A principal explains why creativity is an essential part of his district’s new student-centered teaching and learning framework.
By Gerard Dawson
This phrase from Michael Flushman, the incoming principal at Mason Middle School in the Lucia Mar Unified School District in California, captures a major problem facing education. How do schools create meaningful learning experiences while preparing students for the future and for state tests?
Several years ago, Lucia Mar found itself with an enviable technology infrastructure, including strong WiFi and access to devices like Chromebooks, and wanted to support the latest tech with an updated approach to teaching and learning. Instructional leaders set out to build an instructional framework that emphasizes seven essential skills that, according to the district, “We want our students and employees to exhibit.” These behaviors include:
- Character & Citizenship
- Creativity & Innovation
- Critical Thinking
- Multiple Literacies
For Flushman, introducing this framework “was about providing quality instruction and engagement for our kids. There are a lot of things that we’ve been doing for years, and they haven’t necessarily been that successful.” Here are some steps Lucia Mar took that other districts can follow.
- Agree on a common language across the district. This spring, the district gathered teachers and administrators from all of its schools to discuss how to best meet the needs of today’s students. They then brought in Jason Culbertson, President of Insight Education Group, to lead workshops with administrators. These workshops focused on leadership and instruction, and the district eventually broadened them to include administrators, district office personnel, and teachers from each district site.
This work was, according to Culbertson, “grounded in resources and research.” The group cited and discussed research from notable innovators in education, including Tony Wagner, Michael Fullan, Carol Dweck, and Ken Kay.
As a result of that work, every teacher and administrator in the district has a common language to use in conversations about students. Flushman explains, “When we come back [to school], our opening discussion is ‘What are students doing and why are they doing it?’”
In addition to commonality, simplicity is another important aspect of the framework. Culberston explains how this makes it different from other systems used for feedback in schools.
“Many of the other frameworks are expansive documents, which are overwhelming, especially to new educators…Our ‘North Star’ in this process was to limit the number of ‘Look For’s’ for students to 5 or 6.’ Additionally, examples of teacher actions to look for were added the framework, but only as examples to make the document more user-friendly.
Lastly, an essential feature of the framework is its focus on students. “The leadership at Lucia Mar wanted to flip that paradigm to begin with the learners and be learner-centered,” Culberston explains.
- Expand the perception of creativity. Flushman says that students “have this thirst for creativity and creation. It’s why Legos are such a popular toy and Minecraft is such a popular game.” Flushman wants students to use topics that are exciting and relevant to them as a vehicles to accelerate their learning.
Creating the framework led Flushman and other district leaders to expand their view of creativity beyond what happens in art or music classes. The district decided on several distinct intellectual behaviors to serve as evidence that students are practicing creativity. For example, students are expected to think independently and find innovative ways to solve problems.
Flushman notes that his observations of his own children’s schooling helped stoke his wish to promote creativity in his district. He has three children, and “they do well in school, but they don’t love it. They’re not jumping up out of bed every morning to go to school.”
- Offer ongoing PD to keep the conversation going. In addition to Flushman’s own life, important professional development in the district makes the framework a living document that can evolve over time. “The past couple of years, our curriculum department has tried to give administrators the tool kit of things that we have in our back pocket,” Flushman notes.
This PD included work with Google, who encouraged school leaders to “10x” their thinking about student achievement, which meant looking not just for incremental improvement but for practices that could help teachers and students perform 10 times better. On a practical level, Culbertson explains, “They’re looking for students to work on these big global issues. Whether it’s equality or the environment, they’re looking to create an environment where the students take the initiative, not only to do those things, but to have the autonomy to decide what those things are.”
As part of the ongoing PD process, the framework will be used as an instructional coaching tool as opposed to a punitive teacher evaluation instrument. This, Culberston believes, is a powerful differentiator that the district has decided on. “I would give all credit to the leadership in LMUSD,” Culberston says, “for seeing the need to have a learning framework divorced from evaluation for coaching conversations.”
Flushman believes that promoting and rewarding creativity amongst teachers and students requires open communication. He suggests that teachers and administrators discuss questions such as:
- What does communication look like with students?
- How do we know they’re communicating well?
- How do we know they’re being creative?
- When are students being creative?
- How do we provide creative opportunities for students?
Additionally, teachers and administrators can visit classrooms to observe successful instances of promoting creativity.
Both the status quo of the teaching profession as well as teaching standards in many states can leave teachers feeling like they have little room for creativity, so Flushman notes that promoting creativity must come in a direct message from district leaders. “When we’re explicit about, ‘Hey, we really want our kids to be excited about learning, and we want them to do things that they’re excited about, and we want them to do things that are relevant to their future and not just to hit a standard. I think that gets people excited,” Flushman explains.
Culbertson echoes Flushman’s beliefs about the importance of aligning teacher practice with students’ unknown future needs. “In 2018, if we are not creating innovators, we are doing a disservice at the micro-level of the students. We are sending students out ill-prepared for the growing complexities of moving toward the 22nd century,” he said.
This message, paired with common language like the teaching and learning framework, act as a powerful combination, even in the face of pressure from standardized tests. Flushman says the district is empowering teachers by telling them, “This is what matters to us, and we’re confident that if you’re doing these things, test scores will go up anyway, because kids are getting what they need.”
Gerard Dawson is an English and journalism teacher at Hightstown (NJ) High School, the author of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers, and a contributor to The Best Lesson Series: Literature. Follow him on Twitter: @GerardDawson3.