I'll spare you the suspense. The answer is an emphatic no. In fact, strong content standards can support creativity in our schools. Standards can get a bad rap because they conjure specters of standardization, uniformity and dogma. Some strident critics of the standards movement charge that it aims to turn children into grist for the corporate mill.
In past years, the movement may have strayed in ways that stoked critics' fears. In too many places, lousy tests have become de facto standards, and schools have faced all sorts of perverse incentives to teach to those tests.
But I suspect that the distrust of standards has deeper roots. We're still in thrall to the romantic notion that creativity demands freedom from all constraints. (Some Romantics owned the dangers of unbridled imagination, but even their madmen command more respect than scorn.)
A more useful notion of creativity, and one that in no way conflicts with standards, emerged from a recent Newsweek cover story by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The creative mind keeps steady commerce with facts and knowledge, they write. The left and right brain work in concert to yield new solutions to complex problems. Divergent, out-of-the-box thinking alternates with convergent, analytical thinking to push towards solutions.
Start with Standards
For Bronson and Merryman, the National Inventors Hall of Fame School in Ohio is an example of a school that makes good on this more fruitful vision of creativity. The school had its fifth graders design and present a system for muffling noise in its library. Merryman told me in a recent interview that this project started with state standards.
"They look at everything fifth-graders need to know and everything sixth-graders need to know. Then they come up with a situation or a problem that requires kids to master those things. For example, Ohio wants its fifth-graders to learn about sound -- how sound is transmitted, how to understand the sign of the curve, sound absorption. And [for students to also learn] about decimals, fractions and ratios, how to do an artistic representation of a 3-D object on a flat or diorama surface, and about argumentative presentation."
The library project, she said, takes on all those topics. What's more, schools can use "a fairly traditional lecture" (a much maligned term these days) to cement critical knowledge before students set off on their work to solve the noise problem.
Creative and Challenging
I've also heard the "L-word" from an award-winning science teacher whose students venture into caves and on hot air balloon trips to learn first-hand about the scientific principles that govern the world around them. Luajean Bryan, who teaches advanced math and science in Tennessee, used to worry that standards made such work impossible:
I thought, 'Oh, it'll interfere. I won't be able to finish the curriculum. I won't be able to cover all the standards.' And I have found the opposite to be true. It complements and deepens the instruction. It fortifies what I teach in lecture, so much so that [the students] remember it. Their performance is better than ever.
And her students are more engaged than ever. She has seen her class enrollments soar since she began planning projects for her class. The projects compel her students to learn challenging material.
Creative children will no doubt suffer in schools that prescribe -- and proscribe -- too much. But I don't think they will thrive if we leave them floating un-tethered in the ether. The problem-solving experience can't mean much of anything if students end up with little or no exposure to centuries of work by people who have tread similar ground before them.
Can creativity flourish in the absence of academic standards? Of course, but that can be the luck of the draw. Bronson and Merryman note that half of all creativity-training programs have no effect or actually do harm. Standards, coupled with strong curriculum, can create the conditions for creative work. They can actually nourish the efforts of teachers like Luajean Bryan.
So if we worry that schools smother our students' creativity, I'm not sure we should look to standards as the culprit. It's how we use standards that matters.