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Arizona Stories from School: Want Creativity? Scrap the Tests

Despite the stereotype that teachers spend the last few weeks showing movies, I find the opposite to be true at my school. As I walk through the hallways on my prep period, I see classes bursting with creative energy. Out in the courtyard, kids are testing their paper airplanes to see which ones can do the most flips, soar the longest, and go the furthest. In one room, I see students working putting final touches on movie previews for books that they have read. In a third room, a teacher is doing a Shark Tank style project based upon a design thinking framework I had helped her create.

It feels like a different school than what I saw three or four weeks ago. At the time, teachers were stressed. Students were checked out. Classes were doing last minute prep work for the standardized tests — completely packet after packet of sample questions. Not every class fit this description but it was the norm. Engagement was plummeting and creativity was almost non-existent (often hiding in the doodles kids were making in the margins of test prep packets).

This place feels different right now. It’s the time of year when kids naturally “check out” and yet . . . I see engagement. I see creativity. I see design projects and science experiments and lively discussions on articles they have read. It’s not perfect. We still have the end-of-the-year fights between students. We still have teachers feeling exhausted. However, despite all of this, engagement is up.

I bring this up because I often hear people say things like “teachers are just stuck in their ways.” We see outside consultants talking about the need for innovation. There’s a lot of buzz around Sir Ken Robinson — the eloquent knight in shining armor who will tell us what we need to do to make our schools creative.

And yet . . .

We have the creative potential right here in our schools. What we lack are the policies that support it. Contrast the instruction before and after the testing season and you’ll see innovation. You’ll see creative lessons. You’ll see teachers taking risks at project-based learning. Once the environment becomes “low stakes,” there is a permission to experiment. Engagement skyrockets. Creativity thrives. And the only difference is the policy.

In other words, if you want to develop creative schools, you have to give teachers the permission to be creative. If we take the testing away (or even if we took away the high-pressure accountability metrics) you will see schools developing, in a grassroots movement, into creative spaces. True, some teachers will be overly traditional. But that won’t be the norm, because that’s not the norm right now. All it takes is a walk through my school on a mid-May prep period for me to see evidence that creativity thrives when the tests are over.

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John Spencer

John Spencer has been a teacher coach and a classroom teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, for several years. He has written five books, including: Pencil Me In, an alleg...