Creativity, both as artistic expression and artistic process, should be an integral part of the educational experiences of our students. But there are many barriers in the way, primarily related to socio-economic status, that limit many students’ exposure to creative endeavors. This thinkpiece explores the creativity divide and suggests needed steps that must be taken if all students are to be able to follow their creative passions and become creative problem-solvers.
Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity” has always bothered me. But it took until this year for me to put my finger on what, exactly, got under my skin. After all, he makes excellent points on the demand for creativity in our future and of the “extraordinary capacities that children have” for innovation. And yet, when he talks about choreographer Gillian Lynne’s “hopelessness” as a child in school in the 1930’s and the eventual solution that current schools would have missed, I finally realized what my discomfort was all about. Lynne’s school biography included an inability to concentrate and a great deal of fidgeting. Robinson jokes that, had ADHD been an available diagnosis, Lynne would surely have been diagnosed. Instead, she went to a specialist who determined that she simply needed to dance. And so Lynne enrolled in a specialized dance school and later in the Royal Ballet School. She “escaped” being medicated and being told to settle down, like what would happen today, according to Robinson, and instead became a soloist at the Royal Ballet and later founded her own ballet company and founded a theatre named after her. Her story is inspiring, and Robinson is correct: her gifts might have been missed in today’s classrooms. But is this because of a failure within our schools, as Robinson claims? Or is there something else we need to consider?
How many of our own students have opportunities available to them like Gillian Lynne did? Can our students go to specialists, enroll in specialized schools, and found their own successful companies? What did Lynne have that our students don’t have? What piece of the schools-killing-creativity puzzle is Robinson missing?
The answer is privilege. Gillian Lynne was privileged with opportunities that most of our students—and our schools—don’t have. Her visits to a specialist are out of reach for our students in poverty. The freedom to dance that a specialized education offered to her is not available to our students in mandated, standardized, and standards-based systems. And the backing and opportunity to start her own dance company is incomprehensible to the majority of our students and communities. What Sir Ken Robinson fails to acknowledge in his critique of modern schools is the creativity divide that exists between the haves and the have-nots in our society, a chasm that our schools can”t just jeté over.
The creativity divide —a manifestation of the spiraling factors of poverty and the demand for measurable outcomes—exists in spite of our inherent understanding that creative endeavors are central to the development of our humanity.
The Calls for Creativity
Theoretical conceptions of creativity have been traditionally distilled into two categories: “Big C” creativity and “little c” creativity. Big C creativity refers to specialized talent: innate, remarkable, new, domain-specific, and extraordinary. Little c creativity refers to everyday problem-solving, or finding unique ways to apply creating thought to normal life through “boundary pushing, inventing, boundary breaking, and aesthetic organizing.” It is important to note that Robinson seemingly conflates creativity as artistic expression and creativity as innovation in his example of “Big C” Gillian Lynne, a remarkable talent in the specialized domain of dance, with the “little c” creativity of innovative thought and problem-solving.
But both artistic expression and artistic process must be nurtured within our children; creativity is a necessary part of human development and engagement. Our capacity to not only grow but thrive is inextricably connected to our need to explore and facilitate our artistic expressions as well as our innovation and imagination. Imagination “enables us to try things out…without the consequences we might encounter if we had to act upon them empirically.” 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammed Yunus once said:
We need to have more faith in human creativity. We need innovative ideas that have been tested and implemented successfully. Human creativity is unlimited. It is the capacity of humans to make things happen which didn”t happen before. Creativity provides the key to solving our social and economic problems.
- We need creative thinkers for our (and their) futures
As Robinson said, “nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days, what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.” Echoing this sentiment, Karl Fisch created a Powerpoint for a 2006 staff PD session entitled “Did You Know;” the presentation was modified in 2007 by Scott McLeod and became “Shift Happens,” the viral video that has now been updated and modified annually with hundreds of renditions on Youtube. In the original and subsequent versions, the authors and modifiers make the salient point: we are preparing our students for careers that don’t yet exist. Everything we do in the classroom will be outdated before our students graduate; the speed of shift in our society is immeasurable and unfathomable. Even Fisch and McLeod’s video series is now outdated, replicated into iterations that have moved far away from the original intention, and replaced by Twitter threads, youtubers, and instantaneous access to current events and evolving statistics. This constant change demands creative thinkers, people who can envision and creatively solve future problems that don’t even exist in our current realities.
