Creativity in Children: Parodies of The Scream

Imagination is more important than knowledge –Albert Einstein

Art teacher Merry Lanker moved around the room reacting, commenting, helping fourth graders with their drawings, and drawing out the creativity in her students. On the smartboard in the front of the room was a photo of the Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” (1893).

The assignment Ms. Lanker had given them was: “Using oil pastels or colored pencils create your own unique and creative Scream parody that shows us why the figure is screaming… what is he/she scared of?” The final instruction was: “Come up with something NEW.”

Asking fourth graders to create a parody of one of the most highly acclaimed and studied works of art in the western world? What does the assignment say to the students?

It says: “I respect you.” It shows respect for children as humans with a brain capable of creativity. It says: “I see you as creative people who can relate to the adult world with empathy, imagination and thoughtfulness. I believe in your ability to create something humorous, meaningful and new.” Showing them this kind of respect tends to makes them sit up straighter in their chairs; it tends to cause them to rise to a challenge. A steady diet of this builds self-confidence and the habit of seeing any challenge as an opportunity. This was Merry’s notion of what it means to have high expectations for her students.

But is this what is normally meant when we talk about “having high expectations” for our students? Are these challenges related to the academic curriculum? How are these activities related to what we usually think of when we think of intelligence?

The 25 nine-year-olds in this inner city public school reacted with industry and enthusiasm regardless of their sense of their own competence as artists. When it comes to creative thinking most nine-year-olds are still brimming with enthusiasm. The opportunity to use their imagination to connect their life with the life of someone else is just sitting there waiting to be drawn into action. (All kids are artists until some judgment makes them feel incompetent.)

In three different schools Ms. Lanker has over 900 students each of whom has art for a scant half-hour a week. My concern isn’t so much that they get so little “art” but that these 900 students are expected to think creatively, use their imagination, translate their empathy into thoughtful action and develop their problem solving skills for only 30 minutes out of a 30-hour-week. Oh, I almost forgot about recess. Recess also gives them time to work on these critical life skills, so let’s make that 3 hours out of a 30-hour week that they learn to use their creative minds.

True. Perhaps my concern is premature. I have not visited enough of classes to make an informed accusation. My concern comes from the fact that I don’t hear teachers and administrators, school board and community leaders talking about this kind of educational objective. I would change my tune if I started hearing things like:

“We expect the students to graduate from high school confident in their ability to create original ideas that have value.”

What if parents were proud when the comment on the report card said:

What if all teachers were held accountable to get kids to think creatively? What if Merry Lanker’s educational objectives represented the educational objectives of all teachers, regardless of what subject they taught? Would our high school graduates be better educated? What is your guess?

Knowledge is important. An educated person can spell parody, define it and use it in a sentence, but imagination is required for this knowledge to make a difference. Whether our discipline is mathematics, physics, biology, writing or doing research, creativity is required. The problems we face in this world require not only mastery of the knowledge we already have, but the creativity to solve the myriad of problems that are still unsolved.

Our old mindsets are obviously not working, and creativity should be a graduation requirement. Creativity is an ability all adults should expect all young people to practice and to apply in every aspect of their lives from getting into college to dealing with a customer to resolving conflicts with their friends.

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10 thoughts on “Creativity in Children: Parodies of The Scream

  1. Creativity is allowed to flourish and grow if children are given freedom to explore in both a prepared classroom environment and in natural, wild environments in nature. Both are necessary. Teachers must be trained to ask compelling questions that cause children to think of familiar things in new and different ways. In my opinion, this freedom to explore and invent needs a framework of skills learned from a more structured, yet open-ended curriculum such as Montessori. Unless these factors are present in our schools it would be unfair to require it as a graduation requirement.

  2. Right, Marianne. I’m just saying, let’s benchmark the important stuff and then restructure schools to deliver on the important stuff.

  3. Great intent, Rick. Very stimulating … (hit a nerve!) here goes:
    Holding teachers to account for getting kids to be creative? What’s the message kids would get if we did that? What if part of teacher qualifying systems included that teachers learn that all children are already motivated, already creative (just because they don’t show it doesn’t mean it is not there), and their objective as teachers is to nurture that, offering lots of opportunities to impact their environment in new and creative ways? Maybe hold teachers to account for being creative themselves?

    Until that happens, making creativity a graduation requirement in schools will put creativity into the same system box as math, science, social studies, etc., producing the familiar bell curve of testing and assessments that result in internal assessments (most are average, some are exceptional, and some are poor learners). The problem with this, as you and I discussed this week, children (which we were) grow up adopting self-limiting explanations of what we are good at and bad at. Funny … I never noticed what I thought about my own creativity as a competency … but I did have a lot to undo about my sense of being an artist, a musician, an business person, a writer.

    We could hold school systems accountable for having creative classrooms. Let the kids vote? My simple measurement for a school that is working is this: give the children the option to attend or not.
    I love teachers, by the way.

    Imagine what life would be like for them (teachers!) if they didn’t have to (almost always) teach the same thing the same way to every child to get to the same level at the same time, no matter the level of interest, previous experience, and ability, and without disregarding the incredible of amount of learning young children already have done by age three no matter what environment they’ve grown up in? What was it Einstein said about the importance of imagination? Wow. I just discovered something that is missing in my parenting workshops – imagining. Thanks again!

  4. Marty, I actually agree with both you and Marianne. I am using the accountability language to shift the thinking of those who use it. Let’s put creativity right up there with learning your number facts, because knowing them is one thing; knowing what to do with them is another.

  5. Thoughts:
    1. Through my daughter’s experience, Montessori included many repetitive tasks, yet also fostered independence and creativity – interesting juxtaposition.
    2. For me, even piano (‘press these keys’) and art (‘draw this scene’) were not creative but the specificity was “safe”. I wonder how I would have responded to “Draw why the figure is screaming”?
    3. With regards to #2, if creativity were a theme instead of one-dose, that would lessen the fear of the task. For me, taking long off-trail hikes in the National Forest are much less intimidating than “draw _____” or “write a short story”.
    4. Yes, teachers need encouragement AND examples of creative tasks in all fields, even my specialty, math! Eg, my coffee shop waitress’s 3rd grade son (after studying names of shapes) had to write a story about the shapes as characters. (A bit in the flavor of Flatland.) Also, given even simple arithmetic (eg 45 – 17 = 28) expressions, Fran asks students to “Write a corresponding word problem.” Students’ responses reveal their understanding (or lack of) ‘subtraction’. Some students create elaborate stories.
    5. Portfolios have become popular. Perhaps a “creativity portfolio” for each student would provide the structure to support a focus on creativity. And these portfolios become the teacher’s ‘creativity portfolio’?

  6. Rick, Thank you. This article needed some examples of creativity in mathematics, and off trail hikes definitely challenge creative thinking.
    Thank you.

  7. Dear all I agree with your expert points. Buti say that children can learn Maths while being outdoors and being creative, such as I gave my students a task , let’s build a log table, for our picnic . They were excited and thinking what design they want square, rectangle or circle, what they need how many cut logs( that my neighbor was trimming his trees after the storm broke some of his trees) how many children are there to sit, how big should be a table. Their creativity with little of my help and facilitation they made a table. They learned the concepts of Maths and creativity.

  8. Amen, Seema. If you have one hour to teach one thing, engaging the whole student’s brain will often yield better results than if you spend the hour on the one thing, only.

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