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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are We Too Busy to Imagine...

By Peter DeWitt — March 28, 2013 6 min read
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Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

Many schools are approaching high stakes testing time. There is test anxiety...and then there is high stakes test anxiety. High stakes test anxiety includes teachers and parents as much as it includes students. In N.Y. state, we are getting ready to give student’s exams that are tied to the Common Core. Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz warned that our scores will go down. Basically, in leadership circles, it’s called an implementation dip.

This dip is happening in the same year that the tests are tied to teacher and administrator evaluation for the first time. As you can imagine, most N.Y. educators are concerned that if student scores are expected to lower, that teacher and administrator HEDI scores will certainly be lower. All of this is one more example of how fear has taken over teaching, and the state education department doesn’t seem to get it, or worse, they just don’t care.

The problem is that there is always an opportunity cost to these issues. In order to prep for the new Common Core exams, other more creative ventures get lost. Sure, there are many teachers who are trying to maintain a sense of creativity with their students, but there are others who are nervously following the next Common Core recipe book that they can find. It’s too bad that we are getting away from the sense of wonder and going toward resources that seem to offer no wonder at all.

Fostering a Literacy-Rich Environment
The focus of one of the latest #Satchat discussions on Twitter revolved around literacy practices in schools. Everyone had an opinion and many great ideas surfaced that could be used in any school. Participants asked important questions like:

As leaders, how do you foster literacy in your school?
What are some ways your school fosters a literacy-rich environment?

Many of us chimed in to give examples of how we focus on literacy in school. Perhaps we do readers’ theatres with staff of participate in the One School, One Book Program. Justin Staub, a social studies teacher in Pennsylvania, said he likes to offer non-U.S. books to his students to give them a different perspective. And, of course, many discussions revolved around the use of technology in reading.

From an adult perspective, it seems as though there are many children who are busy from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep. They are connected to the internet, gaming, playing multiple sports and never seem to get an opportunity to disconnect from their greater world.

As adults we know the importance of “sharpening the saw,” and probably don’t take enough time to do it. It’s no secret that Americans work hard and don’t often take time to relax. We still need to build in time to wonder, and our children do as well. Reading can be an important part of that. Great teachers build in opportunities for wonder every day. Everyone needs thinking time, whether it’s alone time in our home office, reading in a corner of a room or going out for a walk in nature. We are overstressed and need to take a step back.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
If you don’t understand the need for the arts, imagination or creativity, you have obviously never seen the children’s picture book, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer with words by Walt Whitman with illustrations by Loren Long. The book shows a young boy who enters the adult world by going to see a famous astronomer with his parents. When reading, and gazing at the illustrations, you can’t help but get lost in the wonder of the book.

Clearly, by the applause of the audience the speaker is engaging and informative. The adults are all mesmerized by the speaker and the lecture hall is sold out. However, nothing can keep the attention of the young boy like the outside world. Long is my favorite children’s illustrator and page after page shows Whitman’s words and follows the boy from a museum to a lecture hall to the outside world.

Whitman wrote:

When I heard the learn'd astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, To add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, Where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, And from time to time, Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars."

Are we at risk of losing this kind of wonder in schools? Are educators getting stuck pushing test prep after test prep, ditto after ditto, and becoming too concerned about being the teacher of record (TOR)? Too many schools focus on how everyone will be rated which includes teachers, administrators, and most importantly, our students.

Are principals pushing too hard to increase test scores and student performance when they should be pushing a literacy-rich environment?

Much of this pressure comes from the federal and state education departments. Have they forgotten what education is really about, which is providing a foundation of learning and helping students find their path in life. Where’s the happy medium between performance and creativity? Are schools being forced to make students read for understanding rather than foster a reading for enjoyment?

Recently, some school districts like New Paltz in the Hudson Valley region of New York are taking back their school so they can provide more creative experiences for their children. The New Paltz Board of Education created a resolution on high stakes testing.

The overreliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators’ efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote the innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and deep subject-matter knowledge that will allow students to thrive in a democracy and an increasingly global society and economy.”

More schools districts should create resolutions so they can bring back more opportunities for creativity.

Teacher Job Satisfaction
If I’m ever feeling drained or uninspired I just pick up Long’s book and it inspires my imagination. Do we offer children the same opportunities at school? Do teachers ever build in that time for themselves, whether it’s before or after school or during the day? Things are so busy these days, and according the most recent MetLife Survey, teachers are feeling stressed out and dissatisfied with their jobs.

In the Atlantic, Emily Richmond wrote, “

Factors contributing to lower job satisfaction included working in schools where the budgets, opportunities for professional development, and time for collaboration with colleagues have all been sent to the chopping block.

Stress levels are also up, with half of all teachers describing themselves as under great stress several days per week, compared with a third of teachers in 1985


Of course, this all has an effect on how students feel in the classroom as well. If the teachers are stressed, the students feel the stress as well, which sets up an unfortunate dynamic because students will not feel as they have time to reflect and wonder. And we all know, that reflection time and the ability to wonder is what sparks creativity.

Thinking Time
In these days of fitting more curriculum into the day, accountability and high stakes testing, there is a need to get things done, instead of a need to get things done right. Reading, writing and many other subject areas are seen as things to grade and not something to enjoy. We have rubrics, and find ways to fit in one more piece of evidence, instead of reading for the sake of reading, and writing for writing’s sake. Kids, and adults, need thinking time.

With all of these new demands we continue to lose our creativity. We need to find ways, within our present constraints, to take it back. Educators need to build in a sense of wonder, and administrators need to set a tone of creativity in the schools that they lead. That’s, at least, what I Heard from the Learn’d Astronomer.

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Long, Loren (2004). When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. Simon & Schuster

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.