Creativity is Dead, Ken. . .

Last February, I stumbled across a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson titled Do Schools Kill Creativity that left me completely energized.  In it, Robinson lays out a case for why creativity should be reintroduced to our classrooms that echoed themes being shared by writers like Daniel Pink, who argue that the most effective workers in tomorrow's world will be those who can innovate and find connections between and across disparate fields. 

Knowing that my own practice did little to encourage creativity, I was challenged—-and I spent the better part of the last 8 months trying to find ways to allow my students to spend more time creating and innovating. 

My efforts have been a complete failure, though. 

Creativity is dead, Ken

As I see it, here are some of the biggest barriers to creativity in the classroom:

States define MASSIVE curricula for our kids:  Regular Radical readers know how much I hate the required curricula that I'm expected to teach. 

Like the $12 burrito you order at the local Taquerita when you're feeling randy, state curricula in almost every subject leave teachers and students feeling bloated and gassy.  While we might enjoy the first few bites of our studies, by the end of the year, school becomes nothing more than a pleasure-less mechanical chew.

Creativity and innovation are inherently messy activities that take time to develop in students.  With the pressure of packing away thousands of concepts in less than 10 months, time is something I just don't have.  Want to see creativity creep its way back into the classroom?  Then cut our curricula in half.  Maybe then we'll have time to take a breath and think a bit.

No one is measuring creativity:  Our nation is in the middle of a statistical whirlygig, aren't we?  We're using numbers to define everything—-including the performance of students and schools.  And while a measure of statistical determination is never a bad thing, it has certainly changed how we do school.  Everyone from parents to principals is driven by the desire to quantify and replicate instructional practices that "work." 

The problem is that "practices that work" is most often defined as those that produce results on end of grade tests.  Can you really blame us teacher-folk for placing an almost singular emphasis on getting our students to pass multiple choice tests when that's the only indicator that anyone really cares about?  Why should I go out on a limb and spend time allowing my kids to create when no one measures and reports on their abililty to innovate?

Want to see creativity creep its way back into the classroom?  Then start testing it—and rewarding schools that do a great job producing students who are innovative thinkers.  You've—perhaps inadvertantly—made multiple choice exams the only priority that anyone really cares about, and mastering multiple choice questions ain't exactly a creative process.

Teachers are rarely encouraged to be creative:  Spend a few months in a typical American schoolteacher's shoes and you're going to find that our jobs have shifted over the last 15 years.  No longer are we artists crafting lessons based on a meaningful understanding of our students, ready to shift gears at a moment's notice to respond to what we see unfolding in front of us. 

Instead—-in high performing schools with confident principals—we're scientists methodically studying our instruction trying to identify and amplify "best practices."  Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with practitioners working together to identify "best practices."  The hitch is that principals want to see best practices administered in the same way in every room.  There is real pressure in today's schools for instructors to conform—-and conformity strangles creativity.

The pressure to conform is only multiplied in low-performing schools, where teachers aren't even gven the opportunity to develop and identify practices.  Instead, heavily scripted curricula developed by "district experts" are handed to teachers, and implementation is carefully monitored.  If teachers aren't at a particular point on a particular day, they're reprimanded for falling behind the district-approved pacing guide.

What kinds of messages are we sending to teachers about the importance of creativity when we take ownership over the most basic tasks in their profession away? Can you really expect teachers to provide opportunities for their students to create and innovate when they never see the same opportunities? 

To put it simply, innovation isn't rewarded in schools.  Instead, it's often punished.  Want to see creativity creep back into the classroom?  Empower teachers. 

Progressive thinkers aren't making policy:  In a conversation with a group of TLN colleagues about creativity, my long-time mentor Nancy Flanagan—who blogs over at Teacher in a Strange Land—said something brilliant when she wrote:

"The problem is that nobody–and I do mean nobody–like Sir Ken is making education policy these days. The visionaries and the humanitarians are giving talks and writing books–but the people in public policy around education are stuck in an "efficiency" mode. There's recently even been a bloggy movement to heap scorn on the idea of "21st century learning," calling it just another educational fad."

How's that for calling the good Sir Ken on the carpet!  Truly want to see education change, Ken?  Then give up the lucrative lecture circuit and get elected to the local school board!  It's easy to talk about change—-and often the first step towards driving change is raising awareness—-but raising awareness hasn't helped. 

Corner a policymaker sometime and I'll bet that they'll be able to rattle off dozens of educational buzzwords.  They'll tell you all about creativity and innovation.  They'll preach the virtues of 21st Century learners.  They'll talk about improving professional learning opportunities for teachers—-and then they'll vote for underinformed policy with unintended consequences like No Child Left Behind because the depth of their knowledge about—-and their commitment to—-real change is superficial at best.