According to Shalley, Hitt, and Zhou in The Oxford Handbook of Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, “In order to successfully survive and thrive in our dynamic and competitive global marketplace, it is a necessity to more fully understand how creativity is related to innovation and the roles that both creativity and innovation play in entrepreneurship.” In other words, creative thinkers and innovators are critical for success in the global market. These creative thinkers don’t just happen. Creative problem solving is fostered by an environment that nurtures
cognitive processes (e.g., problem framing, divergent thinking, mental transformations, practice with alternative solutions, evaluative ability); affective processes (e.g., affective pleasure in facing a challenge, openness to affective states, emotional modulation of both positive and negative emotions, access to affect-laden thoughts); and intrinsic task motivation.
Facilitating and nurturing the processes necessary for creative problem solving can”t wait until our students reach the corporate world; it has to begin, as I believe Robinson would agree, at the youngest level of education.
2. We need creativity in teaching and learning in our schools
As David Guerin explains in Future Driven: Will Your Students Thrive in an Unpredictable World, it is critical for students to “possess a variety of skills that cross a multitude of disciplines…
things are changing so quickly that it is impossible to keep up. And that is why adaptable learners will own the future.” Our students have to develop skills that are “transferable to unknown situations…it is a tremendous advantage to be creative, innovative, and adaptable.” We have to nurture creativity and adaptability within our students if they are to have any hope of being creative, innovative, and adaptable in their future lives and careers. It’s not enough—or even acceptable—to teach solely for a growth mindset and grit; we have to find and flame the spark within each of our students. But it is important to remember that our students need more than just creative problem-solving skills; they need to also experience the arts. According to Eisner, “the arts invite us to attend to the qualities of sound, sight, taste, and touch so that we experience them; what we are after in the arts is the ability to perceive things, not merely to recognize them.” Students, exposed to arts education experiences, have a higher capacity for empathy and engagement, critical life skills beyond marketable problem solving.
The Barriers to Creative Endeavors
Pablo Picasso is attributed with saying: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” But how do we nurture the creativity within each child, and within each of us? At first glance, the recent upsurge in calls for creativity in education, according to national policy documents, seems to indicate a step in the right direction. However, according to Robina Shaheen in her paper, “Creativity and Education,” this shift is only happening in advanced economies (author’s emphasis) such as European, American, Australian, and East Asian countries. This international push for creativity is seen as a way to stay economically relevant and competitive for western economies. It”s not a push for the promotion of creativity in education for the sake of nurturing burgeoning artists and their artistry, but rather a decision of international economics.
It all boils down to money; lack thereof leads to seemingly insurmountable barriers for nations, schools, communities, and individuals.
The barrier of poverty is first and foremost. Students who come from poorer backgrounds often do not have the same access to creative endeavors, from the purchasing of supplies to the enrichment activities like summer camp and art classes and trips to museums and creative, educational programming. Likewise, school districts in impoverished neighborhoods are faced with the same barriers. Detroit Public Schools, now attempting to rebound after decades of massive debt, crumbling infrastructure, and crippling poverty in their communities, have upwards of 60 students in some classrooms without teachers or chairs. This survival mode delivery model of education is not conducive to the teaching and fostering of creativity, unless sitting on milk crates can be seen as creative problem-solving. Consider the leading sentence of this article from Bridge Magazine on the current teacher shortage in Detroit: “The Detroit Public Schools Community District plans to have art and gym classes in most schools next year, according to Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.” The idea that a plan to have art and gym classes in most schools is breaking news is a clear indication that the barrier of poverty in areas like Detroit is not going away any time soon. Would Robinson’s Gillian Lynne story have ended so positively if she was a poor student in a poor neighborhood in 2018 in Detroit Public Schools? Would she have seen a specialist and attended a specialized school for dance in a system that couldn’t even guarantee art or gym classes or teachers or chairs?
Even in districts where strides have been made toward equity in resources, the usage of these resources is seemingly rooted in the socio-economics of the surrounding communities. Mark Warschauer’s comparison of an elite private school and an impoverished public school and their attempts to mitigate the effects of poverty through implementation of technology found that the ways in which the technology was used and the social messaging conveyed in the schools reinforced the disparities rather than closed the gap. At the elite school, students used the technology in student-centered exploratory and interdisciplinary ways; at the poorer school, the technology was used primarily to find answers and drill-and-kill. In addition, at the elite school, the social messaging encouraged students to forge their paths and reach for the stars, to become “the academic and professional leaders of tomorrow; at the poorer school, the students were encouraged to find practical careers in the workforce. These differences are the result of the interrelated factors of access, usage, infrastructure, and expectations, all rooted in the socio-economic divisions between communities.
