Sowing the Seeds of Sameness

By ThoughtsNo Comments

My son Justis recently decided to run for his elementary school class presidency. The kids had only a couple days from their delegate election, to their full platform speech when their election posters could go up. My son asked if I could whip up some posters for him. Of course I agreed and over one night had some simple posters designed.

Once they were posted, he received some positive and supportive feedback. However there were two students in his class that accused him of cheating and breaking the rules with his posters. My son is very sensitive to doing the right thing, and was concerned. He explained to them that we followed all of the directions for the posters. In fact they conformed perfectly with the requirements for size, no use of the last name, office, etc. Their response to him was that his posters were “too good” and should have been made with markers and paper like the others. They thought it wasn’t fair to have posters that were different than the others.

After trying to help my son work on some homework math problems, I found myself frequently saying to him “you should do it the way you are being taught, not my way.” He has points deducted if he approaches a math problem in a different way than the Common Core curriculum prescribes, even if his answer is correct. I quietly felt like we were working on getting a grade, rather than solving a math problem. Math is an easy target for criticism. Common Core math has been much maligned.  In this situation however, my concern isn’t about the methodology, but about the limited and myopic perspective on what is the right way to solve a math problem. I can hear the political administration shout —”What about standardization? What about measuring our student’s progress – there must be a baseline! Metrics!” I have often wondered if our standardized tests are about our kids or about a way to measure the teachers in a vacuum.

It was out of personal curiosity that I started researching creativity in children and our education system. Much of what I read was not encouraging.

“In a 2010 study of about 300,000 creativity tests going back to the 1970s, Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary, found creativity has decreased among American children in recent years. Since 1990, children have become less able to produce unique and unusual ideas. They are also less humorous, less imaginative and less able to elaborate on ideas, Kim said.”

I was saddened by the story of Jonathan Plucker, an American educational researcher who traveled to China to meet with the faculty of a major Chinese University to trade notes on educational development. The Chinese educators asked what the US teaching trends were. Plucker described the US focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ ”

I truly believe we have dedicated and well intentioned teachers in my childrens’ schools. Some have been exceptional. I am grateful to them. I also admit that I am not an education expert. However from my vantage point our current educational system seems to emphasize conformity over creativity and limitation over invention. I am concerned that we are setting up our children for lives in a society of sameness founded on self-inflicted boundaries. Who will create the breakthroughs of tomorrow? Who will think differently enough to make a true impact in their communities, let alone the world?

I am a soccer coach and currently work with a girls U13 team. At our training sessions I incorporate games that will help develop very specific skills and have a clear success objectives. I noticed that in almost every game, at least one player will arbitrarily create additional rules or limitations. Inevitably we stop the drill, clarify, and emphasize that they should be creative in finding success in the game. I always try to reinforce that they should not limit themselves with unseen and unintended boundaries. Yet, the same thing happens with at least one girl, each practice. Now when I stop the game and the team realizes what has happened, they all smile and say “Don’t create your own rules!” Or in others words, don’t limit yourself.

In my research I was inspired by the stories of a few schools who have broken the standardized way of teaching and focus on active, creative problem solving.

“Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. 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. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well that teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, arriving 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?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.”

I don’t pretend to have all the answers for fostering creativity and vision in children. But I am earnestly trying to build unique thought in my children with a couple of practical ideas. I don’t consider this list comprehensive or perfect, simply a starting place for me, personally. I assume that this list will evolve with time and experience.

  1. Encourage kids to find their own solutions to situations at home. I once asked my Dad if there was anything he wished he had done differently as a father. Almost without hesitation he said “I wish I had let you create solutions for yourself, let you do things your own way.” He liked things done a certain way, and I learned a great deal from those lessons but he realized that he had unintentionally been telling me that there is only one way of doing things. He wished he had nurtured my own unique ability to find solutions.
  2. Let them fail. Warning: this can require patience. Sometimes our kids’ approach might not work. Build their confidence and help them learn from the mistakes. We are fail-averse in our society. I am the epitome of that. But I have tried to teach my kids (and myself in the process) to see those missteps as stepping stones. Making a mistake, or failing, is not a valuation of a person’s worth, or potential. I encourage my kids to run their proposed solution by their Mother and I. We try and validate the thinking and, where appropriate, provide suggestions to help their idea succeed.
  3. Don’t edit or critique how they play. Encourage unique choices. Let them build and create things. Celebrate the unconventional solutions. Demonstrate interest by asking them to explain their thinking. The articulation of ideas seems to be an increasingly lost art.
  4. Point out their innate creativity. Having a career that is based specifically on creative thinking, I frequently hear people classify themselves as non-creative. “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” is one of the more common phrases people share. I contend that those people are not non-creative, but instead, they really don’t understand creativity. Just because I have the ability to draw or design doesn’t inherently make me creative, and someone that can’t paint is not inherently non-creative. Avoid the creative clichés. Creativity does not only exist in the arts. By acknowledging creative thought and action in whatever arena they are in, our kids will have a creative sense of themselves. Think of this as a positive form of behavioral confirmation.

Kids today don’t have any less capacity for creative invention. Creativity and individuality is innate. If our kids are given the fertile soil of opportunity and encouragement, they can blossom and bear amazingly creative and innovative fruit. However if we stifle our kids like a tree planted in a too-small pot, their growth is stunted and their fruit small, dull and unsatisfying. Like the Whitney Houston song* – I do believe the children are our future. The question is what kind of future have we prepared them to shape?


Fun fact – George Benson originally recorded The Greatest Love of All in 1977. My parents loved George Benson. His version is still easily my favorite.