Monday, January 8, 2007

Eric Booth writes...

What a different writing style a blog invites—informal, opinionated, provocative. For a guy who writes a lot of reports and formal presentations of ideas, always careful in expression, this feels downright intoxicating. Thank you, ArtsTeach for providing this new medium of exchange for us workers in the field—I am picturing us in a lounge with big red sofas (slightly scruffy) where we can hang out in conversation about the topics that interest and concern us. Snacks too—please pass the guacamole and chips. I know that reflective dialogue is one of the biggest scarcities in my workworld—I am so busy putting out, that I rarely get to consider, wonder and muse with colleagues.

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.



Marissa Nesbit said...

Eric brings up some wonderful points for discussion. I am especially drawn to the idea of building metaphorical and analogical thinking, in our students and for ourselves as educators and innovators.
I am engaged in a lot of work in arts integration, and often when I present a lesson integrating dance with another content areas, teachers see the connection but remark, "How did you think of that? I never would have connected those!"
Thinking in an open, analogical way allows us to explore "How is dance like science?" "How is navigating space in geometry like navigating a stage space?" Integrated lessons help develop these capactities in our students, but to imagine those possibilities we need the capacity first ourselves.
While the arts definitely contribute to metaphorical and analogical thinking, they aren't ours alone. (Such as the lovely analogies section of the SAT and other such tests illustrates.) As a student in school, I unfortunately did not have the stellar arts education I advocate for my students, but I was lucky to have English teachers throughout my schooling who stressed these skills. In middle school I participated in Odyssey of the Mind, which has a "spontaneous thinking" category that exemplifies this type of work with rapid-fire intensity. We had weekly drill sessions to practice finding the most creative answers to questions.
Later I went to a math and science high school program, did my undergraduate degree in psychology and biology, taught special education, and then did a graduate degree in dance. Despite the seeming differences in my educational experiences, I cannot imagine doing my current work without that background, and I am grateful to the professors and supervisors who have supported me as I connected the dots.
As new reports come out and tell us how our students, as future workers and leaders, will need creative thinking skills and will need to see and develop connections among ideas, metaphorical and analogical thinking become all the more important. As we develop those skills in ourselves and our students, we can also encourage individuals to pursue divergent interests and paths and explore their hidden connections, thus creating a truly individualized integrated curriculum.

Eric Booth said...

Marissa, you are so right about analogical thinking as a basis for all complex mastery. I challenge anyone to find a major article in a scientific journal that does not use metaphors to clarify key points of logic and fact. Yet, our belligerently literal and binary-inclined schooling is underdeveloping that capactity--arts educators are doing remedial work for a life-essential capacity. I often talk with colleagues about how we can strategically focus on that capacity to work that muscle more directly, to build it up.

Dave Quicksall said...

First off, hello, Eric! I have a moment to say a couple of things. First, how great is this blog? Second, the idea of attacking metaphor (in my case, through the lens of theater) is an area that I have been trying to prod the teachers I work with to enter. Many times I have received the response, "I've got that covered," and we move into some other area dealing with infusing theater and literacy skills. Then, when I visit the classroom, I see a lack of metaphorical thinking in practice -- they may be able to define a metaphor on paper, but they are wanting in the ability to utilize the tool of metaphor while in the act of creating. For the teachers, I think it's the "not seeing the trees for the forest!" Their focus is oftentimes cemented in trying to address larger concepts without building foundations in the areas where critical and creative thinking occurs.

Eric Booth said...

We have to stop meeting like this; well, actually, this is a rather good way to meet. Nice to hear from you.

I wish I had a cadre of teacher partners who even said they knew to handle the metaphoric skill development. I mostly get fish eyes--it's not tested, it's not important.

I have been proposing that teachers dedicate two minutes a day to working that particular artistic muscle with students. They pop a quick, playful, metaphoric challenge, and then have students share what they come up with. It needs to be fun and can be tweaked to what the teacher wants to shed a little extra light on, and it might be worth a little reflection on the answers, such as:

- If Super Bowl Sunday were a kind of dessert, what would it be?

