January 26, 2009

Creativity and Little Content

The Pittsburgh Regional Future City Competition is a charming example of what you get when you try to instill creativity in students without first teaching them the relevant underlying content knowledge.

The competition challenges middle school students to design a city of the future with a focus on water conservation, reuse, and renewable energy. The students use the game SimCity (Deluxe 4) to help them build their three-dimensional models to scale. They have a semester to dream up and then construct their miniature cities entirely out of recycled materials. Supposedly, this inspires them to consider engineering as a profession.

Let's see what we get after all that creativity.

When it comes to the perfect place to live, [L.U.R.E., a sprawling metropolis set in southern New Mexico] would seem to have all bases covered.

School is free for everyone, brought into individual homes via a holographic teacher. Nearly everyone in town is gainfully employed as an engineer.

Mountain goat racing and sand surfing satisfy a yen for sports and leisure. And if, for no apparent reason, you need a getaway, there's the Space Shuttle Gilligan to whisk you on a four-month vacation to the moon...

L.U.R.E's coffee shop was housed in a Starbucks Frappuccino cup; office buildings were fashioned from paper towel rolls.

I'm sure there was some creativity is selecting a frappuccino cup as the coffee house building, but I'm wondering how that creativity generalizes to a domain outside of coffee cup miniature modeling. And try not to think about what the citiy's brothel was constructed from.

And what's up with the animal abuse? Enslaving our mountain goat brethen for our personal amusement seems a bit cruel. I'm surprised PETA didn't protest this event. Now that might have shown some real-world problem solving and creativity in how to defuse a PR nightmare without resorting to the firehoses.

I'm also wondering how many vacation goers would be willing to fly in the Space Shuttle. I'm guessing that the students hadn't heard of the Space Shuttle's propensity for blowing-up
unexpectedly. Hope they got insurance for that one.

At least the teacher hologram initiative shows creativity. Hologram's of a person trying to convey information or say, plans, to others is something I've never seen before. I wonder where they got that idea.

Look, I'm sure the kids had a lot of fun. But where's the educational value?

Here's what the kids were supposed to learn about:

The National Engineers Week Future City Competition offers students a resourceful way to learn about engineering.

Students will:

  • Learn how engineers turn ideas into reality.
  • Develop a project plan to guide team activities.
  • Use SimCity™ software to design their city.
  • Build a city model using recycled materials.
  • Work as a team under the guidance of an engineer and a teacher.
  • Demonstrate writing skills by composing an essay on an engineering design problem.
  • Enhance communications skills through a team presentation.

Did the students really learn how engineer's turn ideas into reality? Is a miniature model reality? If so, then isn't my kindergartner's pictures (media: crayons and construction paper) teaching her the same thing, just without the fancy labels?

This is not how engineer's turn an idea into reality. It doesn't seem to me that the students needed to know any actual engineering or any engineering constraints to construct their models. So, this is how a non-engineer turns ideas into reality. And, I'm not sure this exercise , in any way, generalizes to any real-world situation.

I suppose the kids did learn how to play SimCity. Videogames 101. That's what kids need -- more time playing videogames. I'm sure SimCity is a neat program, but it's not exactly a precursor to AutoCAD or other real-world construction/drafing programs.

And how does building a model out of recycled mterials generalize to building real stuff with recylced materials? Someone explain that to me.

The rest of it can be summarized as "learning how to work in a group." Something that our educators think students need a lot of practice doing for the real world. Apparently, lazy students need to refine their shirking skills from a young age and the more capable students need to understand the hell that awaits them in the real-world as they are expected to carry the load of the shirkers and share the credit.

All kidding aside, what does participation in this project actually teach that generalizes to anything else in a different domain? To the extent the students learned any generic creativity, explain how this creativity might generalize to a domain that requires knowledge in that domain without the student knowing that knowledge?


Rev. Mike said...

Ken, you've essentially gotten it right here. Our young engineers would have been better served by re-reading The Three Little Pigs to learn that not everything can be fabricated from graphite composite. Sorry to put a damper on youthful exuberance and imagination.

Anonymous said...

poorly designed and poorly delivered learning experiences occur daily across the country in many classrooms

what i want to know is why you egg heads who post back and forth here, are not in teaching and

putting the rubber to the road

you all make clear comments, how about putting your expertise to good use and be a teacher

your example above reminds of when teachers had kids make 'igloos' out of sugar cubes

same thing, just no relationship

but Ken, you are a lawyer, why not a teacher?? and putting your ideas to the ultimate test

the classroom??

it is surprising as well how many teachers do not know the content of what they are teaching

my hubby observed a student teacher one day teaching about south america and when one child said elephants live in SA, the student teacher nodded in agreement

so we got a long ways to go

Tracy W said...

I ran across this bloke, who seems to have some promising ideas on how to teach creativity, at least in art classes.

I don't know of any research validation of his method, but some of his stuff sounds similar to DI's principles. Eg, his statement that freedom in assignments for developing creativity is bad, because many students just take the easy way out and reproduce something they've done before. So to encourage creativity, create limitations so the student has to come up with something new. This sounds to me like DI's instruction that exercises should be such that kids can't avoid learning the rule correctly to get the answers right (eg if you're asking kids to identify verbs, don't accidentally only supply examples in which the verb is the third word in the sentence.)
He has sample lesson plans as well.


Of course none of this has been validated, but it does imply a very different approach to teaching creativity than the Pittsburgh Regional Future City Competition.

Of course based on my engineering training, the city competition is complete nonsense as no testing is involved and no difficult problems need to be solved. (The most significant problem I can see here is that perhaps you'd try to build your model out of something that isn't any good as modelling material, in which case I'd just switch materials. Not a challenging problem).

MagisterGreen said...

We had something similar presented to us today at the school I teach at. Our Chinese Conversation students (a new class this year) gave a presentation on Chinese New Year, complete with PowerPoint, music, martial arts demonstrations, etc. And yet, especially in the PowerPoint which had subtitles explaining each slide, there was not a single word of Chinese uttered or written down for our students to see. So...the Chinese Conversation class, which purportedly is supposed to - I don't know - teach students to "converse" in "Chinese", made a PowerPoint. I have great hopes for them in the future.

Meanwhile, I'm planning our Latin assembly incorporating Latin narrative, a scene from Julius Caesar, and a project demonstrating Latin derivatives that come into English and the sciences. No, PowerPoint will NOT be a part of it. But hey, I'm the old fashioned one who's not into the whole "21st-Century" stuff. ;)

Anonymous said...

Last time I visited LURE, I had the opportunity to tour a mountain goat-racing complex. Let me tell you, those goats had the easy life: high-quality food, high-quality stables, plenty of social interaction with goats, 24/7 grooming availability. Contrasted with the difficult life of wild mountain goats, the racing goats had no room to complain.

Anyway, that's what it was like when I visited...about a year ago. I have no idea if it's still so nice, what with the recent publicity generated by this project. By kids. About a fictional city.

Anonymous said...

I think there is something more subtle going on here. I find it interesting that these activities are aimed at middle school students. I find that these activities might be appropriate for elementary-age students but middle school is supposed to start ramping up domain knowledge as to facilitate more real-world applications of the content. Sadly, most middle schools are forgetting the original intention of middle schools (as a transition piece to high school and more advanced studies) and instead have adopted a model which encourages elementary-level explorations of content. Some of this is due to the licensing model as many middle school teachers have no content background and might not have taken a class on that subject since high school or even back to their middle school days. The fact that this lesson ended up in the media fits that model: districts like showcase, promotional lessons that have a "gee whiz!" factor. Real learning has little promotional value other than producing an educated, successful citizenry.

Anonymous said...


My sides hurt from laughing.

So the little buggers didn't build a functioning robot, they didn't launch a satellite and they didn't add anything to the Big Bang theory...so what?

A little fun, a little newspaper (and blogger)space, lots of proud family pictures.....big deal.

Anonymous said...

One other thought, now that the people are coming to the defense of this project (that's you CodyPT).

There is something happening in education that I call "creeping effect."

Creeping effect is when teachers, some well-meaning and others or are simply lazy or ignorant, decide to borrow from the toolbox of less-than-age appropriate activities.

Worked for 4th graders? Let's go 5th!

Worked for 5th? Let's go 6th!

Worked for 6th? Come on, high school chemistry can do it!

The reality is that any K-12 experience worth its salt evolves each year from K through 12. But the reality is that we kid ourselves to think that kids need coddling and may even show successful outcomes (like increased attendance, for example) but in reality, they are ill-prepared for the challenges ahead.

Case in point? The elementary school model.

Middle schools were created as a transition period from the elementary model to the big, scary high school model. Fine. They adopted various parts of the model like teams and smaller cohort groups. Some even adopted the worst parts of the elementary model like social promotion and other bits.

