Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Facilitating Creative Thinking in the Art Room

Written by Graduate Student Jamie Sanchez


“How nice it must be to teach art,” and, “It must be so much fun to draw and paint all day!” As an art teacher, I have heard these statements or something to their effect from others at least once every school year. In a way, they are right. I love my job and it is a lot of fun. However, I don’t just teach students how to make art, draw, and paint. Being an art teacher is so much more than that for me. My lessons dabble in math, science, social studies, character building, and most of all creativity.

It is common for people to feel that art and creativity go hand-in-hand. I agree that, often to be artistic, you must have the skills to think creatively. This is not always the case, though. Not every student that enters my art room possesses equal proportions of both artistic and creative abilities. They may be strong in one and need growth in the other. Many times, someone who seems to be a very talented young artist who is able to manipulate art media and duplicate images ends up staring blankly at his/her paper, unless explicit directions are given or a picture is made visible by the teacher. Students often have difficulty creating an original or expressive idea on their own. I feel that part of my role as their teacher is to facilitate both skills. They can build off of each other. It is possible to teach creative thinking through teaching art. It is one of my teaching goals to facilitate creative thinking through my lessons.

Creative and Critical Thinking Skills

Like the term “art”, the true definition of what creativity is has been disputed for many years; however, there exists a consensus that creativity is the generation of new, useful, and original ideas. For more than 60 years, researchers have progressively become more interested in creative thinking and how schools are preparing their students for the world’s increasing demand for creative thinkers. Hurson (2008) defines creative thinking as being generative, nonjudgmental, and expansive. He states that in the process of creative thinking, partially formed ideas are generated, the ideas are not judged, and therefore many more ideas are created.

Time and time again, we have heard of the importance of critical thinking. Hurson (2008) stated that critical thinking is analytic, judgmental, and selective. Many schools instill critical thinking into their curriculums and build students’ abilities to dig deep into content. That is a great skill to have and will prove useful in the students’ futures, but what about taking the next step with creativity? We need the next generations to “one-up” us and to challenge what we have already established. It is important for them to build on old ideas and to generate new ones. Without their creativity, there will be no growth.

We can still teach students critical thinking skills, but we must not leave out creativity. Hurson (2008) stresses the importance of using both creative and critical thinking. He cites that we should alternate between the two. We can use critical thinking as a building block for creative thinking skills.

Using Visual Thinking Strategies to Strengthen Critical and Creative Thinking

There are various ways to strengthen students’ critical thinking skills, as well as an ever-increasing number of methods for fostering students’ creative thinking skills. One technique that I have found particularly successful with my students is the use of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

Since the 1990s, VTS has been used in classrooms and museums around the United States and parts of Europe and Asia. It started as a program to increase aesthetic development in children. According to the Visual Thinking Strategies website (2011), VTS has become “a research-based teaching method that improves critical thinking and language skills through discussions of visual images”. It allows for students to create their own interpretations and dig deeper into the content of the artwork, through a question-and-answer process framed by the teacher. The interactions that take place in this process encourage students to analyze and evaluate the artwork in a way that they may not have done without prompting.

During the process of VTS, the teacher sits the students in front of an artwork or reproduction and asks a series of questions that are designed to spark their curiosity and strengthen their thinking skills. The teacher first asks, “What is going on in the picture?” This question prompts them to investigate the image. The second question, “What else can you find?” guides them to discover more than what they originally noticed. The second question, as well as the question: “What do you see that makes you say that?” are repeated as multiple students contribute. Students begin to build off of their peers’ answers. They are given the opportunity to formulate new perspectives.

In the beginning of the process, students take a critical thinking approach, in which they analyze the artwork and make connections with their own experiences. They then listen to the ideas of their peers while deferring judgment, and they build on those ideas by generating a variety of thoughts. This part of the procedure simulates the creative process during which many new ideas are produced. The learning process continues when students independently use VTS while viewing artwork and create conversations with their classmates. VTS cofounder Philip Yenawine (“Thinking Through Art”, n.d.) stated that VTS strengthens thinking skills of students that are considered necessary in the classroom such as observation, elaboration, drawing conclusions, making inferences, arguing evidence, and revision. According to the authors, “VTS is easy to learn and offers a proven strategy for educators to meet current learning objectives.”

