Adaptation, Reflection, Translation: a picture of practice

2 May 2018

Greg Klerkx explains the elements of Translational Practice at the heart of the My Creative School programme

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The My Creative School (MCS) team didn’t know exactly what it would see, hear or experience during the Creative Catalyst sharing ‘tour’ across our three MCS project boroughs. But it’s safe to say that it was uniformly amazing, deeply engaging and often very moving. We know that creative teaching and learning is hard, but all the schools involved in the projects made it look effortless and joyful.

In my last two blogs, I explored aspects of Adaptive Practice - an ongoing process of identifying effective new ways of working, whether as teachers or practitioners, and ensuring they are incorporated into future practice. Adaptive Practice sits alongside Reflective Practice, and both ideas express a cyclical notion of constant improvement of teaching and learning that is at the heart of My Creative School.

There’s been a third, more subtle process underway as we’ve been busily reflecting (thinking about what has or hasn’t worked) and adapting (putting what has worked into practice). Let’s call it Translational Practice, inspired by a concept in medicine called translational research, which describes those processes intended to ensure that basic scientific research can be ‘translated’ into practical outcomes for patients.

Within the framework of MCS, Translational Practice is less about practical activity and more about core ways of working, whether as teachers or practitioners. It is about values, qualities and mindsets; it’s about how we approach what we do, and how we’ve sought to challenge our default modes and assumptions through our Creative Catalysts.

We’ve noticed three broad areas of ‘translation’ throughout My Creative School. These are areas in which we’ve seen connections between teachers and artists that reach beyond skillsets, training and expertise. In many ways, Translational Practice is where we’ve discovered the beating heart of My Creative School.

Vulnerability

Behind (or perhaps around) skill and experience are emotions, opinions, ideas, and hopes. The best artists routinely bring this ‘whole human’ approach to their work. Whatever the art form, artists must open themselves to the world in order to respond to it truthfully and creatively. Likewise, the best teachers allow their pupils to see them not just as authority figures or dispensers of knowledge, but as people.

At the core of being vulnerable is admitting not only that you might get things wrong, but also that getting things wrong has an impact. It’s common parlance to talk about learning through mistakes and the power of failure; it’s less common to say that getting it wrong can sting, even if only briefly. What if we built a reflective space for teachers and no one came? How would that feel? What would it mean?

In MCS, being open about these and other questions and acknowledging vulnerability has had the effect of creating greater trust and a greater willingness to take risks. Several MCS practitioners have worked well outside of their core art forms, learning new skills as they went along. Likewise, teachers who began with an ‘I can’t do this’ attitude progressed to ‘I’m willing to have a go and I’ll learn something valuable if it doesn’t go to plan.’

At the heart of both journeys is shared trust, a shared willingness to take risks, and a shared acknowledgement of the ‘whole human’ engaged in the important business of teaching and learning.
Holy Innocents Catholic Primary School - credit Roger Brown for A New Directionjpg

Image: Holy Innocents' Catholic Primary School

Resilience

A dancer may practice until their feet are raw and still not master a particular move or step. Teachers may try one, two, twenty, a hundred ways to reach a pupil struggling to grasp a particular skill or concept.

Whether artist or teacher, the trying never stops.

Resilience is born out of self-reflection that can lead to tough questions reaching to the heart of practice. Why have I worked on this particular piece of art for two years when I feel no closer to expressing what I want to express? Why can’t I be content with this child merely getting by? Resilience speaks to the heart of who we are – as teachers, as artists, as people – and why we do what we do.

Throughout MCS, we’ve seen projects that started in one place ending up somewhere vastly different, when it would have been easier and maybe even more fun to just stick with that first idea. We’ve seen musicians practising as visual artists, choreographers leading freewriting exercises, and theatre-makers designing outdoor art installations. We’ve seen every single MCS teacher persevering in co-leading or leading artistic activities in, around and beyond their classrooms, amidst professional pressures and responsibilities so numerous that they are wrecking the profession.

Passion is the common driver behind the incredible resilience we’ve seen across the MCS programme. An unwillingness to settle for ‘ok’ has been a deep point of connection between teachers and practitioners, and arguably the ‘engine’ that allowed for the wonderful projects we saw during our sharing tour. Great artists never settle for ok, and neither do great schools.
Our Lady Immaculate Kingston1 - credit Roger Brown for ANDjpg

Image: Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Primary School

Experimentation

A popular, if tongue-in-cheek, definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You might say this is why MCS exists in the first place: to explore the points of ‘insanity’ in project schools where existing practice, however well its applied, isn’t achieving the desired results… and then, of course, to try something different!

Experimenting requires both vulnerability and resilience because it so often ends in failure. Things don’t work as often as they do work and this can be frustrating and difficult, particularly in high-pressure modern schools focused on achieving visible, measurable results. The degree to which MCS schools were willing to experiment seems to have depended in large part on the closeness of the relationship between artist and teacher, and on the perceived sense of permission in the broader school culture. Some schools experiment as a matter of course, others only rarely.

But even in schools where working differently with time, physical space, pedagogy and subject matter was more challenging, we’ve seen tremendous bravery and a broad willingness to have a go. We know this has often required teachers to have long and sometimes thorny conversations with colleagues and SLT, and it’s also meant that artists have sometimes been forced to dig into unexplored areas of their practice or step into unfamiliar shoes where their core practice might not provide much support at all.

There are perhaps other areas of Translational Practice we could name, though not so universally present. Playfulness, for example. We’d love to hear from the teachers and practitioners involved in MCS about their own experience of where else their core qualities, values and ways of working intersected to the benefit of their MCS work.

On 24 May, we’ll all have the opportunity to experience a bit of all nine MCS projects and to talk about what will happen next. It will be a wonderful chance for us all to celebrate not only the differences that have allowed us to create rich, new experiences for our schools, but also those things that have bound us together across these many months.

My Creative School - Regina Coeli School - credit Roger Brown for A New Directionjpg

Image: Regina Coeli Catholic Primary School


These ideas have informed a tool and case study for the MCS Learning Resource - read about it here.
Main image: Priory School

All images photographed by Roger Brown for A New Direction.

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