Creativity unstifled, skills untaught

In the New York Times story on Washington state’s math meltdown, a mother discovers her high-achieving sixth grader hasn’t been taught long division. A teacher explains, “We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.”

Erin O’Connor, a Penn English prof, warns parents to be vigilant about reading and writing skills too.

Are they learning grammar? Can they spell? Punctuate? Understand what they are reading? Most of the Ivy League English majors whose writing I grade have trouble in these areas, which suggests to me that most everyone their age does. I tend to assume that the students I see are among the most linguistically competent students of their generation — but there are still a lot of issues with things such as run-on sentences, comma splices, murky phrasing, limited vocabulary, dangling modifiers, spelling, and so on.

O’Connor taught high school English at a boarding school and “found that a great many students there had abysmal language skills.”

Some bordered on functional illiteracy. When I asked whether the school taught grammar at any point, the head of school told me that teaching grammar thwarted students’ creativity and stifled their interest in reading.

Creativity is overrated.

About Joanne


  1. I like to track the performance of our schools on the state reading and math tests (scores at the advanced level rather than merely percentage passing) and on the SAT. So far, I haven’t seen any deterioration suggesting that our approaches to math, reading and/or grammar are hurting our performance.

  2. That, of course, is assuming that the standards haven’t been lowered on the assessments… which, in the case of the SATs, has occured.

  3. *spluttering* They didn’t teach a kid long division because it would…stifle her creativity????

    What? What? What in the HELL does that have to do with anything? And frankly, when it comes to creativity-stifling, I think the peer pressure exerted around age 11 or so has a whole lot more to do with loss-of-creativity than the teaching of what are important life-skills.

    I suppose they’ll also say knowing how to balance a checkbook or do one’s taxes correctly is creativity-stifling.

    I’m sorry – I am SO SICK of the infantalization of our culture in the name of “keeping people creative” or “not lowering kids’ self-esteem.” Being a grown-up carries with it numerous responsibilities, some of which are neither fun nor creative. But doing them is part of being a grown-up.

    Aagh. I guess this is why I get college students who won’t do assignments because the single-page-of-questions-over-the-reading was “too hard.” They were afraid it would stifle their creativity.

  4. I teach Spanish level 1 and every year it worse when I begin topics such as — get this — nouns, adjectives and verbs. “Worse” in that I get questions like “What is a verb?”

    No joke.

  5. This math debate is an interesting one. I thought you’d be interested in the specifics we currently have on this topic. Math scores are dropping, but parents aren’t flinching. Overall, parental concern over math and science education has fallen since 1994, with 64% stating that math and science education is not a problem in their public school systems. In addition, 70% of those parents surveyed believe that their child’s high school is teaching the right amount of math and science. For more information on “Reality Check 2006,” go to

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I saved my creativity for forging excuses.

  7. I doubt if the average public K-12 teacher–especially the average public K-12 administrator–is himself a particularly creative person. Hence, their ideas about creativity and what it implies are likely to be rather muddy.

  8. My experience with my children’s public education is that teachers reward good behavior (i.e., if you are non-disruptive and submit work [regardless of quality] you earn grades higher than the work itself would justify.

    I think we should ask ourselves why this is (including parent and teacher/administrative motivations), how this disservices our students, and what it would take to change this. My opinion is that very few of us want to put forth the effort (on a personal and political level) to reverse this systemic problem.

  9. Speaking as someone who’s spent time working in two creative fields, music composition and software design, I say that NOT teaching the skills is what stifles creativity. When you encourage a person to dream great dreams and deprive them of the means to achieve them, you create someone who is cynical and apathetic. Sound like anyone you know under the age of 30?

  10. Hence, their ideas about creativity and what it implies are likely to be rather muddy.

    As I stated above, it’s not just rather muddy, it’s totally backwards.