Another Expert Calls for Imagination in Education

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The Council on Foreign Relations has published a provocative article, “Education Reform and U.S. Competitiveness,” as part of its Renewing America initiative. The piece is an “Expert Roundup,” featuring the reform recommendations of four thought leaders: Craig R. Barrett, former CEO and chairman of Intel Corporation, and one of the appointed leaders of Change the Equation, President Obama’s STEM initiative; author Steven Brill; Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, and research professor of education at NYU; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Each contributor’s perspective is worth exploring, but Diane Ravitch’s caught my attention because it accords so well with Lincoln Center Institute’s thinking on education policy change.

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School’s Out for Summer

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In “Untapped Creativity Needs Instruction That’s Engaging,” an August 19 commentary piece for the Toledo Blade, Marilou Johanek discusses Camp Invention, a program of Invent Now Kids. The camp is “geared to promoting … creativity in primary education” and includes activities such as taking apart old appliances to build new inventions, making an imaginary city more environmentally sound, and figuring out how to survive on an unknown planet called Zak. Johanek sometimes worries that school curricula designed solely to boost standardized test scores do not give students opportunities to stretch their imaginations and creativity. But at Camp Invention, it is precisely “[t]hrough imaginative play [that campers] are exposed to curricula aligned with state and national standards.” This approach seems to balance imaginative learning with accountability—just the sort of balance that we at Lincoln Center Institute advocate. It ensures that young people learn the basics they may be tested on, but does so without limiting their personal exploratory freedom. It is likely that participants in this kind of program will be better prepared for their futures as adults: the combination of knowledge and self-directed discovery that the camp fosters is an asset to any effective leader, decision-maker, or citizen.

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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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On the Road: Part One

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Image by geishaboy500*

Image by geishaboy500*

The last few weeks have seen the kick-off of the Imagination Conversations national initiative, a project of Lincoln Center Institute. I was thrilled to serve as moderator at the first two conversations, which took place at the Governor’s Mansion in Oklahoma City and at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zipping from one to the other, I saw firsthand that imagination is spreading—and I was proud to be a contagion.

The OKC conversation sported a remarkable roster of panelists: CEO Cliff Hudson, State Senator Clark Jolley, newspaper publisher Mary Mèlon, medical researcher Steve Prescott, composer Jerod Tate, and university president Roger Webb. I don’t have space here to transmit the full body of their wisdom, but I will say a few words about Hudson, who runs the drive-in food chain Sonic Corporation and whose career settles all doubts about whether imagination has a place in the business world. Continue reading