Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Robinson's The Element Reminds Us to Tend to the Lifeworld

My state, Ohio, has been reeling for some time from the wave of job losses that is just beginning to affect some states. Many people—from blue-collar workers to skilled trades people to educated professionals with solid track records—are contemplating choices they never thought they would have to make. Choices like:
  • Should I wait out this drop in the construction trades or start college at age 40?

  • Should I go back to college at age 50 for a second degree that will improve my "marketability?"?

  • Should I move to where the job market is better—which means uprooting my family and selling my house at little or no profit? Or should I stay here and settle for a job that realizes a fraction of my potential?

  • At what point will I take whatever job I can get so we can keep our house?
With those kinds of dilemmas all over the news, the vision of Ken Robinson's book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything is truly a revolutionary one. The current job market and the jobs President Obama is trying to stimulate seem to be largely for those whose "Element" is science, technology, engineering, and health care. Those certainly are pressing needs that must be met. But I think many who have been hit hard by the economic downturn may not be able to have the dream of working in a job that epitomizes their aptitude and passion. I fear that today's jobseekers who want to avoid major disruptions in their lifestyles will need to find that outside of the job world. I hope today's children and young people won't be in that position down the road.

As we rebuild, I hope to see some new dimensions of economic development emerge—a real attempt to begin making full use of human potential.

Thomas Sergiovanni wrote about "lifeworld" and "systemsworld." (Based on the work of sociologist Jurgen Habermas). The lifeworld deals with goals and purposes and is concerned with culture, meaning, and significance. The systemsworld deals with methods and means and is concerned with efficiency, outcomes, and productivity. He said that the two are symbiotic and that the lifeworld should be “at the center as a driving force for what goes on” while the systemsworld should be "at the periphery." With our systems—infrastructure, health care, financial—in serious need of attention, I think Robinson's book is an important reminder of why we are fixing those systems and the vision to which we should aspire.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ken Robinson's The Element Reveals a Higher Purpose for Schools

Back in February, I posted my thoughts on Ken Robinson's The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything after watching a video of his remarks on the book. Now that I have finished reading it, I recommend it to everyone thinks about the true purpose of education and wonders how to fulfill that purpose.

"The Element," says Robinson, "is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion." When people are in their element, he says, "they find that time passes differently and that they are more alive, more centered, and more vibrant than at other times."

Robinson reveals the Element by telling the stories of people who found it. Invariably, those people succeeded in their careers and made a difference in the lives of others. For most, someone early in life recognized their aptitude or passion and provided opportunities for them to enter and grow in the Element. Many of them had to overcome indifference or resistance. Some, including Robinson himself, found the Element after, or perhaps even because of, disabilities or other circumstances most would call adversity. Although Robinson is best known for sharing examples of students whose lives were changed by the arts, the stories in this book reflect the diversity inherent in true success. Some people profiled found the Element through the arts but for others it was through other academic areas, as well as through athletics, entrepreneurship, cooking, philanthropy, and other pursuits.

With his trademark humor, Robinson weaves in the themes that he has been writing and speaking about for years. He debunks myths about creativity, such as the common view that it's a quality possessed by an elite few. He opposes the industrial model of education that promotes teaching to the test. He suggests doing away with the hierarchy of "subjects" in favor of a more fluid interplay across disciplines. He proposes that the curriculum be personalized, which entails more freedom for good teachers to work in their own Element. This book reinforces those themes, and makes the case that finding and nurturing the aptitudes and passions of each individual is the path to transformation and growth not only for education systems but also for all other aspects of human endeavor.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Themes Instead of Subjects—Interesting to Consider

"Rethinking Education," an article by Julian Richardson in Sunday's Jamaica Observer, proposes that Jamaican high schools think about the humanities curriculum in terms of "life themes" that have "obsessed all cultures and all peoples in one way or another." Examples include 'The Origins of the Universe', 'Representations of God', 'Food and Nature', 'The Individual and the Common Good', 'Racial Differences and the Other', 'Gender Identity and Sexual Relations', 'Marriage and Family', 'Civil Life and Political Systems', 'Aging and Death', 'Art and Beauty', and 'Work, Tools and Technology'. (The article expands on each of these.)

