Do Schools Kill Student Creativity?


Aaditi Tamhankar '17, Arts and Features Editor

Public K-12 education has come under intense scrutiny by various influential people. Some say schools are not teaching students life skills that they will need to use in the real world. Others say schools need to emphasize STEM fields more, and cut funding for art programs. Still others say the whole school system needs to be revamped: schools need to better meet the needs of students, and emphasize creativity and STEM. I believe that if we revamped the school system, students would be more enthusiastic about learning, society would benefit from more inventions, and teachers would enjoy their jobs more.

There is no doubt that schools are doing the best they can under budget cuts, and strict federal educational standards such as the now infamous Common Core and the No Child Left Behind Act. The change in our public school system must happen at the top level, as most teachers are powerless under the strict rules and regulations they must follow. This change is not an optional thing – the United States ranks 28th internationally on quality of education. One widely held belief is that schools need to put focus on creativity over rote memorization.

Today, creativity is being stifled by our school system. David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed piece “The Creative Monopoly” notes the following: “Students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students: getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests.” These effects are seen well into adulthood with 80 percent of people feeling that creativity is critical to economic growth, but only one in four people feel like they are living up to their creative potential.

Creative people don’t follow the crowds. Creative people absorb the world around them and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows. This is the kind of attitude we must cultivate in schools. Instead, most schools teach conformity, and discourage creativity. For example, if a student creates an amazing, creative project, but the project is missing a requirement of the rubric, the student is penalized. The negative consequence for their creativity teaches the kid to tailor their projects directly to teacher requirements instead of thinking out of the box.

One of the biggest myths about creativity is that it only belongs to the select few. In reality, creativity is a talent that is present in everyone, and just like any other talent, it can be sharpened through practice. The trouble is staying creative in a public school system that just wants students to bubble A, B, C, or D. In the “real world” we are told there are infinite possibilities, but in school there are only apparently four.

But none of this is new. Sir Ken Robinson’s 2007 TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? has been viewed on YouTube over 9 million times to date. In his discussion, he says, “The problem is they [schools] are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past. And on the way they are alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school.” Educational policies need to be made by analyzing the skills needed by workers today and structuring education to meet them.

The culture of schools is one of living day-by-day trying to get by. Robinson says, “One of the roles of education is to awaken and develop the powers of creativity. Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.”  Students are focused on the next assignment, next marking period, next grade. Teachers are focused on the next everything. Principals are focused on the next test, board meeting, or in-service. Rarely do those in the trenches get a moment to take a step back, and take a look at where we are heading. More importantly, they almost never ask the question “Why are we heading there?”

In the past, going to a university and earning a degree practically guaranteed a steady job, a house in a good neighborhood, and a comfortable life. Today, this is clearly not the case. The millennial generation is still lagging in the workplace; it makes up about 40 percent of the unemployed in the US, says Anthony Carnival, a director and research professor for Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In January 2014, 15.4 percent of college grads were unemployed, compared to the national average of 5.4 percent. Despite these alarming statistics, schools are still doing the exact same thing they did forty years ago. In past years, getting students to succeed in college were the only goals of a school. Today we have to approach education more holistically, and in a way that is relevant to the current economic conditions.

Some people say that creativity will come at the cost of math and science education. Since STEM fields are the fastest growing sectors in the economy, people view this as unacceptable. But the truth is, increasing creativity does not have to come at a cost to students. Internationally, Japan is ranked as the most creative country. Japan also consistently leads in math and science scores. The Japanese have adapted their schools to better meet the needs of the students, and their global rankings have increased. According to Robinson, “You can be creative in anything – in math, science, engineering, philosophy – as much as you can in music or in painting or in dance.” STEM subjects can be taught in ways that engage student’s creativity.

What we are doing now, or have done in the past, does not have to determine what we can do next and in the future. Our current educational model is not working- it is alienating students with creative talents, stressing out teachers, and costing our economy millions. Many adults are working low wage menial jobs thinking this is their level, since they never succeeded in the traditional subjects schools emphasized. This enormous waste of talent cannot be a new reality. Those students who do succeed in school and go on to college find that their k-12 schooling has zapped them of their creativity, and many find themselves unemployed or underemployed. Creativity is the vehicle of success; we cannot squander the talents of many individuals in the name of standardization any longer. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating children.