Taking Creativity Seriously

Tikvah Wiener

The most watched TED Talk ever, with over 32,000,000 views, is Sir Ken Robinson’s “How Schools Kill Creativity.” Robinson demonstrates how schools often stifle people’s natural inclinations to be creative and focus on traditionally academic learning. He argues that traditional schooling’s hierarchy has math/science at the top, humanities on the level below, the arts underneath the humanities, with music and art at the top of the arts ladder, and dance and drama under them. Sir Ken asks, “Why? Why do we do this?” Many educators are echoing Sir Ken’s sentiments and beginning to incorporate creative excellence into their schools’ curricula. I think this is a trend that is only going to grow stronger, propelled in part by Robinson’s latest book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education.

This past school year I spent some time with educators at the High Tech schools in San Diego and got to meet its founder and CEO, Larry Rosenstock. The High Tech schools are public charter schools that employ project-based learning (PBL) and that focus extensively on fostering creativity. Larry has a law degree and put himself through law school as a carpenter; when he began his teaching career, he sought out ways to bring the experience of making into the classroom but was stymied by traditional models of school. He and Rob Riordan, the High Tech schools’ “Emperor of Rigor,” set out to create a different model, one where they could put making at the heart of learning. And they have succeeded. In the past 15 years, the High Tech schools have grown in number from one to fourteen.

This February, the I.D.E.A. Schools Network hosted a Jewish educators’ trip to the High Tech schools. The network’s co-founders, myself and Dr. Eliezer Jones, went with colleagues from our schools, Valley Torah High School in Los Angeles and Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn. Joining us were Jewish educators from schools in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Paramus. Our goal was to see what project-based learning looked like on a day-to-day level, and what we discovered were schools that put creativity at the center of learning.

The main High Tech campus includes elementary, middle and high schools as well as a graduate studies center. Each school is filled with the most extraordinary student artwork.

Twentieth Century Box

At the High Tech campus we met art teacher Jeff Robin, whose website is a rich trove for educators who want to learn about PBL and about how to weave creativity into their projects. Jeff showed us a project he had developed with a humanities teacher: 20th Century Box. Jeff and his colleague decided that after learning about events and figures from each decade of the twentieth century, students would have to choose a “noun” they were interested in from the century. They would then create four written and illustrated works about their subject and include an artifact about it. Because all the teachers at the High Tech schools first do the projects they assign to students—in order to troubleshoot after encountering any rough spots and to provide a model for students of the kind of work expected from them—my colleagues and I were able to see a project sample even as we watched students in the midst of working on theirs.

For his sample project, Jeff explored the life of twentieth-century artist Man Ray and painted a cigar box to reflect Man Ray’s artistic philosophy. Inside the box were the four “deliverables,” as Jeff called them, of the project. One, for example, was a primary source on the artist’s life that Jeff had annotated and for which he had included multiple visuals. Another was a creative writing piece of historical fiction.

Different Types of Creativity

Obviously the project fosters students’ creativity by developing their artistic skills, but creative learning fosters additional skills needed for the world today: problem solving. Consider all the questions students have to answer as they complete the 20th Century Box assignments: What noun should they choose? Which artifact is most meaningful? Which primary source should the students annotate? Which visuals will add meaning to it? How will they incorporate the time period into their short story, and build suspense?

What I also particularly enjoy about the High Tech pedagogy is its emphasis on what Einstein called combinatorial thinking. By yoking together subjects and ideas that aren’t obviously connected, the school helps students think and act in innovative ways. The school fosters creativity not only in its emphasis on the arts but on how it has students engage with all their subjects. For example, when my colleagues and I were at the school, we heard from Maya, a junior who had completed a fascinating project in her freshman year: her class learned various theories about the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history and studied simple machines in physics. In groups, students then chose one of the theories of civilization and used a laser cutter to create a gear system on a piece of wood; the gear system was a visual representation of the group’s theory of civilizations’ rises and downfalls, and each group’s wood segment connected with another, so the class’ work became a wheel that comprehensively represented all the theories working together.

When the wheel is turned on, not only does each individual segment’s gears turn, but the whole wheel turns as well. What an incredibly complex way to have the students interact with history, with physics, and with each other. We saw the wheel: it’s displayed in a main conference room, a work in which the school takes tremendous pride.

Creativity Standards

It might seem challenging to develop standards for measuring creativity, but the Buck Institute of Education, an educational consulting organization for project-based learning, has developed a creativity and innovation rubric. The standards focus on both aspects of creativity that we’ve been discussing: creativity in presentation and ingenuity and imagination in idea generation, selection and development. Note that the standards also measure student ability to be creative in locating research sources and in contributing to discussion. Below are three benchmarks from the rubric, as well as the description of student work that is “at standard.”