- What is one thing that happened to you yesterday that deserves to have a poem written about it, and what kind of poem would it be?

- Look at the lighting fixture in the ceiling over our heads; find its personality, based on how it looks and how it works; what would it want to say to us today?

Working this muscle regularly builds it up, and makes for deeper work by a visiting teaching artist.

Anonymous said...

So, Eric, what research or resources are there about how to teach creativity? I'm seeing articles purporting ways to teach to the "whole child". For someone who isn't vested in the academic community, what does this mean for arts in education?

Eric Booth said...

Hi Anonymous,
I just did a quick Google search of "teaching creativity." On the tenth page, they were still listing books, research and reports--I stopped there. Just as there is no settled definition of what creativity is (some researchers claim the proper question is Where Creativity Is?), there is no consensus about how to teach it.

I have written a lot about it, and feel I am still learning. I think everyone has creative potential, and conducive condtions are as important as any particular pedagogy. I found Ken Robinson's book Our of Our Minds to be useful, and the Root-Bernstein's book Sparks of Genius.

I believe in teaching creativity across the curriculum, rather than balkanized in the arts studio. While this is not the forum in which to go on at length about all the ways we can nurture the creative potential, voice, courage and habit of each learner, this is a good place for a call to arms for all of us, arts educators and not, to make sure we are emphasizing the creative component of our arts work. And that we are letting teachers of other subjects know the ways they can boost the creativity in their teaching.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Eric. There does seem to be a lot of different theories for teaching creativity. I think we arts teachers have known about this benefit, but the challenge is how to get it across to administrators. I mean, usually we're either left alone or told to support the core curriculum. So, how can I tell my parents and administrators at my school about how the arts teaches creativity?

Eric Booth said...

Hi again Anonymous,
I think we can "tell" administrators, most teachers, families, that the arts teach creativity until we are blue in the face and not get anywhere. Telling is not our best tool as advocates. The three most basic and effective steps to make the point that the arts do develop creativity are:

- make sure that it is very true, make sure the arts programs are focused on creative skills as a goal and not just assume that mounting a production of a play or learning to play the clarinet develops creativity skills;
- document the process and assess the documents in straightforward, consistent ways, so the increase specific creative skills is evident to someone who wasn't in the room;
- get people in the room. Getting involvement of key stakeholders in creatively-charged learning does more convincing than any amount of "telling about."

This is big work. I recommend that you don't try it alone--it is wearying. Find colleagues and friends, work with organizations like ArtsTeach that sponsors this blog, to dig into the issues of the specific skills of creativity. Take the long view. I have been working on these issues for three decades, and am still learning and still making progress.

susana said...

Hello, it’s good to virtually meet all of you – love the couches, especially since they’re a little ratty and I sometimes spill things. Also, I hope there’s some good music – not enough to be too distracting, but enough to yank us out of our brains periodically and say “damn, I love that song!”

Thanks to Eric and others for their insight and eloquence, and mostly for taking the time in this busy world. I have to say, as the shy kid in class, I’m a little concerned about security in this place – after all, it’s open to (virtually) everyone and the idea of flat out disagreeing, however intellectually, is a bit nerve-wracking when I may be seated next to a potential grant maker with an agenda. I think some of that lovely Portugese wine would help!

Here’s what I would ask after a few glasses:
To what extent are teaching artists and arts organizations engaged in proactive, conscious attempts at educational reform? To what extent are we facilitating the current educational paradigm? What role are arts organizations playing in determining the direction of the profession?

I stumbled in here after spending a few weeks writing a sort of personal retrospective of trends that I’ve perceived over my 25 years in and around the arts-in-education field. I’d post it, but it’s not quite done and I need to edit out my own rhetoric (as I said, I sometimes spill things). I must say, it was incredibly heartening to hear that my concerns are shared by the international community! Thank you so much Eric for validating and articulating what I have increasingly sensed; that creativity and the habits of mind that kindle the act, have become, as you said “incidental”.

