Schools are to Creativity…

15 Jul

…as Zoos are to Wildness.

This was the title of a talk I first gave before I entered the realm of giftedness.  I’ve used that title many times since.  But this morning, when I had been planning to start preparations for camp (Yunasa begins a week from today and I leave home on Wednesday), I found this article (Why Creative Geniuses Hated School) posted in the FaceBook group, International Gifted Education, and was motivated to write a blog post instead.  If you haven’t already read that article, please, please click the link and read it before going on.  (I’ll wait.)  ***

I’m not writing here to bash schools, though that may seem to be the effect of this post.  I’m writing because it is difficult to know what to do about this problem, and it’s a serious problem that too many people (including myself for a long time) overlook, ignore or just don’t realize or understand.

I don’t claim to be a “creative genius.”  But I was not just a highly gifted kid, I was a highly creative kid.  I didn’t, of course, know this prior to entering school.  I had a vivid and constantly active imagination, but assumed everybody did.  School gave me little to do with that imagination, but then it gave me little to do with the rest of my mind, either, so I guess I just didn’t notice.

In the early days school for me was mostly a place where we kids were asked to do things that didn’t make a lot of sense.  I remember, for instance, cutting out words from a work book and pasting them under a picture–“apple” got pasted under the picture of an apple, “cat” under the picture of a cat.  I couldn’t imagine a reason for doing this, but the teacher wanted us to do it so I did it, along with all the other apparently useless tasks we were given.  And I got stars for doing it.

I was a girl from a family where authority counted, and it was the ’40s.  I pretty much did what I was told and enjoyed the stars.  The stars became S’s (for satisfactory–the only alternative being U’s for unsatisfactory) in grade school and A’s and the occasional B in junior high and high school, then in college and graduate school.

Long after my formal connection with school ended, Jane Piirto asked me to be part of a study she was doing of successful women writers.  The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires about their school experiences, and I did that.  My answers made it clear that not only had I been an excellent student, but I had pretty much loved school.

Years later, when I had become known as an expert in gifted education, I spoke at a conference in Nebraska that was organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of Leta Hollingworth’s death.  During that conference a film about Leta’s life was shown in which a poem of hers was read over suitable nature images–I believe it was titled “The Lone Pine” and she had written it in high school.  During the reading of the poem I began to cry.  The poem was one I certainly could have written at that age myself, about how hard it was to stand out, to stand alone on the top of the hill taking the brunt of the winds instead of standing safely down on the hillside, sheltered amongst the rest of the forest trees.

By the end of the film I had put myself back together, but during the plane ride home from the conference I found myself crying again.  The amount of pain that bubbled up over the rest of that day stunned me.  And when I got back to my computer, I spent six full hours writing, retrieving the “real story” of my school experiences from second grade on.

The protective cocoon of repression had broken as I listened to and identified with the feelings behind Leta’s poem, and I gradually came face to face with what school had really been for me.  In my own life, it hadn’t been other kids who bullied me–the bullies were defensive teachers who humiliated me, including the sixth grade teacher who arranged for the principal to denounce me as a liar and thief to the whole school over the intercom.  I hadn’t managed to repress that singular event–I had just put it down to the teacher’s vindictiveness.  But I had genuinely forgotten the others and the pain they caused.  The cocoon had been largely constructed of all those stars and good grades, the dutiful accomplishments of a bright kid whose schools and family expected her to follow directions, to achieve and excel.  How could I not have loved school when I was so successful at it?  When I filled out those questionnaires, I had genuinely believed my answers.

There were bright spots, of course, and a handful of caring, supportive teachers.  Luckily, I’d had one brilliant teacher at my highly academic school who taught me English all four years of high school, and gave us wonderful  literature to read and had us do free writing known as “journal entries” every single week.  Luckily also, the school had a powerful drama club and I’d done theatre as an extracurricular activity throughout. 

I majored in creative writing as an undergraduate, writing stories, poetry and plays–and again focused all my non-academic attention on theatre, surviving the “core curriculum” by getting through it as fast as possible and spending most of my time focused on my passions.  But as a graduate student I was not allowed to write a creative thesis (the volume of poetry I’d intended) for my Master’s degree and was required to do a work of literary criticism instead.  When I read today that Einstein had “found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful” for an entire year after forcing himself through his examinations, I was reminded that my Master’s degree in English Literature very nearly stopped me writing entirely.  I have never darkened the door of a school (as a student) again, in spite of pressure to get a doctorate in order to keep a university teaching position.

