Confronting the “Creativity Crisis”: Questioning, Problematizing, and PBL

We have a Creativity Crisis in America, Newsweek reports: our children’s creativity is declining, and is doing so exactly when it is most important for it to improve.  The Newsweek report comes from the excellent Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, who are double-handedly transforming the way we understand children and learning via their fine skills at popularizing scientific research on these topics.

At St. Gregory we speak of Creating Leaders and Innovators; the Partnership for 21st century Skills puts creativity as one of their four critical C’s for our era, along with critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.    Fast Company recently reported that the single most important trait of successful CEO’s is creativity.

Dan Pink cracked open this idea for me so powerfully six years ago, with what I think is his still compelling Whole New Mind.   As automation, and outsourcing overcome the workplace, the value we all can add is in our creativity and our ingenious, inventive, problem-solving.  We ourselves, and our students too, must adapt to survive, must move with our times, must think anew how to make a difference, knowing that simply fulfilling an already defined role is not going to be enough to be valued and employed.

Newsweek’s Bronson:

The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care.

But, there is a crisis in this critical area:

Creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

If there is any single thing in education I would like to be most proficient at, it is educating for creativity, and educating for innovation.  And yet, I have so much to learn about this most important area.

Bronson and Merryman offer some helpful definitions and elaborations:

The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).

Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process.

Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

One book I am eagerly anticipating is my friend Tony Wagner’s take, in his forthcoming (and tentatively titled) Innovating to Learn, Learning to Innovate. Although creativity is often wrapped up in a gauze of mystery and ethereal, irrationality, we must move past the romanticization to recognize that we can deliberately, and succesfully, promote teaching and learning which strengthens creativity.

With that in mind, let me take a stab at some steps, some drawn from the Bronson piece, we all can take to enhance the learning of creativity:

Don’t outsource it to the arts department! Cultivating creativity must be woven into every curricular area, and every teacher must have the responsibility for its teaching.   Bronson: “Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into homeroom.”

Move to block scheduling; make time for deeper learning.  Students need to time to process, to query, to inquire, to imagine, to collaborate, to experiment, to fail and learn from mistakes, to try multiple tacks.   A 42 minute class, and 8 of them a day, will not support this kind of learning; 75 minute (minimum) periods will make it much more possible.

Problems first.  Bronson discusses this in the video below; start learning with a challenging problem that students can find some relevance or interest in, and then allow them to develop their own curiosity for it.   Organizing learning around case studies or problem allows us to find our own intrinsic motivation for the subject, and understand why we need to develop the skills we are being asked to develop.

Questions! We all start off curious; we all asked millions of questions when we were young.   Then something happens, and it is tragic.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

We must model good questioning, as educators (I wish I were better at this!); we must ask students to ask questions.   Never ask a classroom open-endedly, out-loud, half-heartedly, with 15 seconds left in class: does anyone have any questions?   So easy to do, so common, so mistaken.   Ask and require students to ask questions; do so by giving time and requiring everyone to write out their questions before you begin accepting any questions called out loud; honor question asking and show your respect for it by allocating it the precious resource of class-time.

Combat the single right answer, problematize simplicity. So much of our education today seems to be measuring student learning by whether they can identify the single right answer on a multiple choice test: what are we ingraining in their heads when we tell them again and again their job is to find the one right answer?  That is now what their workplace will be about.  I knew a teacher once (I am going to write more about this soon) who seemed to respond to every student question or comment with the word “actually”– constantly reinforcing to them that there is always only one right, “actual,” way to understand something.     Divergent thinking is so essential to creativity, and we have to facilitate that by honoring and celebrating divergent thinking in our classrooms.  Make the simple more complex, look for nuance and model it to students, answer questions with questions, and never with a flat authoritiative answer.   Combat the black and white, lead us into the shadows of complexity and multiplicity.

Project Based Learning I love it that Bronson makes the point that creativity is only half about divergent thinking; the other half is when after all that thinking the student then converges on a solution, on a product, on a project which displays the creativity.   And after all, we have known since Aristotle that the only real way to learn something is do it; if we wish to learn to be creative, we must create.

Project Based Learning is a way to make this happen; one of the most striking elements noticeable when visiting excellent PBL schools such as New Tech HS and High Tech High (and I have spent several days at each) is the students’ attitude toward innovative problem-solving and creativity: it is the norm, it is what is expected of them, and confidently and enthusiastically they go forward, and all around the schools you see the creative results.

Bronson and Merryman get this, and celebrate it in their article: (forgive the long quote, but this is great stuff):

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.

Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library.   Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible.

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?’

Support the creative student: challenge the reticent. Our educational enviroments need to be more personalized to promote greater creativity; we have to be willing to value, encourage, and mentor even, or especially, those quacky or quirky kids who might seem harder to get to know, or harder to reach.   They may challenge our learning environments, they may critique what we are doing, but we can’t distance ourselves.  As for those students who tell you they can’t create, they can’t be original, don’t give up on them either.   Do what it takes to find the area of interest they may have, and then work with or through that passion to motivate them.

Exploit the power of Web 2.0. I wrote on this recently here, so I hate to repeat myself, but there is so MUCH creative expression tools available today, and so many students who might otherwise be disengaged or unmotivated in a conventional classroom can be empowered, enthused, and engaged to create or problem-solve with real audiences, real networks, real feedback, and real significance in the world of web 2.0.

Celebrate Creativity: Plaster the Walls with It.   Schools which care about creativity show that they care; they put it on their walls, they create impromptu galleries showcasing creativity, they take on challenging drama and they pose challenging problems.  Again, this is so evident at New Tech High and High Tech High– artwork and students’ creative projects are everywhere.   Put up a few flat screens and run video of student problemsolving and ingenuity, as I saw at NewTech@Coppell.

Assess: What gets measured gets done; the measurement is the message to our kids.   If we don’t seek to assess how our kids are growing in their creativity, it might get lost or overlooked.   Regular readers of mine know I think the CWRA test is  great in part because it does test for ingenuity and creative problem-solving.  Some school districts see this as so powerful that they are not content leaving this type of open-ended, authentic, essay written, problem-solving, performance task assessment only to 9th and 12th graders, one time each (as the CWRA does) but are inventing/creating their own “babyCWRAs” for broader use in grades four through twelve.   We can build into our tests, our projects, our report cards the question: how do students think divergently, and how convergently?  Can we ask them to look at a problem in multiple ways, and measure how many reasonable and thoughtful ways they come up with? Can we ask them to select the way that seems most ideal to them (no single right anwer for all!), and explain it, and then actually carry that idea to an execution?   I think we can.

Share with me what else you think we can do to confront the creativity crisis.

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