Conformity strangles creativity

Published by Lori Pickert on February 16, 2009 at 07:18 PM

Can you really blame us teacher-folk for placing an almost singular emphasis on getting our students to pass multiple choice tests when that’s the only indicator that anyone really cares about? Why should I go out on a limb and spend time allowing my kids to create when no one measures and reports on their abililty to innovate?

Spend a few months in a typical American schoolteacher’s shoes and you’re going to find that our jobs have shifted over the last 15 years. No longer are we artists crafting lessons based on a meaningful understanding of our students, ready to shift gears at a moment’s notice to respond to what we see unfolding in front of us.

Instead — in high performing schools with confident principals — we’re scientists methodically studying our instruction trying to identify and amplify “best practices.” Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with practitioners working together to identify “best practices.” The hitch is that principals want to see best practices administered in the same way in every room. There is real pressure in today’s schools for instructors to conform — and conformity strangles creativity.

The pressure to conform is only multiplied in low-performing schools, where teachers aren’t even gven the opportunity to develop and identify practices. Instead, heavily scripted curricula developed by “district experts” are handed to teachers, and implementation is carefully monitored. If teachers aren’t at a particular point on a particular day, they’re reprimanded for falling behind the district-approved pacing guide.

What kinds of messages are we sending to teachers about the importance of creativity when we take ownership over the most basic tasks in their profession away? Can you really expect teachers to provide opportunities for their students to create and innovate when they never see the same opportunities?

To put it simply, innovation isn’t rewarded in schools. Instead, it’s often punished. Want to see creativity creep back into the classroom? Empower teachers.Creativity is Dead, Ken..., by Bill Ferriter

“Conformity strangles creativity” — and, I might add, conformity doesn’t meet the needs of individual students. It’s what we were talking about here, isn’t it?

We cannot champion ideals, goals, and values for our children and simultaneously rip them away from the adults who mentor them.

We need to find a way to release schools, teachers, and students from the shackles of standardized testing and standardized education.

And we homeschoolers need to take every advantage of our ability to craft a custom education for our children.


Comment by Amy on February 16, 2009 at 08:12 PM

"...our jobs have shifted over the last 15 years. No longer are we artists crafting lessons based on a meaningful understanding of our students, ready to shift gears at a moment’s notice to respond to what we see unfolding in front of us."

I've been out of elementary school way longer than 15 years, and I have no idea what this person is talking about. I certainly didn't encounter any educational "artists crafting lessons based on a meaningful understanding" of me or anyone else. Shift gears? Really? We were given standardized tests every year. The kindergarten results tracked us FOR THE REST OF OUR PUBLIC SCHOOL LIVES. Once tracked, it was extremely difficult for anyone to claw their way up. And god forbid you were a "smart" kid in my middle school who wanted to take art instead of French--it was one or the other, and the higher-tracked kids were given French. (That was the only language option.) This whole piece you've quoted makes me laugh (in a sardonic, cynical way) because it implies things were MUCH better when I was in school. Nope.

Comment by Sherry on February 16, 2009 at 08:39 PM

Twelve years ago I taught kindergarten in an inner city elementary school. I lasted one miserable year. Not because of the kids...they were great, but because of the principal. The entire school had to be on the same schedule at the same time. Character education--8:00-8:10. Math--2:00-2:45. and on and on. I even had older kids come to my classroom before school to hang out and check out our class birds, do some art...and she put an end to that because "if they were on campus at that hour they were to be in the cafeteria." I could go on and on, but it just makes me feel sick.

Comment by Diane on February 16, 2009 at 08:44 PM

Just this afternoon I was listening to a public radio interview of a woman with a new book out about how the past few decades have managed to raise kids who are totally self-centered and unprepared for the "real world" where they will most likely mostly just be "ordinary." So I'm listening, and I can see some of the points she's making but at the end of the interview she said that what parents should do is stop interfering at school -- step back, stop making sure you know where your child is every second and what they are doing every second and let teachers take over and do their jobs without parental interference...

