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Teachers Don’t Know From Creative

We all know that arts classes and opportunities have been disappearing from schools at varying rates for decades. It may or may not surprise you to learn that creativity is not encouraged in schools either. While you may have suspected it all along, Alex Tabarrok links to a number of studies from the Marginal Revolution blog.

He cites in one study,

“What the paper shows is that the characteristics that teachers use to describe their favorite student correlate negatively with the characteristics associated with creativity. In addition, although teachers say that they like creative students, teachers also say creative students are “sincere, responsible, good-natured and reliable.” In other words, the teachers don’t know what creative students are actually like.”

As Tabarrok notes, the classroom process is not conducive to impulsive creative expression. Self control is valued in students in order to create an environment for a group to learn in. I would note though that this is not to equate self-control with smothering creativity. Even in self-directed learning environments where students are more in control of the pace and manner of their learning, a degree of self-control is still expected.

It occurs to me that part of the fight to restore arts education to schools needs to include advocating for a learning environment that encourages creativity. Arts people may hold certain assumptions about that arts in education involves cultivating creative expression, but it might not necessarily be so. Everyone probably has a story about a teacher who nearly killed their interest in an artistic discipline.

It may seem like incrementalism in the face of the size of the struggle to get arts education restored, but in the process, it will be important to try to preserve opportunities for creative expression still have left lest they slip away.

Think about it– outside the classroom the only place where a child is still permitted to indulge their screaming anarchist tendencies is on the playground and a lot of schools are doing away with recess. Without recess, there is another moment of a child’s life where they are expected to behave.

Now granted, for all I know kids today may stand around at recess playing on their Nintendo DSes and ignore their screaming anarchist tendencies without any help from their schools and such advocacy is for naught anyway.

My point is that while fighting for the restoration of arts, it is probably important to make teachers aware of what creative students are actually like and provide tools/guidance for dealing with them rather than requiring them to conform to expectations all the time.

Essentially the approach of “Arts offer X, Y, Z to your students. But since you may not provide opportunities in the coming academic year, we will happily help you to recognize the creativity of your students and engage it in your classroom to some degree since these kids are likely the ones you have pegged as disconnected.”

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Arts Instruction Is Critical…As Long As You Volunteer To Do It

Last week I came across a link to a story about Columbia University students who created a program to provide after school arts experiences in NYC. I absolutely applaud the efforts of these students for seeing the need and providing arts experiences to public school kids for the last seven years.

However, the title of the piece sheds some light on the underlying problem – “Students sub for arts teachers at underfunded MoHi school.”

Artists Reaching Out (ARO), the program created by the Columbia students is now teaching arts during the school day. While this is a positive step for the group since their reach has increased beyond those they can serve after school, it a poor reflection on the NYC Public School system that has replaced arts teachers with unpaid volunteers. This great learning experience for the Columbia students is marred a bit by the fact they won’t be able to use the experience as volunteers teaching the arts to find employment teaching the arts in NYC public schools.

I give credit to Reginald Higgins, the principal of P.S. 125 where the ARO program is teaching during school hours. He seems to be trying to lead his teachers toward integrating the arts into the subject instruction.

“It’s really hard for teachers to include dance, music, and theater in their lessons,” Higgins said. “It’s a lot easier when you have it built into your schedule and when you have individuals come in to help you learn ways to work with your students.”

The Columbia students make an effort to learn what topics will be taught in the coming weeks and customize their activities to complement the instruction.

Given the dichotomy of instruction which is especially marked in this school, the efforts of the Columbia students seems particularly valuable in the lives of the PS 125 students.

“PS 125 shares a building with two charter schools, which receive public funding but are privately managed.

“They’re surrounded by children in uniforms who have arts programs, have more resources, and that affects me,” said Emily Handsman, BC ’12, ARO co-coordinator, and head copy editor of The Eye.”

As I read this piece, I thought about an interview Sir Ken Robinson recently gave where he spoke about creativity not being an add on. As I went back to watch the video of the interview, Robinson’s made a comment about a literacy program in the UK where teachers had to provide a prescribed unit of instruction for an hour and how he felt there were those in the “government who hoped they would recommend a creativity hour…on a Friday…after lunch.”

That comment barely registered on my conscious mind at the time, but popped to the surface when I looked at the ARO website and noticed their program required “Volunteer commitment of 4 hours/week, Friday afternoons, off-campus.”

