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Re-Imagining School Leadership With Cognitive Tools

What is the role of imagination in educational leadership? How does it fuel innovation and creativity and how do we maximize it?

How can the imagination deepen school leaders’ understanding of educational issues?

How can the imagination support the generation of new ideas in educational leadership?

How can school leaders employ tools of imagination to increase the collective capacity for imagination and creativity in their school communities?

These are the questions I explored earlier this year with seven school leaders in a rural school district in Georgia, U.S.A. I introduced the notion of cognitive tools to these school leaders. We explored how cognitive tools engage imagination, why they help human beings think, and also how they can be used effectively by innovative leaders.
Imaginative leaders don’t just have creative ideas—they demonstrate openness to possibility in their practice. Imaginative leaders understand that human beings are perfinkers—we never just think but we perceive, feel, and think at the same time. (My TEDx talk explains what a perfinker is.) When we acknowledge our teachers, our students, our parents—everyone in the school community—is an emotional and imaginative being, then our interactions change. The tools we employ to understand issues, make decisions, and convey meaning also change. What is crucial, whether in teaching or educational leadership, is that our tools evoke emotion and imagination, two requirements for all learning. Enter: cognitive tools.
(NOTE: This link will provide you with a description of what cognitive tools are and how they can maximize learning for students PreK through higher education. Learn more about Imaginative Education–a cognitive-tool focused pedagogy–here.)
My work with these school leaders employed cognitive tools differently, however. We looked at how using them can contribute to engaging leadership practice and, ultimately, to a school culture that embraces what is possible. This is imagination. The school leaders’ task during our 6-week cycle working together was to employ cognitive tools to a) deepen their understanding of a chosen issue, b) generate ideas to address/deal with the issues/idea/concept, c) to actually walk the walk—that is, to engage the emotions and imaginations of members of their school communities as they move forward with their projects. This is the resource we used to explore a few ways in which different cognitive tools can be used in school leadership:

The Process: 7 Imaginative Leadership Short-Cycle Initiatives

Our work together began in Georgia. I had the great pleasure of meeting these leaders in their schools and working with them face-to-face. I began by providing all the leaders a workshop on the role of imagination in educational leadership. Together we moved past the idea that imagination is only important for innovation—typically not much else is said about imagination as a capacity and skill of effective leaders. I employed an array of cognitive tools I was teaching about to create an emotionally and imaginatively engaging context for the learning that lay ahead.

Innovative school leadership is not a one-time-thing. It is ongoing. It requires us to know our communities. Observation and imagination go hand-in-hand. (Landon)

Next I met each leader individually for 90 minutes. I learned about their school communities, about their understanding of leadership and imagination, and about how they see themselves as leaders. Together in this second session, we identified an issue/topic/idea they wanted to develop over the next 6 weeks using cognitive tools. 3 weeks later we had a small group session in which they shared their imaginative work to date. We looked at how they were using cognitive tools to better understand their chosen issues, how they employed cognitive tools to generate new ideas, and how they interacted and engaged members of their school community in imaginative ways. The cycle ended with a final one-on-one virtual meeting with each school leader. What follows is a brief synopsis of some of the cognitive tool-focused work of these imaginative school leaders.

Lisa: Engaging Teachers

“I have actively been applying different cognitive tools of imagination to engage teachers in my school community. Specifically, I am using cognitive tools in my work with teachers on rigor and engagement in learning—engagement of students and teachers. In my first meeting with teachers, I framed the topic of engagement (teacher & student) using the cognitive tools of a binary opposition: connected/disconnected—I asked: Does learning happen when teachers are disconnected? What happens for students when their teachers are fully connected? My aim was to emotionally engage my teachers and begin to have them talk more about their own engagement in the teaching/learning process. I also had my teacher-leaders (department chairs) envision teaching that was magical/mundane. What are the features of the “magical” teaching moments? How can the qualities of those magical moments be applied more broadly? I observed that the same format was being used every time to work with teacher-leaders: We would meet with department chairs and then these department chairs would go and share with their teachers. I wanted to change the context! We shift our topic to teachers’ own practice and we changed the format. I focused on the heroic qualities of effective teachers (those teachers getting high growth from all students). I identified one teacher (the Geometry teacher) in the school who was effective at engaging all her students and individually mentored this teacher using cognitive tools. This teacher then went out to different department groups and began a conversation about successful teaching practices—and the word spread! Another teacher who is proud of some engaging work she is doing asked to join the conversation. Without realizing it, I was humanizing the concept of engagement. I have discovered that employing cognitive tools is helping me deepen my understanding of the issue of teacher engagement. Also, the cognitive tools (heroic qualities and binary opposites in particular) have allowed me to focus on teacher strengths—teachers are engaged in revealing their stories of effective practice, in framing effective lessons in terms of heroic qualities and in sharing those practices that work.”

