Want Creativity? Scrap the Tests.

John Spencer Assessment, Education Policy

SHARE THIS STORY: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+

Despite the stereotype that teachers spend the last few weeks showing movies, I find the opposite to be true at my school. As I walk through the hallways on my prep period, I see classes bursting with creative energy. Out in the courtyard, kids are testing their paper airplanes to see which ones can do the most flips, soar the longest, and go the furthest. In one room, I see students working putting final touches on movie previews for books that they have read. In a third room, a teacher is doing a Shark Tank style project based upon a design thinking framework I had helped her create.

It feels like a different school than what I saw three or four weeks ago. At the time, teachers were stressed. Students were checked out. Classes were doing last minute prep work for the standardized tests — completely packet after packet of sample questions. Not every class fit this description but it was the norm. Engagement was plummeting and creativity was almost non-existent (often hiding in the doodles kids were making in the margins of test prep packets).

This place feels different right now. It’s the time of year when kids naturally “check out” and yet . . . I see engagement. I see creativity. I see design projects and science experiments and lively discussions on articles they have read. It’s not perfect. We still have the end-of-the-year fights between students. We still have teachers feeling exhausted. However, despite all of this, engagement is up.

I bring this up because I often hear people say things like “teachers are just stuck in their ways.” We see outside consultants talking about the need for innovation. There’s a lot of buzz around Sir Ken Robinson — the eloquent knight in shining armor who will tell us what we need to do to make our schools creative.

And yet . . .

We have the creative potential right here in our schools. What we lack are the policies that support it. Contrast the instruction before and after the testing season and you’ll see innovation. You’ll see creative lessons. You’ll see teachers taking risks at project-based learning. Once the environment becomes “low stakes,” there is a permission to experiment. Engagement skyrockets. Creativity thrives. And the only difference is the policy.

In other words, if you want to develop creative schools, you have to give teachers the permission to be creative. If we take the testing away (or even if we took away the high-pressure accountability metrics) you will see schools developing, in a grassroots movement, into creative spaces. True, some teachers will be overly traditional. But that won’t be the norm, because that’s not the norm right now. All it takes is a walk through my school on a mid-May prep period for me to see evidence that creativity thrives when the tests are over.


John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

» John's Stories
» Contact John

Comments 5

  1. Steve Sarmento

    School’s that focus on creativity do exist. You’re unlikely to find them in the school district environment. But if you look at charters you’re more likely to find some examples. High Tech High for example – http://mltsfilm.org/

    1. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

      This of course is the promise of charters, that they can redesign schools in an innovative way. Too bad we can’t implement the same idea with the same standards and pay of the larger districts. One reason I won’t go to charters is they cannot afford my salary– which is pretty hilarious because after 20 years my friends are shocked how low my pay is.

      1. Steve Sarmento

        . . . and that’s due to the inequity in funding for charter schools. If charters had equal funding and could afford to hire experienced teachers, we would be seeing more innovation effectively implemented and a paradigm shift in school models.

  2. Sandy Merz

    This is dead on. It sometimes feels like school isn’t fun until May. Last year, during testing I wrote, “Standardized Tests and Monty Hall.” (http://ow.ly/KyhCj) It’s about how during our shortened periods during testing (shortened t 17 minutes) my algebra class debated the reasoning around the famous Monty Hall Problem and learned some mathmagic tricks. Those short classes demanded more creativity than all the test preparation.

  3. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    I just tweeted about this, that it seems like science gets the last three weeks of the school year (since it is not tested). This is just as true at high school as it is in the elementary and middle schools. The great thing about the end of the year is that you know your students and you know exactly what you can place into their hands and put on their shoulders. And they run with it.

    What exactly is this design thinking framework? Me want, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *