As students enter class, they see a prompt written on the board:
If creativity were an animal, what would it look like? Draw it.
“If you captured creativity under a bell jar, what would you see when you looked inside? Would you know creativity if you saw it? Have you ever wondered what exactly creativity is? What do we mean when we say 'creative'?"
“My goal today is for you to leave here knowing less about creativity than when you walked in,“ I tell my students at the beginning of our third class. They are undergraduate early-childhood majors in my Art & Curriculum Concepts for Teachers class, a 2 credit course that meets once a week for a semester. They are required to take two out of the three choices between visual art, music, and drama.
Is creativity the act of creation? Does it happen whenever anything is made? Or are only some creations creative? How do you tell the difference? Does it matter if it’s Paint-By-Number? Does it matter who is doing the creating? Can a painting be creative if it’s made by a paintbrush being held by a long, grey trunk?
Is creativity a kind of thinking, more about ideas than about things? Is it thinking that is divergent; the more ideas the better? Can the thinking be convergent too; an idea honed to a sharp point? Do creative thoughts move vertically, laterally, randomonly, or even transdimensional? Does it move it swim or scuttle or skip? Can it crawl and climb and fly?
Does creativity have to be original? Something that’s never existed before? Is each of us therefore creative, even if we’re remixed versions of what came before? Can it be a reference so obscure that most no one has heard it? Does a drop of unoriginality change an otherwise original whole? Is there anything anywhere that hasn’t built on what’s come before?
Does creativity move gradually, imperceptibly slow like a glacier remaking a whole landscape? Does it increase incrementally as we toil and sweat like the ants in hidden hallways beneath our feet? Can it be ordered into a system like our entire solar system? Or does it strike like a bolt of lightning and disappear in a flash? On a long enough timeline entire civilizations become more like fruit flies, does it matter how long our creations last?
Can it be creative even if you don’t have a reason or know what to do with it? Robots and AI and billionaire space colonies; tiny computers and black holes and quantum thingamajigs. As more and more “What if?” becomes what is, I often wonder to myself can we perpetually do whatever we muse or is there a ceiling on what can be done? I’d like to ask Jules Verne.
Is creativity innovation? Can it be imitation? Iteration? Incremental? Sometimes imperceptible? Can creativity be pointless, another novelty or fad? Or must it change the world and the way everyone thinks? Does it matter if that thinking is good or bad? Can creativity be judged? Can creativity be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is the Baghdad Battery as creative as a phone in someone’s pocket?
Does it spend its time solving our problems or does it appear daydreamy or even lazy and tired? Does it conjure images of a Bart Simpson or a gifted over-achiever? Is it poorly behaved or just bored out of its mind? Is it more interested in problem-finding? And what does it feel like if we feel it inside? Is it cursed to be moody like the myth of the “tortured artist?” Or can something more appealing, like a rollercoaster ride?
Is creativity like a yin and yang, existing in tension between what is and what could be? Does creativity need to make sense to us? Can it be so many different things all at once? Is creativity as indefinable as you or me?
1. Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? Westby, Erik L and Dawson, V L. 1, 1995, Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 8, pp. 1-10. 2. Predicting Creative Behavior: A Reexamination of the Divergence Between Traditional and Teacher-Defined Concepts of Creativity. Dawson, V L, et al. 1, 1999, Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 12, pp. 57-66.
When creativity experts describe creativity, they describe it differently than teachers. Are experts and teachers describing the same thing? Can they both be right?
If creativity walks into our classroom, do we welcome it? Or is it more like a double-edged sword that seems scary; that we were never taught how to wield? Is creativity something special, that only special people really feel? Or is it as common as the nose on our face? Do we make space for creativity, as a matter of inclusion?
If we thought of creativity like a wagon wheel, what skills and abilities might the hub of the wheel unite? Or if we took creativity apart - if we looked inside - what characteristics might we identify
If creativity is a skill, something anyone can learn, would we know when to use it? And would we be inclined to do so?
Is what’s most important about creativity is what it means to you? And to know what it means, mustn’t one experience it? To see it in ourselves and others and especially to feel it? If so, then shouldn’t we as teachers be able to describe it and provide evidence of our sighting it in the wild? And after thinking about all this, do you still think it’s fair to grade “creativity” so generally? Would I ever find “intelligence” in a rubric from your class?
