Does Your School Hinder Creativity?

school hallway

Imagine one day you come to school after working hard on an essay only for your teacher to tell you that it is trash and you need to go back and rewrite it. You think to yourself, “rewrite it? But I just spent all night working on it? It was great when I turned it in.” You go back and work on it again and when you turn it back in the teacher marks it up again. You can not figure out what is going wrong so you turn to your friend in class and ask them to look it over. They tell you it’s not in the format and outline the teacher wants. You get mad that the teacher didn’t say that, or least you didn’t pay attention or read the instructions, and so you blame it on the teacher for not explaining it clearly. You write the essay again in the format required and end up getting a B- because it was turned in late. You are happy and move on with your life.

The example above is one that many students experience over and over everyday in school. It is the reason so many students lose interest in certain subjects because they didn’t follow directions or the teacher was not clear enough, or in some cases the teacher is only looking for a certain format. Any student in English class will lose interest in the art of writing after going through an experience like that because they learn that writing should only be formatted a certain way instead of a form that expresses how the author thinks and feels. Take that similar feeling and imagine the number of students each day who lose hope in ever getting good at math because they keep getting bad grades. Not all students are proactive enough to seek out help and in many cases they are waiting for someone to come and help them.

That is the case for many students at all levels of school. Not everyone is a leader and not everyone will seek out help. Students gauge their level of skill on the type of grades they get not really knowing that they have the ability to get better, if only someone provided them with support. So what about the super-achievers at school? The ones that want to impress and show off their talents? Where do they end up? Many of the overachievers get the support they need in class and at school because they know to speak up and raise their hands and attend after school help. They seek out the resources they should be using and take advantage of them. But what happens to that one student who gets punished because the understanding of one teacher, or teachers, mistook their amazing efforts for something terrible? What does that do to a child’s psyche and self-esteem? A lot of damage actually.

The Teachers at Schools in America
Teachers in America do not have to have the most rigorous training or educational achievements in order to teach in a K-12 classroom, infact, math teachers in majority of places do not have to have any kind of college math training or degree in order to teach math at the highschool level. This is why most high school coaches teach math and science, aside from the fact that they don’t have to throw any kickbacks to the math and science teachers to keep their athletes grades up in order to play, because they already have a certificate in addition to a education degree to teach in a school. I do need to point out that many schools are changing the requirements but for majority of them, which are public schools, they do not require more than a state teaching certificate and degree in college, most likely an education degree.

If math teachers are not required to study math in college than what does that say of the requirements for other teachers in their subjects? Do English teachers need to have read all the books they are required to teach in school or do they only need to know how to write and create curriculum lessons as long as they have a degree in education? The sad thing is that the college of education at most universities in America are the dumping grounds of the students who can not make it in any of the harder degree fields. Infact, the requirements for a degree in education are so simple that even the college students themselves take it because they know it is a knock-off degree that will get them a paying job after college. Of course little do they know, because they don’t bother to actually study, the economy is flooded with education degrees making them more worthless than they already are.

Don’t forget these are the same people that will be teaching your children study skills and the importance of getting an education later on. Scared yet? The challenge with that is that most teachers do not have the versatility in education to understand all the subjects students are learning in school and this is where problems arise.

Why Finland and East-Asian Countries Produce the best students
They do not mess around when it comes to education. Here is an example of what that means in South Korea: on the day of the exam that determines where seniors in high school will go after they graduate, police, airports, and transportation services all ensure that students do not have any distractions – this means no planes flying overhead during exam time, no traffic congestion so police block off and reroute traffic away from schools, and taxis offer free rides so students can get to school on time before their exam. That is what a nation, dedicated to providing a proper role model for students, does to show how important education is.

School days there are long so that means students learn to get along better with everyone but that is not everything. When the majority of the day ends the students change clothes and start cleaning their school. This very behavior teaches students to appreciate and take care of the very place that will give them a nice future. They are required to mop, sweep, clean, and take out the trash. That very dedication to taking care of the school lowers the costs for so many things that the school doesn’t have to worry about. Students notice more things than a regular janitor would so if there is a light broken somewhere then a student can go and fix that right away. After they are done cleaning they all go to the cafeteria and have dinner together and when that is over they head back to class until it is time to go and study with their independent tutor schools. There is a strong focus on studying and parents make every effort to ensure that students get all the help they need but also that the teachers teaching each class have proven themselves worthy to teach. Infact, the independent tutors work on a capitalist system which means that the higher demand for one teacher from students means more pay. You can read about how this teacher gets paid just as much as people in silicon valley because of his excellent teaching skills. These high standards coupled with students taking care of their schools produce high quality students.

