George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Lisa J. Cooley's picture
Lisa J. Cooley
School Board member, parent of 2 public school students.

I look upon prescribed lists of what a student ought to know in a couple different ways. One of the things I want to see (I'm a school board member in rural Maine) is more respect for the desires and instincts that children have. Teach them what they want to know. Prescribed subject areas could be seen to hamstring that. Also, it brings to mind E.D. Hirsch's books on what kids need to know, which I've never touched or looked into because I feel like I might have some kind of allergic reaction if I do. :)

OTOH, because I care much more about how kids learn than what they learn, I feel like I can leave the development of "standards" to those who care about such things, as long as we put considerable focus on HOW.

Use of standards for guiding the HOW can lead directly to PBL, which is why I'm on the "standards-based system" bandwagon.

I address this issue on my blog (Oh, god, another blog?) and would love to hear your opinion on my lay interpretation -- as I move into educating my own board on the topic.


Lisa Cooley

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor, Exectuive Director of the Bullying & School Safety Foundation and Creator of

The truly "creative" teacher can make a science lesson out of a button and a piece of grass. However, these Macgyver-like beings are few and far between. I believe that the standards should cover a wide area of human skills to allow for whole-child education so the rest of us mere mortals who are dedicated and working hard can also find ways to reach our students.

Natalie McCallick's picture

Nothing like Presenting a Problem to stimulate students of all ages. The standards facilitate life-long learning if used in conjunction with problem solving skills. For example, identifying the problem, researching solutions, organizing and communicating findings and evaluating results can incorporate the standards. Uncovering(instead of "covering", Wong, Harry, 1998, First Days of School) the standards keeps me student-centered and creative, using field trips to teach the thinking skills necessary to be an enthusiastic, industrious citizen with the choice to be successful.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

Or you could say the test themselves kill it. While it is possible to do, the narrow focus of a test makes the wide ranging nature of creative learning uncertain, so teachers restrict learning defensively. In order to evaluate learning, you can use open ended essay questions but the government can't afford to administer that kind of testing. It is the nature of high stakes testing. People that believe in the virtues of nature of high stakes testing are like people that believe in a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When we are in Ireland, we raise our glass to leprechauns in deference to the natives but we don't take them seriously.

Tests don't mean a lot but they are important enough to make you do some really irrational stuff.

cheryl capozzoli's picture
cheryl capozzoli
Instructional Technology Specialist, Pennsylvania School Board Director

Standards do not kill creativity. Poorly planned lesson plans, curriculum and bad teachers do. Simply because we have identified what needs to be covered doesn't mean that student learning experiences can't be rich and full of ways to be creative. We need to stop playing a blame game and do a bit of research on "Best Practice" to fully understand what is killing education today. It is not standards, it' how we cover the content that either makes or breaks a child's creative learning outlet.

S.L. Cook's picture
S.L. Cook
Instructional Designer and Educational Reform Proponent

I think it's a combination of the dynamics in our current schools today that kills creativity. I agree, it is definitely NOT the standards. I liken the standards to using a road map on a trip.

On a trip, you have a map so you know where you started, and where you need to go to get wherever you're going. Once you embark on that trip, you can make it an adventure, tasting local foods, noting differences in the people, the life styles of the region, visit monuments and museums, etc. --OR-- You can get in your car, block the windows, and drive straight to your destination while reading about and listening to information about the regions you travel through. To me, the educational standards are merely the map of where you're going--and I wholeheartedly agree with Cheryl Capozzoli that it's HOW we cover the content which kills the creativity.

I also think we have to be certain to consider all learners are not the same.. some will love reading, some will love making dioramas, some will love dressing up and playing character roles. By boxing learning into any one learning style, the creativity and fun is taken out of learning for whichever child's learning style is not being reached. Thus, the need for rich and creative learning experiences to engage learners.

Valerie's picture

Standards do not kill creativity within the classroom, poor teachers do. Standards allow for standardization within schools and classrooms. It assists the teacher in planning lessons that are meaningful and rewarding to students, not just the dog and pony show. Poor teachers are poor planners and need to be removed from classrooms across the country.

Kate Collins's picture

I think the most significant way for students to be innovative and creative is by having opportunities to pursue their passions. The learning involved is not easily assessed using standards. Because this learning is relevant and purposeful for the students they are much more engaged and open to innovating and creating This involves thoughtful facilitation by teachers who will at times 'gift knowledge' to support the students' learning.

Trish Nash's picture

Creativity is essential for 21st century learners to be active problem solvers and creators of new knowledge. My colleagues and I often discuss how we teachers seem to "kill the creativity" in children by making conform to the way schools have always done things. Do educators need to allow students greater voice and agency? Standards should be nothing more than guidelines or benchmarks for teachers.

Ardelle Tawharu's picture

I agree that standards might help with ensuring there is coverage across the curriculum, however, trying to get coverage can cause teachers to be very prescribed in their teaching programme as they feel the urgency to churn out knowledge and 'teaching to the test'. When this happens you definitely lose creativity.

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