How to Build a School System That Nurtures Creativity

In case you missed it, there’s an important new piece in Newsweek about the declining capacity of Americans to think creatively — and what we can do about it.

This is, of course, the primary issue that has driven Sir Ken Robinson’s work (if you’re among the few who haven’t yet seen his hilarious and insightful 2006 TED talk on the subject, check it out). As Ken puts it, the problem is that our current system of education is more apt to “mine our minds” of its most precious materials than it is to plant fertile seeds that can sprout new ideas and ways of seeing the world. The Newsweek piece picks up on this theme, noting that “around the world, other countries are making creativity development a national priority.” Meanwhile, our focus in the U.S. remains on clarifying what exactly we need to put into all children’s minds, rather than how we can best pull out their individual talents and passions.

In addition to what Newsweek outlines as constructive steps to address the creativity crisis (hint: cognitive science and a deeper understanding of how the brain really works), I’d like to remind everyone what Finland did to become the world’s leader in public education: an intensive investment in teacher education (NOT performance pay), and a complete overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system in order to create a true “thinking curriculum” for all students.

More specifically, teachers in Finland receive 2 or 3 years of high-quality training completely at state expense. The program is extremely competitive, and it is followed by a full year of clinical experience and studying under a master teacher. All teachers also engage in critical friends group work throughout their careers, ensuring that they engage in continual self-reflection, evaluation, and proactive efforts to improve the quality of their professional practice.

The result of this deep investment in teaching, and in a curriculum that is focused on inquiry (as opposed to facts)? A learning environment that encourages both students and teachers to try new ideas and methods, learn about and through innovations, and cultivate creativity in schools. As Linda Darling-Hammond says in her excellent new book The Flat World and Education, “Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around very lean national standards. . . . The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with the thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.”

Why can’t we do this? WHY AREN’T WE DOING THIS?

Categories: Assessment, Equity, Learning, Teacher Quality

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  1. Gary Cohen
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    sam-great question! why aren’t we doing this? why can’t we do this? my only question is how competitive is the teacher pay in finland? perhaps that’s what drives the intense teacher training?

  2. Sam
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Hey Gary — Important point. Finland’s teachers are paid well, but not especially so. The main thing they have that we don’t is legitimate prestige attached to the position, and, as we know, educators aren’t in it for the $$, but they do need supportive work conditions that let them feel like they’re making a difference with kids, and a little respect for their work wouldn’t hurt either. Yet here we see the exact opposite, where, if anything, the reputation of teachers is being even further assaulted in our public conversations, as though the few teachers out there who really are slacking off and taking advantage of the system represent the majority. These are major problems, and there is no quick fix. But starting with the right goals, as Finland did, would sure be a helluva good start.

    Bill Gates, are you reading this?

  3. Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    you and all your sites are such a great find Sam. thanks to @paulawhite – i have a lot of reading to do today. can’t wait to dig in.

    i’m wondering if we can not only applaud finland… but perhaps do them (the world) a courtesy of taking their great model of investment in teaching a step further. can we edit/remix it?

    as always – i have more questions than answers. i’m just wondering if we can’t someway tweak the expense of training … and the 2-3 years of training. i’m wondering if (per Seth Godin) one of the interesting problems we work on in school is this training. i mean in a sophisticated, leveling, scalable way.

    one of Seth’s interviews really resonated with me.. at the end he was asked.. what’s next. he answered – this is it… this is next.

    like i said – i can’t wait to catch up on all you are doing. my burning question just now.. why am i just finding you. how can we act on that fact right there… that i’m just finding you.

    thank you Sam.. for the energy you pack..

  4. Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    The key issue is why the Chinese are taking their education system away from a highly test orientated fact based one to a more creative one that will allow innovation. They have realised that survival in the new global age is based on innovation and that this comes from allowing the children of China to think of new ideas and products. (see the Newsweek article referenced in the post).

    As you have stated Sam the U.S. model is producing close minded products many of whom are a pipeline to prison and unemployment! No wonder the Chinese officials in the Newsweek article laughed!

  5. Sam
    Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Monika — you bet we should mash-up the Finland model in a way that makes sense for the US. I could even see us doing this by states, and then having the feds make sure there’s attention being paid to the most promising models. And Amen, Malcolm. I’m doing a lot of work right now with some cool people in Australia, who are equally aware of the need to focus on the right set of knowledge and skills for the world kids will be entering — instead of the world we entered many years back.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  6. Julie
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I am responding to Monika – why didn’t I know about Sam earlier? This points I’ve been too busy and am so glad I found his work and can’t wait to read his new book.

    “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Wm Yeats

  7. Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    I happened to be doing some work-related researching in Yahoo today and found your blog. I have to confess that I have gotten a little distracted going through and looking at a few of your articles… I should probably be doing work. Good stuff here and I will be back again in the future to see more. Kudos!

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