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The Creative Habit

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Creativity is a habit, argues Robert Sternberg in this Education Week Commentary. But with the help of today's version of accountability and standardized testing, he says schools are increasingly treating it as a bad habit.

Without creativity, students are not prepared to solve diverse and unexpected real-world problems, Sternberg argues. While it should be promoting critical thinking, he claims the accountability movement is discouraging creativity.

Do standardized tests stifle the creative habit? Does the accountability movement discourage creative thinking?

48 Comments

I totally agree! As principal of a Magnet School
for high achieving youngsters, we advocate creative thinking and problem solving. This
accountability movement is affecting teacher
morale and fostering frustration, as we are
accountable to our district for the test results. Our scores have always been high and
it is very difficult to raise that "high end".
We would much rather spend our time promoting
creative thinkers and problem solvers than
test takers.

As a retired pediatrician and former school board member(13 years), I firmly believe in the basic concept of NCLB. I do agree with Robert Sternberg about creativity. In order to achieve both, I feel we need to extend the school day and provide cross-curriculum seminar type classes to foster creativity.

This issue is extremely important for our Hispanic English Language Learners (as well as ELLs in general). It is through the "arts" that they can show their creativity. This will help with their self-esteem and lower the affective filter while learning English. This will provide them with more opportunities to be successful and therefore, give them more confidence which will spill over into academic success. Just focusing on test scores where it is impossible for them to be successful will result in discouragement which will contribute to the already high Hispanic dropout rate.

This issue is extremely important for our Hispanic English Language Learners (as well as ELLs in general). It is through the "arts" that they can show their creativity. This will help with their self-esteem and lower the affective filter while learning English. This will provide them with more opportunities to be successful and therefore, give them more confidence which will spill over into academic success. Just focusing on test scores where it is impossible for them to be successful will result in discouragement which will contribute to the already high Hispanic dropout rate.

One of the things that I have noticed, in working with remedial English students, is a tendency to avoid precise, descriptive language. My students' work is filled with conceptual terms but they lack the ability to define and describe their own ideas. If you ask these students why they don't feel comfortable exploring their ideas they will tell you openly that they have been taught to provide answers, not explanations. Several of these students have mentioned that,"Teachers don't want to hear what I think." And who can really blame them for holding this idea when it is proven day after day in school.

Creativity usually involves using old things in new ways and/or new things in old ways. It follows, then, that to create, we need a repertoire of "things" to fuel our creativity. Among those "things" are those tested by NCLB. Therefore, to inform creativity, we need to acquire NCLBish kinds of knowledge along with a myriad of other skills, and the time and context in which to be creative. The unfortunate reality, however, is that NCLB, as it now exists, destroys the balance. Like most of life, we need both; the Ying-Yang of content and context.

I understand that it is difficult to teach to the test..., however, I do think that adding a question with discussion for critical thinking and problem solving is possible. Perhaps an email discussion would allow students to interact. Those students without computer access could go to a public library.

This article excited me -- it gives a different kind of critique to NCLB that is often implied but rarely spoken. When I talk to students and go in schools, I see the creative parts of the curriculum are the things being jettisoned in service of preparing for higher test scores. There is now "no time" for the arts, for open ended discussion, and it's even worse in the more "scripted" schools which often serve the most at-risk kids. The at-risk kids need engagement more than phonics drilling. The arts and project based cooperative learning (with structure and accountability) keep that engagement which is a necessary precondition to both the knowledge and the creativity -- it foregrounds both of them, I think.
The idea that kids will be tested annually really scares me -- how much more think time will turn into test prep time?

We need more professional development in the value of the arts. We must partner more with our artists and community arts groups. When the arts are infused into learning, students retain the info as they are engaged in meaningful ways. The thinking seems to be "Johnny can't read so lets give him more drill and kill" - but what we should do is to engage Johnny throught the arts! My son became an avid reader in order to learn all teh words to Beatles songs! Arts education is a huge equity issue - it must be available to every child at every school and not just schools with parents who can fundraise for "extras".

