This past week I was working with my Destination ImagiNation teams as they were at the beginning stages of planning their solutions for their team challenges. One of the activities we were doing called “Number Boxes” involved placing 12 numbers in 9 different boxes in a way that accumulated points based on the number of “rules” that you could satisfy through the placement of your numbers. A highly engaging activity, it led into a discussion afterwards around divergent and convergent thinking, and how different kinds of thinking come into play when we are being creative and attempting to solve problems.
Inevitably the discussions with each team circled around to what it means to “think outside of the box” an expression that most of them know quite well. As we explored what may actually constitute “the box” one young man put up his hand and asked, “Don’t you think most people are outside the box trying to find a way in?” I smiled as I remembered the first time he was on one of my teams. He was a walking talking calculator in a story about bugs.
In the RSA version of Sir Ken Robinson’s viral TedTalk on How School’s Kill Creativity, there is this image of a graduating class coming out in a big box that resembles one you would use to ship wine in with a label that says “Class of 2010”. And as much as that image is provocative regarding the impact of standardization, there is always the reality of surviving in a world with sufficient “executive functions” that allow us to successfully co-exist and find a place where we can make our contribution. Was it a yearning I heard in this young man’s question about being on the outside looking in? Is it any less of a yearning than I hear in voices of his team mates as they struggle with how to create something that has never existed before for their challenge?
The teamwork for this group isn’t always easy. In instant challenges, our young questioner throws things into the mix that can upset the plan and derail their solution causing frustration. And then later in the day when they are researching and planning how they could build a robotic creature and making a list of the supplies they need, he walks around the room and scavenges through my junk box and office supplies instead of getting to work. But wait. The next thing we know, he has put together a grappling hook gun that he then uses to take their attention off their task when he shoots it at them. Suddenly, the team is excited. Their robotic creature could have a grappling hook gun…and somehow he has lured them out of the box and they have brought him in. For now…
Finding our place in the world can be a challenge. Whether we are struggling with a way to forge our own destiny or struggling with how to fit in the boundaries we encounter, “this” is what learning is about. And just when we think we have it all figured out, the boundaries will shift once again. But in this moment…
We ought to be like elephants in the noontime sun in summer, when they
are tormented by heat and thirst and catch sight of a cool lake. They throw
themselves into the water with the greatest pleasure and without a moment’s
hesitation. In just the same way, for the sake of ourselves and others, we should give ourselves joyfully to the practice.
Kunzang Pelden (b.1862, Tibet) The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech (2007, p. 255) taken from The Descartes Lecture by David Jardine in the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics, July 16, 2012.
I have been given the wonderful gift (and challenge) of managing 13 Destination ImagiNation teams. Why a gift? Not only do I have to be more organized than I’ve ever been in my life which is no easy task in itself, but I also get to see creativity in all its various forms, which, if you read this article by Joyce van Tassell-Baska, is full of nuances. But possibly the biggest gift of all is the requirement that I harness some of my own creative problem solving so I can see where other paths lead and in that process, observe the limitations of my own creativity. So why is all this important?
I suppose it rests on my belief that creativity is our path out of so many things: tragedy, destruction, problems, despair… when we think the world has ended as we know it, creativity offers us the option to make something new. As I watch my 13 teams I can see how some students are lost when things go wrong, while others just bounce off in another direction. Finding the balance between rescuing and motivating as well as freedom and control has been hard, particularly when we are on a tight schedule. How long do we need to stay lost? How far should we bounce in another direction? Each team challenges me to see creativity and giftedness in a new way.
Should all gifted students be expected to be creative? I can think of two who would give me an emphatic “no!” Despite all the problems that some of us see as a shadow over our future, there are some things that are going well and require experts to keep them running and working effectively. Can being too creative interfere with this? And if so, do we squash creativity in order to keep things comfortable? You can see where the polarities are going to take us. Once again, the argument for inclusive education is made. We need different kinds of minds working together, struggling with the balance and embracing that struggle as part of the challenge of being human.
So I work with my 13 teams to embrace the struggle, whatever that individual struggle might be and see that struggle as a necessary part of life. Creative or not, each one of us plays a part in making things happen and keeping things going. If we can master respect, kindness, humility and a few of the other virtues as we go, this struggle might be peaceful…or at least fun!
What a few months it has been since my last blog! Getting 15 teams ready for the Destination ImagiNation tournament was a whirlwind. Once again I have been in awe of the students on my teams. This is a different kind of teamwork and it can be messy and emotional as the pressure of “competing” draws closer. But it is in those final moments when you really get to see students come into their own.
