If assessment is textured and finely-grained, and is supportive and diagnostic, I’m all for it. If it’s coarse and simplistic and judgmental and uninformative, then it seems to me always to be negative and have the wrong sort of effects in education.
– Sir Ken Robinson
We talk a lot about creativity in education—what it is, whether it’s innate, how it can be fostered—sprinkling our dialogue with the nauseatingly ubiquitous “think outside the box.”
But we don’t mean it.
Much of what we do in education is to model the concept of the one right way, justifying social convention as good citizenship and pedantic conformity as academic rigor.
But is this really in the best interests of students today?
Although we take public education for granted in modern western society, it hasn’t actually been around for all that long; philosophically rooted in the Aristotelian model of deductive reasoning and logical analysis, it emerged a scant 150 years ago to complement the economic underpinnings of the industrial revolution. This model worked extremely well for the Ford Motor Company in 1908, but will it serve our children as they move into the bleak, resource-challenged future that economists and environmentalists predict?
Consider for a moment the social and technological change of the past two decades. My first university papers were painstakingly typed on an antiquated, cast-off Underwood typewriter in my cracker-box dorm room; my first computer had a processing speed of 25 MHz; my first cell phone was the approximate size and weight of a breadbox. The digital natives entering kindergarten this September will graduate in 2025 and will retire in 2072. How can we possibly predict the knowledge, skills and attributes that will best serve them on their time travels? As we move from the information to the conceptual age, our kids will seek employment in an increasingly complex economy that demands innovation, creativity, and the ability to think in divergent ways. They will require “sophisticated talent with global acumen, multicultural fluency, technological literacy, entrepreneurial skills, and the ability to manage increasingly de-layered, disaggregated organizations.” 
In short, they will need the ability to think outside the proverbial box that we know and love so well.
Unfortunately, public education is designed to corral kids inside that very box.
Divergent thinking is the ability to depart from conventional thought, to consider a multiplicity of aspects, to make unique connections, and to generate novel ideas and innovative solutions. In their groundbreaking book, Breakpoint and Beyond, (1998, Leadership 2000 Inc), Beth Jarman and George Land document the results of a longitudinal study involving 1600 children tested for divergent thinking in eight categories over a ten-year period. Between the ages of three and five, 98 percent of these children scored in the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking. When they were re-tested five years later, only 32 percent scored in the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking. Five years later, a mere 10 percent scored within the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking.
What happened to these kids between the ages of five and fifteen that we lost 1,408 creative geniuses along the way?
Ten of years of modeling the one right way.
We are drilling divergent thinking out of our kids, and then, oh irony of ironies, simultaneously trying to relearn it as adults through creativity seminars and professional development, typically with dismal results (in fact, only 2 percent of adults score in the “creative genius” category for divergent thinking).
This doesn’t surprise me.
One of the most interesting things I have noted about school is in the area of special education, where young children with myriad developmental “disorders” (including autism) have individual learning plans that specify daily, monthly and annual goals. Here’s my favorite: “This week, Little Johnny will play with a toy in its intended manner, without verbal prompts, 3 out of 5 times, on 3 out of 5 days.”
If divergent thinking itself is the ability to depart from conventional thought and connections, then isn’t this going in the opposite direction?
Standardized curricula and standardized assessment are set up from the get-go to promote conformity. Indeed, that’s what standardization means: to conform to standards. And when you’re talking about railroad track gauge, this is, indubitably, a good thing. In education, however, the result is a marked reduction in our children’s ability to think outside the box.
Convention, which is nothing more than the way a thing is usually done, reclines comfortably within that box.
So why, you might ask after my last post, (or not) do we follow certain conventions when we write academic papers?
Because people who have more education than we do taught us that writing with a certain scholarly gravity is the right thing, indeed the only thing, to do. Ergo, when we omit a sufficiently reverent tone while discussing The Western Canon, we are subject to a red-pen-spanking.
But think about it.
When people are afraid to challenge their cultural norms, that culture stagnates. If no one ever challenged convention, we wouldn’t have rock ’n’ roll, steampunk spec fiction or Cubism. We’d all be reading Dickens instead of Fifty Shades of Grey (yikes, don’t you hate it when you accidentally unravel your own argument?). If The Bard himself (arguably the greatest English-language writer in history), were to manifest in London today, he would understand no more than five out of nine words of modern English; language, it’s syntax, vocabulary and style, is—must be—dynamic.
Ultimately, however, this isn’t about an English paper; it’s about the message we are sending students when they fail to conform to convention.
Am I afraid to challenge literary norms and try something new after my Archetypal Whore debacle?
But I’m middle-aged and (relatively) secure.
What if an eighteen-year-old frosh got slapped with “excessive vitriol,” on a lower-level English paper? Would she be likely to color outside the lines again?
The point isn’t the paper itself, the point is that teachers and professors wield enormous power and it behooves us to examine the nature of that power in the context of our own vulnerability. Simply put, our species is in trouble. Planet Earth will undoubtedly survive the next millennium; Homo sapiens may not. As such, educators must consider the unintended consequences of that power for our survival. By carrot-and-sticking kids into intellectual conformity, we are educating them out of the very creative capacities they will need to navigate the next century.
In the meantime, I’ll put my money on the kid who’s playing with his toys in a way not intended by the manufacturer.
(BTW… this is what I was trying to say in my last post; I guess it’s a lot to read between the lines. Mea culpa).
© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved
 Robinson, Ken. (2001). Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Oxford, UK: Capstone Publishing. (41)
Put your money on the kids who play with the box the toys came in