“Let’s be creative about this…” How many times have your heard yourself say this? You say it in meetings with colleagues, at dinner with your kids, in the middle of the woods with no GPS. You say it in the kitchen when you forgot to buy the main ingredient. You say it when you’re too short on time, too short on money, when the bookshelf is wobbly, when it’s Halloween and your child no longer wants to be Batman. You say it when you need to solve a problem or see things in a different way.
Creativity is one of many “soft skills” everyone is shouting about in education today. It’s not a new concept and not a buzz word. It’s been a main ingredient in American innovation since the Mayflower hit Plymouth. Try to wrap your brain around the problems we’ve solved since then. All solutions require creativity.
Historically America is a nation of creative thinkers, so why are we talking so much about creativity in education today? Because as industry changes and classroom methods remain the same, kids don’t have what they need for today’s fast-moving, innovation-focused professional landscape. Creativity is one of many such “soft skills” that corporate recruiters look for, companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook demand, and it is a skill that is difficult to teach.
Most kids are born with a huge capacity for creative thinking. Over time in schools where testing is a mandatory and curriculum reigns supreme, creativity loses ground. So do other character traits like ethics, resilience, collaboration, and curiosity. Yet research shows soft skills matter most when it’s time to go to work and live a successful life.
Soft skills are not new news. There are countless articles and books that go much deeper into the WHY than I plan to go today.
I want to talk a little about the HOW.
Soon I’m presenting at the NAIS National Conference (National Association of Independent Schools) in Baltimore. My topic is “The Chicken or the Egg: Can Strong Branding Lead to Stronger School Programs and Pedagogy?” I know—I used the word “pedagogy.” Now for sure no one is going to show up. But I hope they do because it is the story of Mission Skills, the HOW of implementing a teaching method in an industry where, ironically, “change” can be a dirty word.
Here’s another twist: it’s the story of how another dirty word, “marketing” affected that change. But wait, marketing is supposed to promote the product, not build it, right? This counterintuitive tale has plenty of visual examples that I’ll share when I publish the presentation soon. Stay tuned. It’s a real nail biter…
Meanwhile as a teaser, here’s my “Pixar Pitch” on our Mission Skills story:
Once upon a time, our School Head brought back a big idea. As members of an independent school data exchange called INDEX, we would partner on the development of a new assessment tool for non-cognitive skills like resilience, creativity, curiosity, time management, ethics, and teamwork. These “soft skills” were called Mission Skills, and the test was called Mission Skills Assessment (MSA).
Every day at school, kids learned very strong academics.
Then one day our students took the Mission Skills Assessment. They did very well on time management, but they were embarrassingly deficient in creativity.
Because of that our Head of School asked, (okay, demanded) that all teachers start implementing Mission Skills.
Because of that our teachers looked at him with glazed over, crossed, or skeptical eyes and asked, “Aren’t we already doing this?”, “Will this make us seem too progressive?” and “What on earth are Mission Skills anyway?”
Because of that the administrative team huddled up to brainstorm creative ways to help teachers in this development. We decided to go ahead and publicly roll out Mission Skills even if all teachers weren’t on board yet. We started with an integrated ad and annual fund campaign that explained each mission skill and gave specific examples of the mission skills teaching and learning already happening at the school. The Head of School wrote monthly letters to further teach and inspire. The marketing department told the story over and over, one story at a time through website, social media, school magazine, school blog, and emails. Through images, video, and brief copy, we highlighted individual classes, teachers, lessons, units, projects, trips, as many mission skills moments as we could possibly find. And we were consistent. And we never stopped. We bugged the teachers for their stories, nudged them to provide compelling content, and then we repurposed those stories so those who didn’t know could see what mission skills teaching looked like.
Because of that the flywheel that began with a roller coaster in 5th grade science or the 8th grade trip to Zion or the preschool water project slowly gave rise to teachers pursuing out of the box professional development (3rd grade team traveled the Oregon Trail), and eventually, an entire teaching community embraced mission skills. Early on, the branding placed a priority and a subtle pressure that seemed to make a difference, but in the end, teachers practiced what they preached, worked hard, collaborated, built creative lessons that led to curiosity amongst themselves…
Until Finally, this school had the highest enrollment ever, lowest attrition ever, ranked #2 best private elementary school in the country, and produced students prepared well beyond the scope of a traditional academic school.
And just in case you missed it…
The moral of the story is Marketing isn’t a dirty word. It’s a change agent.