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Teaching Creativity

One of the words regularly used in aspirational pronouncements from administrators and others here in the overly-large school district is “creativity”. As in we need to teach kids to be creative. It’s often tied with “critical thinking”, although I’m not entirely sure the two concepts are directly related in this case. Especially since we most often teach critical thinking by having kids learn and follow rote processes to arrive at a pre-determined conclusions.

Anyway, when our leadership speaks of creativity, I’m pretty sure the example image floating in their heads is not that of John Cleese. However, the man is one of the most creative artists of my lifetime and in these excerpts of a talk he gave in 2009, you get some wonderful insight into his thinking process. 

Listening to Cleese makes me wonder about the idea of “teaching” creativity, especially in the structure we call school. His view, and that of many others, is that creativity is something that happens to people when given right set of circumstances, boundaries, and he uses the term “play” several times when referring to the creative process.

In school, we set all kinds of boundaries but they are rarely intended to foster creative thinking and, especially as kids move into the upper grades of K12, we actively discourage playing. How many classrooms after maybe 2nd grade have you seen in which students are given uninterrupted time to just play and think?

Sir Ken Robinson in his wonderful 2006 TED talk said that our system actively “educates people out of their creative capacities”, a theme he returned to when speaking to our local Leadership Conference two years ago. He’s absolutely correct that most children start with a native ability for creativity and innovation (another more appropriately paired term), and schools work very hard to suppress it. With good reason since, let’s face it, creators of standardized tests really hate creative answers to their questions.

Finally, Cleese makes another very insightful point about teaching creativity.

To know how good you are at something requires the same skills as it does to be good at that thing. Which means if you’re absolutely hopeless at something, you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you’re absolutely hopeless at it.

Most people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, have absolutely no idea that they have no idea what they’re doing. It explains a great deal of life.*

And the problem with the teachers may be that the teachers do not realize that they themselves are not very creative and therefore they may not value creativity even if they can recognize it.

So, if we really want to teach creativity – or enable, or foster, or whatever verb you want to apply – we first need a school structure that enables teachers to be creative in their instruction, and also celebrates that creativity.

Instead of scripted lessons, electronic boxes of practice test questions, and the glorification of data.


*Certainly it explains American Idol and the other “reality” competition shows.

Leadership is More Than Inspirational Talk

It must be the start of a new school year here in the overly-large school district because we spent last Wednesday at a local college for the Leadership Conference, an annual event for all school administrators and the rest of us above a certain pay grade.

The day is sort of a kick-off pep rally at which we get inspirational talks and are told more than a few times by the Superintendent and others how we are the “premiere school system” in this country and possibly the world. The format hasn’t changed much over the years I’ve been attended and neither has the message.

Our keynote this year was delivered by Sir Ken Robinson and he was the latest in a series of high profile speakers (Daniel Pink, Tony Wagner, Alan November…) who try to explain to the crowd that the world has changed and we also need to alter the way we educate our kids.  Unfortunately, Robinson didn’t hit those points as hard as I would have liked.

Don’t get me wrong, Sir Ken gave an excellent talk, full of humor mixed with the message that we need to make education more individualized and personal, rather than standardized and generic. If you’ve ever seen either of his TED Talks or his other often-viewed presentations online, then you know many of the themes he blended for his keynote talk to our leadership.

However, one of the difficulties faced by Robinson or anyone else addressing the crowd at these events is that we are far too complacent about past successes, and far too confident that we are doing a good job of educating our students going forward. After all, we’re the “premiere school system”. How can an outsider possibly dispute that?

Although in the morning there was lots of talk about alternative learning opportunities and examples of graduates excelling in fields that don’t require a college degree (like the Superintendent’s son who is a helicopter pilot), after lunch we reverted back to the usual breakout discussions about the usual processes.  A message of change flows into the standardized, data-driven, homogenized education process we’ve become so comfortable with.

As I said, little changes from year to year at this event, including lots of talk about the need to change that directly conflicts with policies and actions that never seems to change.  In the end, it will take far more than a few hours of inspirational speeches and slides with clichés about “the 4 C’s” and “21st century skills”.

It’s going to take leadership willing to tell us that unless we are willing to make big changes very soon, we won’t be that “premiere” district much longer. Combined with the guts to actually work towards implementing the necessary alterations.

Wasted Inspiration

According to some second hand news here in the overly-large school district, Ken Robinson will be the keynote speaker next August for our annual Leadership Conference.

At first I was excited about the prospect but, after thinking about it today, I’m a little depressed.

It’s not that I don’t think Sir Ken will do a great job, or that I won’t be able to attend his talk (I may even sit in the auditorium this year instead of watching on video in the overflow room).

Actually, I’m quite sure he will give an interesting, inspirational presentation, talking about the need to transform our current education system and help our students develop their individual talents.

And most of the principals, district administrators, and other central office folks in the audience will nod in agreement and applaud in all the right places, maybe even giving Robinson a standing ovation.

Then those same principals will return to their buildings to plot new ways to get a few more kids in one of their school subgroups to pass the state standardized tests, the better to avoid falling into the NCLB failure category, while largely boring most of their students.

Their bosses, the people who booked Robinson to speak in the first place, will spend the school year pushing everyone in the district for just a few more points on the headline-grabbing numbers.

Ok, so maybe I’m just suffering from too many discussions about data and a distinct lack of anticipation as we head into testing season in which all creative teaching above 2nd grade will grind to a halt.

I’m also not naive enough to believe that one inspirational keynote (and we’ve had many over the years of this conference) will change anything by itself.

But I wonder why our district bothers to bring in speakers like Robinson, not to mention paying their not-inconsequential fees, if everyone is just going to ignore the ideas they offer.

Happy Meal Education

This week I was rummaging through various information resources (looking for something else, of course) and I ran across Sir Ken Robinson’s talk from last year’s TED Conference.

While I still believe it’s not up to his classic 2006 talk at the same event, it was still worth the time to watch again.

Especially this excellent point about education reform.

Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment and it’s not enough. Reform is of no use anymore. Because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need… is not evolution but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.

Later in the talk he notes that “we have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education” and that it’s “impoverishing our spirits and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies”.

Sir Ken is exactly right: “something else” should be our starting point in any discussion about education, rather than our current policy and media debates on how to rearrange the ingredients from the current menu.

However, “something else” is scary, while fast food is comfortable and familiar.

Which is exactly why politicians and business types (America’s education “experts”) constantly cling to their happy meals when it comes to designing a vision for the future of our education system.

Concerned With The Wrong Element

In his New York Times column, Mr. World is Flat, Thomas Friedman, takes a brief glance at the quality of American education, comparing it, as you might expect, to that of other countries.

His motivation for the column comes from reading a new study, “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools” (which I can’t find online).

Based on that Friedman comes to the conclusion that things are bad and getting worse. So bad that student “performance” is at least partially responsible for dragging down the economy.

The answer, says McKinsey: If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher. If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.

Wow! I have no idea how the researchers arrive at making a direct correlation between education and economic performance, especially since the measurement tools used most often are one-size-fits-all standardized tests that largely assess basic skills.

Anyway, for all his writing about how the world has changed, Friedman, as with way too many other “experts”, still seems to view “education” in terms of the traditional assembly line model from the previous century, one in which generating easy-to-spreadsheet numbers passes for quality control.

And the skyrocketing use of tests such as those cited by him only serves to further lock the American education system into that same industrial model.

I have to admit that part of my annoyance with Friedman’s column comes from the fact that I’m currently listening to the audio version of Ken Robinson’s book The Element (after reading the dead tree edition).

In it he tells the stories of many people who are successful in spite of their formal education, while discussing how every person is intelligent in some way, with passions and talents that don’t necessarily fit the patterns dictated by society.

While some of his subjects found their “element”* with the assistance of an insightful teacher, more than a few simply abandoned the whole process of school and developed their unique skills through other forms of learning, sometimes long after their formal education ended.

We are rightly concerned about the rising drop out rate in the US and I’m sure some of that is built into the formulas used to determine the economic toll of this “international achievement gap”.

However, I wonder how many students we have currently sitting in our high schools who will add their numbers to the graduation rate without acquiring at least an inkling of something at which they are both talented and passionate.

To me that is a far more important problem than all the low test scores and negative economic statistics over which Friedman frets.

* Robinson defines a person’s “element” as the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.

Update: Thanks, Brett for finding the link to the study. He knows how to use the Google better than me. :-)

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