Starting on a Hat: How Rubrics Kill Creativity

I am a fan of the great Broadway composter/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. My high school English teacher Mr. Jacobs introduced me to his plays during my senior year, and Sondheim’s lyrics became the subject of my college senior thesis in English. I was a high school senior in 1984/85, when Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. Sadly, I never got to see the show live, but I have watched the video they made of it for PBS, and I have since seen its stars, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, in concert.

And tonight, I got to watch a live video discussion about the making of Sunday in the Park with George with Sondheim, James Lapine (who wrote the book for the show and directed it), Patinkin, and Peters. It was magical. Sondheim, at 91, is sharp as a tack. The show is a fictitious account of the French artist George Seurat and his creation of the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. Act I is about Seurat; Act II is about a fictional grandson of Seurat’s, also an artist, having a creative crisis.

You may be wondering about what all this has to do with education. The answer: everything.

Sunday in the Park with George is a show about creativity that is itself an act of creativity. The panel discussion I watched tonight took place because James Lapine has released a book, Putting It Together, about the creation of the show.

So, speaking of creativity, ask any student if school encourages creativity. They’ll tell you: it doesn’t. And yet creativity is often cited as the number one skill of the future by CEOs.

How does school stifle creativity? I’ll tell you. First, the system seldom if ever allows students to write about or explore what they care about. We give them generic prompts instead that make the writing standardized and easy to measure. At the end of the discussion tonight, a 14 year student asked Sondheim and Lapine about advice for being a writer. One of several pieces of advice they gave her: write about what you care about. School does not allow that. We give lip service to it, but it seldom happens. Students in my class are stunned when I allow them to chose their own topics.

In addition to not allowing students to chose meaningful subjects, we also give student rubrics: charts that tell them exactly what is expected of them and allow teachers to grade writing “objectively” and also justify those grades. Not familiar with rubrics? Most actual writers aren’t. Do an internet search and you’ll get the idea.

Sunday in the Park with George, both in its subject and in its making, is also about how creativity breaks through standardized expectations and explores the new. George doesn’t paint in the traditional style of French painters of his era. He used a technique called Pointillism, where instead of brush strokes, tiny dots of paint are stippled over the canvas, allowing viewers to blend the colors with their eyes. He did not meet the demands of the “rubrics” of his time.

The musical, Sunday in the Park with George, like most of Sondheim’s shows, was innovative and unusual. In the earlier era of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, there was usually a primary romantic couple and a secondary couple, usually younger. There was an expectation of production numbers. The stories were nearly always linear. If Sunday had been graded on the R&H rubric, which some critics and audience members did, it would have failed miserably. The story is non-linear – George is sketching a lot of people in a park. There is a romantic relationship, but it breaks up halfway through Act 1 and is left behind when the play leaps 100 years for Act 2. The music is challenging on a first hearing, the lyrics complex.

But Sunday was new – and it broke ground for other musicals to do new things as well. Real writing is not created to a checklist or rubric. Real writing is an exploration. That was what struck me tonight was how the collaboration between the writers and the actors was experimental and exploratory. They weren’t working to meet the demands of a rubric, or even necessarily and audience: they wanted to make the show achieve their vision for it.

And here’s the thing: Rodgers and Hammerstein broke even earlier modes of musical theater, where shows were really a string of jokes and generic songs plugged into a generic plot that allowed for lots of dancing. When Oklahoma opened its curtain on an old woman churning butter instead of a chorus of leggy dancing girls, it was a bold, risky move. They didn’t follow the earlier rubric. Coming ahead to present day Broadway, Lin Manuel Miranda didn’t follow the rubrics of earlier shows when wrote Hamilton: he was inspired by earlier shows, but used updated musical styles and innovative casting.

Creativity tries new things, takes risks. It doesn’t check off boxes in a rubric. And creativity comes from the individual. It is never standardized. Creativity comes from within a person: what they love, what they hate, what they worry about, what they wonder about. It is an urge to explore and to connect. Generic prompts almost never call forth individual voice.

Of course, the same goes for creativity in teaching. Real teaching is never standardized, never a matter of checking off the boxes. As Parker Palmer says in The Courage to Teach, “good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

And as Dot sings at the end of Sunday in the Park with George:

“Just keep moving on/Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new.”