Are We Teaching Creativity or Killing It?

While it's easy to compare grades to see which students are falling behind in math class, creativity is a harder thing to measure.

Teaching times tables and long division isn’t easy, but teaching creativity? Now that’s tough. Because while it’s easy to compare grades on pop quizes to see which students are falling behind in math class, creativity is a harder thing to measure, and the very lesson plans and teaching strategies we adopt to boost scores could be killing students’ creativity in the process. Creative thinking is at a premium in today’s workforce, and yet in an effort to prepare students for that workforce we seem to be robbing them of this very skill. Why is it happening, and what can we do to stop it?

How We Know We’re Not Teaching Creativity

A recent article published by Mindshift asked “Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?” The answer seemed to be an unequivocal yes. To better explain the problem, the article sited the work of Jonah Lehrer, author of  Imagine: How Creativity Works, and began by presenting some very serious statistics:

“Do you think you’re creative?” Ask this question of a group of second-graders, and about 95 percent of them will answer “Yes.” Three years later, when the kids are in fifth grade, that proportion will drop to 50 percent—and by the time they’re seniors in high school, it’s down to 5 percent.

The statistics seem staggering, but they’re by no means unbelievable. Test them yourself by asking the adult nearest you if they’d like to draw something. Whip out a coloring book and ask them to color with you. Text the first five people in your contact list with “Do you think you’re creative?” See what they say. The same adults who shrug their shoulders at a pile of art supplies, or lament loudly at their inability to draw — these adults were once children who loved to create. What happened?

In one word — doubt. Doubt crept in and told them that they might not be as creative and skilled as they thought, and like a wedge, that doubt slowly separated them from artistic pursuits. According to Lehrer, this process begins between the 3rd and 5th grades. Lehrer claims that during these years students, “conclude that they are not creative, and this is in large part because they start to realize that that their drawing is not quite as pretty as they would like, that they can put the brush in the wrong place, that their short stories don’t live up to their expectations—so they become self-conscious and self-aware, and then they shut themselves down.” They shut down, and we as parents and educators don’t provide them with the learning tools to keep creating. In fact, our teaching strategies just hasten the process.

What We Need to Do to Teach Creativity

So what can we do? We can’t simply force children to paint or write (and if you’ve ever tried to do so, you know how unsuccessful this approach can be). Instead, we need to change our teaching strategies in every class, not just in the arts. In Lehrer’s words, “We have to expand our notion of what productivity means. Right now we are grooming our kids to think in a very particular way, which assumes that the right way to be thinking is to be attentive, to stare straight ahead.” The questions we ask have only one right answer, so it’s no wonder students become linear thinkers and begin to see creative endeavors as a waste of time and energy.

But how can we meet core standards without nixing creativity? The answer could come from design-centric projects. More and more teachers are taking a page from the maker movement and filling their lesson plans with hands-on assignments which challenge children to think outside of the box instead of blindly following a set of instructions to achieve a predetermined result. When students begin to see creativity as productive and worthwhile, they’ll be more likely to view themselves as creative and to continue creating instead of giving up.

Is it as easy as printing out worksheets and organizing lesson plans while students read in silence? Nope. It takes a lot more creativity from teachers, and at times a lot more patience as well. But the extra time and effort we put into teaching creativity will pay off — not just when it comes to equipping students with workplace skills, but when it comes to equipping them for life as well. Because students who continue to write and paint and sing as adults aren’t just more artistic, they’re more fulfilled too.




Published May 08, 2012