After being intrigued by the excerpts I'd seen, I was eager to read Ed Catmull's book Creativity, Inc. Finding similarities between Pixar, the most successful film studio of the last twenty years, and a high school may seem like a stretch. But after reading this book it's clear that the core values, and struggles, of Pixar aren't that different from those of a strong school.
A developing theme of this blog is that I think teaching is, at its heart, creative work. Whatever the subject, we teachers are constantly creating activities for our students that help them make connections and learn the material. The difficulties in quantifying what makes a "good" lesson is evident in the endless debates about curricula and teaching. Similarly, the thousands of writers, directors, and animators at Pixar work to tell stories that are equal parts touching and funny and technically brilliant. Movie studios are constantly trying to determine the "formula" for a good movie, but as anybody who has been to the theater this summer knows, good movie-making is no more readily quantifiable than good teaching.
Creative work is messy, but Ed Catmull approaches this book, and his work at Pixar, with the mind of an engineer. How can this process of making stories, which relies on the work of so many people, be managed in a way that doesn't lose the heart and soul of the creative process? That's an important first principle, and one that only seems obvious in retrospect. Before he can possibly hope to manage this company he has to acknowledge that creative work is inherently different from a factory whose goal is to efficiently produce widgets. He seems to understand the risk of over-engineering the process and losing what makes Pixar special. It's a delicate balance, but one that most would agree Pixar has struck beautifully (excepting perhaps Cars 2).
So what are some of the lessons that I took from this book? As a brand new school administrator, I've been looking for inspiration and guidance wherever I can find it, and I found myself making more highlights in Creativity, Inc. than in any education-specific book I've read so far. Modeling a school after Pixar is a lofty goal, but there are worse ideals to hold up. One of the first quotes that struck me is something I want to frame for my wall this year:
We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.
This applies to teachers as much as to Pixar's animators and writers. Most teachers I've met are talented and want to contribute. Likewise, most students want to "contribute" in their own way as well–few students are actively trying not to learn things. When there are struggles in the classroom, whatever they are, it's easy to blame bad teachers, lazy students, etc. But what if instead we come from the perspective that we are simply not putting those teachers or students in the best position to succeed? What are the impediments, and how can we fix them? Maybe that means giving a teacher more guidance and support in classroom management or pedagogy. Or maybe it's the student who needs extra help. Yes some teachers or students may have more talent or desire to contribute than others, but teaching at a Jesuit school I am constantly trying to presume goodwill (the "Ignatian Presupposition"). Catmull's way of spelling that out in the context of an entire organization strikes me as a good way to start.
Catmull goes on to talk a lot about the "Braintrust" at Pixar, and the role of candor. I've written about that before, so I won't repeat that all here. But I think Catmull does get at exactly what makes candor so difficult, whether at Pixar or among teachers at a school. There is a particular idea he stresses among the storytellers at the Braintrust meetings:
You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.
Many teachers are the same way. It's human nature. Teachers work hard and a part of their personality is present in every lesson they lead. I have certainly felt defensive about my teaching before. If somebody is challenging the way I teach, or the way I grade papers, they are challenging me. For teachers and administrators, it's important to remind each other of that fact. "You are not your idea."
Often, difficult conversations come up after the fact, after the student has failed the test or the teacher has been let go. But as Catmull points out, these conversations are important, and challenging, throughout the process.
It isn’t just postmortems, though: In general, people are resistant to self-assessment. Companies are bad at it, too. Looking inward, to them, often boils down to this: “We are successful, so what we are doing must be correct.”[...] One technique I’ve used to soften the process is to ask everyone in the room to make two lists: the top five things that they would do again and the top five things that they wouldn’t do again.
At a school like mine, I think we can fall prey to this trap often. "We are successful." And we are, by many measures. Students are still applying in large numbers, and nearly all are passing AP tests and getting into four-year universities. But self-assessment is urgent in our profession. Just as our biggest successes are often not seen for years later, when that alum makes it big, so too our failures may not manifest immediately. We need to be willing to assess ourselves constantly. To examine not just our success and failures, but the very metrics that we are using to define what is a "success" and what is a "failure."
School leaders have an important role to play in encouraging this candor, at department meetings and in the hallways, in the classrooms and at parent-teacher-student conferences. I'll let Mr. Catmull say it better than I can:
To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.
There are so many other themes throughout the book, with lessons on dealing with failure, dealing with a growing organization, and others. But I can't quote the whole book, so you should really just go purchase it. I do want to share one metaphor from director Andrew Stanton that has stayed with me. Again, he's talking about making movies, but anybody who has worked in a school will be able to relate.
“If you’re sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing?” he says. “You have to embrace that sailing means that you can’t control the elements and that there will be good days and bad days and that, whatever comes, you will deal with it because your goal is to eventually get to the other side. You will not be able to control exactly how you get across. That’s the game you’ve decided to be in. If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don’t get in the boat.”
Teaching will never be easy or simple. But like those who make movies, it's the business we are in because we can't imagine doing anything else. We have to take it all in, knowing that we are working towards a valuable goal.