Creativity, the Arts, and the Common Core

Years ago as I was enrolled in a multi-session new administrators professional development workshop series, one of the presenters was Terrence Deal, who with Leo Bolman, had written one of my organizational leadership texts.  For many years, Deal has been writing with Bolman and others about educational leadership and school culture.  Among the most important insights I recall from that meeting was Deal’s commentary on school culture compared to corporate culture.  He remarked that schools were headed in the wrong direction when they attempted to become more like businesses, and he noted that he had a growing business as a consultant to corporations that were attempting to become more like schools.  Why? Because schools represented, among other things, a culture that valued creativity and collaboration, that recognized differences among individuals, and that nurtured individuals toward self-improvement.

In the February issue of Educational Leadership, the theme is creativity.  It’s a good issue with many good articles, and you can read some of them without a subscription if you click on the titles without locks.  Of course you can find a colleague with the magazine and read them all!  Some of the authors express their concerns about how the Common Core could pose a challenge to teacher and student creativity.  Nowhere in the Common Core is creativity explicitly valued, nor do we see any clear places where creativity will be tested.  And we know too often that what is tested is taught.

If one considers the increase in cognitive complexity that the Core implies, it might be easy to suggest that the increased requirement to problem solve, whether in more complex math problems or more textual analysis of reading passages, is the same as creativity.  It isn’t, and I’ve been guilty of making this generalization myself.  Cognitive complexity and creativity are not the same–demonstrating multiple pathways to the solution of a math problem might show a ‘creative’ approach, but it often actually means the math teacher has done a good job of helping students find multiple pathways to understand math concepts.

One particularly interesting article in Educational Leadership is “The Art & Craft of Science,” by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.  You can read this article for free, by the way.  The authors have an impressive collection of research showing how the arts support science and mathematics.  They mention their own work, showing that four years of arts or music in high school would “confer a 100-point advantage over the average SAT score, whereas four years of science confer only a 69-point advantage.”  Their entire article is filled with examples from the writings of noted scientists and researchers that suggest the arts is somehow related to good results in science and math occupations.  Their work with graduates from Michigan State University, where the authors are employed, shows that “MSU Honors College STEM grads are 3 to 10 times more likely to be engaged in arts and crafts than the average American.”

I don’t read them as claiming that arts education creates better scientists, but the general evidence of creativity as an element that rounds out the education of successful STEM graduates is quite interesting.  The notion that keeping explicitly creative programs as a part of our general educational priorities runs through this Educational Leadership issue.

A major fear among critics of our testing accountability mania and of the Common Core’s emphasis on textual analysis (to the feared reduction in more creative ELA elements), coupled with national economic woes that have cut funding for public education, is the narrowing of the curriculum.  Schools for many years have been cutting teachers and programs that are not core academic topics in the arts, cutting vocational programs, cutting foreign language options, and cutting electives from science and social studies programs to focus on passing tests.  Many writers at all levels lament the decline of STEM programs–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–and suggest our international standing is suffering because of a decline among American students in STEM high school and college programs.  Schools and teachers are caught in the maelstrom of preparing kids for state accountability tests, the results of which are being touted as appropriate measures of whether schools and teachers are effective.  Too often, I think we’re throwing out the child-centered, healthy adult opportunities that a broad curriculum has traditional offered.  We need to foster creativity and individuality, not neglect them in pursuit of a narrowly aimed test score to define success.

If we look at the educational systems of several nations that outperform us on numbers, we will find many in which an end of school year test is critical.  China and Japan come to mind here, where high student suicide rates speak poorly about pressures on kids.  We should also take note of how much effort these two countries are making in attempting to put creativity into their schools–they have a clear understanding that the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit that characterized American education and makes America, still, the best source of new inventions and new discoveries, is related to our historically creative and ‘liberal arts’ k-12 educational programs.  And an examination of test scores compared to worker productivity demonstrates that high test scores don’t relate to economic productivity.

As we move to the Common Core, which I like, we must not negate the broad and humanistic elements of our traditional educational system.  Our students’ measures of ability should be more than a number.  We won’t success by matching the Chinese model of superior test takers — they have created an economic power based on the imitation and reproduction of intellectual discoveries from elsewhere, and they regularly visit our schools trying to find the secret to our own entrepreneurial success.  Our future lies in how well we continue to have a broadly educated, well-rounded population with the ability to think out of the box and discover new solutions to the challenges around us.

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