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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Rigor versus Creativity: Are they mutually exclusive?

The Singapore local system prides itself for its "rigorous" program. And if you've ever looked at the exam papers for primary school kids on this island, you'll be amazed at the level of rigor. The word problems involve a tremendous amount of conceptual complexity, multiple steps, and hard calculations. The exams that these kids take are hard.

Firstly, let's clarify what we mean by rigor. It's all the rage in education circles around the world, and the East certainly prides itself in the rigor that it offers kids. Rigor, I think, refers to three things:

  • The level of challenge of the problems/tasks/assessments that kids are expected to do.
  • The level of precision and quality expected of kids, especially when it comes to basic skills like mathematical problem solving, critical reading, and analytical writing. 
  • In order to ensure that kids can meet academic challenges and display strong academic skills, a rigorous education often requires teachers to explicitly teach concepts, assign homework, and provide detailed feedback. Rigor involves lots of practice with the goal of mastery. Rigorous education is often associated more with traditional exam-focused instruction than with constructivist project-based progressive education.
One look at Singapore's exam system for sixth graders is proof of its rigor.

But what about creativity? The major criticism leveled at the Singaporean exam system -- and perhaps any exam system -- is its lack of creativity. Exams are the antithesis of creativity because they require students to provide the answers that the examiner is looking for. There's no room for questioning or original thought or experimenting on an exam, not even on a well-designed exam. 

What does a creative system look like: it's open-ended and exploratory. Kids ask questions of their own, they design and create, they work on collaborative group projects and presentations that involve multiple disciplines and a range of skills. In an English class, kids might write poems and act out a range of interpretations of a dramatic scene; in a Science class, they ask questions and design their own experiments; in a math class, they discuss various strategies with group members to solve a math problem. The US, known for constructivism and progressive education, embraces these kinds of creative projects. 

And these projects are great -- they inspire kids, they get kids excited, they teach kids to work together and ask questions, they give kids the freedom to innovate or experiment...so what's the problem? The problem is that without a rigorous skill based education, these constructivist projects might end up being superficial and shallow. They focus more on giving a kid broad exposure and less on ensuring mastery.

If kids don't have strong skills and lots of rich content knowledge, they might end up just skimming the surface and not really learning anything deep. Without a rigorous skill-focused education, kids' reports and projects might involve sloppy writing and bad grammar; when they read, they might focus more on their feelings and less on actual literary analysis. Additionally, they will almost certainly have weak math foundations full of gaps; it's really hard to gain a strong math foundation without a systematic, sequential, and rigorous program. And as any student can tell you, group projects often mean that a few kids do all the work and learn a lot, while the other kids do very little and learn nothing. So yes, they offer creativity and inspiration, and kids certainly learn a lot from well-designed projects and explorations, but constructivism is not perfect either.

So, here's my question: why can't an education provide kids with both academic rigor and creative freedom?  Why can't we teach basic skills and core content-- critical reading, analytical writing, mathematical problem solving, core science content -- in a rigorous, more traditional way, but ALSO give kids sufficient time and space to pursue projects, engage in open-ended discussions of literature, write their own poetry, and design their own experiments? Why can't we do both? Why do educators and education systems pit rigor and creativity against each other, instead of agreeing that both have value, and that in fact, they can complement each other?

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