This post follows from an Ignite talk I did this morning on a Culture of Critique and has been brewing for a while. My own reflections over the past 2 terms have now been influenced by my most recent read – Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull, the Head of Disney Pixar.
We have a mantra at HPSS that we use regularly – Warm and Demanding (see this earlier post about Warm and Demanding). I feel we are getting the Warm great, the demanding happens from time to time but I question whether we utilise the warm AND demanding enough in a way that pushes us forward as a school.
For me, this links with an analogy I loved from Creativity Inc: imagine an old heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by threads.
The handle is a pithy statement such as ‘21st Century Learning’ ‘trust the process’- a statement that stands for so much more than 3 words. You will have one of these sayings at your school. The suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from struggle. Too often we grab the handle and without realizing it walk off without the suitcase. What’s more, we don’t even think about what we have left behind. After all the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.
Is this what we have done with Warm and Demanding? Do we throw the handle around but not really engage deeply, correctly with all this phrase stands for? Are we truly warm and demanding with each other? Or is it a meme that we just say disconnected from what it really means?
To truly build a sustainable creative culture here at HPSS (or at your school) we can’t just pay lip service to things like warm and demanding, honesty, personal and academic excellence, communication, innovation we need to be truly committed to them no matter how uncomfortable it makes us at times.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes or failures along the way (these are a part of creativity) but when we do, we need to face them with a willingness to learn from them rather than from an angle of defensiveness. To do this effectively we must be able to separate ourselves from our ideas. If we identify too closely with our ideas, we are far more likely to take offense when they are challenged. Healthy feedback will focus on the problem not the person.
Constructive criticism: is timely, what is wrong, what is missing, what isn’t clear, what makes no sense, checks against the vision and values of the school, may illustrate potential solutions to be considered, is specific. Constructive criticism does not make demands and does not prescribe an answer and does not attack the person behind the idea. it’s most definitely not sarcastic and cannot hide away from the open, honest truth.
Truth and honesty are difficult but we have opened these doors long ago while at the primary school. Honesty leads to trust and trust is what builds relationships. Has the trust from last year been eroded? Do we need to rebuild this to be able to move forward? We do not want to become one of those workplaces where the honesty occurs more in hallways and behind private closed doors rather than in meetings where honesty influences our important decisions.
Cultures take a long time to build but it’s something we are getting good at – starting from scratch. Here’s how I think we can build a healthy culture of critique at HPSS:
- Applying my Design Thinking lens – we need to get back to treating our ideas as prototypes. We need to share our ideas early and often. The feedback from others will improve the ideas. We did this really well last year but we need to keep doing this if we want to keep innovating, keep improving our practice.
- We must be able to question each other and be able to question ourselves. Within teams, between teams and between individuals. Both on an informal level but also on a structural level.
- Disney/Pixar have a “Brains Trust” that tests out movies as they are developed – can we create a forum for testing our team’s ideas? Or even just a wall with ideas for feedback via post-its?
- Have a question wall – what are the questions that are floating in our heads right now? Somewhere visible so that we see these questions regularly.
- Gather feedback from all these visitors coming to see us in action. Rose, Bud, Thorn – What did they like, what opportunities do they see that we may be overlooking, are there gaps between what we say and what they see us doing?
- Once a term we could have a self-critique session: here’s something I really feel I need to work on right now. This may be uncomfortable but it will be honest and opening up for others to help us.
And in the nature of starting this culture of critique I asked staff to fill out a Rose, Bud or Thorn post-it about the ideas I had ranted about in the 5 minute ignite talk. This is what they had to say:
Next Steps for me from here:
Create a Question Wall and a Help Me! Wall in our staffroom.
Work with Senior Leadership on developing a feedback mechanism for visitors to the school
Schedule a regular self-critique spot. Am thinking of blocking in my calendar once a fortnight to do this.
Build a similar mechanism into our Specialised Learning Leader team schedule for twice a term? Also look at building in a once a term critique from outside the team?
Gather more regular feedback from students about how they are finding my teaching.
How else are you developing a culture of critique at your school?