A solid 21st-century learning agenda in the United States must move past either/or debates and put creativity at the center of children's learning and development in this digital age.
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A fresh red delicious apple atop a stack of books with a white background.
A fresh red delicious apple atop a stack of books with a white background.

The pundits following the 2013 SWSW Educational conference have been all abuzz about the supposed tension between those in the public educational system and entrepreneurs from the private sector. At the heart of the tension is the question of whose responsibility it is to innovate in the realm of public education. But focusing on the 'how' of education misses the points about the 'why' of education today: the cultivation of 21st-century skills that will enable youth to succeed in a digitally-connected, information-based economy. One of the core 21st-century skills that we need to prioritize as part of the U.S. educational agenda is creativity.

The focus on 21st-century skills arguably became vogue when authors, like Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class, began offering research substantiating a connection between creativity and economic growth and vitality. Then, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in a 2010 Newsweek article, sounded the alarm when they spoke of the "creativity crisis": The "creativity quotient" -- an index similar to intelligence quotient used to measure creative development -- in the U.S. has been in marked decline since the Torrance Tests used to measure creativity began to be administered. This is partially why we have President Obama rightfully calling for more focus on creativity and innovation in schools.

However, how we have been talking about creativity in the context of 21st-century learning does not help us make the leap from the ideal of creativity to the resource-constrained realities of public education. For one, advocates for 21st-century skills confront those who assert that we must first focus on traditional literacy (i.e. the 3Rs of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic) before we can talk about the 21st-century literacy skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, or critical thinking. Then, there are those who make a Maslowian argument that we cannot focus on so-called self-actualization needs (a category in which creativity is considered) without first addressing basic biological needs for food and safety. Lest we forget, there has also been the long-standing belief that only the geniuses and savants of each age were born with the gift of creativity. And perhaps most challenging is the classist argument that the arts must be the first to be sacrificed in an economic pinch.

All of these are false dichotomies: There is only one kind of literacy now, and it is one in which our kids must be able to be creative as much as they must be able to read and write and know about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Being able to address human needs necessarily involves creative problem-solving and social innovation. Recent research in neuroplasticity and cognitive development is showing us that creativity can be taught. And creative work has been proven to be a driver for economic prosperity.

A solid 21st-century learning agenda in the United States must move past these either/or debates and put creativity at the center of children's learning and development in this digital age. It is bad enough that children of color and low-income youth face a measurable achievement gap from their affluent, white counterparts. Not to mention the fact that there is a growing digital divide that separates those who have access to mainstream digital tools and broadband connectivity and those who do not. Now, we risk thrice compounding already disadvantaged youth with a "creativity gap" between those who have access to tools and learning experiences that nurture the basic life skill of creativity and those that do not.

We must redefine "21st-century literacy" with creativity as an educational priority. We can start with the following:

  1. Applying research to practice: The boom in research into the human brain portends new understandings that will help us better determine how insights into how the brain works can inform our approach to teaching and learning. We need to see greater connection and collaboration between researchers and educational innovators.
  1. Analyzing best practices: Philanthropists and educational advocates would do well to examine successful examples of youth creative development. One example is the maker movement that is encouraging kids to "do it yourself" and create at home using 3D printers, mobile phones, and apps. Another example (which, full disclosure, I represent) is the Children's Creativity Museum (www.creativity.org). Our design thinking-inspired, digital media and art-based approach to active learning teaches kids how to think creatively through the production of their own stop-motion clay animations, music videos, recorded green-screen live performances, and digital visual art.
  1. Better understanding the role of technology in learning: We cannot escape how technology shapes our lives today. It is hopeful that thought-leaders, like the George Lucas Educational Foundation and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, are conducting research that is helping us to get a handle on the impact of technology on children's learning and development. We need to further examine how technology can facilitate learning, and in turn, how we can train and equip classroom teachers to fully leverage the power of technology to advance student learning and achievement.

Creativity should cease to be treated as a secondary or optional aspect of children's learning. The ability of youth to survive and thrive in a digital world requires that we nurture in them the ability to think creatively and to act in innovative ways to address the issues they are confronting. It is time we make the call, "Creativity for all!", a significant plank in the platform for educational equity in the United States.

Michael Nobleza is Executive Director for the Children's Creativity Museum, San Francisco's hands-on, digital media art and technology museum for kids. Its mission is to nurture the creativity, collaboration, and communication of all youth and families.

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