I. Identify Sources of Information

in addition to typical sources, finds unusual ways or places to get information (adult expert, community member, business or organization, literature)

• promotes divergent and creative perspectives during discussions

II. Generate and Select Ideas

uses idea-generating techniques to develop several original ideas for product(s)

carefully evaluates the quality of ideas and selects the best one to shape into a product

asks new questions, takes different perspectives to elaborate and improve on the selected idea

uses ingenuity and imagination, going outside conventional boundaries, when shaping ideas into a product

seeks out and uses feedback and critique to revise product to better meet the needs of the intended audience

III. Present Work to Users/Target Audience

creates visually exciting presentation media

includes elements in presentation that are especially fun, lively, engaging, or powerful to the particular audience

The Need for Standards

Developing ways to measure and assess excellence in creativity, divergent thinking and innovation is going to be crucial as we move forward with incorporating these standards into our schools. In a recent blog post, Larry Goodman, an educator from Andrews Osborne Academy, an independent school in Ohio, states, “Grades are the currency with which we ‘pay’ our students, even if the real value of the education has nothing to do with the grade. So if the school wants students to behave as if creative thinking matters, the school needs to take the initiative first! Schools need to assess for creative thinking, and incorporate the resulting scores/marks into grades on transcripts.”

Goodman also shares tips about how to get started on assessing creativity.

1. Begin by being clear about what skills you are evaluating. When I assess my students’ work on a creative thinking assignment, I will often identify three stages of "work": fluency, or the ability to generate a multitude of possible directions to go in (or ideas); divergent thinking, or how far outward from the center the thinker can take those ideas; and convergent thinking, or the clarity and cogency developed to render the new idea comprehensible and valuable (useful) to others. Being clear on the specific skill being evaluated helps enormously—the teacher will feel like s/he is on much "firmer ground" in giving the student a specific score/grade.

2. Use a grading scale that is less granular than the typical A-F scale. If one uses +'s and -'s, the A-F scale has 13 different levels of relative achievement. And distinguishing among 13 different levels of proficiency—even in a clearly defined skill—is difficult. At Andrews Osborne, we are beginning with a three-point scale: 1 = "developing" (we can see that the skill is present to some degree and the student can be coached to improve in that area); 2 = "demonstrating" (the student is showing a reasonably proficient grasp of the skill); 3= "exceeding" (the student is going beyond what we would have expected from someone his/her age/stage).

3. Solicit student feedback on the process. For students, too, the prospect of getting graded on new criteria is anxiety-producing. Asking them about how clear the assignment/assessment was/is, or how taxing it is/was to complete, or whether the grade/score they received seems fair to them, etc. will lower their anxiety—and provide the teacher with very useful information moving forward.

Creativity at Magen David Yeshivah High School

One of the reasons I feel fortunate to work at Magen David is because the school’s mission statement reveals a commitment to academic excellence, creativity, and intellectual curiosity. So step one in making sure one’s school is committed to creative excellence is to embed it in the culture. We did so this year by starting off our professional development days in the summer with activities and workshops that emphasized creativity. We also make sure art supplies and prototyping objects are available to teachers on a daily basis. One helpful discovery we made at the High Tech schools was the Artograph: it lets you project an image onto any surface, so that you can trace it perfectly and create a high-quality artwork. We had been wondering—after seeing the amazing artwork on every conceivable surface in the schools—how so many students could be natural-born Picassos; it turns out there are many tricks, such as the Artograph, that can help teachers, even ones who aren’t naturally artistic, help their students become creative.

Students at Magen David are noticing the changes in their instruction. While some need time to transition into more creative-based learning, most take to it easily—and joyfully. Joanne Auman, a history teacher at the school who got creative early on in the year, quickly began to notice the joyful learning taking place in her classroom, as well as the pride the students were taking in their work, which included maps made of clay and discarded computer boxes students converted into visual representations of the Indus Valley civilization. She nicknamed project-based learning “pride-based learning.”

Educators today are realizing that school needs to be a different place than the ones most of us grew up in, and many schools are transforming the way they do business, incorporating creativity in the classroom as much as they do “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.” Jewish education should lead the way in making sure that, soon, creative excellence will be as much a point of pride in a school’s mission statement as academic excellence is.

Tikvah Wiener is chief academic officer at Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn and is co-founder of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, which helps educators implement project-based learning (PBL) and educational innovation. [email protected], @TikvahWiener

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015