"Do standardized tests stifle the creative habit? Does the accountability movement discourage creative thinking?" No, and No. The first question contains an unsupported premise: that a notable creative habit already existed for a test to squelch. I am a provably creative person and creativity is innate, in my view, existing with or without formal testing. I would not describe it as a habit.

The accountability movement, if successful in raising learning, will increase creativity because creativity functions best from a base of knowledge. What is learned can be tested and testing often motivates an effort to learn. Thus, effective testing will promote creativity.

As an educator for over 25 years, I have seen teachers who have insisted that students do things "their" way... like there was only one way to solve a problem and not allow for creativity or different learning styles. One teacher even insisted that a student had to color the tree green with a brown trunk (what would Picasso say?).

I, too, work with ELL (students learning the English language) and applaud creative thinking! However, too much standardized testing doesn't always allow us the opportunity to be creative ourselves.

Many school systems even have the teachers teach word-for-word from materials they "approve". Others allow for individuality and creative thinking in the classroom.

We have to realize that each child is an individual with different ways of learning. Hopefully, new teachers won't become automatons and end up teaching rote material. The sad thing is that many "seasoned" teachers will be retiring in the next few years. Let's hope that a new generation's creative abilities won't be stifled by the educational system!!!

I agree that standardized tests stifle creativity. As my state prepares for its state-mandated assessment tests, I notice that students have much more plausible and creative answers for the practice questions than the possible multiple choice answers provide. This leads to frustration as they continually complain to me that, "The answers I can choose from are too simple." We need to start trusting teachers to teach their subjects with passion and creativity. Standardized tests should be used to measure student achievement levels that go into assisting the teachers those students have in following years to help them learn what they do not know. Right now, with high-stakes testing, all teachers seem to be doing is teaching test-taking strategies and hoping the students will do well in order for their schools to receive a passing grade from the state and make federal AYP so they can continue to receive much needed funds. That is not education, it is the creating of automatrons.

I agree that standardized tests stifle creativity. As my state prepares for its state-mandated assessment tests, I notice that students have much more plausible and creative answers for the practice questions than the possible multiple choice answers provide. This leads to frustration as they continually complain to me that, "The answers I can choose from are too simple." We need to start trusting teachers to teach their subjects with passion and creativity. Standardized tests should be used to measure student achievement levels that go into assisting the teachers those students have in following years to help them learn what they do not know. Right now, with high-stakes testing, all teachers seem to be doing is teaching test-taking strategies and hoping the students will do well in order for their schools to receive a passing grade from the state and make federal AYP so they can continue to receive much needed funds. That is not education, it is the creating of automatons.

I do not agree that creativity solely depends upon training. Creativity is a trait that is born not made. However some creativity might be promoted through school education. Neither the standardized tests nor the accountability movement hampers creativity. It is only people's hunch that set pattern kills creativity. Set pattern testing rather promotes creativity by letting students think and prepare more rigorously. While going through the books for preparation for tests the students will use their creativity in analysing and/or gaining insights from them. Tis will foster their thinking capacity thus increasing creatiity. If students complain about the test and show their disinterest towards them they are not creative. Teachers should be prepared to foster students' creativity by letting them things done in a different way rather complaining about standardized tests or accountability movements.

Sternberg states that "(k)nowledge is a necessary, but in no way sufficient, condition for creativity." Agreed. All creative students have the knowledge, whereas not all knowledgeable students are creative. The purpose of testing, therefore, is to assure that one of the indispensable conditions of creativity is present.

Dr. B.F. (just call me 'Fred') Skinner personally advised me at a time when I was 'testing' his prototype of his machine-teaching machine. I was a student at Harvard Summer School. He stated that I should "beware of tests that do not TEACH while testing." He also advised that "I should be aware of the TestORs and people who designed and graded the tests." I believe that all tests should always "teach to the test as they test" and that testing without doing so is a waste of money and time for everyone. [email protected] ([email protected]).

The article is testing NCLB, which is the most important and obvious way to show that it has not worked for teachers nor for children. Amazingly, many people still see it as essential because it is "the law" when in fact it is only an academically draining and a very costly test. Yes, NCLB is a test the country as a whole is not passing. Unfortunately, I forsee new tests will be created, implemented, defended, and discarded while generations of students' time and skills are discarded with them.

