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Creativity & Kids
Mom with a View

Creativity & Kids

Do standardized tests and structure thwart creativity and talent?


Columnist Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal has a Work & Family Mailbox where she answers readers’ questions. This one was posted recently (01/12/2011):

I enjoyed your piece on “what makes kids creative.” But how could you write the article without mentioning one of the biggest obstacles in schools to developing creativity – the emphasis on standardized tests?

I find myself compelled to disagree – strongly – with the author’s assumption. In fact, I think that many talented, creative and successful individuals would actually share my perspective.

True creativity and talent can’t flourish without discipline, structure and an understanding on the fundamentals, whatever field you are in. There is a reason that the famous question “How do you get to Carnegie Hall” is answered with the words, “Practice, practice, practice.” You need to spend hours learning to read music well. You need to practice scales and other musical exercises. Then you need to master the basics of the piece of music. Only after laying that foundation can you let your imagination and emotions soar.

The same applies to a dancer. Hours at the barre, hours spent practicing and holding positions, doing the same steps over and over again and stretching, stretching, stretching, are prerequisites to dancing in a professional troupe. Once again, the choreography has to be mastered perfectly before the dancer’s individual interpretation can be expressed.

The same even applies to mathematics. At an advanced level, math requires creative and abstract thinking. But it would never be possible without understanding basic equations and theorems.

True creativity can't flourish without discipline and understanding.

Standardized tests are both necessary for the information and skills they impart as well as a metaphor for this perspective. We don’t want to teach our children the erroneous lesson that they can be successful creatively without discipline and basic understanding. No one succeeds in any endeavor, artistic or otherwise, without these qualities. We do our children a disservice if we allow them to believe that unfettered and unstructured creativity will lead to real and significant accomplishment. (And I’d like to do my banking with someone who knows basic math and not someone who adds or subtracts creatively!)

The Torah seems to share this view, constantly emphasizing that toil and determination, patience and consistency, are required to fully grasp any area of Torah study.

Additionally we are told that before learning Kabbalah, it is crucial to know the building blocks of Torah inside and out. One can’t soar spiritually without taking the prerequisite foundation courses. There are other requirements as well, including be over 40. Maturity and wisdom seem to be necessary.

It might be easier to parent our children if we don’t have to ensure they master certain basic information, if we could just allow their creative instincts to rule. But our ease comes at too great a price for them. Unfortunately Ms. Shellenbarger didn’t set these parents straight (I hope I never have to split a restaurant bill with her!). I hope their schools will.

January 22, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) Rachel, February 6, 2011 9:08 PM

But the tests are only in a couple of subjects!

Yes, a musician has to practice scales and compositions; and a ballerina has to know the positions, do barre and floor work, etc. BUT they are working at their chosen crafts. School standardized tests are typically only in a few subject areas (math and English reading, possibly a few more at the high school level) AND if kids fail, they might be held back, the school may lose funding, etc. Too much emphasis is put on the testing, not enough on other ways of demonstrating learning in the subject (such as through writing papers or oral evaluation) AND not everyone needs to know everything. Of course I want the bank teller to have the math skills to handle my money properly (although that's more and more computerized), but getting back to the pianist and the ballerina -- I don't go to their performances wondering if they can do long division or speak fluent English, any more than I worry about the teller's ability to dance on pointe! Let's allow kids to study what will help them as individuals who have many different opportunities, not try to make them all the same with the standardized test cookie cutter!

(9) Anonymous, January 27, 2011 6:49 PM


I am a Clinical Psychologist, who knows how these tests are constructed, given, and interpreted and why. The tests are made to assess where a child is developmentally, what are his strengths and weaknesses, and where he falls on some skills in comparison with other children his age and gender ("the norm"). Some parents created a competition. They would rather train the kid to the test instead of learning the reality. As a psychologist, I can deliberate why this happens, but it is not the point. Standardized tests do not teach, they measure. If most kids will do well on them, the norm will change, the test will change. Yes, all kids are different and they grow at different rates. But no one will argue if a child walks first time at the age of 3 years, she is delayed in motor skills development. We need to be able to speak, point, identify colors, shapes, etc by certain age as a part of our intellectual development. How a child gets to that point - is up to parents, schools, educational programs. These can be more or less creative. But tests have nothing to do with it.Professionally and personally, I am against teaching kids within the bounds of the tests. But people will keep doing it, projecting their hopes and ambitions on their kids.

(8) Anonymous, January 26, 2011 10:08 PM

Standardized Testing

I have a feeling from your answer that your children do not go to a public school. Your right about the need for a standardized curriculum, but not about the standardized tests. There are many problems with standardized tests in the public schools. First of all, there are too many schools that "teach to the test." This means that the children only learn what will be on the test; if it's not on the test, it is not taught. Another problem is that since standardized tests have become a so-called indicator of how a child, teacher, school and school system is doing, teachers sometimes will change their children's answers on the tests, so that their children will do better on the tests. There is a lot of money involved in a school making AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) and a class doing well (if some people have their way). There are some people who want to make a teacher's salary based on their children's test scores. Teacher's can be thrown out of a school if their school's scores are poor.

(7) Anonymous, January 26, 2011 7:06 PM

testing to assess skills learned okay, but what next

As a teacher, I believe in assessment, which means testing to make sure skills are learned. However, what do you do with the results? If you use them to reteach those who didn't pick up the skills, great. If you use them to judge the quality of the schools, district , teacher or students, not so great. That is why so many teachers teach to the test and there is no time for creativity or problem solving skills after that. There needs to be a balance and the realization that not all kids will pick up skills or information at the same rate.

(6) Anonymous, January 26, 2011 6:40 AM

You are one smart lady

I love your column and I love how you think. You are so down to earth and give the best advice.

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