Despite an uncreative curriculum, students and teachers try to foster innovation



“Mildly creative” is how junior George Armstrong describes himself, somewhat surprisingly for a student in IB Visual Arts, on track to receive an IB diploma when he graduates. Inherently, he might not be extremely creative, Armstrong said, but his experiences in these classes have taught him to think outside the box.

“Up until my junior year, I was taking all the classes that everyone else was taking,” he said. “Those IB classes were the opportunity to bring (the creativity) out (of me).”

While students like Armstrong who take nontraditional classes learn creative thinking in school, many of their peers across America don’t share these opportunities.

Ten years ago this January, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act increased the focus of school systems on achieving standards and high test scores. In February this year, the state of Indiana waivered out of requirements of NCLB, which many criticized for encouraging teachers to “teach to the tests. Still, evidence shows that today’s students are becoming less creative.

A 2010 study by the College of William and Mary showed that creativity scores have been decreasing since 1990, despite rising IQ scores. This may correlate to the increased focus on standardized education that began around 1990, according to Bonnie Cramond, professor of educational psychology and instructional technology at University of Georgia and the director of Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development. Now when many students leave high school, she said, they lack the skills in innovative thinking that the outside world requires of them.

Junior George Armstrong works on a painting during his IB art period. Armstrong says art classes allot him more creative liberties than do his other classes. CONNER GORDON / PHOTO

“It’s horrible when you get to the university level,” Cramond said. “I get kids who are so bright—they have good SAT scores, but they can’t even begin to think of an original project…The creativity has been schooled out of them completely.”

When teachers, parents and students all view standardized tests as the sole measure of students’ learning, Cramond said, they put a lot of undue pressure on student

“If that’s all we want from kids, then yeah, we’re damaging their ability to think creatively because we’re not encouraging it,” Cramond said.

This applies not only for state standardized tests, she said, but for the more advanced AP tests. Standards should serve as a minimum requirement for students’ knowledge, she said, not the goal.

“You want people to be able to go beyond the knowledge and skills,” Cramond said.

According to art teacher Jonathan Kane, however, standards can still serve to provide a foundation for learning, even in nontraditional classes that are based on long-term projects instead of lessons and exams. His students need to know the techniques, history and culture behind art in order to develop a more sophisticated understanding of art.

“The art classes allow you to produce work, to be creative, but to create not just from your own experience,” Kane said.

According to Cramond, artistic activities teach students skills beyond the artwork itself and can make students more engaged in any class. For art students like Armstrong, the art classes provide the ultimate creative experience by allowing students freedom of ideas in their artwork.

“You can go completely in your own direction. Just by doing that, you’re more creative there than in any other class,” Armstrong said. “Visual art is your class.”

At the same time, a school’s strong arts program does not necessarily produce a creative student body, Cramond said. Creativity, according to her, matters in all subjects, from art to mathematics.

“Not everyone is creative artistically. Some people are creative in writing, in math, in science, in many different ways,” Cramond said.

Senior Patrick Scott is not involved in any arts programs, but he still develops some innovative skills through Vocational Building Trades, which calls for abstract thinking in devising methods to build, repair and conserve material for construction. He said some of his core classes, such as math class, have creative components within the curriculum.

“(Math) can be creative, like how you picture what’s going on and how you understand it can be different from person to person,” Scott said.

According to Jacinda Sohalski, math teacher and next year’s department chair, while basic math classes generally have a structured approach, advanced math courses expose students to more innovative ways of approaching problems and finding solutions.

“The creativity comes in mostly in math in the real world and application type of problems that we do,” Sohalski said.
For Scott, these opportunities for creative thinking, as well as labs in physics and occasional tangents in classroom discussions, make his otherwise conventional core classes more interesting, Scott said.

Other students, like Armstrong, learn under less narrow guidelines that enhance their ability to imagine. In his IB classes, Armstrong said, he has more opportunity to come up with his own ideas, especially in English and history. These freedoms, he said, keep students engaged.

“(IB classes) allow you to—of course with guidelines, but broad guidelines—conduct your own research and come up with your own direction on these various projects and papers and speeches and presentations so that you can pick your interest and use your skills to your advantage,” Armstrong said.

However, Armstrong said, not all IB classes have such freedoms. His IB Chemistry class, for example, is combined with an AP Chemistry class, so they share most of the same materials and assessments. The emphasis in this class, he said, is mostly learning the material in order to prepare for the AP and IB exams. While this structure is less engaging, he said, it is not as possible for his chemistry class to allow students to choose the focus of their learning.

Senior Patrick Scott paints a doorway during vocational building trades. He said the class offers a chance at innovation.

