Friday, February 22, 2013

On Killing Creativity

To create something means to come up with something new, to rearrange existing objects or ideas and put them into a form that has not been done before. Everyone is creative because learning is the process of acquiring new knowledge, values, and skills by rearranging what we already have in our minds and integrating that content with what we are acquiring. When we learn, we craft new concepts, principles, values, and skills.

How creative each of us is varies and the process can be, and often is, stunted and destroyed. Some cultures are known to be more creative than others. For example, the Japanese education system produces students who score higher on standardized tests than Americans, yet American students and American culture are said to be more creative. How has this come about?

Ken Robinson, in a 2006 TED talk and, later, in his book The Element argues admirably that creativity should be just as important an objective of education as literacy and that our current one-size-fits-all system destroys it. This is the progressive idea of focusing on and stimulating the individual’s interests and therefore the individual’s imagination and inventiveness. It is this progressive influence in education and, no doubt, the overall non-authoritarian atmosphere of American culture that has allowed Americans to be more creative.

Robinson, however, like the progressives, erroneously clings to the government as supplier of education and blames the rise of  “one-size-fits-all” on the so-called factory model. Yet, it is precisely the government and all forms of authoritarian control that arrest and prevent imaginative thinking.

Government bureaucracy, using government guns as its means of control, only knows one-size-fits-all. In education, that calls for a core curriculum and both types of grading: evaluation and age-sequencing. Catering to needs and wants is something governments cannot do, or do very well.

As discussed in last month’s post, any type of physical force, trauma, neglect, or emotional abuse, severely hampers the development of self-esteem and independence. Without high degrees of these traits, children and adults become fearful of risk-taking experimentation—that is, they fear making mistakes that might be disapproved of and vilified by those who have been forcing, traumatizing, neglecting, or emotionally abusing them.

It was progressive educator Maria Montessori who realized that choice was crucial in the development of self-esteem and independence Her method of education, as a result, allows a maximum of choice in a structured environment. Montessori children who move on to more traditional schooling are known for their confidence and creativity.

Freedom to choose, which means freedom to make mistakes without fear of criticism or denigration, is the key to encouraging original thinking. Dictating to children—whether by parents, teachers, coaches, tiger moms, or stage moms—what the children must think and do is nearly as stunting and destructive as hitting or beating them.

In organized youth sports, the fear of making mistakes and lack of creativity and imagination has been pointed out by former National Hockey League star Wayne Gretzky. Lamenting today’s excessive control and domination by adults, Gretzky finds the origin of hockey creativity on the adult-less pond of yesteryear. In the current environment, he says, if kids are sent to the ice to play a scrimmage, the first thing a child will ask is, “What position do you want me to play?” The pond, Gretzky’s point being, as was the sandlot in the earlier days of baseball, was what taught kids how to make their own decisions. Today, they must bow to the dictates of the adults in charge, lest they be criticized for going against a coach’s system. The quality of play becomes cautious and mediocre, and often not fun.

The killing of creativity can be subtle and performed by apparently well-meaning adults. The premise of demanding obedience to authority can be expressed quietly and without obviously abusive techniques. It stems from the denial of choice. A parent, teacher, or coach who criticizes a child’s mistake and singles the child out as an example to others is demanding obedience to authority. The message to children under such a leader’s watch is that cautiousness, not imagination and creativity, is the path to the adult’s approval.

The well-meaning adult thinks that such criticism is what teaching is all about. But allowing mistakes and, as Montessori demonstrated, saving the correction for another time when a new teaching moment arises, are what build the foundation of creativity: namely confidence, self-esteem, and independence.

All forms of demands for obedience to authority, whether physical or mental, blatant or subtle, must be rejected.

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