Creativity at the Heart of Progressive Education

Suzanne Atkins, Director of Sparhawk Lower School

Creativity at the Heart of Progressive Education

by Suzanne Atkins, Director of Sparhawk Lower School

Our global world is rapidly changing and we have no idea what it will look like five years from now, let alone when our students will be adults.  As the educational pendulum has swung radically over the last thirty years, one is left to question what truly is best practice. How then can we best prepare our children for the unpredictability of the future?

As with many ideologies, extremism is often not the answer and particularly in a time of rapid change and growth. At Sparhawk we believe that progressive education is not just one thing, but a fabric of interwoven beliefs that support and complement one another. One core belief that drives our mission is that of creativity.  To some this word may simply conjure up artists, and while we have a high regard for and a very strong arts program, in reality tapping into one's creativity is at the heart of all learning within progressive education.

In an age where many schools are forced to squelch creativity as teachers are pressured to teach to a test, (Do Schools Kill Creativity - Ken Robinson) at Sparhawk we are doing the opposite.  We are celebrating the process, we are excited about what mistakes can teach us and our students not only use their creativity as a vehicle to learning, but also as a way of showing their learning.  There is often no one right way and so we value the individual’s desire and ability to do things differently and not as necessarily prescribed. This is true in all areas of focus where we foster the innovative spirit and a willingness to face challenges, make mistakes, think creatively and approach questions and issues from multiple perspectives. These qualities can only spring from a creative mindset (The Power of Progressive Education: Can Creativity be Taught? | The New School).

From an early age, children ask thousands of “why” questions. We respond with, “what do you think” or “how can we find out?” We want to foster this intellectual audacity from a very early age. We also greatly value play and ample time outdoors. Children are intrinsically motivated to explore and to experiment.  Just watch our third graders building a city in the sand box, there is intent in the process and careful thought put into the integrity of the structures. Witness the fourth graders digging a long trench in order to divert the water flow in certain ways. No one asked them to take on these tasks and yet they attend themselves with great concentration and commitment to the task. There are social roles being played out in the process as well, negotiating responsibilities and taking turns at leadership. Back in the classroom, their joy in learning continues in collaboration, experimentation and hands on experiences.

On the lower school campus one of the greatest examples of how creativity plays out every week is when the Kindergarten through Fifth Graders gather in their “family” groups to explore the year long theme, which this year is Connections. Weekly a pair of teachers put a tremendous amount of time and energy into creating an experience that will lead to student inquiry and which will naturally include multiple disciplines while students are asked to figure questions out through “doing”. Never the same and always deeply interactive, these experiences are often among the most memorable. Recently we had a fourth grade student visiting from another school who was here during theme time.  At the end of the day, he reported that never had he enjoyed a day at school so much and that he could not believe how much he learned in one short day, especially at theme time. Creative education at its best!