Leonard Sommer, CEO of German ad agency Sommer+Sommer and founder of the initiative CLASSROOM THINKTANK, has spent two years searching for ways the creative industry can inspire schools. His goal: to pinpoint factors that help foster creativity in the classroom.
Interview: Kaja Godart
Magazine: didacta, Germany (April 1st 2015)
“How can creativity be fostered in the schools of the 21st century – how can the creative industry inspire our schools?” This is the question that creative agency director Leonard Sommer set out to find answers to, together with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. To do so, he gathered inspiration for new educational approaches in tomorrow’s schools from creatives in over 35 countries. Over 100 leading creatives contributed their ideas to the project, sharing their visions for a school able to help unlock every child’s creative potential. didacta talked to Leonard Sommer about this ambitious project, a book of which is also coming out this year.
didacta: How do you define creativity in your work?
Leonard Sommer: The idea of fostering creativity in schools is too quickly associated only with subjects like music and art. In our view, what schools need to be doing is equipping children with the skills to find creative solutions to unknown problems. Hardly any schools today are preparing children for the world of tomorrow and helping them learn the skills that the 21st century demands. When they grow up, our children will have to solve problems that we haven’t found the answers to yet. So alongside their traditional role of conveying knowledge, schools really need to prepare children to solve unexpected problems. To do this, they need to conserve and nurture the most important human resource we have: our children’s creative potential.
How can schools promote creativity?
To develop new educational approaches and bring in methods and principles from the creative industry, I tried to pinpoint what schools could learn from the creative industry based on a series of open survey questions. I don’t want to sound too negative, but embarking on an in-depth investigation of schooling today – with its destructive learning culture, outmoded structures, understimulated teachers, apathy-inducing testing methods, and a grading system that fails to achieve even its own goals – made even clearer to me how urgently our education system needs radical change.
What might this change look like?
After conducting extensive online research and evaluating the results from quantitative and qualitative surveys on the reasons for the suppression of creativity and the potential to foster it, I developed a strategic model for possible change. In the process, I interviewed pupils, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, creative, professors, and people from all kinds of professional backgrounds. Based on five building blocks – learning culture, organizational design, the teacher’s role, teaching methods, and assessment – the model proposes ways forward and lays the foundations for an innovative school concept. It aims to motivate education experts, schools and associated institutions and their decision-makers to look to other industries for inspiration when preparing for change and implementing it long-term.
Where did you get the idea for your strategic model, and how can schools implement it?
The basic structure of my model was inspired by Google, where until recently, staff were allowed to spend 20 percent of their working hours developing their own projects. A similar approach seems pertinent for schools. 50 percent of time could be devoted to conveying knowledge, as schools have always done – the “Know-what” module. 30 percent of time could be dedicated to project work – the “Know-how” module. And the remaining 20 percent – what I call the “Passion-to-know” module – could be invested in promoting individual talents, whatever they may be, from playing the cello to building things. Then when they finished school at 18, young people would really understand what they’re good at and what they like, maybe even what their true passions and motivations are. In my view, this approach could play a major role in high schools by helping children freely discover their own passions.
What does this mean for the role of the teacher?
The teacher’s role will be wonderfully inspirational. As well as conveying knowledge, they’ll also act as talent coaches by focusing on what each child is good at, helping them discover their talents, and encouraging and supporting them. This can be in the 20 percent “free” time, where the focus is not on achievement but on letting pupils pursue their passions.
How can creativity be fostered in regular classroom tuition?
Of the 550 people we put this question to in a survey, over 55 percent agreed that creativity could be fostered by dealing constructively with mistakes. This was the most popular answer, followed by encouraging individual passions and talents, rewarding children’s own ideas, and allowing inspiration to blossom by teachers asking pupils open questions that can lead to novel approaches and solutions.
Why is this issue so close to your heart?
Because I noticed that both of my own children were enjoying school less and less, and I wondered why. I’m a passionate believer in the power of childhood creativity, and I think it’s a shame when this is quasi-systematically suppressed by the enforced conformity in our education culture. Schools need to prepare children to solve unexpected challenges, and creativity in schools can be fostered by dealing constructively with mistakes.
What can our education system learn from the creative industry?
Share your opinion at http://thinktank.sommer-sommer.com
How can schools foster creativity better?
In summer 2014, Leonard Sommer held a “Classroom Thinktank” workshop at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Creatives visiting the festival were invited to contribute their ideas for making the education system more creative. One participant was Keith Reinhard, Chairman Emeritus at DDB Worldwide Inc. – one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies, with over 200 offices in almost 100 countries. You can read up on the results for yourself on the Classroom Thinktank blog: http://thinktank.sommer-sommer.com
How can classrooms become more creative?
Keith Reinhard, DDB Worldwide Inc., recommends four key freedoms:
● The Freedom from Fear
Talent freezes in the grip of fear – the creative mind shuts down. Pupils shouldn’t have to fear being labeled, compared or categorized, being laughed at or embarrassing themselves. To remove this fear, pupils should be encouraged to say what they think and express their true feelings. Importantly, they also shouldn’t have to fear the teacher.
● The Freedom to Fail
It is the nature of creative talent to venture beyond the known. Also because there are no assurances that these idea-searching patrols will succeed, the seekers must be granted the latitude to fail in order to sustain their willingness to try again. In conventional classrooms, the goal is probably one of never failing. But every great inventor in human history failed on the road to their big breakthrough.
● The Freedom from Chaos
Chaos is often the result of unclear or inconsistent communication, uncertainty, or arrogance on the part of the teacher, leaving pupils unsure what exactly is expected of them. Class size is another factor: classes that are too large or classrooms that are too small amplify chaos.
● The Freedom to Be
Each individual has the right to be supported in their personal ambitions for higher achievement. The lesson for educators from this insight is that every effort should be made to celebrate individuality and oppose conformity, and that, as much as possible, education experiences and environments should be adapted to the development path of the individual instead of insisting that the individual adapt to a standard curriculum.
What could teachers learn from creative industry leaders to foster creativity?
● Provide creative stimulus
At DDB New York, there are regular “Curiosity Sessions” where prominent figures in creative pursuits like architecture, music and fashion are brought into the agency to address the entire agency staff. In the education system, showcasing the lives and work of great creative thinkers should be a key part of the curriculum.
● Focus on problem solving
Instead of cramming facts and theories into the minds of scholars, challenge them to break down real problems and come up with creative solutions.
● Celebrate creative thinking
Find ways to celebrate and reward creative ideas without evaluating or grading them!