Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What’s missing in Art Education? A Paradox: Art Making without Creativity

Written by Graduate Student Khrista RIchardson

The link between art making and creativity seems like an obvious one. Great artists have long been revered for their exciting, imaginative and unique way of seeing the world, interpreting ideas and emotions, and solving complex problems. Teaching children to think like an artist in creative and imaginative ways and to express themselves visually is vitally important, especially in the tremendously visual culture we experience today. It seems that, to many educators, the act of teaching art to children has been confused with something else; something light, crafty and quick. Something for which there is an exact approach and an ideal outcome; where the goal is to conform and to be rewarded with a good grade.

Incorporating creativity into the art room seems easy, like a natural reaction that would happen on its own, which is probably why so many art teachers fail to intentionally integrate it into their plans. It’s easy for a teacher to come up with quick “make it and take it” art lessons that only require students to follow simple directions in order to create a product. Preparing creative, thought provoking lessons is time consuming and requires careful planning. Take a scan down the hallways of the typical elementary school and you’re sure to see almost identical pieces of seemingly mass-produced, construction paper assemblages. The highly regarded high school art program I have had experience with seems to focus heavily on technique, vocabulary, and rote memorization of artists and dates rather than creativity and expression. I believe that many art and classroom teachers are grossly misrepresenting the act of art making to their students, and in turn, unknowingly diminishing their creativity and intrinsic motivation toward the act of art making. Alane Jordan Starko, author of “Creativity in the Classroom” (2005), addresses this by stating “If the teacher selects the problem and decides how it should be solved, the end products (although potentially providing the opportunity for students to practice artistic techniques) are more a reflection of the teacher’s creativity than the students’” (p. 263). Providing students with a defined problem to solve and step by step instructions on how to solve it is not enhancing their understanding of art or creativity, it’s stifling it. It is my belief that freedom and choice are what the current art room most requires yet, regrettably, lacks.

Freedom and Choice
Freedom, both one of Goran Ekvall’s (1996) dimensions for organizational creativity, and Teresa Amabile’s (1998) potential “Creativity Killer” (the lack of freedom, or over-control), is essential to the environment in which creativity is to take place. Ekvall defines freedom as “The independence in behavior exerted by the people in the organization…The opposite climate would include people who are passive, rule-bound and anxious to stay inside established boundaries” (1996, p. 107). Amabile states that “People will be more creative… if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn't let them choose which mountain to climb.” (1998, p. 81). In other words, students need to be able to define their own problems and discover their own solutions when faced with a task; and it’s the responsibility of the teacher to set up the task and make sure that happens. If autonomy is valued in the art classroom, intrinsic motivation will flourish and students will want to make art (Amabile, 1989).

In order to incorporate freedom into an art class room, the teacher must be mindful of a variety of factors. Although young children may need limits, goals and a sense of how to accomplish a task, the more choices children are presented with, the more creative they will be (Amabile, 1989). Choice of materials is one way to give students freedom in the art room. Having worked in and visited numerous art rooms, I have noticed art educators limiting materials for certain projects, using paint for one unit and colored pencils for another. This can significantly inhibit the creativity of students. As Amabile states, “If children are presented with just one particular way of doing something, they will become like the rat in the maze who habitually takes the straight, uncomplicated, and uncreative way out” (1989). When an art teacher gives her students the choice of materials, she is not only providing them with freedom or choice, she is asking them to think about the qualities of materials; how one material would express feelings or thoughts differently than another, and to think about what material would work best for them, rather than for the entire class. This simple act can encourage higher-order thinking skills, heightened emotional intelligence, and of course, creativity.

An approach to preparing students for freedom of materials in the art room could be to introduce art materials in an innovative way, contrary to the way most art educators do so. Instead of setting up lessons throughout the year to expose students to a variety of different materials through specific, material based projects, art teachers can set up exploratory lessons in the beginning of the school year. These exploratory lessons should be no stakes, low pressure assignments that allow students the freedom to get familiar with materials without fear of being graded or judged. Through a study on creative behavior, Torrance found that “individuals having experienced a period of unevaluated practice coupled with encouragement for free experimentation will produce ideas which will be judged to have a higher degree of various creative qualities” (1965, p. 160). After experimenting, students could write journal entries explaining how the material made them feel (in control, loose, ridged, etc.), and, potentially, what kind of project this material could be used for. Perhaps the purpose of the first few weeks of an art class could be for students to familiarize themselves with the materials provided. This way, students would be able handle the freedom to choose from materials in the future, based on what they had learned early on in the class. This approach could help students produce more creative and emotional pieces of art.