We can't totally blame them, can we?  After all, policymakers have more than just education on their plates.  When you're trying to save America from complete economic collapse, you've definitely got other things on your mind besides enabling teachers to be creative and narrowing overloaded curricula.  Both are long-term fixes, and embracing long term fixes today isn't very appealing.

But if we really are serious about seeing creativity and innovation creep back into the classroom, we can certainly join them.  Maybe those of us who are passionate and well-informed should stop talking about change and jump into the positions where we've got the power to make decisions.


This is all a bit discouraging, isn't it?  Perhaps it wasn't what you were hoping for on the morning after Valentines day.  Where's the love, right?  But I'm discouraged.  I'm honestly starting to wonder whether our system of education is worth trying to repair. 

Having chosen to stay on the front lines, I'm constantly bombarded by messages about how our system has failed.  Every few months, some new group of thinkers churns out a report lamenting the lack of SOMETHING in our schools and I take each of their criticisms personally. 

Sir Ken's plea for creativity is no different.  I get it, Ken.  I really do.  I read Pink's book.  I know the work world is changing.  I realize that my students are more motivated and engaged when given opportunities to imagine.  But the barriers at the classroom level are real—-and until SOMEONE is willing to find solutions, my hands are tied. 

Sorry to burst your bubble!

12 thoughts on “Creativity is Dead, Ken. . .

  1. Barnett Berry

    Well at least the Center for Teaching Quality created TLN so teacher leaders can find their creative voice in making the case for creativity in teaching and exploring how expert teachers themselves can lead the way. What do you think, Bill?

  2. K. Borden

    Ok, let me give this one a whirl. Creativity for Gregory Hines came in hearing the rhythm in everyday sounds and translating it to tap. For Bill Gates it came in not accepting the limits of basic programming and envisioning the path to mass computing applications as part of daily life. Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes ….saw the world through a lens that allowed them to use language to recreate experiences with it vividly. Colonel Sanders imagined herbs and spices blended into batter to make “original recipe” a trademark. Anne Sullivan imagined a way to help the blind, deaf and mute young Helen Keller and make connections to sense the world.
    Creativity produces art, it innovates, and it sees beyond the known to the unknown or re-envisions the known casting it to new use.
    Can you teach creativity? Maybe, someday we will have rubrics and formulae that lead to being able to teach it. Who knows, sitting in a classroom somewhere may by the next chemist or biologist to invent a way to bottle creativity juice. We seem to know that all folks have it in some skill area to varying degrees. We know that when it is nurtured and unleashed it can produce amazingly wonderful things. It seems we are safe for now assuming that giving it opportunities is a pretty good idea. (except perhaps for those who would use it for harm, which raises another discussion.)
    What I think most of these speakers and writers who promote more creativity in schools are saying is that they want industrious performers for the workforce of tomorrow who can think beyond the obvious questions and answers. They want them to be proficient in reading, composition, mathematics and science with a sense of history. They want them to be able to communicate effectively. Those factors can be measured.
    The edge, that extra something, that distinguishes the student who can calculate precisely and quickly from the one who can calculate accurately but extend beyond that to application of calculation to new products and ideas is the one “they” want learning in school today and working for their companies tomorrow. “They” want a lot because “they” recognize a world emerging where it is that edge plus that base knowledge that will be needed to thrive.
    Mr. Ferriter, it is indeed a huge task. One challenged by crowded classrooms where teachers don’t have two million minutes per student, but that number divided by however many students they encounter each day. The task is made more challenging by goals of policy makers who must weigh a long list of social concerns and issues.
    “They” pose the challenge, and many of them pose something reforms, repairs and revisions are not likely to produce. Why should we believe a system designed to educate the workers needed at the turn of the last century serves those of this emerging century well? When I listen to “them” I hear a call for a far more radical and profound change. Imagine for a moment you were a teacher but there was no system in place. What system would you create to best prepare today’s potential talent for tomorrow’s demands?
    This has been very long as comments go and for that I apologize.

  3. Bob Heiny

    Thanks for clarifying your point, Bill. I, too, value creativity in classrooms. It’s a firm value in classes I offer. However, I was less sure of what the word meant when I was a business owner than as a teacher. I’d suggest that it’s more relevant for teachers to emphasize development among students of entrepreneural skills than job prep for businesses that may exist when students leave schools.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Bob wrote:
    I hope I don’t understand this post and these comments: Charge the barricades installed by others, so teachers can inject “creativity” into classrooms. How does that make sense?
    Good question, Bob.
    Now ask the countless pundits and policymakers who are preaching about America’s failure to create an innovative workforce why they’re hell-bent on seeing creativity in the classroom.
    This is just another example of where classroom teachers—who are the levers for policy—are caught in the middle. We’re trying to be all things to all people, and the “people” we’re trying to be “all things” to can’t decide which “things” are the most important.
    I value creativity in the classroom. Countless studies—-including those looking at current changes in the educational system in Asia—-celebrate the innovator’s spirit that has defined American business for two centuries and countless experts argue that creativity will be an even more important factor in success tomorrow.
    So I believe Robinson is right.
    But if that’s not what all y’all want of schools, then please, please, please make up your minds! I’m tired of my profession being called out as failures because we can’t “get it right” when “it” is so poorly defined.
    Does any of this make sense?

