Can We Really Teach Creativity? Part II: Creativity in the Common Core

Posted by Kathleen Torrey | January 29, 2016


My 5-year-old niece rushed into my parents’ house recently, towing a Wendy’s Kids’ Meal.  The bag exclaimed, “Build Your Creativity,” with several brightly colored robotic animals featured on the side.  Nestled against her hamburger, my niece found stickers, slats of white cardboard, and gray discs with spokes and notches. They fit together, per instructions, to make a giraffe.

She did not take the animal apart again to see if she could make something else.  But as there were plenty of extra notches and spokes, she could have tried.

Wendy’s new branding and emphasis on creative play marks a shift from the normative movie marketing in a kids’ meal.  Similar to building blocks and legos, their new build-it-yourself toys can help children to develop figural creativity.  Build-it-yourself toys are especially effective if a kid is willing to risk losing the original whole to see what else the pieces can make.

What does it take for a child to make that risk?

A perfectionist, like my niece, is satisfied when she has seen the instructions to completion.  Normally, without instructions, she enjoys creatively decorating the house will all manner of odds and ends she finds. It seems that having instructions affects her willingness to go out on a limb.

The pattern is not abnormal.  At The Learning Turtle, several students we’ve worked with demonstrate high creativity outside of school, in non-academic areas like cooking and sewing, while maintaining a hesitancy in school to take risks.  These students are perfectionists and people-pleasers.  In school, they want to get the right answer.  Outside of school, they feel free to explore all of the answers.

Of course, every subject, from chemistry to English, has real right answers, as well as areas with more room for variance.  But even in objective situations, there are often multiple ways to arrive at the answer.  It is in exploring various paths to an answer that a student truly grasps their subject, instead of memorizing to the test, and gains the potential for innovation.  Such students are capable of teaching their teachers.

Including open-ended exercises in the curriculum of every subject allows for students to learn, and moreover, to thrive.

Unfortunately, as more states—42 as of 2015—adopt the Common Core standards, overly rigid curriculums, that teach to the test, are truncating children’s growth.

I recently spoke with former high school English teacher, Emika Burke, on teaching with the Common Core.  She said that in her training on Common Core standards, both the public and private school teachers who participated were unhappy. Common Core requires every lesson to be geared towards the standards, with the standard written on the board.  So instead of, say, entering into the suspense the Ghost and delayed revelation of death create in Hamlet, a mindful student first sees this on the board:

Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

The particular goal is good, but the method is backwards.

Mrs. Burke has found that the way texts are analyzed promotes shallow thinking.  She stated that Common Core questions teach students to “read for information, rather than enjoyment of literature.”  She further asserted:

The multiple choice format only asks questions with objectively right answers.  You can’t ask, ‘what did you think about John Proctor’s relationship with Abigail?’  The students don’t write essays as much because it’s unclear what standard you are achieving.  When teachers ask too much for the right answer, students have less ability to answer ambiguities.

Mrs. Burke also found the increased reliance on technology in schools to be an impediment to learning.  When kids are on a bus to a sports game, without an internet connection, they lose time to do their work.  She said, “clunky tools for highlighting and annotating the text are not as good as having the text and writing yourself, making your own notes.  The current textbook software does not make it intuitive to add notes.  It takes a lot of steps and it’s a slow software, so most kids don’t use those features.  They are definitely less engaged.”

One solution Burke found was to share Google Docs versions of texts, where it’s easier to make their own notes.  When she was able to, she printed things out.  One such lesson was Emily Dickinson’s poems: “When we annotated Emily Dickinson poems together, they did great. They had awesome hand-written notes.”  In imitation of Dickinson, Burke also asked students to press flowers.  She spoke of how the students came alive more than with any other unit.  Not only did the opportunity to handwrite notes allow them a more intimate experience with the text, but the creative exercise gave them a tactile aspect much lacking in their technology heavy learning environment.

When a teacher is forced to go out of her way to provide students with stimulating lessons, something is off with the curriculum.  An assessment driven system like the Common Core discourages creative thinking across the board.  It traps perfectionists like my niece into fearful, robotic obeisance, and does nothing to encourage the already undermotivated student.  Given this, if not remediated, the Common Core is bound to produce a generation of non-thinkers.






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