Are creativity and artistic experiences and endeavors, then, only available to the privileged? After all, access to and encouragement to pursue creative careers is, in and of itself, gilded in privilege. A career as a ballerina rarely pays the bills; the opportunity to open a dance studio is not available to someone with no cash-flow or wealthy donor patrons waiting in the wings. Ayla-Monic McKay concisely lays out all of the barriers in her aptly-named article “I’m Too Busy Being Poor to be Creative.” She points out,
Poor kids don’t usually get to be tortured artists — there is no realistic opportunity to do so…When you are working your ass off so that your potential children won’t have to get their first job at 14 to help pay the power bill, because you remember watching your parents working longer and longer hours and still needing you to pitch in, it’s hard to find the time to play the piano.
Any conversation about a career in the arts inevitably turns toward economics. The idea of “starving artists” is romanticized, but for someone truly starving day-to-day, being an artist isn’t an option, no matter how passionate they are. The arts are by necessity relegated to the category of “hobby,” not career. Honor Eastly’s podcast Starving Artist takes a frank look at this very issue. “Knowing where that next paycheck will come from is a necessity. ‘Any conversation about art and money is also about class and privilege,’” Eastly explains. Not only is it impossible to pay the bills on passion alone, but access to the patrons and donors also comes from a place of privilege. “Success isn’t simply the result of late nights and the right attitude. For many of us, success is a murky by-product of genetics, parentage and geography,” explains Gemma Germains, founder of Well Made Studio, in “Work Hard, Be Nice to People, and Have Rich Parents,” a candid article published on the It’s Nice That platform.
The societal push for practical careers that can pay the bills in struggling communities bleeds over into the schools. Even if the schools can afford the technology and the teachers and the classes and the chairs, they can’t in good conscience recommend that students pursue careers that wouldn’t support and sustain their surrounding communities. Art and gym classes, if offered, are for exposure only—merely to recognize, as Eisner might say, and not to experience and perceive—and not for serious investigation and immersion.
But even if we could mitigate the effects of poverty and the socio-economic divisions between schools, the frothing fervor for standardization of education in countries like the US and the UK has brought us to an impasse. The myth of the failing American school system has led to the development of the Common Core Standards in the United States, and constant mandated standardized testing, designed to measure our students, our districts, and our teachers. Although international studies consistently point out that poor literacy scores are a measure of socioeconomic status, not of the effectiveness of the schools or the intelligence of the students themselves, many states, including Michigan, have adopted 3rd grade reading laws, under the misguided belief that retention in the 3rd grade is the antidote to illiteracy. As my own son’s 3rd grade teacher lamented during parent-teacher conferences last year, “I am lucky that I am older and not afraid of all of the testing, like the younger teachers. They don’t know any other way. I’ve still managed to keep some creative projects, which the students enjoy.” She subsequently retired at the end of the school year, before the 3rd grade reading retention law took effect in Michigan.
Peter Greene, longtime US English teacher and educational activist and advocate, writes in Forbes Magazine:
Preparing students for a standardized reading test is completely unlike teaching them about a work of classic literature. In an English class addressing The Great Gatsby, depending on student ability and prior knowledge, the teacher might take several weeks to help the students find their way through the work, followed by a period of discussion and reflection to dig a little deeper before finally embarking on a large project (paper, presentation, interpretive dance, etc.) that would take days to complete and would, the teacher hopes, show how the student can connect several different threads from the work.
Contrast that with a standardized reading test like the PARCC or SBA (tests developed specifically to check for how well teachers have been teaching the Core standards). The student is given an excerpt of a few paragraphs cut free from the context of the larger work. Then the student is required to answer some questions (likely multiple choice) about those paragraphs right now. No opportunity to reflect or connect to a larger context.
This sacrifice of reflection, personal connection, and understanding of context for the sake of standardization is the polar opposite of the nurturing of cognitive processes, affective processes, and intrinsic task motivation that Mainemelis & Dionysiou discuss as integral for the facilitation of creative and divergent thinkers.
