Wednesday / July 24

What’s Your Wonder Wall?

As I was musing over my coffee the other day, it occurred to me that no one has ever discovered cave drawings of children sitting at desks. Personally, at the time I was sitting at a desk in my backyard shed, also known as my rather modest man cave, which is perhaps why cave art filtered through my mind.

We’ve found depictions of wild beasts, spear-throwing hunters, and blazing bonfires, but not a single image of students lined up in neat rows, their hands carefully folded in front of them, their eyes transfixed on a no-doubt brilliant teacher standing before them.

Why is that?

After giving it some thought, I believe it’s because even our ancient ancestors intuitively understood that such an environment is not only unconducive to brain-compatible learning, it’s downright unnatural.

Which is not to say I don’t think sitting children down to learn is sometimes necessary. Indeed, I’d like to think those early cave-drawings were the forerunners of today’s classroom chalkboards (or the whiteboard equivalent in the business boardroom). But until recently, a child’s education consisted more of hands-on experiential learning, in children’s natural habitats of forests, meadows, and streams. It’s the stuff that brain-compatible learning is made of. To expect children to spend some 15,000 hours of their formative years sitting in a chair, listening to the likes of me droning on, surely can’t be considered progress!

Set up an environment to foster creativity and you’ll also foster brain-compatible learning

This is one reason I’m excited about brain-compatible learning. Not only because it just seems to be a more natural way to teach and learn, but also because I believe many of the same environmental conditions that foster creativity and innovation also foster brain-compatible learning.

Recently, I stumbled upon 5 ways to design a school for brain-based learning (Concordia University reference materials, February 27, 2013). The article states that “Designing a school for brain-based learning means creating spaces that address students as complete individuals, complete with bodies, feelings, and innate needs, instead of just brains waiting to be filled with information.” The five conditions that help create such an environment include

  • layout (in which, as our ancestors seem to have agreed, the traditional rows of desks are not optimal)
  • comfort (non-threatening)
  • color
  • emotional connection
  • immersive experience

This intrigued me, because I have been exploring similar conditions to foster creative learning environments for some 38 years, spanning my career in education of classroom teaching, consulting, and school and district administration.

Initially I, like many others, thought creativity and innovation were skills that could be taught to individuals or students through various techniques. But the results always befuddled me. Some students seemed to make use of the techniques to be more creative; others not so much. One wouldn’t be faulted for assuming that some people are just more naturally innovative than others. And yet there were instances and examples I saw in which every single individual involved showed amazing creative capacity and leadership, where entire projects and even entire organizations were simply bursting with creativity, health, and engagement.

It took a while, and a series of experiences involving Jesus Christ Superstar, Rubik’s Cube, and a mannequin, but I eventually realized that innovation doesn’t come about by teaching individuals to be creative. It comes about by creating environments that bring out the natural leadership, creativity, and the brilliance that lies within each one of us.

The Wonder Wall: 3 Imperatives and 4 Conditions to Creative Environments

During my career, I was fortunate enough to be involved in some large-scale educational leadership projects that allowed me to ask literally thousands of people to share their answers and ideas to the question that was at the forefront of my mind: “What are the conditions necessary to create environments that allow creativity to flourish?”

Together with my co-writer Jane Daly, I captured these ideas in The Wonder Wall: Leading Creative Schools & Organizations in an Age of Complexity. It outlines several questions on which I’ve structured my thinking:

  • Why creativity, and why now?
  • What are the conditions critical to fostering healthy and creative learning cultures?
  • How can we make the extraordinary happen?
  • Where do you start, and how do you assess your progress?
  • How can we make the extraordinary happen?

From this framework, we determined three imperatives and four supporting conditions we feel are most effective to fostering creative learning. There are many more, of course, but drawing on our own research base and practical experience, these are, for us, the ones that have proven essential.

The three imperatives are:

  1. Recognize there is a seed of brilliance in everyone
  2. Adopt a strength-based approach
  3. Create cultures of belonging

The four conditions include:

  1. Listening and Storytelling
  2. Moving beyond Diversity to Inclusivity
  3. Making it Personal
  4. Celebration

A surprising example in the kindergarten classroom

One of the most rewarding experiences in writing The Wonder Wall was the opportunity to see examples of these imperatives and conditions in action, led by extraordinary people who were making extraordinary things happen.

An example that inspired the book’s title, and demonstrates the first imperative of recognizing there is a seed of brilliance in everyone, happened when I visited a kindergarten classroom as a school superintendent.

Four children were seated at a mini conference table with their teacher, Gloria, clearly engaged in some very heady work and poring over large sheets of paper.

“What’s going on here?” I asked. “This looks fascinating!”

One young lad looked up at me and said, “It is fascinating. Come join us.”

I obliged and folded my tall body up into one of the tiny plastic chairs as Gloria explained the activity.

“That’s our Wonder Wall,” she said, pointing to a whiteboard hung at child height. “Whenever the children are curious or wondering about something, they write it down on the Wonder Wall. Then we develop learning activities from there, based on their interests.”

I looked at the Wonder Wall and saw that it included some ponderous questions I’ve also wondered, such as “How do my eyeballs stay in my head?”

“Anyway,” Gloria continued, “these children decided they would like to learn more about anatomy, so you have now joined the Kindergarten Expert Panel on the Human Body.”

Gloria pointed to the intestines and asked one of the children if he could tell us what it was. He tapped his forehead and said, “I used to know this!”

Mind you, he was all of four years old.

Just then, he remembered. “I know what it is!” he exclaimed.

“Tell us!” Gloria encouraged.

“It’s the intesticles!!” he yelled. “The intesticles!”

It was an answer I’ll never forget.

Fogo Island: An example from the business community

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the Wonder Wall, with its interest-based learning and engagement, had possibilities way beyond Kindergarten, and even way beyond education.

I soon began to see inspiring examples in the business community. One was Zita Cobb. At the height of the boom, Zita was one of the highest paid female executives in North America. She left her positon and spent several years sailing around the world, but eventually returned to her childhood home on tiny Fogo Island, in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Growing up there, Zita and her six brothers had lived in a three-room house, with no running water or electricity. When the cod fishery collapsed, Zita’s father, like many others, moved to the mainland, and Fogo Island began to decline.

Zita, however, knew the people of her island had incredible gifts: knowledge and understanding of the land, the sea, a ferocious, determined spirit born of the hardships of surviving on an Atlantic island, and wonderful craftsmanship and artistry. Taking a strength-based approach (the second imperative), she decided to focus her efforts on a program of rural renewal, under the auspices of what she called the Shorefast Foundation. A shorefast is the line and mooring used to attach a cod trap to the shore. But for Zita, it was more: it was a metaphor to symbolize how community and culture is tied to its place of origin; a vision to combine practical plans and deep social engagement to spark an economic and cultural renaissance.

For Zita, I think the Shorefast Foundation was her Wonder Wall, and her ability to see that brilliance and creativity in the people of Fogo Island helped to create that environment for the extraordinary to happen.

Today, Fogo Island is an international tourist destination, flourishing with a world-renowned artist in residence program and artists’ studios, and boasting a 29-room, five-star inn, with much of the furnishings built by the craftspeople of the island.

Still Waters in a Storm: an example from the greater community

I began to wonder if the ideas behind the Wonder Wall could also foster creativity in the broader community, fulfilling a need for social good. This was confirmed to me when I met Stephen Haff, one of the most inspiring role models and mentors I’ve met in creating cultures of belonging (the third imperative).

Formerly a teacher in New York City’s public school system, in the troubled neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, Haff created Still Waters in a Storm as “a sanctuary of learning.” The classes are free, supported by donations.

To explain how Still Waters works, Stephen says, “The basic ritual is simple: everybody writes, about anything, in any style, adults and children side by side. Then, in a sacred hush, everybody listens to each person read what they’ve written. That’s all. This reverential listening turns lives around, and is the basis for all our work.”

The idea for Still Waters developed out of a personal storm for Stephen. He explains, [quote] “After seven years of internalizing the various types of violence in the school

where I was teaching, the daily physical fights among the students, the power struggles, a harsh regimen of standardized, high-stakes testing, and the violence done to many students on the streets and in their homes, I burned out and had a massive mental breakdown.