VTS takes students beyond the interpretation of images (Housen, 2002). It allows them to seek new perspectives and view artwork in different ways. It also enhances students’ abilities to communicate, to formulate advanced questions, and therefore generate more meaningful answers. The process reinforces the students’ critical thinking skills and builds upon their creative thinking skills.

Currently in My Art Room: Empathy and Expressive Art

In collaboration with the lessons my students are learning with their classroom teachers, I have formed art lessons around empathy. This topic is from a character-building program called Second Step. Like with VTS, I begin by presenting visual images to the students. Using the questioning technique of VTS, I guide the students through photographs of people experiencing heightened emotions. The students identify the emotion(s) in the image and investigate the clues that tell them how the person feels. I have found that some students will begin to formulate creative stories behind the pictures. I then introduce various reproductions of artworks and repeat the process with the students. They are able to recognize the artist’s expression behind each artwork and identify which techniques they used to create the mood.

The students’ critical thinking is strengthened when they analyze the clues in the images and artworks. Subsequently, the students produce many thoughts and stories. They are urged not to be judgmental of others’ comments and especially not of their own. In this environment, the students feel free to express their opinions and are therefore able to continue the discussion for quite some time generating ideas. This is creative thinking. Their minds are flowing at this point, and they can now transfer this current into their art. I instruct them to create a piece of artwork that expresses an important emotion to them. I ask them, “What would that look like?” Their pencils move quickly and there aren’t any students staring blankly at their papers.


Art can be used as a tool to strengthen creative thinking skills. As an art teacher, I facilitate my students’ learning and create an environment to foster this. Critical thinking skills are important and should be taught in schools. However, further emphasis must be placed on teaching creative thinking skills; they are vital for the development of our future. We could use a few more innovators like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and Steve Jobs. VTS is only one tool that can build both critical and creative thinking, but there are many others. Skills gained through the use of techniques like VTS could easily be transferred into other subjects like creative writing, math, and science. “How nice it must be to teach art.” Let’s rephrase that: How nice it would be for all students to possess the creative thinking skills that can be taught through art.


Housen, A. C. (2002). Aesthetic thought: Critical thinking and transfer. Visual understanding education: 100 arts and learning research journal, 18(1), 99 – 132.

Hurson, T. (2008). Think better. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Visual thinking strategies. (2011). Retrieved from

Yenawine, P. (n.d.). Thinking through art [video file]. Retrieved from http://www. vtshome. org/what-is-vts

Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: Walk Out Walk On

Book Review written by Ginny Santos

Do you yearn for inspiration of what is possible? Walk Out Walk On, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, is sure to give you a renewed sense of hope in the creativity and resilience of human kind, and in the ability of local and transnational communities to work towards creative change. Walk Out Walk On is more than a book. It is an experience, an opportunity to witness creativity skills in action and an opportunity to practice your own creative abilities. As the authors put it, this is “a learning journey into communities daring to live the future now”, and literally, it is a journey.

Written in a similar style as ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, Wheatley and Frieze are your hosts, introducing you to a series of creative leaders and communities as you travel around the world. But first, they prepare you for the journey while heightening your anticipation of what you are about to experience. In doing so, they urge you to bring along all your courage, your awareness of your beliefs and any assumptions that might get in the way of staying open to the new. They start by giving you a small glimpse into each of the seven regions you will visit: Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, India, Greece, and the United States.

