Thursday, February 26, 2009

Exciting Arts Education Research-Some Links

My Google Reader took me on a thought-provoking Web cruise today. Some of my stops were familiar places with new information while others were exciting discoveries.

I started by investigating a link to the Academy for Early Learning on 21st century skills. I had to comment on the fresh take Lois Feibus had regarding 21st century tools, and my comment suggested ASCD's Whole Child blog.

I visited there and found some promising news about correlations between music education and students' cognitive development and academic achievement:
  1. A study by two Ohio State University researchers, Darby E. Southgate and Vincent J. Roscigno, concludes that "Music participation, both inside and outside of school, is associated with measures of academic achievement among children and adolescents. Future work should further delineate the relevant processes of music involvement, as well as how background inequalities and music involvement intersect in relation to educational performance." (The study appears in Social Science Quarterly, 2009, vol. 90, issue 1, pages 4-21.)

  2. Schuylkill Valley Elementary School in Pennsylvania has launched a Suzuki violin program for all of its 170 kindergarten students and is planning to work with researchers at Penn State Berks to evaluate the cognitive development and achievement of the students in the program. According to a New York Daily Record article cited by the Whole Child blog, the program was inspired by the three-year study, "Learning, Arts and the Brain" by the Charles A. Dana Foundation. The Dana Foundation sponsors and highlights neuroscience research on arts education.
Reading a news item by Janet Eilbert at Dana's site, I ran across a link to Dewey21C, a great blog about arts education by Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education. There I found out about the Teaching Artist Research Project (TARP) at the the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. This study looks closely at the work of teaching artist communities in several cities.

I better stop now. This could go on all day!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Congressional Hearings on Arts Scheduled

From a Media Release Issued by the House Education and Labor Committee:

With the arts and music among the many industries being hit hard in economic downturn, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, today announced plans to hold a series of hearings this Spring to examine how the arts benefit the nation’s economy and schools – and what can be done to improve support for the arts and music fields. “Like so many other sectors of our economy, the arts and music are suffering greatly – hurting millions of workers and families who depend on these industries for good jobs and the students who benefit from participation in arts and music education in school. Research shows that when students are exposed to arts and music, they perform better in other subjects,” said Miller. “In states and communities around the country, like my home state of California, these industries are vital engines for local economies – making up a large share of revenue and providing employment for a wide array of jobs, from construction to musicians to art teachers to sound editors.”

“President Obama has made it clear that arts and music have a critical role to play in improving our schools, our workforce and our overall quality of life. These hearings will give Congress the opportunity to hear from experts in these fields about how supporting the arts and music can help us build a stronger America.”

A Side Note
I just joined a new social network called Innovate-Ideagora. It's purpose statement is:

Innovate-Ideagora is an open agora, where problems seek solutions, new visions are explored, and the status quo is challenged.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Design Firm IDEO Offers Insights to Schools

Ever since A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink led me to The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley, founder of IDEO Design, I have been trying to educate myself more about the world of design and to learn more about how designers think.

Metropolis Magazine is a good source for that exploration—and today it got better with the post "IDEO’s Ten Tips For Creating a 21st–Century Classroom Experience." IDEO has been working on a curriculum design with a nearby elementary school, and the project director makes some good points in this article about engaging students.

IDEO also worked with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's SPARK Initiative (Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids) to develop Tangible Steps Toward Tomorrow: New designs for education, ages 0-8. This publication details a human-centered approach to evolving the system of early education for the needs and possibilities of the 21st century. It can be downloaded from the Kellogg Web site.

I think collaborations like this will be important to the challenges ahead.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Arts and Cognitive Development: What Does the Research Say?

Does an arts-rich education make a difference?

