Watering The Seeds The Blossoming of Creativity in the Classroom

We tend to think of creativity as an intriguing personality trait, but one that is only useful in practice to the artist or the aimless dreamer. But what if I told you that creativity, not in spite of the due emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), is an increasingly essential skill to our children’s success, both in school and on the job?

Frankly, a non-creative person is an unadaptable person. Moreover, a person who cannot adapt cannot survive the turbulence of our ever-changing world. So why do we continue to push models of education that limit creativity in favor of rote memorization?

Of course, the transfer of traditional knowledge and information is needed for students to grow. However, that information would be little more than arbitrary if not for the creative ingenuity that transforms it into something meaningful in our minds. At a certain point, intellectual growth and evolution, skills like real-time problem solving, and the very seeds of entrepreneurial thought cannot take place without this ingenuity, so the fact that our educational system is based largely on spreading and storing data while neglecting creativity warrants concern.

In the following, we will examine our country’s current educational system and determine the ways in which it inadvertently stifles creativity and critical thinking. Hopefully, through a reassessment of our current practices, we can cultivate a more innovative society of tomorrow.

Let us begin by joining the typical elementary student in their classroom. Take your seat and remain silent. Do not fret, your input will not be necessary. There will be a man or woman at the front of the room that will handle all the thinking for you. Just memorize what they tell you. Once your ability to recite this information has been gauged to be on the level of your peers, you and your classmates will find a place on the assembly line. From there, you all will be packaged and shipped to the next level of institutionalized education, where you will undergo the process again. And so on and so on.

The aforementioned scenario illustrates (albeit crudely) our educational model. Sounds outdated, doesn’t it? That’s because our system of education is actually a remnant of 19th-century philosophy and a product of the Industrial Revolution’s economic circumstances. The model was created with the idea that intelligence was to be measured by one’s knowledge of the classics and their ability to carry out deductive reasoning. As a consequence of this model, the usefulness of the arts (its ability to provide both emotional stimulation and intellectual stimulation while inspiring new patterns of thought) was also forgotten.

Essentially a system of standardization, our public education model was constructed to mimic factory assembly lines because that was what worked best for production, and what worked to make machines must also produce efficient workers. Prior to the Industrial Era, a system of universal education simply did not exist. When the system was first proposed, it was based on the premise that the skills that are needed for work are the only skills that should be emphasized by educators.

The purpose was to get a group of students to consume the same information and all apply it in a similar fashion. For what it’s worth, the system was great for industrial productivity.

So, you may be wondering, where is the harm in the above process?

Well, as philosopher and politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger argues, it only serves to create more worker bees. The workers who were trained in this fashion were unadaptable because they were made (prepared) purely for a static function (job). By teaching students merely to take in information without first analyzing it, we imply that the world is static and constant. We teach them that it is only their task to internalize the prescribed laws of the world. There is no need to question anything or investigate the world because that has already been done for them. Educator and philosopher Paulo Freire argues that this practice robs them of their ability to become active participants in the world. So how can they improve and add value to their community when they only know how to follow directions and not how to maximize their full potential?

In fact, students’ ability to think critically may actually be reduced because of this process. In their book, Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, researchers George Land and Beth Jarman present a study which corroborates this theory. Land and Jarman tested 1,600 students between ages three and five on their divergent (creative) thinking skills. They asked questions requiring abstract thought such as “How many ways can a paperclip be used?” More than 98% of the students scored at the level of creative genius. The authors waited five years before assessing the children again. When evaluated for the second time, only 32% scored at this same level; by the age of 15, less than 12% scored at this level. The test later made its way to some 280,000 adults (average age 31) and only 2% scored at the level of creative genius. Land concluded his study by asserting that “non-creativity” must be a learned behavior. Given the results of the study, it is not unreasonable to believe that our educational practices are largely to blame for the declining levels of creativity over time.

You see, the brain is responsible for two kinds of thinking: There is the divergent thinking referenced above and there is convergent thinking, which refers to the brain’s ability to make judgements about, critique, and evaluate a situation. Land refers to divergent thinking as the “accelerator” while convergent thinking is likened to the “brake.” Children are initially asked to use both, but it becomes difficult to think creatively while listening to the inner critic. Students will likely develop a fear of being wrong (having the wrong answer) as a result. Because of this disconnect (neurons on both sides of the brain are “fighting each other,” as asserted by Land), the brain is less able to capitalize on the divergent thinking. When a person succumbs to fear, then even less of the brain is active.

