If teaching is creative work, then schools need a culture that nurtures and supports that creativity. In this way, schools are not unlike movie studios. The "product" takes a long time to produce (about four years for both a student and a good blockbuster), and involves a lot of people with a hand in the process. Whether a film producer or a principal, success hinges not on managing every detail, but on creating a culture that encourages excellent work from all involved: the teachers and the set designers, the coaches and the visual effects team.
These similarities struck me repeatedly as I read an excerpt from Ed Catmull's upcoming book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. The excerpt is definitely worth reading in its entirety.
Catmull, one of the founding fathers of Pixar Animation Studios, writes about the importance of creating a culture that encourages and embraces candor.
A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments.
I've never worked at Pixar, but I can imagine they have some of the same struggles as a healthy school. When you have passionate employees who are pouring their life into their work, whether a that's art like Up or teaching Catcher in the Rye, it's easy to become defensive, or to lose sight of the bigger picture while focusing on the details. It's the role of those in charge, the CEO of the studio or the principal of the school, to break down those barriers to collaboration. At Pixar, they have meetings of the Braintrust to break down every film.
It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we're making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.
Most schools have systems in place like this: regular meetings of the school leadership, department chair meetings, etc. But is the culture of candor present? Catmull gives some ways in which the Pixar Braintrust is distinct from those existing mechanisms.
There are two key differences, as I see it. The ﬁrst is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. While the directors welcome critiques from many sources, they particularly prize feedback from fellow storytellers. The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the speciﬁc suggestions. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to ﬁgure out how to address the feedback. Giving the Braintrust no power to mandate solutions affects the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.
What would that look like in a school? The first task would be assembling a group of people who are recognized to be passionate, talented educators. It wouldn't be challenging to create a group like that. Removing decision-making authority from the group would make it distinct from something like standard meetings among school leaders. My school currently has a Principal's Consulters Group, which is set up similarly–a group of teachers who meet regularly to discuss issues with the principal. I'm not a member of the group so I don't know how much candor there is, but that could be a good forum for a Braintrust to develop. Department chairs are also a natural group in which this kind of culture can grow, since our positions (at least at my school) are much more advisory and administrative than decision-making.
Whatever the specifics of the group, candor is just as necessary in a school as at Pixar, and for the same reasons.
To understand why the Braintrust is so central to Pixar, you have to start with a basic truth: People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things--in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie's writer/director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees.
As a teacher, it's easy to get lost among the trees. AP curricula, retreats, meetings, discipline–there is no shortage of things to distract us from the real mission. The ability to refocus and address problems with candor is vital to creating a truly creative and collaborative atmosphere. It's human nature to be defensive and resistant to outside opinions, but Pixar has shown that it is possible to create a culture that actively works against those tendencies. It's not magic that Pixar has created an unprecedented string of critical and box office hits, it's a process. And if it works for Pixar, it can work for our schools.