By Jonathan Sclater (Principal, MEd in Imaginative Education, @jonathansclater)
The sudden and immediate disruption to our daily routines with the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic has required all of us to prioritize what is most important and essential. At the forefront of this conversation is the well-being of our families and education of our children. The final week before Spring Break in North America is normally a time in schools devoted to celebrating learning and wrapping up longer inquiry projects that have spanned the term. It’s normally a time for educators to wind down, decompress, and to look forward to a peaceful, restful break – this, however, is not a normal time.
In addition to coping with their own stress or anxiety during times of crisis, school leaders need to support and guide their learning communities in exploring the possible in a range of ways. This work undeniably relies on imagination.
To gather and adapt to new information and make informed decisions – we need imagination. To communicate and empathize with educators, learners, and parents – we need imagination. To make ethical decisions in rapidly changing and complex situations to shape and tell a new story – we need imagination. To create learning-focused environments online and support the curiosity of our teachers and students – this too, requires imagination.
The work in the area of imagination has been extensively written about by Kieran Egan and this research continues at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada through the Centre for Imagination in Research, Culture, and Education (@Circe_SFU).
Egan (2005) defines the imagination in this way, “Imagination is not some desirable but dispensable frill….it is the heart of any truly educational experience…it is the center of all effective human thinking” (p. 212).
What I propose here is that school leaders can and must develop a new mindset that is based in imagination. This mindset follows the tradition and research of Carol Dweck on growth mindset. Dweck (2006) said, “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts…everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (p. 7). What I am calling an Imaginative Mindset involves being adaptable, networked, hopeful, and curious.
Over the course of this 4-part imaginative post series, I will introduce and explain these attributes and indicate their power in helping school leaders to rise above uncertainty, address trauma, and bring strength to their communities.
A leader with an imaginative mindset is…
Employing imagination to seek the possible – by seeing different perspectives to act on and respond to new situations.
During times of crisis, imaginative leaders need to act in a timely manner in response to the specific needs of their community. With the right mindset – a mindset that is flexibly able to explore and enact the possible – leaders are equipped to take meaningful steps that properly inform and care for their learning communities. The help they give requires a balanced approach, but ultimately comes down to an ability to adapt to a moving target.
School leaders are used to making tough decisions; however, most of this work is usually done through relationship building via face-to-face interactions. The challenge during this pandemic is that this needs to be done remotely. People are more vulnerable to experiencing trauma when isolated, so leaders must proceed carefully. It also important to not spread misinformation – which can do more harm than good – so communication has to be clear, consistent, and open.
With every company, researcher and entrepreneur trying to offer support and tools through their new on-line resources, leaders must be careful about what they commit themselves to. In the midst of learning new routines, using new virtual platforms, and many attempts and re-attempts to get everyone on the same page – or screen in this case – leaders have to be willing to realize that the plan doesn’t often match reality and will need to be continually changed along the way.
As Kaser & Halbert (2009) note, “Rarely do plans unfold entirely the way they were visualized, and school leaders learn to adapt their plans while in motion around unfolding issues” (p. 74). Responding ‘on the fly’ is what makes learning such a dynamic process – one in which we aim to flexibly adapt to different circumstances. When leaders engage imagination in being flexible and adaptable, they are demonstrating a willingness and comfort with uncertainty.
In a crisis, even though there is an urge to act immediately, leaders need to take a disciplined and tempered approach, and this takes time. Leaders with an imaginative mindset are able to pause and consider multiple perspectives about how each movement fits into a larger framework. School leaders must be reflective and adaptive in their responses and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of competing priorities. The danger in moving too fast during a sudden change in routine is that when a solution to one problem is offered, it can inadvertently cause another problem. One decision for one need – such as simply having parents come in to pick up supplies or materials – must also consider the potential risk to safety and well-being.
It’s not all bad news. We are in the middle of an incredible time for new innovations, and it reminds us about prioritizing what is truly important and essential. George Couros (2015) says, “Innovation is not about changing everything, sometimes you only need to change one thing. That experience can lead to new and better learning opportunities” (p. 60). When leaders are intentional about being open to changes and being adaptable in response to change – not only can they perceive what these changes are, but they are able to adapt and have a plan to move forward. This ability to be adaptable in the midst of change demonstrates the imaginative mindset in action.
Couros, G. (2015). The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books.
Egan, K. (2005). An Imaginative Approach to Teaching. Jossey-Bass
Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2009). Leadership Mindsets: Innovation and Learning in the Transformation of Schools. Routledge.
Interested in Reading More?
Stay tuned for the next three instalment’s in Jonathan’s series and discover how being networked, hopeful, and curious can help your practices in Imaginative Leadership.