By: Kevin Haug
Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said as he spoke about science, “And the fun of it is, all these things which you see, that you notice in the world...and all these things you can understand, from these simple pictures. And that’s kind of a lot of fun to think about. I don’t want to take this stuff seriously. I think we should just have fun imagining it and not worry about–there’s no teacher going to ask you questions at the end. Otherwise, it’s a horrible subject.”1
Feynman spoke these words in a documentary video titled “Fun to Imagine.” As one watches this video, one is struck by how Feynman offers a radically different view of the world as he speaks of atoms and subatomic forces. It is safe to say that this man could see the world in a way that most of us cannot. And it was his ability to imagine the world in such a fashion that enabled him to win the Nobel Prize for physics.
It could be argued that the world progresses scientifically, technologically, and socially because of the use of the imagination. People dared to think differently; be creative; envision a way of doing things that had not previously been done before. Many were met with resistence. Imagination almost always is.
Take for instance our children. Children oftentimes think very differently. In his talk before the RSA, Sir Ken Robinson quoted a study done on the divergent thinking of children found in the book Breakpoint and Beyond. Divergent thinking is not defined as creativity, but it is an essential capacity for creativity. It is, according to Robinson, “...the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question; lots of possible ways of interpreting the question; to think...laterally; to think not just in convergent or linear ways; to see multiple answers not just one.” 2
The study asked 1500 kindergarten children how many uses they could come up with for a paperclip. According to their own standards of what would make a divergent thinking genius, 98% of the students achieved that level. The same students were tested five years later. Only 32% achieved the genius level. Five years later, the number dropped to only 10%. The study then asked 200,000 adults over the age of 25 the same question. Two percent managed to score at the genius level. What happened. According to Robinson, “They were educated.”3
Now, Robinson does not believe education is the only factor at play here. There are definitely other factors, but why might education be a very important one?
According to Robinson, “We are now running educational systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make, and the result is: we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”4
It doesn’t take a person too long to figure out that Robinson is correct. For not only are we “educating people out of their creative capacities”, we are doing so in an alarming fashion. Consider the following problem that was given to my fourth grader:
The number 15,_56 rounded to the nearest thousand is 15,000. Which numbers could be the missing digit?
There are two correct answers to this problem. Both B and D are correct, however if your student chooses B, he or she will be marked incorrect because the “best” answer is D. Imagine being right yet being counted wrong. And this sort of reasoning is being used as a measure of our schools, our teachers, and our students in the form of the STAAR assessment.
Most–no, correct that–every teacher that I have visited about this is incensed at what they are being forced to teach their students. Every teacher who I have conferred with despises counting something wrong that is actually right because the “right” answer is the “better” answer. Every teacher I visit with absolutely detests the state mandated Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills which are required strictly to pass the STAAR. To a teacher, I hear, “These students are not cognitively ready for these kinds of questions.”
Not only are they not cognitively ready, to prepare students for these sorts of questions, their creativity is squashed, and their confidence gets shattered. They are not taught that multiple answers are right. They are not taught to expand their sight. They are taught to narrowly limit their vision to fit the standardized version imposed by the Texas State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency.
Fortunately, these boards have done some extensive work in the past year to evaluate the current process of educating our students. There is also a ground swell of rebellion against what the state is doing to our children. The question is whether parents or the testing business will win out. Unfortunately, money is often more persuasive than the reality of life.
And what is that reality?
An extended quote from Robinson:
We know three things about intelligence. One, it’s diverse. We think about the world in all the ways we experience it. We think visually. We think in sound. We think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms. We think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of the human brain...intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. In fact, creativity, which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value, more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things...And the third thing about intelligence is that it is distinct.5
When Robinson talks about intelligence being distinct, he means that each kid has a certain type of intelligence that needs to be unleashed instead of packed away. He uses the example of Jillian Lynne who was not doing well in school; whose teachers thought she had a learning disability; who was taken to a doctor because she couldn’t sit still in class. The doctor upon examination and consultation with Jillian’s mom said, “Mrs. Lynne, your daughter isn’t sick, she’s a dancer.” Jillian’s parents put her into a school of dance, and she went on to choreograph Broadway hits like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”6
Today, Jillian would likely be put on Ritalin and suffer through school as a C student. There is probably no way she would pass the STAAR.
And she shouldn’t have to.
Education is much more than a test. It is much more than trying to make everyone into mathematicians and scientists. It is much more than trying to make sure that everyone gets the same right answer or best right answer. We do not need a bunch of cookie cutter citizens. We need creative minds who can envision a better future. We need divergent thinking and the courage to imagine the possibilities. We need the bravery to try and fail and to try and fail again. We need schools to unlock this potential in our children. We need our schools to help our kids imagine. This fact was not lost on Richard Feynman, and it shouldn’t be lost on us as well.
1. Feynman, Richard. “Fun to Imagine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zZbX_9ru9U
2. Robinson, Ken. Sir Ken Robinson, “Changing Paradigms” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCbdS4hSa0s
4. Robinson, Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”; Ken Robinson; TED Talks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY