No, They Are Not Skills?

Fruit Splash 3

In a recent column, EdSurge asked a small panel of people who might be considered “creative” the rather interesting question, “Is creativity a skill?”. They went on to also ask whether creativity can be taught or learned.

Almost everyone answered yes in one way or another, but this, from a journalism teacher, came closest to the way I would respond.

Creativity is a mindset. It is a way of looking at life. If you look at life the standard way, then there is no creativity involved. It is copying.

Creativity means thinking outside the box; thinking in ways that requires you believe in yourself enough to take a risk. It is not a skill; it is a mindset.

Anyone remember “21st century skills”? Although the use of that phrase has thankfully died down in the past few years,1 creativity was generally considered one of four skills to be included. What was called the “4-Cs” in the overly-large school district that used to employ me: creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.2

So, we could expand the question to ask if any or all of those items are really skills? Or are they also mindsets.

If you look at very young children and how they process the world, it’s clear that most already come equipped with those abilities. From the earliest age, kids use a lot of critical thinking and creativity to cope the world. They experiment with just about everything to make sense of everything that is new to them.

However, parents, teachers, and other adults, work very hard to reign in that inclination and provide some structure that fits the societal norms. Certainly much of that really is for their own good, but those restrictions also begin the process of stunting the 4-C skills kids were born with.

That process expands greatly when children get to school, a place where creative experimentation is usually discouraged and channeled into those approved topics contained in the curriculum. Likewise, collaboration and communication, something young children are actually very good at (even if we don’t always understand it), is now restricted to only adult-approved formats.

All of which is why I don’t think any of those 4-Cs are skills. And they can’t be “taught”. At least not in the way we normally use that verb.

Teaching these so-called skills almost always involves imposing on kids our interpretation of what it means to be creative, or the correct way to communicate, or how to think critically, or what “real” collaboration looks like.

So, what happens if instead we used classrooms to help kids explore and develop their own creative abilities, in their own way?

It probably would look much different from the current structure we call “school”.


The picture is one of my attempts at creativity by playing with shutter speed on my camera. I’ll leave it to the viewer to judge the results.

1. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve stopped following people who continue to use silly cliches like that.

2. Sometimes that list was awkwardly expanded to include curiosity, which is even less of a skill than the other four.

Where Are The Kids?

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This past weekend was spent the same way I’ve spent the fourth weekend of January for the past twelve years: in Philadelphia attending EduCon.

EduCon is a relatively small conference that someone described as a popup community. It’s a community of smart, interesting, passionate educators who come from near and far to immerse themselves in discussions around many difficult topics about learning and society.

Reflecting back on some of the sessions I was part of, I think I may have been a little repetitive. Possibly even obnoxious.

I found myself asking the same question over and over: where are the kids in this process?

You’re designing a new school? Why don’t you have students on the primary planning team? Based on possibly many years of experience, they likely have some strong opinions and wonderful insight. After all, they will be expected to do some serious work in these spaces.

You’re revising the curriculum? Wouldn’t it be better if you included students who had taken the course in the past? Certainly there is a core of information, some of it required. But kids could tell you exactly what worked and what didn’t how that information is presented.

You’re writing a mission and vision statement for your school? I’m pretty sure it’s going to say something about kids and their future. They should be on the core committee right along side of the administrators, teachers, and those other “stakeholders”.

I’m pretty sure the people I used to work with were tired of hearing me regularly bring up the topic. The idea that students should be part of the teams that are responsible for planning the educational process that will have a major impact on their lives.

In our overly-large school district, students might be brought in as part of focus groups later in the process, but their input likely didn’t have much influence. When a project reached the focus group stage, the major decisions had been made and this was just about tweaking things around the edges.

Anyway, I never intended the question to be a criticism of anyone in the room at EduCon. And I think many members of this community are very aware that most schools and districts do a rather poor job of including students in their planning processes.

I hope at least some of them will take the idea back to their workplaces and begin asking their colleagues, “where are the kids?” more often.


The image is one I keep coming back to almost every year: looking down at the SLA cafeteria from the second floor. I’ll have to look for another view next year since the school and EduCon will be moving to a new building in the fall.

Help The Children Lead, Instead of Telling Them Where to Go

From Alexandra Petri, one of the smartest, and often funniest, writers at the Washington Post, some (satirical) thoughts about the students now speaking up against the American love affair with guns.

Now, if you don’t want to hear from any more high schoolers traumatized by gun violence, then you either decide to try to create a world where high schoolers are not traumatized by gun violence, or decide to create a world where you do not have to listen to the high schoolers. It looks like we’re picking the latter!

We are not monsters. This burning shame that keeps us awake is their fault. If they were not there pointing the finger at us — We are being personally victimized! We are the real victims here! They have the audacity to point fingers at people for doing nothing! We haven’t done anything!

You can almost hear that coming out of the mouth of some “regressive”1 commentator on one of the talking heads channels in response to the raw and honest reaction coming from the children.

What these analysts and spokespeople seem to ignore is that the First Amendment doesn’t specify a minimum age and that the right to petition the government belongs to everyone, not just their friends with big bank accounts.

