Time to Assess for Creative Thinking

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.29.03 PMDr. Goodman is the Head of School at Andrews Osborne Academy in Willoughby, Ohio, and has over twenty years of experience in education, including Head of School at The Lillian and Betty Ratner School and the Director of Strategic Programming at Laurel School for Girls. At Laurel School, he was Co-Director of the Center for Research on Girls which develops research based curricula on how girls learn best. Dr. Goodman has also held the position of Dean and English Teacher at The Latin School of Chicago and Adjunct Instructor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, teaching English Composition. Additionally, Dr. Goodman is a member of the Board of Directors for the Ohio Association of Independent Schools. He has also been on the board of the MetroHealth Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Dr. Goodman holds Doctorate and Master degrees in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Bucknell University where he graduated magna cum laude.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  We might think of this as the ancient Greek version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (although there it is the presence of the observer that defeats the act of “knowing,” not the inherent change within the object and subject). And as every good teacher knows, change complicates the teaching/learning dynamic. The more change there is in and around the object of study, the more difficult it is to teach…and to learn.

Today we live in a world of relentless change; the current of Heraclitus’ metaphorical river has never been fiercer. We read that fully 50% of what a student learns in a technical major in college is outdated by that student’s third year; national boundaries seem to be perpetually in flux; technology is continually changing the access we have to “knowledge”; “innovation” has replaced “sustainability” as the watch-word for the future. Surely this must lead to dramatic changes in education. Well, maybe not – but that’s the problem.

The “gold standard” for thought in our classrooms has always been critical thinking. Independent schools produce students with highly refined intellectual skills – grounded in the ability to break a concept or idea down into its component pieces, understand the mechanics and significance of each piece, and then be able to reassemble the whole in its original form or in relation to some other known concept or idea. Cultivating this kind of thinking – critical thinking – remains as fundamental to our educational operation today as it has ever been. The only problem is, critical thinking is no longer enough.

As Heraclitus’ river rages through our postmodern world, it should be forcing significant changes to how we assess our students. After all, if innovation is the key – if adaptability to an ever-changing knowledge landscape is crucial – then we need to be teaching the skills necessary for innovation and adaptability…and assessing for them.

Rhetorically, many independent schools are “on board” with all of this. Just read their websites. But in fact, to a one they remain unchanged in the key area of assessment. That is, they all continue to assess exclusively for critical thinking. Where are the schools that are actually assessing for creative thinking?

Already in the 50’s and 60’s Prof. Ellis Torrance, at the University of Georgia, was establishing creative thinking as a valid – and distinct – mode of thought. The metric he created to measure creative thinking, the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, is a well-established psychometric instrument that has been translated in 38 languages. And as the more recent work of Prof. Sternberg shows very convincingly, any measure of a person’s intelligence has to take creative thinking into account (see Sternberg’s “triarchic model of intelligence”).

Why aren’t we teaching – and assessing for progress in – creative thinking as well as critical thinking?

We will not succeed in cultivating our students’ intellectual profiles in the ways that will be necessary for them to succeed in our world of change until we incorporate meaningful and significant grading of their creative thinking abilities into our schools. I am suggesting that we issue two grades for every student – in every class. One grade is for critical thinking – this is the tried-and-true content mastery grade that has been part of our schools forever. The second grade is for creative thinking – the grade that reflects the student’s ability (or growth over time) in the areas of comfort with ambiguity; imagining unique and useful outgrowths of the subject matter at hand; accepting multiple answers to all problems as the status quo.

The rhetoric about “outside the box thinking” on the websites is great – poetic, even. But until the school puts its money where its mouth is – begins to give grades that reflect the skill set necessary for outside-the-box thinking – the rhetoric will be little more than fodder for advertising campaigns.

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