The article is testing NCLB, which is the most important and obvious way to show that it has not worked for teachers nor for children. Amazingly, many people still see it as essential because it is "the law" when in fact it is only an academically draining and a very costly test. Yes, NCLB is a test the country as a whole is not passing. Unfortunately, I forsee new tests will be created, implemented, defended, and discarded while generations of students' time and skills are discarded with them.

I don't feel that these standardized tests, themselves, hinder student's learning, BUT I do feel as though the enormous pressure on teachers for their students to perform well is indeed hurting our students. It is important for educators to know whether or not their students are performing at grade level, and they can tell how well their students are doing just by viewing their school work from week to week.
NCLB is EXCELLENT IN THEORY, but when it comes time to implement the program, it has many fallacies. There must be a better way to help these children. One answer for this is allowing each elementary school to have their own school psychologist to aid in determining the best path for these children. Also, more of an emphasis on reading and reading comprehension in the early grades so that students have a full understanding of the written language.
Lastly, keep the arts and P.E. in schools! Cutting these activities will result in narrow-minded children who grow into narrow-minded adults!
thank-you.

I think that standardized tests is limiting students creativity because there is so much pressure nowadays to meet the required scores. I don't think its fair to have the children work so hard on a test because what really matters is what they have learned and how they apply it. I also think that the test give stress to the students which doesn't allow their minds to work creatively. Kids should be kids and not have to be stressed over a test.

I beleive that too much emphasis on standardized testing strips a students educations of creativity. The tests are used mainly for census reports and are not directed to students in a positive way. Istead the tests take over important time that should be used enriching students with all aspects of learning rather than "drilling" them with a,b,c,d test answers.

I agreee. In Florida, all teachers do is teach test taking skills. Schools are graded and funded based on the scores earned by students on the high stakes test (FCAT). As an exceptioanl student teacher, I find myself obligated to teach secondary students with mild to severe disabilities grade level testing skills when these students are reading between a first grade level and a sixth grade level.

I agree with this fact. Ever since standardized tests have been marketed to schools across the nation for the sole purpose of evaluating our children, the education system has not raised its standards. Truthfully, all it has done is created a generation of children who think like robots. Not only are the children being subdued to memorizing concepts, but teachers are now forced to teach to the test in order for their students to pass. When teachers teach to the test, the most important concepts are being disregarded. Creativity, imagination and absrtact thinking are at the mercy of standarized testing. I find no problem with the test itself, however the uses of it after it is taken is what is destroying the public education system. We are placing children on paths that they will most likely never get out of. Eventually, the affect of all this will come out in future generations. The federal government is supposedly trying to improve the education of our children, but they are not giving teachers the financial resources they need to do so and putting trmemndous pressure on a test that will determine a child's future. Who is to say what tracka specific child should be placed in? Obviously, a single score should not be that determinant.

Yes, I do feel that standardized testing is suppressing the creative side of children. Because teachers are only preparing them for the tests, they are only subjected to that material. Children should instead be pushed to expand their minds and be more creative, to think above and beyond what is requested of them. Since teachers are only teaching to the test though, this is not happening in the classrooms.

I do believe that all these tests take away from children's creativity and i think that is like taking the soul of a child away or even of a human because without creativity one cannot survive in life no matter how much knowlege of the world and how many tests one takes.

I do believe that standardized tests stifle creativity especially if it is forcing teachers to teach solely for the purpose of preparing students to pass a test. No longer are the students able to "think outside the box" but they are forced to memorize facts and concepts in order to fulfill an idea of pass/fail. Do these tests give an accurate measure of the true ability of students in the public school system? There has to be a balance - allowing for teachers to promote and enhance higher order thinking along with concepts and facts. Anyone can learn facts if you drill them enough, but will they be able to apply those facts to real life and/or determine whether or not that concept can be further explored.

Yesx10! first,they are cutting out ways to learn coping methods, through music,art, dance,and P.E.
second, some schools have cut the budget of these programs because they have to spend more on drilling students on "standarized tests" What does this lead to? Increased anxiety,depression, or antisocial/counter productive behaviors leading to in my opinion, decreased trust and decreased interest in learning. Mother is a English teacher and has less time to spend on subjects such as Harriet Tubman, or Helen keller.