Based on their review of research on art education and its effects on academic performance, Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner warn against sweeping claims of causal links between learning in the arts and achievement in other academic areas. They found only three instances of causal links between learning in the arts and improved learning in nonarts areas. Here are some excerpts from the executive summary of their report on Project Zero's REAP (Reviewing Education and the Arts Project):
"a medium-sized causal relationship was found between listening to music and temporary improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning . . . .

a large causal relationship was found between learning to make music and spatial-temporal reasoning. The effect was greater when standard music notation was learned as well, but even without notation the effect was large. . . .

a causal link was found between classroom drama (enacting texts) and a variety of verbal areas."
Spatial-temporal reasoning is important in geometry and some areas of calculus. Based on what I've read, listening to and playing music activates the same neural circuitry that is used in problems that require spatial-temporal reasoning. So the effect may come come more from the effects of music on brain development than from a transfer of thinking skills or knowledge.

Hetland and Winner's analysis indicates that we do not yet have definitive research establishing a broad causal connection between learning in the arts and improved academic performance in math and science, literacy, and creative thinking skills. But it's not surprising that so little is known. Federal and state investments in such research and local investments in the kind of high-quality arts education that would provide the conditions for collecting valid and reliable data have been much smaller than investments in math and reading. In other words, scientific evidence is scarce largely because few are looking for it.

Some studies, however, suggest strong correlations between arts learning and positive outcomes. Here are a couple examples from Critical Evidence: How the ARTS Benefit Student Achievement, published by National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the Arts Education Partnership:
In an experimental research study of high school age students, those who studied dance scored higher than nondancers on measures of creative thinking, especially in the categories of fluency, originality and abstract thought.

A group of 162 children, ages 9 and 10, were trained to look closely at works of art and reason about what they saw. The results showed that children’s ability to draw inferences about artwork transferred to their reasoning about images in science. In both cases, the critical skill is that of looking closely and reasoning about what is seen.
Both examples come from Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development, an Arts Education Partnership research compendium that contains summaries of many such studies. Also, a 2005 Arts Education Partnership book called Third Space: When Learning Matters details the experiences of ten arts-rich public schools in economically disadvantaged communities with achievement test results that are significantly better than those of schools from the same communities.

The difficulty is this: A school's success in creating an outstanding arts education program may be an indication of other exceptional assets, such as committed parents and community partners or outstanding leadership and an innovative faculty. This is certainly true with many schools for the arts, whether they audition students or select them from a lottery. More kids with strong support networks—involved parents or mentors—go through the process of applying.

Still, isn't it a reasonable hypothesis that the arts played some role in the higher academic performance and other positive behaviors typically found in arts rich schools? And shouldn't clear effects on brain development be a rationale for more research on the benefits of arts education? Isn't that what innovation is all about—pursuing promising paths that lie outside the mainstream of what works?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Art & Soul: Edutopia Pleads the Cause of Arts Education

The February issue of Edutopia is entitled "Art and Soul: Why Arts Education Must Be Saved."

There are articles about the latest research and cutting edge programs. One that describes Opening Minds Through the Arts in Tucson, Arizona, is the most exciting thing I've seen in awhile. OMA also provides some really good rubrics and other materials for arts integration.

My favorite article is "Art in Schools Inspires Tomorrow's Creative Thinkers" by Jeffrey T. Schnapp—"director of the Stanford Humanities Lab at Stanford University, a prominent twentieth-century cultural historian, and a frequent curator of art exhibitions in Europe and the United States."

Schnapp's passionate essay begins:
"Education minus art? Such an equation equals schooling that fails to value ingenuity and innovation. The word art, derived from an ancient Indo-European root that means "to fit together," suggests as much. Art is about fitting things together: words, images, objects, processes, thoughts, historical epochs.

It is both a form of serious play governed by rules and techniques that can be acquired through rigorous study, and a realm of freedom where the mind and body are mobilized to address complex questions -- questions that, sometimes, only art itself can answer: What is meaningful or beautiful? Why does something move us? How can I get you to see what I see? Why does symmetry provide a sense of pleasure?"

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An Intermediate Space for Creative Thinking

By clinical standards, research has a long way to go before anyone could propose that instruction in art and music is a key strategy for improving student performance in science and math. But I think the idea of arts education as the nucleus of developing creative thinking has merit.