The recent developments of new initiatives on creativity in various Western nations, as indicated by Shaheen, would seem to indicate a shift toward embracing more creativity in education (even if the motives are based in international economic competition rather than in the nurturing of students); however, Rosie Turner-Bisset, National Teaching Fellowship recipient and author of the titles Expert Teaching and Creative Teaching is quick to deflate that hope: recent initiatives, she claims, are only more “performativity by stealth” and are focused on attempts to measure performance rather than facilitate creativity.
d. Direct instruction
Greene’s claim that standardized testing has damaged the English classroom can and should be broadened to encompass the damaging of creativity in our schools, full stop. Many schools, including my own in Michigan, have moved to a direct instruction model, with daily learning targets, performance tasks, and success criteria that must be continually referenced, modeled, practiced, and assessed in order to measure our success as educators and the success of our students. As Robert Nelson explains in Times Higher Education, this model of teaching and learning is well-intentioned:
There are many reasons to applaud this rigorous teaching culture. It seems ideal to tell students what to expect and then to come good on the promise. It therefore appears irresponsible not to provide consistent templates, frameworks and scaffolding – the more rigid the better. As far as possible, we specify every detail of how students will be evaluated.
It seems obvious and honest to provide clear instruction, consistent modeling, and constant reinforcement to students on how to prove mastery of the content. But in this system, what is lost? Where is the encouragement for divergent thinking, creative problem-solving, and joy? Nowhere in this model is creativity encouraged; nowhere is it referenced, and nowhere is it deemed a worthy pursuit. KQED’s recent article on Mindshift discusses the need for play in our students’ lives. If we are to prepare our students for success, they need more than learning targets, success criteria, and performance tasks. Kenneth Ginsburg, pediatrician and author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens, defines a successful child as “one who finds something he loves to do, is generous, empathetic and compassionate, committed to repairing the world, shows grit and the ability to collaborate, creativity and can take constructive criticism.” In order to cultivate these characteristics, students need creative play not canned curriculum. Ginsberg echoes Fisch, McLeod, Guerin, and Robinson when he states, “Parents and educators shouldn’t be trying to shape children into cogs for an economy that hasn’t figured out what kind of machine it will be in 20 years.” His answer? We need to foster resiliency and creativity in our students through creative play.
An educational system that worships standardization and marketable skill-sets above creativity and exploration and thinking outside of the box is doomed to fail our kids. Ken Robinson is not wrong in his assessment of that. Where he errs is in calling out the many interrelated factors that sustain the creativity divide.
The Creativity Divide
When personal computing devices flooded the landscape in the early-to-mid 90’s, a digital divide between the haves and have-nots quickly became apparent. Outlying communities didn’t have Internet connectivity; communities in poverty didn’t have bandwidth or the financial stability to purchase and maintain personal computers; struggling schools didn’t have the infrastructure. As cell phones have become nearly ubiquitous in first world countries, the digital divide has shifted from one of access to one of usage and monitoring—the new digital divide. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to use handheld devices for entertainment and social media, rather than meaningful exploration and engagement. Working class parents, both out of necessity and out of a lack of resources, are more apt to promote technology usage for babysitting rather than educational enhancement. Ed tech companies, pouncing on the captive audience of school children and the desperation of school districts, market and sell mind-numbing drill-and-kill programs for the 1:1 environment rather than researching and marketing creative and meaningful—but perhaps less profitable—uses. The new digital divide only exacerbates the creativity divide: the divide between the haves and have-nots. This creativity divide inevitably results in a lack of access to the arts and creative endeavors, minimal support for divergent thinking, and an absence of thoughtfully designed activities meant to facilitate eager exploratory learning in many of our communities and in our schools.
The first step, and one that I would ask Sir Ken Robinson to thoughtfully consider, is to acknowledge that the creativity divide exists, not solely because of the lack of creativity in our educational methodology but primarily because of real socio-economic challenges facing many of our students and our schools. Glibly announcing that our schools are killing creativity with no thoughtful exploration of why our schools are designed the way they are or of the challenges facing the communities these schools serve is not only tone-deaf, it is elitist. Robinson has a platform; he could better use it to expose all of the many privileges that Gillian Lynne was afforded, from specialist intervention to specialized schools to patrons and supporters. In today’s bootstrap environment, it is not simply the schools who would have killed her creativity, but rather the tediousness of a minimum wage job in high school, the lack of funding for and exposure to the arts, the lack of access to art and gym classes in her schools, and the lack of a community who believed that dancing was a viable pursuit.
It’s simple: in many Western nations, poor communities send poor students to poor schools. And poorer schools have a much higher rate of teacher turnover, fewer resources at hand, and often must rely on unqualified and underqualified teachers who don’t have the education or the resources or the support to teach for creativity. The poorer the school, the lower the threshold for experimentation and failure, and the higher the desperation to teach to the test. The insistence on direct instruction and drill-and-kill only intensifies as schools and their surrounding communities struggle to mitigate the effects of poverty. But we have to acknowledge—this is the second step—that our direct instruction model and the standardized testing environment present in schools facilitates widgets and boredom, not creative problem-solving, artistic pursuits, and passion.
