The Squeezing of Creativity out of the American Public School System

Diane Ravitich, in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” talks about some of today’s most popular ideas for reforming and restructuring schools in the U.S., including privatization, standardized tests and punitive accountability. She describes a journey of personal change. A change of view and direction from what she believed in to what she believes is the best hope for U.S. public education. She argues that focusing too much on accountability and and choice which has been the education agenda since George H. W. Bush’s administration through Clinton, Bush Jnr and now into Obama’s agenda, is destroying public education in the states today.

The fixation on standardized tests which do not not necessarily have to follow the curriculum content and the use of data to test school’s performance thus offering parents ‘choice’, is destroying the development and nuturing of creativity in the U.S. school system. Schools have been forced to spend valuable funding on focusing on Math and Reading at the expense of other areas of learning, especially the Arts, History and Geography. Ravitich notices that ” What was once considered the conservative agenda has now become a bipartisan agenda in Education in the U.S.”

She also notes that ” It is time for those who want to improve our schools to focus on the essentials of education. We must make sure that our schools have a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with plenty of oppurtunity for children to engage in activities and projects which make learning lively”

No Child Left Behind was the pinnacle of the movement which had been gaining ground through two previous administrations. Standards, Accountability and Choice. On the face of it great concepts. I think most of us agree that standards are important. We need to have an idea of what students need to achieve and what they are learning. In the world outside education (is there one?) we are all thankful that there are standards. From quality of water supply to operating room cleanliness and proceedures. But standards seem to have been replaced by an over emphasis on testing. Testing which has led to the reduction in key areas of the curriculum content. Testing which is summative and not formative. The results of which are used to judge schools on performance.

Anyone who has discussed education matters with me or who has read this blog will know that I am passionate about kids getting real-life experiences at school within a broad curriculum framework which gives equal importance to all traditional disciplines or subjects. The curriculum needs to foster creative and critical thinking, whilst at the same time identifying and supporting the child’s individual needs and interests. There are many schools and movements (some of which I have written about) which support this idea. Sadly, the U.S. public school system seems not able to.

A recent article in ‘Newsweek’ by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman entitled ” The Creativity Crisis” (July 2010) talks about how research shows that American creativity is declining. The article quotes Jonathan Plucker from Indiana University, who recently analayzed data from the Torrance test for creativity. He found that the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood I.Q. The idea that a child is “Intelligent” if they have a high I.Q. is not accurate, in my opinion. Creativity is the key. Kids who scored highly on Torrance’s creativity tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors and software developers.

Kyung Hee Kim at the college of William and Mary discovered, after anaylising almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults that creative scores had been steadily rising in the U.S., just like I.Q. scores until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have gone down. So why is this happening? One idea is that the number of hours children spend in front of computer screens playing computer games has increased. Children seem not to be engaging in creative activities at home as much. Another, is that schools, where kids spend alot of their lives have been responsible for taking creativity out of children, or at the very least, not giving kids the oppurtunities to be creative. I recall Sir Ken Robinson saying “Ask a group of pre-school children who can dance and they all put their hands up. Ask a group of High school students, and hardly any will put their hands up”. Are schools killing creativity? I don’t blame the teachers, I don’t blame the schools. I blame the train of NCLB which is picking up speed and is continuing into the Obama administration today. NCLB has led to  fierce competition for funding and survival. It has lead to stressed teachers who are under huge pressure to perform for the test. And it has led to creativity being squeezed out of schools.

Creativity spans all disciplines. Not just the Arts. Teachers and schools need to be given some breathing space. There are plenty of examples of how schools, given realistic standards can employ project based well structured, real life examples can foster creativity.

If you are reading this Mr. Obama, I have the answer. So do hundreds of  thousands of other educators out there who believe in the importance of creativity. Keep schools small. Focus on the child’s interests, have national standards and give schools the freedom to breathe. Give schools space to offer real life creative experiences for all kids. Scrap NCLB and introduce NCLCB. No Child Left Creatively Behind. Take back the power of curriculum content and testing from the individual States and take repsonsibility for education yourself.