As you begin each new adventure, they help you richly visualize your surroundings, the history and complexity of the problems faced by the local people, and the social interactions you may have as you meet new people. But these are not ordinary interactions. In these unexpected interactions you meet local creative leaders who are not necessarily charismatic heroes, but hosts of change. As you learn about the ways they confront complex problems without waiting for any foreign aid, governmental intervention or heroic leaders, you are filled with renewed optimism, passion for change and endless curiosity. As you are exposed to the unexpected, the authors also bring your attention to any resistance and disbelief that may be arising in you, thus encouraging you to practice your ability to tolerate complexity, to stay open, and to look at it another way. For example, I will share with you the last paragraph from one of the first chapters, which concludes your journey to Mexico:

Before you descend from this misty highland village, the Zapatistas will make one request of you: Will you remember their story? Will you let it remain in your heart and provoke your imagination? Will you tell it to others? For that is the reason they accepted your request to visit their village and learn about their work. As you look back into the eyes of the Zapatista woman who gazes at you from behind her black ski mask, she wants to know, will you recognize that she is you? (p. 41)

In another journey, you are invited to witness the power of play, playing to make the world a better place. Starting with a small community in Brazil called Paquetá, where poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, murder, and homelessness are the norm. Here, one of the authors shares her experience:

The purpose of this game was to discover how play unleashes everyone’s creativity, how it invites us to see what’s possible rather than what’s so. In this game, it would be the residents of Paquetá who would discover and build their dreams. I would have the privilege of playing alongside, learning how a community becomes healthy and resilient, not when it gains access to power and wealth, but when it discovers that its creativity and capacity were there all along. (p. 52)

Every one of the seven journeys has something unique to teach you about creative change. What you take away from them, really depends on who you are and how open you are able to stay while reading. One interesting learning for me occurred in the visit to South Africa, specifically in Joubert Park. Joubert Park is a place, as the authors explain, where a deep history of racial oppression is only one diabolical piece of the puzzle: “It is heartbreaking, a hopeless place where dreams crumble into the dust left behind after all the gold has been stripped out” (p. 83). A place where the complexity can be overwhelming and you may not think that the community can have any influence. And as we know from the creative problem solving process, you must have influence in order to tackle a problem. However, the authors challenge you to think twice. They begin with a difficult series of questions:

Do you want to try to fix this place? Let’s see, which problem would you like to solve first? [...] How about HIV? One in every four people in this neighborhood is infected with the disease. Crime? South Africa has among the world’s highest per capita rates of murder, rape, robbery and assault. […] Or perhaps you’d rather start with poverty? Urban decay? Drugs? Child rape? Teen violence? Lack of schooling? Illiteracy? (p. 83)

They then introduce you to some inspiring people and how they have found the starting place that is just right, a place where they do have influence, one that relies on their local strength, which is togetherness and interdependence. My learning here, is that when it comes to complex, seemingly overwhelming social problems, creative and lasting change comes from the bottom up, starting from where the people do have influence, and not expecting to create an artificial list of priorities, a plan with a beginning and end. As they show at Joubert Park: ”Start anywhere and follow it everywhere” (p. 85), because what really matters is who is involved in solving the problem, the interconnectedness, the relationships, and the creativity inherent in the people who live what’s happening day to day.

‘Returning Home’ is the second last part of the book. It is an invitation to embrace your learning and allow the experience to bring change to your own life while tolerating the ambiguity that this might include. As the authors review the highlights of your journey one last time, they invite you to reflect. My reflection begins with a wide-open, “Wow”! and a sigh of relief as I now see and feel impressed by what the authors so clearly demonstrate: “scarcity has been replaced by abundance, a mindset that declares: We have what we need. Our creativity produces infinite wealth” (p. 222).

Walk Out Walk On is so vividly rich that it is impossible to truly summarize it’s contents. The most this review can accomplish is to give you a glimpse into what it has to offer. As said earlier, it is not just a book, but a beautiful set of glossy pages filled with vivid and colorful photographs, enchanting language, and poetic prose. It is a learning journey, an opportunity to grow, and an invitation to join something bigger. In fact, you can stay connected to the people you meet in the book, continue to learn about their ongoing work, their successes, failures and learnings by visiting a website that accompanies the book:

Wheatley, M. & Frieze, D. (2010). Walk out walk on. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


Ginny Santos is a creativity facilitator and trainer currently completing her Master’s of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership at the International Centre for Studies in Creativity, State University of New York. She uses Creative Problem Solving (CPS) to help leaders and groups focus and improve their thinking through the use of creative facilitation tools in order to reach innovative solutions and work towards positive change.

