paper-mâché

Creativity, +/- Computers.

I visited a school last week that triggered the Why aren't there any paper-mâché sharks here? question in a serious way. It's a charter school, a K-3 in Brooklyn. No student work on the walls. Teacher-led instruction, for the most part. Classrooms are nearly identical, with noise meters and behavior charts and desks in rows facing front. I had a hard time identifying the math classroom as a math classroom.

So, okay. There are all kinds of justifications for this kind of thing, all of which make my heart hurt. But there seems to be a feeling that creativity is extra, something to be engaged with after the kids know how to multiply their twelves. This is a conviction that the administration of this particular school believes quite strongly (and articulated to me), but it's something I've seen in lots of other places as well. How did the making of things end up becoming a luxury - something to be afforded - rather than a given?

I used to blame pixels for this one. When I read Disrupting Class last fall, I closed it with the impression that technology will soon enable a unique kind of hegemony - one that claims to deliver customized instruction but which actually looks same and modular and boring. (See the School of One as an example of what I was imagining.) This was apparently not the message I was meant to leave with; a recent conversation with Michael Horn, one of the co-authors of the book, made me realize that "disruption" might very well begin with the kids and not with McGraw-Hill.

It's a common accusation that technology has inhibited our kids' creativity in the paper-mâché-sharks kind of way. I hear this quite often. But that school I visited? No technology in the classroom. None. It's a philosophy there that dedicates the kids to worksheets and uses the computer lab to administer weekly assessments instead of other things. This was especially startling because I had visited another elementary school that same day - one that had been named by the Department of Education as a "model technology school" - and its bulletin boards were beautiful and the classrooms felt like places where creative thinking happens.

Two schools do not an argument make, but they're enough to prompt some important questions. What's really keeping our kids from abandoning the worksheets and getting messy? We can't blame that one on the imperative to teach "21st-century skills," because if that was the case, we'd be seeing a lot of really creative digital work. (In general, I'm seeing a lot of PowerPoint book reports.) I think the answer is that this move towards efficiency has dismissed shark-making (of the paper or digital kind) as silly. That's why it's expendable. It's an important distinction to make, because it's not technology that's choked creativity out of our classrooms. In fact, it's sometimes used as a medium of construction. No, it's a feeling that creativity is about googly eyes and popsicle sticks and Microsoft Paint, not learning.

Here's to proving that wrong.