Label the Flower (by James Anderson)

JamesPic The year my younger son was born, Sir Ken Robinson gave a ground-breaking talk entitled, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” The answer to his question was a resounding yes, and eight years later the answer is still, “Yes. School kills creativity.” Robinson, in his talk said, “my contention is that all kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them, pretty ruthlessly”

Here is a real-life example: we received back a batch of my son’s graded work and discovered he was marked down one point for the paper you see above; not for misspelling “leaf”, but for writing “pedel” on the line whose arrow is pointing to the flower’s petal. We puzzled over the markdown for a bit, and then realized that the word “petal” isn’t included in the “Word Bank”, and is therefore not an allowed word for the assignment.

I asked about it during parent-teacher conference, and the teacher, in a sweetly amused way, laughed, “A lot of kids missed the Word Bank on that one, and just wrote whatever they thought of.” It was cute and funny to her, but she still marked it wrong regardless of whether the chosen word worked as an answer for the assignment or not. What do you do with that? How do you help your child “label the flower” when the labels are restrictive, or even seem wrong? My older son looked at the paper and asked, “but the isn’t the whole thing the flower? The arrow is pointing at a petal.”

It’s easy to make sweeping statements about how the system must be changed, I know because I’ve done it, and many educators have been urging that teachers should be actively promoting creativity, instead of giving points for filling in the blanks correctly. There is an excellent paper by Susan Keller-Mathers in Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education which describes the urgent need for teaching creativity. We can point to how differently they do things in Finland, as the Atlantic did last year, and say, “this is what we should be doing, let’s start changing the system.”

Yes, good, maybe one day we’ll look back on the fill-in-the-blank mentality as incomprehensibly archaic, “do you remember when teachers used to say there was only one answer to a question?”; and we’ll all have a good laugh.

Someday, maybe, as long we keep pushing for it; but if you are like me, you have or know a child who is in school right now and needs help now with school as it presently exists. If so, I urge you to look beyond helping your child with his or her homework, and acknowledge that sometimes you have to help them against the homework. Sometimes you have to tell them, “your teacher is looking for a certain answer, what are all the answers you can think of? I know all of your answers are great, and let’s figure out together which one she is looking for.”

If your child’s teacher is working within the present fill-in-the-blank system, and you are in a position to alter it or replace it with something better, great, do it. The year Robinson gave his talk we were able to pull our older son out of school and homeschool him; but our younger son is in the public system, at least for now, and so we, like many people, can best help by changing the school experience for one child, within the system, as it currently exists.

In 2013, life-long teacher Rita Pierson said that every child needs a champion. She was talking to other teachers, but her words apply to everyone who has a child in his or her life. After all, you are always your child’s first teacher. Help them label the flower.


Here are the links for the referenced talks and essays:

Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk:

Susan Keller-Mathers’ essay on Creative Learning:

The article in the Atlantic about Finland’s school system:

Rita Pierson’s TED talk:

My essay on the need for redefining education:

Here are a few education resources:










  1. Mai.Thow

    James I think your son is smart and more creative than what a teacher outline has to offer, the arrow was technically pointing to a petal. I would of understand it if a point was taken off for spelling but for labeling it as your son saw it really does lack the creativity. The Portland Public schools have already taken the arts away from their school system the least they could do is try to instill creativity. And if she is saying a lot of students are missing the word bank maybe it needs to be taught in more creativity ways so students can understand. Has she gotten feedback? A good teacher only becomes greater with feedback.
    We are all so different from personalities and learning styles. It seems as if the school system is not only lacking in creativity but also getting narrowed minded only teaching students in one way. It doesn’t seem like it matter who they leave behind. I didn’t understand all my assignments within high school and I absolutely hated math because I didn’t understand it but Ds were still passing. I started to believe that the school system didn’t care; I almost did not want to enroll in college because I knew I didn’t understand the fundamentals.
    I only hope that what is not being taught in classes you are able to provide for your children at home. And I hope one day we as a society see the importance of creativity not just in how to respond to an assignment but also how the assignment is taught.

  2. Stephanie

    You make great points with in your blog post, this is something that I have often wondered myself. Does school kill creativity.. Yes I think it does. I believe the music and arts that have been removed from school are crucial in learning and play a vital role in developing other skills children need. Good for you pulling your child out to learn more than what the school was teaching. I know a family that did the same. Their son dreaded school but was incredibly smart. I’m surprised the teacher responded and graded down for the mistake. I struggle with the standardized testing they have.. Not every child learns the same way as another. I think that the system needs to change! Nice job on your post!

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