Collaborative creativity in education: from theory to practice
As the world undergoes massive change, education systems need to prepare students to work collaboratively for innovative solutions that benefit everyone. This preparation means fostering a culture of collaborative creativity from early childhood to postsecondary education.
Robert Kelly shows exactly what collaborative creativity in educational practice looks like. He clarifies the conceptual architecture of collaborative creativity, and then delves into how this new educational ecosystem can take root. He invites us into his own program in teacher education, where graduate students come to grips with, and talk about, a project whose success depends on collaborative creativity.
Between chapters, Kelly presents conversations with experts in collaborative creativity and related fields from around the world.
About the author
Educator, author, artist, and keynote speaker Robert Kelly is a recognized leader in the fields of Collaborative Creativity, Creative Development, design thinking for innovation, and transformational educational practice. He is academic coordinator of the Collaborative Creativity and Design Thinking for Innovation graduate program in the Werklund School of Education, and an associate professor at the University of Calgary. Robert has been an invited visiting scholar and keynote speaker at several postsecondary institutions for his work in the field of collaborative creativity.
Excerpt: Collaborative Creativity: Educating for Creative Development, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (by (author) Robert Kelly)
CHAPTER 4: CONSIDERATIONS FOR ESTABLISHING A CULTURE OF COLLABORATIVE CREATIVITY
Educators are practical people. We are always looking for things that work with learners and that make the day-to-day educational experience more interesting, exciting, and engaging for everyone. The challenges faced by educators across disciplines and developmental levels are quite profound. Cultural diversity, educational diversity, making remote curriculum content relevant, and limited resources are only a some of the many constraints facing many educators in their professional practice. Inevitably, any educational concept or idea has to manifest itself in educational practice to prove its merit. To fully maximize its potential in a developmental educational environment, collaborative creativity has to be understood from a research/theoretical perspective all the way to implementation in educational practice as cultural transformation. It is not enough to take the concept of collaboration and retrofit it onto traditional educational discourses largely focused on delivery of curriculum content and retention. Retrofitting confers some benefit, but they skew toward traditional, standardized educational cultures limits the impact and depth of any collaborative development initiative. Collaborative development requires a meaningful context. Think of a flower garden metaphor. Many flowers in a garden could grow in marginal environments on their own. But the garden fosters the flowers by increasing the positive variables that are available to the plants, such as sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. The more positive variables available, the greater the probability the plants will reach their full potential in growth, flowering, and fruit and seed production. Bringing collaborative development into an educational environment that is designed around cooperation and compliance will perhaps have some positive effect in creating pockets of collaborative behaviour, but collaborative development will be limited because it has no substantial, sustained, meaningful context to grow in. The creative development framework describes the ecosystem of an educational environment that enables collaborative creativity and corresponding creative development to grow to its highest potential for the learner.
In this chapter, we examine the many considerations that go into the design and implementation of a collaborative culture, paying close attention to issues arising from transitioning from traditional educational discourses to an educational culture of collaborative creativity. This is followed by Chapter 5, “Giant Lobsters, Whales, and Elephants: A Case Study in Developing an Educational Culture of Collaborative Creativity,” that provides an example of what this could look like in teacher education. Chapter 5 explores the implementation of collaborative educational culture through the voices of graduate students from diverse educational backgrounds as they tackle a large-scale design challenge, which is part of my graduate program in education entitled Collaborative Creativity & Design Thinking for Innovation. When we transition into a new way of doing, we have to examine the ways of doing that we already know that inform how we go about our day-to-day business. It is important to identify habits and behaviour patterns that run counter to our intent, and that could potentially undermine a transition from a consumptive, knowledge-transfer education culture of standardization to an educational culture of collaborative creativity. So many times in our professional practice in education, we have wonderful new ideas to implement that are brought in with great enthusiasm only to wither over time, often without us being aware of the counterproductive skews that undermine the transition. Identifying these transition-limiting skews is essential in the resocialization or reframing process necessary for culture transition. In Kelly (2012, 2016), I describe many of these factors, which are so important to know because they are design constraints that inform the development of the cultural transition program of collaborative creativity for educators featured in Chapter 5. The following is a review of these factors and their implications for cultural transition.
