Engaging Contrarians: Tricksters and Blue Man Group

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Synopsis

In the 21st century, the tricksters’ strengths are essential for solving problems. We need strategies to engage these characteristics in the classroom so that they may develop productively.

“As a student in elementary school, high school, and in university, I was disruptive on occasion.  Very few of my teachers embraced these episodes as opportunities.  But I remember the teachers who did.”  This statement was made by Perry Broome, professor of marketing at Fanshawe College in Ontario, Canada.  Perry has an infectious sense of humor and many other qualities common among highly creative individuals (Davis, 2004).  

The reality is that most of us don’t know what to do with divergent viewpoints; they catch us off- guard and make us feel out of control.  However, if we are prepared with proactive strategies, flexibility, and the humility to engage them, such perspectives can help develop creative thinking.  As a self-described contrarian, Perry has found ways to engage divergent thinkers in his classroom as did his own influential teachers.  Up front, he invites students to essentially argue with each other in a professional, academic manner.  His grading rubric makes it official, with language to evaluate whether the student “critiques the other person’s comments using arguments and evidence to support or refute a classmate’s opinion” and “politely offers alternative perspectives.”   

Students with divergent viewpoints or non-conformist tendencies often are highly creative thinkers.  Unfortunately, it is all too common that such students are written off as having behavior problems, or are asked to control themselves through means more detrimental than strategic engagement.  Dawson cited Guncer & Oral (1993) and Stone (1980), among others, as two examples of research that indicated “children with a reputation for violating school rules and being unpopular with teachers, often score high on tests of creativity” (Dawson, 1997, p. 151).  Educators can harness the creative characteristics and abilities that misunderstood creative students manifest so they are developed in productive ways.  Agreed Dawson,  “. . . [S]tudents who are involved in interesting and challenging tasks do not become management or discipline problems” (Dawson, 1997, p. 151; Treffinger, 1995).    

History shows that many of the greatest thinkers and contributors were such contrarians (Goertzel, Goertzel, Goertzel, & Hansen, 2004), and it is known that questioning is a valuable component of creativity that leads to innovation (Berger, 2014).  What might happen if we embrace contrarian students and their viewpoints to spur learning among teachers and students alike?  What if we allow students to debate and argue, politely and with sufficient supporting evidence, even if their viewpoints are different from ours, the teacher?  What if we give them interesting and challenging tasks that they enjoy?

Blue School, formed by Blue Man Group founders and their wives in 2006, does all of the above and more.  In fact, so do the Blue Men when developing their stage characters.  They created a model that employs six lenses each representing a different character archetype.  At The Blue School, teachers are encouraged to plan their days by looking through all of the lenses and providing support and outlets for every archetype.  Students are encouraged to try on the various lenses to develop their sensitivities and comfort with all modalities.

Of course, we all have the capability to take on and express the qualities of any of these lenses.  Some people seamlessly move among them, but others fall squarely into one preference or another.  Three of the archetypes in the Blue Man model are described by the qualities of students who traditionally fit in well and excel in school: 

  • hero (lens of perseverance, commitment, leadership)
  • scientist (lens of curiosity, experimentation, and analysis)
  • group member (lens of collaboration and connection)

On the other hand, there are three profiles that often are marginalized in traditional educational settings:

  • trickster (lens of provocation, innovation, play)
  • artist (lens of imagination, instinct, expression)
  • innocent (lens of emotional awareness, mindfulness).

Matt Goldman, one of the founders, shared as he toured me through the school that a primary goal of The Blue School is to “provide a place” for the tricksters, artists, and innocents, who are often misunderstood in traditional school settings.

As Perry Broome wrote, a student that exemplifies the contrarian—or trickster—characteristics of provocation, innovation, and play can be embraced as a wonderful opportunity.  If we are flexible and open to individualities, and to learning more ourselves, our experience as teachers will be enriched and inspired.  We may see our lessons making connections that we’ve never considered, and our students are apt to contribute fresh discoveries along the way.

In the 21st century, the tricksters’ strengths are essential for solving problems.  The world, and everything in it, is changing at break-neck speed.  We need people who have the ability to look at things from different angles in order to question norms and come up with new solutions.  When we value and engage playfulness and provocation in positive ways, creative thinking and innovation result.  What strategies will you use to engage contrarians in your home or classroom?  

References

Berger, W. (2014).  A more beautiful question.  New York, NY: Bloomsbury, USA.

Davis, G.  (2004).  Creativity is forever.  Dubuque, IA:  Kendall Hunt Publishing.

Dawson, V. L.  (1997).  In search of the Wild Bohemian: Challenges in the identification of the creatively gifted.  Roeper Review, 19, 148-152.  

Goertzel, V., Goertzel, M. G., Goertzel, T. G., & Hansen, A.  (2004).  Cradles of eminence: Childhoods of more than seven hundred famous men and women (2nd ed.).  Scottsdale, AZ:  Great Potential Press.

Guncer, B., & Oral, G.  (1993).  Relationship between creativity and nonconformity to school discipline as perceived by teachers of Turkish elementary school children by controlling for their grade and sex.  Journal of Instructional Psychology, 20, 208-214.  

Stone, B. G.  (1980).  Relationship between creativity and classroom behavior.  Psychology in the Schools, 17, 106-108.  

Treffinger, D. J.  (1995).  School improvement, talent development, and creativity.  Roeper Review, December, 93-97.

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Tags: blue school, contrarian, defiant behavior, education tools, innovation, kathryn p. haydon, non-conformism, provocativeness

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