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Are schools capable of raising #creative students?

February 1, 2016


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.


Child fixing or destroying  a computer.

from, child playing inside a computer

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.”

5th Grade in Science

Science Exploration about Water

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.


STEAM initiatives @westminsterATL: Learning while doing!

January 31, 2016

Westminster Schools STEAM logo

The four minute video (see below) will give you a window into Westminster Schools’ efforts to design a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) program for students that helps them integrate their learning from different disciplines.  Dozens of teachers are collaborating across K-12 boundaries to design and implement projects that have a STEAM focus.  Many of these STEAM projects are being embedded into our formal curriculum, transforming how teachers think about integrated studies.  We are exploring ways for students to develop skills for solving complex, relevant, and real-world problems.

We have 25+ K-12 teachers who meet weekly before school to talk about how their curriculum connects to the larger STEAM initiative.  They present to one another, co-design projects, and take their learning back to their classroom.  In the classroom, they collaborate with their students to implement projects of extraordinary creativity.  The work culminates in a school-wide STEAM showcase event in late February.

The Middle School just concluded a nine-month STEAM faculty cohort that took on the challenge of thinking about how to build integrated curricula with a STEAM focus.  Eight teachers co-labored over 75 hours of face-to-face meetings to discuss what STEAM curricula or courses might look like.  We studied the idea of threshold concepts and looked for ways to integrate them into existing courses or designing courses around a threshold concept.  We facilitated a faculty meeting in which 80 Middle School teachers explored a set of threshold concepts, looking for ways to connect their courses to the concept.  From this work a new STEAM cohort of ten teachers across all the disciplines have assembled to collaborate and design projects that are built around a threshold concept or big idea.

Westminster Schools is not sitting back waiting for STEAM to enter the larger conversation about how to improve meaning and relevance of a student’s learning experience.  The faculty are leading the way and students are excited about the direction.


What do all kids need?

January 31, 2016

Just finishing a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.  This is the newest version, copyright 2014.  I continue to be amazed at Tomlinson’s ability to capture the critical elements of a good education and an effective learning environment with simple and powerful images.  One that has stuck with me is a reference to one of her mentors, Mary Ann Smith, an elementary teacher at a school where Tomlinson taught Middle School.   Ms. Smith, a mother of four boys, was a teacher who connected with all students, even the most challenging.  The reason had to do with her teaching philosophy and the learning environment she created.  Tomlinson summarizes it by describing Ms. Smith beliefs (page 51).

  • Each kid is like all others and different from all others.
  • Kids need unconditional acceptance as human beings.
  • Kids need to believe they can become better than they are today.
  • Kids need help in living up to their dreams.
  • Kids have to make their own sense of things.
  • Kids often make their own sense of things more effectively and coherently when adults collaborate with them.
  • Kids need action, joy and peace.
  • Kids need power over their lives and learning.
  • Kids need help to develop that power and use it wisely.
  • Kids need to be secure in a larger world.

This is a wonderful list of beliefs to practice.  Tomlinson believes this list is also at the heart of what makes for a good differentiated classroom.

One of my takeaways from this list is that a learning environment built on these principles would be designed to move students from dependence on the teacher to greater independence as a learner.  Kids who experience action, joy and peace in a classroom and are nurtured along a pathway towards power over their own learning discover their potential and use it towards productive ends.

Ms. Smith’s list addresses the affective side of learning.  No doubt a very important part!  There is the cognitive side of the equation that her list doesn’t specifically address, but I am sure she embraces as important.  An effective learning environment helps all students master the learning outcomes we design: the knowledge, skills and performance tasks embedded in good curricula.  However, without the strong affective component that Ms. Smith describes, the cognitive piece is not well integrated into a child’s learning.

Would you add to Ms. Smith’s list of what it takes to construct an effective learning environment?

Check out a previous post on the Center for Teaching blog, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School or Classroom?.  This post reflects on a similar theme that ties to Tomlinson’s story about Ms. Smith.


Do we care about our emotional culture in schools?

January 17, 2016

We work continuously in schools to think about, design for, and implement collecting data that pertains to students’ cognitive achievement.  In fact, if we include formative and summative assessment measures, we collect cognitive data weekly, daily and sometimes hourly.  We are asked to report on the students’ cognitive development on a regular basis through report cards, end-of-course assessments, and high-stakes tests of all types.  An article in the Huffington Post in October 2015 entitled, This is How Much Time Students Actually Spend Taking Standardized Tests, presents a comprehensive look at the amount of time students spend taking tests.  They write:

According to a comprehensive study of 66 of the nation’s big-city school districts by the Council of the Great City Schools. It said testing amounts to about 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average eighth-grader in public school. Between pre-K and 12th grade, students took about 112 mandatory standardized exams.

That is about 5 test days per 180 day school year.  Of course that only accounts for high-stakes tests and doesn’t take into account all the other formative and summative assessments students take in school on a regular basis.  In addition, this study’s figure represents an average, so some schools spend a great deal more time giving students NAEP, ITBS, and state-mandated tests.  The point is we spend upwards of 10% of a student’s life in school measuring his or her cognitive development.

So, what is our commitment to paying attention to and measuring a student’s emotional development?  I would argue that we spend little to no time measuring students’ emotional development or their emotional mindset as they experience school on a daily basis.  Yet we know that the emotional state that students’ bring to school or develop at school directly impacts the quality of their cognitive experience and achievement.

In a comprehensive study conducted at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, the authors write:

How educators and students process and respond to emotions influences children’s education in ways that affect their social, emotional, and cognitive development. A recent meta- analysis of research on programs focused on social and emotional learning (SEL) shows that a systematic process for promoting students’ social and emotional development is the common element among schools that report an increase in academic success, improved quality of relationships between teachers and students, and a decrease in problem behavior (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).

Why do we spend little to no time and energy thinking about and collecting information on students’ emotional life at school?  Could it be because we have insufficient training or knowledge about students’ emotions and how to measure whether their emotional development is being nurtured through their school experience?  Could it be our society is so cognitively oriented that we don’t really care about a person’s emotional experience in his or her school or work environment?  Finally, could it be that in our society talking about emotions or working through emotionally difficult situations is “taboo?”  We relegate the work with emotions to the private offices of therapists.  The answer to why might reside in all of these questions and others.

There is saying that if you want to understand what people or institutions value just look at what they spend their time on.  Since we spend “75%” of time in school on cognitive development and “22%” of time on physical development (athletics), we only spend 2-3% of time on other aspects of a person’s life, their emotional developmen, that determine how they feel.  I made up these numbers to make a point, but they are probably fairly accurate.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Manage Your Emotionl Culture, written by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill, the authors discuss that some businesses are spending time and energy collecting information about how their employees feel after a day at work.  They’re recognizing that understanding how the workplace impacts peoples’ emotional state influences their ability to function effectively in their jobs.  In schools, we should be concerned about every child’s emotional experience on a regular basis.  How is school impacting a child’s sense of self, mood, and emotional state?  If we pay attention to a child’s emotional life in school, we might alter our approach to how we allocate time to their education.  I found this quote to be particularly insightful:

Despite a renaissance of scholarship on the ways that emotions shape people’s behavior at work, emotional culture is rarely managed as deliberately as cognitive culture–and often it is not managed at all.  Companies suffer as a result.  Employee who should be showing compassion (in health care, for example) become callous and indifferent.  Teams that would benefit from joy and ride instead tolerate a culture of anger.  People who lack a healthy amount of fear (say in security firms or investment banks) act recklessly.  The effects can be especially damaging during times of upheaval, such as organizational restructuring a and financial downturns.

So what is the equivalent in school?  Could it be that our focus on “getting good grades,” the demon in disguise, keeps us from truly building a culture for students that failure comes along the road to success?  I would again argue that for every two steps we take to promote an emotionally healthy culture in school, we take three steps backward with our fixation on “getting good grades.”  What is it we want students to learn?

Schools show their care for a student’s emotional development through their design and implementation of curriculum that addresses emotional needs.  But is it sufficient to just offer programs like morning meeting, assembly programs, or teacher-led discussions about issues that impact students’ lives?  I would suggest that the answer is no.  There is more we can learn but we would have to allocate time and resources to collect data regarding a student’s emotional experience to inform our thinking and actions.

Barsade and O’Neill present models and data from corporations that are investing time and resources in collecting data on their employees’ emotional experiences while on the job.  They refer to the design and implementation of apps, like Niko Niko, used to collect emotional data.  The data is then used to make decisions about how to best support employees in the workplace.  They also reference the importance of alignment of mission with what a person’s experience is in the workplace.




Interesting Education Statistics for 2015

January 3, 2016

This Education Week blog post, The Teaching Profession in 2015, contains some interesting findings about the teaching profession and education.  While it focuses primarily on the status of public education, the statistics are relevant to trends that apply to US education in the broader context.

Here is a short summary of what is covered.

  1. 70% of teachers remain in the teaching profession, while only 17% left the profession within the five years of this longitudinal study.  The idea that 50% of teachers leave the profession after 3-5 years may be a myth.
  2. There doesn’t appear to be a shortage of teachers in the US, based on the trends in overall number of teachers to the student-to-teacher ratio since 1960.  While a teacher shortage may not exist in urban environments, there are shortages in some rural or inner-city school environments.
  3. The data on student poverty is quite interesting.  Fifty-one percent (51%) of students in US public schools qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program, which mirrors their family’s poverty status.  This represents a 12% increase since 1989.  When will we be honest with ourselves that unless we make significant headway addressing issues related to poverty, we cannot expect to make progress addressing problems with our education system.  This is a systems problem with many facets, requiring a systems approach.
  4. “Bias is an ongoing issue in education.”.  In a Stanford study, teachers were found to show bias towards disciplining black students, rather than white students, especially on their second violation.
  5. An increase in the suicide rate for young black children over the past two decades is a troubling statistic.  While the actual number is not large, the increase of about 60% from 2002 to 2012 is certainly cause for concern and action.
  6. “In 2015, 10 states had fewer than 10 girls take the AP Computer Science exam. No girls took the exam in Mississippi, Montana, or Wyoming.  No one took the exam in Montana at all.” When it comes to STEM, we have a long way to go to encourage young women to enter fields that are highly technical.  We know that girls lack of interest in these fields has anything to do with their ability.  In fact, in four states girls out performed boys in the 2015 AP Computer Science exam.  We have to work hard at enrolling girls in STEM courses and STEM careers, but we can’t force a “square pet in a round hole.”  Girls may be attracted to STEM courses and careers, especially computer science, only when we recognize the need to retool our approach to teaching these disciplines.
  7. With the Common Core putting more emphasis on teaching language arts using non-fiction texts, we are seeing more teachers infusing non-fiction into their curriculum.

What we do with this knowledge is an entirely new question?  We certainly can’t expect to make great progress in US education unless we pay close attention to what this data tells us.  We can’t merely teach students coming from under resourced backgrounds, expect them to learn the same things in the same amount of time as their peers from wealthier backgrounds, unless we address the influence of poverty on their readiness to learn.  Schools can’t fight this battle alone, it takes a village of caring people, including policy makers, to help address these complex issues.  Now is the time!

Have you considered whether you have reached your potential? 

December 31, 2015

On a train from Vienna to Saltzburg, I am wondering whether reaching our potential is something that is center most on peoples’ minds.  Is it a driver in how we lead our lives?  It has been on my mind after reading an article by Robert Kaplan, Reaching Your Potential, published in Harvard Business Review, July-August 2008.  On the journey towards reaching one’s potential, Kaplan writes about the need to “know yourself.”. (page 80)  While he applies much of what he writes to the business world, I think the phrase “knowing yourself” implies a more personal than professional exploration.  In my career, I have been faced with a number of transitions where I had to reassess my skill set, performance, and career aspirations.  The personal reflection and decision-making process was complicated by previous commitments, both personal and professional that I had already made.  In some respects,  these previous commitments weighed heavily in the decisions I made, as well as clouded my judgment.  They made it hard to objectively evaluate the options I had at these critical transitions.

As I became more savvy or aware of myself when handling a transition, I relied on mentors to guide me through the process. My mentors have been professional friends, personal friends, family members, writings, and internal dialogues with myself. In earlier times, I tended to rely on myself as the guide, not being confident enough to use others’ wisdom.   Now, I have greater appreciation for the guidance a mentor can give as the journey towards reaching my potential unfolds.

Kaplan writes:

the challenge is for you to identify your dream, develop the skills to get there, and exhibit character and leadership.  (page 83)

Identifying the dream is about closing the gap between the values we embrace and the commitments that drive us.  Developing the skills requires exploration, feedback, reflection and adjustment, driven by the desire to become better at whatever it is that calls us into the world.  Exhibiting character and leadership is about the courage to go into the world willing to learn from others and sharing what we know and who we are. Learning happens when we take the risk to be open and vulnerable to the possibilities in our midst.

I hope in 2016, I can seek out mentors who help me along the journey to reaching my full potential.

Is education reform simple or complex?

December 25, 2015

Einstein Keep it Simple.002

Maria Ferguson wrote a piece in Phi Delta Kappan, “Keep it Simple, stupid” sometimes is too simple.  She points out that over time we’ve been inundated with the notion ‘simpler is better,’ simple solutions are more likely to gain traction than complex solutions.  While some problems or challenges lend themselves to simple solutions, Ferguson goes on to argue the following:

Social concerns like health care, immigration, housing, and education are among the most challenging for policy makers and legislators. (page 74)

The reason those concerns are more challenging in Ferguson’s mind is that they represent complex systems or problems that do not lend themselves to simple solutions.  Her argument seems logical.  However, it is entirely possible that our attempts to answer challenging questions in each of these systems fail because the process we use is faulty, and not that the system can’t accommodate a simple answer.

In education, the process we use to solve challenges is hierarchical.  Politicians, educational policy makers, and administrators dictate to schools what challenges have to be solved and the process that must be used to address the concern.  For example, the data, high-stakes test scores and graduation data, suggest that all students are not mastering the standards and performing well or enjoying school.  So what do educational bureaucrats do?  In 2001, they design No Child Left Behind and mandate what schools must do to meet the needs of all students.  Few classroom teachers or principals were involved in designing the model or marketing the legislation.  The solution was designed locally, it was designed nationally and mandated.  Fast forward eight years and we get Race-to-the-Top, an Obama Administration program designed to fund American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  As part of R2T, states who received funds had to redesign their teacher evaluation systems using student achievement data as part of the equation to account for “good teaching.”  Again, few educators or principals were involved in creating this program.  While progress was made in some states or districts, there were huge missteps in designing teacher evaluation systems that empowered teachers to improve without disenfranchising them.  For example, in Georgia the Teachers Keys (TKES) process is outlined in a 200+ page manual.  There have been ongoing state and national conversations about the efficacy and efficiency of these laborious models, especially when they link teacher quality to student achievement scores on one imperfect test.  Implementation of these models requires enormous amounts of time from principals.  Would TKES have been designed as a 200+ page process had teachers and principals been the designers?   Fast forward another five years to a federal program that allows states to apply for waivers to NCLB because they are unable to meet the expectations defined by the 2001 law.

As students and educators go back to school across the country, and as Congress continues to debate how to fix the law commonly known as No Child Left Behind, the U.S. Department of Education announced today that states whose waivers from certain provisions of federal education law will expire at the end of the 2013-2014 school year will soon be able to request renewals of their reform plans, for up to two more years.

Extending their waivers through 2016 will allow these 34 eligible states and the District of Columbia to continue moving forward on their ambitious but achievable plans to prepare all students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching and school leadership. (US Department of Education website)

I would propose that these top-down federal or state programs, with very complex implementation plans, are ineffective at meeting the outcome we all desire, that all students receive a top-notch education, because they remove the important players, teachers and principals, from the design process.  In fact, these solutions are too complex for a problem that could be handled with a simpler or straight-forward process, a process that puts teachers and principals in the design and decision-making role.  Below is a graph NAEP (National Association of Educational Progress) reading scores for 9, 13, and 17 year old students over a twenty year timeframe.  This period of time encompasses all of the program’s referenced above.  So our nation’s report card (NAEP) illustrates that the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars into complex solutions to educational problems does little to advance student learning as measured by improvement in reading scores.  I realize this might be an imperfect test; however, you might think that after investing billions we would have more to show for our effort than ‘flat test scores’ over time and graduation rates that still hover around 80% (click here).


NAEP Reading Scores: Trends in National Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

NAEP Reading Scores: Trends in National Progress, National Center for Education Statistics

Teachers and principals need resources, free from the enormous constraints of federal and state governments, to design and implement programs that are aligned to local problems.  They should be challenged to design programs that meet the needs of their students and take into account the unique challenges they face.  We can’t assume that all students across the US come to school with exactly the same problems that impede their learning.  Granted there are some universal issues like poverty, homelessness, or broken families that impact whether a student comes to school ready to learn.  But I contend that if you support creative teachers and resourceful principals with resources and the authority to implement their ideas, they will design for their user, the student.  Their designs will most likely be simple because their user is their student body not the student body of the entire United States.  They are in the best position of understanding local conditions and their students learning needs.  To make this work, we would have to invest in developing strong school-based leadership.

Evidence that investing in “middle-level” leaders results in local solutions that can change the face of school, can be found in another article in Phi Delta Kappan, School Leadership Lessons from England, written by Jonathan Supovitz.   In England, the education system was redefined and roles and responsibilities of leaders were designed with a new approach.  Middle level leaders, teachers, were accountable for teaching, learning, and student behavior.  It was their job to design and implement programs that fell under their jurisdiction.  The government did assume responsibility for providing more comprehensive and effective leadership training programs for middle-level leaders and principals that was based on a redefinition of the knowledge and skills leaders would need.

“A refined school leadership structure adds depth to the instructional support for teachers and move both support and responsibility for instructional improvement closer to the classroom.”  (page 38)

There were three phases to their project:

  • Phase 1: Define role, develop leadership curriculum
  • Phase 2: Integrate the leadership system into incentive structures
  • Phase 3: Expand providers, fostering school networks, shifting emphasis to a school-led system

In the United States, what if the federal government collaborated with states, colleges and universities, and educators to identify the knowledge and skills required to lead change in schools.  A great deal of research has been done on this very topic, some of which comes from the corporate and non-profit sectors.  The federal and state governments would provide the funding to support high-quality leadership training programs for middle-level, senior-level, and principal leaders in schools.  These programs could be administered through selected colleges and universities, but they would have to disrupt the traditional programs typically provided by colleges and universities.  With leadership prepared and in place, funnel resources to local communities to address the challenges and opportunities they see for improving learning environments for all students.  Yes, hold them accountable for determining the indicators of success and providing results, but give them space to be creative and design for their user, their students.

I think we would be surprised that many local initiatives would be less complicated and more successful than the laboriously complex programs that have not worked.  So I don’t agree with Maria Ferguson’s premise that education is a complex system requiring complex solutions.  Granted, our education system serving 50+ million students is complex, but I believe solutions to the challenges we face can be made simpler if they engage the minds and hearts of teachers and principals designing for their user, the students they serve.


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