FACTORS THAT LIMIT CULTURE TRANSITION
Outcomes known and early closure: In standardized, content-transfer educational practice, much of the learning-experience verification is around outcomes that are already known. We seek verification that the learner has retained knowledge consistent with curricular premises and predetermined achievement levels. It is not uncommon for learners to seek out what is on the test or to ask a teacher, “Is this what you want?” Educators and learners in this context become socialized into a disposition of extreme convergence, because there is no reason to be adventurous and experimental in a predetermined right-answer culture. In collaborative creativity, convergent thinking is important, but only as part of the divergent thinking/convergent thinking recurrent pulse of design practice. A disposition of extreme convergence is a strong current flowing against the development of divergent thinking, which is so critical in creative practice. It is also characterized by early closure in ideation, although the opposite practice of deferred outcome is required through divergent thinking to generate alternatives that fuel the creative process.
Extrinsic motivation and dissociation: In mainstream, standardized educational discourses, learners spend much of their time in an extrinsic-motivation orientation. They experience wave after wave of curricular content thrown at them. The content may or may not be interesting to them. Certainly, many innovative educators work very hard to make all of the mandatory concepts exciting and engaging for students. The issue here, however, is around ownership. In Chapter 3, I discussed estimations of learner time spent in an intrinsic orientation and extrinsic orientation throughout their educational journey from early childhood education to the graduate postsecondary level. Much of the time is spent in the extrinsic-motivation orientation, where educator, institutional, and societal expectations provide much of the impetus for learning engagement and task completion. The critical mass of learning-experience design is not built around the development of intrinsic motivation, even though intrinsic motivation is expected from every learner. The transfer of learning ownership, and engendering student-initiated invention or innovation, is quite often marginalized to the periphery of this mainstream educational culture. The longer the time a learner spends in an extrinsic-motivation orientation, the greater the risk to the learner of dissociating from this kind of educational practice. Dissociation involves emotional detachment from a system that is very predictable, that requires passive compliance and cooperation to function smoothly, and that provides limited opportunity for student ownership. Little space is available to develop intrinsic orientation. Learning is important and relevant to the learner when they see it as important to themselves, and when they have a voice and are empowered to initiate. They are able to invest in themselves and others emotionally and intellectually. They become intrinsically validated. The dissociation phenomenon, which results from endemic extrinsic-motivation educational contexts, leaves learners needing to reconnect in a social/emotional manner, and to learn to give themselves permission to initiate ideas and creative pursuits based on their own interests and intuition, to make the transition to a collaborative culture of creativity. In many cases, they need to rediscover or discover what their passions are, so as to fuel growth into an intrinsic-motivation orientation that is so conducive to higher potential creative outcomes. In Chapter 3, we discussed a learning-experience template intentionally designed to transfer ownership to foster intrinsic motivation as the learner progresses through creative and collaborative capacity stages.
