Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Tempered Radical: Creativity is Dead, Ken. . .

When you hear some teachers and union leaders, one of the most common complaints about the current "regime" of schools and school curricula is that it does not foster creativity in kids. Such is the subject of a recent post by Bill Ferriter, The Tempered Radical. Bill tried creativity and was highly energized to do so, but ran into serious obstacles when it came to putting that energy into practice. Ferriter begins:
Last February, I stumbled across a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson titled Do Schools Kill Creativity that left me completely energized. In it, Robinson lays out a case for why creativity should be reintroduced to our classrooms that echoed themes being shared by writers like Daniel Pink, who argue that the most effective workers in tomorrow's world will be those who can innovate and find connections between and across disparate fields.

Knowing that my own practice did little to encourage creativity, I was challenged----and I spent the better part of the last 8 months trying to find ways to allow my students to spend more time creating and innovating.

My efforts have been a complete failure, though. (links in original omitted)
Bill covers a number of reasons why he believes that creativity is dead in the classroom. But one jumped out at me more than any other:
States define MASSIVE curricula for our kids: Regular Radical readers know how much I hate the required curricula that I'm expected to teach.

Like the $12 burrito you order at the local Taquerita when you're feeling randy, state curricula in almost every subject leave teachers and students feeling bloated and gassy. While we might enjoy the first few bites of our studies, by the end of the year, school becomes nothing more than a pleasure-less mechanical chew.
As Bill notes, he is not a big fan of the massive curricula that is processed and produced by our state and local boards of education.

As I have noted before myself, curricula are not educational documents. They are political documents. The curricula created for our schools is partly based in what adults think kids of a certain age should be learning and they probably do start as a real educational device, developed by a series of technocrats with relevant expertise (and yes, biases). But curricula have to be approved in what is an unabashedly political environment, even if the school board is nominally non-partisan or even appointed. The fact is that very few curriculum changes make it from the drawing board to the classroom in an intact fashion.

The result of all the poltical pressure that is brought to bear on the approval process is not a winnowing down to what is most important or even most relevant. Just like a legislative appropriations bill, the curriculum doesn't get smaller as it moves through the process, it gets bigger. And each time a school board or a state reviews a curriculum it doesn't do so from the viewpoint of making it smaller, but making it more "current" which ultimately means adding more to it.

The result is the very thing that Bill Ferriter and his colleagues denounce, a bloated, gassy, impossible to complete cirrculum. As a result, those things that teachers and unions want to see, i.e. professionals who craft and practice the art and science of teachers, creativity, discussion, in-depth discovery, get reduced in the process of having to check items off the curriculum checklist.

So what is the solution to curriculum bloat? Well that is a more delicate problem. Of course, the content has to be reconsidered, but that puts us into the same problem we have now, as the curriculum goes through the review process things will get added rather than deleted. As a starting point, we have to take a look at time. For the most part, in theory, a school as 180 days of instruction time. In reality though, when you take out all the time for testing, prep, school holidays and their attendant lost time before and after a holiday, a teacher might have 120-130 days of real instruction time. Take away another ten percent of time for the inevitable misunderstandings of concepts that will arise in students and you are left with perhaps 100-110 days of quality, new concept instruction time. From there you have to buil a curriculum that can be covered in just 100 days.

My sense is that if schools start with the notion that they really don't have a full 180 days of instruction time, you can start to build a real, realistic curriculum.

1 comment:

Bill Ferriter said...

Matt wrote:
My sense is that if schools start with the notion that they really don't have a full 180 days of instruction time, you can start to build a real, realistic curriculum.


You know what I struggle with, Matt: Trying to figure out just who needs to take the first step in this whole process!

When I read "schools start with the notion," I honestly feel powerless because I see myself as "schools," and operating from the notion that I only have 100 days means I need to hack away at the curriculum mightily in order to fit everything in.

My resistance to hacking, though, is there's a real chance that whatever I hack is going to be on the exam---which remains the only criteria that I'm evaluated on. So instead of winnowing out standards, I feel pressure to try to touch on everything even if I know that I'm not going to do a good job on anything.

The other hitch in leaving these decisions in the hands of teachers is that there will be little consistency in what's hacked! The quality of the hacker will impact the quality of the instruction that kids get. We're back to the kinds of hit and miss behaviors that weaken education in general.

My personal hope would be that the bodies who approve curricula would send us relatively stripped down documents to begin with. I know that's unlikely for all of the reasons you mention, but that is the most responsible solution to this mess.

Does this make any sense?
Bill