Saturday, January 07, 2012

Do teachers dislike creative students?

Marginal Revolution is my favorite economics blog on the Internet.  It brings forth some really interesting theories that combine practical economics and current affairs. 

One of the truly interesting posts was a little under a month ago and asked the question “Do teachers really like creative students?”  The comments on the post are even more engaging than the post itself.  They show a real disconnect with society and education.  Many of them seem to be created by adults that felt like teachers absolutely crushed their ability to be creative.  Teachers had rules and standards, those rules and standards did not involve creativity, those same rules and standards bored the students to death, and public education is screwed up.  Much of their support comes from a Ken Robinson TED talk about the current public education system being designed for disciplined and orderly, factory like learning.  According to the argument creativity needs to be promoted, individualized, and students need to be assessed according to true output, not necessarily grades and tests. 

Let’s first off get rid of two types of teachers before we start this discussion; bad teachers (who won’t be good, never mind creative) and beginning teachers (who need to learn how to survive first).  Then let's look at the ideas behind “creativity”, which seems to have evolved to the point of “hey, if I can’t do what I want, when I want to, then my creativity (or freedom to do anything for that matter) is being censored.”  How about a little definition.

“the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination”

For one to be creative, one must actually know the traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, and the like that exist in the world.  Meaning one must actually be educated on what exists now before they can create meaningful new ideas.  This isn’t stifling creativity, it’s creating the foundation in which creativity can evolve.  Often when a student or parent complains about a school’s lack of creativity, they use the argument that the knowledge presented is not useful or a waste of time.  Yet often the problem is that the student has not shown that they actually have mastered the concept or the activity, whether it be from rebellion, boredom, or simply not knowing it.  That’s called maturity and discipline.  Creativity without some maturity and discipline is just some child drawing outside the lines and calling himself creative. 

Let’s take a simple definition like democracy.  You don’t know how many kids scoff at needing to read articles and text about democracy, insisting that they already knew the basic, fundamental concepts of the theory.  The problem is that they really don’t.  They know “rule by the people” and how good it must be because the United States practices it.  Breaking down basic theories makes students have to dig deeper and actually find other styles of democracies.  Boring?  Well, sometimes it is, as with many things in life.  This “anti-boredom” campaign has created the excuse that details don’t matter as long as some vague semblance of the objective is completed.  It might end up being creative work but it is often not meaningful, not practical, or simply wrong. 

Often comments in Tabarrock’s post refer to teachers marking down students for getting answers right in a paper but not doing something as simple as typeset, margins, or citations.  Well, then the student is not only not being creative, the student is being lazy.  You might have understood the concept but you failed to address a simple part of the assignment.  Details, regardless of how much you know, matter.  Think of that when you are flying a in a plane, undergoing surgery, paying your bills, or when your nation is fighting in a war. 

The blog’s author has a simple “personalize education” approach to creativity, which makes me question how much his parental instinct got in the way of his economics fundamentals.  I would love to personalize every one of my student’s education except for one problem; it is totally inefficient.  Public education is a never-ending exercise in marginal cost/marginal benefit.  And while I’ll agree that those that claim to lead public education are often wrong in the approach, it also needs to be understood that the job of public education is to educate the masses with the scarce resources available.  Individualized education is not practical in any sense of the word and to be perfectly honest, that type of education should be done by the parents.  After all, the kids learn much more from Mommy and Daddy than anything they will learn at school.                

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