So, here we are in high school. But... but.... kids aren't prepared for high school and their big, scary grades and electives and graduate requirements! So, what do we do instead of help them transition or reformulating our middle schools to make that transition meaningful? We adopt teams in high school. We make grades option and say that if Suzi fails, it must be high school's fault... let's make high school look more like the middle school... which looks more like the elementary school!

This is a crushing blow to those that want our high school graduate to mean anything...

KDeRosa said...

Let it not be said that we here at d-edreckoning (and by we I mean me) aren't afraid to be branded a grinch to further important educational goals. It won't be the first time an angry parent left a comment for the perceived attack on their little darlings. In any event ...

A little fun, a little newspaper (and blogger)space, lots of proud family pictures.....big deal.

I agree that if this were how they were selling this "challenge," these are perfectly acceptable goals. But, this is not how its being sold. they're selling it with some perceived educational value.

BTW, Cody, I liked your (more serious than this) last post at EPT. I'm trying to get around to commenting on it.

Anonymous said...

Many engineers and mathematicians are as addicted to the romanticism KoolAid as teacher educators and teachers. When they get involved with schooling, their minds turn mush.

Speaking of that, Bill Gates comes to mind. His first "Annual Letter" released today makes for interesting reading.


Big Bill learned little from putting Big Bucks on "Small High Schools." Now he's chasing "Charter Schools."

D'ya think he'll ever learn?

Unknown said...

Sim City rocks, by the way.

Anonymous said...

"Sim City rocks, by the way."

I'd say it swings rather than rocks, but simulation is definitely the tune to dance to.

It's been used in "high stakes" situations, like trying aviation pilots, physicians, dentists. The "case study method" used in some B-schools, the "mock courts" of law schools and the art guy that Tracy flagged all are in this tradition.

The work Roger Schrank is doing at the high school level simulating work in various professions is the most sophisticated el-hi app Im aware of.

But broadband streaming of video is becoming commonplace except in the education sector. And the technology opens up new instructional opportunities.

KDeRosa said...

I'm more partial to caesar IV, zeus, and civilization which are more games than simulations but who's keeping score

Anonymous said...

Wikipedia calls them "games," and there's an important distinction between "games" and "instructional simulations."

Simulations are constructed to promote the acquisition of defined expertise--a form of DI.

Games provide an "experience," but gawd only knows what anyone learns.
It's instructiopathic--to coin a new word. That is, the learning is dependent upon the individual playing the game.

Roger Sweeny said...


Some of us don't just talk the talk; we walk the walk. I teach high school physics.

Barry Garelick said...


I plan to teach high school math when I retire in two years.

The article points up a belief being perpetuated in ed school--at least with respect to math teaching. There are "mere exercises" and there are "real problems". The background info that Ken D says was missing from the assignment would be considered "mere exercises". The coffee shop made from a Frappucino cup would be deemed part of "problem solving". Another term thrown around is "inauthentic work". The background info, although begrudgingly deemed necessary, is called "inauthentic".

Anonymous said...

Very good points, Barry. Your examples go to the heart of why many kids don't learn how to do math.

Don't you just love those Ed courses you have to take to get "Certified"?

Anonymous said...


I call you a "Grinch," and I'm an angry parent? My whole comment was intended to be light-hearted. You can't post what an angry parent would say.

And as far as taking sides or coming to the defense of this silly project, puhleeze (Jason note).

Lighten up. Every issue is not World War III.

KDeRosa said...

Cody I tool your comment as a joke which is what my comment was supposed to be as well.

Anonymous said...

This brings up what I like to call the "fallacy of engagement", which can be stated as this: "If an activity genuinely engages students, then it must be educational." I don't think that is the case at all. There are many, many activities that are intensely engaging to kids, but are anything but educational. There are also many activities that are engaging but only of marginal educational benefit. And among those many activities of genuine educational benefit, trade offs must be made. Engaging in one project or activity involves an opportunity cost.

I also happen to think many activities of the most educational value are those hum drum, mundane, everyday activities that teachers have always used. A well designed, or well chosen, worksheet can be highly productive. "Going over the lesson", with a reasonably competent teacher in charge, can be highly productive. Being motivated by the usual sticks and carrots used by schools also has great educational benefit.

I developed this idea of engagement versus education worth a little bit more in an article on my website about what should be included in the math curriculum. Here's a link.

Parry Graham said...


When I observe a teacher, I look for explicit evidence of engagement on the part of students, but I also look for other things: whether or not students are engaged in academic activity, whether or not the lesson aligns with curricular expectations, and the extent to which students are challenged to think critically about content.

I absolutely agree with you that engagement in and of itself does not constitute learning, but disengagement can cancel out just about everything else.