In a success-obsessed, results-focused educational environment, are our kids losing their creativity?
I’m tutoring a small class of elementary-school kids in advanced writing strategies when I give them a creative prompt. “Imagine you’re walking through a forest, and you realize you’re lost. What do you do?” It takes them a while to answer. “Is my cell working?” Jason asks. He’s clever, this kid, despite a volatile kind of energy that won’t let him sit still for a minute. Half the time I suspect he’s not paying attention, until he gives me a sound response like the very sensible inquiry about his phone just now.
“No technology,” I say.
“That would never happen,” Jason’s brother Tom says. Tom is in fourth grade and reads at college level. His confidence comes through in an easy smile, yet he’s kind and understanding, which I appreciate. It’s quite intimidating to teach a child of 10 who has the IQ of a mad scientist. The boy genius flashes the silvery blade of his cell. “I have the best network on my Galaxy, and, anyway, we don’t even have forests in Las Vegas. Not real ones.” Other kids chirp in. They claim it’s an absurd notion, this getting-lost-in-forests business. The prompt doesn’t agree with any solid evidence or experience they’ve had.
It takes me 10 minutes to explain the prompt, that it’s creative by nature and open to interpretation, but even then the results are abysmal. None of my kids could ever get lost in the forest.
This took place at a tutoring center for gifted children. Well, actually, the parents call me a mentor, because their children do not require tutoring. This place is different from most learning centers, where kids drag their feet with their heads hung low, worried about the latest report card. My kids are straight-A students whose schedules are so full I occasionally envy their time-management and study skills. Not only are they academically advanced, they play in symphonies, on water polo teams and are quickly becoming fluent in Latin or other classical languages. Basically, anything their parents put their minds to, these kids accomplish like pros. My only role in their education is to help them advance more quickly. And although it’s refreshing to see this kind of drive and work ethic, it’s also confusing, because there is a giant dark spot that I can’t ignore on the blinding horizon of their potential: When I ask them to imagine, without ambition or the aid of a study guide, they cannot. This isn’t because they aren’t capable of creating a story on the spot, but because they don’t see what purpose this action serves and therefore can’t find the spark.
Academic success is always a hot topic, but we seem to forget that effective learning hinges upon an amalgamation of the left-brained logical thinking and its right-brained expressive counterpart. But it seems that we’ve grown so relentless in our search for perfection that we’re no longer concerned with providing a well-balanced intellectual diet.
Attempts to determine the best route to the ultimate high-achieving student have made us reliant on testing for answers, as the recent Common Core Standards debate makes apparent. Our desire to make all children do equally well is admirable, but testing skills aside, there needs to remain some respect for creative outlets these same children mine in order to learn how to decode their world. Creativity must be recognized as an integral part of success in school — and as an indispensable life skill. Indeed, we’d all lose out if we stuck only to the prescribed answers; a doctor lacking the intuition to think past his medical school textbooks would be stumped when faced with an strange symptom. A lawyer without creativity would lose her most arduous case. And yet creativity is becoming dangerously under-represented in our schools — and in some cases, it’s the scapegoat for everything that’s gone wrong with academic performance. Claims that kids play too long on playgrounds or sing too much in choirs, for example, have forced many a school district to cut play and music time in order to make room for more supposedly enriching activities, such as test prep.
We are now measured by results, and in this sense, we’re either perfect or hopelessly flawed. Sorry, but perfection is overrated. Nothing is ever accomplished in a state of perfection. If such a state exists in the first place, it’s a moment of stagnation in the eye of the storm, and very short-lived. Breakthroughs take flight when nothing is right. The process of creativity is when we let go of rules and allow ourselves to experience unpredictability and chaos, which are, regardless of what the perfectionists in us say, the nurseries from which we hatch our true natures. Out of our imaginations we are born as individuals capable of navigating ever-shifting realities.
Any person who has mastered their craft will tell you that creativity is chaotic, and that nothingness gives birth to substance. The reason there isn’t a single definitive tome on writing the best-selling novel or painting a masterpiece in 30 days is because no one has been able to cage the secret. Imagination is a shape-shifter, and doesn’t conform to guidelines. One has to develop stamina and respect for nothingness, for that space in which mistakes roam freely. What right do we have to short the kids we teach of the experience of creative exploration and practice — where trial and error are unmeasured, where there are no study guides filled with perfect answers?
I admire those parents who expect perfection from their offspring. But could their inability to cope with imperfection and the natural state of change have anything to do with the way we parents continuously claim they must do better to be better, and if so, how deprived are they of possibilities when they fail to learn how to fail? Instead of acting as the enforcers of high expectations with low intellectual yield, perhaps we’d be better off instilling in our kids the ability to close their eyes and simply draw a picture. If they learn that there are right answers aplenty and that mistakes are stepping stones to mastery, they will endeavor to navigate and find their way with marvelous ease.
I’m glad to report that in the case of my students, imagination has begun making regular appearances since that first class. Embracing uncertainty and imagination comes naturally to children, if we let it, especially when they’re free to explore — and, yes, get lost once in a while in a dark, sprawling forest.