Standardized testing has hit a tipping point; schools are still far behind when it comes to teaching critical twenty-first century skills; and there is a growing divide between the haves and have-nots that threatens to alter our society in ways we are not equipped to handle.
But if our school system is dismantled tomorrow and built from scratch, would the answer to our educational problems be to provide more arts instruction? Is teaching our children to think creatively as simple as adding the arts into school curricula?
The arts as a core part of every school day is a large piece of our educational solution if it is taught with careful planning and purpose. Teaching creativity means allowing students to put their imaginations to work and apply it into other activities. We now understand that creativity is not only reserved for a chosen few — there aren’t only “special” people who are creative — all children are. And we have a responsibility to celebrate and cultivate that creativity throughout our children’s K-12 education, if not beyond.
Here are some reasons teaching in and through the arts promotes creativity (as long as it is taught well):
The learning is in the doing. For as long as we can remember, public schools have been about lectures, recall-based tests, grades, and adult-driven tasks that contribute little to genuine learning. Arts instruction, when taught well, breaks the bonds of these mind-numbing approaches to learning. However, I have seen teacher-centered art and music classes that equate to nothing more than step-by-step projects or a “play-this-note-because-that’s-what-it-says-on-the-page” approach to teaching. Great arts instruction includes lessons that allow students to apply learned knowledge to new situations or problems, peer interaction, activities and projects. Otherwise, the arts have nothing more to offer than any other subject.
Learning to be creative is a process. Creative school reform is not about letting students and teachers do whatever they want, whenever they like in an uninhibited way. By it’s very nature, arts instruction requires students to work hard while sometimes producing things that are far less than great. Many incredibly creative people have worked tirelessly to produce a ton of things that are poor before they produce something incredible — and that’s okay. But if this concept is not understood by schools and not communicated to students and parents, our society will continue to believe creativity is inherent and rare as opposed to a way of thinking that is learned and accessible to everyone.
Creativity through the arts is rooted in the present. Our education system is obsessed with preparing students for something that happens later in their lives; often overlooking our children’s needs and opportunities today. In order to raise our children to be productive adults, we must help them make sense of and deal with their experiences today. Math and reading will only get our children so far — they are important subjects, but certainly not everything when it comes to school. A broad curriculum rich in the arts increases the chance of our children experiencing an enriched life today in order for them to think creatively about life tomorrow.
Creativity and innovation often occurs in groups. Gone are the days, in my opinion, of schools needing to celebrate the academic successes of individuals acquiring knowledge that is assessed on a standardized test. Collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary approaches to learning have always been a cornerstone of arts education and have a profound effect on the development of young students. If arts educators play to these strengths of their subjects and plan their classes accordingly, students will gain the tools that lead to innovative thinking both now and in future years.
Play leads to passion. Our schools have discontinued the practice of play during the school day — except in the arts, for the most part. As long as arts educators do not deliver low-level, teacher centered, “follow the rules” instruction, their classes will make an enormous difference in the lives of young innovators. Play in the classroom allows for trial and error in a safe environment, as opposed to the culture of risk avoidance that has been perpetuated in our system due to the large number of high-stakes assessments children have to take. Play leads to greater intrinsic motivation in students, which leads to passion — both in the arts and in other subjects.
Great teachers move “beyond the craft”. Although it is important to gain core competencies in the arts in order to move toward mastery, creativity is not a process in which children have to learn all the necessary skills before they get started. Art and music teachers who focus on skills in isolation will kill a child’s interest rather quickly — it happens in every subject as we have all seen or experienced. Many music students have spent years practicing scales for school placement tests only to quit their instrument once they’ve “made the grade”.
We are absolutely teaching students to be creative when we teach the arts in schools, as long as we are teaching them in a way that is dissimilar to our culture of testing and assessment. We must remember that the driver of creativity is a desire for discovery and a passion for the work it takes to get us there. When students are motivated to learn, they will acquire the skills they need to get the work done — not necessarily vice versa. These concepts can (and should) be implemented in every subject, but the arts can help all educators infuse a passion for learning into their classes though collaboration and interdisciplinary projects.
After all, arts educators have been teaching creativity all along — we would be wise to watch and learn from them.