How Can We Bring Back Creativity?

A colleague of mine forwarded this article around the school district today. In it, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss outlines her ideas for revitalizing and revamping the entire middle school experience. She advocates for some pretty radical changes, up to and including the abolishment of the entire traditional middle school model. She actually raises some good points, but change does not have to be so radical to result in a drastic improvement to the middle school experience.

The current battle in education reform focuses a lot on testing. The anti-testing side of the debate (of which I am a proud member) will tell you that such a huge emphasis on testing kills creativity in children. Teachers are pressured by their administrators and their governments to push a rigid, test-based curriculum on their children and as a result, little room is left for creativity in the classroom.

My middle/high school experience is a rarity today. Our board and administration recognized the importance of creativity in education, and made a commitment to give those opportunities to all students. Twice a week, for 80 minutes at a time, every single student in the school had an opportunity to explore their personal interests through an “out of the box” elective.

The traditional electives of art, music and foreign language were still available during the regular school day, so students did not have to choose between one of those and another interest; the option to pursue both was there, and strongly encouraged. During this special elective hour, students could pursue things such as robotics, creative writing, astronomy, digital photography, psychology and film studies. It was an ideal environment for a student looking to explore their passions.

In addition to this twice-weekly elective experience, the school ended the year with a four-week long experience called Project Term (PT). PT was the 80 minute elective experience on steroids. In my own PT experience, I was able to travel to Europe, write satire, play Kabbadi, and perform in a play. PT didn’t interfere with the structure of the academic year at all, and still allowed students a valuable creative outlet.

Even if a school is unwilling to devote 160 minutes a week, or four weeks at the end of the year to creative endeavors, there is still room in the existing school structure for creative pursuits. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink talks about 20% Time, a concept pioneered by Google, and used extensively by software developer Atlassian. During this 20% Time, employees are expected to work on their own projects, and not something given to them by a higher-up.

At Google, 20% Time led to the creation of Adsense, Google News, and GMail. While not everybody will be able to reproduce those spectacular results with their own 20% time, it’s clear that a chunk of time set aside for creative freedom is a worthwhile experiment.

Employees at Google and Atlassian reported that this 20% Time has led to an increase in motivation and productivity. In fact, in the research outlined in Drive, we see that creative freedom is very closely linked to motivation in today’s world.

In our schools, 20% Time could translate to a weekly or bi-weekly independent study experience, or maybe even one week per semester devoted to more creative pursuits. It’s a fairly big change, but not nearly as drastic as the “cross between summer camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of the Great Depression” mentioned in Strauss’ column.

The increasing absence of creativity in our schools is having a substantial negative effect on the students we teach. To help revive the American education system, we need to make a concerted effort to allow creativity back into the classroom. Each school needs to find its own version of Project Term or 20% Time.

For further reading/viewing

Dan Pink’s TED talk

Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms

Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia – How do the creative arts affect our brains?

This Is Your Brain on Music

What is 20% Time?

Sir Ken Robinson

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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