Wow, thought I. I can only imagine what she would make of us!! Ha. The kids I know who have had a decent time in public school and who have emerged relatively unscathed and with their creativity and brains intact and functioning independently, all -- ALL -- have had parents who were involved in the school. Every single one. Step back and let someone else with their quotas to meet and their test scores to maintain in order to keep their job? Interference?! *sigh*

I was glad to arrive back home and read this post : )

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 16, 2009 at 09:13 PM

this interests me because i know teachers who are creative and really try to do interesting work with their students but who are told that they have to teach according to a script, or they have to be on the same page on the same day as every other teacher at their grade level, or they “shouldn’t be doing extra because it makes the other teachers”.

of all the teachers i had from K through 12th, i would say i liked a few of them, but i can only think of one teacher who might have fit the description up above. but i always think that i probably had a bottom-of-the-bell-curve education at my dinky rural school so i shouldn’t think my experience as typical.

still, as an adult i do know teachers who desperately want to be this and are ordered *not* to be by their administration.

Comment by Bill Ferriter on February 16, 2009 at 09:14 PM

Amy wrote:
This whole piece you've quoted makes me laugh (in a sardonic, cynical way) because it implies things were MUCH better when I was in school. Nope.

Glad to make you laugh, Amy.

Having taught my way through the past 16 years, I can tell you that things are certainly much different now than they were when I began teaching. "Better" is a subjective word---what's "better" to me might be "worse" to you---so I hesitate to use it.

What I can say is that there is no wiggle room in schools today----no opportunities to explore student interests or to drift away from the required pacing guides set by the state. When we do drift, we end up behind, our test scores suffer, and our principals call us on the carpet.

For students, that means personal interests and motivations are completely irrelevant. Take today, for example: I had my students completely jazzed by the idea that color is nothing more than reflected light and that without light, you couldn't have color.

They asked a million questions and had a million mini-experiments that they wanted to try. We sat in a pretty well equipped science lab, so trying their tests was entirely possible. The hitch: I have to have light done by Friday so I can start sound. We didn't have time for their studies.

Fifteen years ago, I would have canned everything, cut a few lessons out of the sound unit and let the kids bury their minds in something that resonated with them. Today, I literally said, "Great questions, kids. I wish we had time to explore them, but we don't. We've got to move on."

How's that for funny?
Bill Ferriter

Comment by Amy on February 16, 2009 at 09:22 PM

Oh, I have no idea who was to "blame" when I was a kid. I suspect the administrative types. I definitely had one or two creative teachers. Actually, once I switched schools in 6th grade to another in the same town, things were much better and more interesting. The 5th & 6th grade teachers teamed up and offered all four classrooms (two per grade) four choices each quarter for science & social studies. Thus we got to study something in-depth, like WWII or astronomy or meteorology or Italy. It was really interesting and amazing. And a few y ears later I heard they were forced to stop doing that.

Comment by jen on February 16, 2009 at 09:25 PM

Oh, oh, oh! This is why I was so relieved when I had my first child and quit teaching. All my life I had watched my grandma, who taught in an innovated grant-funded, cutting edge program craft lessons and meet the needs of her individual students; that is what I expected. During my teacher training (in elementary ed. and special ed.) I loved writing IEPs and creating lessons that met my kids where they were at.

Then I stepped into my first classroom, and the lesson was literally scripted out for me. We moved, but my second district was the same. Just as this says, I had to be on the same lesson as every other teacher in my district on any given day; I had to teach the lesson as it was taught. We weren't supposed to add anything or substitute anything, because the lessons in the *magic binders* were supposed to be perfectly balanced to teach everything our kids needed to know...everything they needed to know to pass the state test. Never mind what they needed to know in real life; never mind what they needed to know about art or music or so many other things.

