Friday, September 24, 2010

The value of tensions

I attended a talk last Friday on innovation in educational settings by Keith Sawyer.  The talk was sponsored by BYU's Mckay School of Education and the Department of Instructional Psychology & Technology.  Dr. Sawyer's work is in cognitive science and focuses largely on how to endgender and facilitate creativity within organizations.  He spent the last 15 minutes or so of his presentation discussing the challenges that come in trying to create a culture of innovation where one didn't exist before.  Much of his ideas were framed around the concept of tensions and constraints (e.g. How can we provide freedom to innovate while also meeting standards and expectations of clients, lawmakers, investors, etc.?).  His remarks resonated with me because tensions were something that I've been thinking about quite a bit lately.

By definition, tension implies some degree of discomfort or stretching.  It's that gray, ambiguous area that isn't all that comfortable to be in.  That place where we're torn between two competing forces that require us to bend and stretch.  But, that bending and stretching is a good thing because it forces us out of the comfortable poles into a place where we have to think critically, consider multiple perspectives, and be innovative.  Working in the space between the tensions ultimately leads to growth.

Here are some examples of productive tensions I've encountered recently:

-Which students most need my support & Who is most likely to respond to my efforts?

-How can I allow meaningful choice for learners, while still meeting standards laid out by my department, college, or university?

-How do I allow a toddler to explore, learn, and develop independence, while still keeping her safe (and keeping the house standing)?

-How do you facilitate coherent, integrated learning across a course, and foster some sense of emergent or constructivist learning?

-Where is the balance between bottom-up creativity and top-down guidance?

-How do I sincerely forgive those that have made sometimes grievous mistakes, but still hold out some level of accountability?

There are no easy answers to these sorts of questions, which is a good thing because easy answers to tough questions are dangerous and short-sighted.  As I struggle with these sorts of issues, the progress is slow (in some ways, these are the sorts of questions that take careers and lifetimes to answer), but I find myself having the occasional insight that makes me a better educator, parent, and person.

So, where are the healthy tensions for you?  What sorts of tough questions guide your work?


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