Assessment anxiety and hypercompetition: Assessment is perhaps the most anxiety-producing aspect of traditional education. It is likely the most common point of contention between learner and educator throughout the educational journey. Anticipation of test scores, and comparisons to peers and standardized levels of achievement, can cause incredible levels of anxiety from so many perspectives. No one wants to look bad or stupid in public compared to others. No one wants to be branded as a failure, which can be internalized to become one’s social valuation. Traditional assessment regimens tied to standardized curricula and achievement levels that primarily revolve around content transfer and retention inadvertently put considerable emotional distance between the educator and learner despite the best intentions of the educator. The educator is placed in the position of measuring the progress of the learner against standardized norms. A collateral perception that can be developed by the learner in this assessment context is that they are being judged, potentially leading to mistrust and resentment of the system, and mistrust of educators. As achievement is illustrated through vertical comparisons against standardized levels, those placing at the very top of these achievement levels, A+ or A, are the participants who receive the greatest validation for success in this system. This leads to an educational climate of hypercompetition, and the commodification and ownership of knowledge, where sharing knowledge with others could result in competitive disadvantage. This competitive environment can lead to mistrust: any peer or colleague is perceived as a competitor instead of a collaborator. This is counterproductive to an educational culture of collaborative creativity, where a free flow and sharing of ideas is central to the divergent/convergent pulse of the design process. The development of trust through active and deep listening is absolutely necessary for this process to flourish. Gardner (2016) speaks to the potential negative impact of performance pressure in a competitive culture:
“Performance pressure can be a double-edged sword. Although it motivates people to ramp up their efforts, they may also inadvertently react in ways that are ultimately counterproductive. In particular they may retreat and pull back to their respective comfort zones.” (p. 124)
She goes on to add that collaboration and innovation suffer as a result of this. Retreating to one’s comfort zone increases potential for dissociation and increased risk aversion. This also fuels a pervasive fear of failure in these environments.
Fear of failure: When we engage in recurrent iterations of idea generation and prototyping in the design process, failure is anticipated. We do our best to resolve whatever our design problem is through the development of a prototype, but there are always unanticipated design issues that arise when we test out our ideas by actually building or making something. Anyone with high creative capacity knows this. The well-known mantra of the international design firm IDEO, “fail early, fail often,” reflects this very expected and natural part of the design process. In traditional educational culture of quantifiable measures of success, an F grade is failure in its worst sense, because it represents the lowest possible measure of success compared to others. Second City’s Leonard and Yorton (2015) describe the need to change this perception of failure: “Too often we are told that failure is not an option. But the opposite is true. It is vital to give failure a role in your process. The biggest threat to creativity is fear, especially fear of failure. By deflating the negative power of failure, you erode fear, and allow creativity to flourish” (p. 16). In design classes, I often assign F+ as a grade (in fun) to reinforce the notion that failure in the design process is a good thing on the way to problem resolution. I have often wondered, as a parent, how a parent would react to a bunch of grades of F+ on their child’s report card. How could you get angry at this child? They have failed often and they have failed well!
The machine bureaucracy: It is not the intention of educators and administrators in mainstream, traditional educational practice in public education to invalidate learners or to instill anxiety in learners: they are in the public service and have committed their professional lives to the care and well-being of others. The organizational model of the machine bureaucracy and standardized curricular levels, with a disproportionate focus on knowledge acquisition and retention and its corresponding assessment, is by design inherently predisposed to high learner alienation and dissociation. Ironically, high achievers and every student in this traditional educational discourse are woefully shortchanged, because they are not equipped with the large toolkit that allows full participation in an ecosystem of collaborative creativity. As mentioned in a previous chapter, one cannot make the assumption that high levels of knowledge acquisition and retention equates to high creative capacity. Cirque du Soleil’s Welby Altidor (2017) speaks to making collaborative and creative capacity assumptions:
“My first major error was to assume that because we were part of a collective, that we formed a community, the ‘Cirque du Soleil team,’ we were collaborative by default, naturally. I didn’t realize then that collaboration happens by design, through intent and creative construction. I had falsely merged team and teamwork, community and collective work, colleagues and collaboration as one and the same.” (p. 75)
By not transitioning to an educational culture of collaborative creativity, we have collectively underachieved in equipping learners and educators to be empowered through increasing creative capacity in a developmental collaborative culture. That is a highly interactive culture, intellectually and emotionally connected, where the educator as designer is on the learner’s side of the fence as a collaborator and mentor.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A DEVELOPING COLLABORATIVE CULTURE
How do we know when we have created a truly collaborative creative culture? How do we know that the collaborative group is working to its greatest potential? Let us start with the fundamental premise that, when coming together as a group to create something new or novel, we put ourselves in a position to create something that may be next to impossible to create as an individual. This starts out with a lot of promise. Two heads are better than one. Think about the potential of thirty minds coming together to solve a problem. How about hundreds or thousands of minds? Getting into that space of maximum potential will require intentional design of building blocks to enable this, otherwise it remains as only potential and will not result in creative outcomes.