I am not an expert in the teaching of science, but I have to agree with those who assert that students need some degree of scientific content knowledge before creative thinking in science becomes relevant and meaningful to their development as potential scientists or engineers. As Simonton says (see yesterday's post), creative scientists operate under constraints posed by the prevailing theoretical framework of their domains while artists have more creative freedom. That suggests to me that mastering content knowledge remains critical in math and science and should not be jeopardized. Although creative thinking needs to develop throughout their educational experience, children need to learn the difference between empirical facts and natural laws and their flights of imagination about the seen and unseen components of nature.

That's why it makes sense to me that—at least for the short term—schools should create an intermediate space for developing students' creative thinking skills. In this space, there should be opportunities for unadulterated fancy but also for creative problem-solving that requires them to use what they have learned in math and science.

Because highly effective arts educators offer the most evolved form of instruction in pure creativity and have the greatest freedom to reward originality, I think they should be the lead creators and keepers of that space.

Of course, educators from all disciplines should should take advantage of the space, and they, as well as school leaders and the arts and business communities, should contribute to its development.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Scientific Creativity and the Arts: Some Observations

Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist—those elements are the stuff of scientific creativity, according to Dean Keith Simonton at UC Davis. Simonton's 2004 book Scientific Creativity examines the people, contexts, and underlying processes associated with original discoveries that have a significant impact on scientific knowledge and practice. He says chance "appears to be the most proximate cause" of scientific discoveries while "logic, zeitgeist, and genius impinge upon, intensify, modify, and qualify or in some other manner adjust the operation of chance." In other words, the more original a discovery is, the "less likely it is that logic played a causal role in the event." (Of course, this doesn't mean scientists just roll the dice. It's just that the factors are so complex and there are so many possible interactions that it appears random for all intents and purposes.)

Does Simonton's analysis of each component underlying scientific discoveries and innovative breakthroughs—and how those components interrelate—add potential value to dialogue about developing students' creative and innovative thinking skills? I'd like to share some of my preliminary conclusions about that based on points from the book.
  1. Simply improving science and math knowledge and skill is not enough. American education also must produce more STEM graduates who are creative thinkers. Simonton says that within any scientific domain, there is a small creative elite (about 10%) that accounts for something like 50% of publications. This suggests that STEM education should look not only at how to produce more students who have mastered advanced science knowledge but also at how to increase the percentage of those students who exhibit scientific creativity. In fact, wouldn't doubling the number of STEM majors exhibiting a high degree of scientific creativity give U.S. global competitiveness a bigger bang for the buck than doubling the number of STEM majors? Of course, both would be preferable, but considering the analysis of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, America can't lead economically unless it leads in innovative breakthroughs.

  2. Building time into the school day for generating and playing with ideas may be part of the solution. Simonton says the process of scientific creativity consists of associative play followed by justification of the best ideas. "First," he says, "the scientist freely plays around with ideas, the logic participating only after the associative process has converged on a good combination." Also, he says most creative scientists generate more ideas than other scientists. Interestingly, the ratio of successful ideas to unsuccessful ones is about the same for the most creative and least creative scientists. In other words, creative scientists have more good ideas largely because they have more ideas. Should't we get students used to idea generation?

  3. Building creative thinking into the science curriculum may be only part of the answer. A visual art, dance, theater, or music composition class—or projects that integrate these with science—might also be useful. Simonton says the most creative scientists are more likely to be working on several diverse projects at the same time and to have more outside interests. He also says that revolutionary contributions often come from people who are new to the field. Frans Johansson makes a similar observation in The Medici Effect: The most extraordinary innovative ideas are "intersectional"—that is, they are found where domains, disciplines, and cultures intersect. We need a complete curriculum!

  4. The kinds of thinking creative scientists exhibit can be developed in an arts context. In comparing artistic and scientific creativity, Simonton says scientific paradigms place more constraints on scientific creativity and suggests that creative scientists exhibit more analytical intelligence than creative artists. But his analysis of how creative scientists think suggests to me that the actual creative ways of thinking in science and the arts are similar. Creative scientists, says Simonton, form a flatter hierarchy of associations (which means they connect ideas that other people would not connect) and are more open to "irrelevant stimuli." Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott make a similar point in their book Innovate Like Edison. They call it "kaleidoscopic thinking"—generating lots of ideas, letting them flow, playing with them. I think arts activities outside of science can be an excellent "brain gym" for such thinking in general, and arts integration can be a way to introduce creative thinking into the science classroom.
I think creating strong arts education programs AND increasing instructional time in the arts is a good starting point, along with a commitment to studying arts integration. Students need the content knowledge and rigor they get in math and science classes. Taking too much time out of that to play with ideas—especially before teachers have received the professional development they need to do this effectively—could weaken the foundation of academic achievement in science.