Some 25 years ago and into the 90’s, we talked a lot about the role of the arts in nurturing self-esteem in children. We talked a lot about student motivation as a result of creative inspiration. We recognized and valued all of the ways in which the arts in school settings helped children to think creatively and to problem-solve independently. We talked about empowering children and giving them tools to help them explore the world before them. Teaching artists were supported and valued by State and local arts councils and organizations specific to arts in education such as Project Impact and Young Audiences, supported the cause. Many, if not most of us believed that arts-in-education was a means to altering a profoundly flawed educational system.

In the 1990’s the pendulum began to swing from the “free schools” and “alternative schools” of the 70’s, and make its way towards “back to basics” and the national test-based achievement/assessment model. The ideas of empowerment, inspiration, creativity, motivation, and self-esteem, were no longer in vogue, way too “touchy-feely”. The new buzzwords were accountability, assessment, and closing the achievement gap. . During the mid to late ‘90’s arts organizations and teaching artists entered into a sort of collusion. We knew that the only way to get into the schools would be to justify our work by claiming higher test scores and teaching “the basics” through arts integration. We were finally armed with the statistics to prove that it worked. I even carried a folder filled with statistics that were pleasing to school administrators.
Still, at that point we still knew that we were using the statistics as a means to get ourselves funded and into the classroom to do what we truly believed in. That is, to celebrate and nurture creativity in order to empower, inspire, and motivate students while helping to build the self-esteem necessary to become a competent explorer in and of the world. We used the fact that the arts can be adapted to teach many other areas of the curriculum in order to get into the classrooms and provide an antidote to the rigid institutionalizing of children’s minds.

I believe that we have achieved many things, not the least of which is the acceptance and validation of the teaching artist field. I am concerned that, at this juncture, the field may be in danger of forgetting its roots. I think we need to seriously consider the questions above – really examine our hearts for the answers. Lately, I have received numerous lesson plan templates to fill out in order to be “accepted” as a teaching artist. Some of the templates are remarkably rigid and detailed, and are based on the “define measurable goals – conduct activity – assess achievement” model used in public schools. I have no problem with the model, but where does it leave creativity as a goal in itself? How do I assess that objective? (I’m working on a rubric based on “surprise as a measuring stick for creativity”).

We have also been invited to numerous Teaching Artist Training sessions. Will we discuss and value each others experience? Will we nurture and mentor each other or does it imply some sort of rigorous basic training (lesson plans 101) to teach us the institutional ropes. “Drop and give me 20 curriculum connections?” What does the terminology say about the increasingly hierarchical relationship between artists and arts organizations?

So, back to the original question –are we still reformers or are we being, in effect, co-opted by the values of the current system? I think we need to make a careful distinction between “professionalizing” and “institutionalizing” our work, and analyze the changing relationships between and among teaching artists, arts administrators, classroom teachers, and school administrators.

There, I’ve said too much, so much for being the shy kid – darn that’s really nice wine! If I’m not already sitting here by myself, I welcome any and all comments on these thoughts, and thank you in advance. Please pass the baby carrots – oh-by-the-way- Did you know that they’re not really baby carrots. They’re actually carrot bits that are pressed with little baby carrot templates out of regular grown-up carrots, then packaged and sold to us as individuals because real baby carrots aren’t economically viable.

Is that a metaphor on the table??

Anonymous said...

I think the idea, the concept of teaching anyone how to be creative is inaccurate. As human beings we don't need to be taught "how" to be creative we already are. The real question is what prevents us from fully participating in our own native creativity? What has happened to us as human beings that makes us believe we now have to be taught about something we already possess? It's like having a precious gem in our hand but seek it else where in vain. It's not about how to be creative it's about allowing that creativity to present itself without interference from external and internal conditioning. There is a mechanism, a thought, an idea we have bought into that redirects our participation, that skews our perception of what is therefore interfering with creativity. The French Philosopher and archetypal psychologist Henri Corbin wrote - it is not we who do the imagining but we who are imagined. Creativity simply is, we don't need to be taught it, it is in fact creating us in each and every moment of life. We just need to recognize it, to wake up to it and allow it to express itself. What we really need to learn is how to be in the moment with it...the rest will take care of itself.