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The Paradox of Creativity in Education

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

All humans have the potential and ability to be creative, and we do ourselves a disservice when we refer to individuals such as Mozart and Einstein as the defining examples of creativity to which we should all strive to emulate. This genius bar misrepresents the concept of creativity and distracts us from the necessary conversations on how to foster the creative mindset and why it’s so important to include in conversations around education. According to James Kaufman, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Connecticut who presented last week at the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Summit, creative people are more likely to get promoted, be satisfied with their jobs, be in better physical health and be more resilient. Those are all outcomes we hope for our children.

Fostering creativity may have long-term positive benefits, so we should start focusing on creativity in the early years. According to the Quaglia Institute, as cited in the September 2013 issue of the American School Board Journal (ASBJ), there are eight conditions a student needs to fulfill “their academic, personal and social promise.” One of them just happens to be curiosity and creativity. If it’s an essential condition in a well-rounded education, where and when do we begin?

My first thought regarding creativity is that if we embrace it as a critical aspect of learning in schools, how we would do so in a way that doesn’t squash what we’re trying to achieve? How would we teach it? How do we steer clear of being prescriptive? It’s the paradox of creativity, according to Kaufman. It’s made even more challenging because creativity manifests itself in a wide range of domains. One can identify creativity in a person who comes up with a unique situational appropriate solution. Creativity can be infused into a process, by changing or doing something different than before, perhaps resulting in better outcomes.  And, environment or atmospheres can themselves be creative. Furthermore, while creativity is often associated with big name theorists and innovators, it also takes place through the personal growth of an individual, or in the professional space in expertise that takes years to develop and refine. If we can identify all these opportunities where creativity may reside and how it might evolve, we can also recognize the challenge of teaching creativity.

In an era of accountability and measurement, it’s more difficult to imagine advocating subjects that can’t be easily measured. It seems more likely that we could end up creating all sorts of poor policy incentives out of a desire to ensure kids are prepared for adulthood in the 21st Century. Here’s a creative idea: maybe there’s a way we can foster creative thinking while simultaneously understanding we need new ways of measuring  it that have nothing to do with standardized testing. If you can’t imagine that, maybe you’re in need of some creative encouragement.

Consider the possibilities in the “maker movement”, which was the focus of an article in the October issue of the Kappan, a PDK International publication. It’s described as a growing culture of hands-on making, creating, designing and innovating. And while there is understandably a tremendous amount of variety, the movement’s continuity rests in a shared commitment to creative ideas, and exploration of intrinsic interests. One particularly powerful approach is the presence of trained facilitators who perform two key roles: familiarizing individuals with available tools and asking the prompt: “What do you want to make today?” thereby helping children make whatever happens to be in their imagination. There is so much creativity in this format: conceptualizing a product, developing the process of creating something, being in a space where you can experiment and explore and enjoying a period of time during which you play to your strengths without being directly compared to or measured against your peers.

A final point: test scores show achievement gaps, and they highlight who falls behind and who succeeds. Tests frequently play to the strengths and capacity (or lack thereof) of those taking the tests. In contrast, if you examine children through the context of creativity, each has a pocket of strength, and those gaps that define our narrative around children failing or succeeding fall away. As educators, leaders and citizens, we should all celebrate and nurture those strengths as part of an educational experience that focuses on the whole person.  

Photo by David Benbennick (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


This is so very sad. The

This is so very sad. The POINT of education is for each of us to differ and to accommodate such differences: to mandate method and content is precisely, specifically, and ultimately the worst possible way to accomplish this paradox of individuality. In fact it guarantees that teaching is itself a 19th century skill (at best! since even Horace Mann was more "progressive") for a 21st century kid.

One of the key tools that was common when we began this wandering in the desert of anti-intellectualism was the portfolio. It figured largely in the Massachusetts Education Reform of 1993, which also mandated statewide tests, themselves patterned after the much older state tests in New York. Initially conceived - in 1993 - the portfolios would offer an alternative to kids foiled by tests to prove they were smarter than the tests alone measured.

Most districts nodded to this requirement, and eventually lost track of the whole deal. Somerville, Massachusetts, developed a pattern where kids would contribute papers to a portfolio which would follow them from kindergarten through high school, and that portfolio would be given them with their high school diploma as "evidence of achievement." In other words, they ritualized it rather than used it.

About 3 years ago, while a member of the High School Council, I was party to their innovation: to computerize the portfolios. That led to rich discussions - with teachers, kids, parents, alumni and others - which, eventually, produced a template for computerized portfolios (https://sites.google.com/site/shseportfolio/documents/verified-resume). That template, in turn, incorporated the key skills of the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS, 1992) checklist. The SCANS list, as a "verified resume," emerged in a Kellogg Foundation project led by the author of SCANS, Dr. Arnold Packer, then of Johns Hopkins.

Packer identified eight "soft skills" ranging from curiosity to reliability, cultural diversity to creativity, and asked students to score themselves, then each other, and ultimately the teacher, the class, the department and the school on a scale from 1 to 5, from inept to good enough to teach it. We discovered they were really honest and frank in their own rankings, and usually agreed with each other, with teachers, and with other supervisors (student projects, jobs, etc.). And teachers made the astounded discovery that their kids actually USED what worked best in class - from writing to reading to building things to testing their own and others' ideas. Kids were moved and moving, but teachers were often in tears for how much more their kids could show if asked unstructured, open ended questions rather than bubble tests.

Kids taught them how to teach creativity. They still do - it made their test scores jump three levels in one year, and, more important, it cut their dropout rate by 50%, increased their postsecondary rate dramatically, and made teaching a lot more fun.

Nearly 50 years ago a girlfriend visited her boyfriend in a psych class at Yale. Sitting in the 4th row, quietly knitting since she and he were trapped until the class was over, she was addressed by the teacher who felt challenged by the click of her needles: "Madame, do you know that knitting is a form of female masturbation." Without dropping a stitch, she said, "You do it your way, I'll do it mine." So also, teaching creativity requires, as it were, creative teaching. And it's not nearly as messy.

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