Certainly one of the most crucial aspects of solving difficult problems is to “think outside the box”, yet recent studies and articles have demonstrated that this can be exceptionally difficult for students of the United States public school system. Creativity, when fostered, can lead to vast cognitive improvements such as the ability to solve complex problems and to come up with unique solutions. Anecdotally, I know that many people have had a similar experience to my own- especially in the early years of my education. In elementary school and junior high I was grade levels ahead of my peers as based on standardized tests, but when I encountered my first difficulty in school, Algebra II, I had no appropriate tools in place for how to overcome the challenge. Besides being in the “accelerated program” which made me the 9 year old equivalent to a peer tutor for my grade level, and a 1st grade class volunteer simultaneously, my knowledge was not being fostered and I was not truly learning anything during some very formative years. This left me and others with a shaky foundation for future courses at a time where we should have been able to make huge strides in our knowledge outside of the classroom.

By the time I was a freshman in college, I still didn’t have much guidance on what classes I should take and how to space out my workload. Both my parents were as non-STEM oriented as it could get and had completed their schooling in other countries with much different systems. I took courses largely because my roommate and I were in the same major initially and we wanted to at least have each other in those courses. Having done exceptionally well as a valedictorian in my high school, I thought I was ready for the rigors of college. Yet, as my grade in Organic Chemistry would show you, I was not ready for the challenge in my Freshman year. Again, when I was faced with a class that challenged my conventional ways of learning and studying, I didn’t know how to think of creative ways to retain the material. As many FLI students and students in general will attest to, it is very difficult to have to learn to form good study habits, for the first time, at a rigorous post-secondary institution.

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However, my story is not an isolated or anecdotal incident. Across the country, students routinely struggle in their first year at post-secondary institutions largely because, in their formative years, they are kept to around the same level of education regardless of skill or intellectual curiosity. Gifted programs around the country do not capitalize on the opportunity of teaching their students new things, but rather on using them to help their peers that may be lagging behind them. The mindset may be “these students are already ahead of the curve, so there’s no point in widening how far ahead they are.” I think that every student, especially once caught up to a reasonable level, should be able and capable to pursue their intellectual curiosities in some way. To promote this the resources put into place to create these programs should go more towards promoting intellectual curiosity than to pizza parties and mindless exercises.

When students are not given sufficient resources to pursue their intellectual curiosities, this leads to students taking matters into their own hands. According to an article by New Republic, “we’d crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. “Self regulation”, “self-discipline”, and “emotional regulation” are big buzz words…all aimed at producing “appropriate” behavior at bringing children’s personal styles in line.” Indeed, there is a preponderance of “diagnosing” normal behaviors in children who are at a crucial stage of development where everything can be new and interesting. It’s not wrong to ask questions and it’s not wrong to have a desire to explore or to question authority when the logic doesn’t align. As the article continues, more and more students are getting labeled with ADHD, but “the youngest kindergarteners, by month of birth, are more than twice as likely than the oldest to be labeled with ADHD. This makes sense given that the frontal cortex, which controls self-regulation, thickens during childhood.” It should be strongly discouraged to pathologize students on the basis of normal behavior and without being a licensed healthcare professional.

In fact, “What we’re teaching today is obedience, conformity, following orders,” says the education historian Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “We’re certainly not teaching kids to think outside the box.” This is a huge problem for our school systems and one that persists throughout early education. One of the discussion sections I had at college was one of the first times where I felt like my insights and perspectives were valued and considered. It shouldn’t get to that point in a school system that truly promotes creativity.

“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die.”

Former New York teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto in his book Dumbing Us Down

It’s important to promote self-regulation in students, but not to promote conformity. Self-regulation when done appropriately can allow students to retain their individuality, but to recognize when their desires or pursuits may not be as beneficial to pursue. Constructive communication between students, and their teachers should be promoted. Some students do not have a healthy home life, so telling their parents may not result in a pleasant conversation for the student but rather discipline. Of course, some things cannot be said to students and there should be a professional boundary, but for the most part having an open dialogue about classroom behavior will much more easily result in discovery of the root cause.

This overvaluing of conformity is rampant in our special education system according to the Washington post, “our eduction system is an enterprise designed to fix students who do not fit the norms of school. These norms are based on being white, able-bodied, middle class. Children learn from a very young age that if they are different — in their behavior, way of thinking, language, etc. — they will fail.” We cannot keep “othering” students which may not subscribe to these very specific sets of norms.

Do schools overvalue conformity at the cost of intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of new intellectually stimulating discovery?