Learning Not to be Creative

You know all those “21st century skills” we want students to learn? Creative. Innovative. Critical thinking. Entrepreneurial spirit.

To be a “goal-directed and resilient individual”, which is one major category in the Portrait of a Graduate here in the overly-large school district.

But how do you teach someone to “think critically”? To be creative or innovative in their work? To be self-directed?

I don’t think it’s possible.

You can encourage, lead, model, inspire, coach, and mentor students. We can provide supportive environments for them to be innovative and collaborative. Teachers can experiment, investigate, explore, question, and play along side their kids.

But I don’t think anyone can teach a child to be creative.

The best we can do is reorganize the American K-12 school experience so that it doesn’t wring the creativity and curiosity out of kids before they even reach middle school.

Let children be creative, innovative, critical thinkers instead of teaching them not to be.

One Hour, And No More

logo.pngThis week, many schools here in the overly-large school district have been participating to some degree in Hour of Code activities. Nationally we’ve seen lots of media stories around the event1 and tons of traffic on coding related websites.

But what happens next week?

For vast majority of schools and students, this particular exercise will be long forgotten and Hour of Code put back on the shelf until this same time next year. Very few schools will incorporate learning computer programming into their curriculum, especially not in those “core” subjects in which the spring tests are already beginning to loom.

I don’t accept the premise that every student needs to learn how to program a computer, just like everyone will not need Calculus, Chemistry, or even college.

However, every student should graduate from high school with an understanding of how the device in their pocket, the one collecting and transmitting all kinds of personal data, works. Along with basic ideas from mathematics, especially statistics, science, and social studies. Plus good communications skills and an awareness of the real choices they have in life, including college.

So much of our traditional K12 school curriculum is focused on mechanical processes students will quickly forget and on collecting points towards a pass to the next level, not on understanding concepts they can actually use for the rest of their lives.

  1. Look! The President wrote a line of code!!

Let Me Individualize That For You

The US Secretary of Education recently asked Congress to fund, among other things, resources to help teachers “personalize learning”.

Lots of other education leaders talk about we need “individualized” learning.

Junk mail from edtech companies offer to sell me “solutions” that will help teachers “individualize” or “personalize” their instruction.

Setting aside the fact that the ultimate goal in most discussions of this topic, and certainly for the corporate “solutions”, is to improve standardized test scores, I find something very wrong with those two terms, “individualize” and “personalize”.

Both carry the implication of an action done for (or possibly to) someone else. In the case of K12 education, the teacher (or increasingly a set of algorithms) will individualize/personalize an instructional plan that is then carried out by the student. Based on a whole bunch of data, of course. 

However, make a very small change to the vocabulary – individual instead of individualize or personal instead of personalize – and you arrive at a very different concept, the idea we should be talking about.

Individual learning, personal learning, is something you do for yourself, certainly with input from friends, family, members of your network, but always under your own direction, based on your own goals. And always subject to revision at any time. With the essence being the individual in control.

Now I’m not saying we should turn all decisions about curriculum over to students; make everything in school optional. Certainly there is a basic foundation of knowledge and skills everyone needs before they can make any meaningful goals for themselves. Being able to read and write effectively in your native language should be a given and we can debate what is added beyond that.

However, in the larger picture of K12 schooling, learning cannot be truly individual or personal unless the student is directly involved and allowed to make real choices. 

Ok, am I being too nit picky about language? Maybe. But it’s said that words matter, the vocabulary you use is important.

And when I look at the context surrounding the pronouncements about personalized learning by Duncan and other education “experts”, not to mention in the marketing materials from any number of vendors, there is very little about including students in the decision making process.

Just lots of adults crafting an “individualized” education for kids who will live in a very different future from the one they faced.

What’s the Point of School?

In an opinion piece for the BBC, the Home Editor asks that question, one that we really need to discuss here in the US.

Even though our education system is designed and assessed upon its ability to get lots of children through state exams, very few people seriously argue that the fundamental point of schools is ensuring pupils pass tests.

Not sure he’s right about the “very few people” part.

We ascribe to schools a loftier ambition than academic success alone. We want them to prepare our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to have the most fruitful and fulfilling life possible. Don’t we?

We would like to think so. A report from an “all-party parliamentary group” seems to reinforce the idea of students learning more than just “history and maths”.

There is, actually, a surprising amount of agreement on these ideas. Progressive educationalists tend to call it “emotional intelligence” or “emotional health”, while conservatives prefer words like “character” and “backbone”, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Here in the US, you could probably get the same agreement, although only in terms of language and phrasing. When it comes to execution, we still have far too many “leaders” who advocate for schools that emphasize pupils passing tests ahead of those “loftier” ambitions.

Of course, that seemingly high-minded report was written by politicians, which means there’s going to be a point where it heads way off the rails.

The APPG report recognises the weakness in the UK evidence base but points to successful initiatives in Singapore and the United States. The American “Knowledge is Power Program’ (KIPP) is cited as a model of what is possible.

And, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses the terms “grit” and/or “rigor” in support of their ideas about what education should be, immediately loses all credibility.

Ok, so maybe this story is not a good starting point for a discussion of the purpose of public education.1 But that question is one we very much need to answer as a society.

  1. Will’s book Why School? is a much better choice.

Another Fresh Start

Although the astronomical end of summer doesn’t arrive until September 21st, today, the Labor Day holiday in the US, is the symbolic end of the season. This weekend is sort of a dividing line between a couple of months in relative slow motion and the life getting back to normal, whatever that looks like to you.

It’s also that time of year when teachers and football coaches have something in common: that positive feeling of getting a fresh start on a new season and a chance to fix all the mistakes made in previous years.  Of course, when you get away from the fact that both schools and football teams share a fall start, the similarities quickly disappear.

Probably the largest divergence being that the coach has a good understanding of the talent he has on his squad, whereas most teachers will be working with children they’ve never seen before. And the scouting data they have to work with is not especially reliable.

I haven’t had a classroom of my own for many years, and as I’ve ranted about many times, I’m not a big fan of discrete academic years, but I still have some of the same optimistic feelings. After a very busy summer of planning, and a couple of successful professional learning events in August, this is going to be a very good year.

However, I’m afraid my hopeful feelings really only apply to the somewhat narrow focus of my job. Prior to kicking things into high gear this week, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing with teachers and school administrators how they can help their kids to develop their critical thinking skills and using technology for creative purposes.

As you broaden the view of American education from individual schools to the district, state and national level, my pessimism level rises. Too much of the conversation in those forums is dominated by people more concerned about data than about kids and crafting proposals firmly rooted in the previous century. 

Anyway, I’m not sure where this rambling mess is going so I’ll just end it now, while attempting to retain my Labor Day optimism throughout the coming school year.