Is creativity inherent in the arts, the domain of the art teacher, or does it belong to most any field? Does creativity live in the human heart? Does it inhabit moreso the mind? Does creativity occupy my physical body? Are its origins spiritual or supernatural? Or is creativity everyday, as common as carbon? Is it as natural as gravity - a constraint humans intuitively felt inspired to defeat? Necessity is the mother of invention. Shouldn’t we also consider creativity a necessity for our very survival? Our imagination finds ways to pass the second-hand of the school clock as it ticks sadistically slowly. Our dreams can take us away from tedium and trauma alike, transporting us to places of infinite possibility.
But can creativity wither like a raisin in the sun? Are my students still creative if I don’t try to see it? Am I still creative if I say I’m not? Does it disappear if I deny it? "I'm not creative," declare 1/5 of my students. After our conversation, are they still so sure?
At the end of class, my took turns sharing our drawings of creativity as an animal. It was fantastic listening to the reasoning behind their artistic choices and learn the many ‘whys’ behind their images. They were all so meaningful. Originally, I thought of these drawings as just an entry point into our discussion of creativity. A primer. But since then, I’ve decided that I’ll invite my students to to revisit these drawings several times as a way to develop artistic skills, refine their artwork, and think like artists. I see a lot of potential here. But I don’t know for sure, and that is indicative of creativity for me - you have to trust the process. It’s a risk with no guarantee. But rather than another ‘one-and-done,’ let’s try to build something here. There is creative and intellectual juice left unsqueezed.
To make things memorable and meaningful, I think that it is helpful to continually build upon and revisit ideas and skills. Sharpen the saw. I suspect that these early-childhood majors can develop some sophistication in their drawing while simultaneously encouraging them to consider their conceptions of creativity. At the end of this semester, I will post before and after pics with the final versions of these drawings. I’m excited to see how they turn out!
What would creativity look like if it were an animal to YOU? I’d love to see you draw it and share!
Assessment is not a bad word. Though it seems that way in art education sometimes. I can empathize with folks who find the term 'exhausting.' Saying the A-word might even trigger some kind of low-grade academic PTSD for some. I think it’s because we’re so used to being abused by it, both as students and then as teachers.
But remember that at its core, assessment is simply about value. What we assess is what we look for and what we look for is what we value. What values are you promoting in your classroom assessment? Are you valuing learning over grades? There is a difference. What about dialogue over monologue? Subjectivity vs false pretenses of objectivity? Vulnerability and risk-taking vs the formulaic and the path of least resistance?
Assessment is not the same as grades. Grades at best serve expediency, but expediency is not compatible with learning any more than it is with art. Galloping through a museum to see as much art as possible is not the way to have meaningful experiences with art. Art is slow. Art is demanding. It asks the viewer to notice something,even reflect on what you notice, as opposed to the rest of daily life when we simply go and do mindlessly.
Meeting with every single student to determine grades is also slow (at least compared to a computerized test or mechanically determined grade). Assessment, if it is to be authentic, is also slow. But I believe that we should have the courage to assess face-to-face and to do so through dialogue. In this fast-paced world, we must slow down for our students’ sakes if we want them to slow down as well. We ended my class this semester with final meetings where I met with all 30 pre-service teachers in my class to assess portfolios of writing and determine a grade together.
Even though we have been graded ad nauseam for the better part of 15 to 20 years of our lives, few and far between are the instances where we share responsibility for our own evaluation or even evaluate ourselves. This seems rather strange. These future teachers will go on to emphasize grading because that is what the system demands; that is what they have been subjected to as students and all they know. But shouldn’t they get to have experiences actually grading SOMEONE before they are in a classroom ACTUALLY grading someone before student teaching? Don’t we, as a field, think that, at the very least, self-assessment might build empathy for students and expand the thinking of these future teachers BEFORE they get into the classroom when they can still ask questions and experiment safely?
I told them it would feel weird and uncomfortable, maybe because evaluation is hard and maybe because they have so little practice self-evaluating in traditional settings. Step into that discomfort. It will be over before they knew it. This semester, I used an analogy that I liked quite a lot because I thought it would be very “sticky” – the tattoo artist. Sure, my students get the logic I explained above, but will they REMEMBER when they are the teacher in charge? My answer was the tattoo artist analogy. I told them that traditionally, a prospective tattoo artist would practice drawing for a long time and maybe practice tattooing a piece of meat from the supermarket. When they wanted to graduate to become a professional, they would tattoo themselves. This has two benefits. First, is your work good enough for you to be willing to wear it? Second, you know how it feels when you do it to someone else. It builds empathy. So it makes sense to give a future teacher the opportunity to share the steering wheel when it comes to their own evaluation so that they know how it feels. The problem is, this analogy may or may not be true, because I’ve heard conflicting accounts. I’ll keep looking for one because the truth matters to me but this one may work for a time.
