[27 April 2008 - New York Times Magazine] ... As Obama’s appeal to the achievement-boosting effects of the arts only goes to show, it’s hard to buck the narrow No Child Left Behind ethos he laments. If the arts can be celebrated as catalysts for improved performance in other subjects -- the subjects that are tested and therefore respected -- the hope is they won’t get treated as expendable frills. So advocates celebrate the arts’ score-enhancing influence across the school spectrum. Huckabee often invoked higher SATs as a reason to teach the arts. Obama cites sober social-science research on the poor city neighborhoods he knows best. “Studies in Chicago have demonstrated,” his arts statement reads, “that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs.” There’s just one problem with this ostensibly hardheaded defense of arts education. The studies invoked as proof that involvement in band — or dance or sculpture — spurs higher academic performance actually show nothing of the sort. To the consternation of arts proponents wedded to this way of arguing, the instrumental logic has been challenged by a team of investigators affiliated with Harvard’s Project Zero, an education research group with a focus on the arts. An emphasis on the arts’ utility in the quest to reach math and reading benchmarks may seem politically smart, but the science it rests on turns out to be shaky. In a scrupulous review of 50 years of research into the academic impact of studying the arts, Ellen Winner, a Boston College professor of psychology, and Lois Hetland, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, searched mostly in vain for evidence of a causal influence on school success. MoreHowever, this article missed two important aspects of the creative education debate: how teachers can deliberately teach for more creative thinking in any and all disciplines – not just in the arts – and how teachers can more creatively teach any topic. These two educational goals are not limited to arts classrooms. Yet most research and programs in arts education – as well as in arts and aging, and arts and business – seem to assume that we can merely offer arts programming and then sit back to observe whether or not creativity or problem solving or academic skills have improved. We are missing great opportunities to use not only the teaching of arts, but all subjects, to intentionally improve students' creative thinking capacities.
The article suggested that teachers of visual arts were eliciting certain cognitive "dispositions" in their students: persistence in tackling problems, observational acuity, expressive clarity, reflective capacity to question and judge, ability to envision alternative possibilities and openness to exploration. Exploring these dispositions is not a new field of inquiry. Indeed, researchers have been studying these creative attitudes and behaviors for more than 60 years, and developing specific processes, tools and methodologies for deliberating enhancing such creative "dispositions" in both children and adults.
In 1950, the American Psychological Association President J. P. Guilford pointed out the appalling lack of research in psychology and education about how people develop and use their creative thinking abilities. This launched an explosion of research about what the creative thinking process is and how it works; what mindsets and behaviors creative persons demonstrate and whether people can develop these capacities; what kinds of environments enhance and hinder creativity; and what makes something creative or not.
Educational psychologists such as the late E. Paul Torrance (University of Georgia) began answering these important questions during the past 60 years. Robert Sternberg (Tufts University), Teresa Amabile (Harvard University) and Min Basadur (McMaster University) are among many researchers across diverse fields throughout the world who continue exploring how people can purposefully tap into and apply more of their inherent creativity.
Creativity is a habit of mind that allows us to see and think in new ways; to make new connections between seemingly unrelated things. The applied creative thinking process can help people identify challenges and problems, come up with new ideas and solutions, and produce creative ways of implementing those solutions. These are among the most important skills for competing in the global “new economy” and for solving social challenges. Yet, nearly everyone in education, business and government agrees in poll after poll that there are not enough people learning these skills in school and possessing these skills in the workplace.
The imagination is not merely the domain of arts classrooms and artists. It is a fundamental human urge that taps into our capacity to create and our desire to express ourselves. It's time to move the dialogue about arts education to one about creative education and look for new ways of using ALL students' imagination and creative thinking to engage them in what's most meaningful to them in ALL classrooms.