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.