The irony of this is that I am now struggling to break out of that mold, to allow a more organic nature to take over in my homeschool teaching. I hated following the curriculum, yet I guess some part of me loved feeling like I was accomplishing something tangible...yet teaching children is so much more elusive. A teacher might see skills develop, milestones reached, but there is so much more that is going on in the mind that is not tangible and cannot be listed and nicely checked off in a prescribed order. So ironic!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 16, 2009 at 10:11 PM

sherry, i have heard that story again and again. disheartening.

diane — wow!

bill, so depressing. thank you for sharing your story. again — something i’ve heard again and again from teachers.

i’ve had a school bring me in to talk about project-based learning and then turn around and tell the teachers that they had to turn in lesson plans for their students three weeks ahead of time detailing what they would be doing each day and how they would be meeting the state learning standards. they were completely inflexible regarding this — you had to say what you would do each day, down to the hour, period. it is entirely possible to teach with projects and meet state standards — *entirely* possible — but unfortunately it is not possible to predict exactly what you will be doing on each day if you are going to allow the children to follow their interests organically.

one teacher asked her principal if she could turn in goals three weeks early and detailed descriptions of how they met each standard after the fact. the answer? no.

jen, again, i’m so sorry, but thank you for sharing your story. re: accomplishing something tangible .. that’s one of the things i was trying to articulate the other day .. that we need to sit down and think first about our goals and what we want most to accomplish, so we can measure against that as we go and see how we are doing. and that is a list we can only write for ourselves — possibly filled with intangibles.

Comment by Lisa on February 16, 2009 at 10:18 PM

I thought this was going to be a discussion of the stupidity of public school bulletin boards in hallways that proclaim "Our Wall of Creativity" and then showcase 32 identical "art" projects......Instead we are discussing the educational straight-jacket imposed by number-crunching bureaucrats and the Every Child Left Behind Act. I do not hate or disrespect our public school teachers--they are powerless. I despise the "dumbed down so we can look good" mentality that standardized testing imposes on the schools. I am appalled when I look at my son's 8th grade textbooks--they are about on par with mine in 4th grade. The ACT or SAT in 11th grade is about the only test I see as necessary. For the non-college bound an exit exam on par with the GED should do. I feel so sad for the kids stuck in this mess--especially those in low-income, unempowered schools. Those who's parents work weird hours and struggle to even be awake when the kid is doing homework. There has to be a better way!

Comment by Mary on February 16, 2009 at 10:55 PM

I had to leave to grocery shop, but my son was watching Phineas & Ferb (sp?) today and in this episode Phineas & Ferb were arrested for something or other and the jailor's mission was to get them to stop using their imaginations and start just acting like everyone else. Very interesting that this is the discussion at Camp Creek today!

Comment by Sam on February 16, 2009 at 11:53 PM

I've just watched a programme on why (schoolchildren) don't like reading, when they start out loving storytime. The (obvious) important points were - no access or knowledge of libraries, never being read to and too much emphasis on ticking curriculum boxes.
One school, in a poor area, tried to bring about a change, by having a reading "project". Over 12 weeks, the children were taken to the local library and encouraged to join and spend time reading for fun, they did lots of theme work on various books and authors, and the teachers took 5 mins at the end of the day to read to their class.

Afterwards, the teachers commented that they felt enthused and excited, just by taking the time to enjoy a story with the children. Before they started, they had worried that there wasn't time, they'd fall behind, etc. But they found they could squeeze in the time, with the result that everyone - child and teacher - was happier in their school environment.

If we could just see schools making small changes, here and there, teachers would feel more involved and the children would get a better education.

