Is Our Education System Leaving Creative Children Behind?

(This is a guest post by Aggie Sung, a certified early education teacher whose passion is in children’s books that teach young learners to express themselves through art, words, and motion. Her books include “Mommy Duck.” She resides in Princeton, N.J.)

When Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush were President and Vice President, I was a child who walked from my Catholic elementary school on Princeton’s Nassau Street to the public library on Witherspoon Street. Listening to the conversations of grownups, I learned the Japanese had taken over the American auto industry. .

My father, a die-hard Republican who voted for Reagan and Bush, swore to never buy a Japanese car.

As a grown-up, I realize that roots of Japanese dominance arises from creativity in education. The process to coming to that understanding took 16 years and it started when I attended school in Asia for a year. During that time I noticed a drastic difference in educational approaches, particularly that Asians rely upon standardized testing to filter and select students for high school and college. When I was in high school in West Windsor/Plainsboro, my English teacher assigned a paper and I decided to write an essay on education as a possible reason for the slack in US car sales compared to the Japanese. My research at the library lead me from one article to another. One piece of research struck a chord with me. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report called “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.”  The report notes the declining American auto industry:

The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export. It is not just that the South Koreans recently built the world’s most efficient steel mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being displaced by German products.

What I found interesting as a junior inundated with Achievement Tests, Advanced Placement Tests, SATs and PSATs, the report recommended more standardized testing:

Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work.

Not knowing much about the auto industry, I took the recommendation for standardized tests as an unfortunate and necessary evil.

When I entered college, I learned that the Japan’s auto industry’s rise to prominence was partially due to an American named Dr. Edward Deming, not because of standardized tests. The Japanese government wanted to participate in the American auto industry and Japanese leadership sought out Dr. Deming as a consultant on how to do that. An engineer specializing in mathematical physics, he championed statistical process control. His belief system on being competitive in the marketplace revolved around the idea that reducing errors yields lower price and better quality. Basically, he advocated doing things right the first time.

As a wide-eyed undergrad, I was enamored by his ideas, because the Japanese went from selling parts to American auto makers to competing with Ford and GM. As a grownup who became a project manager on various software teams, I took his ideas to heart. I read his books like the pivotal Out of the Crisis, and I wanted to better understand how a single human being could have come up with ideas that created the Japanese manufacturing system which competed with American auto giants.

As it turned out, Deming had an educational background with almost no testing. His childhood had a piano-playing musician mother who encouraged him to compose music, and a lawyer father who expected him to work on the family farm. By nature, Deming was hardworking. As an adult, I realized Deming became The Father of the Quality Evolution because he was expected to be a creative thinker, a hard worker, and an accurate observer. Hands-on application was pivotal to his development into the grand leader of economic development for the entire Japanese auto industry. At the end of the day, the reason was nothing groundbreaking. Deming was intelligent, hardworking and creative.

Herein lies the problem of the educational system:  there is no room for creativity. Despite all the efforts of charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools, magnet schools, county level science academies and whatever else is out there, the lack of emphasis on creativity undermines whatever economic and industrial goals we are trying to achieve in New Jersey and the United States.

The state of affairs in education has left creative children behind. In my teaching experiences I remember a five year old, whom I’ll call Lesley,  who was as initially labeled as a slow learner by teachers. I worked with the child to see if I could help the child with numbers and letters. There were clearly a number of issues, but the one thing the teacher could not see was how creative and unusually intelligent the child was.

In a classroom activity to celebrate Halloween, Lesley was tasked to depict how her family spends Halloween. Instead of drawing how they usually celebrate, she painted a picture of how she would like to celebrate.

She illustrated two friends with herself and her little sister. She drew a street, and she drew her house on the street. Instead of drawing the outside of the house, she drew the inside of the house. She depicted a doorbell, but there was no door. She indicated the end of the street, and upon the point where the street ends, she drew a butterfly. She wanted help making a triangle for the wings, and I helped her. The butterfly wanted to sing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Then she drew another butterfly. She said the other butterfly was screaming, because it saw a puppy flying up in the air. Instead of drawing a puppy flying in the air, she wanted to write the word puppy in the air, because that would indicate a “puppy” flying in the air.

Then she drew something that looked like a line. I asked her what it was, and she said, “It goes up in the air to kill gravity.” I asked her what gravity is. Her response was, “The gravity that sings to a butterfly.” Then she starts scribbling something. I ask her what she was scribbling, and she says, “These are words. It says you can write a butterfly song.”

For most people, the child should be automatically categorized as cognitively-challenged. However, if you think about the child’s picture, you’ll see that Lesley made unusual connections between concepts, a sign of creativity. Lesley made poetry that day.

Deming made music for his mother. Perhaps his childhood environment was free to explore and express ideas without judgement. If Deming’s teachers had said Deming was cognitively-challenged, my father would not be driving a Toyota Prius today.

What do you think?

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