Over my thirty years in the gifted field I have regularly been called “Dr. Tolan” by people who simply assume that an “expert” must have a doctorate.  And there was a time when a competetive colleague suggested that a “mere children’s book writer” could not possibly have the credentials to function in the academic world.  I’m not against doctorates–most of my closest friends and colleagues have them–but acquiring one can be harmful to imagination and nearly poisonous to creativity!  The words “terminal degree” still make me chuckle.  It could have been that in my life!

This post is not meant as a personal complaint.  I’ve had a wonderful life doing multiple things I love to do.  The main reason for writing here is not because my own creativity was damaged or at least thwarted by school, but because I bought into the education paradigm so thoroughly that I failed to make my own son’s immense creativity the primary focus of our attention when he was growing up.  I was seduced by his amazing mind.  I wrote about that a bit in my “who/what” post in this blog here.  Luckily, he never convinced himself that he loved school, and he wasn’t seduced by the demand for multiple degrees as the only doorway to success or fulfillment.

I was moved to write today because it isn’t only the “creative geniuses” who are hurt by school (and of course because when they’re children we don’t yet know who those geniuses might be.)  It’s all the kids whose innate creativity goes unsupported in school.

How many kids are out there with vivid, passionate, creative imaginations and also extremely able intellects, whose “success” in the academic realm (good grades, high achievement) is masking severe  malnutrition in schools that don’t make their imaginations a priority and their curiosity an organizing factor in their education?  (Especially in this era of high stakes testing!) 

How many kids might one day claim as I did (like kidnap victims exhibiting the “Stockholm syndrome”) that they had loved the schools that nearly destroyed the essence of who they were?  And how many rebellious, angry kids are that way because such a huge piece of who they are is ignored after kindergarten or first grade, as kids’ stuff?

Einstein said that if we want to raise fine scientists we should read them fairy tales.  Given how few schools these days follow that advice, one must hope that computer games are filling some of that need…

14 Responses to “Schools are to Creativity…”

  1. Coleen Christensen July 15, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    After early college graduation and 3 kids, I went back to grad school (University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN MA program in Gifted Education) when my oldest daughter headed off to Mary Baldwin College’s PEG program at 13. One of our assigned classes was “Creativity”. (It should have been called “Artsieness”, but I digress…).

    What still sticks in that class was being told to list 20 items (I forget the topic). Being mathy and random, I started writing…only to get in trouble from the teacher for not numbering my items. I hadn’t thought the numbers were important, only the total count. (Normally, I’d simply group my list in sets of 5 and quit at the 4th set.) But (she whose name will remain unwritten) was freaking out because if I didn’t number my list, how would I know I had reached 20?

    That story remains my favorite example of educational irony.

    • Stef July 15, 2012 at 8:50 pm #

      One would not call the creativity of an Edison, a Tesla, an Einstein “artsiness,” but some see creativity that way, and imagination is all too often treated as “kids’ stuff.”

      Educational irony indeed. Like creativity work sheets.

    • Shulamit Widawsky July 16, 2012 at 9:27 am #

      Awesome story, Coleen.

      Gosh, I can just imagine this instructor actually looking over your shoulder, to “make sure you were doing it right” in a course ironically called “Creativity” and then “freaking out” because you didn’t number them!

      My family (four of us, all mathematically inclined) play a game called Bananagrams. First thing you do is take 21 tiles. I always take four sets of five, and then one. And I always laugh as I watch my guys count out, and then recount their tiles, to make sure they have the exact right number. I always know I have the right number, because I can glance at the five “piles” and know.

      You were right, your teacher was SO wrong, and your story has now earned a place in my educational irony list.

  2. MyTwiceBakedPotato July 15, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    I just found your site through a tweet. I am very interested in the highly gifted children that have grown up. I have a twice-exceptional son. He is very bright but socially struggles. He has a hard time bring bored and is seen as trouble at school. As a highly-gifted adult, what would you like parents like me to know? I want my son to become a happy and successful adult.
    Any ideas would be SO appreciated!!

