Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Do Public Schools Kill Creativity?
Back in 1971 I started attending elementary school just north of Washington DC in Maryland. I didn't know it then but I was a little seedling of an artist trying to poke my head out and catch some rays. There were a bunch of us - little budding artists trying to sprout. We were so excited about life and discovery yet unaware that the environment we were growing in was hostile towards our skills and learning styles. Turns out we were floundering in a system that looked at us more like weeds than flowers.
What I'm going to talk about is in no way intended to be an indictment of teachers or administrators but rather of the public school system in general. A system that no one individual or even organization is in total control over. Also, I don't want this to come across as a negative attack ad but rather as a wake up call for all of us.
Like many I never felt like I belonged in public school. I always felt like I wasn't good enough - like I was, well, stupid. I struggled with math - really struggled. My reading comprehension was horrible and for the life of me I couldn't stop day dreaming - and boy did I come up with some good ideas! My speling was atrowshous and writing - forget about it - I couldn't hold a thought long enough to form a paragraph and by the way there's a guy walking a dog across the street...I think dogs are smarter then humans...the man walks behind the dog...the dog poops...the man picks up the poop...the man carries the poop for the dog...is the dog smiling?...Oops - sorry - I'm back.
Today I probably would have been diagnosed with A.D.D and put on drugs but back then it hadn't been invented yet (he said sarcastically). My parents even had me tested to see what the heck was wrong with me. I was even lucky enough to have an older sister who was everything I was NOT academically (straight A's)- so that was really helpful.
I think we've grown to believe that a person is smart if they did well in school and not very smart if they didn't but isn't this short sighted? Lets think about this. Do we think that someone who can represent you in a court of law is more intelligent than a creative director at an ad agency? Is a concert pianist more intelligent than an accountant? Our university system was born out of a necessity to develop graduates with mostly left brain skills to manage the tasks of the industrial age and it worked. Now we are entering a new age where creativity is becoming more valuable. Daniel Pink says, “In school, problems almost always are clearly defined, confined to a single discipline, and have one right answer. But in the workplace, they’re practically the opposite. Problems are usually poorly defined, multi-disciplinary, and have several possible answers, none of them perfect. Are timed, standardized tests the way to ready youngsters for real-world problem-solving?"
Do smart people ever make stupid mistakes and if so why? Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival talks about the question of why some people survive crises while others die. He says survivors have the ability to think deliberately under pressure helping them to avoid making stupid mistakes. Those that die are often intelligent people who simply follow already established mental scripts rather than addressing the reality of the situation. Having good grades in math and English probably won't factor in to the most important decisions a person will have to make in life.
The truth is we sift our kids in the public school system. We sift for the kids with math, reading, and writing skills and basically toss the rest aside. Sure we have art, band, and drama classes but do we hold kids accountable for doing poorly in those subjects? Do we have standards tests in those subjects? Do kids make the honor role for coming up with great ideas? No...and so creative kids like me go away feeling like their contributions are worthless.
So after high school I limped away damaged and insecure knowing three things: 1) I loved art 2) Nobody seemed to care and 3) I was stupid. Is this how it has to be? Do we need to destroy the self esteem of our creative kids and hope that some of them will somehow find their way into a job or field where their right brain skills will be appreciated? Is it possible to change the system so that we can perhaps teach creative children differently?
I find it ironic that we expect our kids to get good grades doing essentially left brain tasks but the items we place the highest value on are largely right brain creations: smart phones, internet based products and services, cars, motion pictures, novels, comics, tablet computers, designer clothing and accessories etc. I would argue that the innovators behind the scenes at companies like Apple, Google, Ebay, Pixar, etc were in some cases also survivors of public school. I think it would be a safe assumption that public school had little to do with these kinds of creations. These outliers had to develop a robust set of skills well beyond math and English and they did it largely on their own. Imagine what problems we could solve as a country if creativity was celebrated at school? Is there a correlation to the success of Google and their active reward program to reward creative ideas from their employees?
I was fortunate enough to have had wonderful parents who loved me and encouraged me even though they didn't fully understand me. My mom was a special ed teacher as was my wife and my sister teaches elementary school currently so I'm familiar with the the restrictions placed on teachers. I'm glad that I was able to show my mom and dad that I wasn't a lazy kid. I've accomplished a lot in illustration: acceptance into the society of illustrators annuals, an addy award, a client list of fortune 500 companies, and over 20 children's books published with national publishers - some winning state awards. I'm so glad my mother got to see me illustrate some of the same stories she taught from in school before we lost her last year.
Today I'm able to work on the projects I want. If I get an idea I go for it. I feel like I survived the public school system but how many don't? How many feel like they just aren't as good as the 4.0 earners? We have an amazing resource in our children and rather than cultivating their individual skills we sort them keeping the left brain dominant children and tossing the rest. We pick through them like we select produce at the fruit stand and for what? What benefit do we get for celebrating left brain skills while ignoring kids with right brain skills? - I don't understand it.
My college roommate (an engineering major) came to me a few years ago and said, "I have a son who hates school, get's horrible grades like you did, but loves to draw - what should I do with him?" I was pretty much at a loss because unless he was willing to put his kid in a private school he was stuck with a square peg kid in a round hole school. I told him to appreciate his abilities, nurture his art, and let him know how valuable he is while encouraging him to do his best.
Obviously this is a subject that I'm passionate about and in some ways is out of bounds for the direction of my blog but it's who I am and I wanted to share it. It's too important for me to sit by and watch while my heart aches for some of the kids I meet at my school visits. I love to tell kids how hard it was for me to learn to read. I love to watch their expressions as I tell them that even though I pretended to read and only looked at the pictures I was able to get it over time. It just took me longer and a few great teachers and a mom who cared and wouldn't let me fail.
A friend warned me not to post this on my blog because I do a fair amount of school visits and this might offend school teachers and administrators. When my 18 year old son Aaron was in elementary school his 4th grade teacher gave the class a self portrait assignment. Aaron was so excited and got busy drawing himself with a sword, an earring, and a Mohawk haircut - his teacher gave him an D and got upset at him. I wimped out and said nothing because I wanted to stay in good graces with the school district. I've always regretted my decision to do nothing. The truth is I don't want to visit a school where administrators aren't aware, sensitive, or at least willing to ponder and learn about this problem. It's not about us – it's about the kids. We need to send the message to our elected officials that we're tired of killing creativity in our Public Schools.
For more on this subject I recommend "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink (I have it down on the left side of my blog) and TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson on youtube