This year the team heading to Tennessee worked on the fine arts challenge: a four minute movie trailer that included an original soundtrack, cinematic effects and the incorporation of two nations into their story. The Super Ninja Chix embraced the genre and were very dedicated in creating fantastic sets, a gripping story and an amazing soundtrack. The pressure of the day was pretty intense, but in the end they really did a great job!
Since I have had the luxury of working with this team and the winning team from last year, I also have the chance to reflect and compare what “winning qualities” they possessed in order to come out on top and I’d like to share my observations.
First of all, I’m going take hard work and organization right out of the equation because this was a quality that I saw in many of the teams. I couldn’t say that it was about teamwork because even though they all came together in the end to make it happen, there were some very interesting dynamics that happened along along the way and many of the other teams were more cohesive. I’m also going to remove creativity because all the groups were incredibly creative in very diverse ways. So what might account for the difference that gave them the edge?
Please remember that my observations are based on a very small sample and are non-scientific BUT there was one conversation that I had to have with both of these teams that I didn’t have with any of the others. The conversation went something like this:
“Is there any way that you can simplify this project to make it manageable and still fit within the parameters of the challenge?”
“Will you be able to make what you have planned work?”
And with that began the painstaking process of editing/scaling down/pruning without losing the brilliant parts.
I read an article once that described how Leonard Cohen wrote many verses to his song “Closing Time” before paring it down to the three that are included in his recording. Those extra verses are really important even if you don’t include them because they are a part of the creative process which includes making your way through all of the possibilities. But eventually you have to get to the essence and remove all of the extraneous pieces that distract from either your message or your task. It’s hard because we’ve often fallen in love with these pieces for a variety of reasons but to finish, we must let them go.
Both groups were faced with this dilemma and both managed to find their way through. At the ripe old age of 13 going on 14 and in grade eight…that’s pretty amazing.
I have been busy since the tournament, talking to appraisers, managers and students about their experience with the program. The feedback has been very positive. Most can see the potential of the program to develop outstanding innovation and teamwork skills. Many of the teacher managers are seeing ways they can incorporate aspects of the program into their everyday classroom practice. The students are recognizing the importance of teamwork and how the program has helped them develop their confidence. Appraisers saw the connections, how Destination ImagiNation can develop the “real world” skills that our 21st Century Learners will need. As promised, I have compiled my top ten list of things I learned at the tournament and I would like to share that now.
10. Not everyone loves Justin Beiber.
9. Fridays at the college are busy.
8. We need more than one registration table.
7. Crazy hats lighten the mood.
6. Tournaments are emotional.
5. Pressure can pull teams apart.
4. Pressure can pull teams together.
3. There is a lot of learning in watching other teams.
2. It’s impossible to guess at what a student may or may not be getting out of the experience.
1. Watching students share their talents can make you so PROUD…especially when you know the journey they were on to get to this place.
If you come to my classroom you’ll see beautiful paintings stashed in various locations, as well as fascinating machines in all sizes and shapes of boxes pushed up against the walls. My coat rack has a two foot square piece of wood hammered to the top of it, I have piles of receipts (mostly sorted) on my desk, and my supply of drinking straws and paperclips is dwindling. It’s been a crazy few months getting ready for the March 18th tournament as 15 teams have come through my classroom designing and creating solutions for their Destination ImagiNation challenges. After school and weekends have provided some time for extra meetings, but now, two weeks away…time is running out!
I’ve undertaken a few ambitious projects in my teaching career…survival camps, Guinness World Book Record challenges, sailing trips, an interdisciplinary project that included a summit at the University of Calgary…but Destination ImagiNation has definitely pushed the boundaries for me in almost every way. I thought it might be worthwhile creating my top ten list of things I’ve learned from Destination ImagiNation before the tournament, because I’m certain our first tournament (complete with more than 160 students, 40 managers and 50 volunteers) will have its own top ten list by the time we’re through!
So here we go…what I learned from DI this year.
10. There are tools we can use so we can get much better at brainstorming.
9. Most of us don’t know how to work in teams.
8. As a teacher I often rescue kids from their learning.
7. Students can get me to give them the answer if they wait long enough.
6. The answers that I give students aren’t necessarily right or helpful.
5. It’s hard to cut ABS pipe straight.
4. It can take a long time just to make a box.
3. The good ideas come about an hour after you’ve given up.
2. If it doesn’t say you can’t, you can.
1. We manage to kill most great ideas with cynicism, fear and self-importance.
So there you go. Give me a week or two after the tournament and I will have another list. One of the things on the list will definitely be: You’ll never know how much people care about education until you ask them to volunteer. The response to our request for help has been so inspiring!