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!