Student Self-Reflection
Another way for an art educator to incorporate freedom into her curriculum is to plan activities that directly relate to her student’s lives, rather than planning every step of a procedure that yields similar results for each student. When students are asked to reflect on their own experiences and to create art based on their feelings, memories, or thoughts pertaining to an idea presented by the teacher, they have the freedom to create individual and unique pieces of art. Szekely states that “When teachers assume that students can make artworks simply by following instructions, they are forgetting how important thinking about art ideas and preparing for the artwork are in the art process” (as cited in Starko, 2005, p. 264). Encouraging students to reflect upon their lives in a meaningful way will help them to see that art is relevant; not intangible or useless. Lessons that encourage students to ask questions, investigate, take themselves seriously and observe the world around them will yield beautiful, meaningful, and unique results. Students will begin to understand the act of art making as a viable mode of communication and expression rather than a perfectly planned route leading to an exact, ideal outcome (Szekely as cited in Starko, 2005).

Creating relevant lessons that will encourage students to think deeply and introspectively will never be a simple task. Students at any grade level may feel uncomfortable or confused when asked to think about the relationship between an idea that is presented by the teacher and their own personal life. They are very rarely asked to reflect on their own experiences in relation to algebra, physics, or biology, which is why it is imperative to ask these kinds of questions in the art room. Due to some students’ inexperience in self-reflective thinking, creative thinking strategies may be employed to help them generate ideas and responses to the tasks presented.

Independent divergent thinking is a great way to help students develop many ideas for their art work without giving explicit directions. A useful model called Talents Unlimited outlines a strategy to encourage divergent thinking in the classroom. Talents Unlimited, created by Dr. Carol Schlichter (1986), is based on the Taylor’s Talents model for teaching by Calvin Taylor (1967), and Guilford’s work on the nature of intelligence (1956). Although Schlichter explains six useful talent areas in the Talents Unlimited model that encourage general creative thinking, the first talent area, Productive Thinking, deals specifically with divergent thinking. Productive Thinking can be explicitly taught to students in the art room by asking them to do the following specific tasks in a journal when posed with a challenge (Schlichter as cited in Starko 2005):

1. Think of many ideas (fluency)
2. Think of varied ideas (flexibility)
3. Think of unusual ideas (originality)
4. Add to their ideas to make them better (elaboration)

Authentic visual expression of emotion and thought ultimately rely on choice of execution. When we take freedom and choice out of art making, what’s left is unimaginative, insignificant and thus fails to be art at all. Consequently, the teaching of art to children of any age should be tightly bound to the teaching of creative thinking. Although the term creativity may often be linked to art making, one does not automatically come with the other. It can be challenging and messy to incorporate authentic creativity into the art room, but with freedom and choice, I believe students will come to understand, recognize, and respond to the world around them in a thoughtful and meaningful way. By linking art and creativity, teachers can help students come to understand art as an intelligent and extraordinary visual response to the individually defined big questions in life.

Khrista Richardson, a current Creative Studies graduate student at Buffalo State College, has a Bachelor's degree in Art Eduaction. Khrista is currently fulfilling a year of service with Western New York Americorps ABLE (Americorps Builds Lives through Education) program, working as a full time tutor at a Buffalo charter school.


Amabile, T. (1989). Growing up creative: Nurturing a lifetime of creativity. Amherst, MA: Creative Education Foundation.
Amabile, T. (1998). How to kill creativity. Havard Business Review, 76(5), 77-87.
Ekvall, G. (1996). Organizational climate for creativity and innovation. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5(1), 105-123.
Starko, A, J. (2005). Creativity in the classroom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.
Guilford, J. P. (1956). Structure of intellect. Psychological Bulletin, 53, 267–293.
Schlichter, C. L. (1986). Talents Unlimited: An inservice education model for teaching thinking skills. Gifted Child Quarterly, 30(3), 119–123.
Taylor, C. W. (1967). Questioning and creating: A model for curriculum reform. Journal of Creative Behavior, 1(1), 22–33.
Torrance, E. P. (1965). Rewarding creative behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.


K. BLACK said...

I am inspired by your take on art materials in the classroom. I use this approach in my own art making... and giving students experience with each is a good way to give them a choice in their own assignments. I'm just concerned with how much time it would take to properly teach the techniques of using a variety of mediums, given the reality of the time constraints of the average art class.

john carter said...

This is really a valuable information for the art students. It has certainly cleared a lot of things up for me as art courses

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