Friday, December 14, 2007

Stifling Creativity: A Cultural Thing?

I pose the title as a question as I'm hoping this post may provoke some conversation and alternate viewpoints. I'm hoping for thought-provoking dialog rather than diatribes about how awful that I'd even make the suggestion. The topic on my mind, after our recent excellent craft making and purchasing experience is creativity.

In fact, this month there is an interesting article in Jordan Business about innovation and creativity. I will admit, though, that I think their solution is placing emphasis far too late. SO, let me start at the beginning...

A couple of weeks ago, we were at ButterBean's school making crafts to be sold in the bazaar we attended yesterday. During the craft making fair (an excellent idea to get parents involved), ButterBean and I made a snowman, a Christmas tree, and a Christmas Card. It was an interesting dynamic to watch how the various parents interacted and what type of role they took in this process.

Making the snowman consisted of taking small plastic bowling pins, putting glue all over them and pushing on cotton balls. Then eyes, mouths, buttons, coats, and scarves were glued on. A few of the parents seemed very concerned with getting it "right". They took over and basically did the entire exercise for their child, letting them pick up the eyes and put on the buttons, but that's about all. For me, I helped ButterBean hold the bowling pin and get the glue onto the applicator. that's about it. As a result, we ended up with a snowman with slightly wonky eyes (one about 1 inch higher than the other) which were close to falling off. We also ended up with a cape instead of a coat as Butterbean's creative little mind said a cape would be more fun. When we finished, the snowman was placed into a table with the other ones for sale at the bazaar. ButterBean was quite sad that we weren't taking it home with us. But, never fear, I had already planned to buy it at the bazaar. And, given it's wonky appearance and the cape, it would be easy enough to identify, right?

We moved over to the clay Christmas-tree making station. On this one, ButterBean wanted me to take the lead, so I did so. I crafted a tree while ButterBean made calls and such to add. After the tree was done, I offered to make a star for the top. However, ButterBean was adamant that she wanted an angel. So, an angel I made. It was a sweet little thing with wings and a harp (yes imagine a tiny little harp less that 1/4" tall) perched atop the tree. Again we placed it with the others and again it was quite unique and easily identified amongst the star topped trees.

Finally we moved to the card-making table. For this activity, the teachers had cut out most of the necessary shapes leaving the kids to tear one paper (to make grass) and glue the shapes onto the card. They were also able to add glitter. So, again I helped ButterBean with the glue. (Writer's Note: by now you are wondering why I talked about stifling creativity, aren't you? It's coming right now, I promise.) As we were down to the final touches, I asked ButterBean what color glitter she wanted to use on the moon and stars, gold or green. The teacher who was facilitating this table leaned over and said, "Oh we're using gold for the stars and green for the grass." You know, each of these children has years and years and years ahead of them facing inestimable pressure to conform to others' ideas about everything from hairstyles, to clothes, to the color of glitter to be used on stars. You'd think that, at this most creative age, every possibility would be open. In the Bean household, trees are as likely to be pink as green and brown. Monkeys are purple and people are blue (and every other color). After all, I only hope that my children can imagine a world where all of the colors mix together any which way.

** Warning tangent ahead**
What if Picasso (and none of my kids is Picasso, I can assure you) had been raised believing that people couldn't be blue? What if his teachers had insisted that people look like people?
** End of tangent**

So, ButterBean actually wanted the moon and stars to have gold glitter, so that's what she put. But instead of following the "pattern" for the grass, I made grass the way I would normally draw grass (three little gather lines that intersect at the bottom) and had ButterBean drop the green glitter on those. Our end product mostly conformed, but was just a tad unique.

All in all, I was quite pleased with our artistic efforts. They were half-formed, had drunken angles, and generally looked like a Kindergartner had made them. I was terribly pleased that the bazaar was scheduled for right after I came back from the US, not while I was gone. And then it happened...

