Seeking Connection, by Debbie Donsky

 The Need for Community in Innovation

When I think of the most productive times in my career, teaching or being a principal, these times have always happened when I have had a strong community around me. The community may have changed in focus and size but there were relationships at the centre.

As an administrator, I worked to build a community of learners in my schools and at the same time, we had networks that support community building across schools. That structure allowed us to come together as leaders and learn together and then take that learning back to our schools with a new perspective.

Now, with the incorporation of social media to develop our own Personal Learning Networks (PLN), we are able to create that community organically. In my department last year we formed learning teams and my team moved it online through a group chat on WhatsApp. Even though that structure no longer exists, we continue to connect through this tool. I have developed my own PLN through participation in MOOCs, such as #IMMOOC with George Couros, my use of Twitter and the community that has developed through my work with the Ontario Principals’ Council.

Competitive Collaboration, Social Media and Empathy — George Couros

In his book, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity, George Couros writes about “competitive collaboration”. He suggests that we must support a culture where we work together to build on each other’s ideas and practices while in the service of our learners. He writes, “When we view ‘sharing’ as something that both supports and pushes us to be better, the big winner will aways be our students.” (p 176). We can create this in our schools and our systems and social media is a tool that will help us to, as he states, “go global, act local.”

One of the other key messages in George Couros’s book is that innovation is grounded in empathy. If we are to create, innovate and design something that is needed, we need to understand what the needs of the user are. He asks the question repeatedly, “What do students need?” When we start with empathy, in relationship, that’s when innovation can begin. He explains:

“If we create “innovation teams” that simply make cookie-cutter versions of the same idea for every school and classroom, we neglect the most important component of innovation: empathy. In education, understanding the community we serve is critical and necessary for innovation to flourish in each of our unique communities.” (p 162)

How to Think More Creatively — Adam Grant

Adam Grant, author of The Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, raises three ways we can support learners to think more creatively in this video:

1. Values over Rules How our children make their way in the world must be grounded in what they believe about themselves. If we enforce rules our children will either conform to the rules and reproduce what we already know or they will rebel against the rules. If we want to create an environment where problems can be solved creatively our children will become interested in looking at these problems from a new perspective.

2. Character over Behaviour We need to acknowledge the character of our children over their behaviour. He suggests that we should praise them for being creative thinkers and non-conformists. Although I agree with this, I think it is far more powerful to model it as educators. We need to create a culture around this belief that trying things in creative ways is valued.

3. Lessons from Books Grant suggests that by using the characters in the books that have had an impact on our children will help them to consider problems or decisions through another’s eyes. His example is, “What would Hermione do in this situation?” By developing empathy for another character’s way of being in the world, we can think more creativity. Again, it is through relationship that we can develop this thinking in our learners.

All of these supports come through our connection with others — how we act (values), how we are (character) or how we understand the world around us (empathy) and act as catalysts for our creativity.

A Scene, a Network and a Community — Jeff Goins

Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do, writes about The Three Types Of Relationship Every Creative Person Needs.

  1. We need a scene. He outlines the importance of living in a place that enriches our creativity. He states: “The scenes we join (or fail to) unavoidably affect the success of our work.” He suggests that going to a conference or even across the hall allows you to jump into a new scene that can fuel creativity — a new perspective.
  2. We need a network. This is not as much about a network as I described above as it is about advocacy. We need someone to speak on our behalf and truly see our work and share it with others. He describes it like this:

What is a network, exactly, and how is building one different from joining a scene? A network is a little bit looser and more relational — it’s an informal group of people who come together for the purpose of connecting with each other. Networks tend to stretch beyond the borders of a given scene; members may not all know one another personally, but they’re each influential to the success of the network itself.

Networks don’t just happen, though. You often have to look for them, making use of the people already around you, and constantly curating your relationships in hopes of strengthening the network. Success doesn’t take an army, but it does take a small group of people who can help your work get the attention it deserves.

3. We need a Community. A community, according to Jeff Goins, is a group that comes together intentionally to share our work; it is collaborative in nature and tight knit. He further states:

Without a community, our best work will stay stuck inside us. We need peer groups and circles of influence to make our work better.

So What Does This Mean for our Schools and Classrooms?

When my daughter left the safety of her elementary school, she joined a French program at a local middle school. She left this tiny, safe space that she had been in since age 4 and went to this much bigger school that she had to take public transit to get to but what made this program different and special rather than daunting and isolating was that she was in a French program and the class of grade 7 and 8 students travelled together as a group. They came to know each other.

The plan was that she would stick with this group and continue on to the local high school where the French program continued but instead she decided to apply to the Arts High School as a Drama major. In this program she has connected with a group of creative, kind, dynamic students. She has joined clubs like the school magazine where she is a writer, Outreach where she does charitable work in the community, HaigTV where she can express herself through video and story and OneActs where she is co-directing a play written by a classmate and performed by other students in the school. She is in her own personal renaissance. I attribute this time of exploration, creativity and risk taking to the group that surrounds her — the scene she is in, the network she has created and the community that pushes her to extend herself outside of her comfort zone.

We need to create this opportunity for every child in every classroom. We need to create spaces where our children can push the limits as non-conformists, where our staff can learn from one another through competitive collaboration which benefits our children and we need to honour the need for community, networks and a scene to spark creativity and innovation.


Originally published on Medium\, October 30, 2016. 

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