Bruce McLachlan -- principal at Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand -- took a headline-grabbing risk two years ago. Although many teachers and parents advised against it, he threw out all the playground rules for recess at his school. Approached by researchers at Auckland University of Technology and Otago University, McLachlan agreed to take part in a study designed to measure and encourage active play. The results astounded him. Without playground rules, children fought less, suffered fewer injuries, played more complex and creative games, and concentrated better in the classroom. One reason for these positive outcomes may be that students need opportunities for healthy risk-taking.
McLachlan recently reflected, "We want kids to be safe ... but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over." He conceded that his school's playground may look "chaotic" from an adult's perspective -- chock full of barely controlled frenetic energy and children furiously dashing about. But although it looks dangerous, the children rarely hurt themselves or others. They are now so engrossed in recess activities that the school no longer needs a "timeout" area and fewer adults monitor recess.
Instead of arguing and bullying, the students climb trees, play a rowdy game called "mudslide" and romp in a "loose parts pit" that contains old tires, hoses and wood. By eschewing the far-reaching -- and now pervasive -- rules and regs, this school provides children with a much-needed outlet for age-appropriate risk-taking. Grant Schofield -- AUT professor of public health who worked on the project -- commented, "The great paradox of cotton-wooling children is it's more dangerous in the long run. You can't teach them (risk-taking). They have to learn risk on their own terms" through healthy trial and error.
Many of the parents and educators who came to the Brattleboro Town School Board meeting last month echoed that same refrain: We want our kids to have more breadth and depth in their learning. We want them to have time to discover, to gather, to explore. In order for them to be innovators, we -- as parents and educators -- must allow time for this important process to simmer, and moreover, model risk-taking in the learning process.
Innovation happens when we're allowed to noodle around with ideas and actions. I fear that the constraints conceived by our overly litigious society, coupled with a severe narrowing of our school curriculum, have resulted in a school culture that precludes risk-taking. As the testing demands of No Child Left Behind have played out for the last decade, we may have inadvertently signaled to an entire generation that the "right" answer trumps the grand process of investigation -- exploration that includes surviving, and thriving, after failure. This culture jeopardizes not only our kids' spirits and potential for inspiration; it threatens their intrinsic inventiveness.
One of my favorite aspects of all-school sing at Green Street School is that teachers, administrators and staff members consistently exhibit the courage it requires to stretch outside their comfort zones. One recent morning, the principal sang a rousing, rockin' solo and demonstrated to students that they should also take a risk. Students need to see teachers as risk-takers, innovators, and creators so that they feel safe -- and encouraged -- to do likewise. At Green Street, the many students who sing, dance, read a speech or play an instrument in front of the packed gym demonstrate a commitment to healthy risk-taking.
Principal Bill Anton at The Dover School in East Dover, told me last fall that one of the most critical aspects of his job is to support teachers in their work as creative, inventive "program designers." He fears that some educational leaders view teachers as simply interchangeable "program implementers" and not innovative, resourceful "idea" people. It was this conversation -- along with several dynamic discussions with local business owners and artists -- that solidified my belief that we need an innovator's index for schools.
This index (as yet still just an idea in my noggin) might affix a point system to various indicators of innovation. A school's inventiveness could be measured by the community as a whole: parents, students, local businesses, artists, community leaders, interested and engaged retirees -- anyone invested in insuring that our schools continue to be incubators of creativity and ingenuity. In this way the community could meaningfully evaluate the dynamic work of our schools and celebrate the less tidy, but absolutely juicy aspects of great teaching and learning.
Even without an index, we can start by publicly recognizing the innovation and creativity already demonstrated by teachers, staff, administrators and students. Test scores are just one snapshot, one small -- albeit relevant -- measure of how a school is doing. And although we should not dismiss the information gathered from testing, we should acknowledge that this regimen does not reveal other critical information about our schools. The tests cannot tell which educators create vibrant, imaginative spaces in their classrooms where students and teachers unite in their daring quest to discover. Genuinely resonant learning happens where there is some risk involved.
In 2010, 1,500 chief executives surveyed by IBM's Institute for Business Value overwhelmingly identified creativity as the most important trait they look for in top managers. As an editorial in Bloomberg BusinessWeek pointed out at the time, "Until now creativity has generally been viewed as fuel for the engines of research or product development, not the essential leadership asset that must permeate an enterprise." Business, education, the arts and the challenges and complexity of daily life demand creativity and innovation. We cannot leave their development to chance.