I dropped by the bazaar shortly after it opened to ensure no one else would buy our wonderful offerings. only, they weren't there! I looked and looked at the Christmas trees and none had an angel perched atop it. I moved on to the snowman and there were no capes. Confused I looked again and the teachers manning the booths helped. Then they said the fateful words... the art teacher had "improved" some of the crafts we made. I guess he made them "right" to her way of thinking. And, what message did that send to any kids in the position of mine? Well, frankly, it says that their creativity wasn't good enough and their efforts fell short. We didn't buy a tree and ButterBean picked a snowman, but it had lost its meaning. I can't say now, oh that's the snowman ButterBean made when she was in KG. Future years, it will be the snowman that she might have made... The only thing that was actually identifiable was the card we made with the unique grass. So, I feel like we missed out on an opportunity to carry on the memories of the craft making session in tangible form. The things that most reflected ButterBean were made unrecognizable by someone's "improvement" efforts. Maybe she just doesn't get that I want the one with wonky eyes and a cape because that's what my beautiful angel created. I would have been happy to pay for the items and take them home the day we made them. i would have been pleased to pay in advance and let them put them out with a sold sign. I just wanted to be able to take home the exact items exactly the way we made them.

In the end, I see this early stifling of individuality to be a symptom of the overall educational challenge in Jordan. Instead of focusing on imagination and creativity and self-expression, the system is geared towards conformity and doing it "right." The end result is groups of college graduates who are unable to structure coherent thoughts, who copy others' words and string together their ideas without attributing proper credit, and who can't make a convincing argument (I even had one say to me "what do you mean copyright violations?" when I commented that his work was one big copyright violation, after all he'd gotten 8/10 for this in his college course (I assure you he would have gotten an F for plagiarism in the US)). They focus on the "right" answer rather than the best answer among many right answers. And, as we face hiring against this educational backdrop, we look for graduates of American schools, not because the learning is better, but because it's more applicable and less conformity focused. In this real world we live in, there are very few right answers and lots of good choices. For Jordan to advance, it must overcome this shortcoming. But, back to my original question, is it a cultural thing?

Happy creativity!


At 4:50 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

How sad is that! I would have said something to the teacher about that one. I would have wanted my child's creation as well, with wonky eyes and blue hair, etc. I have noticed the same issues at our kids' school. The parents always take over the projects and make them 'just right!' I always let my kids do what ever they wanted with the crafts. It is definately a sign of the mentality here. I have even heard the art teacher making suggestions for my children's work. "You should have put this there, etc." This is art right? Plus it is graded here. If you don't follow the example, you fail.

At 6:55 AM , Blogger Sam said...

I am not surprised by this at all...ziad had to redo his homework for the letter 8 the other day because instead of doing it a figure 8 he put 2 circles on top of each other...hmmmmmm who is to say which is way is right??
i am sorry that your dd's snowman was altered..:(

At 8:07 AM , Blogger MommaBean said...

Nicole and Sam, Thanks for your commiseration. I'm sorry that you both have additional examples. Maybe the government should focus on this in its bid to increase the amount of R&D in the country. research depends on a lively curiosity and the ability to create something from nothing, not the ability to follow a pattern...

At 6:17 AM , Blogger CancunCanuck said...

Oh that made me sad, I wanted to see the Bean creations! Max is still only a preschooler so I haven't experienced anything like that and I sure hope we don't. I encourage him to be creative and yes, we often have pink grass and orange skies but I don't care, it's HIS pink grass and orange skies, why stop him from getting his artistic groove on?!

Now I'm curious to see what the Mexican education system is going to bring me. I hope this was only a blip in your experience, stand your ground mommabean!

At 11:52 PM , Blogger UmmFarouq said...

I am afraid this is part of the intrinsic mentality when it comes to what is 'beautiful' here.

I remember we had a Syrian Art teacher at my kids' school in the US. I used to be baffled when I'd walk down the halls to see 2nd graders' pictures of crayon houses and trees marked with "B-" or "C+". All of us parents used to complain to no end to get rid of the 100% subjective art teacher.

And then we moved here. And the subjectivity became crystal clear. There are set 'ways' to make things beautiful, appear beautiful, etc., and if you don't conform, you just ain't beautiful. This is not part of the great artistic legacy of the Arabs; this is a new thing. And what it is doing is "uglyfying," for lack of a better (or real) word, this country that is truly brimming with potential beauty.

*stepping off soap box now*


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