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November 1999

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Boeing Flies High

Fostering Creativity: An Early Start

Are We There Yet?

If It Ain't Pretty - I'm Outta Here

Flying Above Mediocrity

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Large Ideas Expressed In Small Amounts
by Peter Block


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Fostering Creativity: An Early Start

Everywhere you turn these days, there’s a course waiting to teach you how to enhance your creativity. So why aren’t we all creative experts by now? You know the routine: “Imagine you’re trapped in a dark room with no doors and all you have is a match. How do you get out?” We’ve all heard these mock situations designed to assess how well you think creatively, but do they really work? Is it possible to improve your creative thinking and problem-solving skills based on how you answer questions like these? Or perhaps our surroundings at work and at home have slowly smothered any creativity we once had.

There’s an organization that thinks the smothering effect starts much earlier for some people, and they believe they’ve come up with the solution. The National Center for Creativity, Inc. (NCCI) was founded in Indianapolis in 1993 by a group of professionals looking for new ways to solve problems at work. After determining that the available quality tools were too analytical, and not creative enough, the team decided to form an organization dedicated to helping professionals find their own creativity.

Just two years ago, NCCI began to see potential in a new market, the inner-city youth of Indianapolis. These children deal with difficult situations everyday, and NCCI felt that by helping them tap into their own natural creativity, they could help the kids deal with those issues better.

Wes Anderson, co-founder and executive director at NCCI notes that “they have to deal with issues like substance abuse, violence and broken families, and we wanted to help them be able to fight back by thinking through these situations and making good decisions. If they’re confronted by a crack dealer, they need to find a way to get out of that situation, and creative thinking, together with problem- solving skills can help.”

This idea of helping inner-city children develop their creative thinking skills became the focus of NCCI’s newest initiative, City Lights. Anderson had some experience with Odyssey of the Mind (OM), a competitive, team-based creative thinking program offered in many schools across the country. He liked what he saw, but soon found out that not one inner-city school in Indianapolis offered the program due to lack of money, transportation and adult volunteers. Upon realizing this, Anderson and some others at NCCI decided to create a similar program and bring it to the children in the inner city.
Finding a Solution

In the fall of 1997 the organization began working with the Westminster Presbyterian Church’s after-school program to offer creativity and problem-solving sessions to any child wishing to participate. Those children wanting to get more involved could join the OM team and compete with teams from other schools. This setup encouraged the three underlying objectives of City Lights: to foster creative ability, improve team-building skills and provide positive role-model relationships for youth.

“I think all people are inherently creative,” Anderson states, “and that’s what we help to bring out in these children. That, and self-esteem.”

City Lights not only gives this group of children a fun after-school activity, it is a way to help them help themselves as they later begin a job search and create a positive image of themselves to employers.

“It is my own experience,” says Anderson, “that it is important to know stuff. But, it is even more important to corporations and businesses that you know how to think and solve problems. That’s what we’re helping these kids to do. We want to make them more employable in the future.”

Jonathan Plucker, a professor in the creativity field at Indiana University, has been helping the new program develop methods of evaluation to assess the performance of the program.
Once an elementary school teacher himself, Plucker remarks, “I have never met a child who was not at least a little bit creative.” From his personal research in the field, Plucker thinks that society needs to begin to organize schools, offices and homes into environments that encourage creativity rather than hinder it. He cites the “fourth-grade slump” as an example.
“You can walk into a third-grade classroom and you see kids sitting on the floor in a circle and playing games,” Plucker says. “Then you walk into a fourth-grade classroom, and it looks like a college classroom. All of the desks are in neat rows and all of the children are sitting with pencil in hand. And it has been shown through research that a good deal of creativity is somehow ‘lost’ between these two grade levels. So perhaps even the way a classroom is set up can smother creativity.”

NCCI designed City Lights around encouraging, not smothering creative thinking. Everything is done as a group, with participation by everyone in activities ranging from poetry interpretation to R.O.P.E.S. courses. As well as teaching the importance of teamwork, the idea behind all of these group sessions is that the children will be able to carry over the creative thinking and problem-solving techniques they learn in these exercises into everyday situations.

A Potential Setback
Mary Jo Hammersmith, a first-grade teacher at a Cincinnati, Ohio inner-city school, doesn’t quite follow that line of reasoning. Based on her experience with inner-city youth, programs like City Lights probably won’t solve these kids’ problems.

“As much as we try to encourage creative thinking in our classrooms, the kids just don’t transfer that kind of thinking into their everyday lives, or even their homework, for that matter,” Hammersmith says. “We teach them phonics, but when it comes time to apply it to reading or writing, they just can’t or won’t do it. I think that might be why proficiency scores are so low. We try to teach them ways to think through problems, but when they take those tests, they just don’t transfer it very easily. Just getting them to do creative writing is like pulling teeth.”

Anderson says these reasons are exactly why City Lights is so important. “We are trying to help these kids come to believe that, ‘I am creative,’ and ‘I can think creatively.’ ” Currently they don’t get enough instruction in creative thinking skills in school or at home.”

While she disagrees with the notion that inner-city schools don’t teach creativity, Hammersmith agrees that the kids get no support in this endeavor at home. “It’s just the way many of these kids are brought up,” she says. “The parents are not supportive of what these children do at school. Many of them are illiterate and don’t encourage their kids to read or do their homework. And they certainly don’t advocate creativity.”

“These kids watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games. So when they come to school they don’t want to be challenged creatively.” Hammersmith says that teachers at her school have discussed problems with the kids not applying what they learn in assignments and on tests. She agrees that schools should try whatever possible to increase the creative drive with these children but is skeptical as to whether or not programs like City Lights would do any good.

“The kids watch how their parents handle problems at home, and they just do the same thing,” she says. “They don’t take what they’ve learned in art and apply it outside of art. They only do what they see their parents do.”

Hope For The Future
Whether or not City Lights is truly helping these children face problems in a new way, they seem to be off to a great start. They continue to receive requests from people all over the world wishing to help their community and work with these inner-city youth to make a difference. This interest has encouraged the expansion of the program. In fact, City Lights is launching its second site this November at Washington Irving School 14 of the Indianapolis Public School System. There is also talk of joining with the Boys and Girls Club in the spring of 2000.

Most of the volunteers for City Lights balance a full work week and a family life with the time they give to the program. While they’re there to teach, even the mentors take away valuable lessons from the sessions they lead. Some of them have incorporated the same activities or concepts from City Lights into their own work environments back at the office.

In addition, many of the volunteers share the activities with their own children.
Maybe we could all stand to be a little more creative in our lives. It would certainly make things more interesting. However, the challenge of breaking through the societal walls that surround inner-city kids may be a little more difficult than that. Those who believe in City Lights know this, and are constantly trying new ways to overcome the difficulties of working with these children.

City Lights is still in the early stages. Perhaps they will have more luck than the teachers in getting through to these kids and making them more employable in the future. Otherwise, the program faces the same frustrations that inner-city teachers and administrators have been dealing with for years.

November '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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