Say Good-bye to the Training Wheels: Putting Creativity back in the Classroom


Katherine Raines

Rubric for Of Mice and Men project in Katherine Raines English 10 class.

The issue is prevalent in nearly every classroom. I have sat through endless uninspired presentations filled to the brim with blanket statements and basic claims. Not to mention the delivery itself is dull-typically an unimaginative, color lacking Keynote of sorts-because the presenter is striving only to meet the requirements of a conventional rubric using minimum effort. Is it necessary to turn in a grandeur presentation that is intensely creative in style and garnished with genius factoids every time? No. No one has the time for that. Is it important, however, that creative, nuanced thought is taught and encouraged in order to enhance learning and understanding within the classroom? Yes. Absolutely. Too often within an educational environment are students being taught formulaic thought. Through outdated practices, they are collapsing under the pressure to conform to society, and the creative thought process is completely absent from their learning experience; this renders their ability to truly comprehend the content completely. It is vital that schools ditch current practices which adhere only to the use of formulaic thought, and replace them with newer models that encourage creative thinking for a better understanding. 

Air-tight rubrics and formulaic structuring discourage creative thought because students are too focused on meeting only the basic and seemingly necessary requirements. One basic example of this is the five paragraph essay. This form of writing offers no room for original and detailed, nuanced thought; it simply encourages students to abide by a mindless recipe. Nearly every online teaching blog resists the idea. In a 2012 post for his blog entitled White Rhino, Ray Salazar asserts that “The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless.” In a 2016 blog post for Inside Higher Ed, John Warner maintains that “There may be no greater enemy to quality writing than the 5-paragraph essay.” Opponents to this proposition argue that five paragraph essays are actually of value, and they are effective in teaching students to write efficiently and persuasively. After all, it offers a sort of “training wheels” for beginning writers. However, this simply is not the case. Five paragraph essays are in no way effective, especially when it comes to students actually retaining the subject matter and implementing creative thinking into the writing process. Not only this, but it offers no help in being “college and career ready.” John Warner wrote, “A significant portion of the opening weeks of my first-year writing class is spent ‘deprogramming’ students from following the ‘rules’ they’ve been taught in order to succeed on the 5-paragraph essay and opening them up to the world of ‘choice’ that confronts them when tackling ‘writing related problems’ that they face in college and beyond. They cannot hope to develop unless and until we first undo the damage done.” As for it being the framework for beginning writers, there should be a line drawn between a mere structure or model and a formula. A structure is optional. A formula, such as the five paragraph essay, leaves room only for what the rubric allows. English teacher Elizabeth Hanson declared that “The five paragraph essay is a great way to structure thinking for weak writers–it’s ‘training wheels’ of sorts–but it lends itself to surface-level thinking and analysis rather than a clear line of reasoning and deeper thinking and explanations.”

Opponents of the suggestion that rubrics used within schools are too structured and detail-specific argue that lines must be drawn and rules established to assure that students are graded equally and in a fair manner. After all, everyone would like to avoid the awkward parent-teacher conference in which parents demand to know how their hard-working, diligent student received a D on her effort-lacking, off-the-mark presentation, and “Where’s your proof?” “What were the guidelines?” However, there is a difference between providing a helpful structure or organizational strategies and allowing students to stray from them and holding students to that exact structure. Sure, rubrics are important for the accountability of students, but how task specific need they be? Should there be absolutely no wiggle room? According to a post on the website Educational Leadership entitled “What’s Wrong—and What’s Right—with Rubrics” by W. James Popham, rubrics are widely employed in educational settings, and many are quite useful, but some possess flaws that are detrimental to their effectiveness. The author specifically names four of the most common errors as task-specific evaluative criteria, excessively general evaluative criteria, dysfunctional detail, and equating the test of the skill with the skill itself. In assessing the first flaw, Popham comments, “But what if the evaluative criteria in a rubric are linked only to the specific elements in a particular performance test? Unfortunately, I’ve run into a flock of such task-specific rubrics these days, especially in the most recent crop of nationally standardized tests that call for constructed responses from students.” On the other hand, excessively general evaluative criteria offer too little guidance on what skills are being tested. “Many rubrics now being billed as instructionally useful provide teachers and students with absolutely no cues about what is genuinely significant in a student’s response, and they offer teachers no guidance on the key features of the tested skill.” Dysfunctional detail, Popham explains, is the use of excessive and unnecessary detail when writing the rubric. The urge to include a several paragraph analysis of the exact product that the student is expected to produce can become overwhelming, but overcome it. The final flaw is equating the test of the skill with the skill itself. Oftentimes, educators become adamant that students merely pass the test rather than fully understand the skill that is being assessed. “These teachers strive for test mastery rather than skill mastery,” Popham wrote. Senior Maddox Stinson acknowledged that rubrics allow for a fair grading system. However, he stated that “The major danger with rubrics is that it manufactures a certain way of thinking. Rubrics build a thought process that visualizes life inside the lines. If someone has been taught, in school, that the only way to achieve success is to follow a forum that has already been set out, that person will rarely think outside the lines.”

When examining how truly “college and career ready” schools are encouraging students to be, we should look at how often they are incorporating real-world situations, ones that may present themselves in college and within a career, into students’ learning. The real-life element is currently absent from the school setting, and it has been on spring break for far too long. In an excerpt published in MindShift by Will Richardson, he asks, “So what if we were to say that, starting this year, even with our children in K– 5, at least half of the time they spend on schoolwork must be on stuff that can’t end up in a folder we put away? That the reason they’re doing their schoolwork isn’t just for a grade or for it to be pinned up in the hallway? It should be because their work is something they create on their own, or with others, that has real value in the real world.” He then goes on to offer numerous examples, such as allowing students to interview Veterans and produce a series of podcasts in addition to taking that test on the Vietnam war, or streaming a private interpretive performance of Romeo and Juliet in addition to reading it to one another, or rather than conducting a lab on the tadpoles in the pond behind the school, collecting data on tadpoles in ponds from several different schools nationwide and analyzing how the differing geographic climates affect the results. Each of the provided examples not only can be shared with and utilized by a wider online audience, but they implement creative thinking and skills that will most likely be used in colleges and careers. Opponents to the idea that real-world elements and skills should be applied in schools claim that for the most part, they already are, and if they’re not, it’s because it’s difficult to fully prepare students for all things “real-life.” Evidently, this is untrue. Schools’ attempts to incorporate the outside world fall short in many respects, and while it may be difficult to simulate exact instances, there are countless ways to teach the skills themselves, some of which involve problem solving as well as tapping into one’s creative side. Senior Cassidy Vaugn, a senior at Cody High School, feels that she is not obtaining much knowledge of real-world situations, but rather following an immovable curriculum. “It’s all very scripted,” she said. 

The world continues to evolve, so why aren’t teaching strategies changing with it? Invite the guest the speaker in to accompany the written test. Tap into current events to relate the class content to. Allow for a creative, self-directed project to determine the extent of one’s knowledge, and drop the needless sentence requirements. Students are rarely encouraged to use creative thinking in classrooms, and this is not due to a lack of excellent teachers. Luckily, there is a simple fix. Allow more leeway; teach the content and skills and watch what students are capable of. Ensure that rubrics are a happy-medium with only the necessary amount of detail. Incorporate real-world skills into everyday lessons. Creative thinking is vital to success, and it’s time that we teach it more in schools.