Creativity vs. Safety

This morning Timothy Egan wrote a provocative piece on the NY Times op–ed page. Egan laments the ubiquity of big data as it creeps into every facet of our lives, from Amazon’s aggregation of our buying habits which is used to promote those same buying habits as well as the push toward accountability in schools preoccupied with standardized test scores. Egan points out that creativity is unquantifiable and that our emphasis on numbers may be squashing it or at least ignoring it. 

After reading Egan’s piece I happened upon another gem of Hannah Rosin’s in The Atlantic. (The benefits of waking up early shabbos morning- precious reading time drinking coffee before going to shul.) Rosin describes the radically different set of expectations around children’s play nowadays as opposed to our experience as children. Playgrounds used to be more adventurous, less antiseptic. Kids had time to themselves during which  they could explore. Sure, that hurricane slide seemed a little more dangerous and it must be easier for a child to be abducted when he’s walking to the park by himself instead of with mom, but the cost may be much greater than any perceived benefit. Creativity, independence and risk taking are stifled.


Rosin and Egan both homed in on a real concern that educators should be mindful of. If we really think that creativity matters as much as mastery of material then shouldn’t we be promoting it more in our classrooms? I’m not claiming that we should an end to demanding excellence and high academic expectations. Keep those expectations and demands high and raise them. But let’s make sure that we think about promoting risk taking, discovery and imagination.

I’m looking forward to the new program in STEM that we’re beginning this upcoming school year. I think it’s a step in the right direction of promoting creativity and imagination.

I also raise a question for consideration regarding risk taking. Do rigorous rubrics and well-defined grades for papers discourage risk-taking and creativity? Are we setting the consequences for failure such that we discourage kids to live up to Tal Ben Shachar’s great quote: learn to fail or fail to learn. 




4 thoughts on “Creativity vs. Safety

  1. A few points:

    1) Of course rigid rubrics limit creativity. Sometimes that is a good thing and sometimes not so good. I would think that the important thing would be to have a variety of experiences.

    2) If a grading system is defined enough, then there is no learning to fail, because nothing is failing. You can’t only grade for effort.

    3) You can loosen up a grading rubric by grading for content being present, but not actually giving a grade for the quality. Then you can make corrections and grade for the presence of the corrections.

    4) You could theoretically teach tolerance of failure in a rigid grading system. Teach students to be okay with bad grades as long as they tried. This may not be easy, but I’m just pointing out that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

    • Two points
      1. Wouldn’t it be great if you really could just grade for effort? All I want is for every student to try as hard as he/she can. If they do that then mastery of material will ensue.
      2. It’s very hard to teach tolerance of failure in a competitive school since kids genuinely are competing with their peers over advantages in GPA of decimal points. Little things like dropping the lowest score can help. The thing that helps most is telling students that this is a value. I feel like there are a lot of things that teachers think students should know but that we don’t really tell them enough.

      • I wonder whether grading for effort is a “grass is always greener” situation. There are probably a whole set of problems with doing it that way (besides all the practical challenges). For one, there is such thing as success and failure in life. A doctor does not get credit for effort if they botch a surgery.

  2. I’m definitely strongly in favor of grading tests and other assessments to let kids know whether or not they’ve mastered the material. That’s non-negotiable. I’d love to figure out a way though to push kids to try as hard as they can and to not consider themselves successful just by mastering tests but to see effort and hard work as genuine goals. I think that lots of us (myself included) when we were kids at least, valued the slacker type who could get A’s on tests without studying. In certain schools, some may think it desirable to get an excellent grade in Quality of Work while getting a low grade in Investment In Learning.

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