Unleashing Potential; Harnessing Possibilities:
How the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is leading the way to creativity and innovation
By: Jane Daly
The engineer performs another trial run of the self-powered car over the free-standing bridge. The bridge collapses with a resounding crash. He jots a few observations into a group blog, and posts a video of the latest run. A few minutes later, a fellow engineer responds, giving her suggestion for a solution involving the bridge’s design. He thinks she might have a point, and wishes he could stay and work late tonight on his experiment. But he knows he can’t: for this 8-year-old engineer attending a school in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), he has to go home right after school.
According to Wikipedia, there are more than 13,000 school boards in the United States. But when some of America’s brightest minds from business, science, medicine, law, defense, the arts and education gathered in New York City for the American Imagination Summit last year, the Capital’s own Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) was on the invite list, one of only a handful of school boards invited to participate from across North America. (The Edmonton School Board was similarly honoured.)
The two-day Summit culminated in an action plan for policy makers, educators, and community activists to put imagination at the forefront of school curricula in the United States. The reason for the Summit, as explained by NEA Executive Director John I. Wilson, was simple: “…we want to ensure a new generation has the imagination and creativity to not only lead a 21st century economy, but also to visualize innovative solutions to the problems they will inherit. Tackling climate change will take imagination; finding alternative energy sources will take imagination; and leveraging advances in technology to help the greater good will take imagination…”
The OCDSB’s invitation to the Summit, which was also attended by Deepak Chopra; General Charles Wald of the U.S. Department of Defense; Matthew Bishop, business editor of the Economist; Judith Kaye, the former New York City chief judge; and Bruce Vaughn, a former director of Walt Disney Imagineering, among others, is a powerful indicator of just how well-respected the OCDSB has quietly become on the subject of creativity during the last seven years.
Creativity: A New Imperative
Dr. Peter Gamwell, a Superintendent of Instruction at the OCDSB and the Project Lead for the District’s push towards creativity (a team effort that has involved more than one thousand people), echoes Wilson’s call, saying that Canada’s own businesses, government and not-for-profit organizations are increasingly looking for creativity, innovation and critical thinking skills.
“This presents an exceptional opportunity for school boards to not only foster and teach creativity in the classroom, but to also research and determine exactly how to help organizations and learners of all ages to become the creative, engaged, critical thinkers our future will require them to be,” he says.
Unleashing Potential; Harnessing Possibilities: an Action Research Paper
For the OCDSB, a snapshot of its ongoing journey to creativity was recently captured in an action research paper, Unleashing Potential, Harnessing Possibilities. This report outlines the steps of the District’s seven-year journey, its discoveries, how the initiative supports its mission, vision and strategy, and what it needs to do next to further instill creative environments in its classrooms, schools, and communities, as well as across its organization at all levels. (The report and regular updates and resources can be found at www.leadthewaytocreativity.com.)
Leadership Leads the Way to Creativity
As explained in the report, the catalyst for the District’s own instructional and cultural shift was a 2005 OCDSB Leadership Study. Based on the findings, the OCDSB developed a Leadership Narrative and Principles of Creative Leadership, both of which focused on shaping the culture of the District into a more positive environment that encouraged and supported the ideas and creative capacities of every person, at every level. The Leadership Narrative also challenged individuals to think of leadership in the ways people can positively influence and motivate those around them, rather than in terms of rank.
To put the policy into practice, the OCDSB created more inclusive opportunities for involvement and input. For example, OCDSB employees who typically attended leadership events were now asked to invite a guest—a teacher, student, custodian, parent, community member or local business person—to attend and provide their ideas. These included popular “Lead the Way” events, featuring presentations by local and internationally renowned thinkers with expertise in the fields of innovation, imagination, creativity and education, such as Daniel Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, Margaret Wheatley, and Sir John Jones.
Discovering Best Practices, Inside and Out
At the same time, to discover some of the best practices to foster and support creativity, the OCDSB examined global research and found seven key conditions essential for the fostering of imagination and creativity. These included embracing creativity as an organization; understanding the critical connection between diversity and creativity; recognizing that good ideas can come from anywhere within, or outside of, an organization; providing permission to experiment and fail; creating a balance between autonomy and structured processes; embracing new forms of leadership; and understanding the need to create fun, meaningful environments.
Recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all solution to foster a creative environment, the OCDSB also conducted its own research, including asking thousands of the Lead the Way Event participants: What are the conditions under which healthy and creative individuals and organizations flourish?
The common conditions included a safe and positive environment; time to create; autonomy and empowerment; respectful and trusting culture; open communication, feedback and recognition; methods/tools/resources supported by professional development; leadership; purposeful environment; teamwork and collaboration; and passion. Participants also recommended ways these conditions could be implemented.
In addition, some 200 examples of creative initiatives happening within OCDSB schools and the organization itself were gathered, giving practical applications of creativity in action.
The learning gained from the Lead the Way initiative is now embedded in the OCDSB’s 2011–2015 Strategic Plan, with a focus on supporting the four key priorities of Well-Being, Engagement, Leadership and Learning, as well as the OCDSB Board Improvement Plan for Student Achievement (BIPSA) for 2012-2013, and the School Improvement Plans for Student Achievement (SIPSAs) for 2012-2013.
As the OCDSB continues on its journey, it invites all interested stakeholders to join in. Find out about future events and how you can participate at www.leadthewaytocreativity.com.
Written by: Jane Daly