In short: An expanded arts learning environment may be the better incubator for more purposeful instruction in creative thinking. Tomorrow, I will explore this further.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ken Robinson Raises Overlooked Questions

Ken Robinson's new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything says, in a nutshell: People do their best when they are in their element—when they have a capacity for something and love doing it.


In a talk at the Los Angeles Public Library titled A New View of Human Capacity (shown on, he says: "When you start to connect with your own talent . . . the environment you inhabit modulates around you. It becomes different. The world you're in becomes different. It's changed by your relationship with it and it unfolds differently as a consequence and we can't predict what that consequence will be."

He made a striking analogy: Death Valley had unusually high level of rainfall in 2005. Consequently, seeds that had lain dormant for years produced a breathtaking burst of wildflowers—a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. He says people are like those seeds, which adapted to the desert environment by developing a hard coating. T
hey become self-protective when they are in environments that don't allow them to be in their element. He cites many examples of people whose capacities and interests did not fit the traditional academic mold but who had the opportunity to do what they loved. They succeeded, earned respect, and contributed.

Should the architects of education ignore the vision of economists, the scientific community, and industry? Should they scrap academic standards and hope that enough kids decide to pursue STEM careers? Of course not. But maybe it would be useful to think about new ways of helping each student find his or her element—or at least pay greater attention to the as yet undiscovered potential of each student. It's messier, I know. But diversity is a fact in America. We can't afford to let any talent become dormant.

As Joseph Campbell said, "Follow your bliss!"

Photo by Mila Zinkova.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Should Economic Goals Direct Educational Decisions?

Yes, I know yesterday's post was idealistic and vague. I'm sure most would agree with me that the purpose of education should be "to engage and challenge young minds and help them develop and flourish." But they would dismiss that as too broad. Or they would say "and that's why we need to teach 21st century skills. I guess what I'm saying is that maybe we need to step back for a minute and ask whether schools should be instruments of an American economy that no one seems to be able to operate effectively. Can we be sure that aiming our schools at targets we are missing today is our best hope for America in 2019?

Looking back ten years or so—even five years, actually—at state committees that pronounced how schools should be preparing students for the workplace, I don't recall anyone suggesting the development of creativity and innovative thinking as a major theme. In fact, I remember that issue being shunted aside by business representatives in many meetings of policy groups I attended. Suggesting the likelihood of moral and ethical challenges ahead that would require critical and creative thinking would have been met in a similar way—agree, maybe mention in the introduction to the report, and then move on.

Business leaders at those meetings were concerned mainly with their current shortages of "skilled" workers—people with credentials in electronics or the trades, people who could keep the computers running or fix the machines. The health care industry was concerned about the need for technicians, nurses, and nursing assistants. They were thinking in a linear fashion—looking at what would happen if their current shortages were to continue. They did not foresee or take into account much of what we have today in the way of competitive challenges and opportunities. They did not think about how smart technology would be today—precluding the need for training in many areas. Sure, there were books like Robert Reich's The Work of Nations, but business leaders wanted and policies supported the shorter-term agenda—developing skilled workers—instead of the longer term mission—developing the next generation of knowledge workers and preparing students to learn and adapt in a changing world. It's just too hard to define all that within the existing context of our economic and educational systems. So it's excluded.

Instead of basing policies on the near-term thinking of business people and the politically tinged views of economists, we should take the broader, more long-term view of students' lives. That view, I believe, would put us in a better position for what's ahead.

