In this dialog from the Teacher Leaders Network Forum, what begins as some reflection on a new book about education and creativity evolves into a lengthy and often profound discussion of what it means to “teach” creativity – and to be a creative teacher.
Elizabeth in New York State wrote:
In the foreword of his 2009 book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson explains the title:
I use the term the Element to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. I believe it is essential that each of us find his or her Element, not simply because it will make us more fulfilled but because, as the world evolves, the very future of our communities and institutions will depend on it.
Chances are, as an educator, you are already in the Element zone. I think I have been in mine for a very long time, but as I read the book (written with Lou Aronica), I’ve have been immersed in the significance of the authors’ message, which is not only about finding one’s passion, but also about the importance of doing so personally and universally.
Of particular interest is Robinson’s view on education. There are some key points that resonate strongly with me:
∞ He argues that the education system must be transformed – not just reformed. The focus should not be on changing curriculum and assessments and expecting all students to succeed in a “one size fits all” curriculum. Rather, education should be about customizing the process of learning so students may be in harmony with their true talents and creative passions – leading them to be successful in the 21st century workplace.
∞ Robinson states that the future of education is not in standardizing but in customizing. This highlights the need to cultivate the individual abilities of each student. Curriculum should be transformed to eliminate the "hierarchy of subjects," basing curriculum instead on disciplines that personalize individual abilities. He argues for fundamental changes in how we educate students everywhere in hopes of meeting the challenges of living and working in the 21st century.
In my excitement to talk about these ideas with others, I’ve invited colleagues at my school to join me in discussing this riveting book. So far 15 of them have said yes. As I continue to read while they all buy the book, these are some of my wonderings:
Do teachers need to feel that they are in their own element in order to inspire students to arrive at theirs? Why is it essential for schools to teach creativity? What is one way your school nurtures creativity? How does your school “kill” creativity?
Are all people creative – or just a select few? Most children are bursting with creative ideas – what happens to them as they grow older?
Robinson states that public education as it is configured today places pressure on students to conform, which “kills creativity." My hope is that as I differentiate instruction and implement multiple intelligences into daily lesson plans I’m doing my part (at least in the confines of my own classroom) to nurture rather than kill the creativity of my students. I believe this makes a difference – I hope I am right.
I never feel like I'm in my Element anymore. Instead, I trudge through massive curricula trying to prepare my students for the end-of-grade tests. My work lacks both creativity and imagination because creativity and imagination take time – and I ain't got time if I'm going to cover the entire curriculum before the end of the school year.
Sometimes I catch myself in mid-tirade in class. "How could you guys miss that question! It's obvious you weren't taking this very seriously. D is a crazy answer. If you're going to get good scores on the End of Grade tests, you've GOT to get easy ones like this right." And then I cringe. I mean, maybe my kids didn't get the question right because they just don't give a damn about what I'm teaching and how I'm teaching it.
Which leaves me in an incredibly uncomfortable position: If I know that what I'm doing is irresponsible and ineffective, do I burn my professional bra and take a stand against a system that beats creativity and imagination out of every student and teacher? Or do I continue to find new ways to prepare my kids for the tests that everyone seems to continue to worship as evidence of effectiveness?
This is the central question in my professional career right now, and if I can't find an answer, I'm going to lose my mind!
I miss being creative and inventive. I know that having lost the opportunity to freely create has changed who I am as an instructor, as well as the kinds of learning opportunities I offer to the students in my classroom.
Choosing the (creative) title “Sir Ken and the Sorcerer's Stone” for her post, Nancy replied in part:
Like most of you, I was dazzled and energized by Sir Ken Robinson's 2006 TED talk, and I think he's absolutely right that further standardizing curriculum and instruction and endless testing will not make kids the creative innovators and leaders we need for this new century. His book is full of examples of people who took non-traditional paths and ended up doing amazing, magical things with their lives, once they let imagination take precedence over knowledge.
The problem is that nobody – and I do mean nobody – who thinks 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.
There aren't many parents who would sit still for a teacher saying "hey, let's eliminate the hierarchy of subject disciplines – your kid loves music, so let's put him in the band four hours a day and forget about math." In the end, what a child "needs" is not only determined by his own unique gifts, but his parents' goals and ambitions and social fears. Plus the embedded belief that school changes only a little, from time to time, and that's a good thing.
I don't think we know how to teach creativity – and even if we did, we would be too afraid to even suggest it, as a formal topic of study. The Henry Ford Academy, a charter school in Dearborn, MI, added a required daily class in "design innovation." How cool is that? They did a presentation for a few of Michigan's best teachers on how to create a new product to fill an identified need, incorporating art, math, science, language, marketing, etc. The teachers had fun identifying needs and creating products (in an hour). And then they spent the next hour talking about why this would never work in their classrooms. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies, a profession with very little ability to see out ahead of the present.
Still, I love the fact that a cluster of teachers in Elizabeth’s school is reading the book. Good luck! If there ever were a small window of opportunity to make huge changes in the zeitgeist around American education, that time would be NOW.