In an interview with Guy Raz, NPR host, Robinson gets this part right when he says,
All the great teachers I’ve ever met and worked with are people who can inspire interest and passion and curiosity and light up people’s imaginations with the interests they themselves have for a particular discipline or field of work.
I mean, if you think that teaching is always and only a process of giving people direct instructions and giving them information they have to memorize – but teaching is much more than that. It’s about enabling. It’s about facilitating. It’s about mentoring. It’s about creating curiosity. It’s true in the work of every creative person I’ve ever met that what drives them is a passionate appetite for the work.
Teachers are passionate about their work, or at least they were when they began their careers. The demands on our schools to constantly measure their success and our students by pre-determined standardized curriculum and constant iterative testing is enough to drain the passion out of us all. There has to be a push-back from those in positions of power against this soul-crushing standardization and direct instruction model. Scott McLeod recently wrote a blog post, “18 things that leaders of innovative schools do differently” and nowhere in his list did the words “standardization,” “fidelity,” or “testing” appear. Instead, McLeod calls for risk-taking, innovation, student choice, empowerment of teachers, big ideas, and transformative thinking. There are ways to incorporate the content standards without the standards dictating every move that teachers and students must make in order to be deemed a success. Educators and school systems must work to nurture the creativity—and idealism—and passion—within all of us, and not cower under the pressure of the standards and the incessant need to dictate and measure every step along the way.
One model to watch closely is that of Finland’s public school system. According to Sahlberg, “Finnish educators and policymakers (emphasis added) believe schools can change the course of children’s lives.” The Finnish model reinvented itself in the 1970’s with strong centralized control and standardization, but has since moved to “increased local control, professionalism and autonomy.” Standardized testing comparing students to national statistics is now absent from the curriculum.
Schools became responsible for their own curriculum planning, student assessment, school improvement, reflection and self-assessment. State school inspections were eliminated, fiscal control was moved to the districts, and a sample-based educational evaluation system was designed to help monitor the overall performance of the Finnish educational system.
The Finnish system focuses on problem-solving, as opposed to standardization. Janet English, a California teacher, spent 6 months in Finland on a Fulbright fellowship, and observed this firsthand. “The Finns consider their children to be their most valuable natural resource,” she observed. Their system of educating every child is the opposite of direct instruction, and involves creating problems that need to be solved, and systematically evaluating solutions. Instead of rubrics and exact instructions, students are challenged to try their own solutions and create their own products. One teacher, interviewed by English, stated, “What would students learn if I told them exactly what they needed to do to solve the problem?”
But perhaps more important than who is writing the curriculum and how students are being taught is the Finnish focus on equity. According to Sahlberg, “equity in education indicates all students have access to a high-quality education, regardless of where they live, who their parents are or what school they attend.” Finland’s awareness of the harms of inequity and their focus on providing equity in schooling and leaving no children behind—by teaching rather than testing—”ensures that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions.”
The results are telling: PISA scores show that Finland’s students have the smallest gap between high-achieving and low-achieving students in the world. This is not to imply that their society as a whole is free from inequality; although the poverty rate in Finland is low, it does exist. The government has recently taken measures to ensure that all citizens, including the unemployed, have a basic minimum income, and continue to receive benefits “even when citizens find work.” This benefit, coupled with a high social value on arts education, mitigates the poverty risk of a career in the arts and helps to eliminate the “starving artist” stigma.
Sir Ken Robinson could do a great deal of good for the educational systems of the world if, instead of joining the popular (and easy) mantra of criticizing schools, he did the heavy lifting and worked to change the economic systems that are holding our kids back through the implementation of models such as Finland’s. Finland’s “determination to elevate equity, not measure excellence” is a model worth following if we want to bridge the creativity divide. It is imperative that we all recognize that forcing our teachers and our students and our communities into a box predetermined by socio-economic status will never allow them to imagine anything beyond or outside of that outdated box that limits us all and divides the haves from the have-nots.
Dr. Sharon Murchie (@smurchies) teaches English at Bath High School in Bath, Michigan and is a teacher consultant for Red Cedar Writing Project and Chippewa River Writing Project. She earned her Doctorate in Educational Technology in 2019 and is driven to promote and support critical thinking, advocating for the integration of technology in thoughtful and deliberate ways. She blogs personally at mandatoryamusings.blogspot.com and academically at sharonmurchie.wordpress.com.
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