SHARED VISION AND LEVERAGING DIVERSITY
One of the major characteristics of a group focused on collaborative creativity is a shared vision, understanding, and purpose. Sawyer (2017) describes two contexts for establishing shared goals: an extrinsically initiated, creative problem-solving context such as a business environment; and an intrinsically driven, problem-finding context such as improvisational jazz, where musicians working together “have to find and define the problem as they are solving it” (p. 51). Gloor (2017) corroborates the importance of shared context: it is a signifier of collaboration, even to the point of groups developing their own vocabulary specific to their innovation initiative. It’s exciting to think of the potential of a large number of people coming together for a common goal or purpose. Getting to this point, where group members move from an ego-centric orientation to a group-centric orientation of unity, is not necessarily an easy task.
Former theatre director Ian Prinsloo speaks to striking a delicate balance among group members who are very assertive and group members who work to diminish group dissent (see Collaborating to Create 1, in this book). Leonard and Yorton (2015) describe overly assertive group members as “taking up too much space” and overly compliant members, who default to total unity by not asserting themselves, as “leaving too much space for others.” Prinsloo contends that it is important for group members to assert themselves, otherwise the group is in danger of not leveraging the strengths of each member, which is so important to realizing the creative potential of the group. Page (2007) emphasizes how leveraging diversity in design groups is as important as the presence of expert resources for maximizing creative outcomes. Sawyer (2017) stresses how important it is for group members to have a clear understanding of the group’s goals. On the surface, individual assertion and collective unity seem like polar opposites in a group dynamic. These are not mutually exclusive processes, however: the group has to evolve developmentally to embrace diverse views while maintaining a shared vision and purpose. Second City’s Leonard and Yorton (2015) describe this through the lens of the collaborative ensemble: “Building a great ensemble allows you to take individual differences—even divergent points of view—and incorporate them in such a complementary way that the ensemble functions even better together than individuals do on their own” (p. 55). Overassertion in a group, taken to an extreme, can have a negative effect on creative outcomes. Leonard and Yorton (2015) add, “The need to be right, among individuals, institutions, and organizations, is one of the biggest barriers to an ensemble approach to creativity and innovation” (p. 74). The key is to accommodate diversity and unity at the same time, recognizing the creative strength of diverse perspectives and the power of unity. Leonard and Yorton continue, “If you can create an ensemble where everyone agrees to surrender the need to be right, you will increase productivity by leaps and bounds. You will create an environment where innovation will flourish; you will also make people happier” (p. 75). They further add, “It’s all about recognizing that you are part of a greater whole, and that in letting go and ceding control, you open up possibilities you may never have imagined” (p. 80). Striking this balance between unity and leveraging diversity is an important signifier of the collaborative success of a group and its capacity to realize their creative potential.
Both Sawyer (2017) and Gloor (2017) speak to the importance of collaborative groups having equal or equivalent participation and balanced contribution from their members. The key to this is to identify the individual strengths of group members and to make space for them to have meaningful roles. Functioning collaborative groups that have balanced contributions from their members, along with systems to maintain this distribution of task allocation and commitment, are likely to be successful. It takes deliberate design and effort to achieve this balance—however, the reward is sure worth it, because everyone in the group feels validated. The work of each group member may not be obvious or visible in the creative outcome, but the DNA of each member is somewhere in the creative outcome.
