Creativity in the News: Creativity Indexes

This is an fascinating moment for those of us who are interested in creativity. Creativity has caught the public eye, and individuals from teachers to politicians are sharing concerns that our test-focused education is choking the creativity out of our schools. As a result, news about creativity is popping up in unexpected places. In July Newsweek had a feature article on “The Creativity Crisis.” And just last week (February 2, 2012), Education Week presented “States Mulling Creativity Indexes for Schools.”

The article describes several states’ plans to develop indices that would measure schools’ efforts to nurture creative and innovative thinking. I find myself unsure about whether to cheer or grab the garlic in an attempt to ward off politicians as some kind of creativity-sucking vampires. (OK, my husband is directing a vampire play at the moment, so the undead are on my mind.)

But the potential benefits and dangers are many. On one hand, the stated intent is to balance the pressures from high-stakes testing, providing incentives for schools to engage students in creative endeavors. Sounds good to me. But there are still things about the possibility of “creativity indices” that worry me.

I worry when the impetus for encouraging creativity in schools is placed in solely economic terms. Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin is cited as one placing the plan, “squarely in an economic context to advance the state’s competitiveness and prepare young people for the workforce.” She described Oklahoma’s initiative as a “very valuable tool to help Oklahoma be a national leader in innovation, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship.” On one hand, it is absolutely true that helping students develop their creative thinking will enhance their potential in the future. But some business leaders can make the mistake of confusing schools with factories, and student learning with parts that can be ordered on demand and manufactured to clear specifications. We just need to order up 2 extra pounds of creativity per student, right? And that leads to worry #2.

I worry about our tendency to assess that which is easy to assess over that which is important. This is a natural consequence of the manufacturing model. I live in Michigan. I understand the need for clear and precise specifications for auto parts. But when we attempt similar precision for areas in which our expertise in assessment isn’t as developed, we end up in trouble. Creativity is an area where measurement is problematic. We can’t count it. We don’t have agreed upon measurement criteria. Just as the NCLB pressure to “measure something” has lead to multiple choice tests that lead to traditionally recognizable scores, but little information about deep understanding, required creativity indices run the risk of measuring something accurately, but not necessarily actual creativity.

I worry about superficial definitions of creativity and creative activities. When I teach about creativity in schools, incoming students almost always associate creativity with the arts. According to this view, art, music, and dance are, by their very natures, creative. Math, science, and social studies, not so much. But it isn’t true. Individuals are (and must be) creative in all disciplines, and across disciplines. I have, sadly, seen “art” lessons that demanded no creativity from either student or teacher. I’ve also seen social studies lessons that stretched student’s flexible thinking to the max. So an index that only tallies arts and invention activities is going to miss the boat. This concern is similar to that raised by Robert Sternberg (which puts me in good company!). His e-mail to the author of the article cautioned: “We don’t want an index that trivializes creativity, such as by counting numbers of activities that, on their surface, sound creative rather than exploring what is actually done in the activities to encourage creativity.” Exactly.

Assessing the quantity and quality of opportunity for creative endeavors requires at least a moderately sophisticated understanding of the nature of creativity and how it operates across disciplines. So while I applaud (loudly!) the idea that schools should be providing creative opportunities for students, I’m cautious about the idea of state system to evaluate levels of creative activities. It remains to be seen whether such systems will provide encouragement and incentive to good education or—well, NCLB-C?

Just a word to those working on these indices. I applaud your mission. Just don’t make me get out the garlic!

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