A middle school teacher in New York City commented on Bill’s predicament:
Bill, I hear you. It is such a tough dilemma right now. I am extremely lucky because the big test my students take in 8th grade happens in January. So after that I'm more or less free. But I am not free of the thinking that goes into preparing kids to do well on these tests. Anyone else about ready to burn their bra on testing?
Nancy is really right that cool thinkers like Ken Robinson are not making policy right now – they are writing books and giving talks. It's a huge problem. From my small experience with somewhat mainstream people who are making policy, I have found it extremely frustrating. [But] I think instead of fighting the bad guys, we have to make ourselves so valuable, make sure we have a clear vision of what we want, and then make the policy people realize that we have so much to offer from our direct experience that they have to try it our way.
But there's no way to do this without some figurative blood being spilled, and we can't be naive about that. Major changes to a deeply flawed system mean major players are going to lose money and jobs (e.g., the testing industry giants and all the politicians and policy makers they partner with). We have to get them in a place where they have no choice but to cough up their power and status.
Honestly, I wonder how many of us, as teacher leaders, are up for a struggle at that level? Would it be harder than the daily struggle we face in our classrooms with these tests? Would it be as rewarding?
Marsha argued that creativity “is hidden in between test prep...”
Ken Robinson “argues that the education system must be transformed." I completely agree with this conclusion, but I'm completely stumped by how that happens. Given the status quo, I think it is foolish to believe we can effectively individualize instruction without a radical restructuring of what we expect students to accomplish. Today, we work within the confines of a system that understands all students can learn – but is silent on what that learning is or how long that learning should take.
I do believe that the longer I hang around, the more entrenched I become in finding local solutions to reform issues. I think that is one way we might have a realistic hope of customizing education around what is acceptable within our communities and responsive to the needs of those we serve. To believe we can change a whole nation...well, it's beyond my ability to see.
I'm in agreement with Bill that the very life seems to get strangled out of you in the midst of test prep season. In my subject, math, it’s almost about unlearning how to be a budding mathematician and how instead to assume the persona of a plug 'n chug calculator. Actually, most of the kids are pretty good at understanding the whole notion of conforming and play along.
I never know what creativity really is. Almost the very act of defining it seems to ruin it for me. But I know this much. In order for my kids to be passionate about science and math, they have to know stuff. They also have to see how stuff is related and how the pieces of the world fit together given those content viewpoints. Once they have that, then I am able to set them up to wonder. And if you're going to let them wonder, you'd better let them really do that and be prepared for losing control of precise outcomes. And you'd better be equipping them to accept failures because there are bound to be more of them than successes if they are tackling big ideas and problems.
I do think, even given all that I've already said, that there is a vital role for the mundane. It is critical and equally essential that I do the "boring" part of teaching. Examples would include: earning how to read expository text, knowing how to interpret graphs and tables, having some higher level of automaticity in recalling math facts, using applicable vocabulary words in classroom conversations, taking turns, listening to others, being a responsible and contributing member of small groups, and so on. Without some foundational pieces, I don't believe you can analyze or think or learn to tolerate situations where you don't have an immediate answer.
I'm with Nancy on thinking that no one that is making educational policy these days even has a clue about all this.
Then Susan wrote:
I keep thinking about this right now as we are working with trying to come up with alternative assessments for our special needs students. We're doing that not because we really want to find out what they know and can do, but so we can sort of kind of pretend that the are just like everyone else.
Common knowledge is one thing, but we seem bound and determined to produce students who are consistent products, not individual works of art. I find this especially interesting in a culture that says it values "handcrafted" and "one of a kind," but continues to eat in chain restaurants and buy everything from China.
As educators, is it that we lack imagination or that we are overly cautious? I wonder if it just seems to be the path of least resistance? I tend to think it's the latter that drives our own conformity, which is interesting because the most direct path may very well be the most difficult. Why not instead go with the flow and follow our students' strengths? Why can’t pundits and policymakers “get” that shaping your teaching around student strengths is not abandoning your professional responsibility, but operating at the highest levels of the teaching act?
Elizabeth followed up:
When I talk about teaching creatively, I am not talking "artsy" creative. I am talking creative thinking. And I believe this is the creativity that makes for a 21st century teacher. The kind of creativity that leads to critical thinking. The uncertainty about how to teach creativity has been mentioned. I think the bottom line is to get students to generate ideas – regardless of subject area. We can still cover the curriculum but do it in ways that get students to justify their thinking and still gain the facts.
The tests send the wrong message to students. They are left with the thought that there is only one right answer to questions. We all know how wrong that is. My response is to go right into the classroom and do everything I can to prepare them for a future where they will need to be independent thinkers.
In the second segment of this discussion, Rick notes that “Mediating relevance of curriculum and creating the balance between mandates and free expression/exploration is a careful walk for teachers.” John, who is both a nationally certified teacher and a professional artist, argues that “Creativity needs to be brought into our expectations every day, not separated out for use when we’re not teaching the basics.”
Mary describes the difference between classroom anarchy and guided teaching: “You have to give the kids SOME help, in the form of basic tools and an overarching goal and not simply let them go at it willy-nilly.” Ken describes teaching methods that can help students move beyond the “mental frames” that impede higher order thinking. Finally, Nancy summarizes some of the conversation’s key points and considers barriers to school transformation.