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Giving Kids the Keys

“Every teacher spends an hour lecturing us about rules and netbooks and textbooks and such, and we’re all so used to it, we usually just sit there either with drool hanging out of our mouths and our brains somewhere else, or doodling on a sheet of notebook paper.  We’ve heard it all before, so none of us really pay attention.  We listen to whoever we have first period, and then for the rest of the day, we sort of sit there, as I said, with drool hanging out of our mouths, half asleep, wouldn’t even notice if the teacher’s hair was on fire.”  – 8th graderbored student

The above reflection is an alarm bell.  It should signal to teachers and administrators that things need to change in classrooms.  This 8th grader may have been the only one brave enough to write and turn in such an honest opinion, but it is very unlikely that she is alone in her assessment.  Many students, whether they actually have drool hanging out of their mouths or not, are being systematically disengaged by schools and by teachers who struggle to relinquish control to their students.  Great strides have been made to move from the “sage on the stage” mentality of past generations and “student-centered” has become the norm in school literature, but many schools have yet to find a way to eliminate the scene described in the above student commentary.  We need to find a way to move from student-centered to student-driven, and all it takes is trusting kids enough to give them the keys.

Project based learning, experiential learning, inquiry, and student-written class rules are all examples of useful ways to give students a voice in their schools and in their work.  Many times, however, the limitations still exist and it is because of our attitudes, not our pedagogical strategies.  Too often adults don’t believe kids can handle the responsibility of leading and designing their own learning.  In some cases, this may be true, but it is likely because they have been trained not to.  For most of their young lives, they have been relieved of all responsibilities by their parents and teachers.  From cleaning up after them to packing their backpacks every morning for school to helping them with homework, adults continuously teach our kids to not be responsible.  When they arrive in class, most students expect to be told what to do, how to do it, and be helped if they have trouble.  The only way to help students develop a sense of responsibility for their own learning is to give them control of it.  There will likely be frustrating challenges and failures along the way for students, but it takes challenge and failure to rise to new heightened expectations.   There will also likely be terrifying moments for teachers.  They must find a way to put their organized, prepared, often linear-thinking selves in the passenger seat and realize that school needs to be about what students find compelling, not teachers.

Educators should embrace the position of navigator.  Give our student drivers the keys, ask them where they want to go, and help them get there by pointing out the various routes and possible detours.  We must resist the temptation to grab the wheel or slam on the brakes because it is the creative, optimistic, anything is possible attitude of children that pushes forward the bold ideas of innovation.  We must simply buckle up and hang on while our students lead us on adventures we couldn’t possibly have planned.

This TED talk by 12 year old Adora Svitak shows there is much adults can learn from children.

Learning between grown ups and kids should be reciprocal. – Adora Svitak


Schools Don’t Need to Be Creativity Killers

Though genetic attributes contribute to differences in intellectual capacity among individuals, all humans are born with the ability to engage in creative thought and action.  Whether or not individuals use and develop that ability, how they use it, and how well they use it all depend on what they have learned from their environment, parents, teachers, peers, and culture.  Through the observation of young children, it is plain to see that humans possess a natural curiosity and tendency towards creative problem-solving.  With or without encouragement from parents, children exhibit vivid imaginations and are frequently making connections between concepts in novel ways.  As children get older, they become more exposed to the attitudes and dispositions of their caregivers.  Adults who seek to foster creativity can positively influence a child’s exercise of creative capabilities.  Those whose attitudes tend to discourage creativity, because of individual prejudices, cultural traits, or institutional constraints, can stifle those same capabilities.  Most often, it seems to be the school setting which plays a significant role in developing or impeding creativity.  So, how can we make sure that we, as educators, are not contributing to the killing of our children’s creativity?

creativity, kids

set us free!

creativity, kids

set us free!

creativity, kids

set us free!


Creativity expert Robert Harris tells us that the successful use of creative abilities relies on the development of certain creative dispositions and attitudes.  These include:

  • Openness to change
  • Willingness to play with possibilities
  • Unwillingness to blindly accept the status quo
  • Relentless curiosity
  • Desire and motivation to work hard to improve the ways thing are

We need to examine our school learning environments to determine whether we are unknowingly erecting obstacles to the development of these attitudes.  If schools or educators demand conformity, sap confidence by creating a culture of fear of low test scores, or restrict student curiosity and experimentation with confining schedules and physical space, then they are taking from our children a key element of what it means to be human and slowly starving it death.  However, if teachers make a concerted effort to begin feeding their own creative selves, they can begin to create a school atmosphere that satiates the voracious creative appetite our students naturally bring to the table.  If teachers believe in their students’ capacity to create, they will.  If they are willing to make and admit to mistakes, their students will too.  If they tolerate and encourage different perspectives, answers, and questions, their students will take discussions places they have never been.  If they say “What if?” or “Why not?” instead of “That won’t work” or “Stop being silly”; if they reward great questions as much or more than right answers; if they ask open-ended questions rather than ‘googleable’ ones…if they do all of these things, their students will be free to exercise the creative talents they possess in ways that will amaze us all.

