Of Inukshuks & Innovation

img_4292Last summer, I had the pleasure of traveling through the Maritimes with my family – from Prince Edward Island and the north shore of New Brunswick to Cape Breton Island and the south shore of Nova Scotia – a long way from our home on the west coast of Canada.  Our experiences there, as with our trip across Newfoundland years ago, reenforced for me how fortunate I am to live in such a vast and beautiful country.  Along with such personal musings, one particular experience there – in Kejimkujik Seaside National Park with my 14 year old son – caused me to reflect on my professional assumptions and wonder whether even my most well-intentioned and well-articulated learning activities and assessment criteria might restrict rather than further my students’ learning.

img_4276Hiking the well-defined trail through the dense shrubs and down to the rocky seashore, we came across a vast array of Inukshuks – stone monuments traditionally constructed by the Inuit – created by previous hikers.  They looked stunning against the great expanse of the Atlantic coast.  Owen was enchanted by what he saw, and enthusiastically decided to add his own Inukshuk to the collection.

He began by securing, with boulders, the stick he’d found along the trail, so that it stuck upward, pointing toward the sky.  He then set about careimg_4280fully selecting stones and balancing them in the various crooks of the stick.  As the rocks repeatedly tumbled to the ground, I explained that Inukshuks are built by balancing rocks upon other rocks and his stick was making the task unnecessarily complicated.  I tried to engage him in building a more conventional Inukshuk with me, but he soon lost interest and returned to the task he had begun.  As I watched him, my frustrations – with both his disregard of my instructions and offers of assistance as well as his lack of understanding of the activity (or so I thought!) or at least his futile attempt to defy the laws of gravity (wrong again!!) – shifted to admiration for his propensity to approach this task in his own way . . . in short, his propensity to innovate.

Despite the falling rocks, and contrary to the many exemplars of more traditional Inukshuks that surrounded him, Owen doggedly persevered, carefully replacing the stones in varying configurations uimg_4291ntil they finally held.  I even joined him, careful to let him be my guide rather than the other way around. Watching Owen push through his frustrations to joyfully create an Inukshuk like none I’d seen before, it suddenly occurred to me that I was witnessing the difference between learning through imitation and learning through innovation.  As I scanned the dozens and dozens of Inukshuks that dotted this section of the coastline, only one featured a prominent stick on which stones were carefully balanced.  Rather than exercising his creativity within the confines of some predetermined definition of an Inukshuk’s overarching form, Owen was inventing a unique form of his own.  While he was inspired by the examples of others, he wasn’t bound by the paradigm in which they operated, stepping beyond its confines to approach the task/problem/activity in a new way, producing a unique result.

In education, there is much to be said regarding the benefits of setting clear criteria for a learning activity, so our students have a good understanding of the goals and expectations.  Yet in doing so, I wonder, how often do we unknowingly limit their opportunities for innovation and restrict their creativity?  In considering this question, perhaps what’s most important for educators is to first clarify our own understanding of the purpose of the learning activity in the first place.  In my own teaching practice, I have had a tendency not only to clarify the overarching learning objectives with my students, but also to spend an inordinate amouimg_4285nt of time constructing (or better still, co-constructing with my students) very specific assessment criteria. Doing so is a time-consuming process, and I think that through such specificity I may unwittingly reduce expectations of my students to some sort of imitation of an ideal form already pre-determined in my mind rather than opening up possibilities for their creativity and innovation.

There are definitely times when it’s incumbent upon us as educators to teach our students very specific skills, and we should embrace doing so in a skillful manner, taking pride in our students’ growth from one level of proficiency to the next.  If a music teacher were to continually let her students play freeform, with little attention to skill development, the result might be more a painful cacophony of noise than something of musical beauty.  I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, about the broad array of learning activities that take place in our schools well beyond the music classes (while sharing my belief that we could all learn much from the approaches of our finest music teachers!), in that there are many academic equivalents to teaching both the fundamental as well as the more refined skills of musicianship – academic skills that need to be learned and refined to progress to higher levels of proficiency.  However, there are also times – like the improvised solos that are often the highlights of our school’s music concerts – for our students to engage in more open inquiry and freeform expression, uninhibited by our overly prescriptive expectations.

