The creativity crisis (Newsweek)

In a recent article on America’s declining ability to be creative, the author, Po Bronson, tries to explain why American children have declining abilities to be creative.

In one story, he explains how focusing on project work dramatically helps students learn creativity skills.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

With as much as three fourths of each day spent in project-based learning, principal Buckner and her team actually work through required curricula, carefully figuring out how kids can learn it through the steps of Treffinger’s Creative Problem-Solving method and other creativity pedagogies. “The creative problem-solving program has the highest success in increasing children’s creativity,” observed William & Mary’s Kim.

It’s an anecdote, but I buy the premise. Projects are open ended by design, and force the students to engage with the challenge in ways rote memorization and fact recall never do.

But the thing the article doesn’t get at is why project based learning is rare at most levels of education. Here’s why:

  • It takes more effort for teachers to plan projects
  • They have to be more involved with their students
  • Teachers become coaches and mentors, not dictators
  • It’s harder to grade projects that tests
  • Teachers have to understand, and manage the student’s within-team dynamics and conflicts
  • Teachers have to put students in control

Until teachers are rewarded and trained differently, it’s very difficult to do what the Ohio school above did.

12 Responses to “The creativity crisis (Newsweek)”

  1. Leo Dirac

    Good point about the practical difficulties of implementing this kind of education. As for changing reward systems, there’s a lot of debate right now about rewarding teachers based on performance of their students. Fundamentally it seems like it would put incentives in the right place to improve the whole system, whereas the current incentives don’t. But this article makes me think that simply switching to performance-based evaluation without giving teachers more flexibility in teaching styles isn’t necessarily going to help much. We’d be saying “you need to get your students to learn, but you have to use this state-approved curriculum.” If we simultaneously say the teachers are responsible for students’ learning, and give the teachers more freedom in how to get there, I suspect it would work better.

  2. SDiMeglio

    Great article. I have had a similar discussion with my daughter who is a young elementary public school teacher. She says that many teachers are frustrated by mandated systems and requirements that make incorporating creative approaches to education like those in the article unlikely. Not to the teachers off the hook, but they are under a lot of pressure to comply with what is set out from above. It’s a shame really.

  3. Relgoshan

    Taking away student responsibility and encouraging rote learning can only improve numbers on paper. Going “backwards” (with modern technical assistance) is preobably the best way forwards.

  4. Scott Berkun

    Leo: I agree – I believe the classroom should go back into the teachers hands. So much of what i see are parents and senators and everyone trying to mandate what goes on in the classroom, which is ridiculous. Hire good teachers, reward them, give them tools they can choose to use, and get out of the way.

    But between the unions and the city bureaucracies it’s very hard to take away the control these systems have worked for decades to obtain.

  5. Daniel Howard

    Our education system is designed to churn out large numbers of obedient factory workers in a cost-efficient manner by redeploying empty-nested housewives, who are natural exemplars of loyalty and hard work.

    Alas, here in the 21st century our economy has a great need for flexible, self-motivated “creative” workers and our education system finds it difficult to change habits developed over the past century.

    I think its is a bootstrap issue that as we bring in more talented teachers to create more talented citizens that we will collectively place a greater value on remunerating those talented teachers, and more of these talented citizens will find greater inducement to aspire to become talented teachers, at which point we’ll have a virtuous circle. Right now, though, it is very hard to begin and sustain such efforts because the school system hasn’t demonstrated that it has earned that resources it needs in order to succeed.

    I have mixed feelings about No Child Left Behind: all this “teaching to the test” and dismembering of established community schools. But in as much as it disrupts the established practice of education in this country, it leaves possible room for the “creative disruption” which I hope may hasten the transformation of our education system to better serve our contemporary needs. Unfortunately this disruption doesn’t seem to bring any additional resources along . . . our success will fall, as ever, on the back of under-resourced educators.

  6. stephanie

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful article. I wish this country would begin to
    understand that one of the most profound reasons we have been able to come so far is
    the fact that we are all different. Kids today are painted with a wide brush and expected
    to perform well scholastically and much is being missed creatively. Your point about it
    being harder to grade a project than a test pretty much sums it up. Some kids don’t learn
    as well just reading a book, they are driven to be creative by expressing themselves
    through projects. Creativity crosses many areas, finance, medicine, teaching, all could
    benefit from creative thinking. I heard derrick ashong speaking about your article on
    his oprah radio show saturday and I rushed out to buy the magazine. You have hit on
    a topic I have been on my soap box about for many many years now. I have two children and I have felt there is too much emphasis on scores and grades and not enough on
    teaching kids to be their authentic selves because everyone has something special to offer this world and many things cannot be “graded”.
    Thank you again – Please write more on this topic – It is SO important!!!


  7. Artist

    And it is also important to give creativity space by not making any comparisons. Art is free and finds free ways of expression. I am painting through synesthesia which makes me see colors when I hear a name or a number. Colors are my life.

  8. Randi

    I love this. Sounds like what I did for 15 years, the Montessori method.

  9. Renee Alter

    I wish all schools use this method of teaching. Most of the children in my family need this type of education. My son, now 27, always got 98% and higher on state exams but was failing the mainstream school system. I did not find out about Creative Learning until he was 11 and the Kealing Magnet School in Austin TX picked him up. We could only stay for a year. If my nephew, now 20 and diagnosed with Aspergers, hadn’t been able to attend a similar type of school, he wouldn’t be as successful as he is today. We have an abundance of children born with much higher intelligence than in past generations. Some people refer to them as Indigo children. And now some are saying a generation of Crystal children are being born. The ONLY kind of education that works for these children is the project (creative) type of education. The only reason I was able to get a Bachelor’s Degree at age 40 was because UOP incorporated this type of learning.



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