Passion, creativity, and persistence

Whether I was talking to people who had launched their own nonprofits or NGOs, started schools or businesses, or worked on issues of climate change, a common theme at the Aspen festival was this: the most important skills and attributes of people who were making a difference were that they were highly creative thinkers, they were passionate about what they did, they knew how to execute on ideas, and they were able to maintain focus, learn from failure and persevere. This really crystallized during a panel discussion with Jonah Lehrer, whose best-seller, Imagine, explores what we know about where creativity comes from and how it works. One of the points he made was that when it comes to being successful (in whatever way one defines that term), creativity is important but it’s not enough. It needs to be coupled with focus and persistence, what Penn researcher Angela Duckworth has termed “grit.” Another point he made is that creativity is not a generic quality – either one is creative or not. We become most creative when we are immersed in something we are highly interested in and care a lot about.

Passion, creativity, imagination, persistence, determination, and a lot of hard work. If there is a skill set that we should be cultivating in our students, this is it. And yet for the most part, our schools at their best focus only on the last two of these. (With some happy exceptions, the same can be said of our colleges and universities.) Creativity and imagination tend to be fenced into a small (and shrinking) part of the English curriculum where kids write fiction, or into arts and humanities courses that have become an endangered species over the last decade. Persistence is seldom taught; our students are told to avoid failure at all costs, so what is there to persist through?

If we take seriously the idea that schools can be places where passion, creativity, and imagination are cultivated and nurtured, we need to be willing to let go of some long-held conventions about high school, starting with the assumption that we know what kids should care about and focus on. We also need to question the idea that you have to build up a stockpile of basic skills before you can begin exploring what you really care about, or working on real problems or complex questions. When we do these things, some of the structures and conventions through which we organize school start to look like impediments: how we segment and deliver instruction, how we use time, the way we group students, how we measure progress.

What if we could wipe the slate clean, start over, and imagine schools as places where students reflect on what drives, motivates, or fascinates them, then learn how to delve deeply into those things? What would curriculum look like? How would we handle assessment? We can we expect students to produce as a result?

We’ve had a year to begin exploring these questions in practice, and I look forward to many more.