Brain Research

A really great series on NPR recently on the teenage and middle-aged brain.

The Teenage Brain- 5 min clip

If you have or teach a teenager then the following NPR clip will interest you. Did you know that your child’s frontal lobes are not fully connected which is basically the part of the brain which says “Is this a good idea?” and “What’s the consequence of this action?” A mother of two teenage boys who also happens to be a neuroscientist explains.

Click here to listen to the podcast

The Middle Aged Brain – 30 minute clip

As a follow up, this NPR  link talks about the middle aged brain. They describe middle age as 40-68 year olds!

Click here to listen to the podcast

Learning for the 21st Century- “Now Thinking” Schools

Heidi Hayes Jacob’s recent book “Curriculum 21- Essential Education for a changing World” pub. ASCD.  starts with this paragraph

“What are you preparing your student’s for? 1973? 1995? Can you honestly say that your school’s curriculum and the program you use are preparing your students for 2015 or 2020? Are you even preparing them for today?”

So many schools are taking on this question with help from organizations like Partnership for 21st Century Skills and Curriculum 21 and staff who are excited about change , sadly so many are not. We as educators need to be constantly asking questions not just but the future, but the needs of our students now. You only need to visit websites of schools such as International School Bejing, to see the kind of work is being done regarding forward thinking, or as I like to call it ‘now thinking’ schools. Too many schools are locked into the 20th or even 19th century model of education. At my present school Berlin Brandenburg International School, we are working on a technology strategy which involves hiring a member of staff who is devoted to I.T Learning across the school, as well as devoting staff inservice time to try to mee the needs of our students.

When we think of 21st century learning we often think in terms of technology . Tools for learning; computers, overhead projectors, smart boards etc. These are essential, but equally as important is curriculum, the learning environment, quality assessment, key skills and of course quality teaching.

Schools that embrace Inquiry based learning strategies have the best chance of serving the needs of their students in the 21st century. Our students are entering a world with vast amounts of information at their fingertips, complex problems, technological break-throughs in a fast paced global context. They need to be equipped with the skills, not when they graduate but NOW. Inquiry based learning encourages questioning. It fosters collaboration skills. It considers multiple intelligences. It encourages students to seek the truth and discover knowledge. In essence it encourages a passion, motivation and desire for learning which continue throughout life.

Teaching these students requires a shift away from traditional 19th century techniques such as lecturing, giving facts, right/wrong answers, text book driven curricula, final summative testing and rote memorization and practice, towards student centered inquiry and direction, multiple solutions to a variety of strategies, multiple resources, practical collaborative activities and reasoning.  Teachers also need to be given the tools for the 21st century as well as the training to use them. Training on how to use these tools and applications, computers, podcasts, social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook, weblogs, wikis, video, pictures and so on. Quality teachers are coaches. They guide, analyse, point, and most importantly know when to stand back. Maria Montessori once said “ The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say The students are now working as if I did not exist” She also said “Free the child’s potential and you will transform the world”

The learning environment should not be thought of as the classroom, but rather the whole school. When you enter a school you should feel that learning is all around you, that the staff, students and visitors are all learners. I like to see open spaces being utilized in schools for learning, collaborative design, open access internet, social/learning zones, displays, in short, a buzz of excitement and a space full of energy.

Curriculum frameworks that encourage backwards design; thinking about what we want students to know and be able to do, asking guiding questions and promoting exploration and discovery will help students continue their curiosity and desire for learning throughout life.  Curriculum mapping helps keep track of connections between traditional subjects in schools which offer these. Schools need to integrate technology into their curricula to enhance content and quality assessment. Assessment is simply a means to show knowledge and insight into content, skills and proficiencies. Some educators have focused too much on summative, end of unit/year tests. There is a place for summative assessments but quality teachers explore a multitude of formative options to help them and importantly their students, understand where they are. We need to replace some assessments with more relevant 21st century approaches. For example, power point presentations have become an important tool for presenting ideas and learning, but teachers can also explore film, podcasts, websites,  performances, rap, song, blogs and many more tools for showing, sharing and presenting knowledge.  Technology needs to be integrated across all subjects.

