Friday, December 07, 2012

Standardization Is The Enemy Of Creativity

(I recently had a mostly friendly argument about education and usefulness, which reminded me of this post from a couple years ago. As the Winter Solstice approaches I also though people might appreciate that in only a few months Shakespeare will be in the parks again. As a bonus, I've also included the follow-up post I wrote back then, inspired by comments from readers.)

In Sir Ken Robinson's 2006 TED talk, he quite persuasively argues that our schools increasingly sacrifice creativity on the alter of creating "good workers," a concern recently brought to the broader public consciousness by an article in Newsweek entitled "The Creativity Crisis."

According to the article, American CQ (creativity quotient) test scores have been declining, which is worrisome given that "the correlation (of these scores) to lifetime creative accomplishments (is) more than three times stronger for creativity than childhood IQ (intelligence quotient)." As Robinson points out in his talk, we cannot even begin to comprehend what the world will be like by the time our children retire, let alone what skills and knowledge will be necessary five years from now. The only thing we do know is that  the future belongs to the creative and developing this attribute should be considered at least as important as literacy and mathematics.

Now, I have as much skepticism about the validity and value CQ tests as I do any other type of standardized testing ("Using Elastic Yardsticks," Part 1Part 2 and Part 3) and I have no idea if we are really becoming less creative, but I do see that our schools are increasingly elevating math and science ("Dehumanized," Part 1Part 2, and Part 3) at the expense of the kinds of humanities education necessary for a functioning democracy, and kids are lucky these days to get any kind of arts education at all. And even then, as Robinson so hilariously details, we now have a hierarchy within the arts with things like painting and music at the top and artforms like drama and dance at the bottom. It's becoming common for a child today to go through 17 years of schooling without once experiencing the creativity of acting or dancing before an audience, yet these are the very all-encompassing, full-body activities best suited to developing creativity.

And as manifestly good as it is that the Newsweek article is even discussing the importance of creativity I just about tossed my computer out the window, when I came to this part:

Overwhelmed by curriculum standards, American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week. But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia’s Mark Runco calls “art bias.” The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into homeroom. The argument that we can't teach creativity because kids already have too much to learn is a false trade-off. Creativity isn't about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way. 

Arrrrg! The author has fallen into exactly the same mind-set that has turned our public schools into voc-tech worker training facilities, tossing in labels like "scientists," "researchers" and "scholars" to make these ludicrous conclusions seem clear-cut and indisputable. We see the term "curriculum standards" and take it as some sort of given that we need standardization in our schools and that creativity can somehow be part of these "standards." Standardization is the enemy of creativity, just as it is the enemy of education.

I don't think it's an accident that our decline in creativity correlates directly with our decline in emphasis on arts education. The proposal to take creativity "out of the art room," is exactly the kind of idea one would expect from scientists who have been taught since birth that theirs is the highest calling. As I read through the rest of this Newsweek article I see example after example of how students are being encouraged to "creatively" solve practical problems like how to reduce noise in a lunchroom. See? they seem to be saying, Creativity is an important vocational skill. It will help Junior get a job.

Nowhere in the article do I see a quote from an artist of any kind, or even an art teacher for that matter. Creativity in this context is just another tool with which we need to equip our children like learning to add, spell or memorize the Periodic Table of Elements. I feel my soul being stomped on when I read the entirely unsupported assertion, "Creativity isn't about freedom from concrete facts." I want to shout, "Yes it is!" but I don't know if I can take the chorus of researchers and scholars asking, "But what good is that? Where is the practical application? How can an employer exploit that for profit?"

I don't know about you, but my child isn't a profit center. She is a whole human being and to shackle her exclusively to the world of concrete facts is to stunt her growth, limit her life, and impede her pursuit of happiness.

Last night, my 13-year-old suggested we take in the Greenstage production of William Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, a play that has been in more or less continuous production somewhere in the world for over 400 years. Shakespeare, arguably the greatest creative genius to have ever lived, a man who, by all accounts, sought only to entertain, spoke directly to my daughter over the centuries. She typed passages into her telephone in order to recall them later, chuckling at how apt they were to her own life here in the 21st century. (She particularly liked Celia's line, "I like this place, And willingly could waste my time in it." I'm so proud she picked out this one!)

And we weren't the only ones sitting there in the grass at Woodland Park. There were hundreds of us spread out over the lawn.

And Shakespeare had several other audiences in and around our city last night, both in parks and in theaters. Across America and around the world, centuries later, hundreds of thousands of us, perhaps millions, last night found inspiration, joy and edification in the creative works of this most creative human. Some "scholars" like Harold Bloom even argue, convincingly, that "The Bard" actually invented the modern human.

