“Creativity” Is Not A Curriculum

A buzz phrase that seems to be increasingly popping up in national discussions about improving our nation’s K-12 schools – that we now need to teach “creativity” – seems emblematic of the aimlessness and duplicitousness of so many education reform efforts.  

How this boutique theory is going to help our most at-risk students, who desperately need public schools to teach them the basic academic skills needed for college and career success, is a mystery to me.  Conference presentations and Teacher Institute days will provide some diversion and stipends for the educators and administrators involved, but students who continue to suffer in failing public schools will be left in the lurch.

Excuse me if my anger – and despair – is showing.

We have yet to reach the point where we teach students to solve quadratic equations with interpretative dance – but we are closer than many might presume.  All sorts of nonsensical and ineffective pedagogical theories and methods are still deeply embedded in the daily operations of our public schools, and these routinely crash headlong into our expectations about the desired academic outcomes of 13 or more years of taxpayer-subsidized education.

The most outspokenly “creative” K-12 teachers and education school professors believe that insisting upon correct (or at least factually supportable) answers is injurious to student learning because much of what we assert to be true is merely the artifact of many generations of racist, sexist, or heteronormative thinking.  Consequently, learning activities that focus on memorization, discussions of differing viewpoints and values, or mastering formulas and methodologies that enable systemic and logical problem solving and inquiry are inherently suspicious to those educators most enamored with encouraging their students to be “creative” thinkers in the classroom.

Considering this matter with the jaded eye of an educator who has now watched decades of education reforms accomplish little other than keep the paychecks rolling in despite clear evidence that many of our public schools are little more than fantastically expensive failure factories, I believe a focus on teaching “creativity” is a brilliant strategic move by those intent on continuing to shortchange our K-12 students.  Unlike reading, writing, and math – academic subjects where poor educational outcomes can be readily demonstrated with an ACT or SAT score – there is no way to test for creative thought and no valid outcome measure that can be applied.  

A focus on teaching “creativity” is, therefore, the perfect subject matter for a K-12 system that is epidemically allergic to standardized measures of student progress.  Your child may read far below grade level, have difficulty with basic writing skills, and not be able to add a pair of three digit numbers, but what a wonderfully “creative” student you have.  Congratulations, mom and dad!

Creativity is, of course, essential to human fulfillment and progress, but it is an outgrowth of subject area learning – not a substitute for it.

In order to be a creative thinker, a deep base of traditional learning and knowledge is a necessary precursor.  Those who make breakthroughs in any field – chemistry, music, engineering, art, computers, architecture, medicine, and many others – were content area experts long before they were creative geniuses.  Einstein, Picasso, and Mozart had to absorb the knowledge of the past before they could create the future.  

However, if anyone presumes I am advocating for the cancellation of art, theater, and music instruction in K-12, the plain fact is that I am not.  Finger painting, for example, is an important activity to develop cognitive, motor, and task focus skills in children, but those millions of smeared landscapes and loving messages on every grandparent’s refrigerator are not examples of creativity – however charming they may be.  True creativity springs from mastery, and to presume otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the difference between creativity and imagination.  

Knowing this distinction also helps to explain why we do not have an American Museum of Fine Finger Painting and Slightly Crooked Ceramics sitting in our nation’s capital – just in case the answer is not obvious.  

A child’s imagination is a wonder to behold – and must be nurtured.  The role playing that fills the days of our young is essential to helping them understand the bewildering world all around as they begin their trudge toward the rigors of adulthood.  Pretending to be a firefighter, explorer, or doctor helps a child to begin to understand adult roles and responsibilities while also improving their own sense of self-efficacy.

Later on children may be able to begin to match their vivid imaginations to some degree of content mastery by engaging in the visual or performing arts.  Many useful academic and life skills – teamwork, cooperation, study skills, punctuality, diligence – are learned during these endeavors.  Any parent who has watched their child bask in well-deserved applause after a musical solo or performance in the school play understands the tremendous boost in self-confidence that also results from these successes. 

However, given that few K-12 students will have careers as musicians or actors (just as surpassingly few will ever play in the NFL or NBA), any faddish educational theory that does not assert teaching content knowledge and core academic skills is the most important mission – and still often the most glaring weakness – of America’s public schools is unworthy of our time or attention.

If we want to prepare today’s students to enter a fast-moving world where their ability to be “creative” might be the difference between success and failure in higher education and the workplace, we must first commit our K-12 educational resources to rigorous and thorough academic coursework where the grading provides honest assessments of content mastery.  No more unearned passing grades to keep a school’s graduation numbers up.  No more fake “credit recovery” courses for those who didn’t bother to do their class work.  No more overlooking material copied and pasted off the Internet in lieu of actual student work.

To continue to hand out high school diplomas to students who are profoundly underprepared for college and career success is a crime.

This is a crime, moreover, that is most often perpetrated by our nation’s public schools against students who are poor, students of color, students who are immigrants, students who are struggling with learning or cognitive disabilities, students who are homeless, and students who are dealing with the effects of trauma or abuse.

Let’s just stop all this silly babble about teaching public school students to be creative.  Our nation’s K-12 teachers must do their jobs by effectively, resolutely, and passionately teaching those core academic subjects that they were hired to teach.  Millions of children, adolescents, and their parents are counting on K-12 classes to provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary to create bright futures.

Teaching methods can be creative, but the learning standards for our nation’s students cannot be.