Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Creativity Deficit

We’re all a little happier when we are engaged in a project that calls upon our imagination and creativity. There is something about the open-ended nature of this kind of learning that feeds the soul as well as the mind. This happens, in part, because a creative project isn’t pre-defined for us. Instead, it calls upon us to do the defining. Creative projects aren’t answer-driven, they’re question-driven. They aren’t standardized, they’re personalized.

Unfortunately, this type of learning is often the exception instead of the rule when it comes to formal education. As a result, students are rarely asked to practice skills that are vitally important to success in today’s world. As Sir Ken Robinson puts it, schools are killing creativity.

At the same time, the tools for creative expression have never been so affordable and pervasive. More and more children are entering our hallways with the means to shoot and edit photos and videos; compose, practice, record and edit music; create, manipulate and mash-up digital media; develop and deliver narratives; and share all of these with the world.

Furthermore, students have instant access to a buffet of digital content that speaks directly to their interests and suggests even more content to them based on their online behaviors and presence. The world is now built in such a way, that our students have the ability to design and select and create the world they want to experience.

It’s little wonder that school can feel so artificial to so many. Much of formal schooling is driven by a need to ensure a consistency of experience rather than a diversity of experience, to define learning as a result to be achieved rather than a process to be experienced, and to measure learners against a template rather than viewing them as unique.

Teachers, of course, live in the midst of this contradiction. They know that each learner is different. Each child has his own time-table for growth. Each student has her own set of talents, struggles, interests, and passions. Teachers know that developing the complex skills of communication and problem-solving are more important than memorizing the discrete content that can be measured on a test. Yet teachers are also held accountable for how successfully students demonstrate mastery of discrete knowledge that has often been plotted out in standardized units of study and delivered through a rigid curriculum that is highly time-dependent. Daily, teachers are forced to make a devil’s compromise between the needs of their learners and the needs of the system in which they work.

Over time, not only are students’ creative muscles atrophied, the teachers’ are as well. Creativity is the side dish that is served as an afterthought. Filmmaking is done after the worksheets are completed, not in place of them. Photo editing is taught in elective classes or not at all. Service projects are reserved for extracurricular organizations. The percentage of classroom time given to learning and developing creative skills is shrinking, and as that time becomes less of a teacher’s day, creative activities become less and less likely to be selected out of the teacher’s toolbox.

We all need to look for more opportunities to bring creativity to our work. This begins with learning to harness the creative tools that people are using in their daily lives for the task of learning. Below are a few ways that all of us can use digital tools to bring creativity and imagination to the learning process:

  1. Record and Edit Audio.
  2. Design and Communicate Visually.
  3. Create Digital Learning Spaces.

Over the next few months, I plan to focus on each of these ideas in individual posts on this blog. I will link them here as they are completed.

While I hope that teachers will challenge themselves to do these things as learners, I hope even more fervently that they will insist that their students do them as part of the joyous work of learning. The creative activity should often be the first strategy out of the toolbox. But getting there from where we are will take time, imagination, and lots of creativity.

photo credit: via photopin cc
photo credit: PraveenbenK via photopin cc


  1. Excellent Tim! Unlike many who simply lament this lack of creativity, thank you for helping to paint a picture of concrete ways we can fill the void. Looking forward to these posts!

    1. Thanks, Jason. I'm looking forward to writing them. As you know well, so much of the shift relies on our ability to paint a picture that resonates with people. I hope to be able to at least add my voice to that work.

    2. Just realized I totally stole the sentiments (and language) of Jason (below)! Sounds like we are all on the same page :)

  2. Great stuff, and so very true. The challenge for an individual in a role such as yours and mine, Tim, is selling this idea in a way that resonates with that teacher who is strapped with a VAM score, ACT testing year, and End of Course testing growth targets. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I'm definitely looking for more effective ways to do it!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Jason. I completely feel that. I know that we limit the power of great educators by stripping away their opportunities for creativity through standardization. I suppose the best way we combat this is by focusing on the daily differences that we can make first.

  3. Great work Tim. I am right beside you!