Children in Crisis; Drill & Kill

When my children were very young I remember them asking a lot of questions. “Why?” After a while that word nearly drove me mad. Then one day I sat down and thought about “Why”.

Why can't I catch the water?

Guess what? They were curious about the things that surrounded them; the things they could not understand but saw or felt every day. Why does the wind blow? Why is the sky blue? Why don’t the stars fall down? Why do caterpillars become butterflies? Why is the snow white? Why is the rain wet? All children ask “Why”; it’s when they stop asking that they are in trouble. I still ask questions, having been allowed to do this most of my life. My sons still ask questions.

It seemed natural that children would be asking “Why” nearly every waking moment. Research indicates that pre-school children ask as many as 100 questions a day. It asserts that by the time they reach middle school they stop asking questions and this coincides with the time their motivation and interest plummet. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman state in their Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, “They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.”

We send our children off to school when they are 6 so they can get answers to their questions. Why are they coming back to us with the light of excitement gone from their eyes? I’ll tell you why (no pun intended), it’s called “Drill and Kill”.

What is “Drill and Kill” learning?

The “Drill” is learning designed for rote memorization and National test results based upon answering the multiple choice questions correctly. The Drill part is the insanely boring educational practices we have adopted in our American curriculum. Teachers are required to teach a standard curriculum from a textbook and chalkboard. The students are required to memorize the answers to questions that may be asked on the tests administered by the teachers or National Boards. If they pass the tests they are advanced to the next grade level and the school gets high marks for teaching to the test.

The “Kill” part is insidious. It quietly creeps into the psyche of the children and wraps itself around their boredom and they become disinterested. They quit asking questions because they realize their questions don’t matter; what matters is the right answer to the question on the test. They die inside accepting the process because they don’t know any better and there is no reward in asking questions.

What is Problem-Based learning?

This is a curriculum driven by real world inquiry. It’s about the “Why” they began asking when they were old enough to talk. It is about having children solve problems in their classroom courses that require them to develop solutions to dilemmas they confront in the real world. It is about improving life through creative thinking, not through memorization. For example, when our sons asked why the heart beats they went with our home school teacher to the local slaughter company and asked for a cow’s heart, which they gave them in a neat package. They brought it back and dissected it in order to discover the answers to their questions. This led them to an array of more questions and more discoveries; arteries, veins, pumps, blood, chambers, etc., and pretty soon we had an anatomy class going strong. This then led them into healthy hearts, nutrition, gardening, food preparation, herbs, and then into vitamins and minerals. I discuss this in Peek-A-Boo, I See You!

The problem was how does a heart beat? They solved the question by their investigation and creative thinking process. Creativity does not just exist in an art class. It is rampant throughout the educational process, but rarely used. Fact finding and research are vital stages in the creative process. Think about this. How do creative thinkers solve problems in any skill? They first have to ask the question; then they research what exists; they accumulate the facts; finally, after research and fact-finding, they create alternative solutions to problems they are trying to solve.

There is a public middle school in Akron, Ohio called the National Inventors Hall of Fame School. Like all states, Ohio has curriculum standards. Their fifth grade teachers came up with a project for the class. Read below an excerpt from the Newsweek article:

The key is in how kids work through the vast catalog of information. Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders:

PROBLEM: Figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals. (emphasis mine)

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, Principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

Creativity in children is about divergent thinking, generating many unique ideas, and convergent thinking, combining those ideas into the best result for the solution to the problem. Creativity is the production of original ideas that are useful. Children have the most amazing ability to craft the most creative ideas to any problem they encounter. They are fresh, innocent, and have no preconceptions. They are naturally enthusiastic and filled with excitement and energy.

Free our teachers from curriculum based standards that offer little room for creativity and turn them loose into standards that allow them to promote creativity in their students. I’ll bet teachers would become more enthusiastic and creative about their courses. Their students would become excited again about learning, working in groups, and competing.

Americans love competition!

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  1. July 12, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

    • August 6, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      There is so much more coming up. Thanks for reading my posts! It feeds my passion for children and education!

  2. July 31, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

    • August 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm

      There is more coming about our deplorable system. Stay tuned and thanks for your encouragement.

  3. August 9, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

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