“I’m drawing a picture of God,” a six-year-old said when the teacher asked what she was doing during class. When her teacher told her no one knew what God looked like, she responded with “well they will in a minute.”
Sir Ken Robinson cited this short anecdote in a TED Talk titled “Do schools kill creativity?”. Whether the story holds tightly to the truth or is merely fabricated in jest, we can all relate to the sheer brilliance and explorative wonder of a child’s mind. They have an unrefined approach to learning and expressing themselves. Children drag color pencils outside of the lines, ask “Why?” into infinity, and express themselves unabashedly through clothes, song, and everything in between.
They grasp for knowledge with sticky fingers and fearlessly assert their ideas as fact. But, as Sir Robinson points out, kids grow out of this. Not necessarily on their own accord but, rather, due to the systems that surround us. “We stigmatize mistakes. We run an education system where a mistake is the worst thing you can make,” Robinson says.
In the classroom, public education systems focus on systematic math and close reading. Students wade in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the ever-bouying effects of testing-based accountability. Many standardized tests measure memorization and construe it as knowledge. An article in The Atlantic, When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning, perfectly details stories that reign true for countless students across the country. Many students feel the pressure of excelling on tests, causing them to memorize information without a full understanding of what they are saying, writing, or solving. And when students are too busy memorizing concepts rather than understanding them, the question of mining complexity fades into the background. Yet complexity plays a large role in creativity. University of California Berkeley scholar, Frank Barron performed a study on the characteristics of creative people and found that they possess a penchant for complexity and ambiguity as well as a need for independence. Similarly, after 30 years of studying creative people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said in an article published by Psychology Today, “If I had to express in one word what makes [creative people’s] personalities different from others, it’s complexity.” However, unfortunately, creatively-inclined students cannot begin to think about complex concepts if they are prioritizing rote memorization rather than developing a deep, multifaceted understanding of the lesson in front of them.
An increased focus on testing also changes the way teachers teach students. Teachers are often so pressured to highlight their abilities in the form of student test scores, they neglect the lesson and cling to the expectations of the test. This phenomenon has grown so popular it has its own colloquial phrase: teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is when educators teach students what will be on the test and how to pass it rather than fleshing out the concepts of the lesson as a whole. The system, however, does not seem to work. In his scholarly article, “Teaching to the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-Maker Should Know,” Louis Volante points at research that suggests that the new wave of test-based learning does not facilitate nor indicate comprehension. He cites two studies performed by L. Shepard and Smith & Fey, which found that even though students’ scores rise when teachers teach closely to a test, learning often does not change. Conversely, another study titled, “The Dangers of Testing” by Monty Neil contained examples of teachers who did not teach to the test but instead addressed the whole curriculum and constructed a solid foundation within their students about the subject matter. As a result, these students were able to demonstrate their learning abilities despite abysmal improvements on standardized tests.
So how do we fix this problem? How do we encourage students to think creatively, complexly, outside of the box?
“Cultivating Creativity Inside in Standards-Based Classrooms” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D. suggests developing core attitudes that foster creativity including risk-taking. Psych Learning Curve suggests creating a “safe environment in which to play, exercise autonomy, and take risks.” Laura Taddei, EdD in her article, “Encouraging Innovation in Yourself and Your Students” implores educators to encourage their students to take risks and look at “failure as ‘fuel for innovation” (citing Ryshke, 2012). There is a common theme here: risk. And with risk comes failure. Yet, the clean and strict lines of standardized tests do not leave much room for mistakes. Students must bubble the right letter, check the right box, grid in the right number. It does leave room for the failure needed for innovation. When students aren’t afraid to make mistakes, they stumble into genius. When they have room to learn instead of memorizing facts for a test, they have space to explore.
So let’s change our classrooms. Let’s allow open forums and silly ideas. Let’s look at every child as an overflowing wealth of potential and ideas. Let’s allow them to draw God. Let’s grant our students the stellar privilege of failure.