'That's SO CREATIVE!' But is it?
There is just too much confusion out there about what creativity actually is, and that’s not surprising since there are so many different definitions of creativity floating around. It seems most anyone you ask has their own explanation of creativity. That itself may not be a problem. In fact, that might reflect the nature of creativity. Therefore it is possible that it is more useful to define what is NOT creative as opposed to what is. So I’m not here to define creativity for you. What’s distressing to me however is when art teachers - folks who I’d like to think would be experts in creativity - don’t seem to understand what is NOT creative. That’s the problem that I’d like to talk about. That’s a problem that KillYourColorWheels.com is about.
Challenging what folks assume to be or not to be creative can be a sensitive subject. The other day some art teacher dude actually blocked me and deleted my comments because I didn't agree with him that a completely teacher-directed, copypasta painting activity wasn't "SO CREATIVE." 😂 Instead, I saw the artwork as the epitome of adult's-idea-of-art executed by a child. I agreed that it demonstrated painting techniques and that people shouldn’t be shocked at the abilities of children. Skill-building can be valuable without it also needing to be creative. Copying a drawing can be invaluable in improving one’s understanding of technique. Technique is not always creative. Nor should it have to be. But it seems like some folks’ definition of creativity is akin to ‘anything that an art teacher does’ or ‘anything done with an art supply.’ There are art teachers that seem to feel that something not being “creative” equals "bad." Not every creation is creative. I created a bowl of oatmeal this morning but I didn’t do anything "creative." To paraphrase the documentary The Incredibles, 'If everything is creative, then nothing is'. 😶
There are many examples of how misunderstanding creativity, or rather non-creativity, especially by art teachers can be unproductive or even detrimental to students. For example, if the most meaningful choice students have in an ‘art project’ is the color of paper they’re working on, they're probably not learning how to be creative. If the kids can't tell which of the exactly identical projects displayed in the hallway is theirs, they're probably not learning how to be creative. The painting in question demonstrates technique and effort, but did the kid come up with the idea to paint it? (no) Did the kid choose to copy this painting? (no) Did the kid choose how to paint it? (no) Does this painting look identical to all of the previous versions created by previous students? (yes) So where is the creativity exactly?
While some defending such an exercise might make an analogy to a conductor leading an orchestra, this is a false equivalence. The entire orchestra doesn’t play exactly the same notes at exactly the same time using exactly the same instruments. What’s worse is the hubris - the conductor being also the composer of the song which every musician plays exactly the same way with the same instruments at the same time. This is obviously not “creativity” but conformity, and friends, there are plenty of other places in a school day where students will be forced to learn that lesson already.
I think the best thing an art teacher can do is help their students learn to be more creative and more open to creativity in general. Why? Because out of all of my K-12 students, I know realistically that somewhere between 95%-98% of them will not become artists or designers. If I’m very very lucky, and maybe even very very good, perhaps a number of my students will go on to practice an artistic hobby, whether that’s drawing or painting or weaving, which will be beneficial to them. But that doesn’t mean that 100% of my students can’t benefit from becoming more creative and to applying creativity to whatever careers and activities they pursue. I believe the best thing an art teacher can do is be that “creativity coach” for their students and help develop more creative plumbers and creative sales people and creative lawyers and - you get the idea. Creativity is for everyone. ☄️🌈✨
I’m by no means against technique - though some folks will accuse me of such. I believe technique is important. Technique can elevate one's creative horizons. But it's all too easy for the public to be impressed by superficial technique without substance and it's a slippery-slope when an art teacher embraces the failed "banking model" of learning by repeating that worn-out phrase signaling irrelevant knowledge: "someday they might use this." Technique alone is not creativity and I think we do a disservice to our field and to creativity in general when we confuse the product with the process. We limit art in general when we laud soulless execution over creation. It puts the cart before the horse.
2020 was a tough year for creativity. We lost champion of creativity Sir Kenneth Robinson and art educator Arthur Effland, who coined the term “school art style” back in the 1970s. Art teachers across the country and around the world struggled with distance learning and while some leaned into their own creativity and discovered new ways to help their students be creative, that wasn’t the case for all. Many were overwhelmed by the uncertainty and constraints (some are important for creativity but too many can be a bad thing) or lost confidence in themselves, feeling like first-year teachers again in their new cyberspace context. I hope that in 2021 and beyond, whatever things may look like, we all as art educators will re-commit ourselves to nurturing our students’ creativity and making our classrooms hubs of creativity. I hope art teachers see creativity and themselves as essential to successful schools and step into their roles as creativity leaders in their communities. The vast majority of our students will not become artists, but they all can think like artists. And I think that, in some way, will make our world a better place.
A big inspiration for my thoughts on this topic is the article from 2013 by Nan Hathaway called Smoke and Mirrors: Art Teacher as Magician. This piece radically changed the way I thought about art teaching and has continued to propel my thinking about what is really important about art education. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend that you do and reflect on your own teaching afterwards. One of my favorite quotes from that article:
"Art teachers do a disservice to students when they assume too much control over their students' work and perform a sort of magic act in the name of art education."
Another good article is by art educator Melissa Purtee: https://theartofeducation.edu/2017/02/23/recipies-cooker-art-truth-originality-art-education/
At the end of the day, we’re all in different places in this journey. I haven’t “made it” by any means as a creative art teacher and doubt I ever will. I make mistakes all the time and that is in fact one of the best ways to learn. None of us are products - we’re all a process. You may be just starting your creative journey as you read this, but I assure you, I think it’s a journey worth taking.
I created KillYourColorWheels to help eliminate cookie-cutter art activities and end the "School Art Style.” There I post about teaching creativity, critical thinking, social justice topics, and other art education-related subjects. Feel free to join me. 🎨🧠💖✊🏻🙏🏻🍻
#artteachers #artteacher #creativity #KillYourColorWheels #KYCW
I'm an artist, art teacher, and art teacher-teacher. I want to put an end to the "School Art Style" that has no place in an art classroom that promotes the 4 C's: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. I want to build an art education that helps everyday people improve their lives by learning to think like artists and develop 21st century skills. See "About" for more.