    • Stef July 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

      To MyTwiceBakedPotato:

      Your question would require a book or two to answer, but luckily the world is full of people (on blogs, in internet groups, on HoagiesGifted website sharing information with each other) who can give you ideas. What I would say in a short space is just this. Beware of insisting that your child do things the way you would do them, or the way other people say to do them. If he wants to try to accomplish something his own way, let him try it that way first. (This is remarkably hard to do, especially when the child’s way is messier, slower, more complicated and in the end doesn’t quite work.) But showing that you are willing to let him invent his own way to do something is just really important!

      And then don’t shut down day-dreaming as “unproductive and time-wasting.” Day-dreaming is essential. Einstein day-dreamed (imagined) his way into the ideas that he later had to support with math and physics. It is imagination that is the creative person’s most valuable asset, and it gets short shrift in most schools, so support it at home!

      Oh–and one more. Let him tell you stories (even if they aren’t true) and don’t too quickly leap to an accusation of lying. Try to enjoy exaggeration, as imaginative kids almost can’t help embroidering a bit. This is not to say accept outright lies–just leave room for the idea of creative story telling–and if you must, ask whether this particular tale is a tall one or what really happened. 🙂

    • kisekileia November 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

      I know this reply is months late, but I just found this site and I had to say something about this.

      My advice, as a former twice-exceptional child whose disabilities were not diagnosed or addressed until adulthood, and who paid a very dear price: Pay attention to his disabilities. Get him therapy, meds, etc. Don’t assume that everything will be fine because he’s gifted. It might not when he’s an adult, even to the extent that it is now. Get him help now, because disabled adults usually can’t afford the help they need. It may be an absolute necessity to give him an adulthood where he can use his gifts.

  3. begabungs July 16, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    I just read this blog and enjoyed it a lot. Thank you for mention our group International Gifted Education on facebook. 🙂
    Kind regards and best wishes from Germany,

  4. rackerly July 16, 2012 at 7:13 am #

    “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” –Mark Twain (There are hundreds of schools that ARE an education, but we needs thousands. …and all children need them whatever their peculiar combination of gifts and shortcomings–the unique wiring.

    • shoe9 July 16, 2012 at 9:30 am #

      I try often (though not always successfully) to remind myself of that quotation.

  5. Jennifer July 16, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    When my son was in kindergarten his teacher called my husband and me in for a conference. After we sat down in front of her desk, she looked at us with a very serious expression and said, “do you know your son has an imagination?” She said it with a distasteful sneer to her voice. My husband answered, “yes, we know that, isn’t it great?” The teacher told us that imagination was something to be stomped out. By the end of the year our son shut down completely and the psychologist we consulted told us the teacher had verbally and emotionally abused him for no apparent reason except she didn’t like him and because she had emotional and over-control problems herself. We moved our son to a different school where we found out he had an IQ in the gifted range.

    • Stef July 19, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

      Gotta say, Jennifer, that story makes me physically ill! It’s bad enough to “accidentally” stomp out imagination out of a failure to realize its importance and value, but to purposely do it on principle–well, what can one say? It’s important to hang on to the fact that kids are amazingly resilient.

  6. rackerly July 19, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    Coleen, I am hoping our common ground is that the import of the psychology today article is not how bad school is for gifted and creative people, but about how uncreative schooling is bad for everyone. This kind of schooling is abusive to all children, not just very intelligent or creative people. Not just ADHD kids, or high IQ kids, but compliant kids who get A’s are also not getting an education. That teacher of yours abused all the other kids, each in their own way, because of her lack of imagination and her mandate only to do what the program and her boss demanded her to do. If the name of the game is to learn how to follow directions, everyone suffers.
    An educator’s socratic oath is to believe in, look for and lead out the genius in each child. She was not an educator–she was a quack.

  7. Chantal Cravens (@RunningNmusing) July 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    The creative adult is the kid who survived schooling.
    “Do not let schooling interfere with your education.”- Mr Mark Twain

  8. Gita Kannon October 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    Your article “rings true” for me. I stopped asking questions in the sixth grade when a teacher shamed me in class, and stopped me before I could get very far in my reading of the poem, Rizpah, by Tennyson. It was then I decided to doodle and also write fiction/poetry
    during class times. Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create, has always been a source of inspiration for me. I still struggle at age 61 with taking “stupid” jobs (I quit my career.) so I could create. I don’t regret doing so, but at times it is difficult. All best, Gita

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