In the meantime, I home educate :-)

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 17, 2009 at 12:44 AM

lisa, so true about the textbooks — i’ve written about that before. even while politicians are trumpeting that we’re not leaving anyone behind, like reverse inflation, high-school graduates are getting less and less demanding of an education.

mary, i was waiting for the punchline to have something to do with school! ;^)

sam, ah, i wonder if way over there you have heard anything about my state’s now-infamous governor blagojevich. he cooked up a plan a few years ago to help bring literacy to underprivileged children by mailing them books, because, he said, these children generally have no children’s books in their homes. that program was going to cost, i believe, 26 million dollars. meanwhile we have existing libraries where parents can bring all the books into their home for free that they want — and bookmobiles to bring them right to their front door. and how many more books and bookmobiles and programs could the libraries have provided with some of that 26 million dollars?

(read a bit about that debacle — which evidently didn’t happen after all — here: )

i agree with you 100% about small changes, and i think the point that bill was making is — teachers aren’t allowed to make those changes. they aren’t allowed to take that five minutes. i mean, we have schools that have completely eliminated recess so that students can spend more time learning (young students! kindergarten students!), where any teacher will tell you that 20 minutes racing around outside makes for a much better learning environment for the rest of the morning.

thank you so much for sharing that story!

Comment by Sarah on February 17, 2009 at 12:50 AM

When I taught elem school, I actually had another teacher tattle on me to the administration for wasting time reading to the kids (for fun) because we weren't getting all our assigned worksheets done. Like you said, Lori, same story over and over...

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 17, 2009 at 01:13 AM

sarah, it is, it is the same story over and over again. the teacher who does something cool is told to stop because s/he’s deviating from the program or making the other teachers look bad or making the parents request him/her over the others...

does anyone know the correct stat for how many teachers quit in the first three years? it’s a big number.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on February 17, 2009 at 03:02 AM

This makes me so sad. In Bellevue, WA, the teachers actually went on strike last year over this issue. While it was partly about money, it was mostly about freedom to really teach. The superintendent had gone so far as to have each and every class scripted and watched by administrators to make sure they didn't deviate. All this in the name of "universal achievement" and "consistency". Talk about sucking the joy out of both teaching and learning. Wanting the best possible outcome for all students is an admirable goal, but thinking that all students can be best reached with the same lesson plan or that all teachers should or even can deliver the information in the exact same way is seriously misguided. He left no room for individuality whatsoever.

The saddest part is that stunts like these and requiring that all students take AP classes have earned those schools spots on the Best High Schools list put out by US News & World Report. Can our priorities be any more screwed up?

Comment by Sarah Jackson on February 17, 2009 at 04:32 AM

here's an article about the issues behind the strike.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 17, 2009 at 04:33 AM

thank you, sarah!

Comment by patricia on February 17, 2009 at 05:47 AM

So interesting. Especially the "fifteen years" figure, as that's precisely when I left teaching to stay home with my son.

Classroom learning was not ideal in the days when I was a teacher, but at least the pendulum was off to the other direction fifteen years ago. Schools were much more child-centered. In the late 80's I was trained to teach math in a way that gave kids open-ended problems, and had them discuss their own ways of solving them. Writing was taught in a workshop environment--in other words, kids were learning to write by actually writing on topics and in genres of their own choosing. I used *real* books in my classroom rather than textbooks, and I alternated teaching science and social studies so we could really dig into a topic rather than trying to cover too much in a day.

I had a lot of freedom as a teacher, and teaching felt like an art. Of course, after homeschooling, I'd have a hard time teaching in a traditional classroom setting; I just don't believe in classroom learning all day long, day after day. But that's how most kids in this country are taught, and it breaks my heart that they can't have the experience of inspired, excited teachers who get to teach as they'd like to.

I keep waiting for that pendulum to swing back; it always seems to eventually.

Comment by Paula on February 17, 2009 at 05:58 PM

Thankful for your archives, Lori.
I've been reading through some old posts and feel newly inspired.

And for today's topic - I quit teaching after one year and am some thankful to get to teach again - this time my own children.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 17, 2009 at 06:22 PM

patricia, agree with you re: the pendulum.

funny my last 2 comments are from educators who are now hs’ing; there are so many of us on here. (though i wasn’t a teacher, i did own a school and spend a lot of time teaching.)

paula, thank you!