Richardson proposes students would be more engaged in these themes than they are in things like "history" or "geography." Examples of arts integrated instruction in books such as Third Space: Where Learning Matters by Lauren Stevenson and Richard Deasy from the Arts Education Partnership, certainly could support that hypothesis.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Arts Education Connection #5: Unity and Variety

Third Installment in my series on Arts Elements and Principles

The complementary arts principles of variety and unity are this week's topic—building on last week's post on contrast. The principles of unity and variety are important in all four arts disciplines. Whether composing music or a dance, writing a play, or creating a painting or graphic design, the artist must strive for wholeness and cohesiveness—unity—while introducing enough variety to prevent a work that is monotonous.

Exploring these principles in an arts class could set the stage for other investigations. Consider: In science, children marvel at the vast variety of species while seeking to impose unity through classifying them. In math, they create a whole shape from a variety of shapes. In reading, they look for a common theme that unifies a novel or poem and for the variety of ways the author or poet uses to present that theme. In writing or speaking, they work on making sure they use variety to keep the audience's interest while building on a thesis. In social studies, they consider the many cultures and ethnic groups that make one United States or the many nations that make one world.

Photo Credits: Stefano Corso, AgĂȘncia Brasil, Justin, Peter Halasz, Mark Harden's Artchive

Friday, March 20, 2009

Link to Be the Change

Sorry. I forgot to add the link to the Web site referenced in my earlier post. It's Be the Change—Year of Creativity.

Design Your Own Creative Business Card

A design Web site called Be the Change provides a fun way to play with ideas—a business card generator that features dozens of occupations you won't find in the classifieds. Some are thought-provoking—Idea Cultivator, Imaginary World Interior Designer, and Engineer of the Fantastic. Maybe more companies should create these positions. Others are whimsical—Goldfish Hypnotist, Moment Anticipator, and Paper Airplane Pilot.

This really made me think about the amazing work graphic designers do.

Here's an example:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Group Shares Thoughts on Human Greatness

With all the focus on preparing our next generation for the challenges of science and industry, I like to adjust my perspective by visiting the Web site of an organization called Touch the Future. TTF, led by Michael Mendizza, is an effort to revolutionize "the way local communities mentor parents and the people who care for children." It includes writings from visionary thinkers about what it means to care for children and support their development as human beings. Immerse yourself in those writings and you'll feel a heightened sense of urgency about making the arts a more integral part of the curriculum.

One visit introduced me to Lynn Stoddard, author of Educating for Human Greatness. Stoddard's work led a diverse group of educators and thinkers to develop seven principles of human greatness that should be at the heart of education:

1. Identity – Help students learn who they are – as individuals with unlimited potential, develop their unique talents and gifts to realize self-worth and develop a strong desire to be contributors to family, school and community.

2. Inquiry – Stimulate curiosity; awaken a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature and humankind. Help students develop the power to ask important questions.

3. Interaction – Promote courtesy, caring, communication and cooperation.

4. Initiative – Foster self-directed learning, will power and self-evaluation.

5. Imagination – Nurture creativity in all of its many forms.

6. Intuition – Help students learn how to feel and recognize truth with their hearts as well as with their minds – develop spirituality and humility.

7. Integrity – Develop honesty, character, morality and responsibility for self.

Read more about this list at The Daily Kos.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Arts Education Connections #4

Second Installment in my series on Arts Elements and Principles (See overview post See introduction to series See entry on Form)

Contrast is a design principle at work in all the arts disciplines. Listening to or composing contrasting musical passages—high and low pitch, fast and slow tempo—and exploring the effects of color contrasts prepares the senses for scientific observation and opens the writer's mind to how contrasts in sentence structure improve the flow of a composition.

Contrast also is a technique used in arts criticism. Critics may highlight the contrasts within a work of art and explore contrasts across periods and movements to heighten understanding or suggest meaning. The critical exploration of contrasts in paintings can be a springboard for investigating differences across societies, ecosystems, and ideologies.

Photos from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons by: Aussiegall, Bobbie8, Vince Alongi, Andrew*, babasteve, Azoreg, roberdan, makemake, Thomas Schoch

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Arts are an 'R' Too—Mississippi Has the Right Idea

The central features of Mississippi's Whole Schools Initiative are an arts-infused curriculum, instruction in the arts disciplines, and arts-based professional development. An evaluation of the initiative by two independent researchers, Dick Corbett and Bruce Wilson, and David Morse, a professor of psychology at Mississippi State, concluded that schools fully implementing arts integration had significantly better results on tests of literacy. Evaluators suggested that "enriching rather than narrowing the curriculum might be the wiser move in improving students’ literacy."

The report says arts learning is a powerful ally and should, perhaps, be considered "the 4th R."

I agree. Some people can express their ideas better through an art form than through writing an essay or making a presentation. I think it's important that children be able to use and develop the voice that feels most natural to them. Finding that voice can fuel the desire for knowledge and provide a bridge to other literacies.

Also, works of art are vital threads in the fabric of history and culture. If we want kids to really think about the academic content we have decided they need in order to understand their world, I can think of no better way than becoming immersed in works of art.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ready for National Poetry Month?

April is National Poetry Month, and the Academy of American Poets is inviting everyone to celebrate in some creative ways. First, anyone can sign up to receive a poem a day email. They are trying to get us all to select a poem and carry it in our pockets on April 30 to share with co-workers, family, and friends. Every year, they choose a poster to celebrate poetry (which educators can get for free) They also are having a unique photo competition to "capture and share your own ephemeral bits of verse." The idea is to "write lines from a favorite poem on a sandy beach, assemble twigs on a hillside, or chalk the sidewalk. Take a photo before it disappears and post it in the Free Verse group page on Flickr, or on the Academy's Fan Page on Facebook, or email your photo to"

Some really wonderful photos are already online.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Arts and 21st Century Skills: Wisconsin and North Carolina are Moving Forward

Two states have made definitive statements about the importance of arts learning in developing the next generation of innovators.

In January, the Wisconsin Task Force on Arts and Creativity published its plan for action. It recommends specific actions for making the arts a more integral part of the state's innovation infrastructure, but there is much in the report that has national application. I particularly liked its description of creative skills and attitudes, followed by what attributes in the environment nurture creativity.

North Carolina has published Arts Education and 21st Century Skills, a document that aligns the state's fine arts standards with the competencies outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This is an eloquent illustration of how much the arts contribute to the development of innovatiove thinkers, and I think it could be used as a model for anyone who is thinking about how to integrate 21st century skills with any academic content.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Arts Learning and Scientific Achievement: Another Piece of Evidence

Psychology Today provides links to many blogs on creativity. Today, I looked at "Imagine That! Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius" by Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein. Their March 6 post discusses a longitudinal study of scientific creativity by UCLA psychologist Bernice Eiduson. She collected data from 40 young scientists in 1958 about their work habits, hobbies, etc. In looking at the group's successes over twenty years, she noted patterns among those who were most successful including the Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman and several members of the National Academy: They were much more likely to spend time on their
avocations and they believed that "knowledge of art, poetry, music, etc. was part-and-parcel of being an educated scientist." They also "used a much wider range of mental "tools" during problem solving than their less successful colleagues, including various forms of two-, three-, and four-dimensional visual imaging, kinesthetic imaging, acoustic imaging, verbal and written forms, diagrams, and so forth."

Are cuts in arts education and the marginalization of the arts limiting the innovative capacities of future scientists?

If you go to Imagine That, also check out their February 11 piece on the arts and economic growth.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Words Matter

The National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) sponsors National Words Matter Week, a free celebration of the written word, held annually during the first full week in March. They have invited all bloggers to write on the idea that "words matter" during this week. Here are my thoughts:

I have savored words that capture and enchant the imagination:

A fallen flower
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.


I have shaken my fist, then hung my head, before words that sober me to realities I wish to see erased—but only if it's easy. Like genocide . . . poverty . . . war

I have cherished words that heal. Words of God that sometimes show up in human form. Like mercy and compassion and grace.

I have been embarrassed for words that are used as ornament when they should be the foundation. Like collaboration and community. I wish to reclaim them.

I have mourned the abuse of words. I have scratched to no avail at labels slapped on to mask the truth. Like communism—a sure way to silence so many calls for social justice. I have exchanged sad glances with words used to turn off thought. Like patriotism and faith—words used to stifle all questions when their power lies in nurturing inquiry. I will be faithful to them.

For words, I have done my little bit to defend meaning, to hold fast to words whose powers are being lost through carelessness—like respect . . . belief . . . love.

In words, I have heard the music—shimmer, silence, lovely—seen the radiance—dawn, springtime, eternity—shivered and flushed—exquisite, glorious, poignant, transformation—tasted the nectar and smelled the blossoms—poetry, prayer, peace.

To words, I raise a toast of light and warmth.

Yes, words matter.