  5. K. Borden

    You began by saying, “Last February, I stumbled across a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson titled Do Schools Kill Creativity that left me completely energized. In it, Robinson lays out a case for why creativity should be reintroduced to our classrooms…”
    Did he suggest a reintroduction?
    I heard him describe an education system that started with the industrial age to train productive workers. I heard him characterize schools as having the purpose of producing university professors and operating as a projective process toward universities.
    I did not hear him say that creativity ever was the purpose of schools or ever nurtured in them.
    Toward the end of your entry you wrote, “But I’m discouraged. I’m honestly starting to wonder whether our system of education is worth trying to repair.”
    At the risk of channeling Sir Ken in error, it seems he might not see repair as the answer at all. He defines creativity as generating original ideas that have value.
    It seems he might be saying it is time for a more comprehensive (radical) change.

  6. J.M. Holland

    Bill, you sound a little more tempered than radical in this post. I think that the type of creativity that will not be valued in the future is individual, ego driven creativity. W
    What will be supported is group mind creativity. Groups of individuals cooperating is not necessarily conformity, it can be liberation. I really want to ride in with my galloping paint brushes to rescue my creative colleagues slandered your reductionist rant. Oh well, I will just have to write my own post to rebuff your sad commentary.
    I agree that policy makers are not being creative, although I think this will change, in their standardization of curriculum but I believe teachers are being creative in their response to their situation. For example Bill, using voicethread with middle schoolers is a very creative way of teaching writing and brings out your students creativity. The newer 21st century skills that many states are beginning to support and assess are creative in nature. And, require a different type of teaching and learning.
    Most of all, writing 2 to 5 blog posts a week is a creative act. Does it involve paint brushes or music? No, but I’ll reference Maxine Greene (who was probably quoting somebody.) No social reality has ever changed but that someone could imagine something different from what is. This is the core of the creative act, imagining something other than “the given” and you my friend, when in your radical mode are exceptionally good at this.

  7. Bob Heiny

    I hope I don’t understand this post and these comments: Charge the barricades installed by others, so teachers can inject “creativity” into classrooms. How does that make sense?

  8. Nate Barton

    Bill, I believe that you know where I stand on this. For several months last year, when I had more passion and time I wrote about this very subject (See below). I am slightly concerned however with the temper of your post. I believe that to maintain creativity in our classrooms, which I believe is an absolute must, will require empowered and intelligent teachers like you to band together, to stand up, and to vehemently protest our current path. Will require revolution.
    Today I heard in passing a story on NPR about how to get milk cows to produce more. What amazed me was when they mentioned the farmers who had been asked at the origin of the study how they were able to have their cows produce more, they quickly said that you should give the cow a name and make it a respected individual. This answer, however, was not enough for scientists. They could not except the word of the expert in the field. No it had to be measured, tallied, and quantified with a collection of data.
    Where it resonated for me was in the conclusion of the extensive scientific study… Conclusion: Give a cow a name, it makes more milk. Isn’t this so like our world at school? Sure I am “highly qualified” but what does that mean really? Without fail I could tell you about each of my students individually, but that still isn’t cold hard data.
    We have to take our classrooms back, not wait for those in positions of power to hear our cries, because even if they were to hear, they would likely still get it wrong. After all look at what Bill Gates said this past week on his TED talk.

  9. mrkimmi

    It seems to be that to be a great teacher these days there has to be a bit of shadiness in what you do. This is a sad, sad thing, but really engaging your students in meaningful learning experiences in today’s classroom requires working beneath radar. Or, an administrator who is on the same page as you.

  10. Joe

    I’m totally with you on this one Bill. I’ve only been teaching for five years, and every year I feel less and less free. Every year I watch as decisions are made above us and not with us, and every year my heart aches for the kids: for the mindlessness that we’re all partaking in. I wish I saw bright spots on the horizon, but I just don’t at this point. It’s making me look outside the system towards something more organic. I’m not sure how much more I can take of the current model.
    By the way, check out this bit of brilliance from Harry Brighouse:
    And so it goes.

Comments are closed.