Here's an unlikely HuffPost confession: we are unabashed "Gleeks!" In one season, the television show Glee has become a pop culture phenomenon, capturing the ups and downs of high school life in a hip, smart musical dramedy.
Our inner wonkiness takes comfort in the fact that aside from a thoroughly entertaining hour spent each week, Glee is also shining a light on critical shortfalls in our education enterprise.
Advocates of arts education are riding Glee's coattails in their fight to keep the arts a central part of American schools: many schools have reduced art and music courses due to accountability and budget pressures.
A series of STEAM (Science, Technology, Education, Arts and Math) coalitions and innovators such as Larry Rosenstock, of High Tech High, have been cropping up around the country, and Glee is helping rally their cause.
Kids need arts education as a creative outlet and to engage in other modes of thinking and doing. However, for too long, arts education has been seen as the one subject domain where teaching creativity takes place. This unfortunate compartmentalization still takes place in many schools, even though creative skills are essential in all types of learning from science and math to language arts. Creativity and innovation have become more important than ever for solving real-world challenges and staying competitive in the global economy. If our schools are to truly prepare our children for the 21st century, we need to think differently about creativity and how to foster these skills.
If our current educational decline on standard measures like reading, math and science, disturbing high school dropout rates and mediocre college completion rates aren't enough of a wake-up call, check out what experts are saying about our apparently diminishing creativity edge. Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman's Newsweek cover story on "The Creativity Crisis" featured new evidence that American creativity has been in significant decline over the past two decades, particularly among elementary school aged children. In an IBM poll of over 1,500 CEOs, creativity was ranked the #1 leadership competency for successful companies of tomorrow. Other countries in the EU and China have already taken note and are experimenting with school programs to prioritize creative skills. Meanwhile the American education system has renewed its focus on more rigorous curriculum standards and national testing in an effort to improve our global competitiveness. In doing so, are we missing something essential?
Defining and measuring creativity is still a bit like trying to define art: it is in the eye of the beholder. But if creativity is an engine for innovation and collaboration in a global economy that is changing rapidly, it will be increasingly important to define what it looks like, and which practices will best foster its development. Bronson and Merriman defined creativity as the
"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)."
The level of variation inherent in creative output does not fit neatly into standardized testing and curriculum standards. However, testing experts, including those responsible for international benchmarking, such as Andreas Schleicher at the OECD, are just now beginning to break down the skill set that will define 21st century success: measuring creativity will be a difficult, but not impossible endeavor.
These challenges beg for an integrative approach. The new Common Core Standards could be one such pathway to strengthening creativity skills. Adopted by over 35 states to date, the standards set learning goals for teachers to ensure all American children receive the best possible education no matter where they live. The Common Core emphasizes deep domain knowledge but acknowledges the cross-disciplinary nature of skills like literacy (where math, science and technical skills are woven within the standards). These standards foster a knowledge base from which students can generate useful ideas, however, it falls short of requiring students to demonstrate creative competencies by producing or implementing their ideas. As states tailor the common core to meet their needs, they should consider how to go the extra mile in supporting children's creativity skills with targeted standards.
High-quality technology-supported learning opportunities should also be part of the solution. With children older than 8 spending over 10 hours a day using media outside school, we must meet children where they are in order to convert couch time at home, and seat time at school, into creative learning time. We can build upon the Common Core, which are mindful of supporting students' research, media and technical skills across all subjects. To do so we need a better understanding of the types of activities that foster children's creativity, which features of the creative process demonstrate learning, and which digital media are best suited to deliver those experiences. This challenge is undoubtedly intertwined with those the Common Core seeks to address, basic skills (reading, STEM), and critical "new" skills (such as systems thinking and collaboration).
We can also learn from fields in which creativity is king, such as creative services and design firms. "Design-thinking," advanced by proponents such as Tim Brown of IDEO, has emerged across many of these professions as a possible well-spring for creativity. It is loosely defined as a multidisciplinary approach that applies tools often used by designers (user observations, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, storytelling, and scenario building), to identify problems and craft solutions. As our economy sputters from the economic meltdown, we need to invest in the next generation by preparing them to be lifelong learners who are eager to design solutions for complex problems of the day.
Perhaps an episode where the McKinley High School Glee Club and the A/V Club join forces is a mere pipe dream (Fellow Gleeks: we can only imagine the possibilities with Jacob Ben Israel). But for our nation's well-being, making creativity skills more than just a song and dance will be much more likely if we blend new standards with the wisdom of America's most creative pioneers.