Professional Learning Communities are a proven element of building successful schools. While a major proponent of PLCs, I argue that creativity is often lost in the meeting process and the examination of student achievement data.
Author of Group Genius, Keith Sawyer, has spent years researching what makes for effective creative teams. Not just effective, but teams that are creative and innovative at what they do. Keith has identified seven key characteristics of creative teams.
1. Innovation Emerges Over Time
“Successful innovations happen when organizations combine just the right ideas in just right structure.”
The main issue here is time. Having enough time for teachers to meet and not only plan lessons, analyze student learning data, and prepare to meet student learning needs but time to get creative. Often problems re-surface because teachers only have enough time to manage the problem, but not truly solve.
Secondly, the processes and values that schools choose to use when teachers meet is a key factor as well. According to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and Disrupting Class, “The reason why innovation often seems to be so difficult for established firms it that they employ highly capable people, and then set them to work within processes and values that weren’t designed to facilitate success with the task at hand.”
2. Successful Collaborative Teams Practice Deep Listening
“Most people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening and observing others.”
Stephen Covey might say, “Seek first to understand.” Deep Listening is a doorway to trust and understanding. Being able to hear and truly understand the issues, feelings, and values involved in a team’s discussion requires that team members put aside their agendas and spend time listening deeply to what other team members have to say.
Deep listening will help teams understand what Tim Hurson, author of the book Think Better, calls “What’s UP.” What are the underlying principles at work here? Teams need to listen to each other to understand these underlying principles and trust that they will be addressed in their work together.
3. Team Members Build On Their Collaborator’s Ideas
“When teams practice deep listening, each new idea is an extension of the ideas that have come before.”
In other words, the best ideas are a mash up of the team’s ideas. Ideas are like Legos or Tinker Toys. Individual ideas can be combined and built into a great idea. Much like a recipe, the individual ingredients work best when they are combined into a wonderful dish.
4. Only Afterwards Does The Meaning Of Each Idea Become Clear
“Even a single idea can’t be attributed to one person because ideas don’t take on their full importance until they’re taken up, reinterpreted, and applied by others.”
Tim Hurson, author of Think Better calls this Gator Brain. Gator Brain is a strategy used to avoid having to think about an idea. You see alligators don’t have much choice about how to react to new stimuli or sensory input.
“If a new creature comes into it’s territory, a gator can flee, it can try to feed on intruder, it may try to mate with the intruder, or it can freeze.” So depending on the size or nature of the intruder the gator is limited to those reactions.
Team need to avoid Gator Brain by not being too quick to respond to ideas. Like a fine wine, ideas need time to breathe.
Think of the team like a band of improvisational actors. “Individual creative actions take on meaning only later, after they are woven into other ideas, created by other actors. In a creative collaboration, each person acts without knowing what his or her action means. Participants are willing to allow other people to give their action meaning by building on it later.”
5. Surprising Questions Emerge
“The most transformative creativity results when a group either thinks of a new way to frame a problem or finds a new problem that no one had noticed before.”
Teams need to take time to reframe problems and ask questions. The major weakness of most PLC teams I have watched or participated in is a failure to ask questions of themselves and each other and a failure to reframe problems to get to underlying issues.
Believing you have the answer or the solution before you are even sure of the real issue is a failure of many PLC teams. Teams must learn to question their assumptions, their ideas, their data, and their plans.
Questioning and problem reframing might lead to the surprising result of finding new problems. “That’s critical because creativity researchers have discovered that the most creative groups are good at finding new problems rather than simply solving old ones.”
6. Innovation Is Inefficient
“Improvised innovation makes more mistakes, and has as many misses as hits. But hit can be phenomenal; they’ll make up for the inefficiency and the failures.”
Failures are part of the process. PLC teams should expect for some of their ideas not to work. That is part of the creative process. Think of the story of Edison and the light bulb. It supposedly took Edison thousands of attempts to get it right. But when he got it right, he changed the world.
“When we look at an innovation after the fact, all we remember is the chain of good ideas that made it into the innovation, we don’t notice the many dead ends.”
7. Innovation Emerges From The Bottom Up
Principals and managers, get out of the way.
“The improvisational collaboration of the entire group translates moments of individual creativity into group innovation. Allowing space for this self-organizing emergence to occur is difficult for many managers because the outcome is not controlled by the management team’s agenda and is therefore less predictable.”
Principals, you need to let go of the process and let PLCs develop their creativity and innovation.
Most Principals, “…like to start with the big picture and then work out the details. In improvisational innovation, teams start with details and then work up to the big picture.” This is especially true when teams are creating and innovating from student achievement data. PLCs need to be free to discover the big picture based on what they discover through the data.
These 7 characteristics of creative teams should allow your PLC to be more creative in their approach to the PLC process. It is important that PLCs ask and discuss what they want students to know, how they will know if students know it, what will they do for students who know it, and what will they do for students who don’t; but to do so creatively will make the team all the more effective and innovative.