Standardize Me

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In her bold article for Education Week, “Schools Need a Culture Shift,” Betty J. Sternberg identifies “the skills and competencies needed to thrive in today’s world—teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and innovation,” and refers to “the culture of thriving, cutting-edge business environments.” So here’s the question: is the United States currently preparing its students to take on roles in the 21st-century workforce, positions that rely on what Eric Liu and I call the ICI Continuum (Imagination-Creativity-Innovation)? Sternberg, a former commissioner of education and superintendent of schools in Connecticut, doesn’t think so. In her view, the No Child Left Behind Act has focused the attention of too many American administrators and teachers on tests and the “progress” they measure, to the exclusion of other, richer aspects of learning.

At Lincoln Center Institute, we believe that holding teachers and school leaders accountable for their students’ learning—and measuring this growth—requires multiple measurement tools. We believe in clear and focused standards, but reject standardization. We embrace accountability, but reject teaching to the test as the sole means toward that end. The goal is to make connections between methods, based on the needs of students. Let’s be bold enough to do this.

The core of Sternberg’s argument is her belief that drilling kids to perform well on state tests is a shortsighted practice because it fails to foster the qualities that really make them successful students, workers, and citizens: love of learning, the ability to work with others, the desire to solve difficult problems, and so on. “They all deserve to grow into extraordinary individuals,” she writes, “not just a record of test scores.” As a commissioner, Sternberg did help develop methods of K-12 assessment, so she knows that measurement of knowledge is necessary and can be implemented “in authentic and meaningful ways.” But, according to her, we’re moving farther away from this ideal each day.

We at LCI have our own idea of what imaginative learning looks like; for more information, visit our Web site at www.lcinstitute.org. What is your vision of imaginative learning? And how do you think we can spread it throughout our schools in order to produce both happier, more engaged students and a stronger, more competitive America?

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Art: The Great Connector

When we think about the skills that will help our students keep the United States economically competitive, the fields of math and science usually come to mind first. Mastery in these subjects leads to new technologies and means of production, certainly, but do they give us everything we need for success? In an insightful opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor, David Arzouman says no. Arzouman points to the paradox of specialization in education: on the one hand, it prepares students to play specific roles in the workforce, but on the other hand, it narrows their vision in troubling ways. The arts are a remedy for this. Art is all about how “elements must balance and synergize”; it reveals to young people “the surprising and far-reaching connections that put the world back together, that elicit the ‘aha’ response,” and thereby compensates for schools’ compartmentalized curricula. Art teaches us how to weave disparate threads into a harmonious whole.

Here at LCI, one of our ten “Capacities for Imaginative Learning”—which students develop through encounters with works of art and “original source” exemplars from other, non arts, disciplines—is “Making Connections.” Arzouman is right in step with this idea. He sees that the arts give people the conceptual tools to look across disciplines and see how things fit together in “the big picture”—a valuable skill set when one is trying to solve problems and innovate in the working world. So if economic competitiveness is our goal, math and science in schools gets us partway there, and when we add the arts, “[t]heir mix, although paradoxical, moves us closer to completeness.”

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Making a Difference with Imagination

In an interview yesterday, December 17, on Seattle’s NPR station KUOW-FM, Eric Liu spoke with the host of Weekday, Steve Scher, about Imagination First, the book that he and Scott Noppe-Brandon co-authored.

“Imagination is the capacity to imagine ‘what if’,” Eric said. He proceeded to talk about the fact that it is easier to kill imagination than to use it—because of our innate fear of the new and the unknown. And yet, sometimes issues that require imaginative solutions, and seem forbidding when they first arise, a year later, or a mere week later, seem obvious and easy to espouse.

Eric related the idea to the hot topic of the day: health care reform. How can President Obama change the paradigm? Eric is convinced that imagination is the key, and that, here again, this issue, which has inspired more heated debate than perhaps any national concern in the past fifty years, will become a natural part of our lives when seen in retrospective—when the nation detaches itself from the fear of disturbing the status quo; when it allows itself to imagine freely; when it dares to ask “what if” along with those elected to provide the answers.

The conversation, lasting nearly an hour, addressing several topics and crackling with ideas from Eric, Weekday’s host, and several listeners who called in, was an exemplar of the extraordinary social importance of the imagination. To hear the complete podcast, go to http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=19001.

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Finish the Story

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Adapted from an image by laurenatclemson*

Image adapted from a work by Lauren Manning*

As parents, as teachers, we often feel the impulse to explain things to our kids. After all, they’re young and inexperienced, their minds are forming, and we want to help them make their way in the world. When we explain too much, though, we’re doing our children a disservice. The best educational experiences invite young people to leap from passivity to activity. They are always open-ended, in the same way that learning itself is a process that is never finished. But let me get a bit less abstract … Continue reading

Uncle Sam Wants You…To Imagine

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Image by Aaron Domini*

Image by Aaron Domini*

Americans without health insurance, parts of New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, deficient public schools—these are only some of the shameful, nagging social ills that Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon deem “failures of imagination” in their book, Imagination First. One thing these “persistent problems” have in common is that they’re all national issues, not merely the concerns of individuals or organizations. A natural question, then, is: what role, if any, should the federal government play in spurring citizens to find imaginative solutions to such challenges? President Obama prompted my thinking on this when he drew attention to social innovation earlier this summer. Let’s look to him as we try to find an answer. Continue reading

Imagination Superconductors

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Image by Shane Gorski*

Image by Shane Gorski*

I’ve been struck lately that the topic of imagination is everywhere if you look for it. Just open up today’s paper. It’s in the question of how we define success in Afghanistan. It’s in the question of why America’s green jobs sector is still not taking off. It’s in the paradigm shift that is creeping up on the NFL, in which players begin to imagine a sport less dependent on using an over-helmeted head as a weapon. And of course, it’s in the work of people every day in every profession. I spoke this week at a statewide conference of school counselors in Louisiana. These are people who are passionate about creating possibility in the lives of their students, and yet our society and our education system utterly shortchange counselors. The typical ratio, anywhere in America, is more than 500 students per counselor. How can that possibly work? A counselor, properly understood, can have as much to do with the sparking of a middle- or high-school student’s imagination—her sense of what she can do and be in the world—as any teacher or parent. But we are not set up to make those relationships between counselors and students work in any sustained and meaningful way.

This makes me look around and wonder where else in our web of relationships and institutions we are neglecting key nodes in the potential transmission of imagination. In business, having a visionary CEO is great. But the spread of imaginative thinking throughout the organization— the organism— depends critically on certain superconductors who are rarely as visible as a CEO. Do you know who those people are in your institution? And do they have the tools and the time to unlock the imaginative capacities of those around them? Imagination is certainly, as Scott Noppe-Brandon and I have written, a personal practice. It is also, however, a function of inherited structures of social organization. So let’s ask ourselves more often, of our schools and our governments and our charities and our businesses: are we optimizing for imagination?

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*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.