And you or your child may encounter either situation. I always listened to what other parents said about the teachers my children might have, and insisted that my kids got the teachers with good reviews - to the dismay of many a school principal.

  12. Genuine student governance. Schools with positive cultures respect students and no greater respect can be shown by giving students themselves a role in the governance of the school. Whether it’s in the form of a student council that has real power, a student selected and directed school play, students serving on building committees, or teachers asking students to formulate classroom norms and rules, adults in schools give students real world problem-solving abilities by giving them real-world problems. And trust.

Students can demonstrate creativity in many different ways. A school with a creativity-positive culture will not have a single great program, but give students the chance to shine in many different ways - artistically, athletically, academically, and socially.

Whether we like it or not, in many states, school “report cards” based on a very limited test-driven data set are ratcheting up competition among schools. Schools with high test scores wave them like a banner to attract parent-consumers. But schools’ self-evaluation (and public relations) efforts need to go beyond bragging about test-based data and need to include other quality criteria as well. Parents do understand that creativity, perhaps even more than calculus, is a critical ability. 

What signs do you see in school and classroom cultures that embrace creativity?

Original post March 25, 2014

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