Friday, April 29, 2011

A Case for Creativity

I was recently reading a post in the blog, This Creative Moment, by my friend, Eric Ode, a local children’s singer, songwriter, poet and writer who has visited Seabury as an artist in residence and periodically as a substitute teacher. Eric is one of the most creative people I know, and his blog explores the idea of creativity and where it comes from.

Eric refers to a recent article in Newsweek magazine about a study indicating that creativity is in decline among America’s youth. The article refers to a longitudinal study by Dr. E. Paul Torrance, that found a high correlation between a child’s creative thinking ability as measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking and the child’s success in college and adult careers. The article states that, “the accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful… To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).” Highly creative children more often grow up to be CEOs, entrepreneurs, college presidents, inventors, and diplomats based on Torrance’s research.

Eric talks about his observation of how two different teachers handled a moment in which a five year old tried to take a creative step in a classroom project. One allowed the child to take a creative step, and another shut the child down with a “we’re not doing that now” comment.

As an educator, I am concerned about the ways in which education is being more narrowly defined as a series of discreet skills rather than a broader focus on learning to observe, think, analyze and create. I talk often with parents inquiring about Seabury, and am heartbroken when I hear stories about how their child’s vivid imagination and insatiable curiosity seem to be shut down in programs that focus on the one “right” answer.

As I read Eric’s blog post, I was reminded that what we sometimes describe as the “magic of Seabury” lies partly in the big things like the fact that we are committed to process as much as to product in our students’ work and learning. Our thematic curriculum and creative projects immerse students in both convergent and divergent thinking every day. But the “magic of Seabury” also lies in the little things our teachers do, almost unconsciously, every day.

Just this morning, a third grade student walked in and announced to her teacher she had brought three encyclopedias to school today because she had gotten interested in a particular topic and just wanted to do some research on it. The teacher, rather than telling her that wasn’t part of the plan for the day, celebrated her passion for learning and made time for her to explore her interest.

As a teacher of gifted children, I found that one of the most difficult things facing me daily was deciding what was negotiable in each lesson. “Take out a pencil for this lesson,” was always followed by, “How about a pen? Colored pencil? Chalk?” Lessons that were intended to go one direction could easily end up heading an entirely different way as students began to ask their own questions and as their interests guided discussions. Sometimes I had to do more steering to get us where we needed to be. But the magical times were those when we could follow the interests and inclinations of students and see where they took us. It was always an adventure.

At Seabury, one of the gifts we give our children is the room to wonder, to ask questions, think about possibilities, and to recognize that problems in real life don’t always have neat A, B, C or None of the Above answers. Our curriculum is designed to develop that kind of creative and analytical thinking. But our teachers also encourage creative thinking in a hundred little ways every day. By letting another way of doing something be a possibility. By taking time to say, “I don’t know either – let’s figure it out.” By valuing the process of learning as much as the product.

The next time you watch your child’s teacher work with your child, pay attention to the many ways, large and small, the teacher is encouraging your child’s creativity. You will be amazed – and grateful – as I am!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Beyond the Basics

At Seabury, we know that learning goes far beyond rote memorization and basic skills. Foundational skills are just the launching point for exploring big ideas, making connections, analyzing information and much more. A program that encourages the development of creativity, imagination, and critical thinking allows students to take what they have learned and apply it to new situations, to innovate, to create and to reason.

In this age of educational standards, sometimes learning is reduced to what can be learned rotely and repeated – on creating students who score well on standardized tests rather than students who are thinkers and creators.

A recent article in Slate, Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire, by Alison Gopnik, points out the limitations of learning that is confined to direct instruction and rote learning. It is a great reminder of the value of the kind of learning we provide in our classrooms. Learning that promotes the development of a strong foundation of skills, but that uses those skills as a launching point for going farther and deeper, for taking learning in new directions, for promoting inquiry, and for developing creative, inquisitive minds.

One of the greatest joys of being at Seabury is seeing where our students take the material we give them. Students in fourth grade who studied revolutions in their classroom earlier this year, looking at the similarities and differences between revolutions happening currently and throughout history, nearly staged their own revolution when they felt they had been treated unjustly at a competition several of them participated in. Second grade students learning about the human body regularly use medical terms in conversation to talk about what is going on with them, or to describe what part of their brain is working on a particular activity. Preschool students who appear to “just” be building with blocks are having complex discussions about working together, engineering, transportation, and much more.

Learning in an environment that values the questions as much as the answers, that provides opportunities to go beyond the basics, that promotes exploration and discovery is at the heart of Seabury. Miracles happen every day as our students make discoveries, get excited about new ideas, and make new connections. It’s what makes our school such an exciting place to be!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spring Break Is Here!

Spring Break Is Here!! The school has been buzzing this week as students and staff prepare to head out on spring break adventures. Whether your family is staying close to home or heading somewhere exotic, we wish you a safe and happy week!

Spring break is a great time for families to share experiences together. You know, as we do, that our children remember the places they go and the people they meet, and that learning naturally happens in all kinds of circumstances. Helping dig the family garden can be a time for discovering how plants grow or what soil is made of. Meeting people, from a docent at a museum to the cab driver that takes your family to your hotel, can provide opportunities for discovery as well.

Learning at Seabury focuses on experience – learning by exploring, touching, wondering, building, doing. This week, our preschool students learned about the human body, including learning how long their intestines are by measuring 23 feet (the length of an average intestine) of spaghetti noodles, cooking them and then seeing how they fit in the bowl when they are all twisted together like intestines are in our bodies. Middle school students went to PLU to meet with a chemistry professor who is working on experiments with nano technology, something students are experimenting with at Seabury. Not only will these first hand experiences help them remember what they’ve learned, they will give students chances to see what a college campus is like, to find out a bit about what professors do, to think about what it must be like to be a doctor. The richness of these experiences provides for learning that goes far beyond simple facts.

As you work and play with your family this week, I encourage you to stop from time to time and think about what your children might be learning from the experiences they are having. Not just when they are doing “educational” things like visiting museums, but when they are doing regular things like riding in the car or helping with the garden. Listen to their questions and observations. Pay attention to the connections they make as they interact with people they come across and situations they find themselves in.

Children learn by doing. Have a great time this week doing fun, relaxing, family activities together!