April 3, 2013

Fostering and Assessing Creativity in the Classroom

A while ago, educational assessment guru Dr. Grant Wiggins blogged about a very interesting issue: assessing creativity. The commonly held, traditional wisdom is that we can’t assess creativity, that it is so subjective and indefinable that to try to cram all of its nuances into some sort of rubric or assessment method is to squash the very thing being evaluated. Wiggins soundly refutes this and gives quite a convincing argument as to why not only it is important to foster creativity in learning environments but that by assessing it we are actually helping promote creative growth in our students.


Wiggins’ blog was penned in response to an article in Education Week (unfortunately a “pay-to-view” link that requires a sign-up) that mentioned that there was a push in several states, including right here in Massachusetts, to include “the assessment of creative thinking as part of the whole 21st century skills/entrepreneurial movement.” Interestingly, the article and blog were written over a year ago, yet to date no such changes have been made to the codified state educational assessment standards. Wiggins makes a compelling argument for why this sort of change would be a positive one, and the blog itself is worth reading in its entirety. But for this blog, let’s focus on one aspect of Wiggins’ argument for creative assessment and in particular how it relates to the students with whom we work here at Engaging Minds.

According to Wiggins, when a student undertakes a creative scholastic endeavor (a presentation, a poster, a performance), what is most important is its impact – as opposed to its content and process. In other words, how the audience – be it teacher, fellow students or a combination thereof – perceives the product is the most important aspect of assessing it. And furthermore, according to Wiggins, by focusing on impact we are necessarily encouraging greater student autonomy since recognizing his/her project’s impact necessitates self-assessment and self-adjustment on the part of the student. As you have read here and in other parts of the Engaging Minds website, this is very much in keeping with our practice of gradually increasing student independence and responsibility for his/her own work – and that includes how it impacts its audience!

But in order for impact to be the ultimate goal when assessing a student’s creative undertaking, Wiggins states that the teacher must be “crystal-clear on the purpose of the task.” In order to accomplish this, says Wiggins, teachers must make students aware of the “GRASPS” in relation to the project. This acronym is one of the cornerstones of Wiggin’s groundbreaking Assessment by Design and stands for: clarity in the Goal of the task, the student’s Role in the task, his/her Audience, the specific Setting, the particulars of the Performance and, finally, the Standards by which the task will be judged/graded.

When a student comes to a tutoring session at Engaging Minds and shares that he has been assigned a project, even though we don’t use Wiggins’ actual language, it is a very similar process that we go through with him. We call it guided problem-solving and teach students that the key to solving any problem is following four key steps. We look at the assignment and make sure the student understands what is being asked of him (the goal), and then we discuss and plan out together how he will go about accomplishing this (the role). As he works on the it, we help the student tailor his project to its specific purpose (audience and setting) and make sure that he has adequately addressed all aspects of the assignment (the particulars of the performance). Before he goes to turn in his project (or speak to his class or present his poster), we go over with him whether or not he has addressed all of the specific guidelines (the standards) provided by the teacher so that he can have the best chance of earning the grade or response he desires. In other words, our final push is to help make sure that the impact the student desires is most likely to be achieved by the product/performance he is putting forth.

It remains to be seen whether or not a more formalized means of assessing creative projects and creativity overall will make its way into our schools’ standards. In the meantime, there is no question that creative projects will continue to be assigned in schools and that teachers will be evaluating them on a number of different criteria. As you assist your child in these creative endeavors, keep in mind the GRASPS acronym and recognize that for many students this is a wonderful opportunity to excel and show off their talents in an unusual and unique fashion, and with a very positive impact.