Posts Tagged ‘Education’

The Skills Connection Between the Arts and 21st-Century Learning

February 2, 2011 in Blog Post | Comments (0)

Tags: ,

By Bruce D. Taylor
Premium article access courtesy of Edweek.org

Arts Education and 21st-Century Skills

Few of us could disagree that today’s students must be taught the necessary skills to function in an increasingly complex, conceptual, and globalized 21st-century society and economy. Students have to acquire so-called “habits of mind” that will enable them to develop the skills of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. In addition, they must be able to communicate effectively, collaborate with people different from themselves, exercise initiative, and be self-directed.

That is a pretty tall order.

The primary purpose of education is to enable students to make a living as adults; without this capability, everything else falls away. Yet we still teach within a basic framework established in the 19th century. In today’s education environment, we seem to be slipping back from the future into the 19th century’s contextual emphasis on reading, writing, and math. The consequences could be dire, even propelling us back to a two-tiered education system: just reading, writing, and math for the disadvantaged in underresourced schools, alongside a richer 21st-century curriculum for the country’s productive employees and future decisionmakers.

What can we do?

Consider the list of skills cited in the first paragraph. Aren’t these 21st-century skills, in reality, arts skills? Now, stay with me here: First, we need to recognize that the very same valuable skills routinely employed by artists and arts educators can be integrated curriculum-wide in ways that are not arts-dependent. If this seems a revolutionary notion, it is because for more than 30 years, the well-meaning mandarins of arts education have promoted practitioner development above all else.

We must ask ourselves, are we preparing students to function as human beings, or just as flesh-and-blood versions of a hard drive?

What happened over that same span of time? Not only were the arts severely diminished in public education, but the young people we supposedly reached 10, 15, even 20 years ago became parents of kids in schools where the arts were cut. Bear in mind that these cuts were not the work of educators, but of school boards ostensibly representing the parental community. The irony is rich, since the very skills their children will need to be capable adults can result from arts practice.

At this point, I believe that the prevailing public perception is that arts education is only for young people who want to be artists—“Glee” wannabes. If we applied this mindset to science, we would teach science only to students who aspired to be chemists, biologists, or astronomers.

But the basis of this public perception is legitimate, rooted in the reality of arts education today. The fact is, we too often teach students to perform without their actually learning anything. Most of the time, students are simply remembering lines, notes, steps, terminology, and so on. To be fair, the cumulative amount of instructional time an elementary music teacher has in the school year is approximately 32 hours. This is less than the equivalent of a standard workweek to produce two concerts with 200 or more kids. Given this time constraint, perhaps all that can be accomplished is replication—not learning, much less understanding.

I believe that we can repair the damage done, and change public perception, by rethinking and reshaping our approach to arts education. I propose that the critical skills of creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving can be developed by design—not acquired by accident or as a byproduct—using the arts as tools. For example, teaching artists, along with arts specialists in schools, can be rich resources for the integration of 21st-century teaching and learning into the 19th-century paradigm to which we seem to be wedded. After all, to be “creative” is to be, by definition, artistic.

Why am I convinced that this would work? Because the arts relate to the unique ways in which human beings think.

Marc Hauser at Harvard University postulates that there are four “key characteristics of the human mind”Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader that are contained in the 1 percent of our DNA that distinguishes us from our nearest primate relative, the chimp.

• Generative Computation The ability to create a limitless variety of “expressions” from a generative catalyst of modest content. Think Beethoven’s four-note theme, which he spun into the Fifth Symphony.

• Promiscuous Combination of Ideas Mingling of different domains of knowledge, thereby creating new products, relationships, techniques, and technologies. Think of a recipe that combines the chemistry of ingredients with knowledge of temperature and time, along with taste, feel, and smell.

• Mental Symbols Encoding sensory experiences, both real and imagined, into complex systems of communication. Think metaphor or analogy.

• Abstract Thought The ability to imagine what isn’t yet.

To focus on these is to enhance the very qualities that make us … us. In other words, to be artistic is to be human.

The arts are woven throughout the fabric of our lives and the tapestry of our society. We engage with the arts every day, all day. Artistic products envelop our daily lives, particularly those of children. They are what we listen to, watch and read, wear, put up on our walls—they are everywhere. Artists have employed for millennia the inherently human abilities that Hauser describes, transcending cultural and historical boundaries; now, these qualities have become crucial capabilities for success in the 21st century.So we must ask ourselves, are we preparing students to function as human beings, or just as flesh-and-blood versions of a hard drive?


The key connector of all these artistic artifacts in our lives is emotion—these things matter to us. They touch us, resonate with us. Now, what is the one adjective all dropouts use to describe school? Boring! To be bored is to be emotionally disengaged. Do our children go to school only to prep for tests that are limited in scope and focus to the three R’s of retention, recall, and replication? Is there a difference between “to know” and “to think?”

Of course there is a difference, and surely the mission of education is to have students think as much as it is for them to “know.” But how do you “test” thinking? And shouldn’t teachers be asked, “What do you think?” The key disconnect with so-called teacher reform is that teachers are not urged—not permitted—to think. The demand is that teachers limit themselves to following prescriptions generated by people far removed from the classroom and the school, sometimes hundreds of miles away, both literally and figuratively.

We must allow and encourage teachers to be creative (i.e., artistic) in devising ways to reach children in a variety of circumstances, cultural frameworks, and emotional conditions, to have the flexibility to shift gears, to create (there’s that word again) alternative methods, and to inspire in their students an emotional commitment to attaining mastery.

All of these are hallmarks of the artistic process, and they can—and should—be employed in nonartistic contexts as well.

Bruce D. Taylor is the director of education for the Washington National Opera, in Washington, D.C.


The Creativity Crisis

November 21, 2010 in Blog Post | Comments (0)

Tags: , ,

 

 

 

Newsweek.com

 For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong—and how we can fix it.

creativity-test-tease
Experts assess 10 drawings by adults and children for signs of out-of-the-box thinking. View gallery.

Back in 1958, Ted Schwarzrock was an 8-year-old third grader when he became one of the “Torrance kids,” a group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who completed a series of creativity tasks newly designed by professor E. Paul Torrance. Schwarzrock still vividly remembers the moment when a psychologist handed him a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” He recalls the psychologist being excited by his answers. In fact, the psychologist’s session notes indicate Schwarzrock rattled off 25 improvements, such as adding a removable ladder and springs to the wheels. That wasn’t the only time he impressed the scholars, who judged Schwarzrock to have “unusual visual perspective” and “an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.”

The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).

In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took their tests, scholars—first led by Torrance, now his colleague, Garnet Millar—have been tracking the children, recording every patent earned, every business founded, every research paper published, and every grant awarded. They tallied the books, dances, radio shows, art exhibitions, software programs, advertising campaigns, hardware innovations, music compositions, public policies (written or implemented), leadership positions, invited lectures, and buildings designed.

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

7/10/10: Obamanomics, Immigration, Spy Games; Keys to Creativity; Israel and Iran; The Karen Oberlin Loesser Show; Movie Review: Inception; From the Archives: McNamara’s Mistake. SUBSCRIBE OR DOWNLOAD PODCAST: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/newsweek-on-air/id73329823

The potential consequences are sweeping. The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.

It’s too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.

Around the world, though, other countries are making creativity development a national priority. In 2008 British secondary-school curricula—from science to foreign language—was revamped to emphasize idea generation, and pilot programs have begun using Torrance’s test to assess their progress. The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, financing teacher training, and instituting problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults. In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.

Plucker recently toured a number of such schools in Shanghai and Beijing. He was amazed by a boy who, for a class science project, rigged a tracking device for his moped with parts from a cell phone. When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ ”

Overwhelmed by curriculum standards, American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week. But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia’s Mark Runco calls “art bias.” The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into homeroom. The argument that we can’t teach creativity because kids already have too much to learn is a false trade-off. Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way.

To understand exactly what should be done requires first understanding the new story emerging from neuroscience. The lore of pop psychology is that creativity occurs on the right side of the brain. But we now know that if you tried to be creative using only the right side of your brain, it’d be like living with ideas perpetually at the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach.

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

Is this learnable? Well, think of it like basketball. Being tall does help to be a pro basketball player, but the rest of us can still get quite good at the sport through practice. In the same way, there are certain innate features of the brain that make some people naturally prone to divergent thinking. But convergent thinking and focused attention are necessary, too, and those require different neural gifts. Crucially, rapidly shifting between these modes is a top-down function under your mental control. University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.

A fine example of this emerged in January of this year, with release of a study by University of Western Ontario neuroscientist Daniel Ansari and Harvard’s Aaron Berkowitz, who studies music cognition. They put Dartmouth music majors and nonmusicians in an fMRI scanner, giving participants a one-handed fiber-optic keyboard to play melodies on. Sometimes melodies were rehearsed; other times they were creatively improvised. During improvisation, the highly trained music majors used their brains in a way the nonmusicians could not: they deactivated their right-temporoparietal junction. Normally, the r-TPJ reads incoming stimuli, sorting the stream for relevance. By turning that off, the musicians blocked out all distraction. They hit an extra gear of concentration, allowing them to work with the notes and create music spontaneously.

Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins has found a similar pattern with jazz musicians, and Austrian researchers observed it with professional dancers visualizing an improvised dance. Ansari and Berkowitz now believe the same is true for orators, comedians, and athletes improvising in games.

The good news is that creativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. “Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

What’s common about successful programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. Real improvement doesn’t happen in a weekend workshop. But when applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.