“If you’re only interested in learning about thermochemistry or nuclear chemistry, and your class allowed you to learn more and more and more about that, you wouldn’t learn the basics that you need to know to be well-rounded,” Armstrong said.

For some students, like junior Emilie Schiess, it’s just difficult to view math and science classes as a medium for creativity. Schiess said she is most involved and creative in her English class.

“It’s kind of hard to be creative in math…I feel like science and history and math are just (classes) where you have to learn facts before you become creative, where with English, you can start out being creative,” Schiess said.

According to Sohalski, students really need background knowledge and understanding of math concepts before they can start approaching problems in new ways. However, she said, many students react to difficult math concepts by “cramming” and using rote memorization, rather than attempting to understand them, which makes the creative approach highly difficult.

In general, Scott said, people don’t associate math and science much with imagination. According to him, the core of math and science classes is not creativity, so it is de-emphasized, unlike in art.

“Not everyone’s necessarily motivated to try and find an abstract way to do a math problem or a science problem because not everyone likes it, so they just want to get it done,” Scott said.

According to Cramond, the high-pressure focus on testing in many classes trumps any focus on innovative thinking.

“If it’s not on the test, and no one cares about anything but what’s on the test, there’s not a lot of motivation (to learn it),” Cramond said.

The stress of trying to balance classes and homework, for many students, causes them to forego taking the time to look at information creatively, Scott said. However, most of creativity in the classroom depends on if the teacher is willing to take time away from the material to explore new ideas, he said.

“There’s a lot that falls on the shoulders of teachers as far as covering material in class, and hopefully, that doesn’t become overwhelming,” Kane said.

According to Kane, teachers have to keep in mind that they don’t lose sight of what’s important for their students’ learning, as opposed to just what’s in the curriculum.

For example, according to Sohalski, math teachers often include art projects or presentations into their units so that students can take a creative approach to what they have learned. Also, she said, while current standards do not really address creativity, new programs installed in the next few years will encourage more open-ended problems for all grades across the entire state.

(Click here to see an IBM study from 2010 in which CEOs of major international corporations revealed that creativity is the most important factor in an employee.)

As much as teachers try to incorporate creativity and even art in their lessons, though, they still might meet resistance from their students who don’t want to take the effort, Cramond said.

“It’s a lot easier not to have to be creative,” Cramond said. “… (People) want to do the thing that (takes) the least effort. And of course, the least effort gets the fewest returns, I think.”

Even for Schiess, who said she is normally responsive to unconventional projects and assignments in her core classes, some days, her creative juices just aren’t flowing.

“I’d like to say I’d love to do skits and writing every day, but that would just be overwhelming…There are days when a plug-and-chug worksheet is just quick to do before class and it gets the job done,” Schiess said.

But according to Schiess, it might not be a problem that students don’t always take the time to be creative in their traditional classes. While creativity is important, she said, some people also just aren’t artistic.

However, according to Kane, everyone can benefit from art, whether they create it or simply appreciate it.

“It’s not just about creating art. It’s about a culture appreciating art, and it’s also about the creative element within us…whether it’s used to create a painting or whether it’s used to cure an illness. You’ve got to have a creative way of looking outside of what already exists,” Kane said.

According to Cramond, creativity is just like intelligence in that it is both inherited and environmental. People have the potential to grow in creativity over time from experience and learning regardless of their age or where they are in school.

“I meet people all the time who will say, ‘Oh, I don’t have any creativity.’ You know, I have never met anyone who says to me, ‘I don’t have any intelligence.’ We’re all born with a propensity and, I think, a motivation to create,” Cramond said.

For Armstrong, he believes that while people have creativity inside them, they need art classes or the IB program or any other passion to draw out the creativity, he said.

According to Cramond, it is highly important for students to develop these creative thinking skills in high school so they devise innovative solutions for world problems in the future.

“All the evidence shows that anybody who makes an impact in any field at the highest level is not just intelligent—they’re also creative…They can’t just be smart people who’ve learned, because there’s knowledge we don’t even know yet,” Cramond said.

Major nations of the world are moving toward increasing creativity in their students, Cramond said, but America’s education system still stands by its focus on higher test scores. Despite this, creativity is vital to this country’s future, she said, because in today’s global economy, innovation is the new primary capital.

“The economy follows creative people,” Cramond said.

According to Armstrong, students who are involved in arts and other project-based or nontraditional classes ultimately have the best advantage in creative thinking skills when they leave high school.

“Creativity is what’s really going to allow people to be successful and productive learners outside of school for the rest of their lives,” Armstrong said. “If they can learn how to learn creatively now, it’s going to be all the better for them down the road.”