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Ever had your confidence crushed by a failing grade? Come on, show of hands. I know I have, and I don’t think I’m alone. I vividly recall the time my 7th grade art teacher gave me a C for the class because my work didn’t fit her insane standards. I distinctly recall her lifting up my picture and saying, “This is kindergartener work.” She told me I would be getting a C for the class; the first one of my life.
I was crushed. The teacher tried to reassure me that, since I went to a gifted and talented school, a C was still above average compared to a ‘normal’ student. Nice try, art teacher. No matter how you sugarcoat it, a C is a C, and that won’t stop my tears or repair my confidence. That wasn’t the first time this sort of thing would happen.
Spanish classes were another ball of wax, but at least none of those came with a teacher comparing me to a kindergartener.
Most of them were wonderful and supportive; it’s just that I could not grasp the subject and the school system forced me to slog through it for eleven years. Don’t get me wrong- this paper isn’t here for me to complain about my struggles with the school system. I love that we have a school system and that it does just fine in teaching us how to read and write. It’s after that where it all goes downhill.
There are so many problems with the American school system that professionals exist who point them out for their entire careers. I’m going to focus on one particularly dear to me, and that’s creativity. I remember being a kid and coming up with ideas at a mile a minute. I’d construct elaborate mental worlds and, to me, it wasn’t even a thing. And everyone around me did it, too. The ones that didn’t flat-out steal my ideas, at least. Those guys were jerks. Everyone else, though, was wonderfully creative and I really only notice it in retrospect.
Sure, a lot of those ideas were stupid, but there’s something to be said for the immense quantity of ideas generated by me and my tiny peer group. What happened, you ask? Well, some very smart people- the most prominent of which is renowned education activist Sir Ken Robinson- say that school happened. Obviously, there was to be a better way. The question is, what is the better way? Which one is worth our limited time, effort, and money? That’s the question I want to answer. It won’t be easy, but does anyone write an essay because they’re easy? No, we write essays because they’re assigned and because they’re difficult. There are plenty of another ways’, but I have limited space here. You hear about educational movements like Montessori schools that place more emphasis on individual discovery and choice and less on age groupings and direct instruction (American).
The problem here is that the movement remains largely limited to snooty private schools, not to mention the actual educational merits- or lack thereof- of the Montessori system. I want to improve PUBLIC education. I want every kid in the country to notice the difference. It’s very difficult to affect broad, national changes when the most popular alternative is favored by the wealthy and tends more towards preschools than, say, middle or high schools. Is it a step in the right direction? Hard to say. Some kids, especially younger ones, might benefit from the lack of structure, but it’s harder to study how older kids respond to it. There are other, potentially better ways of educating children, ones that work for children of all ages and that are suited for a wide range of kids across the country. If we want something to base our own educational system on, we can’t compare scholarly public apples to private oranges.
We need to look abroad to those countries that fall ahead of the United States on those preachy commercials that scold us for not being good at math. One such country that has been receiving some attention is Finland. I know what you’re thinking. Finland? Really? I mean, I’m sure it’s a nice place and all, but it’s not a place you hear about very often, even if you’re like me and happen to have friends from that part of the world. The thing is, Finland simply does things differently. The Smithsonian says that they focus on people, not test scores, and that the teachers will simply do whatever it takes to turn a troubled student around. Teachers are selected from the top of their graduating classes and earn more than average wages. The interesting part is, Finland didn’t even know how well they were doing on an international scale- reaching the top ten in every tested category– until recently (Hancock).
Finland’s individual-based personalized approach is a stark contrast to America’s No Child Left Behind-mandated statistics-focused system. Finnish students take one standardized test in their whole scholastic career (Hancock). Meanwhile, I don’t know how many CSAPs, pSATs, and ACTs I’ve taken in my life. A quick count puts the number at somewhere around thirteen, and I doubt my fellow students fare much better. My point is that good ideas exist. Not just ideas restricted to snooty private preschools, but ideas that have been put into practice already on a national scale. They’re out there. They are sitting there, across the pond, just waiting. Let’s go get them and bring them over. As you may have guessed, I’m a big believer in teaching creativity in education. In Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk, Changing Education Paradigms, he lists a number of ways that schools hurt creativity.
For one, everyone in public school is graded against a certain kind of intelligence. Those kids who don’t excel in one particular area of intelligence- specifically, a certain kind of “logical reasoning” and knowing whatever Shakespeare was talking about- are judged to be “stupid” and sentenced to a life of drudgery when, in fact, they’re just as bright as you or me, just in different ways. I know plenty of people who, while unable to do math without counting on their fingers, become gifted storytellers or excel in any number of other fields. There’s a quote often attributed to Einstein that says, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will go the rest of its life thinking it’s an idiot.” I know that certainly happened to me, and it happened to a lot of my friends. They call themselves stupid because they didn’t do well in school, instead of focusing on their other, legitimate talents.