The problem with the standarized testing is that the test only asks the students intellectual ability yet disregards the students other abilities, whether creativity or technical.
The Accountability Movement is discouraging towards the students creative thinking because the students begin to emotionally feel that they are only good for what is being tested, which in schools standarized testing is made into a big fuss. And completely forgetting the creative or technical thinking or skills the student acquires. Thus, making the student feel of low- self- esteem and "not smart".

I do agree, the increasing use of conventional standardized tests is suppressing creativity among students. Instead of spending time promoting test takers, time would be better spent promoting problem solvers and creative/critical thinkers. Focusing on students' creativity increases their self-esteem and self-confidence. This provides them with the opportunity to gain academic success. Though, if we focus on test scores, discouragement will result. These standardized tests take away from the students' creativity.

I definitely do not agree with the fact that creativity is a born trait nor that we need to extend the school day to achieve better results. Creativity can be expressed in many different ways. There is not one way to view things. How do you measure creativity? Must we hold children responsible for what they do now as their ultimate potential, or can we have faith that maybe someday they can capitalize on their untapped abilities? There is no doubt that people learn and progress when they make the decision to do so. There is a place for assessment, but school should not be completely based on that. Why extend the school day if things are not "right" as it is?

I feel that it does. I it hard to be creative when someone is telling what to teach, how to teach it, and the consequences if your students fail. Who would take the chance to be creative? Lucky for me I teach k and 1 and don't have to focus on the FCAT. However it is in my mind because if I fail to do something or teach something well at my students' age and grade it might impact them later on this test. What has come of society where we have to teach tests instead for teaching skills to survive in life. (Now we teach skills to survive the test. So very sad!)

testing does intrude on the creative process. however, teachers can still use creativity in teaching testing material.

Sternberg is right that creativity is a habit and that an over-emphasis on testing greatly discourages this habit. In recent years, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB)legislation has made a huge impact in Israel, where I have worked as a science educator since 1982. In all areas of education, in general, and in science eduction, specifically, there is now an over-emphasis on high-stakes testing and on "teaching to the test." Just one example is that middle-school science teachers, who once were enthusiastic practitioners of Project-Based Learning in Science and Technology (PBLSAT) -- an approach based on the standard science curriculum, in which students are encouraged to ask their own questions and follow-up with their own research and development projects -- now reluctantly have put that approach on the shelf, because "we don't have time to do that." I predict that Israeli society, in a few years, will experience the same negative effects of NCLB on student creativity and interest in science, as American society is experiencing now. ([email protected])

Not only does NCLBs focus on the accumulation of "knowledge objects" mediate against creativity--it makes the mistaken assumption that the possession of knowledge confers the ability to use it! Adding more teaching time isn't the answer--several years ago, McRel estimated that, even with the then 4000+ existing benchmarks, school would have to be extended from K-12 to K-22 to address them effectively! Changing the metaphor from No Child Left Behind to Move Every Child Ahead shifts the focus from knowledge that ALL students must possess to developing the unique abilities of the individual learner. ([email protected])

I think standardized tests limit creativity in the classroom. If teachers are enforcing the tests, then they will base their curriculums on what the tests tend to cover. This tends to discourage the opportunities for outside and abstract topics to discuss because it takes time away from the tests topics. In my opinion, the best-educated are the ones that can manipulate ideas and create new opinions and ideas from the ones originally given.

There is too much emphasis on Standarized testing. Seems to me that we are beginning to be robots and are forced to teach the tests. I am the Math Chairperson in my school and it seems as if my administration cares more about Standarized scores than how these kids are living their daily lives and learning. Tests, tests, and more tests. These kids have enough pressure as it is. We live in such a fast society and all of these tests don't help!!!

I strongly agree with this assessment. Ever since standardized testing became the measure by which students were judged there has been less of a focus on creativity. Teachers are forced to teach to the test and anything that isn’t required for the test is passed over. As a former public school student I was saddened to see funds being taken away from art and music programs so that the money could be used to improve test scores. While it is important to learn basic math and English it is equally important to grow creatively. It takes creativity and ingenuity along with know-how to solve most problems and at this point children aren’t developing both these skills.