That is certainly nothing more than coincidence, of course, but as the article describes the experience of the ARO participants in the schools, there is much the same sense of the arts instruction being relegated the status of an add on and being viewed by some as an inconvenience.

“The ARO students are building the capacities of my teachers,” some of whom are “art-phobic,” he [Reginald Higgins] said, adding that teachers of older students were worried ARO lessons would take away from time to prepare for standardized tests.

Fox said that increased attention to standardized tests has nearly wiped out exposure to the arts in public schools, but that teachers’ concern was “definitely legitimate.” “We’re really, really aware we’re taking time out of the school day for this, so we want to be sure we’re helping the teachers and not placing an additional burden on them,” Handsman said.

It is a bit dispiriting that the ARO students view their activities as taking time away from more important efforts. Ken Robinson made a comment that made me realize just how un-student centered standardized testing is. He points out that instead of serving education as a guide for making changes, instruction serves the standardized test. He notes that no student gets up in the morning inspired to help increase the standardized test score rating of their school.

Students don’t become unemployable adults because someone looks at their 5th grade standardized test scores, they are unemployable because there was a lack of engagement in their learning. The tests have meaning to teachers, principals, superintendents, legislatures, governors, Congress and the President of the United State and fulfill their needs, but have no direct significance to the students whose educational lives they will purportedly help.

The 5 minute video of Ken Robinson’s interview is worth watching. He points out the “there is not enough time to do it right first time around, but time to do it over” status of the U.S. education system observing that most remedial programs are geared personally to the student after discovering what inspires them. It would be cheaper to have a more individualized focus on instruction than to pay multiple people to teach the same thing to a student more than once.

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Creativity To The Left Of Me, Creativity To The Right

I am just getting around to reading a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Stephen Tepper and George Kuh (subscription required) about the need to get serious about teaching creativity. By coincidence or design, Americans for the Arts is holding a blog salon on arts in education that also focuses heavily on creativity. Clearly this is becoming a prime topic of discussion.

Tepper and Kuh argue against a prevailing image that creativity stems from environmental conditions rather than being developed through hard work and practice.

“First, we must move beyond the naïvely egalitarian, almost mystical view of creativity advanced by many creativity enthusiasts. This view suggests that to unleash creative capacity, we have only to set up conditions in which creativity will naturally blossom—informal workspaces, nonhierarchical organizations, flexible jobs, opportunities for cross-fertilization, and diverse and hip urban spaces. Such conditions are thought to encourage lateral thinking, brainstorming, and risk taking, all of which set the stage for innovation and entrepreneurship. No wonder creativity is an irresistible solution to our nation’s most pressing challenges! It appears to flow like tap water, requiring no significant investment in research or training. To transform our economy, we just have to get out of the way and let creativity grow free, like kudzu.

Existing research suggests otherwise. Creativity is not a mysterious quality, nor can one simply try on one of Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats to start the creative juices flowing. Rather, creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time. These include:

1. the ability to approach problems in nonroutine ways using analogy and metaphor;

2. conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems);

3. keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;

4. the ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;

5. the ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;

6. a capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and

7. the expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.”

They admit that not all university arts programs are designed to engender these qualities, nor are the arts the sole discipline that engenders these abilities, but by and large arts students are challenged in these ways.

In the last few years I have frequently talked about how businesses are saying there is a need for creativity in leaders and employees. Other than citing other people who have said it, I haven’t had any solid evidence to back the claim up. However, thanks to a post by Emily Peck on the AftA blog salon, now I do. She links to an IBM survey of 1500 executive directors, Capitalizing on Complexity, where their top insight is that CEO’s need to:

Embody creative leadership.
CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics. Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.

Notice the words ambiguity and experimentation also listed by Tepper and Kuh.

Another salon blogger, Sarah Murr who works as an arts and culture subject matter expert for Boeing, cites Seven Survival Skills created by researcher and author Tony Wagner that …”people need in order to discuss, understand, and offer leadership to solve some of the most pressing issues we face as a democracy in the 21st century”

These too look very much like those listed by Tepper and Kuh which provides me some confidence that the thinking in the arts and business worlds are resonating to some degree. But there is still some work to be done in communicating these commonalities. Another arts in education salon blogger, Eric Booth, reported the general message he came away with from a National Arts Policy Roundtable retreat.