When Touchstone says, "The truest poetry is the most feigning," I hear the direct refutation of the insane assertion by these Newsweek scientists and researchers that "creativity isn't about freedom from concrete facts." They are wrong. Shakespeare at every turn vindicates every musician or painter, actor or dancer who has ever indeed known that creativity is freedom from concrete facts, and finds there the greatest truths and highest beauty, real, but ephemeral, knowledge from which capitalists will never turn their measly profits. Artists know this. Art teaches this.

Certainly, one of the parts humans play is as economic actors, but that is only one of many roles we play in life, and a truly minor one at that. How grim life will be if we succeed in making that the only role for which we prepare our children.

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.

And paradoxically, that is the most concrete fact of all.


In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra. -- Fran Lebowitz

For me, the moment of despair and frustration tended to come upon me while sitting in the hot circle of a high intensity desk lamp, alone and blurry-eyed. Why do I have to do this? I'll never use it in real life. And indeed I know I am not the only one who hasn't factored a quadratic equation since high school, yet I do employ some of the philosophy, the hard logic, of algebra nearly every day. I was right about the specifics, but wrong about its usefulness.

No one ever pretended to explain to me how algebra would be applicable to real life, yet no one, even me, ever doubted that there was value in studying it. We chuckle at the Fran Lebowitz joke, because for most of us it's true, but we never once consider stripping algebra from the curriculum.

Usefulnessapplicabilitypracticality: these are tricky words when it comes to education. Many of the things we learn in school are not obviously useful, applicable, or practical in the vocational sense, but we rarely doubt they are essential.

Art (and in that I include music, dance, theater, etc.) of all our academic pursuits, stands virtually alone when it comes to having to defend itself in terms of usefulness.

In the comments to yesterday's post about teaching creativity, Gwynneth Beasley, author of the Zeke and Ky nature book series, wrote:

. . . the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end of the 6 years all the kid's artwork looks the same.

I don't know anything about that specific school. I'm sure it's a fine school, but when the art classes are producing cookie cutter art, it's likely because the curriculum has been tainted with the curse of usefulnessapplicability, and practicality. These things should not be the starting point for education, but viewed rather as its inevitable bi-products, just as the hard logic of algebra remains with me long after I've forgotten how to solve for x.

As a preschool teacher in a progressive cooperative school, I don't generally feel the pressures to teach "useful" stuff. Everyone in my protected little world seems to embrace the notion of an open-ended, exploratory art process, one in which the end result is secondary to the act of creation. My colleagues teaching older children, however, especially as they approach middle school, feel intense pressure to demonstrate usefulness in everything they do, particularly when it comes to art.  Art for art's sake is all well and good for preschoolers, but now it's time to knuckle down and get serious. It's an attitude that often forces art teachers to focus on artistic technique over actual creativity. Art students in this environment often find themselves learning more about "useful" things like composition, brush work, and color theory, than about their own creative process.

Artist, teacher, and rattle snake wrangler Anna Golden from over at Atelierista expressed her frustration in having to defend art education:

Sometimes I have to justify art education to people, as a tool for getting into college, or something . . . but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad? And why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them! 

She really touched the right note when it comes to my own artistic endeavors. More often than not, when I get to work on something, I start with the question, "I wonder if I can even do this?"

When I made this recent piece, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books.

If you want to see more of my art click here for my online gallery.

There's a part of me that wants to make up a story about this piece of art after the fact, one that demonstrates my deep thinking on the relationship of humans to their knowledge, tools, and the creative process, but the honest truth is that I just thought it would look cool.

I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop (not an unlikely hang out for a middle class bag lady) I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave it up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.

Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring. 

The other night I was out to dinner with a businessman who was going on about his idea that every child, whatever they plan to do with their lives, should have the experience of being "on the line for making a profit." I don't disagree, but the same argument applies to making cool stuff (which is what I think we ought to rename "art" if that's something we need to do). 

When a child approaches our art table, easels, or work bench, she most often just gets right to work, although sometimes she'll ask, "What are we doing?"

The right answer is, "I don't know," or simply to start listing the materials at hand, "I see tape, paint, scissors, pipe cleaners . . .

. . . and trust them to explore, curse, sweat and struggle their way through their own creative process on the way to making cool stuff.

In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as art. But knowing how you make it is very useful.

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Ashley Skjaveland said...

I really enjoy your blog and all the hard work you put into it. This post however, is an absolute favourite. I feel the same way about art and am fighting to create a space in my community that nurtures this exact thinking. I wanted to stand up an applaud your words and passion. Thank you. You are definitely an inspiration.


Cap said...

Interesting post. Another take on creativity that I happened to hear today:

Janet Abercrombie said...

The brilliant upper grade teachers I have worked with found a way to creatively teach to standards. While that seems strange, they were thinking this way:

- standardized outcomes do not come from standardized instruction.
- artistry can be found in any subject. I just finished reading this article by Grant Wiggins - an article that illustrates the idea far better than I could state it:

How can all subjects take on an artistic flair?