Of course preparation for work is part of a long-term view. But why do we try to shape our most precious resource—children—to an agenda based on guesses and assumptions we can't prove are serving us well now or are best for us in the future? What if, instead, we worked harder to develop healthy brains, to spark a hunger for learning, to help uncover reveal what is best about the individual? What if we were to help all kids figure out who they are and how to nurture what is best about themselves? What schooling was about helping them explore and make sense of their world and the world at large, experience success, try something difficult without fear, explore the possibilities of the current world in hopes that they will be ready for those of a new world?

Yes, such philosophy might still result in "skill gaps." We would, I'm sure, have as many or maybe even more students whose math or writing skills are lacking, as well as some students who don't know much history or don't appreciate the great literary works. We might see dips in SAT scores, etc. But in my opinion, those differences would matter less in a world that valued individuals above systems and ideologies. Maybe people lacking skills who want to fill a role those skills require would be prepared to get to work on expanding their existing skills sets instead of regretting the road not taken in tenth grade. And maybe some would find a creative way to contribute despite their skill gaps.

Here is synchronicity. As I was writing this post, I received an email from ForaTV informing me of a new video by Sir Ken Robinson about his new book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. The title intrigued me—A New View of Human Capacity—so I started to watch. I think he is expressing what I'm thinking as I try to develop this idea. I will watch the rest of the talk and report on it soon. Maybe it will help me with this train of thought, which I admit needs still more thought.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Beyond 21st Century Skills—How About Beautiful Minds?

The term "21st century skills" is rapidly losing its power to inspire me. While I don't agree with those who promote the idea that skills like creative thinking or collaboration will blossom on their own if schools just teach and assess basic skills and an appropriate canon of academic content, I think the descriptor "21st century" is ambiguous and that the identification of "skills" students will need for future success limits our thinking about this challenge.

Many have pointed out that we're not able to predict what the 21st century will demand of students. Like any other period in the history of education, we're looking about a decade ahead. All that has changed is that we expect change to be exponential over the next decade, so we are less certain that any changes we make today will really be right for 2019. But it's the word "skills" that I feel may be limiting the vision.

Some have objected to the haziness of terms like "critical thinking," predicting that educators will use the vagueness of the definition to claim a spurious success. After all, how can you really measure a person's thinking skill? I give teachers more credit than that. My objection is more against making something as volatile as industry the North Star for schools and continuing to think that we can orchestrate future economic triumphs by articulating what our schools will teach.

What if we were to shift the focus and redefine the purpose of schools as places where we engage and challenge young minds and help them develop and flourish? Instead of envisioning only outcomes like a new generation of computers or medical breakthroughs or energy solutions and the wealth and power that come with them, why do we not spend some time thinking about the kinds of minds we really need in order to achieve and sustain the good life throughout our world? Will we be able to prepare our kids for the challenges ahead through incremental teaching of discrete skills?

I know this sounds kind of fluffy and is even more vague than the skills being discussed. I will try to be clearer and more specific in my next post.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ohio's Education Reform and Funding Plan: Some Questions

After asserting a desire to transform Ohio's education system, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland has issued his long-awaited education reform and funding plan. I am pleased that the plan recognizes the need to foster innovation and proposes more project-based and individualized learning. I like that he wants to replace the Ohio Graduation Test with a four-part assessment that includes the ACT college entrance exam, end of course exams, completion of a service learning project, and submission of a senior project. (I am eager to see how this will be implemented though.)

I question his proposal that the Ohio Department of Education organize an Academic Olympics to "recognize academic talents in science, math, writing, debate, arts and technology." While I don't believe that a competition of this sort will be harmful, I wonder whether it is the best model for 21st century learning environments and the best use of limited state resources.

Does it reinforce the industrial age workplace model—employees competing with one another instead of collaborating to achieve breakthroughs?

Will it encourage a focus on the best of the best—kids who are already destined to go far—at the expense of those who want to excel but need help getting on the right path? His use of the word "talents" is unfortunate, I think. Stanford professor Carol S. Dweck says that sustained effort over time, not proving one's intelligence or talent, is the key to motivation and achievement.

Also, would the competition reinforce the compartmentalization of the disciplines in a time when we need students to think in a more integrative fashion?

No details are yet available. I hope this will be designed by innovative people.