Some students had to mull over very difficult questions that every teacher faces. Whatever they chose would have lasting consequences. Would they evaluate themselves fairly, as they are expected to evaluate their students? Or would they take advantage of the opportunity? It seemed like an obvious teachable moment to put the ball in their courts. I believe their decisions says a lot about who they will become as teachers, and I thought they all showed character as they practiced wrestling with the tough choices every teacher faces in a less risky environment.
Fortunately, the vast majority of them did very well so I was able to relax a bit. A few conversations were tough and awkward but teachable moments on how to move through disagreement. There was no point where I had to overrule anyone, though there were occasions where I and the student came to terms with final grades that were lower than the student hoped. But there were also occasions where perhaps overly-critical students and I came to terms with grades higher than they expected as well. Nevertheless, they seemed sincere in their understanding of how those grades seemed fair. Overall, I loved the experience and it seemed like they all responded well to it. And I have some evidence to back that up. While I’ll wait until my next post to get my exit survey data, I will share that before their experience with authentic assessment in my course, 39% of the pre-service teachers said they were interested in practicing authentic assessment in their own future classrooms, but by the end of the semester, that number had increased to 68% - an increase of nearly 30%!
On Effort & Assessment
Hearing what my students talk about and write about gives me insight into what they value. What I tried to do was listen. I give my students multiple opportunities to reflect on something and may ask them about something several different ways. I tell them this is because I do not want to use only one bucket to catch a waterfall, as I explain to them. I’m looking for the learning when I’m reading and listening to and observing what my students say and do. If I only look one time, that’s like using one bucket to catch all that information. If I look for something multiple ways, then I will use several buckets and increase my chances of finding what I’m looking for, if it is there. We must be sure we find what we are looking for and not what we are hoping for, and likewise, our students should have the opportunity to prove what they have and have not learned beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is justice, and at the end of the day, that above all else must drive our decision making in the classroom just as it must drive a civil society.
One nearly universal theme I heard in students’ self-evaluations was effort being highly prized, privileged in my opinion from accomplishment or acquiring specific skills or knowledge. I’m afraid that this is something of a lowest common denominator from my point of view. Is the person expending every last ounce of their strength and effort attempting to move a boulder more admirable than the clever person that uses a lever and actually moves the stone? Not to me.
Obviously we all need to put in effort! Obviously EVERY student IDEALLY would normally be operating at the edge of their potential in order for their limitations to expand. I have a hard time imagining a single teacher promoting a lack of effort in their classroom. But how do you begin to weigh or measure it and would that be useful at all? Would everyone be successful if they just put in effort? Sounds ridiculous to me. In my opinion, effort would be a quality of the classroom culture to be valued, modeled, and practiced, rather than something academic to be evaluated. Hasn’t it been our desire to REDUCE the amount of effort required for tasks that has driven our technology? Doesn’t evolution privilege the adaptation and not the effort expended? Surely, it is this emphasis on effort above all else that makes people think that, while learning is often hard, it can also be meaningful and fun. If we measure by effort alone, surely the most dismal learning tasks are then the most beneficial, right? If a teacher doesn't grade effort, that doesn't mean no effort suddenly becomes acceptable. It seems to me we grade their effort when students are being forced to do things.
I wonder if, in practice, prizing even effort leads to a deficit view. The student quit due to their flawed character and lack of effort, not because the system is unfair or irrelevant. “They’re lazy!” is the favorite attack upon the disenfranchised. Yet here at college, after so many years of school, is what is most prized? Not first improvement? Growth? Self-fulfillment? Achievement? Surely, all this represents the institutionalized view, as nearly every high achieving student (future teachers) in my class emphasized effort. To the contrary, the best studio art classes I ever taught were guided by the mantra of a familiar green puppet: Do or do not, there is not try.
I don't look for effort, I want engagement. And I was very pleased to hear many respond very positively to their Creative Growth Goals, which honestly I had wondered if having students choose CGGs would’ve worked. And it didn’t, completely, this first semester by any means (well, I started in the Fall but it was formalized in my Spring class). I was worried because I had to remind several students which goal they had chosen at their midpoint meetings. But they seemed truly engaged in their focus on developing a skill or ability such as idea generation or uncertainty or experimentation.
