What is creative leadership in schools?

We spoke to Professor Louise Stoll about the kinds of leadership which promote and celebrate creativity in schools

For well over a decade Professor Louise Stoll, from UCL Centre for Educational Leadership, with various colleagues, has been trying to understand what leaders can do if they want creativity to thrive in schools.

Creative leadership, according to Louise, is:

…an imaginative and thought-through response to opportunities and to challenging issues that inhibit learning at all levels. It is about seeing, thinking and doing things differently in order to improve the life chances for all students. Creative leaders also provide the conditions, environment and opportunities for others to be creative. (Stoll, 2020, p.59)

Nine tips for creative leaders

Drawing on the findings of two research and development projects with headteachers and their senior leadership teams in 23 schools, including almost 350 interviews with staff, Louise spoke to us about her conclusions:

1. Model creativity and risk-taking

A very powerful way leaders support others’ learning and development is through modelling; this is true of creativity, too. Teachers are unlikely to take risks in experimenting with new ideas if they constantly see their leaders being cautious. They need to know that it’s acceptable to act in this way; that it’s the norm.

2. Stimulate a sense of urgency

Learning occurs as a result of dissonance, when new ideas or situations don’t fit with current beliefs or ways of working. When this dissonance becomes uncomfortable, it creates a sense of urgency that something needs to be done, that “the way we do things” needs to be changed. If this is supported by positive conditions, productive change becomes more likely.

3. Expose colleagues to new thinking and experiences

Creativity is stimulated in an environment full of new ideas and experiences. The more exposed teachers are to ideas and others who think differently, and the greater the opportunities they have to think through new ways of approaching work, the more adventurous they tend to become. Given many teachers’ natural comfort with routine, this sometimes requires taking them out of their comfort zones, forcing them to push the boundaries of their thinking about what is possible.

4. Self-consciously let go

Schools can feel like places of control where teachers feel highly scrutinised and accountable. Fear of letting colleagues, pupils and parents down is an issue, too. Teachers need opportunities to experiment and step out of the boundaries, or they may be inclined to stick rigidly to what they know. Many people seem to feel a need for a licence to think creatively. This also relates to trust and feeling valued; it’s important to be able to speak your mind and to know your opinion is valued, even when it’s not shared.

5. Provide time and space

Creative thinking is facilitated by time and mental space for ideas to evolve and develop. Interestingly, some pressure of time seems important for creating the sense of urgency that concentrates energy and effort. This may mean setting deadlines. But this needs to be balanced with allowing enough time and space for creative possibilities to emerge.

6. Promote individual and collaborative creative thinking and design

Opportunities need to be created both for individual thought and for collaboration. Stimulation of other colleagues is necessary for a considerable number of teachers: many people need a combination of time alone and time with colleagues to “spark” and share ideas.

7. Set high expectations about the degree of creativity

Promoting and valuing innovation are critical to unlocking creative practice. Often, starting to think creatively breeds a desire for greater creativity. The mind shift often comes from the top of the school, where a passionate interest in how learning and teaching can be different helps create a culture that expects people to think differently about learning and teaching.

8. Use failure as a learning opportunity

Many teachers worry considerably about what they perceive as risks associated with experimenting with their practice. These turn out to be low risks in the long term; for example, the pupils who are not learning what they are supposed to in one lesson. By valuing things that go wrong, there is an opportunity to neutralise at least the fear of censure that teachers imagine might follow failure, and to challenge their beliefs that failure on this scale constitutes a serious risk to pupil learning.

9. Keep referring back to core values

While the possibilities of creative thinking, and the inspiration it seems to provide many people, can be exciting, staying close to core values provides the bedrock for development. Being clear and explicit about values, and holding them in a steady state, offers a context and stable point of reference for people. Read the full article.

The idea of creative leadership

So, how did Louise become interested in creative leadership?

"My interest in creative leadership was piqued in the first decade of the century when school leaders were telling me about increased dependency and lack of confidence among their teachers. This was induced by a period of centralised direction - mainly the National Strategies - from England’s Department for Education (DfE). Given the need to prepare pupils for a changing world, I viewed this as a major challenge that would require creative leadership.

At that time there was also a growing acknowledgement that the responsibilities of school leadership had grown rapidly and significantly, extending well beyond what it was reasonable to expect one person successfully to achieve. In other words, it might be helpful to look beyond the idea of one leader to a bigger collective concept of creative leadership.

I had heard about the Center for Creative Leadership in the US, whose website defined creative leadership as ‘the capacity to think and act beyond the boundaries that limit our effectiveness’. But from searches at the time, my colleagues and I found no related educational research specifically on creative leadership and very limited educational applications, despite considerable emphasis on the creativity of pupils.

I was struck that the conclusion of the Roberts report Nurturing Creativity in Young People (2006) was as relevant for leaders and other staff as for children:

‘Current educational research and best practice convincingly demonstrate the importance of creative problem-solving, collaboration, imagination and social communication as the foundation for learning.’

Takeaway ideas

Louise offers school leaders several questions to get them thinking practically about their own creative leadership:

  • How are you creating the conditions in which your colleagues can be creative practitioners?
  • How might these conditions for promoting creativity be further broadcast, understood and developed?
  • Which of the conditions are the most challenging for you personally, or for your team?
  • What evidence do you have of your own creative leadership?
  • In relation to learning and teaching practice, when and where is radical innovation necessary rather than regular tinkering?
  • What relatively small changes in your context have had major positive impacts? What are the impacts and why do you think they have occurred?

Louise Stoll is Professor of Professional Learning at the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership, UCL Institute of Education, London. Her latest publication, A set of cards - Catalyst: An evidence-informed, collaborative learning resource for teacher leaders and other leaders working within and across schools will be published by Crown House in July 2021.

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