Why Success Criteria is Ruining Creativity in the Classroom
When I first started gardening, I thought you were supposed to directly water the roots of plants. Get right in there at the base of the plant, and soak the hell out of it.
Then I learned that to create a more resilient plant, you should water deeper and less often around the drip line (the outer most edges of the branches) so the roots have to grow and reach for it. The foundation of the plant will be much stronger and healthier in the long run. Unless there’s a drought, of course, or the plant is unhealthy, then you might want to water directly on the root ball so it can regain strength.
You see where this is going in terms of education?
Teachers, we are drowning students with success criteria.
One of the trends in education is to be really clear on the goals and tasks of an assignment, breaking down all the steps into specific, detailed checklists, thus providing students with “success criteria,” plus a rubric on how they will be graded. Like most educational trends, it has good intentions. It is useful for new teachers to make sure they give clear directions, useful for admininstration when doing walk-throughs, and useful when explaining to parents why students receive certain grades. And it can be good for students with neurodiverse needs since it gives them a clear map of how to complete the work.
It has a huge downfall, though. It does all the problem-solving and planning for students. It often impedes creative thinking. It can also overwhelm many students, including those with neurodiverse needs, with so much information they completely shut down. It makes students focus on filling out a checklist rather than spending time grappling with their own thinking process on how to tackle the assignment. Do you know how many times I’ve had new AP English students ask me if each paragraph in their essay should have five sentences? What? UGH. It teaches rigidity rather than flexible thinking. I hate to say it, but success criteria assignments create similar products mostly for ease of grading and data collection (yeah, I said the dreaded D word), and to help the academically weakest students in class (and yet we give them to everyone since it’s easier to manage.)
If you don’t allow a person to make decisions in how to accomplish a goal, the goal becomes uninspired. And we wonder why so many students are disengaged at school.
Let’s talk for a minute about creativity and learning. To optimize creativity, you need a few ingredients: a sense of wonder, space to think, the opportunity to safely fail, a balance of structure with flexibility, and a challenge that’s a little out of reach. These magic ingredients help create a flow state, where the activity and the mind become one, and time passes quickly.
I recently gave an art/reflection to students after reading Macbeth and before moving to a unit on Identity. It was an assignment from an educational company (welcome to current teaching). Students had to draw four concentric circles in layers. They had to put their name in the center circle, then in the next layer draw a minimum of five symbols that represented their past, and in the next layer five symbols that represented their present, and in the outer layer five symbols that represented their future.
Only my high school students were stressed out that I didn’t have circles for them to trace. Seriously. I told them to look around the room and find some. They realized they could trace my coffee mug and the clock. Some wanted to find and print online templates. Okay, sure. Other asked if they had to be circles. No, I didn’t see why. The core of the assignment was to reflect symbolically on their past, present, and future. So I tweaked it on the spot and told them they would get 100 as long as they demonstrated the core of the assignment IN ANY FORM THEY CHOSE.
That set a challenge in place, and an opportunity for more self expression and autonomy to make decisions.
Instead of simple circles, students drew mandalas, butterflies, cakes, landscapes, cartoons, tattoos, etc. with symbols woven in different layers throughout their designs. By taking away specific criteria, it unlocked their own visions on how to accomplish the main goal. They took ownership and pride in their learning. Behavior was wonderful. Grading was easy.
Teachers, I know we want to be clear and helpful, especially after years of Covid and remote teaching. But we can inadvertently prevent students from practicing life skills by overteaching them, assuming they can’t handle more open-ended challenges. You can love plants to death by overwatering them. You can also suck the life out of the classroom by providing too much information and assistance. We need to provide students the opportunity to struggle a little and think for themselves again.
For creative people out there, if you are stuck in a rut, the same ingredients apply to you. How is your sense of wonder? Do you have enough space to think? Do you give yourself leeway to fail without judgment? Do you provide yourself a balance of structure with flexibility? Are you challenging yourself to stretch your skills?
As an author, I often choose a completely different genre for my next writing project so I don’t get bored. I also like to set up a challenge for myself in the structure of each book. For my novel THE WARNING, I created chapter headings with a countdown clock, which meant I had to track the six months of the novel by the hour on a spreadsheet. Ugh, I’ll never do that again, hahaha! But it did provide a unique challenge for my brain. In another manuscript, I decided to write in four different perspectives to push myself. By allowing my creativity to explore new challenges and stretch my writing skills, it fuels my soul and makes me want to try more things.
Imagine doing that for students.