This weekend, I read the inspiring story of a middle-school team in Watts, California. The student team from Markham Middle School won a national engineering competition for designing a prosthetic arm using a plastic water bottle, wire and clamp. The story stood out for many reasons; among them the bad rap that Watts gets as an inner-city neighborhood historically infamous for riots during the 1960s, and the fact that all of the students in the team were poor students of color. Beyond these reasons, the story stood out for me because it was a powerful example of what is possible for learning in the United States if we pay as much attention to and make investments in teaching kids creativity as much as we do STEM learning.
When sharing the Children's Creativity Museum with new visitors and supporters, I often say that it doesn't matter what you know if you can't do anything with that knowledge: You could be an expert in science or math, and yet not be able to apply those subjects in new ways that improve the lives of others. Our current public education system is set up to convey this content knowledge in science, math, language arts, social studies, etc., so that youth have a solid foundation for future success. Knowledge transmission is set up such that literacy matches up with the average child's ability to receive, process and comprehend information.
What those involved in youth education and development are only beginning to better appreciate is the type of learning to which kids naturally gravitate in the formative pre-Kindergarten years of ages 2 to 5. The recent federal Institute of Museums and Library Services report on Growing Young Minds points out there is more research in foundational executive skills, e.g. focus and self-control, communication and pattern recognition, which are developed early on. The report goes on to say that "these skills are the 'how' of learning, enabling children to master the 'what' of learning...."
Kids learn quite early, and what we mistake and/or dismiss as an active imagination, make-believe or play is, in fact, the crucial development of skills that will carry young learners through their lives. At preschool age, young children are already shaping their brains to be creative problem-solvers and innovators.
The creative goes hand in hand with the analytical: It's not a matter of left or right brain but rather a focus on the whole brain. At the Children's Creativity Museum, we are able to provide an open-ended creative experience by focusing on at least three different areas: tools; practices; and environment.
Much focus has been around tools, specifically technology. There is an entire economy that supports new technology, like tablets and mobile phone applications, which can be easily integrated into the classroom. I've been impressed by app developers -- like Motion Math from the museum's "Featured Innovators" incubator program, which has enriched the experience of learning math, or partner GoGo Games, which creates digital learning tools for kids with autism -- who are extending learning for children with diverse learning needs. Yet, the technology can actually get in the way of learning if the focus is on entertaining kids rather than deepening learning. Focusing on the effective use of tools in youth creative education requires that we ask ourselves, "How is technology improving a child's creative capacity?"
The second place we focus is around teaching and learning practices. There is a growing literature available to classroom teachers and educators that equips kids with valuable pedagogical tactics designed to foster creativity. At the Children's Creativity Museum, our Education team and teen interns are trained to engage in inquiry-based approaches that support children becoming more aware of their creative process through open-ended questions, e.g. "What was your idea behind this?" "How did you end up changing your original idea?" "Why did you use these materials?" "Where have you seen examples of this in your own life?" The focus and fascination on the maker movement has bolstered interest in learning by making things. An increased focus on professional development for educators would help us to better answer the question, "How might we facilitate kids' creative exploration?"
The third -- and arguably most neglected by others -- area to which we turn our attention is the environment. Most teachers will agree that the standards-driven, resource-strapped classroom leaves very little room for innovation in the physical classroom setting. This is why they focus on inexpensive technology and teaching techniques as an access to creativity. Yet, Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft of Stanford University's Haaso Plattner School of Design (affectionately called the "d.school") have written a new book that touches upon the question, "How might we structure our environment to encourage new and out-of-the-box ideas?" The Children's Creativity Museum provides a variety of low and high-tech media that support kids in creative learning. We have traditional blocks, magnetic blocks and now a new exhibit where kids can move virtual blocks across a large wall by moving their bodies. The diversity of materials and perspectives available in such a collaborative space is very much like the resource constraints and teamwork that children will face in future workplaces.
There is no silver bullet that will suddenly transform education. We must focus on the what, how and where to begin to lay a solid foundation for learning. Our investments in today's youth -- tomorrow's innovators and creative leaders -- must not only focus on creative ways of teaching kids but also on creativity itself. Only when we can look at creativity in the broader context of lifelong learning can we begin to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs and social changemakers.