Comment by Sally on February 17, 2009 at 08:14 PM

Before I even read your post, I loved the concept! Those who are truly creative are those who are innovative and think outside the cubicle.

Comment by birgit on February 17, 2009 at 08:30 PM

in germany parents are send to jail if they want to practice homeschooling
we have to send our children in schools where creativity is strangled from the first minute
and the young teachers who are full of ideas are mobbed out by resigned elder teachers
i hope very hard that the pendulum will swing back soon
lg birgit

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 17, 2009 at 10:07 PM

thank you, sally. ;^)

birgit, thank you for your comment! sad that this occurs in other countries and not just the u.s.

did anyone else see the french documentary Être et avoir? it is about a village school that is closing. absolutely beautiful. so much of it reminded me of my school.

Comment by Alice on February 18, 2009 at 11:35 AM

" I actually had another teacher tattle on me to the administration for wasting time reading to the kids (for fun) because we weren't getting all our assigned worksheets done."

I don't think that the curriculum in Italy is as rigid as what I have read in the comments here, but the worksheets mentality sounds familiar.

My daughter has asthma so misses a lot of classes and always has a huge backlog of worksheets - but she is not behind as far as understanding the concepts. When I asked the teacher if she could prioritise the worksheets so that my daughter could skip the less important ones - she looked at me very oddly. We still haven't had any indications and the frustrating thing is that most of this work doesn't even get looked at.

What we are teaching kids is how to calculate what you can get away without doing and which homework gives you the most credit. I hate that. I think that children are born honest, hardworking and curious. This kind of system really takes it out of them. My daughter is learning 'facts', how to summarise 'facts' and how to repeat them (better than a multiple choice test, at least). She is never asked about what she already knows, not allowed to express what she knows in a way of her own choosing, nor allowed to discover anything by herself.

If we could take out the fear factor then perhaps teaching would be much simpler. Teachers and institutions must have the same fears that homeschooling parents write about. How can we convince them that they are not entirely responsible for our child's learning - that our child is?


Comment by Dawn on February 19, 2009 at 03:28 AM

Wow! Lots of intresting stuff here.. just letting you know I am reading just slow on the processing at this point!
Thanks again Lori!

Comment by Barbara on February 19, 2009 at 03:59 AM

And you know, it isn't even as simple as taking the constraints off teachers, It's like the whole system needs to be re-set. I taught high school biology for a few years, and was in a situation with small class sizes and total curricular control. There was lots of support for alternative assessment, so instead of relying on testing (though I did some), the kids did very involved portfolios for me. The problem was that making this choice created so much work for me (as the teacher) that it just about killed me. Because I still had to translate this somewhat subjective work into grades that I could assign. Having later taught in a school that didn't assign grades at all, I now really believe that it's not just standardized tests but the very process of assigning grades that misdirects the energy of teachers and students and thwarts so much learning. (Not to mention the adversarial relationship it sets up between teachers and students....)

Comment by Elise on February 19, 2009 at 09:33 AM


I have just come over from This Vintage Chica's blog.

I have taught for ten years in Australia, the last four years were in a secondary school where individaul difference was valued. We did not use text books. How can a class of approximately 25 -30 students all relate to one set text book. Instead, as teachers, our "job" was to resource lessons in a way that catered for individual learning styles and ability levels. We did this by using a variety of stimulus material (visual, kinesthetic tasks etc etc); thinking skill strategies such as Edward de Bono's six hats and Gardener's Multiple Intelligences - to name just two - and offering choice. Students were not expected to be doing the same thing at the same time. We had a theme based approach and the students themselves largely determined the curriculum.

Sure, this was a demanding job, but the results were amazing.

