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Creativity & Kids

January 19, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

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.

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