Ginny has over 10 years of professional experience working with diverse groups. She has quickly gone from being a student leader, social justice activist and community organizer to leadership and management positions in the non-profit sector. She has a strong and proven commitment to diversity, consensus, and authentic leadership and believes that people can have fun at work.

Ginny is originally from Spain, she moved to Canada at 17 and had never planned on staying. But as plans always change she is now a Torontonian, an occasional dance performer, a cyclist, a mother, an enthusiastic learner and a creative planner.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book Review: Everyday Creativity


Being creative in many parts of daily life is for me the utmost of internalizing creative problem solving skills. When I heard that Ruth Richards wrote about the connection between creativity, intuition and spirituality in her book Everyday Creativity, I knew I had to read this book! The combination with integrating intuition and spirituality could improve the meaningfulness of creativity. And it could help to live more ‘in the moment’.

As a leading creativity researcher, Ruth Richards has asked a group of eminent thinkers to offer their thoughts on how to embrace creativity and tap into the originality of everyday life. Csikszentmihalyi describes the nature of this book as “a stimulating, thought-provoking kaleidoscope of views about what everyday creativity can involve for people, both individually and together” (p.XI).


The book Everyday Creativity consists of three parts. The first two parts focus on the role of daily creativity in our individual lives and its role in society. In the last part, Richards draws a conclusion and marks an interesting red line that connects different points of views expressed in the book into twelve principal potential benefits of living more creatively. In this part, after all the provocative sideways in the previous chapters, she makes the impact of everyday creativity understandable again.

everyday creativity

Everyday creativity involves meeting just two criteria, defined by Barron, namely: originality and meaningfulness (p.5). This can be in all parts of life or society when we pay attention to the development of two important personality traits: our openness to experience and tolerance of ambiguity. Further, Richards makes it clear that:

“Seen as a process, and even a way of life, our everyday creativity offers whole new ways of thinking, of experiencing the world, and experiencing ourselves. It can pull blinders from our eyes, and bring us alive, making us more conscious participants in our lives, aware of the dynamic of life moving about us.” (p.4).

in our individual lives…

Richards starts Part I by focusing on the healthy benefits of being creative everyday, both physically as mentally. The other authors explore in depth the importance of bravely facing uncertainty in this complex world (Schuldberg), the healing power of viewing art (Zausner) and that viewing television can create new opportunities for new learning (Pritzker). We can look at different stages of consciousness that are affecting our creativity (Combs and Krippner) and Runco shows that our creativity is a vitally important factor when we live our lives in a meaningful way. In this part I the authors show that creativity can have a big influence on our experienced happiness.

creativity in society

Part II stretches the implications of everyday creativity from an individual level into the benefits for a better society. Along unknown parts of Darwin’s evolution theory (Loye), the surprising posture of the Homo Sapiens (Arons), the subtleties of poetry from the East and West (Sundararajan and Averill) and more collaborative learning structures (Goerner), these writers show that everyday creativity is needed to live in societal complexity. The cyber world can offer us new dimensions for this (Abraham), and the power of love will help us to be more creative and more caring (Eisler). All contributors show that the impact of creativity goes beyond the individual benefits.

twelve benefits

For me the main thesis of the book lies in the last chapter. There, it all comes to a focus about the added value of everyday creativity from an individual perspective and with implications for our society. Richards calls this the features that may describe us if we are functioning more creatively. All twelve features start with the sentence “when I am creative I am…”:

I. dynamic: feeling awe as part of complex patterns and finding beauty in this

II. conscious: aware of and attentive to present experience

III. healthy: following a lifestyle with active participation and internal balance

IV. nondefensive: staying alert to restricting forces and working to limit these

V. open: welcoming new experience

VI. integrating: functioning across multiple senses and states of consciousness

VII. observing actively: in dialogue with the observed and demands of the new

VIII. caring: guided by love, compassion and meaning; aware of interconnection

IX. collaborative: working with others toward broader goals

X. androgynous: bridging false dichotomies beyond stereotypes and limits

XI. developing: aware that our personal development and evolution is ongoing

XII. brave: welcoming risks of exploring the unknown and embracing the mystery


In my opinion, what makes the book attractive, is that everyday creativity gets an importance far bigger than what people normally think about this kind of little ‘c’ creativity. The book makes very clear that everyday creativity strongly contributes to a creative attitude and the path of self-actualization. The points of view of Richards and Runco are concrete, applicable and inspiring. The other authors are more academical and theoretical approach in their explorations. But finally their essence is nicely bridged together in the twelve benefits defined by Richards.

The kaleidoscope of writers has expanded my perspectives on everyday creativity, although the chapters were not always relevant and concrete enough for me. The topic is not only an individual challenge to live more creatively. The book shows that everyday creativity influences personal health, and can have a big impact on societal development too. For me it’s no longer a how-to question but also an increased curiosity about the possible extra impact of everyday creativity (and creativity in general) in future life. This book reinforced my thinking about the importance of making everyday creativity understandable, accepted and applicable.


Don’t expect this book to be a practical ‘how-to’ about individual everyday creativity. Most of the contributions have a strong psychological background, are general in their applications or more focused on a societal level. But if you want to understand why people have to be creative and how broad the implications can be for meaningful development of individuals and society, than this book is for you! This kaleidoscope will provoke your thoughts about everyday creativity!


Erik op ten Berg (1963) is a Dutch creativity professional. Since 2001 he works as an independent trainer, facilitator and consultant on creativity and innovation. In 2010 he started studying again at the International Center for Studies in Creativity in Buffalo. Topics of his interest are climate, intuition, keeping originality alive, leadership and everyday creativity. Erik loves nature, labyrinths, traveling around the world, his wife, his three children and eating risotto with parmesan cheese.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review- Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity

Written by Graduate Student Mary Kay Culpepper

Cooking Light magazine launched a website in 1994. As editor in chief 10 years later, I reasoned the more ways we could give readers to interact with the magazine (and each other), the better, so we established a channel on YouTube and set up a Facebook fan page. I personally launched @Cooking_Light on Twitter, every day parsing out 140-character behind-the-scenes tidbits about the magazine and teasers to upcoming issues. Readers responded enthusiastically; in a year, more than 8,000 followers submitted recipes, shared story leads, and delivered near-instant issue critiques. Today, @Cooking_Light has more than 38,000 followers. What began as an exercise in reaching out to readers now transcends the magazine with separate online communities that use its feed as a jumping-off point for their own supper clubs and recipe swaps.

David Gauntlett (@davidgauntlett on Twitter) would not be surprised. A sociologist who studies media and communications at the University of Westminster in London, Gauntlett traces a handmade line from the 19th century to today in Making Is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. In it, he maintains that creativity’s value is in the making, and that the communities built by people who share their work—people like the followers of Cooking Light—can aggregate the social capital needed to effect change.

Gauntlett, an engaging writer whose other books include Creative Explorations: New Approaches to Identity and Audiences (2007), and Media, Gender, and Identity: An Exploration (2008), specializes in media studies, and often conducts research by asking study participants to make assigned items—videos, drawings, Lego models—to reflect on the process of makin

Gauntlett is hardly the first sociologist to write about creativity; Howard S. Becker obliquely covered the topic in his classic book Art Worlds in 1982. But scholarly books on the subject are far more frequently written by educators such as Keith Sawyer (2006) and D. N. Perkins (1981), or psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and Teresa Amabile (2011). The thrust in their work is on creativity’s effect on individuals. By exploring what’s at stake when society exercises creativity, I find Gauntlett covers important new ground.

Explaining the present through the past

Intriguingly, he invokes John Ruskin and William Morris, two preeminent English philosophers of the Industrial Age, to set the stage for his modern argument. Ruskin, an art critic and social thinker, wrote emphatically about his concern that the technological upheavals of the mid-1800s would rend people from the soul-nurturing countryside, and the shifting consumer economy would rob them of self-sufficiency. Morris, a prototypical industrial designer, imagined a future revolution when everyday people would reject buying cheap, often ugly, mass-produced goods, and instead make their own beautiful things.