“After I recovered, I wanted to continue teaching and stay in touch with my students, so I invited former students to come to my apartment in the neighborhood on Saturdays, to write, to read our writings aloud, and to listen to each other. No tests, no pressure, no critique of the writing, just a chance to be heard, and heard with compassion.”

Still Waters serves 60 families (and has a waiting list of 200), who are mainly Spanish-speaking immigrants living in poverty. “People return to Still Waters because it answers a personal and social need, beyond improving their scores on tests at school. It’s the need to understand and be understood. I believe we are wired to live in a tribe or village, all ages together, everyone caring for everyone. It’s safe and reassuring that everyone’s together.”

And this culture of belonging created at Still Waters does indeed foster the learning process. Stephen has introduced special reading projects where children as young as seven are reading Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and not only understanding the stories, but loving the experience.

From brain-compatible learning to creativity: What’s your Wonder Wall?

For me the metaphor of the Wonder Wall runs through each of these stories. In the classroom the Wonder Wall was built on valuing students’ natural curiosity; for Zita it was valuing the bond between culture, community and place on Fogo Island; and for Stephen it was valuing and nurturing cultures of belonging. And by valuing what is unique and special, they made a positive and lasting impact not only on those around them, but in our greater society.

In this complex age, it is increasingly important that all of us do what we can within our spheres of influence to make a positive difference in our schools and organizations. I’m always looking to hear what others have to say about creative learning environments, so I’d like to leave you with a question:

What are you doing to make the ex22traordinary happen, and what’s your Wonder Wall? Please share your ideas with me in the Comments section below!

Written by

Born in Liverpool, Peter Gamwell is an author, presenter, and an award-winning leader in education who has worked in both central and eastern Canada and abroad. He is recently retired from the role of Superintendent, responsible for District Leadership Development with the 75,000-student Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), where he also served as the Board lead for Aboriginal education from 2006 until 2012. Working closely with such renowned creativity experts as Sir Ken Robinson and Sir John Jones, Peter has become recognized nationally and internationally as a leader and catalyst for district-wide initiatives that inspire and advance education; student, faculty, community and business engagement; and strength-based models and creative thinking. He has developed numerous presentations and papers on these topics, and is regularly invited to speak both nationally and internationally. With a reputation for engaging, compelling and practical ideas, Peter has advised academia, the business community and government departments at all levels on how to develop strategy to imbue creativity throughout an organization, as well as to create environments for optimal learning and engagement. Peter has been invited to sit on the Global Distinguished Leadership Panel at the Canadian Principals’ Association conference, Banff, Alberta; on the creativity expert panel at the World Creativity Forum in Oklahoma; and was appointed to the Board of Directors for the US-based National Creativity Network. In his spare time, Peter plays in a blues/rock band, and has been featured as an entertainer on provincial and national radio and television. He lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife, Liz, and has two grown children.

Latest comments

  • If only we could set up learning conditions for students that were conducive to learning for all students. Stimulating, provocative, rich environments inside and outside of the classroom. Where all children and educators are excited and engaged. This will only happen when we give ourselves permission to be creative, let go of traditions and follow strengths, curiosities and passions. Big changes are necessary and our students and educators desire it.

    • Thanks so much for your refelection Chantal. I absolutely agree. Our students and educators do indeed desire it – and they also deserve it – and as you say – All of them. In fact, they deserve no less!!

  • I absolutely loved reading this. My perception of educating the child goes beyond the standardized tests so I am in a constant struggle between teaching for a better test-taker or teaching for a better human being. Reading articles like these always reassures what my educator instincts have led me to believe. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I will, undoubtedly, add your book to my ‘To-Read’ List. May you continue to bless others.

    • Thank you so much for this wonderful feedback. It is very inspiring for both Jane (my amazing co-writer) and myself. In fact- it’s why we wrote the book. To help and support people in their own complicated realities. But also to engage in conversation around these complex issues. So – Please feel free to share any of your thoughts, experiences, stories with us at

      It would be amazing to hear your ideas and some more about what you have done to make the extraordinary happen!

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