Creativity and Constraints

BY ANDREW DAVIS

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The MTS mission statement now hangs on a wooden plaque in the entrance to school opposite the student-curated digital display – a physical manifestation of our tagline “where tradition meets tomorrow.” The mission’s physical presence has inspired me to reflect on it more regularly; I often read it to students who are waiting to be picked up early and ask them what parts we do well and what parts we could do better. As you will hear in my upcoming State of the School on April 18th, some words and phrases in our mission statement are deeply resonating with me as I head into the next three years of my leadership at MTS. One of those phrases is “creative and process driven.”  

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Visitors to MTS often comment on how well-kept our campus is and that our program seems highly structured with students moving every forty to eighty minutes. Those who are in the classrooms, from math to art to PE also note the impressive discipline of our students.  Order and discipline are not what most of us think about when we envision creativity and process.

Doesn’t an improvised, changing schedule or messy studio yield greater creativity? As we strive to further live our mission, does our structure and discipline keep us from offering a “creative and process driven” education? I do not think so. In fact, I believe that we are onto something that many great creatives know, creativity needs structure. Four years ago I wrote a piece titled “ISIS, Latin, and Middle School” about just this. That essay was inspired by David Brooks’ New York Times article “The Good Order”  in which he shares the ways that “creative people organize their lives according to repetitive, disciplined routines.” From Maya Angelou to John Cheever, Brooks writes, “They think like artists but work like accountants.” Poetry, particularly the sonnets of Shakespeare or the haiku of Basho, is further evidence that structure and limits, breed creativity. And it is not just art that needs structure. The same applies in Silicon Valley. Research on “organizational slack,” lack of structure, shows that too much “free time” is counterproductive to innovation.

As we focus on offering a creative and process driven education, we do not need to lose our structured identity. In Brooks’ words “order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.” Our order and discipline, though, does not guarantee creativity and daring; it is only a prerequisite. In the months and years ahead, we will be looking at how we work within our creativity-inducing structure to ensure that we are living the “creative and process-driven” call of our mission. There is outstanding creative and process-driven work happening on campus each day – some of it documented in the two articles in this month’s MTS Too. Is there room for more? Absolutely, and we have the right structure in place to see that creativity realized.