“The key message I took away from them could be stated like this:

Most people in business think “creativity” is a fluffy indefinite word, yet more hokum from the touchy-feely-artsy set. Indeed most business people do not want new employees arriving with the expectation that they can be creative all over the place. What we want are innovations, and hard-working employees who can recognize and deliver on the unusual occasion in which their creative input is valuable. If you can identify for me the key skills within creativity that produce successful employees in my real setting, and produce innovations that work for my company, and can show me the data that affirms you can reliably develop those key skills, I will become your biggest supporter. Til then, it sounds like fluff to me.

We can’t even name the key skills of creativity that we train, no less demonstrate that we reliably develop such skills.


I do meet a lot of creativity in good students of all interest areas, which makes me wonder if the arts really are delivering something distinctively potent. I even find research that affirms parts of this assertion that the arts are unusually powerful in developing creative capacity. But even if we are succeeding in developing creative capacity effectively, few can articulate what it is we are doing, or what those skills are.

How can we change the status quo if we can’t make a clear, well-founded statement about a core claim?


Identify the top three skills of creativity that matter to you in your work with career-track students. Not 10 or 23 skills, but the most essential two or three skills…

And one year from now, add a very simple and non-intrusive documentation-and-assessment practice that illuminates the ways in which your students are getting better at those skills over time. That’s it. That simple.

This may sound like a lot of work, but if you are in education you know that everything is moving toward evidence based whether it is K-12 No Child Left Behind or to meet accreditation standards in higher education. Measuring what Booth suggests should at least be marginally more interesting than performing most evaluations because you are establishing your own criteria.

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Info You Can Use: Tix, Pix, Kits and Internships

I am a busy, busy boy this week which is why I ended up not posting yesterday. Hopefully things will calm down a little by next week. So by way of recompense for not posting yesterday, I offer you four links to practical information for use in your arts organization. I am sure at least one of these links will prove useful to you.

First up, Richard Kessler recently posted a toolkit for getting parents involved in arts education, Involving Parents and Schools in Arts Education: Are We There Yet? What is special about this guide is that it is written by parents for parents. Presumably, parents will know what best motivates them to get involved. As Kessler says, “You have to admit, there’s something to be said about a guide that emerges directly from the work of parents, educators, and partners, rather than from staff.”

I haven’t gotten a chance to look at the whole thing, but I am encouraged that the second chapter is “Understanding Parents” and the fifth chapter is “Motivating Parents” with the “Educating Parents” in between. In the arts I think we often want to skip past the understanding and educating parts and move straight to motivating audiences into the action of attendance. The handbook reminds us of the proper order of things. The guide is 45 pages long. Fifteen pages are devoted to interacting with parents, the other 30 odd are sample forms, checklists and templates to use in organizing parents toward a school arts event.

Next, a link from our friends at the Non-Profit Law blog to the Department of Labor’s fact sheet about what is allowed during an internship under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It should be noted that these rules only apply to for-profit businesses at the moment, but a footnote they state (my emphasis) “Unpaid internships in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permissible. WHD is reviewing the need for additional guidance on internships in the public and non-profit sectors.” So it might be prudent to design your current internship program with the for-profit guidelines in mind.

Chad Bauman talks about a plan that the Arena Stage formulated to wean people off student discounts. They used to offer $15 tickets to people under 30 during the week prior to the performance. The problem was, once they turned 31, their ticket price went up to $60. It appeared this steep price jump was discouraging people from continuing to attend.

Now their plan is to offer a “pay your age” pricing for 3% of the seats starting two months before the first performance. The hope is to not only create the idea of paying an increasing amount as you age, but also emphasize the importance of buying tickets early rather than the week of the performance.

This program is still only available to people under 30. You don’t pay $85 if you are long lived. In the comment section of the entry, Bauman addresses the potential sticker shock a person might get upon turning 31 and finding they now have to pay $60 instead of $30. I really appreciate his view of cultivating a person over 10-15 years.

“Once a patron turns 31, and we have already gotten them into a pattern of buying early for a discount, we would then offer them a 3-play preview subscription acquisition promo probably in the range of $99 for three plays (or $33 per ticket). After they “age-out,” my next major priority is getting them to subscribe. Then once they subsribe, I will work to get them to upgrade their subscription packages. This is a long term strategy that really looks at the customer over a span of 10-15 years. From first time PYA buyer to full season subscriber and donor will probably take 15 years.”

Finally, if you use images from the internet and are confused about the difference between royalty free and copyright free images or aren’t really even sure about acquiring images to use, Tentblogger has a good comprehensive guide (with supporting images, of course) dealing with all these questions and more.

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