Creative Systems Theory – A Post-covid-19 model for education? (guest)

Since the lockdown and closure of schools to the majority of pupils brought about the sudden out-sourcing of education to everyone, education shifted overnight from being something that happens in schools, mostly of concern to teachers and briefly to parents for the time that their child passes through the system, into open space and of interest to everyone.

As the initial lockdown eases, the prospect of what education will look like post-covid19 raises many questions. As with any investigative process, it’s important to start by considering if the questions we are asking are the right ones. It’s easy to get caught up in the banality of everyday practicalities. How will schools function under social distancing? How many children, how far apart? Before we start getting out the rulers and dis-infectant (the last thing school pupils and their teachers need is more measurements to worry about) we could stop asking questions about schools and start to ask questions about learning. Which is after all the point of all those schools. Isn’t it?

Listening to teachers from across Scotland, and other practitioners who facilitate learning in its many forms, I am hearing that the real questions are ones which go far beyond school layout and crowd control. They are questions about a system for education that is fit for purpose in a changed, and rapidly changing world. They are questions about the expectations on the role of the teacher and about the relationships that underpin learning.

Shut out of schools, learning and teaching has been relocated in time and space and people have been forced into doing things their own way. We all have been forced to think about learning and teaching, as opposed to leaving it for teachers and policy makers to worry about. Now everyone is involved. Children, learners of all ages, parents and teachers and their employers and co-workers are confronted with questions about schooling and education, and the answers are relevant to everyone. Children are no longer packed off to school – out of sight, out of mind. They are in your workspace, your living space, your office, your zoom meeting, the garden next door. They are seen and heard. The first question, then is what could be the result of this mass engagement with education?

Can we adopt an approach which acknowledges and harnesses collective responsibility for education? Imagine, regardless of what your day job is, whether you are a parent or not, you have something to contribute – and the system welcomes your contribution. Consider a system which allows for a diversity of inputs; learning as a process with a focus on discovery, rather than prescribed outputs.

At the same time, the work of teachers has also become more visible, as they have had to rapidly adapt to support their pupils learning in this new (physically dispersed, cultural, and new in so many other ways) environment. What would a system look like that is modelled upon the skills of teachers, not on the logistics of gathering children and resources in a building?

What if doing things differently stopped being rebellious, radical and provocative and became the new normal? I’m interested in how we can remove confrontation and tension between those who follow the rules and those who work around them; those who respect the system and those who try to subvert it. So many creative teachers describe that they are perceived as troublemakers. Some are upset by this and some are quite proud. What if we could shift the culture away from confrontation and instead focus on collaboration?

 With any onslaught of questions, it’s always good to also think about solutions (always plural). Recently, I’ve been reading up on Creative Systems Theory. I’ll try to summarize what it is and why I find it relevant.

Creative Systems Theory : Core and Periphery model

Chris Bilton (Management and Creativity, Blackwell Publishing, 2007) describes how creative networks present a more sustainable and reliable model for creative outputs than the ‘individual creative genius’ idea more commonly associated with creative practice. Bilton then talks about the core and periphery model as a structure for sustained creativity, drawing on research into relationships within networks (Granovetter, 1973). At the core of the network are a small number of ‘strong ties’, which represent static relationships. Strong ties conform to shared values and habitual behaviour. Linking out from these towards the periphery of the network are a greater number of ‘weak ties’ which represent more fluid relationships which span boundaries, and bring about interaction with other networks. These weak ties draw in outside influence, behaviours and ideas which contrast or challenge those of the more static core. They allow for unexpected connections which give rise to new thinking and ideas that filter in towards the core. A network with lots of weak ties fosters complexity and diversity and therefore has greater scope for creativity than one with fewer strong ties.

For anyone seeking to ‘manage’ a creative process, the temptation is towards centralisation of control. Any attempt to form ‘stronger ties’ between strategic core and peripheral partners arises from the desire to control resources and focus on outcomes rather than inputs (Bilton, 2007 P56). Sounds quite familiar when applied to the known culture within education. However, similar to diversity within the natural eco-system, a multiplicity of inputs – complexity and diversity within the network – is more likely to result in quality outcomes. Successful co-operation involves relaxing control and allowing space for the system (and many relationships within it) to evolve.

Does it make sense to apply this creative systems approach to learning and teaching? I definitely see both learning and teaching as a creative process, but then creativity is the ‘lens’ I look at the world through. Plenty of excellent teachers do not connect with the notion of creativity, and do not consider themselves creative at all. Perhaps for them learning and teaching is a more straight forward process of imparting or acquiring knowledge and skills. So to think about learning and teaching as a knowledge economy rather than a creative process…

In a knowledge economy, knowledge is dispersed among individuals and organisations with different specialisms, not hoarded ‘in house’ by any one entity. Accessing knowledge requires the nurturing of informal contacts and relationships through “…communication and interaction which is not bound by the immediate tasks of the organisation. [In practice this means] fewer meetings, more conversations.” (Bilton, 2007 P58)

In realising this, a key task for managers (or perhaps teachers and school leaders) is not to control the process, but in engineering relationships between different individuals, between ideas and resources and different types of thinking within the creative process. Under creative systems theory this core-periphery model replaces centralised control with a co-operative network structure. A dispersed, ‘horizonal’ mode of engagement rather than a tight ‘vertical’ one.

To be effective, the post-covid19 model for education cannot be isolated within schools and delivered only by teachers, it has to integrate with family life and all other types of work. A co-operative network structure, which allows for a multiplicity of inputs, and where conversations and nurturing relationships pave the way for individual learning seems a good way go.

The enforced physical shift in how and where learning takes place, invites a shift in our whole approach to learning. We can go backward to isolating children in appropriately spaced rows of individual desks, all facing forwards, or we can go forward as one to find solutions which fit the creative, flexible mindset we strive for in our learners. Put away the measuring tape, and focus instead on the relationships that underpin learning, and on fostering the necessary trust and communication between teachers and pupils, school leaders and staff, parents and school, school and community.

Claire Newman, 23 May 2020

Former CEO and future undergraduate student. Artist, activist and observer in the field of creativity, arts, education, and social enterprise.

One thought on “Creative Systems Theory – A Post-covid-19 model for education? (guest)

  1. Pingback: Release and Control – rainbowrubbish

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