The Greatest Enemy of Creativity in Schools Isn’t Testing. It’s Time.
Creativity is one of those ineffable skills that’s important—especially for jobs of the future—but hard to pin down. We know when we feel creative, and we know what creative work looks like. Measuring and assessing such work in a way that keeps kids inspired is another matter, though, and schools aren’t known for being good at it. For years, personalities like Sir Ken Robinson have taken education systems to task for actually testing the creativity out of students.
Author and educator Katie White, who’s something of an expert on the creative process, may have a practical solution.
She argues that creativity actually has a very visible side that can be nurtured. “A lot of people think it’s very formless, but the case that I’m making is that it’s actually very observable, and there’s plenty of things that would indicate creativity,” she says. That means teachers can both tease it out and measure it—provided they know what to look for.
A former art teacher, White is now an education consultant who criss-crosses the continent giving workshops, coaching teachers in her local Saskatchewan district and writing books. Her newest, “Unlocked: Assessment as the Key to Everyday Creativity in the Classroom,” serves as something of a blueprint for schools aiming to spark the creative process in the classroom while staying grounded in a reality that requires them to follow standards and assess students regularly.
White recently spoke with EdSurge about what creativity actually looks like, practical ways teachers can inspire their students and the biggest enemy of the creative process. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What does a good formative assessment around creativity look like?
White: There are a few. Depending on the context in which kids are engaging in creative processes, there will be the layer of assessment that relates directly to the content. If they’re exploring various ways to solve various mathematical problems, for example, you’ll have a layer that’s pretty specific. Often you’ll get those criteria from the standards and the outcomes, and teachers and kids can make sense of that work together. That’s sort of the vehicle that’s getting them to the creative process.
But then there’s the criteria for creativity. In other words, “how does creativity look when it’s being lived out?” Well, we want to see kids asking lots and lots of questions. We want to see students who are struggling with ambiguity and are feeling comfortable taking risks. We want to see them recover from mistakes and show engagement and investment in their products and performances. Those will be the same from class to class and experience to experience. But the context that drives creativity will be subject-specific.
Experimentation or risk-taking in a writing class means that students generate an idea they haven’t used before, or come up with new perspectives or opinions. In a science class, risk-taking might be making a hypothesis that goes beyond the surface level and thinking about what might happen and then committing to that idea. Or it might be using less-familiar materials. This risk-taking skill looks different depending on the context.
In your book, you talk about “the four stages of creativity.” Can you describe what this process looks like?
The stages I talk about are a synthesis of the work of lots of other people. I sort of rename them so they’re easier to understand. I talk about introducing kids to creativity through a catalyst or a critical notion: I call that the exploration stage. It’s a time when kids are asking questions and invited into learning experiences that create curiosity.
The second stage is elaboration, where students will mess around with their initial questions and their engagement with materials. They will deepen their understanding and their questions might shift a bit.
The third stage is expression, and that’s where kids and teachers decide together how to share their thinking with other people. It could be with parents or other students or just sitting beside someone and sharing a solution to a problem.
The fourth stage is reflection and response. It’s a little different from self-assessment, which happens in all stages. Reflection and response is that really deep longitudinal thinking about creative processes and which strategies worked for kids, which environments made them more creative and how they’d like to apply it to their learning.
Layered over that is the notion of thinking about assessment in new ways. People most often think of the final summative event where we verify learning. But the kind of assessment I talk about most is dialogue with others, or feedback, and then dialogue with self, or self-assessment.
In order for children and adults to move through these stages, we need to invite them into the kinds of assessment processes that allow them to think about what they are trying to achieve, the degree to which they’re being successful in that moment and how to plan for future engagement—like what they’re going to do next.
Where in those stages might students get tripped up and not able to move on to next stage?
If we let kids free with great materials and good catalysts, I don’t know that they get tripped up. You have to provide physical space, emotional space and time for kids to try things and experience either success or failure. In a school environment, we’re often marching through a very content-heavy and skill-heavy curricula, which makes teachers feel pressured to move through things as quickly as possible.
You might go through the exploration, where children are invited to generate their own questions, but then they don’t get the chance to fully search for answers and experiment and experience the creative process. We rush to the answer too quickly.
