Kids’ Creativity Withers During Middle School

I have the pleasure of teaching all of our middle school kids once a year. 5th grade through 8th-grade students make up a diverse spread, to say the least.

My first attempt at teaching Innovative Arts was amazing or a flop, depending on who you asked. 5th graders were over the moon. 8th graders … not so much. My plan was to use the interests and skills of each kid as a starting point and helping them grow from there.

5th and 6th-grade creative energy

We had a wonderful year in 5th and 6th grade. Kids were eager to be in charge of their creative future. Kids don’t have a lot of technical skills but they were eager to try! They could have worked the entire year (instead of a 9-week quarter) and been very happy.

7th and 8th-grade

Everyone knows that changing bodies make 7th and 8th grade a turbulent time. Even so, I underestimated the difficulty of engaging these kids. They would complete assignments (if they would affect their grades) but would choose to do nothing at every opportunity. Low expectations abound. Open-ended, follow-your-passion style classwork was so new and foreign to them that only a few were able to strike out on their own. I learned that there is much more to figure out to make the Innovative Arts vision work.

What happens between 5th and 8th grade?

Obviously there are a lot of things going on in a kid’s life during these years. Traditional schooling definitely does not help a kid stay creative in these years, however.

Every kid walks into school with aspirations and interests; our classrooms rarely ever manage to leverage these interests.  Teachers see this disconnect every day. Low engagement and careless student work are widespread problems in education today. Anyone active in the classroom today can spot the wasted potential of students who aren’t interested in or engaged by school.

Personally, I have stood in front of classes of students who seemed to have no interests or aspirations. Materials, work time, fancy machines, and the freedom to do cool things is not enough when a group of kids have had the creativity wrung out of them. The problem wasn’t the kids. It is our school system.

Standardized Testing

Before starting as a middle school technology teacher, it was my job to teach them physical, life, or earth science. They needed to learn so many standards that we had to move fast. We had to cover content relentlessly. The more content you could cover, the better the students scored on the standardized tests. All of the fun, memorable (but time-consuming) activities that I did as a science teacher made it more and more difficult to cover all of the standards. To cover absolutely everything would be to push content as fast as possible.

Short-term thinking curriculum

State testing does harm because it makes teachers into short term thinkers. We should be giving them experiences that grow and challenge a student, instead, we are concerned about their score on a test. We cannot devote time to students to deeply learn anything because we need to teach everything. In the end, many retain nothing.

Some left behind, others not challenged

Students who need the most help get left behind each year because they likely won’t past the test anyway. They get further and further behind. The kids who are most capable are held back and aren’t pushed to excel in class. For them, mediocre work keeps parents and teachers satisfied. The focus is one the “bubble” kids. Bubble kids might or might not pass the test and they get the most attention. Frantically trying to get ready for a test year after year saps student enthusiasm and breeds apathy. It isn’t a system that helps students develop into active learners, much less unique individuals.

Between grade levels the effect compounds

The real harm accumulates in this system between the grade levels. The knowledge earned during this school year is not intentionally transferred to the next. The shallow understanding that enabled a kid to pass a multiple-choice test is not retained. The next teacher needs to basically start from scratch. After a few years of repeating this cycle, kids are used to learning things that will soon be forgotten, so nothing is really worth focusing on and paying close attention.

So by the time a student gets to 8th grade, most students seem to have little or no intrinsic motivation. Students who struggle have years of frustration behind them. Some who are gifted haven’t been challenged in years. Students in the middle have been sweating over testing but have realized that their teachers care more about test scores than they need to.

Much has been written about standardized testing and the harm that it does. I include my perspective here to provide a contrast to the aspirations of an Innovative Arts class and the need for radical change in education. Testing isn’t the only thing holding kids back, however.

Grades

Grades have provided the primary extrinsic motivation for most students. Usually, a student will know the grade they want in a class and will do just enough work to get it. I have seen students literally stop working when they realize they have enough complete to earn the grade they seek. “What do I have to do” is a common question. Then the end of each grading period marks students scrambling to increase their grade but not their understanding.

There are countless other problems that contribute to our smothered student creativity. I focused on grades and standardized testing because they are examples of problems that we have invented and are now stuck underneath. They are so embedded in our system that it is difficult to imagine school without them.

This is the frustrating reality of school in the 21st century. It does not serve the students, teachers, parents, nor the community.

My attempt at a solution

There is no silver bullet teaching strategy, professional development, philosophy or paradigms that will break us out of the rut that we have carved. We need something totally different.

Innovative Arts, (formerly technology class) is a wildly different step away from these problems. Kids can go as far and as fast as they want. There isn’t a point where they have an ‘A’ and slow down. They are given freedom to change directions, dive into projects, and find support for their wild dreams. Mindset and attitude minilessons try to piece together the puzzle of their minds. Technology is shifted from a toy into a tool that supports creation. Example projects give them experience and get the ball rolling as creators.

This project is only in its infancy and there is a LOT of work still left to do. If you are like-minded or support the effort here, please reach out and connect. I’d love to hear that someone read this and feels similarly.

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