Some people would use this as a way to argue for more music and art programs in schools. If you ask me, that’s kind of a mixed bag. Given my experience with art classes (above) and in music classes (a very similar experience), I can’t argue for that with any real passion. By all means, put more creative outlets into schools, but make sure they’re done right. Art is not to be graded on a scale from A to F, the artists compared to children half their age. That’s completely opposite the whole point of art- to express oneself creatively without fear of being put down by “the man”. In addition, Ken Robinson points out the rising number of prescriptions for ADD and ADHD medication, especially as it coincides with the rise in standardized testing. Questions about overmedication and the existence of said disorders are beyond the scope of this essay, of course.
The data is the important thing. He says that, “We are living in the most intensely stimulating time in human history, and we can’t get kids to focus on their schoolwork. And what are they teaching? Boring stuff!” I, personally, agree with this. I’ll admit I’ve been bored in class before, but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart- if I may say so myself. I find myself surfing YouTube in my free time watching videos about history and science and any number of topics, and I’m not the only one. These Internet teachers have mastered the art of being entertaining and educational. I know I mentioned music classes earlier in the paper, and that demands a bit of expansion. While I try my best to prevent this essay from becoming a simple compilation of my educational horror stories, some of them do bear some relevance to my theme. As it turns out, when you’re writing about education, people tend to expect stories about education! Anyways, around fifth grade or so, my elementary school found out that I was ahead of the curve with music education.
Not out of any inborn musical talent or anything. I simply had been taking piano lessons for a few years and had learned a thing or two about music and the attendant theory. The problem is, so had most of the people I didn’t exactly get along with back in those days. I can still remember their names now. You see, the way my school did things like gym, music, art, and the like was that each homeroom class would rotate through them every couple weeks or so. The idea was that they’d take all the musically advanced kids and put them in a special group, called “Class X”. The other kids called us “Class N” for “nerd”, so that stung a little. So, there I was, separated from my friends and isolated with the people I got along with the least, all for the sake of some slightly more advanced musical education- which, by the way, I would repeat next year after the experiment failed and Class X was dissolved. Which, at least, represents a willingness to admit mistakes and not make them again.
My point is, I didn’t learn much of anything from that little flirtation with advanced music classes and the experience gives me more than a little doubt about the real effectiveness of music programs. I realize my experience was abnormal at the least, but what are music programs really meant to do? Is it a Band-Aid for the larger problem of creativity in schools? Is it something to pad out the length of the day? I’m sure there’s some stock academic reason for the inclusion of such things, but for the life of me, I can’t think of one. If you ask me, the best way to teach kids creativity is to put them in environments that encourage problem solving. For example, instead of a twenty question test that tests what you can regurgitate, why not face a group of individuals with a real-world problem that needs solving? Ask a group of inherently creative kids how to solve a real-world problem, and you’ll get at least as many answers as you have kids, if not more. You can limit them to real-world solutions later. The creativity is the important part.
Think back to your own school days. Which teachers were your favorites? The one that read from a book at you all day and told you that the test would be on Friday? Or the animated ones that made learning fun? Everyone I know has fond memories of entertaining educators like Bill Nye (the quintessential “Science Guy”) and the Magic School Bus. Which brings me to another point: One of the most memorable parts of the Magic School Bus was the teacher character, Mrs. Frizzle, and her catchphrase. “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, and Get Messy!” You see, these days, kids are afraid to fail. I refer back to my earlier anecdote about art class- nothing hurts a kid more than a big fat F. Or, in my case, a big fat C. People learn by failing. You’ve heard that you need to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Well, I can tell you that you’d be eating a lot fewer omelets if the eggs spit acid at you if you cracked them wrong. I still don’t consider myself an artistic person, and I spent several years of my life cursing my inability to draw. Part of that’s because I’m a storyteller at heart, but I think that my horrid seventh grade art teacher is to blame for some part of that. In her article, “How Schools are Killing Creativity”, Line Dalile explains that the modern educational system trains kids to fear failure, and so discourages them from taking chances, making mistakes, and getting messy, which is really how a kid- or anyone, for that matter- learns. Now that we’ve proved that you’re a creative person and that it’s society’s fault that you didn’t know, let’s look at why that matters. I mean, everyone wants to be creative. Everyone wants to be the one to come up with a novel solution to a problem.
Look at the great inventors through history. Marconi. Ford. Farnsworth. Each one created an amazing solution to a problem that existed, and their names went down in history. These people were the ones with the creative talent and the mechanical and electrical know-how to put them into practice. Creativity is the important thing here, though. Creativity is the spark that lets you focus “I can do anything” into “Let’s do this.” I’m the kind of person who, when told they can do anything, tends to do nothing. I need structure and something to point me in the right direction.