Imaginative leadership is not one more thing to do, but being more creative in what we already do.

Landon: Sharing Our School Story

“I am concerned about public perception of schools—in particular, the public perception of my school. I formed a ‘school perception team’ to talk about the issue and began by emotionally engaging team members. I had used cognitive tools to identify the emotional significance of the issue: negative school perception. So I shared with my team, what I see as a troubling narrative around schools/public education. I feel like public education is under attack with negative news and perception erasing much of the positive things happening in schools. I want to form a team that will be intentional about how the public can learn about this school and how great it is. The school-based team is composed of a range of school players (student representatives, athletic director, band teacher, science teacher, counselor). As a whole, the aim of the group is to work together to positively portray the story of the school. More than simply sharing test scores, I envision sharing powerful emotionally engaging narratives about the school community. Using the cognitive tools as a guide, we plan to increase the kinds of social media coverage of the school that will capture the heart and imagination of the broader community of which we are part. I want the public to see the human hopes, fears, passions and imagination of the teachers and students that constitute the school and that make it great.”

Tracey: Re-Imagining Course Offerings

“I would like to support and reward our senior students. I want to create a classroom context/course unlike any other—one in which students’ comfort, student choice and autonomy are focal points. I started by creating a consultation team with some senior students and a few teachers to investigate the idea of creating a non-convention course for seniors. I employed cognitive tools to help team members at my initial meeting to imagine what would be possible in this “unique” course—How would they visualize the ideal class? I encouraged them to brainstorm—to what if—possibilities for course structure and content. I encouraged them to puzzle over rules or limits they felt might not be ‘breakable’—to puzzle over issues like attendance policy or grading. The challenge: What kind of a course structure would provide seniors with an experience that would support them emotionally and academically? What could provide a sense of comfort (coffee machines, couches) but also prepare and empower the students for college (college-ready issues)? I asked: ‘Paint me a picture of what kind of a senior course would most appeal to you?’ This course—a reward for seniors—is an imaginative experiment that will run starting in September.”

Kelly: Exploring Pedagogical Possibilities For Data

“I have some concerns about teachers’ over-reliance on traditional methods or quick and uncritical use of technology/apps/tools. I want to model more creative use, in particular, of data tools that provide us feedback on student strengths/weaknesses in different curricular areas. In this case we looked at STAR data. This is a useful tool but can’t be relied upon to shape instruction in engaging or effective ways. My aim was to imaginatively engage staff members of my English department in thinking about how they can proactively and engagingly learn from the STAR tools and use it to increase the effectiveness of their practice.”

Colleen: Finding The Story–Maximizing Learning

“I employed cognitive tools with the Grade 9 teachers I mentor as a group, but I also found the cognitive tools powerful in my work with one teacher. First, I am working with teachers of Grade 9 to be more critical and creative with how they approach their teaching. In particular, I want my teachers to consider if they are engaged in what they are teaching. And so I asked them: Why do these topics matter to you? In a large-group context I encouraged my teachers to play with the idea of teacher engagement and how it is required to ‘get out of that rutt’ we can sometimes find ourselves in as educators. I also had a great imaginative teachable moment! It was an organic opportunity in which I really saw the power of cognitive tools for engaging teachers. An assessment had revealed that students were not grasping the concept of ‘connotations’ in literature/English at our school. A teacher came to me feeling frustrated and seeking advice—What more can I do? I have taught connotations in all kinds of ways and I just don’t know what else I can do to help kids learn? I could understand her exasperation! So what I did was try to help the teacher get underneath the topic in an imaginative way. I employed the cognitive tool of the story-form—that first step all teachers need to consider for imaginative planning. I asked her: What’s the story on the topic? At first, the teacher didn’t quite know how to respond to me. So we worked together on unearthing the emotional significance of this curricular topic. Together we came to understand the emotional significance of connotations in terms of them being a kind of ‘code’ or having embedded meaning. She and I had never thought of connotations this way before but now had a renewed sense of interest. The teacher was excited and went on to reveal this story on connotation to her students with an ‘escape room’ style of game. I observed the teacher implement the game and found she and the teachers very engaged.”