Or maybe they have a chance to do some exploration and elaboration, but there isn’t enough time for them to express and share their work with meaningful audiences. Often their expression is in the form of handing something in to the teacher.
And then the stage that gets most short-shrifted is reflection and response. Because this is how teachers and kids can connect their creative personality, and who they’re becoming as creative individuals. They can connect past tasks to future tasks and future creative endeavors. We rarely have the time to do that reflection. The biggest enemy of creativity is time.
You’ve written before about using observation as an assessment tool—where the teacher is almost like an Olympic judge. Why do some teachers feel more comfortable than others using observation?
Well, I can only speak from my own perspective. I’ve taught every grade, K-12. When I was teaching the early years [i.e., young learners], we accepted that, developmentally, children aren’t ready yet to commit their thinking in a written form. So we’re willing to have children represent their thinking through images or sounds or puppet shows. There’s lots of ways kids can express their understanding.
The same is true in highly performance-based environments like physical education and practical and applied arts. We would never ask in a P.E. class for children to sit down and write about every time they’re learning a new skill. It’s perfectly acceptable for teachers to observe that, and it’s very powerful because it’s really authentic.
But in some subject areas—science and math and English-language arts—the older kids get, the greater the emphasis on written documentation of understanding. Part of that is justifying a grade. It’s easier for me to justify it if I have visual evidence that I can speak to. Another part has to do with confidence: “Did I really just see what I thought I saw?” And finally there’s the perfectly legitimate reason, which is that we need students to be able to express thinking in a written form by the time they graduate because our society is very text-heavy.
But the power of observation is really critical to creative development. There are a lot of things that we need to see and hear to know that it’s happening. I’m talking about things like engagement or investment, or kids being curious. These are often expressed orally. We need to be able to listen and document. We need to be able to sit back and observe kids trying new ideas on and listen to them confer with others. All of that is really important in a creative environment.
At the very least, in the book I try and make the case for the triangulation of evidence, or the notion that observation and conversation are just as important as student artifacts. Looking at many sources of information would tell us what kids are thinking and feeling about their work.
What are some practical things teachers can do to heighten the way they assess creativity?
Sharing assessment with students is a critical first step. Teachers should be willing to open themselves up to having conversations with kids, about what they’re trying to achieve, what their goals are—both short and long term—and about the decisions they’re making. This helps kids understand that assessment is a process to help determine where they are right now, where they are headed and the space between those two things.
In my workshops, I invite participants to engage in a creative act and then I ask them to co-construct with me criteria for the product. In other words, what needs to be in the finished product? And then we co-construct another set of criteria around what creativity might look like in this context. What would we see if someone was engaging in creativity?
Having that criteria up-front, we can invite students to consider how successful they are. We can actually do a self-assessment feedback session. Teachers can also create a chart with student names along the left-hand side and the criteria for creativity along the top. And when they’re doing observations, they can be formally looking for those things being lived out in the classroom space.
Creativity requires students to make their own choices, but it also requires some structure. Can you talk about the push and pull between free choice and structure?
I've taught art classes in the community since I was 17-years-old, so for a very long time. I feel like I’ve tried everything under the sun in terms of getting kids to engage in creative processes.
For a number of children, when you place a blank canvas or a blank page in front of them, because there’s no criteria or structure to guide their thinking, it almost requires of them a spontaneous creativity. And that’s really difficult for people who aren’t experienced in terms of their own creative inclinations.
Structure can come in the form of any number of things. Giving kids a question or a series of objects and asking how they might go together provides enough structure to unleash creativity. It’s not so daunting when there’s a framework. It’s easier to think outside the box when there’s a box. We need to know what’s there so we can figure out whether were pushing beyond it.
In art classes, I've said: “Here’s a blank canvas. Create whatever you like, but you need to have two straight lines, three curved lines, a geometric shape and an organic shape.” For some reason, those guidelines really help kids move into that creative part. It seems to inspire them more than just giving them a blank canvas.
But the bottom line is that we do have outcomes and standards we need to work toward. I want teachers to understand that we don’t have to make a binary choice between creativity and curriculum. We can do both.
Article written by Stephen Noonoo (@stephenoonoo)
By Stephen Noonoo December 2018