What’s the big deal about arts standards?

Missoula middle school students in The Flagship Program's Photovoice photography project.

Missoula middle school students in The Flagship Program’s Photovoice photography project.

The Montana Arts Council, in partnership with the Montana Office of Public Instruction, will lead an upcoming statewide effort to revise the Montana Standards for Arts for K-12 public schools.

I get really excited when I tell people that Montana is getting ready to revise their state standards for arts education. Sometimes when I tell people they share my excitement, and think it’s a really cool thing. More often, I get a polite “Oh, that’s nice” or a blank, rather puzzled look.

So, what’s the big deal about revising arts standards?

If you go on the website for the Office of Public Instruction and search for a page about arts education, you won’t find one. In the category of “Content Standards and Instruction”, arts standards are not listed along with English Language Arts, Math and Science. If you search, you will come across one document, the Montana Standards for Arts, a brief document listing six standards that cover all the arts disciplines. They are general, not specific to music, or theater or visual art. There are benchmarks under the standards for what students should know and be able to do in the arts by the end of 4th, 8th and 12th grade. The entire document is only twelve pages long. By comparison, the Montana Common Core Standards for English Language Arts is 67 pages long.

This lack of focus on arts education is not a Montana problem, it is a national problem. The arts have received the short end of the stick in nearly every state by many years of federal No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top-era policies. The good news is that the tide is turning. The arts are resurgent, and starting with a revision of our standards it is possible that Montana will be at the forefront of the effort to restore the arts to their place of critical importance in a high-quality education.

Standards in education are a way for educators to measure what their students know and are able to do in a content area. It is often repeated in the education world that what we can measure, we value. Improving our arts standards will increase the value of arts education across Montana.

Our new standards will be discipline-specific, which will be of huge benefit to teachers who teach in these specific content areas, helping them build assessments specific to what their students are learning. Montana will even have new standards in Media Arts!

It is an oft-cited fact that 72% of business leaders say creativity is the number one skill they are seeking when hiring. Teaching the arts, whether it is in a stand-alone music or theatre class, or integrated into a teacher’s science or history curriculum, is teaching “applied creativity.”

We need stronger benchmarks to measure what high-quality teaching and learning in the arts looks like, and revising the Montana arts standards will allow us to help creative the college, career and civic readiness that is the primary goal of a public school education in our state.

The business and education communities are investing in opportunities for students to develop their creative skills in the classroom that leads to future innovation in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and other creative industries. Studying the arts help to develop critical habits of mind—creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking, among others—that can complement STEM learning initiatives in schools. In fact, we arts educators like to call it STEAM! With stronger arts standards that are useful to arts specialists and classroom teachers in other content areas, that “A” for arts in STEAM will help create our next generation of scientists and innovators.

Here is what excites me the most: revising the Montana Standards for the Arts is an excellent opportunity to gather groups of educators, parents, business and civic leaders across the state to engage in an important dialogue about what we would like arts education, or “applied creativity” to look like in our schools. A lot of people are going to be involved in this effort, through focus groups, writing teams and review teams, and a lot of dialogue about arts education is going to happen. Who knows what the result of that could be? Beyond new arts standards, what new relationships, new ideas and new collaborations could happen that benefit Montana students? This is going to be good! If you want to get involved, please contact me at ekohring@mt.gov or (406) 444-6522.

Carolyn Pardini's 4th grade students at Pablo School, creating artwork with teaching artist Jennifer Thompson.

Carolyn Pardini’s 4th grade students at Pablo School, creating artwork with teaching artist Jennifer Thompson.


Can Our Classrooms Become Beehives of Creativity?

This week I travelled to Los Angeles for the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) Cultural Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in Public Education, co-hosted by the California Arts Council. The event was a convening of researchers and policy experts gathered to address the growing interest in creativity and innovation as a solution to some of the myriad challenges of K-12 public education.  It was impressive company with some of the field’s most distinguished researchers and thought leaders.

Our keynote speaker at the opening dinner was Frank Gehry, renowned for his innovative thinking in the field of architecture and revered around the world as a “Big C” creative–somebody who was born with inherent creative genius.  That’s the way most of us think about creativity, right?  Creativity is something you are born with, and something you can recognize in children in a classroom setting, and label.  This child is creative, just look at her drawings!  This child–not so much.  Stick figures, nothing novel about that.  Oh well, maybe that one will be good at sports.

During the next morning’s Symposium panel discussions, a few researchers turned the idea of creativity as an attribute that individual people possess on its head.  First came Dr. James Haywood Rolling, Jr., an associate professor at Syracuse University, who boldly asserted in his opening remarks “There are no orphan imaginations.”  Dr. Rolling has studied the natural phenomenon of swarm intelligence and applied it to creativity in the learning process in his book Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership.  Swarm intelligence is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems–like bees in a hive.   He posits that creativity is also  a social behavior where the collected experience and information shared by the participants generates ideas.  Ideas don’t come from the one or two people in the room deemed most creative, but from the collective energy, experience and knowledge each individual brings to the group to share.

Edward Clapp, doctoral candidate from Harvard’s Project Zero also advocated for the idea of creativity as a social behavior by stating that no act of creativity can take place in isolation.  He argues that the education system is holding on to the idea of the individual as the creative one, labeling some students as creative while others are not, and this definition of creativity creates an anti-growth mindset in schools.  The majority of schools believe that creativity is a fixed capacity, it’s not a skill that can be taught.  Clapp believes that creativity should be seen as an experience for students that should happen through problem- and project-based learning in groups, and not as something that an individual student is or has.

Creativity as experience!  There are already great models for this kind of learning, evident in the growing Makerspace movement, and in theatre and visual art classrooms where students are encouraged to work together to solve challenging art-making problems.  Students are given a problem to solve, and it’s the ideas generated that are creative, not the individuals.  By making creativity an experience rather than an attribute, everyone in the room is honored as a creator, everyone has creative skills that can be nurtured–including the teacher.  The teacher doesn’t have to be the one everybody looks to for all the answers–the teacher asks a question or presents a problem to the students, and can then problem solve and invent alongside the students.

The implications Dr. Rollings and Edward Clapp’s idea of shifting creativity in learning from an individual attribute of children who are “Big C” creative to creativity as a group participatory process are huge, both for arts education policy and educational access in our schools.  Imaging classrooms where all students are honored as makers, creators and innovators, because it is ideas that get labeled as creative and not children, is by far the most exciting idea that came out of the Symposium.

What would it take to make this happen?  It is a paradigm shift in thinking for educators, even for arts educators.  How many students have been discouraged from pursuing arts courses by teachers because their talent and creativity was not a clearly evident attribute?  It will require that teachers, especially arts teachers, set aside their judgment about who is creative and who is not creative in the classroom setting, and design opportunities that shine a spotlight on all the students, not just the ones who are most evidently talented.

We will also have to reinvent classrooms and the way teachers teach in order to release the creativity that too often remains locked up in our heads, to paraphrase Dr. Rollings.  Our classrooms will have to become more project-based, with the teacher becoming less an expert and more a learner exploring complex questions alongside the students.  It will also require a re-balance of power between teachers and students, because, as Symposium participants Dr. Robert Bilder pointed out “creativity exists on the edge of chaos” and we tend to dislike chaos in our classrooms.  We want classrooms to be orderly, and for it to look like somebody is in charge, but in the kind of creative learning environment Rollings and Clapp are advocating for, learning is loud and messy and students have much more voice than we are sometimes comfortable allowing them.

It will also require education policymakers to see creativity as a skill to be developed, just like math or reading.  Creativity is something you do, and you can get better at, not something you are or aren’t.  It’s also a skill that can be measured and assessed, and researchers are doing that, like Symposium participants James Catterall, Mark A. Runco and Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein.  And, if it is indeed a skill, teachers will also need help developing this skill in themselves in order to feel comfortable teaching it through high-quality professional development that will help them develop the creative skills of their students.

