Guest post by Brian Pickering
What can secondary schools do to build a learning environment that fosters creativity and innovation?
Seven years ago, the leadership team at Contoocook Valley Regional High School, or ConVal, set off on a mission to answer this question. The goal was to guarantee all students the opportunity for academic and social support, as well as learning extensions and enrichment. The team at ConVal was able to accomplish this and so much more as they built a learner-centric environment that tapped into students’ passions, personalized educational pathways, and recognized students as important co-creators of their futures. The other unexpected benefit of building this creative secondary school culture was the success of dozens and now hundreds of schools throughout the country that have adopted the model.
During this journey, I have learned that there are two factors essential to developing this type of engaging, innovative learning environment: 1) a culture that empowers teachers, and 2) a flexible structure for all students. I call this approach, “Culture + Structure.”
Culture of Teacher Empowerment
The goal is to allow teachers the freedom to explore by creating a culture that empowers them to put new ideas into practice. So what does an empowered teacher look like? An empowered teacher seeks out new ideas through research, professional development, and collaboration, and continually reviews curriculum to meet the ever-changing needs of students. An empowered teacher adjusts instructional methods for varied learning styles and tries out new assessments which offer students creative ways to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. An empowered teacher takes risks and is not afraid to let students choose their learning path while staying focused on the key learning competencies.
A learning environment that fosters creativity and innovation requires a flexible structure. ConVal runs a block schedule and has a 43-minute flexible period in the middle of each day called TASC (Teachers in Academic Support Centers). TASC allows opportunities for relearning, extensions, and enrichments, as well as mentoring and advising. TASC gives students timely help and intervention and a mentor to guide them through the academic, social, and emotional stressors of high school. What teachers gain through TASC is the opportunity to address students’ academic and personal needs before they become bigger problems. This flexible structure provides the support and interventions necessary for students and teachers to turn their attention to more creative and innovative ventures.
This Culture + Structure led to a variety of new and engaging learning opportunities at ConVal and started a renaissance at dozens of schools. Students at ConVal were able to engage in exciting learning opportunities, such as “Screenwriting in the Schools” and the Cornucopia, “Farm to Fork Fellowship.” In the classroom, there are more opportunities to create, like a student who designed a 1920s-period dress for her final project on The Great Gatsby or a teacher who offered her students a cartoon alternative to an argumentative essay.
Perhaps one of the best illustrations of the creative renaissance at ConVal was the “Making a Living Making Art: S.T.E.A.M. at Work” program, which began with the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts grant. This program brought five artists into the school for two full days to meet with teachers, work with students directly on creative projects, and share their experiences working in a creative field. Students learned from Tania León, the award-winning American Latino composer and conductor; MacDowell Fellow Gabriel Jesiolowski, an award-winning designer, poet, and artist; and ConVal graduate Jason Warnesky, a successful animation artist for The Simpsons.
Creativity and innovation flourish when schools empower teachers to take risks and when they provide a flexible structure that gives students the right support and opportunities for enrichment. What does your school do to bring creativity and innovation into the learning environment?
Brian Pickering has been involved in New Hampshire education for 30 years as a teacher, coach, administrator, and now, consultant. During his tenure as principal of Contoocook Valley Regional High School, from 2010–17, the school was twice considered as a candidate for the New Hampshire Excellence in Education Award. In 2016, Pickering was recognized as the New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He now helps train secondary school leaders to develop their curriculum and culture into a more personalized, creative, and innovative model for teacher and student success. Follow him on Twitter @bsppickering and learn about his consulting practice, Pickering Educational Services.