It Never Was an Either/Or

This week I have spent a good portion of my time working with teachers in grades PK-2 talking about creativity and innovation.  Due to the changes that New Jersey is proposing in the new draft standards, which came about through their membership in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (among other factors as well), the elements that are stressed in the P21 manifesto have populated themselves into the new standards.  Themes such as:

  • Global awareness
  • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy
  • Civic literacy
  • Health literacy

and skills like:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration

are all now written into our standards from PK-12.

If you come from middle or high school teaching into an administration position in which you work with grades PK-5, you will understand how stressful it is to work with elementary teachers.  They are wonderful people; I should know, I am married to one.  But when you look at all they have to do in a day and the limited time they have to do it in, having them sit in an afterschool meeting to work with curriculum is daunting.  To introduce these ideas to our elementary teachers, we used our good friend Sir Ken Robinson.  We took a page from the P21 Framework that centered on creativity and innovation and had the teachers use it as a backbone for writing down ideas that struck them while watching Sir Ken’s TED talk from 2006.  From there, we had them answer two prompts in groups of 4-5:

  • Identify the structures in place in your classroom that promote creativity and innovation either in your students or yourself.
  • So what?  What Now?

The responses were phenomenal, especially in relation to the areas where Sir Ken spoke about finding creative capacities and working with them instead of educating them out of them.  However, one thing I have learned in administration in regards to any kind of meeting is that you have to be ready for the “don’t waste my time question of the day,” which is the part where you have to make it matter to them.  A teacher asked the question very bluntly:

“where is this going?  How are we to fit these ideas, which by the way we all believe in, into what we already do?”

My answer wasn’t great, I’ll admit, and it had a lot to do with explaining where the ideas behind the new standards revisions came from, but it stuck with me.

Last night, in my reader appeared an article from Patrick Riccards at Eduflack in which he debated the mode of delivery that the P21 people have chosen.  This gem was smack in the middle of it:

The debate over 21CS skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other.  This isn’t core knowledge versus soft skills.  No, our focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary.  How do we teach math and science so that we better integrate technology and critical thinking skills?  How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities?  How do we ensure that a 21st century student is not being forced to unplug when they enter the classroom, and instead uses the technologies and interests that drive the rest of their life to boost their interest and achievement in core academic subjects?  And most importantly, how do we ensure all students are graduating with the content knowledge and skills needed to truly achieve in the 21st century economy

One does not go forward by jettisoning the skills with which we gathered. To me it’s not about introducing new content, but rather how we engage students in content using the “soft skills” that we need them to develop. The ability to have a lasting understanding is our goal here, and providing relevant context to what we do in the classroom is a great way to get there.  So my answer to that question is not to change the content of what you do, but to use the same skills you are trying to develop in the students in your own practice.  Be innovative, be creative, be prepared to fail often, collaborate, model the behaviors you want to see in your students.


7 thoughts on “It Never Was an Either/Or

  1. Good post. I endorse the idea of creativity in schools. I like Pink and Sir Ken’s take on it. With my grad students we debated the idea of does creativity have a place in school, and if so, how should it be taught? Should it be taught? Can you “teach” someone to be creative? How does a teacher quantify (and grade!) creativity, especially if they are not “right brainers”.

  2. Barry,

    It all depends how you are defining it. If you take Sir Ken’s view and define it as “an original idea that has value,” it can take many forms, whether they be right- or left-brained in origin. From my perspective, it involves creating an environment where creative thought is even possible, one in which being wrong is an acceptable part of the process that is not stigmatized.

    The more I get into what these “21st Century” skills are, the more I keep thinking about good, solid teaching that allows learners to gain access and make sense of content in multiple ways. We’ve called it multiple intelligences, multi-sensory, visual thinking, and even “Classroom Instruction that Works.”

  3. What a great post. I wish everyone in education grasped the false dichotomy between knowledge and skills as well. The danger is rushing to embrace 21st century skills is not that they don’t matter — they do — but that the content-rich education that makes it happen will be deemed superfluous or irrelevant. I’ve written extensively aboutt this issue at the Core Knowledge blog and would invite you to visit.

  4. Partnership for 21st Century Skills was founded by Ken Kay, the head of e-Luminate (

    Ken Kay is a “marketing communications” specialist, whatever that means.

    “Do you have a sales and marketing strategy that aligns with the agenda of the new Administration? Are you in need of a message that will help you take advantage of stimulus dollars? If you want to work with a D.C. insider, contact us.”

    Why are we wasting so many hours dancing around ill-conceived ideas designed to make a few “experts” wealthy? Do you think the President of the company that trumpets access to D.C. in the above quote truly has your children’s best interests at heart?

    Sorry to be so cranky, but we’re allowing business folks to define what matters in education. We’re not in need of a message, we’re in need of a clue of why education still matters.

    And it does.

  5. I teach middle school students as well as graduate students and have a degree in Creative Studies, so this topic is near and dear to my heart. I think you have hit the nail on the head. We can teach beyond the standards and teach students to unleash the creativity within. There are thinking skills tools we can teach students that can help them overcome any hesitations they may have when we ask them an open ended question or give them an opportunity to synthesize their knowledge into a creative product. The key is that they have to have a solid knowledge foundation in order to be creative. We have to create a safe environment which welcomes new ideas and allows students to take risks. Then through modeling and coaching, we can help students use their creativity. Here is a creative thinking tool you might find helpful: SCAMPER is an acronym for: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Minify Magnify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse Rearrange. Start out by listing the characteristics or attributes of an object, a story, an event, etc. Then use the words from SCAMPER to make changes to the attributes. You will end up with a totally new invention, a new story, a whole new event, etc. When students create something from the knowledge they have, they gain ownership of their learning and pride in their accomplishment which leads to better recall of the information. There are many more tools that can scaffold student thinking.

  6. Nancy,

    Thanks for commenting; the SCAMPER method is a great tool for taking typical assignments and creating atypical outcomes, and one I will be sure to add to my bag of tricks. I think Doyle raises a great point in the comment above when he iterates that the best ideas in education shouldn’t come from those that have a slanted interest in it. I don’t know much about Ken Kay, and I truly trust both the “gut” of Doyle and the research he puts into his thought. That said, I think we truly need to examine not just how we are “delivering” content, but how we are teaching teachers to “deliver” content.

    I’ve been bouncing this one around lately with teachers I work with and I think it fits here. Dr. Pedro Noguera spoke at BLC last summer and I listened to him make this statement: “We need to start teaching with learning in mind. Teach in the way that you would want to learn.” Would you want to learn in an environment that didn’t hold your interest or provide reason for you to “plug in?”

    And yes, as evidenced by the response here, education still does matter.

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