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.


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.



The Metaphorical Journey

Reading the blogs of others, I’ve been impressed by the insights they’ve shared from their person1991-92 Alaska Panhandle Sea Kayak Expeditionsal and professional experiences, and I’ve been determined for some time to do likewise – to start this blog of my own, sharing my insights as an educator, informed by my professional and personal  experiences.  While it’s one thing to reflect on my professional philosophy, experiences, and practices in my head – accountable to nobody but myself for the fuzzy nature of my musings, perhaps blissfully unaware of the contradictions and internal inconsistencies of my own narratives – it’s quite another to put my thoughts into writing and post them to a blog.  Such an enterprise forces me to clarify my own thinking and makes me accountable for my thoughts and opinions to a much wider community.  I am daunted by the endeavour and, despite my concerns regarding the fine line that distinguishes tweets and blogs as self-promotion rather than meaningful sharing of insights and ideas (not to mention my self-doubts about having anything of value to share), I am determined not to let my reservations stand in the way.

The title of my blog – “Ladders of Learning” – stems from insights gained while I was, quite literally, climbing a ladder (a story that I’ll share as a future blog post).  Moreover, I like the metaphorical implications – that is, it’s easy to identify with the relatively simplistic notion of learning as climbing the rungs of a figurative ladder to greater heights.  However, I’m also acutely aware that, due to its highly linear form, a ladder makes a woefully inadequate metaphor for professional growth.

Having spent many years leading remote wilderness expeditions, I recognize that a journey is a far richer metaphor for my experiences and growth as an educator and educational leader – hence “a shared educational journey” as the tagline at the top of this website and “The Metaphorical Journey” as the title of my first post.  To extend this metaphor further, I think of a mountaineering ex1986-89 Strathcona Park Lodge & Outdoor Ed Centrepedition through difficult terrain (or a sea kayaking expedition with many potential hazards between our current location and our destination much farther up the coast), where the most linear route is rarely the best way to the summit.  Moreover, once you reach that summit, the mountain you’ve been climbing is no longer in your view, and new summits, previously unseen, stretch out before you. Perhaps most importantly, after all that hard work to reach the peak – where you hopefully can take a moment to celebrate your successes with your fellow travelers (for my expeditions are almost always a shared journey) – you must actually descend again before you can climb another, more distant, summit.  In other words, if you want to climb new mountains (be they literal or figurative), you can’t sit for long on the peak you’ve already climbed.  To scramble up new summits, you must first descend from your place of relative mastery to begin another, perhaps more arduous journey up another mountain to reach a new summit.

My work as a school principal has been informed deeply by my experiences as an expedition leader.  I think of my staff as team members on the same expedition, all of us travelling together, on a common journey with particular destinations as our goal, supporting and reliant upon one another for the success of our individual and collective journey.  As an img_1988expedition leader, there are moments when one may be called upon to offer words of inspiration or explicit directives to be followed, but mostly I think of a well-respected mountaineer whom I had the privilege of assisting on several expeditions before leading my own.  When I asked him to share his perspective on what makes a great leader, he responded simply, “A great leader is the one keeping track of the fuel supply.” These were not the words I had expected, but I have come to recognize their wisdom. Regardless of one’s ability to navigate challenging terrain or inspire the best in others and foster a sense of teamwork, run out of cooking fuel on a glacier and your expedition will quickly come to an unhappy end.

These words have stuck with me for years, for decades actually.  As a school-based principal, I think that sometimes, in our quest to be innovative and inspiring leaders, we forget the importance of our role as managers.  When working with my vice principal as well as various teachers in leadership roles, there’s certainly a sense of excitement as we brainstorm and develop ideas for various initiatives to move our school forward.  While being careful not to dampen our shared enthusiasm, 1992 Split Rock, Utah climbing w NOLSI often find myself thinking back to the words of my expeditionary mentor, noting that our credibility won’t be based on such innovative ideas, but rather on our careful attention to the more mundane details of scheduling, staffing, budget, and the zillion other logistical elements that enable a school to run smoothly.  It may be less glamorous, but ensuring that our managerial tasks (the school-based equivalents of monitoring the fuel supply) are carried out effectively and efficiently, is foundational to a successful journey.  When the fundamentals – the equipment, the logistics – are carefully organized, day-to-day tasks run more smoothly and group members feel greater security and trust in their leaders.  Just as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs calls for safety long before reaching the heights of self-actualization, I think as principals and vice-principals we need to ensure our schools are well-organized and running efficiently in order to create the safe foundations on which engaging, innovative, and empowering practices can thrive.

Leading wilderness expeditions quickly teaches you that being an effective leader isn’t synonymous with being the most 00269skilled or talented member of the group.  When leading mountaineering or sea kayaking expeditions, there are often more skilled climbers, paddlers, and navigators in my group.  The art of leadership is recognizing the talents of others, fostering a cohesive sense of community and common purpose, and empowering others to be “in the lead” at the right time under the right conditions.  As a principal, I know there are teachers in my building with skills and talents that far exceed mine, and each has gifts to share not only with students, but also with colleagues.  Fostering a culture in which these skills and talents thrive and inform others – a culture in which we’re all eagerly learning from one another – is perhaps the most important leadership skill of all.

Finally, if this notion of being on a shared journey is to be more than a figurative one, if it is to be a lived metaphor, how do I shift the culture of a staff meeting to something that more resembles a campfire?  A time to relax together and reflect on our journey so far, to appreciate one another and celebrate our successes, and to talk about our common goals, the obstacles we’re encountering along the way, and how we can overcome these hurdles to reach our objectives.

1990-93 Baja Coast, Mexico Sea Kayak Trips w NOLSAs I write these blog posts, I’m inviting you to share in my educational journey.  I hope that in sharing my experiences, perspectives, and insights, I’ll encourage others to do likewise, for the stories we tell shape who we are and who we become as learners and as leaders.  Your responses will hopefully challenge and further my own thinking as well as lift my spirits when the terrain is more difficult.  Thanks for joining me on this metaphorical journey.

Originally written October 16, 2016, by Ken Andrews

  • As educators, (how) do we foster the culture – in our classroom and our school – of a shared journey?   Your insights and feedback are welcome in the comments section below.