Nathan Sun-Kleinberger teaches English at Kentridge High School in Kent, WA. He is a National Board Certified Teacher and has a Masters in English. In the summer of 2012 he presented a reading strategy for rhetorical analysis at the AP Annual Conference in Orlando. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tell-Tale Paper Clip
In his 2006 TED Talk, author and education consultant Sir Ken Robinson shares the results of an IQ test involving paper clips as a microcosm for the current state of American education. A class of school children has five minutes to brainstorm as many uses as they can for a paper clip. If they can come up with over a hundred uses, they would be considered certified geniuses. What grade do you think the kids were in? How many of them would you guess reached genius level?
The students were kindergartners and ninety-five percent of them reached genius level.
What makes this study fascinating is that it was a longitudinal study. The assessment was given to the same group of kids throughout their schooling. As the kids got older, they were able to brainstorm less. Robinson argues this study defies logic: “You would think the opposite would happen. I believe profoundly that we don't grow into creativity; we grow out of it. Often we are educated out of it." In short our education system is killing our children’s creativity.
Nineteenth Century Schools for Twenty-First Century Students
Our contemporary school system follows a model that was developed in the nineteenth century that prepared kids to work in manufacturing jobs. Here’s the rub. America does not lead the world in manufacturing anymore. We haven’t for thirty years. We are now the biggest developer of intellectual property. Today, America develops innovative ideas, not manufactured goods. This means we structure our schools so our kids can work on an assembly line, while our students need the skills to draft blue prints on a drawing board.
To foster a learning environment that promotes innovation, Robinson believes schools need to instill divergent thinking. He defines divergent thinking as the “essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question…to see multiple answers, not one.”What about standardized tests? Don’t they quantify learning? Wrong. They engender one answer, the “right” answer. Robinson would argue we have it backwards. Divergent thinking creates a learning environment where students find multiple solutions to
complex problems, not a single solution to a multiple-choice problem.
But, how do teachers get their students to think divergently in a system that puts so much weight on standardized tests?
To do this we need to reclaim two words which have been misused in education: “Failure” and “Play.” Failure denotes someone who is unsuccessful, who has not completed his school work, passed a test, or earned his diploma. If we guide our students to think divergently, “failing” would mean testing out new ideas. Perhaps students need to “fail” multiple times in order to come up with a creative solution to a problem. Failure would mean risk, hypothesis, and reflection.
Play, like failure, has also been used and abused. “Play” has come to mean free, unstructured time; something synonymous with recess. Play can also mean investigation, experimentation, and tinkering. How could play time be built into the school day? Not just in elementary school, but in all grades?
Drop and Give Me Twenty Percent
Authors Tom Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum offer a suggestion. In their book That Used to Be Us, Friedman and Mandlebaum argue schools need to incorporate the Google twenty percent model. Every Friday, employees at Google are allowed to spend a day, or twenty percent of their total work time, to work on a project of their choosing with the idea it will eventually help the company. Out of this “play” time has come Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, and Google+. How could schools allow time for “play” throughout the school day? Consider the advisory class at my high school.
Playtime for Secondary Schools
Advisory is a weekly class that helps students complete a graduation requirement that emphasizes post-graduate skills like resumes, cover letters, and a job shadow. Yes, knowing how to write a resume is important for landing a job, but it does not teach students how to think divergently. Imagine if advisory was time devoted to a single senior project. For four years you are given time on Wednesdays to “play,” “fail” and develop an idea which you have to present at the end of your senior year to graduate.
Who knows what wonderful things could come out of this “playtime”? This unknown is both frightening and exciting. Frightening because we do not know where our students’ play would lead, exciting because the possibilities are endless.
Playtime, Not Idle Time
Cynics will say this is pie in the sky thinking and most students would squander their play time by chatting on social networks or zapping each other in video games. True, teachers would need to lay the foundation to help guide their students to develop their ideas. However, teachers do this already. English teachers help kids compose a thesis in an essay. Science teachers guide their students to develop a hypothesis in a lab
report. Besides, if students are the drivers of their own discoveries, they are invested in the final product.
The Power of Paper Clips
To demonstrate how when students are fully invested in a project they can produce amazing things, let me return to the power of paper clips. The documentary “Paper Clips” follows an after school club that taught students about the Holocaust to fight intolerance. The students aimed to collect eight million paper clips to symbolize all the victims of Nazi persecution. Their quest started small, but eventually it went viral. They collected over thirty million paperclips. The school even got a rail car donated to them, the same type of rail car used to transport the Jews who were sent off to slaughter. The rail car is now a Holocaust museum.
Divergent thinking begins with paper clips. An object that seems mundane, but considered divergently can change the world. Sir Ken Robinson bleakly informs us that “we don't grow into creativity; we grow out of it.” However, if teachers are willing to incorporate divergent thinking in their classrooms, perhaps their students can divergently tinker their way back into it.