Anyway, I hope that the students from Parkland, now loudly speaking against our absurdly loose gun laws, continue to ignore those calls to shut up and sit down. Even more, I really hope that they, joined by protesting young people from all over the country, have started a movement that can affect major changes.

The adults of my generation have created many, many problems with our current government, and American society in general. Problems that are already severely impacting the lives of these kids beyond the almost-daily gun violence. From climate change to economic disparity and poverty to an increasingly unstable world, they need to be more than just aware. Students must be leaders in the work to the solutions.

But those solutions will not come easily. I agree with a post from a wise friend who writes that such a process will be “incredibly long” and will include many setbacks.

Sustaining the passion for the work is really hard, and you’ll need trusted friends and allies who will listen to you vent and strategize with you and privately call you on your mistakes and tell you when you need to go get some sleep. You will need those people, and I am sure you will be those people for each other as well.

Some of those “trusted friends and allies” must be their teachers.

However, instead of telling them to stay in the classroom, we must listen to our students, to both their concerns and ideas. We, as in all adults who support children, must help them learn how to use their authentic voices and to effectively direct the power of responsible civic engagement.

Guide them into adulthood, instead of always telling them what we think they need to know, what to say, and how to act.


Image is of an editorial cartoon by the wonderful Steve Benson, whose liberal-leaning work always seemed a little out of place at the conservative (but generally responsible) Arizona Republic newspaper (known online as AZCentral).

1. Since “progressive” is often used as an alternate for liberal on the political spectrum, I think we should use a far more accurate synonym for conservative, “regressive”.

Choosing to Ignore Your Past

Maze

After reading his weekly columnin the Monday Washington Post, I wonder whether Jay Mathews is confused. Or recanting everything he’s written for the past two decades or so.

In the article, he seems to agree with Yong Zhao, who has argued against the trend to standardized testing and for more student choice in their education. Early on Mathews praises these thoughts from Zhao’s new book:

To help each child achieve his or her full potential, we need an education that starts from the child’s passions and strengths, instead of prescribed skills and content.

The education system rarely cares about the children’s individual passions or talents. The only passion it cares about is the passion to become a good student. .?.?. Worse, the current education system actively suppresses individual talents and passions by defining what educational success means and convincing students, parents and the public to accept the definition.

Then Mathews takes all that and goes off the rails to arrive at this conclusion:

I saw why so many critics of the American system have wrongly trashed the true sources of our nation’s power to fuel individual passions. They are high school activities: band, football, field hockey, robotics club, hip-hop club, drama, choir. The list is endless.

I have yet to find an American high school that successfully suppressed individual talents or convinced students and parents to sacrifice all for study.

He uses as “evidence” the lack of homework done by high school students and the popularity of extracurricular activities to declare that Zhao is wrong. That the American education system is already allowing kids the kind of choice to follow their passions and talents. Although I’m not sure high school band and football would be especially good examples for that “choice”.

As for not being able to find American schools that suppress individual talents or convince students to sacrifice all for academic work, Mathews only needs to read some of his own writing.

This is coming from the man who created a ranking of high school quality based primarily on the number of Advance Placement tests taken by students. A scale, coming this spring to a district press release near you, that pressures schools to increase the numbers of those tests taken.

For that matter, Mathews is totally in love with the whole AP program, one of the most standardized curriculums ever created. A collection of syllabi largely dictated by colleges, and which offers students no choice in what they study.

He also regularly writes about heaps praise on the KIPP chain of charter schools, whose regimented and highly structured educational program offers students few options to follow their passions.

Ok, so maybe Mathews isn’t confused or having a change of heart. It’s possible he’s just punking those of us who have been reading his dreck for these many years.

Either way, it’s time for Jeff Bezos and the Post to find a better, more relevant education writer to fill that scarce resource quarter-page of newsprint every week in the Metro section.


This picture is of a maze installation at the National Building Museum from about four years ago and just seemed appropriate for the twists and turns in Mathews’ logic.

Image by Brett Davis, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. I’m not sure why the online title for this piece is completely different from the headline in the printed version: “Want kids to really achieve? Focus on nerdy clubs, team sports instead of tests.” Starting with the term “nerdy”, there is just so much wrong with that, although both headers could have been written by an editor instead of Mathews.

The Whole Internet is a Distraction, Isn’t It?

This sorta ties into my previous rant

At some conference in the past year, this banner from a booth on the vendor floor caught my eye and got stuck in my phone.

Sign

I don’t remember the name of the company or their products, but it really doesn’t matter, does it? Most likely they sell some kind of network filtering/control system that schools use to prevent all those “distractions” from reaching the kids.

So, what sites on the web are distracting your students? Distracting them from what?

The simple answer, of course, is that anything not directly related to the learning goals dictated by adults must be added to that list of distractions. Anything students want to learn and the skills they want to master must be filtered out of school. Unless, by some chance, they intersect with the state standards of learning (or are contained in an “elective”).

Certainly there are some parts of the web that should be completely blocked from kids. But, in my experience, school filtering systems are often cranked up way too high and used by teachers and administrators as another tool for that “delivery” of instruction, rather than a real learning resource.

Finding, analyzing, and using the good stuff on the web is an essential skill for students, something we should be helping them learn.

That doesn’t happen when adults unilaterally declare everything they don’t like (or don’t understand) to be “distracting”.