This question, whether schools are capable of nurturing creative students, has been discussed in many articles, books, and TED Talks. Go back in time and listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? The basic premise in Sir Ken Robinson’s talk is that schools, the way they are structured and designed, “kill” the creative spirit in children. He suggests there is too much focus on scripted curricula, right-answer responses, and testing such that students have little room to maneuver or flex their creative muscles.
For me the answer to the question is simple: many creative people in our society have graduated from religious, independent and public elementary and secondary schools. So the answer must be, of course schools can nurture creativity in students.
An article in the Sunday Review of the New York Times, How to Raise a Creative Child: Step One, Back Off, written by Adam Grant, suggests that families and schools may need to reorient their approach if the desire to foster the creative spirit in children is an important goal.
Here are a few quotes from Grant’s article that got me to think about how we teach students.
Child prodigies rarely become adult genuises who change the world. (page )
He points out that this is not because child prodigies are socially or emotionally underdeveloped. In fact, very few of them “suffer from social or emotional problems.”
Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.
Here he points out the difference between technical mastery of something and the ability to take what you’ve mastered and create something new or original. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.”
The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.
The idea being that parents of creative children allow space for the child to grow and experiment. Creativity emerges when a person tests boundaries, experiments with ideas, or allows their curiosity to guide them.
Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success–but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.”
In studies that Grant references, it was parents who first and foremost facilitated a child’s exploration based on what brought them joy and fulfillment that raised creative children. Of particular interest was a study carried out by Benjamin Bloom in which he looked at the familes of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and other creative people. He found that parents who “responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children” had a greater likelihood of raising creative children.
What motivates people to practice a skill for thousands of hours? The most reliable answer is passion.
Grant refers to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” which suggests that a person needs to practice long hours to master a skill. However, does mastering a skill like playing the piano mean that the pianist is “creative.” It’s possible the piantist is quite proficient as a technician, but not particularly inventive. Passion and natural curiosity nurtured through enjoyable experiences are more likely to stimulate creativity or “flashes of insight.”
So what does all this mean for schools? As I reflect on Grant’s ideas, it seems to me one question about schooling is: do traditional schools, with all their routines, rules, scripted curricula, and quizzes and tests, lack a structure for developing the creative side of each student? Is the creativity or creative thinking we try to foster through “core” courses or visual and performing arts experiences just another series of scripted experiences? The answer may be yes for some of you and no for others. Certainly, there isn’t one right answer for all schools or all students within a school. Nevertheless, are schools willing to “back off” as suggested by some of Grant’s work and that of other notable researchers? I would suggest that as educators we should think about what it would look like if we “backed off” and let students curiosity guide them. We should challenge ourselves to find the evidence in school that students experience joy in learning.