Wonderfully innovative ideas do not come as a bolt from out of the blue as popular culture would sometimes have us believe.  They require hard work, persistence, a willingness to take risks, and, perhaps most of all, an environment in which the creative attitude can survive and thrive.  Why would we intentionally create a learning institution without such an environment?  If we are truly concerned with preparing students for a life beyond school that demands creative thinkers, we had better begin to recognize the changes required in our schools and our teaching.

What if we weren’t the creativity killing school most of us went to as students?   Just imagine.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of our most influential thought leaders on education and creativity, on this very subject circa 2007.


In Todd Rose’s compelling TEDtalk on the Myth of Average (see below), he tells us that “desks are the cockpits of our economy”.  This is a provocative statement which sums up the analogy he makes between fighter jet cockpits and desks in schools.  Rose explains that the Air Force, after years of poor performance, finally came to the realization that a one-size-fits-all cockpit simply did not work.  Faced with such a wide range of body types, engineers had always designed cockpits to the average size profile.  What they learned through extensive research was that this average pilot did not exist, so the cockpits were really one-size-fits-none.  From that time forward they engineered cockpits to the outer edges of the range and added the ability to adjust where needed, thereby giving each individual pilot an opportunity to find the comfort and access needed for success.  Rose has adeptly made the connection between cockpits and student desks.  If we understand that every student is different, with different strengths and weaknesses, different styles of learning, different rates of maturation and development, then why do we think that a one-size-fits-all education works?  If we design our textbooks, curriculum, learning spaces, even our desks to the average student, do we end up really designing for nobody?

classroom learning environment

designed for nobody

I am consumed with exploring questions such as these and opening up the conversation with educators around the world.  In the last few years, I have seen a shift towards the understanding that education needs to be as customizable as possible and that successful independent schools need to provide diverse opportunities designed to prepare students for future challenges that no longer lie within a predictable range.  This shift has been driven by a pledge to know, challenge, and love every student and has been furthered by strong commitment to faculty professional development and facility upgrades.

The school I work at has invested a good deal of money and energy this year into the development of more flexible learning spaces.  Desks have been removed from a middle school computer lab and replaced by a series of tables that can be arranged in a variety of formations suitable for a wide range of activity.  Everything from small group work to boardroom presentations can be easily accommodated, thereby creating a space for both student and teacher collaboration that lends itself well to project work.  More informal spaces complete with comfortable couches that can be used for group discussions and socializing have been added, while plans in the library include the possibility of mobile bookshelves for customizable and shareable learning space.

In first grade classrooms, desks were replaced by fold-able work tables on wheels.  Every day the students themselves will have the power to decide how they are most comfortable and thus ready to learn.  Need more organized workspace?  Leave the tables up.  Prefer to work on the floor?  Fold the tables, push them to the side and have all the real estate required.  In a traditional school building, minor changes such as these are certainly steps in the right direction.  Without actually knocking down walls, we are working to move past the old notions of classroom learning and encouraging teachers to allow students more freedom to move around.

In Sweden they have taken this concept and run with it.  Wishful thinking for most of us…Check it out here.

Learning takes place in many different ways.  Gone are the days when a quiet room of students seated in rows of desks is the ideal learning environment.  While that type of environment can be appropriate at times, what we have learned from Todd Rose, other thought leaders in education, and from our own experience is that an adaptive, flexible learning environment with multiple spaces and configurations is paramount to the development of student creativity and achievement.  By moving out of a one-size-fits-all mindset, we will be providing the opportunity to succeed to all students.  After all, if desks are the cockpit of our economy, than it is imperative for our future that we be sure to make those desks adjustable.

Todd Rose was not really just talking about furniture in his talk.  He was making a call to our education system to stop designing all activities, materials, and spaces to the average.  If we listen to him, we can begin to free students from the constraints traditional schools have placed on them and we can give all students an opportunity to continue to love learning.

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