It is this stigmatization of mistakes (a fear cultivated by our deep-seated reliance on ranking students through standardized testing) that will hinder our children’s development because all evolution is the product of trial and error. One cognitive scientist, Guy Claxton, has caused an uproar in the educational community by referring to erasers as the “instrument of the devil.” While his statement does employ a bit of hyperbole, he bases it on the idea that the classroom often perpetuates the shaming of mistakes and errors.

Claxton argues that children should not be encouraged to hide their mistakes because mistakes give students an opportunity to reflect on the process that brought them to the right answer rather than just focusing on the answer itself. Further, in the real world there is no magic button that allows one to omit past decisions.

Instead, we must think wisely about the effects of any subsequent actions, while using past mistakes to help us adapt to new situations. In a consenting opinion, Chairman of the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE) John Coe stated that it is the job of teachers to be aware of the mistakes made by their students so that they “can target their instruction.”

In nature, certain characteristics arise within a species but are later removed or augmented when their applicability in the world is assessed. We are stifling our students’ growth because we insist on assessing the fitness of our educational practices against an antiquated model of the world. Our educators are trying to prepare our students to participate in the economy while ignoring the fact that it is constantly changing. How backwards is that? Teaching our students how to adapt is the only way that we can adequately prepare them for future problems.

So what can we do to promote more divergent thinking?  Well, we must first remember that cultures are malleable. We always have the opportunity to try new things to facilitate growth. So let’s shed the cocoon-like dogma that certain patterns of thought afford us. Let’s get rid of the notion that all students, all people are the same and learn the same way. Through the practice of differential education, we can assess students’ talents on an individualized basis. We can understand their strengths and find ways to help them discover and develop their special talents. We can also make use of the Socratic method, instead of only assessing a student’s ability to spit out a preprogrammed response without them understanding its applicability to the question. Focusing on inspiring inquiry and evaluating the level of abstract reasoning inherent to a student’s answer can foster creativity. Providing informative reviews of the students’ work rather than simply giving a letter grade will put the focus back on learning.

A move away from extrinsic motivation (motivation by external incentives, like an abstract grade) in elementary and middle school can be especially helpful for student development. Researchers Ruth Butler and Mordecai Nisan have shown that the ability of a student to think critically is reduced when too much emphasis is placed on a grade rather than the actual learning process. Grading can also be damaging when the rational student realizes that the potential consequence of an intellectual challenge (a failing grade) isn’t worth the risk. They may ultimately choose the easier alternative because they are afraid of lowering their grade average.

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn argues that believing competition, rankings, reward and punishment are just the “the way life works” obscures the fact that these are all simply societal practices which people can choose to respond or not respond to. Kohn reminds us that collaborative skills (employing someone else’s strengths) are essential to societal development, as well.

Furthermore, while in an interview with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), educationalist Sir Ken Robinson argued that “most original thinking comes through collaboration and through the stimulation of other people’s ideas.” On the other hand, pure competition may beget an overdependence on self that may hinder the development of the whole. Let’s remind our students that learning isn’t just about attaining an “A” or being better than the next person.

Earlier I alluded to how the arts can stimulate students both emotionally and intellectually, and even inspire new patterns of thought. To elaborate on this idea, empirical studies have also shown that the benefits of education in the arts transcends its immediate aesthetic and sensory appeal.

A 2002 report facilitated by James Catterall, an affiliate faculty member at the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, drew from the findings of 62 studies conducted by 100 researchers and revealed positive correlations between arts education and academic performance. For example, students who engaged in music education showed improvements in their mathematical skills, reading skills and cognitive development. Dance students tended to show improvements in their critical thinking skills and originality. Furthermore, students who were educated in a multitude of arts showed improvements in higher-order thinking skills.

I don’t mean to imply that math, science, and our other traditional school subjects aren’t useful areas of study, or that they should be tossed aside. Nor should we presume that higher-order thinking skills are limited to the college classroom. I’m only suggesting that students, even our youngest students, often miss out on a more applicable understanding of these subjects when they aren’t encouraged to approach them in novel and creative ways. It has less to do with the information presented, and more to do with how that information is presented. Do we want a generation of spectators and trend-followers, or do we want a future world filled with leaders and critical thinkers? The choice begins with how we educate our students.

As we recognize and respect our ability to change, we will see that certain situations will require new modes of thought: Innovation. George Land suggests that we tap into our “inner five-year-old.” So let’s think outside the box. Remember when we weren’t so afraid to think differently? It may sound odd, but we can only move the collective when we begin to think for ourselves.

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