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So Much To Do So Little Time

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The Senate Committee on Education met this week to "update"--not eliminate--the No Child Left Behind legislation. Even those who seemed to favor some changes still insisted on keeping the standardized testing provisions. Like the House, which also echoed the need to give power to the states but left the standardized obligations in place, Congress has been talking about changing the law since 2007.

The clock is ticking to give our young people the skills they need to survive an age demanding creativity and innovation

Sir Ken Robinson, internationally recognized author and consultant on the development of creativity and innovation in education, says we are all born "creative". It sort of "gets squeezed out of us", he says, by the time we reach 4th grade. In fact, Robinson says, "schools kill creativity".

What then should we do to keep the schools from killing that creative instinct? What should we be doing to encourage, and indeed, nurture creativity leading to innovation, now seen as the epitome of success in the new global knowledge-based economy?

For starters--and we all know this-- the system that we live with today should be overhauled, maybe eliminated in favor something else.

The something else at minimum includes: 1) merging art and science; 2) deploying project-based real world learning; 3) using technology to provide online opportunities; 4) flipping the pedagogical method; and 4) insuring the whole system in student-centric; and 5) ending No Child Left Behind.

The role of the arts, and art integration to nurture the right hemisphere of the brain is well known. The STEM and STEAM concepts, however, are really placeholders for that something else that badly need to be done in k-12 and the universities: elimination of the silos.

What we do know is that both divergent and convergent thinking ought to happen. Kim Wilson, Arkansas' Teacher of the Year for 2012, credits her use of the visual arts with winning the state's annual award. The arts encourage students to be creative, "divergent thinkers", she claims.

Divergent thinking generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, encourages spontaneity, and a free-flowing manner, such that many new ideas are generated. It's the kind of thinking where the student generates several ideas about possible ways to solve a problem, often by breaking it down into its components and looking for new insights into the problem. Convergent thinking on the other hand, focuses on coming up with the single, well established answer to a problem, the single best, or often-correct answer to a question. In this view, answers are either right or wrong. Standardized tests are designed to insure the students have acquired such skills but both kinds of thinking skills are really needed.

Unfortunately, as David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki, co-authors of From STEM to STEAM Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts, point out:

"Our current school culture places heavy emphasis on convergent thinking, whereby the student pieces together relevant facts, data, and procedures to arrive at the single correct answer...The focus on convergent thinking may be extinguishing creativity in our students."

We need to eliminate the silos and insure our kids get both divergent and convergent thinking experiences and in the process make learning accessible, affordable, and most of all, fun.

Project based learning in which real world problems are addressed is a much more effective method of keeping students engaged and offering interdisciplinary learning, a method that helps students make the real world connections.

High Tech High in San Diego is a remarkable example of art infusion, indeed infusion of the various disciplines and real world experiences. There is no math class or art per se. Rather, those disciplines--still taught, still relevant--are curriculum-infused, integrated if you will, into larger questions involving issues of major importance in which the entire faculty and student body work collaboratively to solve each semester.

It is a also fact of life that technology has moved faster than anyone imagined, and unless we use technology to reinvent our current systems of education, we all will suffer as more and more people are left behind the learning curve, and left behind the mainstream of world economic development.

Using the "cyber" approach to learning, allows students to log in when they want, from where they happen to be and watch and read the assignments at their own pace. Most instructors using the online method also allow students to email any questions they might have and/or participate in online discussions with other students too. The question is how to use technology in a way that not only maximizes the learning experience but also enables the acquisition of genuine thinking skills and habits that will sustain them for the rest of their life.

Almost as important as the role of the arts, interdisciplinary learning and online education is the "flipped" pedagogical method made famous by the Kahn Academy. As the Economist Magazine described it: "reversal of the traditional teaching methods--with lecturing done outside class time and tutoring (or "homework") during it."

It is no longer realistic to teach the way we used to. Mouth-to-ear instruction is over. After 10 minutes, according to a major study by IBM some years ago, student's attention starts to wane. You hold their attention if you show pictures--which gives you another ten minutes. But learning efficiency goes off the charts when they begin to ask questions. Computer technology, and the tools of social media helps create that kind of real time, interactive learning environment.

Perhaps lastly, the larger system must be student-centric. As Kim Wilson of Arkansas discovered, "Great teachers see our students for who they are," she said. "We help each student strive to their personal best regardless if that exists beyond the parameters of a framework, a standardized test or a data graph." Given the uses of technology and the flipped pedagogical techniques, when time or circumstances permits, their individual performance or difficulty is recoded, the teacher follows student progress and gives individual attention as needed.

Former Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, Dana Gioia, once said:

We are not going to succeed through cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully, this country needs creativity, ingenuity, innovation...We need a system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty, and wonder...awakened not only to their humanity, but to the human enterprise that they inherit.

Can we afford to prolong meaningful change much longer? Can we continue to insist on standardized testing, requiring every teacher across the country to teach to the test when there is so much to do?