I think that the standardized testing system is suppressing creativity in students grades K-12. Some students are not good test takers and I believe that baseing student progress on tests along may be holding students back from expressing themselves in a creative manner.

I agree! Teaching soley the standardized testing is frustrating both teacher and student and blocking their creative path. Teachers are not able to broaden the minds of their students anymore. I believe through creative learning skills students are able to learn how to socialize, unlock their problem solving skills, and probably be able to learn new ideas faster and easier then through just teaching for a test from a script.

I believe that the focus on standardized testing is suppressing creativity. Teachers are so focused on making sure their students are prepared to pass a designed test that they do not have time to allow students to express themselves. In general, high-stakes test are a burden for teachers and students. Teachers have to make sure the students pass and students are overwhelmed with pressure knowing that where they go next depends solely on an exam. I agree that there should be some standards but not a high-stakes exam.

Testing is not only decreasing student creativity, but it also decreasing teacher creativity. When I first started teaching in the mid nineties, we were encouraged to develop lessons that involved community and cross-curricular activities. We were able to open the world up to our students. Today we open a pratice test booklet designed by a corporation, and we drill according to the script that is listed in the teacher's manual. It has helped in my burnout process I must say.

I think that all of this emphasis on standardized testing has limited creativity in both students and teachers. Not only that but the pressure that is involved in passing causes undue stress on kids at a young age.

I disagree with the poster who stated that "creativity is innate".

Creativity is a process of looking and thinking about things differently. It isn't just about self-expression. Creativity is a process that can be taught. The "creative process" is taught everyday in art and design schools all over the country -- it is taught through processes of taking things and putting them into different contexts, generation of multiple ideas or solutions to problems, and through the process of looking at work or ideas and rethinking them through the process of self and group critique.

It is also taught in business schools and in workshops and training sessions for people working a wide range of industries -- as a way to spur innovative thinking and innovative team problem solving.

The same processes ARE USED every day in offices in a variety of industries -- technology, criminal investigation, business, politics, and education to name a few.

Creativity is not just a skill used by artists, writers, and entertainers.

Critiques of our high-stakes testing environment (exacerbated by NCLB) point out that the high-stakes testing that our policy makers have so successfully thrust upon us stems from a desire to be able to compete globally.

Unfortunately, one of the things that we will lose in this high-stakes testing environment is creativity because NLCB, with it's testing mandates, leaves no room for test development that is thoughtful or deep enough to provide testing of critical and creative thinking.

Our students are being drilled and killed on "the basics" at the expense of creative, innovative thinking.

We will have a generation of people who can understand basics, but who are unable to be innovative.

How do we expect to compete globally if we are not able to have an innovative work-force?

NCLB and this testing environment is killing real student learning.

I am an educator. I have a bachelor's degree and master's degree in studio art. I went back to school to be certified in teaching and I am now working on my M.Ed. in education administration and supervision. I am currently working in an administrative position focused on whole school reform at an urban, high minority, low socio-economic, high at-risk high school.

I know how to teach the creative process and I have seen first-hand the results of testing-gone-wrong.

I do believe in assessment for improving student learning.

Let me restate what I just said -- "I believe in ASSESSMENT for IMPROVING STUDENT LEARNING."

BUT -- that assessment does not involve high-stakes testing which does nothing to help educators understand how to help individual students.

For those of you reading this who aren't educators -- you need to know that standardized testing is not designed for assessing individual student learning -- it is designed to predict certain aspects of student performance (depending on the specific test).

For NCLB to be effective -- it needs to be rewritten with a focus on formative assessment that takes place DURING learning (as opposed to AFTER like standardized tests) and it needs to incorporate a focus on "creativity" as well as the basics of mathimatical "thinking", english/reading/writing, science and the scientific method, and social studies.

As for graduation requirements --

Instead of a high-stakes EXIT test...

Students should be required to complete a portfolio highlighting their best work in all academic areas that demonstrates their mastery of characteristics of a "graduate profile". The "graduate profile" characteristics would be a set of characteristics such as "effective communicator", "critical thinker", "awareness of global and cultural issues", "proficient technology users", etc. -- the kinds of characteristics that employers would be looking for in an employee.