While I consider myself to be a fairly creative person, it never would have occurred to me to approach the creation of an Inukshuk in such a unique way.  Any approach I might have taken was limited by my own conventional understanding of what an Inukshuk is supposed to look like.  Yet if the next generation is to solve the most pressing problemimg_4288s we face – such as those of inequality, hunger, climate change, and war – they will need to think beyond our current paradigms, approaching the world’s problems in new and unconventional ways.  Letting go of our pre-determined learning activities and assessment criteria (or better still, embedding inquiry and creativity into those learning activities and expectations) can open up opportunities for unconventional thinking and authentic exploration, empowering our students to move beyond imitation to innovation . . . and result – as my son taught me that day on the east coast of Canada – in something more beautiful than we’d imagined in the first place!

Written by Ken Andrews, December 2016

What do you do to foster innovation rather than imitation?  You’re welcome to share your story/insights/reflections in the comments section below.  

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Ladders of Learning

Stretching for the leaves and muck just beyond my reach, I lean precariously from an upper rung of the ladder propped up against our gutter.  It’s that time of year again when I finally, long overdue, get around to clearing out our gutters.

ladder-denting-gutter

Once again, as the ladder (with my added weight) pushes against the gutter and bends its metal edge, I consider that there must be a better way for me to clear out the gutters without bending the gutters themselves.  As I also consider just how far I can stretch to the side and lean my weight to reach the debris without the ladder slipping sideways, I’m also vaguely aware that I’m not engaged in the safest of enterprises.   However, I quickly dismiss these musings to focus on the immediate task at hand.

Deciding that safety takes precedence, I reluctantly back off my lean and begrudgingly descend the ladder (observing with resignation that I’ve noticeably dented the gutter edge once again) and move it over before reascending to reach the muck from a less precarious angle.  This time, as I climb toward the roof edge, the weight is simply more than the gutter can withstand and the metal cracks, a stream of brownish water leaking out and dripping to the ground below.

A half hour later, I’m standing in the local hardware store, looking for a sealant to repair the cracked gutter and explaining what caused the damage in the first place.  “You need to get some ladder arms,” explains the customer service man dressed in his overalls, fetching me a pair.

Back at home, I fit the ends of my newly purchased ladder arms into the holes on the side of the ladder – holes I hadn’t previously noticed, let alone considered their purpose.   ladder-wings-on-roof-by-gutterAs I  prop the ladder against the house and rest the arms on the edge of the roof, I happily note that the ladder itself isn’t even touching the gutters.  I ascend the ladder, repair the cracked gutter with the sealant, and continue clearing the muck from the gutters, pleased that the ladder feels far more stable (I can lean much further in either direction without any slippage) and that I won’t be denting the gutters anymore.

As I finish my gutter clearing duties, I ponder how this experience parallels what occurs in our schools every day.  How often do I teach in a particular way, vaguely aware that there’s likely a better way to achieve my objective, but remain too focused on the immediate task at hand to change my practice.  Although I wasn’t pleased that I broke the gutter in the first place, it occurs to me that something had to crack before I looked around and found a better way to get the job done.  Until this crack occurred, I continued to do things the way I’d always done them, despite my vague sense of its shortcomings.

There’s a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen

In the subsequent days, out walking in our neighbourhood, I suddenly noticed several other ladders propped against houses, all with support arms.  The simple solution to my immediate concern (denting the gutters), as well as a more important concern of which I’d only been more vaguely aware (the lack of stability), had been around me for years, yet I hadn’t even noticed until now!

It occurs to me that I am surrounded by better tools and other educators with far better practices than mine, staring me in the face if I only choose to look.  It occurs to me that waiting for years until something cracks before changing my practice is quite pathetic, and I need to more proactively invest the time to improve upon my less efficient and effective ways of doing things.  It occurs to me to more consciously and frequently try new tools and ask others with more experience and greater expertise to share their knowledge and insights.  It occurs to me that, through such reflections, I may have just climbed a rung or two on my own professional journey, my own ladder of learning.  

Originally written October 10th, 2016, by Ken Andrews

  • Was something “cracking” (or at least “lacking”) in your practice, so you found a better way, climbing a rung or two on your own ladder of learning?  Share your story, insights, or feedback in the comments section below.