Skip to content

Can the world of education learn some tips from ‘Pixar’ ?

  • Leadership
  • Teachers
Jane Creasy 16 October, 2018

If you have an ‘Incredibles’ fan in your family, you will no doubt have spent a small part of your summer watching the slapstick brilliance of baby Jack Jack’s super powers in Pixar’s second story of the crime-fighting family of superheroes, ‘Incredibles 2’.

How does Pixar do it? Time-and-again, they have given us heart-warming stories, wonderful characters and stunning visual effects. And they have transformed the animation industry along the way.

The company places great emphasis on certain practices that are highly relevant to educators, too: autonomy, collaboration, a ‘protoype-try-learn-try again’ approach, and feedback.

This means that, unlike traditional studios, where creative work is kept under wraps until near completion, at Pixar the entire team working on a production shares its unfinished work each day with any Pixarian who wants to attend.  Pixar’s Co-Founder, Ed Catmull, sees several benefits.

“First, team members get over the embarrassment of exposing their unfinished work, and then become more creative. Second, the director and company can share and discuss important concepts. Third, people get inspired and energised by others’ creative work. And fourth, there are no surprises at the end.”

This culture, which is fundamental to the company’s approach, and has given rise to innovation that changed the course of an entire industry, of course comes from the top, but also depends on an attitude of mind among all workers.So, as we start the academic year, are there things we can learn from Pixar that might help us in our own work?

Let’s take the matter of peer feedback.  At Pixar, feedback is a developmental process; it comes from a shared desire to create the very best production possible, and depends on people being willing to share ‘work in progress’.  In other words, not put on a show, but invite others into the creative process.  Openness and (sometimes tough) honesty are vital.

How well do we apply those principles in peer review in education?  There is increasing recognition that peer review can be powerful and developmental.  I have been lucky enough to be involved in the Education Development Trust’s programme of peer review, the Schools Partnership Programme (SPP) and have seen for myself the difference it can make.

At its simplest, the SPP programme is a cyclical model of enquiry and improvement. The host school uses a framework to undertake self-review and identify a focus; the peer reviewers help refine the focus and undertake the review; Staff from the host school undertake an ‘improvement workshop’ following the review, where they identify the key issues they want to work on.  The workshop is facilitated by a middle or aspiring senior leader from another school, who is trained in facilitation as part of the programme.

Beyond the simple description, though, what matters is the change in culture, and ultimately performance, that the process can bring about. It is light years away from an ‘inspection’; it’s not a ‘mocksted’ or a ‘show-and-tell process. Instead, teachers and leaders collaboratively open up their work with the aim of ‘improving’, not ‘proving’.  Its success depends on the willingness of everyone involved to use an enquiry mindset, to invite colleagues to bring their outside perspective to an issue where the school really wants to see improvement.

Our experience tells us that another factor in the success of the SPP programme is the post-review improvement workshop, mentioned earlier. The workshop is facilitated not by someone who will bring advice, or ‘answers’ from elsewhere, but a peer trained in helping staff to generate their own insights and solutions.  This, we have found, brings a sense of agency and ownership which give energy to improvement efforts. Teachers aren’t ‘Done to’; they are the agents of improvement themselves. And they gain confidence in their ability to bring about change, because they have, with others, come up with their own evidence-based solutions. It’s all very energising and, when reading about Pixar’s approach to getting great outcomes, I was reminded of some of the characteristics of the SPP programme.  But we’ve a long way to go before this collaborative approach to improvement is embedded in our school system.

Of course, school leaders who wish to work together are increasingly finding ways to do so, but it struck me that, as we start the new academic year, all teachers can take steps to improvement by inviting others to review and offer feedback on aspects of their practice. To make this meaningful, we need to lose our inhibitions about ‘performing’ when other professionals see our work.  Instead, maybe we can pick up some tips from the invaluable work that Chris Watkins did when he was a Reader in Education at UCL’s Institute of Education in London.  He has been a foremost researcher in the field of learning about learning. On the basis of his extensive research, he argued thata culture which focuses on performance, rather than learning, can in fact be counter-productive.

That may not be a fashionable view now, but Watkins’ extensive research undertaken over many years suggests that our beliefs about learning and performance can make a big difference to how we work. He talks about ‘learning orientation’ and ‘performance orientation’.  Here is a brief overview of the two orientations:

Of course, Watkins work focused on pupils and students, but it applies to adults, too. Take a look at the list and think about yourself. To what extent are you interested in proving competence, or improving it? If you were a Pixar animator you would certainly want to be seen as competent, but if you didn’t have a learning orientation you might struggle with all that collaborative work and daily feedback!

It takes time to change a culture where we feel the need to prove and perform, but if we can build our confidence in learning from and with one another, it could make all the difference to how our pupils and students do this year, and to our own professional fulfilment.  If we can adopt a learning orientation ourselves, it will change the way we talk and act in schools and, the evidence suggests, make a big difference to how well our students do.

So, as Edna Mode might say, ‘Go, Confront the Challenge!’ And take some tips from Pixar.