ROTATING LEADERSHIP IN THE COLLABORATIVE GROUP
We have all experienced different forms of leadership in our professional practice. Some of us might be able to say, “I had the best boss ever when I worked at such and such a location.” Yet others complain mercilessly about experiences with administrators who they thought were terrible for any number of reasons. Some of us have worked in environments characterized by the fear of making a mistake, and the potential repercussions on one’s career path of costing the organization lost revenue, backlash from the public, or consumer or administrative penalty. We have all had these kinds of diverse leadership experiences in the workplace. We have to consider the nature of the organizational structure where we have previously experienced leadership in order to understand the transition into the type of leadership necessary in a group focused on collaborative creativity. The majority of workplace leadership experiences occur in hierarchical organizations that are designed around standardization and efficiency. Many of us have likely experienced top-down leadership, where administrators establish and maintain organizational policies and standards. Our work in this context is not largely about collaboration, innovation, and invention, but rather about ensuring organizational standards and procedures are met. The leadership will typically assess the capacity of an employee to do this. Leadership in a collaborative group that exists for creativity is quite different from this familiar hierarchical configuration.
The transformative dynamics of authoritative to empowering, push to pull, and top-down to emergent design, described in Chapter 2, inform leadership configurations in a culture of collaborative creativity. The leadership configuration must be empowering to leverage diverse strengths in the group. The group is no longer performing to the push of an outcome that is known, but rather to the pull of creating something new or novel through emergent design. MIT’s Peter Gloor (2017) describes the simultaneous need in collaborative groups for strong, central leaders and rotating leadership. In studying collaborative swarms, he discovered that “there were strong leaders, clearly dominating the discussion whenever they felt competent. The key was that it was not blind obedience, but a meritocratic style of leadership where the one who was qualified best for a task stepped up to it and assumed a leadership role” (p. 93). He adds that strong, rotating leadership also needs to be humble, compassionate, and curious. Leonard and Yorton (2015) expand on this: “It is a principle that gives the group flexibility to allow any member to assume leadership as long as his or her expertise is needed, and then to shuffle the hierarchy again once the group’s needs change” (p. 17). They add that “leadership is more about understanding status than maintaining status” (p. 17), elucidating the difference between sensitive rotating leadership and traditional top-down configurations. Rotating leadership is part of a group’s capacity to leverage the diverse strengths of its members for the benefit of the group. It is about the idea of learning how to take up space when needed and to allow space for others around the creative needs of the group. The emergence of a humble, compassionate, and curious rotating leadership, sensitive to the changing needs of the collaborative group, is a strong indicator that the group is on a positive trajectory for creative success.
COMMUNICATION AND BUILDING TRUST
The cornerstone attribute of a culture of collaborative creativity revolves around the nature of communication and the building of trust among group members. In Chapter 2, this attribute is described as a high degree of interactivity, with communication characterized by open-mindedness, empathy, flexibility, active and deep listening, respect, trust, and honesty. Without the development of trust among group members, nothing else matters: not a shared purpose; not sensitive, rotating leadership; not leveraging diversity characteristics. Trust, developed through appropriate and sensitive communication, is the lifeblood of a truly collaborative group, at the very heart of its being. In the feature Collaborating to Create 6, Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius, principal of Kaospilot, a private university in Aarhus, Denmark, talks about creating the optimal conditions in a collaborative educational environment for trust to emerge. It is not something that is taught. It usually begins with someone showing trust in the collaborative group that starts the ball rolling and, in a sense, gives others permission to do the same.
In a collaborative group, what does trust imply? For most it would mean that other group members are not going to intentionally hurt me or invalidate me, and that I am in a safe environment. It means that the group values me. It means the group cares about my well-being, and the group has my back if I falter. The people on the island of Okinawa, Japan, are renowned for their longevity, attributed to a tradition called moai that exemplifies this very characteristic. A moai is a group of lifelong friends that exist to provide deep respect and support for each other. A 77-year-old member of an Okinawan moai describes it this way: “Each member knows that her friends count on her as much as she counts on her friends. If you get sick or a spouse dies or if you run out of money, we know someone will step in and help. It’s much easier to go through life knowing there is a safety net” (as cited in Leonard, 2018, para. 4). A collaborative group that develops this moai sensibility is very likely to succeed in a creative endeavour. A safe environment will allow trust to develop. The development of trust will allow a brave environment to emerge, where ideation and experimentation flourish within a moai sensibility, exponentially increasing creative outcome potential. Sadly, in Western culture, many of us are immersed and socialized in an ego-centric orientation that is highly competitive and filled with mistrust of others on the road to looking after number one. The moai sensibility that resonates with Scharmer and Kaufer’s (2013) notion of eco-centricity is very much the opposite of this ingrained socialization.
