Transforming Learning Cultures: A Conversation with Dr. Peter Gamwell
Dr. Peter Gamwell is an author, presenter, and award-winning leader in education who has worked across Canada, in the United States, and abroad. Working closely with such renowned creativity experts such as Sir Ken Robinson and Sir John Jones, Peter has become recognized internationally as a leader and catalyst for creative change initiatives that inspire and advance organizational cultures. In this article, Peter shares stories about transforming learning cultures and unleashing students’ creativity and ponders the role of teachers in a complex digital world. Duke TeachHouse will be featured in his upcoming book, co-authored by Jane Daly, entitled Seeds of Brilliance: How to Cultivate Innovation and Watch it Grow.
Introducing Dr. Gamwell and His Work on Transforming Learning Cultures
Dr. Peter Gamwell is the type of leader who, in only a few minutes of conversation, inspires you to reimagine education and become a part of the movement for change.
At the start of his teaching career in Canada, Dr. Gamwell tapped into his students’ passions to perform rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar, a transformative experience that led him to ask questions such as, “What was it that sparked such enthusiasm and engaged learning among the students?” and “How did we light that spark of brilliance in each student involved?” These questions, along with the unshakeable belief that brilliance and creative potential lies within absolutely everyone, formed the foundation of his decades-long career and personal mission to transform learning cultures into environments that foster innovation.
According to Dr. Gamwell, to achieve this goal, organizations and cultures of learning must shift from deficit to strength-based perspectives, create cultures of belonging, and truly recognize that there is a seed of brilliance in everyone. “When these conditions are encouraged,” he says, “and become the magic and soul of a learning organization, that in turn reaches the children. We need cultures that don’t judge our children on our preconceived notions of what intelligence is - the League table with Mathematics and Language at the top, the Arts at the bottom, and the other subjects in between. We need to flatten that hierarchy, create the spaces, and say, ‘Wherein lies your brilliance? We’re going to find it.’”
Peter Gamwell has a commitment and passion for improving education that is infectious. He is focused but willing to learn from and adapt to others. When traveling with Peter in Ontario, I got to see his ability to help catalyze that process and encourage his interviewees. He is so much more than an observer in these situations - he’s a coach, a cheerleader, a student, and an attentive expert. There are few people I admire as much as him in the education sphere and any time I am privileged enough to work with him I gain new appreciation for education innovation and his drive to never settle. Truly a remarkable individual and member of his community.
--Corey Bray, TeachHouse Resident Fellow & Mentor (2017-2020)
Connections with Duke TeachHouse
Duke TeachHouse fellows first met Dr. Gamwell in April 2019 on an international visit to Ottawa, Canada, and sparked an immediate connection through their shared passion for education and innovation.
For this visit, TeachHouse partnered with Dr. Gamwell and Dr. Pino Buffone, current Director of Education of the Renfrew County School District, along with Dr. Betty Sternberg and CCSU’s Teacher Leader Fellow Program, to observe local Renfrew and Algonquin First Nations schools, attend school board meetings, brainstorm greater possibilities for curiosity and imagination in the classroom, and visit cultural sites in Canada’s national capital region.
Throughout the visit, Dr. Buffone and Dr. Gamwell led the group into Renfrew County elementary and secondary classrooms where transformative creative learning was taking place. At Fellowes High School, the group learned about the Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM) that allow students to “major” in “sectors” like hospitality and tourism, food processing, health and wellness and transportation. Tour guides led the group to classrooms with students engaged in crafting self-designed woodwork projects, restoring a snowmobile in a fully-equipped auto shop, and even students designing, prepping, and serving the group a delicious meal with ingredients grown by students in the school’s own greenhouse. The group was simply blown away by the students’ enthusiasm and skills developed through the SHSM program, as well as the strong community support of the initiative.
During another visit to Eganville and District Public School, fellows learned of the school’s unique mission anchored in the The Seven Grandfathers’ Teachings of the Algonquin Nation, a philosophy that emphasizes the seven guiding principles of humility, bravery, honesty, wisdom, truth, respect, and love. They also visited the Native Language Teacher’s classroom, Ms. Gaudry, who teachers the Algonquin language to students from Kindergarten to Grade 8. Eganville and District, which serves students from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, was an inspiring example of how an entire learning community can embrace and honor a First Nation’s culture, an example from which we are sure to benefit in the United States for all marginalized students and communities.
Sharing Teachers’ Stories of Unleashing Students’ Creativity & Leadership
In The Wonder Wall: Leading Creative Schools and Organizations in an Age of Complexity, Dr. Gamwell and his co-author, Jane Daly, write that humans are hard-wired to learn from storytelling. Storytelling helps us create cultures of belonging and develop empathy, both essential factors for creativity and innovation. It is no surprise then that, in his own quest for transforming learning cultures, he harnesses storytelling to illustrate the transformative power of creativity for students’ learning.
During the trip in Canada, Dr. Gamwell enthusiastically interviewed students, teachers, administrators, and visitors to collect their thoughts on their experiences and how creativity transformed their learning. Peter often records impromptu conversations with his phone, and these quick reflections often result in poignant realizations about how a teacher's decision to empower students' innate potential brings about something extraordinary. Not only did Duke TeachHouse fellows witness Dr. Gamwell’s interviews in action, they also later became interview subjects themselves.
The more I learn about TeachHouse and what has been accomplished to support these remarkable minds - the more in awe I am. Like the butterfly wings over the Pacific, TeachHouse will have far-reaching and deep effects around the world.
The story of Duke TeachHouse, along with fellows’ stories of becoming, will be featured in Dr. Gamwell’s and Jane Daly's forthcoming book Seeds of Brilliance: How to Cultivate Innovation and Watch it Grow. To see an example of one inspiring story Dr. Gamwell shares in his first book The Wonder Wall, watch the video below. He plans to feature more stories on his new YouTube channel: Seeds of Brilliance.
Optimism & the Role of Teachers in a Complex Digital World
According to Dr. Gamwell, we’re quite overdue for a thorough reimagining of the fundamental characteristics of education. Yet, even amidst this complex reimagining, Dr. Gamwell never wavers in his belief in the importance of teachers.
In a complex digital world the role of teachers is increasingly questioned, when anyone can learn almost anything they want to online. What, then, is the role of the educator today? For Dr. Gamwell, the answer is clear: “The job of the teacher is increasingly that of a connector and a thought-provoker. Some people ask, 'If you can find the answer on Google, why do we need teachers?' We need them for the emotional support, for the guidance, to create collision - in the most beautiful way, I mean - to foster curiosity, to ask questions. That’s why I think educators and real learners come to understand very deeply. Their magic is to open the spaces of magic for others.”
Despite the recent enormous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for educators, Dr. Gamwell remains optimistic for the future. “At times of crisis,” he states, “that’s when people embrace the creativity that resides in all people because you have to think differently.” Perhaps it is this belief, one in the necessity and power of innovation, along with his optimism, that makes his own work and that of Duke TeachHouse kindred spirits.
Dr. Gamwell’s first book, The Wonder Wall: Leading Creative Schools and Organizations in an Age of Complexity, is available on Amazon. To learn more about Dr. Gamwell’s work, visit petergamwell.com or connect with him on Twitter @PeterGamwell.