That future, Gauntlett claims—with the additional assistance of social theorist Karl Marx, futurist Clay Shirky and educator Ivan Illich, among others—might be now. For the last 60 years, mass media have cast a long shadow in the western world, entrenching the restrictive, didactic culture Ruskin and Morris feared. The model of having an exclusive few create programming, products, and doctrine for the many even extended to schools, where “factory learning” produced successive generations of passive consumers.

A subtle but important shift occurred in the 1970s, during a counter-culture-inspired craft revival; Gauntlett sees today’s bloggers, YouTube videographers, and extreme crafters as their aesthetic heirs. He also sees changes in the way teachers approach students who are used to contacting each other online and sharing photos and videos; their classes take a collaborative bent, where inquiry is more important than parroting a teacher’s answers. With that, they are starting to succeed in the wake of flawed programs such as “No Child Left Behind” in the U.S.

What ‘creativity’ means now

Gauntlett devotes chapters to what it means to make, exploring both craft and digital creation. Then he ties together the sociological significance of connecting with sections on happiness, and social capital and communities. At the heart of the matter is Gauntlett’s own definition of creativity, one I believe should hold special interest for scholars of the domain. He begins by identifying Csikszentmihalyi’s generally accepted 1990 definition of eminent creativity as stemming from the “sit-back-and-be-told” culture, where a network of gatekeepers, God-like, judge what is creative. Instead, Gauntlett links everyday creativity with process, allowing anyone to determine what is creative. His version:

Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something which is novel in that context, and is a process that evokes a feeling of joy (p. 70).

The human drives to make and share have the power to transform culture, he says, as people gather online and in person. Furthermore, people are apt to be joyful and healthy if they work together on meaningful projects; Gauntlett quotes economist Richard Layard as saying that shared purpose is essential for human stability, a purpose that online communities can foster.

Yet, as much promise as the wired world might offer, it is no utopia. Gauntlett points out that privacy issues, the success of aggregators (including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) that don’t pay for content, and the creativity-restraining, socially isolating matters of group think and one-size-fits-all templates are very real concerns.

What it could mean in the future

To counter, Gauntlett, like Morris, imagines futures for media, education, work, and politics and the environment that allow people to share their creativity with tools that don’t filter the results. He also envisions that people might be able to do so easily, without gatekeepers.

He admits things won’t effortlessly change. People are “comfortable with the undemanding role that contemporary culture expects us to enjoy,” he says (p. 244), yet the social cost is high. On the other hand, making and connecting are not necessarily easy, but convey more substantial rewards:

Making things is about transforming materials into something new, but it is also about transforming one’s sense of self. Creativity is a gift, not in the sense of it being a talent, but in the sense that it is a way of sharing meaningful things, ideas, or wisdom, which form bridges between people and communities (p. 245).

As a former media executive (one arguably, if benignly, complicit in the “sit-back-and-be- told” culture), I see the strength of Gauntlett’s logic. My experience with the magazine’s readers helped me understand that new media’s chief advantage is its ease as a platform for sharing, and that platform is changing the way mass media are produced and distributed, quite possibly forever. Encouragingly, the theories behind Making Is Connecting offer broad insight into the directions the times might take, and invite further scholarly research to render proof. As a student of creativity now, I find it compelling to consider participating in that research, illuminating what is happening, and perhaps helping create what happens next.

Having learned to knit and crochet in the 1970s, Mary Kay Culpepper considers her graduate education at the ICSC another form of extreme craft. Her website is


Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Becker, H. (1982). Art worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative explorations: New approaches to identity and audiences. London, England: Routledge.

Gauntlett, D. (2008). Media, gender, and identity: An exploration. 2nd ed. London, England: Routledge.

Perkins, D. N. (1981). The mind’s best work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sawyer, K. (2006). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.