“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
— Albert Einstein

When deciding to run for one of three spots on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, I wanted to see three things addressed in our school district — Transparency, Accountability and Dignity. Yet I also expected that there would be robust curriculum debates, too, and a vision of what we, as a community, want that to look like into the next decade and beyond.

There was a good deal of focus on such pressing needs as the selection of a new superintendent, plans to repair our crumbling schools, and the issue of diversity and integration within the district, but not much attention to the startling lack of adequate curriculum in our classrooms.

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As a parent of three children ages 6 and under, I was shocked to find that an audit found 66 percent — representing 143 classes — of the SOMSD’s curricula was out of compliance with state standards, according to a December 2017 update.

Fine and performing arts in all grades, kindergarten through 12th grade, held the most non-existent or non-compliant curricula (33), followed by STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in grades 9 through 12, with 28 curricula out of compliance.

When students fail, it is a failure of the school district — and here’s strong evidence to back up that idea.

What’s puzzling is how this is allowed to happen. Much like the district’s crumbling infrastructure, this type of failure does not happen overnight.

While it’s not productive to focus on placing blame, the rewriting of SOMSD curricula presents a clear opportunity to bring true innovation to our schools and develop a forward-looking vision for a 21st century student body.

The Power of STEAM

Many of us rely daily on a feat of engineering and design that, in a way, symbolizes the importance and the power of creativity — the ubiquitous iPhone. Though we might now take it for granted, the first widely popular smartphone represents just one tangible example of what a 21st century education can look like, and why a strong STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) component to the curriculum could help serve our students far into the future.

Our increasingly interconnected world means that our children now possess access to information on an unprecedented scale in human history, but the way in which we teach them to make sense of it all — our educational system — remains modeled on an Industrial Age idea of what kind of workers and citizens we needed.

Naysayers will no doubt misconstrue my argument to suggest I would like to see underwater basket-weaving classes, courses in how to use Pinterest, or ditching instruction in everything except interpretive dance.

Not so.

The Einstein quote above can also be misunderstood to mean that we should all daydream instead of study. What he’s actually emphasizing is that curiosity to ask abstract questions can lead us to greater human understanding, or to borrow the words from Apple’s ad campaign, “Think different.”

While working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, Einstein’s train-station musings about the perspectives of passengers on a train vs. those waiting on the platform helped form his Theory of Relativity. Einstein was already a brilliant mathematician, of course, but it was imagination that helped him make an important leap.

Walter Isaacson’s excellent 2007 Einstein biography also notes that Einstein used music to help him think, quoting his son, Hans Albert: “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or faced a difficult challenge in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would solve all his difficulties.”

Einstein was a talented violinist (not to mention proficient in Latin and Greek). A friend recalled, according to Isaacson’s book, “He would often play his violin in his kitchen late at night, improvising melodies while he pondered complicated problems. Then, suddenly, in the middle of playing, he would announce excitedly, ‘I’ve got it!’ As if by inspiration, the answer to the problem would have come to him in the midst of music.”

Sir Ken Robinson, in his incredibly moving and still-relevant 2006 TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” notes that the American educational system focuses not on a whole-child approach but instead caters to teaching to one side of the brain.

What might we have lost had artist, scientist, musician and inventor Leonardo da Vinci gone through our school system?

I’m not suggesting that every child be educated as if to create another Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci. That’s undesirable, not to mention unrealistic. But we can do a better job at understanding that nothing happens in a vacuum, and that incorporating performing and fine arts into education can have other beneficial side effects, especially as we look to close a persistent achievement gap.

One artist and educator-turned-STEAM-enthusiast argues that the arts can serve as an on-ramp to STEM for underrepresented students, engaging students’ strengths using art activities increases motivation and the probability of STEM success — an important factor as we as a district struggles to catch up. There is also a correlation between the arts and creativity, confidence, collaboration and and focus.

“STEAM represents a paradigm shift from traditional education philosophy, based on standardized test scores, to a modern ideal which focuses on valuing the learning process as much as the results,” writes Deron Cameron, principal of the first U.S. STEAM-certified school. “In essence, we dare our students to be wrong, to try multiple ideas, listen to alternate opinions and create a knowledge base that is applicable to real life as opposed to simply an exam.”

One elementary school in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood has even ditched homework in favor of optional, open-ended projects called “Exercise Your Brain,” or EYBs, that can fulfilled in a variety of ways, such as “a traditional researched report, a science experiment, a video or even an original song performed in front of the class,” reports the New York Post (reductive headline aside).

It’s already apparent to me that our 6-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 4 and 3, have wildly divergent interests, and that they learn in such different ways. Multiply that individuality by our our district’s 7,000 pupils, and it becomes apparent that we need more creativity, and more flexibility when we look to update how we educate them.

Our students deserve much, much better to help prepare them for a world that will look vastly different than our own, and the more tools in their arsenal, the better off they will be.

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