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Education, the Economy, and Creativity

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Last week, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made the argument that the people who are surviving the recession are those who are creative and innovative, and that therefore our schools need to be sure to teach those skills to our kids. He put it this way: "So our schools have a doubly hard task now — not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity."

Friedman's argument has been criticized on two fronts. Megan McArdle posted a letter from a lawyer dismissing Friedman's argument that the lawyers getting laid off are the ones sitting around waiting for work (the non-innovative and non-creative ones). He suggests that the layoffs are affecting people with all kinds of different types of skills. And Laura McKenna at 11D argues that schools can't do the reading and writing well. so how are they going to teach creativity and innovation? She says:

In addition, schools have never been able to teach innovation. Schools were set up to create a homogeneous mass of unthinking workers. That's what they do best. They reward kids who sit motionless in seats, draw inside the lines, and have neat desks.

I agree. And I don't think most schools can do much to teach creativity or innovation. Art, music, creative writing, and other creative-type programs have been cut at many schools, relegating them to after-school clubs and private lessons. But schools could encourage creativity in individual kids rather than, as often happens, punishing them for doing something slightly different. My son is always putting a unique spin on an assignment, finding a way to meet its basic requirements while also taking it to its extremes. In his earlier years when he did this, the assumption was that he was being a smart-ass. And he was, sort of. But he was also being creative, and instead of channeling that in positive ways and encouraging him, his teachers would give him bad grades on those assignments.  

High school has been different for him. Here, his creativity is welcomed and encouraged. Part of that is a function of his being in much smaller classes, and the kids' maturity level is also a factor. Younger kids are harder to discipline; when a teacher is trying to make sure 30 eleven-year-olds behave, letting a couple of kids "color outside the lines" could spell disaster. I understand that.

Rather than squashing that energy, though, an excellent teacher would find ways to use it productively in the learning process, letting kids in a science class plan and conduct an experiment, or letting kids in a social studies class create a giant wall map or a movie about the history of a region. Having kids sit in their seats for eight hours a day filling out worksheets is not going to inspire creativity. To do those kinds of creative and energizing activities, though, the teachers need to be creative, and they need to be provided with an environment in which creative teaching and learning can thrive – smaller classes, more professional development, and good pay.  

Not every kid is going to be creative and innovative, and that's okay. Some may develop those skills later, once they're on the job. Success comes in many forms and right now, with a nearly 10% unemployment rate, even the creative people are hurting.  There is no magic bullet for surviving a recession, and schools aren't going to provide the remedy for it, even if they start encouraging creativity tomorrow.

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About Laura Blankenship

  • Good points. Parents are also responsible for the creativity of their children,don’t you think? If all a parent does is turn on the TV and plops the child in front of it, all that results is an automoton, one who is heavily into a fantasy life and consumption. It’s the parents’ Number One job to instill a sense of creativity, not the schools.

  • Joanne, excellent point! I think many parents do try to enhance their children’s creativity since they know that school may not give them all they need.

  • When we raised our boys, we cut the TV time to a minimum, DID NOT give them fancy electronic toys or gadgets, and let them wander around the house, figuring out their own toys and games.

    Both of them are creative and imaginitive in different ways.

    Unfortunately, schools are designed to raise good factory workers who listen and obey – in an age when factories are largely passé in “post-industrial” societies. So nobvody is teaching these kids to survive when the rest of the world realizes they do not need “post-industrial” societies, and tos them under the bus.

  • Its great to see people beginning to realize the importance of creativity in everyones lives and in fact acknowledging that it is perhaps going to be one of the more important skills to develop as we move forward towards the 22 century.
    There is no innovation without creativity first and our children do indeed need to be trained in this vital skill.