Trust is built on effective and sensitive communication. A component of this, open communication, is described by Leonard and Yorton (2015): “In these situations, frequent, open, and honest communication is critical to make sure problems are identified and solutions worked out quickly and efficiently” (p. 137). Gloor (2017) echoes this when he identifies the sharing of honest sentiment as an honest signal of collaboration. Typically, in the development of a collaborative group, the exchange of honest sentiment comes only after a safe environment is established and trust has emerged. The initial positive, communicative environment is best built around the concept of “yes and” so familiar to those involved in improvisational theatre. The “yes and” principle implies that every participant in the collaborative group has to be able to make offers, and accept every offer they receive from others, and to build on offers. Leonard and Yorton (2015) say, “‘Yes and’ has a few synonyms in the improv world. You’ll hear us talk about ‘affirming and building ideas’ or ‘exploring and heightening’ a scene. There are variations, but the central idea of accepting what’s offered and adding to it (regardless of what you may think of it) is absolutely foundational to everything we do at Second City” (p. 25). In developing collaborative cultures with both graduate and undergraduate groups, I use Nelson’s (2008) idea of “plussing,” where every student is expected to add something to an idea that is put out by a group member. This may be suggesting a variation of an idea or suggesting something totally new. The key here is that ideas are not judged and that every idea is accepted, added to, and banked. If I am a group member, once I know that every idea I have will be validated, I now have a foundational premise on which to feel safe and build trust with others.
This goes hand in hand with developing deep and active listening skills, as described in the four-level model in Chapter 3. Levels 1 and 2 of listening-skill development progress from physical-attentive listening to interpretive listening. When listening skills evolve to Level 3, empathetic listening, trust starts to emerge. Understanding the emotional disposition of the speaker through empathetic listening provides the basis for relationship building and a deeper sensitivity toward fellow group members. The level of trust and comfort that comes from this is conducive to generative listening, a potent asset in any collaborative group. Sawyer (2017) describes several characteristics of effective creative teams, including the practice of deep listening. He discusses the difficulty some have in listening to the ideas of others while trying to think of ideas of their own: “Most people spend too much time planning their own actions and not enough time listening and observing others” (p. 18). He contends that with the right structure and environment, innovation will emerge over time as group members build on each other’s ideas. By building on someone else’s idea, the meaning of each idea becomes clearer over time as it hybridizes with other ideas in the creative dynamic. Surprising questions emerge.
Developing an educational culture of collaborative creativity happens by intentional design. We cannot assume that collaborative creativity will just happen if we put groups of people together: we have to look at negative socialized attributes from predominant existing cultures as design constraints going forward. The development and evolution of collaborative culture takes constant attention and practice to overcome assumptions that limit or preclude transition into this culture. The initial transition to collaborative culture is the point of highest group anxiety for group members. This will dissipate quickly with intelligent and sensitive design that takes into account undermining factors, while being mindful of the optimal characteristics of a well-functioning collaborative group engaging in creating something new or novel.
Other titles by Robert Kelly
Collaborative Creativity Idea Book for Educators
Activities, Tactics and Strategies for Building a Collaborative Culture of Creativity
Transforming Education through Design Thinking, Innovation, and Invention
Educating for Creativity
A Global Conversation
Creative Arts in Research for Community and Cultural Change
Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice
Inquiries for Hope and Change
Creative Expression, Creative Education
Creativity as a Primary Rationale for Education