So let me begin this lounge discussion—quit hogging the baby carrots and dip—with a few of the topics that are brewing in my spirit. The ArtsTeach folks asked me to start us off with a big sandwich of material, to help us all get a feel for the kinds of topics that are hot. Jump in to any of the points that make you want to respond. I number them, not for priority, but to give you a chance to target a topic by number for response. I wonder who will respond and to what—remember, we are in a lounge where spelling and punctuation don’t count, and where it is great to flat-out disagree. If you would put down that fistful of popcorn for a minute, maybe you could type a response? I look forward to our dialogue. Some of you know I am an etymology freak, and “dialogue” is a good one. It basically means, etymologically, “finding shared meaning through words.” Let’s try to.
1. Focus on Creativity
I got to attend the first ever UNESCO worldwide arts education conference (March 2006 in Lisbon). It was mind-altering experience in a lot of ways, not least of which was the discovery of Portuguese wines. So many different understandings of what arts education means and why it is important—one guy from Mali couldn’t get any government support to attend, so he sold his car to pay for the trip. I have written about the conference in the Teaching Artist Journal, but one of the shocks was that amid all that wide variety of 1200 delegates from 97 countries, a clear ringing unified call for and from arts education emerged. Heads of state, culture ministers, and arts leaders made speech after speech (often excruciatingly boring because in the UN tradition, they all presented formal papers, read from pages at a podium for hours on end) imploring basically the same thing. They laid out all the worst problems in their nations—environmental degradation, youth mental health crisis, AIDS, economic deadends, wealth gap, and more—and implored arts education to become an active contributor to their solutions. They said the #1 thing their countries’ needed was creativity, and arts education had to provide it. There was worldwide consensus that all arts educators around the world should march behind the same banner, upon which is written: Literacy, Numeracy, Creativity. All three should be prioritized across all curricula of all nations, and arts education had to be the leader of creativity. It was incredible to witness this clear unanimity around a concept this focused and worldwide role so clear for our field; and not an instrumental benefit of the arts like improving behavior, boosting teamwork or raising academic scores, BUT…
I was struck by the fact that creativity is not a particular focus of arts learning in the U.S. No, we aren’t against it! But we don’t focus on it; we don’t prioritize it in our programs, our teacher/teaching artist/artist training. Indeed, if we empirically analyzed what we teach students in American arts education, we’d have to say creativity is a pretty low priority. The one thing the world really begs from us, and we deal with it incidentally.
I think we have to change this. What would arts education in America look like if we emphasized creativity skills in our programs and projects? Sad but true—the #1 gig I am hired by American businesses to deliver is workshops and speeches on Creativity, and they immediately say, “but no arts, please.” The general American mainstream view is that creativity is hugely valuable, but the arts are fluffy and light and not tied to useful-creativity. We have to consistently put forward the uniquely effective ways the arts have to develop creative capacities. And it has to start in arts education.
2. Habits of Mind of Creative Engagement
Which leads to personal point number two. One of the things I am doing about this is developing a new body of work called The Habits of Mind of Creative Engagement. I am trying to give us a new way to “teach creativity” that is widely communicable, widely applicable, and gives us a way to argue for its inclusion across the curriculum and not balkanized in studio room at the side of the school, or in a portable for the arts-geeks.
In exploring this new area, I asked myself: What do humans do inside, what is the key set of skills of heart/mind/spirit that enable us to get into the “flow” experience? How can we develop those skills in the arts, and in other worthwhile subjects, so learners carry those skills into every challenge, every part of their lives? Rather than teaching “arts skills,” which we all have done, often well, for a lot of years, what if we were to tweak that intent and teach the internal processes, key habits, that can lead to excellent art when applied in artistic media, or artistry in any subject area?
As I say, I am working on the first written version of this approach. The list has distilled and ballooned from 7 essential Habits to 26, and is currently simmering at 20. The writing is currently an essay of an ugly 24 pages. I will boil it down to a document available through this blogsite in a month or two—I have a helpful deadline to teach this topic in a workshop at The Kennedy Center National Education Partnerships annual convening in DC in February. In the meantime, how does this notion of Habits of Mind of Creative Engagement strike you?
My notion builds on the habits of mind work done in four other “systems.” The good folks at ArtsTeach will post a little document I have prepared of four other Habits of mind “systems” that are out there. Mine isn’t ready yet, but maybe we can post it when it is. You might want to check out the really interesting Studio Habits of Mind (copyright 2004 The President and Fellows of Harvard College on Behalf of Project Zero) From the VALUES Project, a network of schools and educators led by The Center for Art and Public Life, the Alameda County Office of Education, and Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This approach is explicitly based in the arts. You can find out more about this good stuff here.
3. New arts teaching pedagogy
Which leads to the next topic—HOW we teach the arts. In creating the conceptual foundation for Habits of Mind of Creative Engagement, of course I have been thinking about how to develop these habits in learners. All the H.O.M. “systems” are less developed in their pedagogy than their conception.
In the last couple of years, I have been working with arts educators to expand our repertoire of ways we teach. I want to challenge you with one new way I have found a lot of excitement about in the last year or so. Can you identify short arts-centered exercises you could imagine doing with students just two to three minutes a day, every day, that build an essential artistic capacity? I have been urging classroom teachers, and arts teachers, to take on this practice to build creative skills they want their students to have—things like brainstorming (generating multiple right answers), observing before interpreting, creating metaphors (analogical thinking), and more.
An example might be that a classroom teacher finds her seventh grade students are frustratingly literal about everything, and she wants to boost their analogical thinking. (This is a common and increasing problem—The College Board even dropped the analogy questions from the verbal half of the SAT test.) She might create a daily challenge that requires metaphoric thinking, a different one every day. Monday for two minutes: “If the lunchroom experience were a kind of vacation, write what might it be?” Tuesday for two minutes: “Today, draw an image that captures your sense of the relationship between sixth grade and seventh grade.” Wednesday for two minutes: “Create two frozen statues with your bodies, one to capture the internal experience of a bully, and one to capture the experience of being bullied.” Etc. We don’t have to teach only in class period blocks of time. We can be more creative, and in ways more effective, if we expand our opportunities, partner with others in coordinated practices, emphasize them with regularity. What else can you imagine?
So, send all of us gathered in the lounge your response. I will get some more salsa and chips from the kitchen to give you a minute to type an answer.
Thanks, and best wishes for a great arts-learning year, for you and for your students.