Additionally -- students should be prepared to present their portfolio at the end of the year (as graduation requirement) so they can demonstrate their ability to evaluate and reflect upon their own learning.

Through all of this, teachers should also be making connections ACROSS disciplines areas to help students make connections and understand relationships between the different curriculum areas -- this is another strategy that helps to build creative thinking skills.

Students should still take some standardized tests as these are often helpful in prediciting future student success -- but those tests SHOULD NOT be "gatekeepers" for a high school diploma.

We have gone down a horribly wrong path in education and I truly worry about what kind of effect this testing is going to have on this generation.

As a great SCIENTIST once said:
"Imagination is MORE IMPORTANT than knowledge."
(Einstein)

I think that it is true that students creativity is compeltely stifled. All students do until March is study for standarized tests (FCAT) teachers have a hard time focusing on anything else and because of this students are being held back from their true potential. There is no real taste of who the child is because they are not being exposed to many things or subjects.

I think this is an excellent article; Sternberg diagnoses much that is dangerous in regard to high stakes testing. I also appreciate his examples of how open-ended questions can be used to stimulate all students. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that here in NYS, the people being tested are the teachers. The idea of public scrutiny does not do much to encourage teachers to take risks, especially in small disticts such as my own where who teaches what is well-known. At another level, after 25 years as an educator, I have come to the conclusion that until teaching becomes regarded as the demanding profession it really is, by becoming competitive, many schools (esp. those "at-risk") will become more and more filled with people who think of teaching as a secure job that has a lot of vacations. I'm not really sure what needs to happen; more money would help, to even the playing field so that all teachers in a state receive the same salary, with a COL adjustment, if necessary; a system that offers ambitious, talented teachers a career ladder that doesn't lead directly from the classroom to an administrative office; giving serious teachers more autonomy about their time and energy; setting up lab schools where ideas can be tried; maybe even requiring teachers who wish to advance to do some research. I have been hearing about the the need to move away from factory-model schools since I started teaching in 1979, but instead of moving away from this model, many schools seem to be moving toward it. Slowly and reluctantly I have come to realize that public education is a conservative endeavor and that instituting meanigful change is a momumental task.

I think this is an excellent article; Sternberg diagnoses much that is dangerous in regard to high stakes testing. I also appreciate his examples of how open-ended questions can be used to stimulate all students. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that here in NYS, the people being tested are the teachers. The idea of public scrutiny does not do much to encourage teachers to take risks, especially in small disticts such as my own where who teaches what is well-known. At another level, after 25 years as an educator, I have come to the conclusion that until teaching becomes regarded as the demanding profession it really is, by becoming competitive, many schools (esp. those "at-risk") will become more and more filled with people who think of teaching as a secure job that has a lot of vacations. I'm not really sure what needs to happen; more money would help, to even the playing field so that all teachers in a state receive the same salary, with a COL adjustment, if necessary; a system that offers ambitious, talented teachers a career ladder that doesn't lead directly from the classroom to an administrative office; giving serious teachers more autonomy about their time and energy; setting up lab schools where ideas can be tried; maybe even requiring teachers who wish to advance to do some research. I have been hearing about the the need to move away from factory-model schools since I started teaching in 1979, but instead of moving away from this model, many schools seem to be moving toward it. Slowly and reluctantly I have come to realize that public education is a conservative endeavor and that instituting meaningful change is a momumental task.

Isn't it interesting that the standards pitch is now being considered for higher education. There is, of course, a huge difference in goals: the colleges and universities will be required to evaluate writing, problem solving and critical thinking. How this will be accomplished is yet to be determined. But just think if this approach had guided the NCLB program! Robert J. Sternberg might have had occasion to write a glowing account of the K-12 realm, which would have been replete with creativity...and the knowledge base necessary for it to emerge.

With standardized test scores being linked to performance appraisal and eligibility for federal funding, teachers are focusing on test prep rather than on educating students. there is little room for error or invention relegating the classroom to a venue for training/conditioning versus education student; a model where a one-size fits approach to instruction is the only option.

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