I have talked about quality teaching, quality environments, quality curriculums and assessment but what are the key skills which our students need to be prepared for lifelong learning in the 21st century? Partnership for 21st Century Skills talk about fusing the traditional 3 Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) with the 4 Cs (Critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity). There’s no doubt that the world in 2010 is drastically different to the world even 10, 20 or 30 years ago and that the students in our schools are likely to travel more, have many more jobs and meet many more people (both real and virtual). Professor Stephen Heppell describes 21st century learners as ambitious, collaborative, reflective, embracing individuality and as having the ability to stand back and look at a global horizon. He also says “This is not the information age, it’s not the mechanical age, it’s the learning age”

So what do schools need to do if they want to change?  I believe schools need to have 21st century learning central to their mission. They need quality learning environments, quality curriculum and quality teachers. Yes, the change will in some cases mean a large outlay of money. 1 to 1 lap top schemes (or even 1 to 1 ipad schemes!) cost money. Redesigning learning environments costs money and training teachers costs money, but getting excited about technology, getting excited about change, getting excited about the idea of 21st century learning costs nothing.

You Get What You Give

This is one of my favorite phrases/proverbs/maxims. I use it a lot at school to explain the importance of being caring, respectful and encouraging to all around. I was wondering how many other similar phrases there are. I thought of “Give a little love and it all comes back to you” and “You reap what you sow”.

Older readers may remember the song with this name by the band ‘The New Radicals’ in the 90s.

Unconditional Teaching

We all went into education because we care passionately about kids. We want to help them to grow and gain experiences which help them to understand themselves and where they fit in to the world around them. Teenage kids are on a path of discovery. They are becoming more and more reliant on personal relationships with friends outside their family and they are continuing to learn about relationships with adults in terms of effective ways to communicate.

It is vital that kids know and understand that we care about them. That we as educators have their well being and success at the forefront of our minds during our daily interactions. As soon as they know we care, we have a chance that they might learn something.

I’d like to talk about two teachers I had in the past. I studied the flute at Music college in London and then in Berlin. Both professors were renowned flute players and highly respected in their field, so I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to study with them.

My teacher in London had a quiet demeanor and spoke to me calmly. She showed through the questions she asked, that she cared about me as a person. My teacher in Berlin had a different approach. A more straightforward-in your-face approach I suppose. A particular example of how the two differed was the task of memorizing music, which, quite frankly I wasn’t very good at. If I arrived at a lesson having not memorized the music, my teacher in Berlin would get angry, tell me that I was wasting his time and stomp around. In stark contrast, my teacher in London would ask questions. “Did you have difficulty learning this piece?”, “How can we make things easier?” etc.

O.K. sometimes I just didn’t do the work that week.  If this was the case, my teacher in Berlin would accuse me of wasting his time, stomp around etc. My flute teacher in London would say “Ben, I’m worried that if you can’t find the time to practice, you’re not going to be able to reach the standard I know you are capable of”

What effect did these two approaches have on me? The teacher in Berlin tried to instill fear into me. The teacher in London shared her feelings with me. I really feel that because I know that she genuinely cared about me, it had a much bigger impact on my learning. When she spoke to me calmly about her feelings of disappointment, it hit me in the face like a sledge hammer. Because I really cared about her and I knew she really cared about me. It made me think. The Berlin approach just got me angry.

In my opinion, shouting at students doesn’t achieve very much except showing them that the teacher can shout. It’s a way of showing dominance over a student and it doesn’t teach them a very caring way of interacting with others. In my experience, simply listening and talking to students about their actions, their feelings and your feelings goes a long way to help them to understand and change.

This is one of my favorite quotes about education:

“ In education, it is my experience that those lessons which we learn from teachers who are not just good, but who also show affection for the student, go deep into our minds. Lessons from other sorts of teachers may not. Although you may be compelled to study and may fear the teacher, the lessons may not sink in.

Much depends on the affection of the teacher.

The XIV Dalai Lama

%d bloggers like this: