The Creativity Crisis Demands School Transformation

Students Emmy Schaeffer and Anya Smith from Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Innovation Diploma are both passionate about education and the discussions around its redesign. In fact, they’ve totally redesigned an AP Language and Composition course that has them acting as both teachers and students in this self-taught, student-driven course. Working through the summer, they created their own version of a syllabus that the College Board recently accepted. In this “collab-course,” as they call it, they recently challenged themselves to respond to last year’s AP Exam prompt around solving “The Creativity Crisis” (Newsweek 2010). Rather than stop there, Emmy and Anya realized an opportunity to invite themselves to an even larger conversation that is happening among educators around transforming education to solve for the creativity crisis. Each of their articles provide a unique, student perspective on how to transform educational practices.


The Key to Solving the Creativity Crisis

By: Emmy Schaeffer

In July of 2010, Newsweek posted an article titled “The Creativity Crisis,” which argues that America is decreasing its students’ creativity even as it increases their intelligence. This is shocking to a country which has long valued creativity – one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, is prized for how creative he was – and made many reevaluate how and what we teach children.

Several of the cries for increasing children’s creativity were pointing their finger at education as the culprit of this crime. But this is wrong. Education itself is not the reason creativity is dwindling; it is how we educate. Education is simply a tool to help shape the future of the next generation, so we must use it wisely.

The idea of student autonomy has been gaining momentum recently among education circles. I’ve been hearing about more and more big projects where the students get to pick what they do and how they do it. Students are sharing their ideas and are being heard. In Finland, a country highly regarded in education because of how well its students have been performing on the PISA test, one of their goals for the future of their education system is for students to have more autonomy. But the idea of student autonomy is also scary: how can you trust student to get the work done if you just set them loose?

I have found that what it really comes down to is if a student has been given the choice to do anything they want and they are not doing the work for what they’ve chosen to do, then they are not working on the right thing. A student needs to be truly interested and investing in the work they choose to do. There also needs to be some sort of driving factor. And a driving factor is not a teacher giving an assignment. What if the drive came from knowing there is an audience beyond just my teacher? What if the drive came from knowing the purpose is greater than to fulfill an assignment? I have recently had many opportunities to do work that really matters in school – and it counts. I was a leader in a team of six students who put together a workshop we presented at a conference in Davos Switzerland. When I was putting together the design thinking workshop for the Education First Summit I did in Switzerland, the driving factor for me to push through the tough times was, “If I do not get this done, it is going to be really disappointing and really embarrassing.” Other motivations can be making it clear from the beginning that you have high expectations for the student, and that they have a responsibility to get it done. I once said in a blog post that while peer pressure is often perceived as a bad thing, in certain situations it can bring out a positive result: no one wants to be the guy (or girl) called out by the teacher for not completing the assignment. Sometimes it’s having an image of what the future of the process or project will look like. Maybe they’re not there yet, but if they keep working, one day they will be there. And once a student finds what will motivate them to keep moving through the challenges they face and the tough times they have, nothing will stop them.

But how does a student get through the tough time? When the usual motivation is not looking as important and the rut they are in seems impossible to get out of? In one word: support. Every genius innovator had a mentor of one form or another. Sometimes it is a teacher, sometimes it is a friend, sometimes it is another inventor. It is someone there for them when they need it, someone to talk through the problem with, and someone to cheer them on from the sidelines as they go along. When I was working on the workshop last year, there were a lot of days when it felt like I was trying to walk through quick sand even as I could feel it climbing up my neck, trying to get over my head and drag me down. On those days, I would go to one of my mentors and ask them for help. I spent hours making tons of decisions about the pieces that would best fit together to get my point across, and even more hours perfecting how I would tell the stories I had decided on telling and running through the workshop with groups of students from my school, making sure I had chosen the right topic. And when the day of the workshop came around, while things did not necessarily go off without a hitch (I was nervous, okay? I stutter when I am nervous), they did go off well and it went down as a success in my book. I say it is successful because the participants learned something new. I did not have to be graded, I did not turn anything in to a teacher, and I learned about how to tell a compelling story. The impact was far more important than a grade in a gradebook. `

In Innovation Diploma right now, we are working on design challenges centered around healthy living. In this design challenge, we are split up into groups containing people who started last year and people who started this year, so there is a variety of experience with design thinking involved in this. We have been left to ourselves to decide the best courses of action when it comes to our projects, but the facilitators are available if we need to ask them a question or what their advice. According to Meghan Cureton, one of the facilitators of Innovation Diploma, while creativity is something all human innately are, creativity can also be learned and bettered, practiced and repeated. And often times, it’s a mentor that gets you started on a habit or practice. Teachers, parents, and other adults in students’ lives can have a big impact on who the students turn out to be, so it is important for them to use their own experiences to guide students through their lives and to their future.

The key to solving the Creativity Crisis is giving students more autonomy, trusting them to do the work, and providing them mentorship, feedback and support. It is a big world out there, so we need to use the valuable and limited time students have in school to positively impact, support, and guide them towards a fulfilling future.


A World Demanding Creativity

By: Anya Smith

“A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.” Albert Einstein said these great words over 60 years ago, and yet in todays’ 21st century, America has still been in what is commonly known as “The Creativity Crisis” as described in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s article published in Newsweek in 2010. Their findings, based on the widely taken Torrance Test which tests for someone’s “Creativity Quotient” (CQ), show that the American public has had a significant decrease in it’s CQ scores since 1990. However, at the same time that this Creativity Crisis is taking place, leading businesses are craving creative and innovative people, as shown from an IBM poll taken in 2010 of 1,500 CEOs. This disconnect between what America wants in the workforce and what America’s CQ scores are leads to the question of, “How might we raise America’s CQ scores?”  That is, how might we have more Americans that are proficient at going through a process of the exploration and creation of something new? A start would be to examine our education programs to assure that we as a country are setting the conditions for people to be successful. Schools are meant to prepare students with the knowledge and skills to be successful in the world. With our world craving creative people with innovative ideas, it is imperative for schools to allot time in their school day for students to explore creative outlets and passions.

By allotting this time in the day, students can be more prepared to get jobs in the companies that they are interested in working for. One of the “big dogs” of American companies is Google, with about 1 in every 4 young professionals wanting to work there. When trying to get a job at Google, it is helpful to know that interviewers are looking for applicants that go through a creative thinking process. For example an applicant may be asked, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” The interviewer is not looking for the answer to this question, because there is no exact answer, instead the interviewer is looking to see how the applicant thinks through the problem and hoping to see the applicant go through a creative, yet logical, process to arrive at an answer. If schools hope for their students to be competitive in the workforce at places like Google, then schools must prepare students to be creative thinkers while problem solving– even if the problem seems impossible to solve.

In school, students are tasked to learn and mast content which lays out the foundation for the logical side to any process, but there is  another side to this process: the creative side. To answer seemingly impossible problems like those that arise in the “real world”, you must have a basic understanding of facts along with the creative confidence to quickly discern what things you think you need to know in order to arrive at an answer.

This creative confidence isn’t something that some people are born with and others are not; it is developed over time through experience and guidance. Students need mentors to help them develop their creative confidence, and school provides an opportune time for students to receive this mentorship, and not just from teachers. Just like how chemistry classes do lab work in order to better understand how chemical equations work, what if all students were given the opportunity to enroll in a“real world” lab? Imagine if in this “real world” lab students were working alongside business leaders, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits to tackle work that matters. Work that might not be in a textbook. Through these “real world” labs, students could develop relationships with these game-changers that may lead to long lasting mentorship. Schools need to begin developing relationships with members in the local community because this real world experience will build confidence in students, so they can be empowered to be agents of change in today’s world. School currently communicates that students have to wait to make a difference. They have to wait to be told what to do. They have to wait to get their graded test back. What if we didn’t want to wait?

Some schools already have programs set in place to allow students school time to work on creative pursuits and passions, and their students are working on some mind blowing things. Some notable examples are High Tech High in California, The Independence Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts, and Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Innovation Diploma in Atlanta, Georgia. Students from these schools have done things like making their school more environmentally sustainable, cooking a meal for over 80 people, designing a picture of a historical character using math and technology, writing a novel, partnering with organizations like the Center for Disease Control on “real world” problems, and consulting with industry leaders to tackle complex challenges.

These schools exemplify that it is possible for schools to give students time to focus on creativity and passion finding during school time. Not only is it possible, but the students that are given this time in school have been advantageous in a world craving creative people. Imagine if all American schools had this time for creativity and passion finding. Imagine how much the American creative quotient scores could raise. Imagine how many more creative solutions America could be generating to solve big problems in our world today. The world demands creative people, so to solve the Creativity Crisis the world should also demand that schools, with their mentors and resources, provide the time for students to explore creative endeavors and personal passions in order to develop their creative confidence before it’s too late.

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