Should Education Focus Less On The Creative Arts, More On The Art Of Creativity?

Aug 8, 2017

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We have a problem in our country right now. Like the energy crisis of the 1970s, we now have a creativity crisis brewing in our schools. And in as little as ten years it will directly affect all businesses, particularly in marketing. However, I have a possible solution. Let’s reframe how we look at creativity in public schools from a series of downstream talents (e.g. music, theater and the visual arts) to a more upstream lifeskill that can be applied to all aspects of a student’s life (including, but not limited to the arts).

And it starts by looking at what “creativity” is today in schools.

Playing the trumpet is not creativity, it’s a talent.

Learning to read musical notes and then learning to play those notes in the desired rhythm is not creativity, it’s a talent. Those with more talent are better able physically to get the trumpet to do what they want than those with less talent. Once the trumpet playing is somewhat mastered, original thinking can be applied. Make up solos, make up songs, play in a improv jazz band.

In this sense, those with talent for the trumpet or singing or painting or acting are given a true educational gift that others without those talents can’t have in our educational system. They are given a medium to explore their own creativity.

Great example. Just this morning I asked my son who just graduated high school to name the most creative person in his class and why he thought so. He thought about it and said, “I think it would be Cassidy Davis (changed name) because she is incredibly good at drawing people’s faces.” My son seemed to equate “creativity” with a talent. But, interestingly, he went on to say, “Yeah, she does these drawings of people but then puts them into these scenes that are totally trippy and surreal.”

Now that is creativity.

Cassidy, because of our educational system, was exposed to art, discovered she had a talent for it and then as she mastered that talent was able to understand and develop her own creativity, her own style, and perhaps along the way her own self. That is wildly valuable not just to Cassidy as a person but to all of us because Cassidy is now more likely to see the world as something that can be changed and improved.

But what about the students who do not happen to have a musical, artistic or theatrical talent? Does that mean they are not creative? Of course not – and more on that later – but it does mean they are less likely to have an opportunity to understand and develop their own creativity in high school.

That’s the problem. And here’s why it matters to you.

Creatives are not a department, they are all of us.

Marketing depends on creativity and, as you all know first-hand, creativity comes in many forms. It comes in the form of the words, pictures and music in our advertising. It comes from the media ideas, public relations ideas and other disruptive channel innovations. But it also comes from you, your product development people, your engineers, your sales teams, and everyone else in your company.

Creativity is everything. Outperforming the competition is important, but outthinking them is even more so.

Meanwhile, as our educational system seems to confuse “creativity” with “talent” I wonder just how many kids are prepared to help us create the next ten years of American business.

Creativity is a skill set that can be taught.

I have been studying human creativity most of my adult life. One thing I’ve learned through it all is that the degree to which someone is creative is not fixed. I am absolutely convinced that we are not born with a certain “amount” of creativity, beyond which we can’t hope to exceed.

In fact, I have written on these pages several times over the years about scientific studies that prove beyond doubt that creativity can be improved. Here are just a few of those findings and studies:

• Coffee shop noise increases creativity. (details here)

• Freestyle rappers can turn off their executive function. (details here)

• Daydreaming increases creativity. (details here)

• Creating psychological distance increases creativity. (details here)

• People with ADHD tend to be more creative. (details here)

• Dim lighting increases creativity. (details here)

• Creativity happens at non-optimal times (when we’re tired). (details here)

• Walking increase creativity. (details here)

That’s not even all I’ve found. But the point is this: creativity is not fixed, it’s a skill that we can study, work on and improve.

So, wouldn’t our educational system better serve our kids – and the looming creativity crisis – by teaching the skill of creativity than by giving access to a few categories of talents that any given student may or may not have?

Proposal: develop new curricula that gives all high school students a chance to develop their own creativity, regardless of medium.

Though I serve on the board of directors for my town’s Education Fund and I have a personal passion for improving education in public schools, I am not an education expert. So what I am proposing here needs the attention and experience of professional educators. That said, let me try my best to flesh out this proposal with the hope of inspiring a few of those experts.

The sad fact is, the Trump Administration has proposed deep cuts to the arts. Trump is proposing to defund nineteen bodies including The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Further, and more to the point, budget constraints in public schools have meant cuts to music, theater and visual arts.

My theory is that politicians and administrators who are understandably trying to reign in out-of-control budgets are deciding that “the arts” are too soft and have too indirect an impact on making America great again, say.

I would argue that in the 21st Century economy we need our kids not only to be able to read, write, and do arithmetic (plenty for the industrial age) but to also think creatively. Creativity is not defined by music, art and theater. Creativity is problem solving at the highest level. It’s teaching yourself to be open to seamingly unrelated ideas colliding to form new ideas. It’s a way of looking at the world.

As the famed British education expert, Sir Ken Robinson, once put it:

You can be creative in anything – in math, science, engineering, philosophy – as much as you can in music or in painting or in dance.

So let’s develop a curricula that focuses on creativity itself with the sole objective of inspiring students to live and think creatively no matter what the medium of expression may be. The curricula could include things like:

1. Understanding creativity: what is creativity? How is it different from a talent? What are examples of creativity? What happens in our brains when creativity happens? Etc. Site theorists and studies and experts like Steven Johnson, who wrote the fabulous book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

2. Improving creativity: let’s equip our kids through coursework with scientifically proven tools and exercises that will improve their creativity. See the list of studies above. Each of those could be an hour class.

3. Applying creativity: it’s not just an intellectual exercise, but one we have our kids actually demonstrate. So here we steal a page from the existing arts, where those with talents in music, art and theater are given ways to apply their own creativity, but broaden the application to anything the child chooses. It could be something in another class, it could be carpentry techniques, inventions, new business models, app concepts, 3D printing ideas (our Edfund granted a lab of 3D printers to our schools), anything. We don’t need to add teachers that correspond to each, we just need one teacher (with a masters in creativity?) who ensures that the student is, in fact, applying their creativity in tangible ways in their area of focus. For many, of course, music, art and theater will be perfect applications. But to broaden, perhaps schools involve local businesses, Education Funds, families and other vested institutions to help our kids create, provide resources, etc.

I’m sure people much smarter than I could build up on this list and make it more robust. But my point is that I think our educational system is letting our kids down by not teaching creativity as a skill set. Think of the self-actualization that will happen with our kids if we reframe creativity away from talents they may or may not have, to a skill set that anyone can have.

If our kids truly understand creativity, they will also appreciate the creativity of others more profoundly. They will recognize it when they see it. They will enjoy museums, artists, plays, and concerts far more when they realize the best of the best are not only talented, but are highly creative within that talent.

And then think about how the American workforce will improve as a result. They will be able to read, write, add and create.

Creativity itself is not a gift, it’s a skill. The gift is finding your own personal way to express your creativity in a productive and fulfilling way. If our education system focuses less on the proficiency of a few talents and more on the general skill of creativity, more children will grow up fulfilled and equipped for our new age of innovation.

Will Burns is CEO of virtual-ideation firm, Ideasicle, and owner of Tini Grails, an online martini glass store. Follow him @WillOBurns.