Columns, Imagine That

Matters of intelligence

Michael Mann

Those of us who value creativity often blame schools’ focus on testing for the now-apparent creativity deficit in children. In 2006, performance art troupe Blue Man Group responded to the over-testing of kids by forming their own swanky Manhattan private school, which focused on creativity and imagination instead of test scores.

The curriculum at the Blue School is decided by each individual child — if a child shows interest in a certain discipline, they are encouraged to explore it further. There are no tests, no schoolbooks, and no set start times. The theory is that kids will flourish in an environment that supports their individual interests and doesn’t focus on testing as a marker for success.

Sounds great, right? Many New York parents thought so, to the extent that they were willing to pay $32,000 per year for their children to attend the kindergarten-through-3rd grade Blue School. However, as The New York Post reported last month, things aren’t exactly working out as planned.

The Blue School serves as an example of what happens when you have too much of a good thing.

It seems kids are coming out of the Blue School with boundless creativity, but they don’t know how to do relatively simple stuff that every child should be learning in school. “It’s all fun and games until you realize your second-grader can’t read,” gripes a Blue School parent quoted by The Post.

The Blue School appears to be churning out kids who are ill-prepared to transfer to other schools once they leave the third grade. As a result, parents are pulling their children out of the school. The Blue School is attempting to rectify the situation, hiring a new headmaster who has had public school experience. At the very least, the school serves as an example of what happens when you have too much of a good thing.

Creativity needs context

The Blue School seems to have forgotten that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We can’t teach kids creativity, and only creativity, and expect everything else to fall into place naturally.

The problems that plague the Blue School are the flipside of the over-testing coin. If you remove the arts from education, children suffer. If you remove testing and standard curricula from education, they will suffer as well. Rather than providing a solution to the testing-obsessed public schools, the Blue School provides yet another example of what happens when there is no balance. In the adult world, creativity is valued when it is applied to other disciplines; without knowing these disciplines in the first place, creativity isn’t very useful.

Other high-priced Manhattan private schools have embraced the progressive education model, but unlike the Blue School, they retain some structure. Even so, results have been mixed.

The posh Calhoun School has reorganized their class days, putting classes into two-hour blocks, during which kids can become more immersed in the topics, rather than hearing about one topic for 45 minutes, then moving on to the next. Of course, this requires a great deal of teacher involvement to structure the two-hour class blocks in a way that benefits students and doesn’t leave them bored. Would this work in public schools?

The New York Times reports that, in decades past, schools in both public and private sectors experimented with the class-block format. However, this format went out of favor when rigorous testing became the norm — a two-hour class block makes learners very good at one or two topics, but doesn’t give them the varied exposure to many topics that makes for good test scores.

The struggles of the Blue School prove that creativity isn’t the answer to everything, and that some structure is needed for kids to get a well-rounded education. Too much testing doesn’t make for a good education, but neither does too much free play. The answer is somewhere in the middle, and educators and parents must continue to seek out this middle ground. Imagine That!

Mike Mann is a speaker, trainer, and award-winning storyteller. He is co-founder of the Center for Imagination (www.CenterForImagination.org). His daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!,” recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. This column was written by Mike.

© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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