At the end of the long Symposium day, we got a sense of the kind of creative space Rollings and Clapp are advocating for when we toured Frank Gehry’s studio, an experience that surprisingly reinforced the idea that creativity is less about the “Big C” and more about a social process.  Gehry himself does not work in isolation, and he has designed his studio to make sure that the 120 or so people who work there feed off the collective energy and imagination of everybody else who works there.  The studio is one large warehouse with few walls or doors, organized by project rather than by a hierarchy.  It is literally filled with models from floor to ceiling, because their process is to make a model of every single idea, in multiple scales, until the building is ready to be built.  A beehive of making, creating, problem-solving and non-stop collaboration.  It was after 5:00, and nobody was packing up to go home.

Imagine our classrooms like that when the bell rings, nobody getting up to go home, everybody too busy making.  A beehive of creativity that all students experience together.

A Shared Endeavor

Recently, a coalition of twelve national organizations led by the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE), called on policy makers and the public to re-examine support for quality arts education in a document called Arts Education for America’s Students, A Shared Endeavor.

According to SEADAE’s press release, A Shared Endeavor defines what quality arts education looks like at the local level, encourages partnerships, and calls on organizations and individuals to actively support and promote:

  • Policies and resources for arts education.
  • Access to arts education for all students.
  • Collaboration between school-based arts educators, other subject area teachers, and community-based artists and arts educators.
  • Long-term advocacy partnership between all providers of arts education.

The twelve organizations, which include the National Association for Music Education, the National Art Education Association, American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Kennedy Center, and the National Education Association, among others, believe students benefit from sequential, standards-based arts curriculum, deep expertise and professional experience, and standards-based connections between the arts and other content areas.

Two things I take away from A Shared Endeavor:

1.  I appreciate that the document reinforces the importance of certified arts teachers with deep expertise.  In many Montana schools, both urban and rural, and especially in elementary schools, you will often find not enough certified arts teachers in any subject.  The arts are often left to be taught by certified non-arts teachers who receive little professional development in how to teach any of the art forms.  Or, the school scrapes together funds (often through the parent organization, or funding programs like the Montana Arts Council’s Artists in Schools and Communities grant) to bring in a teaching artist to work with the students for a residency that is a wonderful opportunity for students with little access to the arts, but is almost always too short and limited in its scope.  In parts of the country, this practice has sometimes also had the unintentional consequence of pitting teaching artists and certified arts teachers against each other.  Teaching artists should be brought in to enhance and support school curriculum, never to replace certified arts educators.

2.  I also like that the document stresses the critical importance of collaboration.  Collaboration between schools, districts and arts organization; and between certified arts teachers, certified classroom teachers, and teaching artists, working in partnership to deliver a high-quality arts education for all students, not just the ones that are lucky enough to live in the districts that have lots of resources to afford it.  Collaboration, more than money, creates great arts education in schools.  Arts organizations can bring schools access to cultural opportunities they might never encounter otherwise.  Teaching artists and certified non-arts teachers can partner to create great learning experiences tied to the Common Core.  Certified arts specialists can enrich what they are already teaching by bringing in guests artists to share their unique talents with students.  Everyone working toward a shared endeavor–the best possible education for all students.

It is an endeavor we all should share, because there is no high-quality education without the arts.  I wonder who else can share the endeavor with us besides artists and educators?  We need parents, we need CEOs, we need scientists, we need policymakers.  I would love to see organizations added to A Shared Endeavor who are outside of the arts or education field.  Just imagine.  What if NASA signed on?  How about the National Academy of Sciences?  How about the National PTO?  Boeing?  Apple?  The U. S. Chamber of Commerce?  An arts education advocate can dream, can’t she?

Arts Education for All Students:  A Shared Endeavor

Arts Education for All Students: A Shared Endeavor