Creativity does that. Creativity lets you look at a problem and come up with a novel solution. That’s why everyone likes the creative people of the world: the artists, the inventors, and the creators. The people who looked at the world and said, “How can I help?” The people who see a problem in the world and take it upon themselves to solve it, to improve the common stock of humanity with nothing else but the tools we are all given as people at birth. The whole point of public education is to prepare children to be productive members of the next generation, to be people we’ll be proud to pass the torch off to and to change the world for the better. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the coming generation to change the world for the better, to take the tools they are given and use them to build a better society? It’s not an easy task by any means, and it will probably take a few of those great people just to realize. It’s an investment, to be sure, but isn’t that all education is? You went to college and rack up thousands of dollars in debt with the expectation that you’ll be able to pay it all back- and keep a little on the side- in the years to come.
Governments around the world pour millions of dollars into schools with the expectation that they produce the next generation of bright young citizens. Education is planting the tree whose shade you will never sit in so that the society as a whole can flourish. I am a writer at heart, and I use that to express myself, as writers are wont to do. I spend my free time creating characters and watching them grow into real people with hopes and dreams and feelings that I couldn’t have designed on my own. And as I see them grow, I start to see myself in them. The characters of Elizabeth and Helvetica Steele- which are also the subject of my senior project, by the way- ended up representing facets of myself. I’m both a passionate dreamer and the realist, gently trying to keep the dreamer from flying too close to the sun. I didn’t intend this- it simply happened. My own creation helped me to learn things about myself, and that’s something that’s incredibly useful. I would hate to deprive a child of the ability to learn more about themselves, and a creative lens is the best way to do that.
A big part of writing is self-expression, and, as previously shown, it doesn’t have to be intentional on the part of the writer. When we create ideas, those are inherently autobiographical, formed by our unique experiences. You can’t have someone else’s ideas, and no one else can have ideas like you. Your unique set of life experiences has gifted you with the ability to make creative ideas in a way that only you can. This is a powerful tool. As one of my favorite Internet teachers, John Green, said, “Reading is always an act of empathy. It’s always an imagining of what it’s like to be someone else.” Writing has an inherent ability to make someone walk in another’s shoes. Whether they’re my own sweaty school shoes or the polished rubber boots of Elizabeth Steele as she polishes her death ray, writing makes you walk a mile in them. This- in my obviously unbiased opinion- amazing ability of writing swings both ways, mind you. Writing lets us relate our life stories to people any distance away and any number of centuries in the future. You have to be careful, though.
As anyone who has been misunderstood over the Internet knows, it’s very easy to miss your mark when you can’t inflect and you’re talking to someone who has no idea who you are, and potentially lives in a very different culture with a very different set of experiences than you. Say my book- Cold Steele, by the way, five dollars on Amazon- falls into a tar pit and is one of the few surviving relics of our civilization. Found in the future, it becomes the new Epic of Gilgamesh, with scholars pouring over it to try and determine what life was like back here in the 21st century. These future archeologists will have to try and put themselves in my (or, rather, my character’s) shoes to determine what life was like during our time, and writing gives them that power. This is why creativity is important. Anyone can describe what it’s like to live somewhere, but it takes creativity to make you feel it, to actually know what it’s like to live in a distant land in the far past that’s completely different from what you know. Finally, creativity is just a good thing overall.
Creativity enriches life. I’m glad I have my writing as an outlet, as it brought me some of my best friends and helped me to learn about myself. Having a way to express yourself, however it comes, is one of those things that everyone deserves to be able to do. Creativity also improves your quality of life. As Randall Munroe of the popular webcomic XKCD explains, “The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.” All that this quote says is that anyone can simply live; gliding through life with the minimal possible effort, but it reminds us that no one wants to be that guy. The people who get the most out of their limited lives are the creative ones who make the most of their gifts, talents, and passions. That’s something I want everyone to have the opportunity to do.
Humans have a relatively short lifespan on this Earth by most accounts, and the best of us spend that time well. We create art, music, and science with our lives, and we still find the time to be happy. Shouldn’t we be giving our kids the tools to do the same? That’s why we should focus on creativity in schools. There are too many benefits to count, both to the individual and to society as a whole. I’m glad I’m a creative person, and I wish every child in America would be given the same opportunity. It has changed my life in any number of ways, and the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. It won’t be easy, of course. Calls for change are louder than they’ve ever been, but inertia is a powerful force. After all, we’ve been educating our kids this way for any number of years, and it’s really hard to change something that’s been around that long. If there’s one thing I learned from physics, it’s that something big that’s been sitting still for a long while needs a big push to get it going. Why not be that big push?
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