Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Can't Teach Creativity

In a new book on education (Why Don't Students Like School?) by Daniel Willlingham, sounds like a lot of common sense. The reviewer notes:

Another question: "What is the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?" According to Mr. Willingham, this goal is too ambitious: Students are ready to understand knowledge but not create it. For most, that is enough. Attempting a great leap forward is likely to fail.

I've always noted that academic creativity exercises were cliches, where we students would sit around, learning new levels of disrespect for our educators. The corny lessons were almost patronizing--like those Successories posters--and our minds would wander appropriately.

Most people are not creative about abstract academic issues like math, science, or philosophy, and there is nothing wrong with that. Often they are still very funny, decent, valuable people. Academic creativity is a rarity among academics, for God's sake. But when a curriculum trains kids with the idea they have to train the next Albert Einstein, they waste time. As educators, they are too stupid to realize this, but Albert was hardly a product of some dopey excercise where one connects lines outside the box (thus giving the great insight to think outside the box).

My two boys, ages 9 and 7, go to Kumon, a chain that teaches English and Math. They mainly drill, overlearning basics, and then are introduced to the next level. They are first tested, and then start workbooks slightly below their level so they hit the ground running. It's a workbook, where my 7 year old will add the number 3 to a bunch of numbers for 10 pages (eg), but only 20 minutes or less a day. When they master a workbook, they move to the next level, but if not, they repeat that lesson. At $100 per month, they learn more math at Kumon than at their school, which costs 10 times as much and has them for a longer time. [Another key to Kumon is tracking, so each kid is at a level determined by his measured ability, which creates the wrong kind of diversity].

Teachers love to pooh-pooh drills and systems, because they discourage creativity, and seem to make them less important. It's just the serenity prayer in practice: affect what you can. What is most boring is listening to pointless lectures, lectures you know won't help you, and kids can sense when the teacher's 'big idea' lesson plan is merely nonsense. Teacher would love to teach the higher level skills that define genius because they want credit for the next genius, but the sad fact is that while good teachers are very helpful, it is almost always impossible to explain an Einstein, Feynman, or Crick by pointing to some deep insight from an 8th grade teacher. These are exceptional people, and teaching the basics is what they needed most.


Anonymous said...

I did Kumon when I was growing up and it really helped me. Once I started doing Kumon, I easily became one of the top math students in every class for almost the rest of my life.

AHWest said...

What seems like big creativity to others typically looks like the outcome of a slow progression of knowledge, from the perspective of the creator.

Even huge leaps of knowledge typically are built with lots of preliminary preparation, until suddenly the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in a previously unexpected way.

People who try to preach creativity without hard work end up creating a lot of BS. Like modern poetry or like putting fairies in outer space.

Knowledge is hierarchical, and people can't hope that "creativity" will help them to skip to the top.

DorsetDipper said...

Our local Institute of Physics (in the UK) runs a series of public lectures. My kids have heard from Engineers and Scientisists, have heard about designing hip replacements, bulding bridges, and tonight have just come back from a talk on Galaxies and the origin of the Universe. They have found these talks inspirational, as they hear how scientists and engineers use their creativity and analytical skills to solve the problems in front of them and advance their fields.

It might not develop creativity, but it should help them decide whether science and/or engineering would be suitable careers for their abilities and personalities.

Barkley's Mommy said...

Congratulations for having your children enrolled in Kumon! Kumon is a "mastery based" learning program that is completely linear. (Master addition, move on to subtraction... Master multiplication, move on to division, then to fractions, algebra, and so forth.) The math (and reading comprehension) programs in schools today don't focus on the foundational skills children need to master in order to be successful at higher level studies. The programs want to make 6+4 "pretty", when 6+4 really makes "TEN"!

I know there is an outcry against the "traditional" memorization of facts, but Kumon's "drill annd kill" provides a better foundation for our children than the school system's "fluff and stuff".

Full disclosure: I'm a mom AND a Kumon Instructor.

Kindest regards and many thanks for this post~