So what does this mean for America’s standards-obsessed schools? The key is in how kids work through the vast catalog of information. Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

With as much as three fourths of each day spent in project-based learning, principal Buckner and her team actually work through required curricula, carefully figuring out how kids can learn it through the steps of Treffinger’s Creative Problem-Solving method and other creativity pedagogies. “The creative problem-solving program has the highest success in increasing children’s creativity,” observed William & Mary’s Kim.

The home-game version of this means no longer encouraging kids to spring straight ahead to the right answer. When UGA’s Runco was driving through California one day with his family, his son asked why Sacramento was the state’s capital—why not San Francisco or Los Angeles? Runco turned the question back on him, encouraging him to come up with as many explanations as he could think of.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.

It’s also true that highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship. Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible—and flexibility helps with creativity.

In early childhood, distinct types of free play are associated with high creativity. Preschoolers who spend more time in role-play (acting out characters) have higher measures of creativity: voicing someone else’s point of view helps develop their ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. When playing alone, highly creative first graders may act out strong negative emotions: they’ll be angry, hostile, anguished. The hypothesis is that play is a safe harbor to work through forbidden thoughts and emotions.

In middle childhood, kids sometimes create paracosms—fantasies of entire alternative worlds. Kids revisit their paracosms repeatedly, sometimes for months, and even create languages spoken there. This type of play peaks at age 9 or 10, and it’s a very strong sign of future creativity. A Michigan State University study of MacArthur “genius award” winners found a remarkably high rate of paracosm creation in their childhoods.

From fourth grade on, creativity no longer occurs in a vacuum; researching and studying become an integral part of coming up with useful solutions. But this transition isn’t easy. As school stuffs more complex information into their heads, kids get overloaded, and creativity suffers. When creative children have a supportive teacher—someone tolerant of unconventional answers, occasional disruptions, or detours of curiosity—they tend to excel. When they don’t, they tend to underperform and drop out of high school or don’t finish college at high rates.

They’re quitting because they’re discouraged and bored, not because they’re dark, depressed, anxious, or neurotic. It’s a myth that creative people have these traits. (Those traits actually shut down creativity; they make people less open to experience and less interested in novelty.) Rather, creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.

The new view is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity—not having loads of it—is the real risk factor. In his research, Runco asks college students, “Think of all the things that could interfere with graduating from college.” Then he instructs them to pick one of those items and to come up with as many solutions for that problem as possible. This is a classic divergent-convergent creativity challenge. A subset of respondents, like the proverbial Murphy, quickly list every imaginable way things can go wrong. But they demonstrate a complete lack of flexibility in finding creative solutions. It’s this inability to conceive of alternative approaches that leads to despair. Runco’s two questions predict suicide ideation—even when controlling for preexisting levels of depression and anxiety.

In Runco’s subsequent research, those who do better in both problem-finding and problem-solving have better relationships. They are more able to handle stress and overcome the bumps life throws in their way. A similar study of 1,500 middle schoolers found that those high in creative self-efficacy had more confidence about their future and ability to succeed. They were sure that their ability to come up with alternatives would aid them, no matter what problems would arise.

When he was 30 years old, Ted Schwarzrock was looking for an alternative. He was hardly on track to becoming the prototype of Torrance’s longitudinal study. He wasn’t artistic when young, and his family didn’t recognize his creativity or nurture it. The son of a dentist and a speech pathologist, he had been pushed into medical school, where he felt stifled and commonly had run-ins with professors and bosses. But eventually, he found a way to combine his creativity and medical expertise: inventing new medical technologies.

Today, Schwarzrock is independently wealthy—he founded and sold three medical-products companies and was a partner in three more. His innovations in health care have been wide ranging, from a portable respiratory oxygen device to skin-absorbing anti-inflammatories to insights into how bacteria become antibiotic-resistant. His latest project could bring down the cost of spine-surgery implants 50 percent. “As a child, I never had an identity as a ‘creative person,’ ” Schwarzrock recalls. “But now that I know, it helps explain a lot of what I felt and went through.”

Creativity has always been prized in American society, but it’s never really been understood. While our creativity scores decline unchecked, the current national strategy for creativity consists of little more than praying for a Greek muse to drop by our houses. The problems we face now, and in the future, simply demand that we do more than just hope for inspiration to strike. Fortunately, the science can help: we know the steps to lead that elusive muse right to our doors.

Like The Daily Beast on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for updates all day long.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s New York Magazine articles on the science of children won the magazine journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications. Their articles for Time Magazine won the award for outstanding journalism from the Council on Contemporary Families. Bronson has authored five books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life?

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s New York Magazine articles on the science of children won the magazine journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications. Their articles for Time Magazine won the award for outstanding journalism from the Council on Contemporary Families.

For inquiries, please contact The Daily Beast ateditorial@thedailybeast.com.