Finland, on the otherhand, has made it a point to ensure that any teacher in front of any class has gotten the best training the top universities have to offer. The top job to have in their country is a teacher, whereas, kids in the US are told that the top job to have is to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Students respect their teacher because they understand how hard it was for them to even get in front of that class and teach. It is about the same amount of training that a doctor in America would receive, if not more. This is why they tend to be number 1 in the world in terms of producing the smartest students in the world.

Finland is the top role model in getting students to understand how important an education is and to understand what you want to do with it. How many schools like that exist in America? Chances are you would have to attend a private school to come even close to what Finland offers for free to all their students. Infact, students there have more freedom to do things on their own than in South Korea and America.

So why can’t schools in America strive to be the best?
The simple answer: paranoia from parents, politics and bureaucracy. Education is always ignored and the education budget is always the first on the chopping block.

Poor Education Leads to Terrible Mistakes
Students in schools take for granted that their teachers are always there to help them. Many students like to show off and impress their teachers because it makes them feel good about themselves and what they are able to do but it also is a way for someone in the same area of interest to acknowledge what they have accomplished. Unfortunately the lack of education on one teacher can have devastating consequences on a student. In this case the situation with Ahmed Mohamed is a perfect example of what happens when a teacher, in this case an Engineering and English teacher, were not able to determine whether a device is a bomb or just a clock.

Let’s look closer at what could have caused this problem. Ahmed said that he showed the clock he made to his engineering teacher who was very impressed but showed concern. It might confuse someone else that a student with a certain type of name and skin color might cause some problems. That part is assumed. In this case it lead to a huge problem with a student being arrested because a teacher, a high-school teacher at that, was not able to decipher correctly that an engineering project was a threat. What could cause a teacher to not understand the significance of what this student at his age, 14, was able to accomplish? Lack of science, tech, and engineering background. If you build and tinker with stuff all the time you will quickly learn what wires are used for what, how clocks are actually made, in this case a digital clock, and what all goes into a project like this. You would also know that in order to make a bomb of that size, some chemistry will be needed but in this case there were no liquids, radio controller, moving parts, external power source, or anything contained except the clock board and some circuits.

Does someone need to study these things in college in order to understand this kind of complex stuff? No, actually it was the same stuff I learned in middle and high school so it is not like a special background in this stuff is necessary. I attended an engineering high school where we were always building things and taking them apart and putting them back together and never once did I ever feel scared that a teacher would mistake what my friends and I were doing as something wrong. It takes experience and education in order to create a safe learning environment where students are pushed further.

In the case of Ahmed, it was his English teacher that got frustrated with the fact that his alarm clock was going off in class and took it away from him out of fear that it was a bomb. Teachers now are required to report any kind of disturbance or suspicious behavior to the office and alert the police. In this case the teacher’s lack of understanding caused Ahmed to be arrested at his school wearing something that only dedicated students of science and tech would wear, a NASA t-shirt.

So what is going to happen to Ahmed’s English teacher? The one responsible for all this mess? Are there going to be any consequences for their behavior and lack of science education? The simple answer is nothing will happen to a poorly educated English teacher. They will continue on with their job teaching more students in the coming years. Sad right? A student gets suspended and arrested but nothing to the teacher, why? Politics and school bureaucracy, plain and simple. Union rules make it extremely difficult to fire teachers but Michelle Rhee knows how to do it the right way. Those same union rules also make it difficult to fire a teacher who has had sexual relations with a student.

Lack of Education lands Trip to Google, Facebook, NASA, MIT, and the White House
In many cases this situation has shown a bright light on a student that would have otherwise had to have proven themselves the regular way like most students. If not for the lack of education by the English teacher Ahmed would never have been invited to the White House;

Mark Zuckerberg would never have known who this teenager was from Irving Texas,

and MIT and it’s student body would never have worked hard to create their own clock

and invite him out for a campus tour.

Google even saved him a seat with a complete invitation to their science fair.

The CEO of Box has invited Ahmed out to tour their company.

The whole world has taken notice of all the cool projects and gadgets that Ahmed has been creating for years, all for his love of science, technology, and engineering. The English and Engineering teachers are examples of people that are considered obstacles to student’s careers and for many high school students they would have lost their interest in what they love to do because of someone else’s poor judgement. It is great to know that Ahmed will be transferring to a school that will encourage and reward his creative endeavors but now that the top names in science, engineering, and technology know who he is, it won’t be hard for him to land a job right after college. Many top tech companies have already offered him an internship, including Twitter itself.

If Ahmed takes up all the offers he has been given his high school years will be unlike anything a typical teenager gets to do. He will have access to so many amazing people and places that he will be a role model for other teenagers to follow. Ahmed could easily build this into a program that helps more students connect to the top people and companies in the world by encouraging them to follow their passion in STEM programs. If I was Ahmed I would talk with all the people who invited me, build trust and raise funds to start outreach programs to get more students into building things and learning about how they can help their community.

The support from the science community, especially NASA and scientists has been amazing.

NASA sent out a tweet about all its programs for students

Ahmed was invited to the Toronto show Generator. which is a science-based variety show on Oct 28th and many supporters have offered to pay for his flight and hotel.

Former Astronaut Mark Kelly even tweeted his support for Ahmed

The outpouring of support from companies, institutions, and people show that they have to pick up the slack that schools still can not do on their own. They showed their encouragement to Ahmed because it is important not to kill any interest a child has in what they love to do. The world needs critical thinkers as well as STEM people too. It is even harder to find programs that combine both. The sad thing though is that schools love bureaucracy so much that it hinders the kind of help students actually get in school. For many public schools they are simply a place for adults to have a job and nothing more.

Why Schools Kill Creativity
Sir Ken Robinson gave one of the greatest TED talks on this topic explaining how and why schools kill creativity. Surprisingly enough many schools have done very little to fix this problem since his famous talk, instead, forcing more students to study in the areas that kill creativity. The hard part about creativity is that it is a very abstract thing to teach but it can be taught but only by those who know how to get the best out of students. In the book, Creating Innovators, the author, Tony Wagner, explains that the very teachers that produce the most innovative students are never considered for tenure at their universities because of politics and bureaucracy. Instead of changing the rules and encouraging more of these teachers, universities still focus heavily on professors that can bring in more research money instead of producing high quality students that have already proven how they will change the world. It is that backwards way of thinking in the higher education institutes that hurts students in the long run.

The other issue is teaching to the test that all teachers are forced to deal with. Many say that it limits their time and ability to get students interested in their subject because they have to make sure they cover certain topics every week in order to make sure they are on track for the test. That is one way of killing creativity for sure. The limits that teachers have on their time to teach hurts the future of this country because America is known as the powerhouse of innovation but how can you create innovators when you have to stick to a standardized level of learning. The students who are naturally smart and want to excel tend to get bored in their classes faster because there is nothing there for them to do. I remember in several of my classes in middle school and high school there were times when I had completed majority of the course work before it was even assigned and since the teacher didn’t know what to do with me I was just left to work on coursework from my other classes.

The teachers that are the best are the ones that push you past your limits and never give you the answer, even when you ask for it. They challenge you to try harder and they know when you need help and that is the only time they offer assist which is only after you have exhausted all your options. Students like Ahmed need learning environments that push him further and have the resources available for him to continue learning past what he already knows. The schools and universities that produce the best students are the ones that combine group work with multidisciplinary fields which focuses more on work than just reading.

This means that if you want students to learn chemistry then you need to give them more projects that require them to explore the properties. If you want students to learn Shakespeare then why not have them act it out in class instead of just students reading one paragraph at a time? You have to engage the students in creative ways that gets them to apply what they have read in order to see how it works. Ahmed has been doing this on his own for a long time and so when he goes to visit all the top Silicon Valley companies he will never want to leave because he will see people doing things that he wants to do right now.

Sir Ken Robinson wrote a book called, Creative Schools, in which he lays out an actionable plan that anyone in education can follow. The talk he gave is a way to inspire and motivate people to take action and his books provide all the resources and insight as to what people need to start doing. The rise in home-schooling has lead to a push-back of standardized testing but at the same time, many of those kids don’t come close to what exceptional kids have and that is, an internal motivation to really learn and create. It has been the case that I have met many parents who call their kids natural geniuses but in all my time working with kids it has been very difficult actually finding just a handful. Every parent calls their child naturally-gifted but that can not be true for every child and it is only the ones that create that set themselves apart from everyone else. I don’t care how high your test scores are, if you have nothing to show for how smart you are then you are just being selfish to the world.

Rewards and Positive Future
In the time since all this has happened to Ahmed, he has gained more support from people who realize there needs to be more of a push to help creative students. We need more critical thinkers so this means more people need to get a liberal arts education and on top of that we need more STEM people combined with entrepreneurial training. It is difficult to find schools that combine all three but they are out there like Olin College where students can build their own major and incorporate all areas of learning into the process of learning and building.

The engineer who can build something and see the complete impact of their product on the world at every level of the life-cycle process while at the same time determining if this will actually benefit the users and the environment are more important than the engineer who only knows how to build because they are told to do it by their employee.

It is great to see that Microsoft got in on the action of helping Ahmed by sending him an awesome swag box of tech goodies. The kind of tech goodies I would geek out on. If you click this link you can see the picture of all the stuff he got for being a science, engineering, and tech nerd. Microsoft sent a tweet saying they can’t wait to see what he creates with all of it. The number of invites shows that more students need to be encouraged as to what all is out there for students of STEM backgrounds.

Creating Enriching and Innovative Environments for Students
Freedom to Explore and Learn
Students need an environment that allows them to explore and find out how things work and where they come from. They need to know they can go out and attend events and meet people who will get them to see a new perspective in this world. I am always encouraging students that they need to attend as many events as they can in their city, especially SXSW and Startup programs. Students who explore on their own gain an advantage over students who can only do things with their parents around.

Watch lots of TV and Movies
The most creative people in the world work in Hollywood and if you want to see what kind of work they create, just turn on your TV or go to the movies and see. Peoples’ lives have been changed because of a movie or TV show. They are meant to touch and inspire people to see a different way of experiencing the world by what the writers, producers, directors, and actors create for everyone to see. The more you watch the more ideas you get.

Read a lot
The same can be said for books too. They open your mind to a creative world of imagination. The more you read about someone or something the more your mind begins to take on its own way of seeing things. Books are a gateway to the writers soul and when you see the works that people from the past to the present have created, you begin to see there is so many different ways to get inspired to create something. This also includes reading the news every morning.

Creative Teachers that Push students
These type of teachers are hard to find and they come in the form you least suspect. In the movie, Stand and Deliver, you have a teacher who came in and changed the lives of students who would have otherwise never gone to college. The amazing thing about what this teacher did was that he taught all his students to pass the AP calculus exam without a calculator, what teacher could do that today? Movies like The Power of One, Lean on Me, Spare Parts, Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, The Karate Kid, and McFarland, USA are all examples of great teachers pushing their students to do their best and showing them the natural gifts they have. Unfortunately the bureaucracy that is set up in schools do not reward the efforts these teachers make and that is why it is hard to find and keep them.

Connecting Students to Outside Opportunities
Students learn a lot of different things everyday at school but no where do they learn how to apply it in the real world except in class projects. Students need to be connected with programs outside their school that relate to what they are interested in doing and how that applies to the world. It is not enough to study and get good grades, students need to learn how to apply their knowledge. You need special teachers who will take the time to take students to programs that connect them with people who do what they love professionally.

Always on the look out for excellence
This part is hard to find in schools, even universities. Schools should always be on the look out for exceptional students who go beyond what is asked of them. Those are the students who need to be encouraged to work harder and learn more. When a school identifies a student like that and rewards them it raises their self-esteem and benefits the world later on.

Devotes time for Exploration and Play
Students need to know that they will have time to try out the things they are learning. They need to explore and play with stuff in order to see the issue they are covering from all sides. Play and exploration are the key components to creative learning. It engages the mind by taking what they are learning and allowing the student to see how it all fits together based on the projects they are doing.


Ahmed set off a firestorm of a debate about how students in schools should be treated for their natural talents. It is important for schools to teach students areas of interest that will help them later on in life. There is a rising trend of students from high school joining more trade schools and even coding schools because it means a shorter time in school and a higher paying job later on. They miss out on the fact that going to college is supposed to get you a well-rounded education, of course, that is for the students who truly apply themselves.

If you feel your school is not giving you the education you want and not providing you with the opportunities you thought you would get to have then you need to start looking at how you spend your time. How many student organizations are you apart of? How many internships have you done? What projects have you created on your own that relate to what you are studying? That should give you an idea of how you spend your time and once you start connecting with clubs and programs at your school the opportunities will open up. If your school doesn’t offer what you want, then start your own program or find a school that does.

Ahmed will have no problem picking what school he wants to attend and which company he wants to intern with and eventually work for. Like I said before, his options are wide open now so for every other student who has to do things the regular way, they just need to know that they need to start creating stuff that will show off their skills, as well as, help other people. I hope Ahmed is getting some good advice about how he should use his new fame.

 

News Articles

Family: Ahmed Mohamed, clock-making teen, transferring to another school

Here’s the ‘Bomb’ Clock That Got Ahmed Mohamed Arrested

Handcuffed for Making Clock, Ahmed Mohamed, 14, Wins Time With Obama

Ahmed Mohamed: No charges for boy, 14, arrested over clock

Facebook, Google roll out welcome mat to Ahmed Mohamed

Even NASA loves the teen arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school

Microsoft Seriously Hooked up Ahmed Mohamed After That Clock BS

They thought it was a bomb’: 9th-grader arrested after bringing a home-built clock to school

Why a ninth-grader’s arrest over a home-built clock struck a chord across America

#IStandWithAhmed: Scientists and the public surge to support boy arrested for homemade clock

How to Make Your Own Homemade Clock That Isn’t a Bomb

This teenager discovered a new planet on his third day at work

Tech companies Stand with Ahmed, offer the young inventor opportunities

NASA opportunities for students

Google Programs for Students

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