It’s hard, sometimes, to know with great certainty when you are conferencing with students and reviewing their portfolios that the risk of confirmation bias is extremely STRONG when you AND the students both have a horse in the race. I think we have to weigh our judgments carefully and this is why I seek transparency with my students. But what I took away from their positive responses was not so much the specifics of it but that they responded well to being able to choose a goal that was they then were prompted to weave throughout their coursework. Additionally, much like this assignment, they really benefited from prompts to reflect back on their decisions from the beginning of the semester which they could use as a point of reference to assess growth. Students like feeling like they’re making progress, but in many classes students are not given the opportunity to reflect. Comprehensive tests and papers do not serve this function. But I was happy that the students enjoyed exercising their agency in selecting something in the course they’d like to focus on. This is something I want to more deeply engrain through the core of future classes.
Assessment is rarely easy, but for me it is one of the most important things I do in the classroom. But grades, while attractive to bureaucrats and folks that don’t know much about learning, are not the answer. I told my students at their meetings was that the objective of our final meeting was to take all of the rich experiences we’ve had this semester, the story that you have created this semester, and do our best to fit all of that into one of these odd little shapes (as I point to the OSU grade scale). We lose a lot doing this, because it is nearly impossible to reverse engineer that story out of the funny little shape. But you and I will know that there is a lot of meaning in that shape, even if it is hidden. And most importantly, it is the dialogue, reflection and choice - the essential ingredients of authentic assessment - that my students found meaningful which they will carry with them well after they leave the classroom. Paradoxically, this means slowing down and focusing on those art and creativity values, skills, and dispositions that we will practice the rest of our lives. These are the things I value and so that is what I assess.
In my next post, I’ll share the results of the exit surveys my students completed. What did they think of our time together? Tune in next time and I'll discuss the result and reveal how their data will affect my planning for next year! The challenges of change!
Lastly, thanks for your patience in waiting for this post! It's been a few weeks as I had classes ending and beginning; several major deadlines; and some personal matters all coming at the same time. I appreciate your continued support!
Our students spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at us. They probably spend more time looking at us than our loved ones. Don’t you wonder how your students see you? I know I have.
It’s hard to know how others view us. We all have those who see us lovingly, those who look at us with disapproval, and the majority who don’t see us at all. Our students see a lot of us and over the course of a semester it is possible for a student to view us from all three points of view.
It can be a risk asking others to share their view of you. You might not like what you they show you. They don’t know how you might react. You’re asking for honesty when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Such an interaction can require vulnerability on both sides.
But teaching and learning require trust. Asking students to draw you, especially early in the year, could be a tremendous bonding experience. Especially if you look at the drawings together and share in some laughs. Humor, and proving that you have a sense of humor, can be tremendous advantages in forming community.
This semester, I wanted to find out how my students see me and I found the perfect spot to swap it into my curriculum. For the last several years, I have enjoyed introducing my students to the Stages of Artistic Development. I lead several exercises that help teachers empathize with their students by helping them get into the mindset of a child drawing at different stages of artistic development. These stages can be related to those proposed by developmental psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky (who both sound correct if you ask me). I pair experiential learning in the classroom with the reading Young in Art by Craig Roland (an academic descendant of Lowenfield) and some updated info from more current research.
We start with some relaxation exercises before engaging in exercises in scribbling, pre-symbolic, symbolic, and naturalistic drawing. I’ve described these exercises in a previous post, but this time there were a couple of key differences. For realism, instead of exploring shading like we did last semester, I chose to return to leading students in learning to draw a more realistic face. We examined proportions linking our observation to math concepts, including that most anything can serve as a means of measuring in a pinch.
The part I like most about teaching drawing faces together is changing my students’ perceptions of something they thought they knew very well. When I poll the class, about 90%+ of them say that the eyes are one-third from the top of the head. However this guess is disproven easily using a pencil as shown in Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Using the pencil to measure from the eye to the top of the head and then from the eye to the chin reveals that the measurements are the same and thus the eyes are in fact in the middle of the head.
Each of them has probably looked at themselves in the mirror most everyday for nearly two decades, yet they never noticed where their own eyes rest on their faces! We rationalize this oversight by discussing how recognizing emotion in faces is critical to socializing and even survival, so our attention tends to fall only between the eyebrows and the mouth - where emotion is most obvious. The forehead and hair just aren’t as important so our brain seems to edit them out of our perception unless we observe closely.
