Worth Mentioning: The Creativity Crisis

Have you seen this article by the authors of Nurture Shock? It’s in the most recent edition of Newsweek.

I was surprised to read this:

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

And this:

In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.

This article confirms what I’ve suspected for a long time: the standards-and-accountability (i. e. high-stakes testing) environment in America is actually hampering educational progress. Some of this is because teachers feel pressured to ensure their kids do well on standardized tests and simply can’t extricate themselves from “teaching to the test”. I have never taught upper grades in elementary school because of this, and I don’t really blame teachers for feeling that their hands are tied.

We have also pushed down the curriculum, because (ironically) enriched environments are making kids smarter, so they are able to handle more difficult curricula at an earlier age. The standard these days is for kids to learn how to read in kindergarten; obviously, to varying degrees of success, but it’s still the standard. At my school, we are moving toward expecting kids to know their addition and subtraction facts by the end of first grade and their multiplication facts by the end of second (national standards place these benchmarks in higher grades.) Yes, it’s true that most of the kids I teach are highly capable learners and should meet this expectation, but I wonder if we are not emphasizing mastery of basic facts over acquisition of skills in creativity, flexiblity, and real-life problem-solving (not word problems or textbook-generated problems.)

I especially liked when the authors talked about creativity not just being in art class. While I appreciate the arts (visual, dramatic, and musical) and want my students to develop their artistic skills, the classroom is my canvas, my stage. I am creative in my teaching, and I function best when I can collaborate with others to plan lessons that will stimulate my students’ creativity and thinking.

When we were studying geometry this year, I got out the geometric solids (wooden cubes, pyramids, cylinders, spheres, cones, rectangular prisms, etc.) for the first time and let my students play with them before I taught them the terminology of faces, vertices, and edges. One group turned the blocks into a bowling alley, using a ramp made out of a dry erase board to explore whether or not each block rolled, stacked, or slid. Boy, did they have fun, and it was loud! I debated in my head whether or not to let it continue – should I tell them “that’s not how I want you to use the blocks” and direct them to a more quiet, focused activity?

I decided to let them continue bowling (and turned off my hearing aids so I wouldn’t hear the laughing and screaming!) Of course, other groups caught on, and soon most of the kids were bowling with the blocks. I chose to let their creativity be their guide and see what happened when we sat down as a group to discuss what they had learned about the blocks. I figured if they didn’t learn what they were supposed to know, I could redo the activity with more guidance.

To my delight, when we sat down to talk about the features of each three-dimensional shape, they rattled them off – which ones could stack and slide but not roll, why some rolled in a straight line and some “spun around” when they rolled, how many faces, vertices, and edges each one had, and I think all of the kids raised their hands to contribute to the discussion instead of just the ones who usually “get it” before everyone else does.

I asked them where they had learned the information, and they said, “You taught us.” I then asked, “Did I really?” I  pointed out that they had turned our classroom into a bowling alley (surely not what I had planned for the math lesson!) but that I had chosen to let their creativity flourish instead of imposing my vision for their exploration. I told them I had experimented to see what would happen if I let them “go” and how pleased I was that they had learned exactly what the Teacher’s Guide wanted them to learn. 

I truly believe that when they revisit geometry in third grade, my students will remember bowling with the blocks and will be able to recall the mathematics because they were allowed to be creative with the materials.  We’ll see if my theory holds up!

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