I developed a reading program whereby I came up with 48 different activities that students could choose from to demonstrate their understanding of a novel. These activities were set out on a matrix and focused on different learning styles. Therefore, students were able to express themselves in a way that they were most comfortable with and therefore, usually good at. We did not have a set novel, Students chose novels from a list that were selected to fit into a given theme (however, students could also read a novel of their choice if they could justify ways in which it supported the set theme). I had a number of parents thank me, as they said that their son/daughter was never much of a reader, but since we started this program they were keen to read.

I could ramble on forever about the ways in which a change in culture is needed in our education system. It is time for a change in what is valued and how students are assessed. As Sir Ken Robinson espouses: the current education system educates children out of their creative capacity and teaches from the neck up and to one side.


Comment by Lori Pickert on February 19, 2009 at 10:39 PM

alice, beautifully said! and i agree with you re: we are teaching kids that the system is the thing, not the knowledge. a perfect fit for this - barbara s ( sent me this fantastic link today -

absolutely shows you what you end up with when these kids are college age.

dawn, thanks for letting me know you're here! ;^)

barbara, ah, i agree with you so much - i think the entire system needs a reboot. years ago in my school some of the parents asked for/demanded some sort of grading system; they really wanted to know where their children stood vs. the other children in the class. so we spent months building an alternative assessment - creating it took a tremendous amt of work, and then of course implementing it, on top of building student portfolios (which we were already doing), took even more work. and the response? that's nice, but we would also like letter grades... it seems that even when you go the extra mile to do really good alt assessment, you also need to do the normal assessment as well - double the work for you!

great link with this same phenomenon:

elise, thank you for sharing your fantastic story. i know that this type of work is possible, because we did it in my private school. and it requires such a completely different attitude from teachers, administrators, parents .. thus the reboot. there are issues of trust -- the parents and administrators have to trust that the teachers know their students and can accurately assess what they need, where they are doing well, where they need work, etc. the system that is in place now overwhelmingly does *not* trust the teachers. and you have to wonder how we keep going with a system in which we don't trust the people who are with our children so much of the time.

Comment by Kerry on February 20, 2009 at 01:18 AM

Thanks for posting that NY times article - it was strangely satisfying (in a sad way) to read that. Anyone who has worked with children recently can attest to the "entitlement" phenomenon. I know I got my fill or it, and I was working with little kids! If we have to "re-teach" the meaning of education at the college level, what is this saying about our schools? Yikes.
There has been so much great stuff on here recently, I've been really enjoying the conversations, but I've been skimming, since I've been short on time. I'm hoping to really dig in and poke around here this weekend, to catch up on what I've missed!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 20, 2009 at 01:57 AM

kerry, thank you. of course, tomorrow we'll just start a new open thread and there will be more to read. ;^) but how better to wile away some time?!

i wrote a bit about this entitlement phenomenon recently —

this idea that we’ve convinced students that success is doing what we tell them to do .. they really take that in, and then their idea of achievement becomes following orders. they lack the capacity to look objectively at work and judge it as bad, mediocre, good, great. they are *insistent* that their are doing A-level work. and we did that to them.

the tricky, slippery slope of praise — we keep returning to that topic. it’s odd to be praised as doing a terrific job for something when you know that you put in very little effort. it’s obviously addictive to receive praise for simply following orders and putting tab A into slot A according to instructions. somehow we need to raise people who aren’t addicted to praise, who don’t see it as their automatic right, but who judge their own work and strive to do their best.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 21, 2009 at 04:32 PM

the same story in the UK, and how they may deal with it:

“The Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which sets the curriculum, have been excessively prescriptive, ‘micro-managing’ schools.

The review accuses the government of attempting to control what happens in every classroom in England, leading to an excessive focus on literacy and numeracy in an "overt politicisation" of children's lives. Despite this too many children still leave primary school having failed to master the 3Rs.

Sats have also narrowed the scope of what is taught in schools, it claims, concluding: ‘The problem of the curriculum is inseparable from the problem of assessment and testing.‘’

thank you, ali, for sharing this article!

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