This ‘blind spot’ tends to surprise students and is something they seem to remember for a long time after. It’s also prime time for them to employ meta-cognitive strategies to relax themselves and manage the stress that often comes when trying realistic drawing after giving it up so long ago. Many report back how helpful my coaching is during this point in the process, supporting the use of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development.
The second difference in this journey through the stages of artistic development was a twist on the symbolic stage. For an assignment in my teaching and learning class with Dr. Edmiston, we were asked to consider how we are viewed by our students and to see things from their perspective. I and another classmate decided we would go one step farther and actually ask our classes to draw us and show us how they view us.
Getting my students to draw me was something I had wanted to do for a while, ever since I saw how teacher and artist Chris Pearce, creator of Teachable Moments, would give his students extra credit on a test if they made a drawing of him. Online you can find an impressive collection of portraits created by his students.
I explained that since most of them had most likely stopped developing their drawing skills after reaching the symbolic stage that they shouldn’t worry about their drawing skills and just try to have fun. I instructed them to remain anonymous by not including their names. I wanted them to use their imaginations to caricature me or make me into a cartoon if they wanted. I told them that I wasn’t going to look at their drawings until after class and I’d share them during our critique day. I assured them that no matter what, I would have a sense of humor and not hold anything against anyone personally. I wanted them to uninhibited to be honest.
I was nervous asking the students to draw me. It’s hard for me to not take things personally. This wasn’t the first time I’ve asked a class to draw me, as I often did this for Drawing 1 when we would take turns using each other as clothed drawing models the day before our professional model arrived so that students had some practice but could also better empathize with the difficult job of our model! But I was still anxious for some reason! Maybe because this was the first time I had done this. Or maybe I was worried someone might not be so nice in their rendering of me? Or was I worried about how I’d react and that maybe I’m too sensitive for something like this.
When I taught elementary and middle school art, students would occasionally gift me a picture they had made of me or I might dig one out of a pile of doodles from free draw. These little mementos were treasures for me. Being drawn by a child is a special honor. Even though my current students are a little older, I still feel honored and love these drawings very much.
Overall, I thought my students were very sweet to me. “Art Jim” seems happy, energetic, and passionate about art. There’s some dancing, jumping, and exclaiming. Sometimes I’m pensive or lost in thought. I often appear with a camera, documenting my students and their work. Other times I’m wielding art supplies. I can identify two wonderful homages to shows like the Simpsons and Star Trek: The Next Generation which I adore. I’m much less rounder than I expected in their drawings, and too hairy in all of them, just like real life these days. Each one is different and I love seeing the unique style that each student uses to depict me. I like how they see me. Now it’s up to me to live up to their vision of me. Life imitating art imitating life.
We enjoyed reviewing the drawings together at our critique. Students noticed how many folks chose to show my appearance but several tried to show my personality and we debated which approach was preferable. My students also wanted me to talk about taking risks and if I get uncomfortable. I shared that, as an artist, there have been many times when I have had to step into my discomfort, especially when working in public. As a teacher, I’m uncomfortable before most every class. But I have to be brave because I want my students to be brave. I’m happy that they picked up on these aspects of the assignment. We looked together. Discussed together. Laughed together. I think I’ll definitely continue this assignment in future classes.
Have you ever asked your students to depict you? How do you think you look to your students?
NOTE: While Chris Pearce’s work was one inspiration, I looked very hard for an article I thought I had read years ago about a teacher who asked his students to draw him like I did but could not find anything. If anyone knows what I’m talking about and has the link please email me! Thank you!
It can be a risk asking others to share their view of you. You might not like what you they show you. They don’t know how you might react. You’re asking for honesty when there’s a lot of uncertainty. Such an interaction can require vulnerability on both sides.
I'm honored to have been asked recently to share my thoughts on teaching art & creativity by Tim Bogatz, host of Art Ed Radio, and to now be included among so many world-class and inspiring art educators and creativity leaders that I've looked up to for years! Art Ed Radio is a weekly podcast produced by The Art of Ed featuring "engaging discussions, covering the most important topics in art education." Thank you for giving the podcast a listen! #KYCW
Art Ed Should Thrive, Not Just Survive (Episode 105) with Jim O'Donnell
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I'll mostly be blogging about my experiences teaching. I teach a class online right now called Teaching K12 Art Online where I'll be exploring art online with art teachers. I also currently teach a (formerly?) face-to-face course called Visual Culture: Investigating Diversity & Social Justice which is an art, critical writing, and research course for undergrads. Before this, I taught a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where I was experimenting with cooperative & creative teaching integrating art and "going gradeless" with preservice early childhood education majors.