Flight of Imagination

Extreme fort building: elementary school kids making a chicken coop from old timber with Community Architecture Lab

I had dinner with a British acquaintance many years ago who demanded to know –  after putting back several drinks – “why such stupid people can be so successful.” Nobody could work out how Americans could be so successful, he told me. But evidently it was the case.

And still is, I daresay, though we’re obviously wobbling a bit. I thought back on this conversation recently after hearing about a bunch of kids working in teams with design engineers to develop incredibly cool collaborative projects like an interactive flight simulator and a bike that filters water as you pedal.

This is happening at NuVu, an ‘innovation center’ in Cambridge MA where middle and high schoolers work with professional coaches from MIT and Harvard around themes like flight, global warming, super heroes, civic engagement, and food. NuVu is rooted in the belief that all children – and not just science geeks – are capable, creative problem-solvers. They also conduct trainings for teachers interested in fostering creativity in young minds. Fantastic, right? Check out the NuVu website and see the stories yourself.

Wouldn’t it be great if every kid had access to an ‘idea lab’ like NuVu? It’s clearly a very special program – but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. In fact, until fairly recently, American education always did a pretty good job of fostering this kind of creativity. Or, more accurately, American education did a pretty good job of not getting in the way of kids’ natural creativity. I’m afraid that just isn’t the case anymore, and our ‘race to nowhere’ handwringing won’t yield the long term flexibility and synthetic thinking required for a thriving society.

It’s a great mystery why we can’t figure out a way to teach foundational knowledge without dismantling one of the great pillars of American achievement in the process. That seems like a very dumb idea to me. And for every school reform person who thinks the crackdown on public education represents going ‘back’ to the basics, think again! A generation ago, young kids played constantly and had very little homework – and, still, they managed to read and learn math facts. Yes, yes, this is my mantra. (And here’s one of my previous posts on the value of play, as well as an article I wrote with my husband for CNN.com called “Want to Get Your Kids into College? Let Them Play”).

For a glimpse of the tradeoff between creativity vs conformity in the 21st century economy, Singapore provides an interesting lesson:

But while the Singapore system’s heavy emphasis on the embedding of fundamentals, constant drilling and high-pressure examinations is optimized for generating great test scores, it’s also a major contributor to the conformist, inflexible mentality that’s viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s ability to compete in a world driven by entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation.

…(Singaporean) musician Inch Chua shares an anecdote that effectively illustrates Singapore’s psychic rigidity problem.

“I was in a musical recently, and the director told me about a visit she made to a very famous girls’ school here,” says Chua. “As a part of her presentation, she gave all the girls a piece of paper, and instructed them to cut it in half. That sent the girls into a panic — they were all saying, ‘We can’t do this, we don’t have any scissors!’ So she told them just to fold it in half and tear it, and they started crying and screaming, because they couldn’t get the tear exactly even.”

With all due respect to people who work incredibly hard and score well on international math tests, I think there is a better way.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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One Response to Flight of Imagination

  1. Ah. The British. Don’t meet their standardized tests and you are “stupid?” Who died and made them God? Well, how “stupid” was it to have at one time been the colonizers of at least 25% of the globe in which you dominated everyone with your insidious European culture for which you are summarily hated now in spades? Hmmm. British arrogance knows no bounds and that hasn’t changed ever.

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