Scott: Re-Imagining A Department’s Role In School Community

“I feel that one department in my school occupies a marginal position in the school community. Moreover, I feel like the teachers in the department are too comfortable—even complacent—in this position. I used cognitive tools to reveal my vision for this department and I shared it with the teachers. At our first meeting, I “painted a picture” of a more integrated, energetic and active role for their group in our school—a re-imagined role that could be celebrated outside the school community through social media. This vision was a kind of emotional narrative for the work I now want to do with these teachers moving forward. With the emotional context set for why re-inventing the department is an emotionally worthwhile idea, we considered from different perspectives what the department could become in 5 years. I encouraged the teachers to think broadly and to describe a vivid mental image of what role they would like to play in the school. To open up conversation, we engaged in some rounds of “what iff’ing”—a playful way to generate ideas. I encouraged them to be extreme—what is possible for you and your work? I created a dynamic document that will guide future consultation and our next steps to re-imagine this department and situate it more centrally in our school community.”

Cynthia: Creating Engaging Conversations About Assessment With Cognitive Tools

“I want to get teachers in my school really talking about grading practices. I am concerned that students don’t always receive the formative feedback they need that can really support their learning. At my first meeting with 4 English Language Arts teachers I used cognitive tools to get people talking about grading: we did a role play to unearth different beliefs about grading, we identified (and I identified for them) some anomalies in how we grade (practices that don’t necessarily support student learning) and we did some brainstorming around possibilities for improving practice. But I want to mix things up even more, so my next session is going to provide teachers with an experiential activity to reveal the emotional importance of grading for learners. I plan to begin by having my teachers identify a heroic quality about teaching—what is that transcendent quality about teaching that got you to become a teacher? Care? Empowerment? Compassion? Then we will brainstorm all the questions we can about how we grade and why and what else is possible. Using those questions as points of reference I want to reveal for teachers the disconnect between the qualities we select to describe why we teach and what we admire about teaching and how we can grade students. Does the same heroic quality chosen to describe one’s teaching also apply to one’s grading practice? I anticipate a tension here and want to use that emotional tension to challenge norms. I want to help my teachers push past the fixed idea that “this is how I grade” and the feeling that some practices do not support student learning. Finally, I want to somehow give my teachers a ‘grade’—something to give them an experience of not having information to improve and feeling that letters/numbers don’t reveal the quality of what they do. I anticipate this to rock a few boats! Moving forward I want to work with a small group of ‘Ambassador’ teachers to bring Grading practices more organically into discussion in our school community. I feel like teachers will be the best agents for talking about a new and more effective way of grading student work.”

Imagination Matters

Envisioning the possible is not a one-time-thing for imaginative leaders–it’s a practice, a process, and an expectation.

So what is Imaginative Leadership? It’s a practice and philosophy that acknowledges the emotional and imaginative needs of stakeholders. It challenges imaginative school leaders to be creative in their practices–to make sense of ideas from different perspectives and with effective alertness. Imaginative Leadership is a practice and philosophy in which engaging imagination can allow us to innovate, as George Couros says, inside the box. It’s a practice and philosophy in which the language of imagination–the language of cognitive tools–infuses and shapes innovative educational leadership practice.
What’s in your toolkit imaginative school leader?
In case you missed it:  Re-Imagining School Leadership:  Beginnings
To find out more, please visit- CIRCE: Centre for Imagination in Research Culture and Education 

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The author

Dr. Gillian Judson also teaches in the Faculty of Education and supervises programs in Imaginative Education. Her work focuses on the role of imagination in all learning contexts. She is interested in imaginative and ecological teaching practices, educational program design, educational change, educational leadership, online learning, and museum education. Her latest books include Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom (2016), Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (2015), and A Walking Curriculum (2018/2019).

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