Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Have we lost sight of the purpose of education - to create the conditions to ensure all students develop their creativity or is it about testing and accountablity?

I have been doing my best to clear my shelves of books and articles I have collected over the decades as I try to focus on other things. The trouble is every time I start I get trapped into wondering why I have kept them  and after reading put them back on the shelf for another day.

It has got me thinking about how things have changed ( or stayed the same) since the heady days of the 1960s when I began my career.

In my early days ( and for most of my life ) I was an educational adviser - first in nature study, then science, then art and, in later years ( after a time as a  teacher and school principal ), in leadership and management. Now I restrict myself to contributing to this blog - which recently received its millionth visitor.

Sadly today education seems more about accountability than creativity. Not that creativity was ever widespread. In earlier days it was conservative tradition that presented the challenge to creative teachers.

 As a member of a team of ten or so advisers  in a small New Zealand region it  was easy to gain, from the various advisers, where the innovative teachers were and, in turn,to support them.  Today in our fragmented 'stand alone' schools, it is not so easy. Interestingly in earlier days creative teachers were easily identified but few creative principals. The same situation can be said about today as principals  are forced to comply to accountability demands.
Sir Ken - go to this link

'Creativity', writes Robert Sternberg  a well respected American educationalist and expert in creativity,' is a habit'. 

The problem is', he says, 'that schools sometimes treat it as a bad habit.' He is particularly concerned with the world of standardised tests that are now a feature of schools. And that such tests do not encourage the development of creativity.

My own experience  in New Zealand schools echoes Sternberg's views. Developing creativity is, and always has been,  difficult but it is a creative mindset , Sternberg believes,that we most need to develop in our students (and in our teachers.)

'Creativity'  Sternberg writes, ' is a habit, a routine response . 'People are creative  ...because of an attitude towards their work and even towards life. They habitually respond to problems n fresh and novel ways, rather than allowing themselves to respond in conventional and sometimes automatic ways.'

He continues,' Like any habit creativity can be encouraged or discouraged'.

 The main things that promotes the habit are:

(a) opportunities to engage in it, and
(b) encouragement when people avail of these opportunities, and
(c)  reward when people respond to such encouragement and think and behave creatively.

'You need all this respect, creativity is no different from any other habit, good or bad.'

Developing a positive habit it not as simple as it sounds as it all too often confronts the status quo.

'Creative people routinely approach problems in a novel ways. ......( they) look for ways to see problems that other people don't look for; take risks that other people are afraid to take; have the courage to defy the crowd and to stand up for their own beliefs; believe in their own ability to be creative; seek to overcome obstacles and challenges to their views rather people give in to; and are willing to work hard to achieve creative solutions'.

Sounds like a principals nightmare!

 Most school procedures suppress creativity. One of the most destructive aspect,  Sternberg writes,  is 'the emphasis on standardised testing'. And I would add the current narrow focus on achieving achievement targets. and imposed  conformist  'best practices'.

Valuing creativity requires valuing diversity or personalised responses. All a bit hard to measure and compare.It is all too easy for schools to say they believe in creativity but to stop short of actually encouraging it.

Accountability is discouraging creativity ..... except perhaps in the ways schools 'rort' the system to show how they have improved narrow achievement.

Creativity is important because the world is changing faster than ever. Sternberg writes, 'people need to constantly cope with new and unusual kinds of tasks and situations'. 'Learning in this era must be lifelong...We need to think creatively to thrive, and, at times, even to survive.'

Schools may talk about lifelong learning but, in reality, creative thinking is discouraged for both students and teachers.

Imagine a school based on fostering creativity - keeping alive the innate desire to learn that is the default way the very young learn before they enter formal schooling!

  Sternberg believes, we need to promote the kind of accountability in which students must show they have mastered subject matter, but also can think analytically, creatively, and practically with it.'

Sternberg's advice is backed up by another reading I discovered in my sorting out.

Howard Gardner, in his article I found,  defines the minds we truly need in the future if we are to go 'beyond the herd mentality'.

 Gardner is equally concerned with the subversion of the purpose of education by  the need to compare schools and countries on quantitative educational comparisons..

This need to get to the top of international comparisons is , in his opinion ( and mine)  'a fool's errand' because in the process it 'ignores deeper and more important purpose of education.'

Gardner writes , 'the peril of making tests all important and of teaching to the tests have been well documented'. And he, like Sternberg, mentions the problem of schools 'cheating' to protect their reputations.

Gardner's biggest concern is the need to, 'avoid the herd mentality. Instead we should be 'considering the kinds of minds that we want to cultivate in our system' 

Those minds include;

A disciplined mind, that can think well and appropriately in the major disciplines

A synthesising mind, that can sift through a large amount of information, decide what is important , and put it together in ways that make sense for oneself and for others.

A creative mind, that can raise new questions, come up with novel solutions, think outside the box.

A respectful mind, that honours the differences among individuals and groups, and tries to understand them and work productively with them.

An ethical mind, that thinks, beyond selfish interests, about the kind of worker one aspires to be, and the kind of citizen that one should be.

In New Zealand we ought to be having discussions about the kinds of people we would like to have in the future.

At present , trapped in a herd mentality created by the current audit and surveillance culture, we are, Gardner writes, 'like lemmings - marching confidently, but proudly and disastrously, into a sea of ignorance'.

If only New Zealand schools would take the current Zealand Curriculum  (2007)seriously.

Imagine if every student left our school system as a 'confident life long learner' ,  all with a  positive  'learning identity',  and all  able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

I live in hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think Sternberg is right - schools are no place for real creativity. Children's thinking has to be acceptable to school/teacher expectations. I guess this is inevitable to a degree but in todays standardised environment it is most difficult.

Like Gardners five minds.