On Art and Education

It seems there is a never ending debate on the state of education in our society, which is by no means a bad thing. I think that is healthy or at least an indicator that we truly care about the education of our young. But the level of contentiousness makes me believe that it has become more important to win the debate than it is to determine what is the right direction both for our youth and mankind as a whole. Locally, in Wisconsin, with the roar of Act 10 still echoing, the controversial debate over common core now besieges the senses from all quadrants. And the constant drone of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)… STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM indicates to me that we have reduced our education system to, “Train them for a skill and get them producing.”

Is it no wonder that we are collectively saying, “Something has to change”?

And my perception is there has been a distinct shift to social education over the course of my lifetime. Something that is contributing to drive the STEM debate I’m sure but I want to interject another point of view. One that has been overlooked, ridiculed, and laughed at for quite some time by the great majority of society (myself included at times).

Perhaps I should give a little background on myself and the reason for my argument to give you a bit of context.

I grew up primarily encouraged to study the sciences. I was always told that I could do anything I wanted but any expression in the arts was met with ridicule and contempt. Consequently, I ended up spending over 30 years working in the Avionics industry having graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelors of Science degree in Industrial Technology. And except for the actual learning process I was never enamored with my chosen profession. It left me unquestionably empty.

I ended up doing it solely because I had the cognitive ability to do it but certainly not the passion. Deep down I knew I was an artist but the ability to express myself had been suppressed. My path to artistic expression along with my life experience has clearly shown me where we can improve life in regards to our societal woes both professionally and inter-personally and those improvements begin with education.

One of the common things I have heard throughout my professional life regardless of where it was or what we were doing is that there has been a collective lack of creativity in plans, solutions, responses, and reactions to virtually all business endeavors. Often this was emphatically stated, “We need more creative ideas!” yet the root solution to the problem isn’t just overlooked, it’s disparaged as a gross waste of resources.

The above stated need should lead to the question, “How do we teach creativity?” And what has happened to creativity in our society? The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking indicates that creative thinking in the United States is actually declining. A clear indication to me that we need to do something and do something about it now.

If we want more creative solutions, we need a robust education in and a change of attitude toward the Arts. An area of study that I myself have disdained in the past mostly because I was mimicking my upbringing. But also because I did not know what it was, what its purpose was, or how it could bring value to my life both personally and professionally.

I’m not proposing a monumental shift in educational direction rather a more rounded approach with a distinct emphasis on creative thinking within each individual – a proposition that avoids the socially desirable black and white grading standard. I’m convinced our desire for these grading standards are a product and an indication of our deep reverence for STEM.

If you consider my example, I began by mastering the multiplication table, moved onto completing the square in a quadratic equation, then finding the third derivation in calculus and I end up applying those skills repeatedly for nearly the rest of my life thereby joining the mechanical cycle of produce and consume. Good skills to be sure but that didn’t prepare me to create at the base level meaning of the word.

Intuitively I know that absolutely nothing develops creativity like the study of the Arts. Study and learn a new technique then go and create something fresh and interesting (for the student) with that technique. While grading can be based on the level of mastery of the technique the true education comes in exploring the deeper meaning of creating something. What did you find interesting about creating this piece? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time? Questions that do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer but they are designed to stimulate even more creative thinking.

It seems clear to me that we worship creativity in virtually all aspects of our lives. Beyond the obvious movie star or musician, just think of the famous CEO because of his innovative products or the rock star minister able to attract great legions of people to listen to him tell stories that are thousands of years old. And a close inspection of the scientific method, and the conclusions it has brought us, will reveal that it is those that artistically (creatively) apply their vocation to experimentation that are the ones that come up with truly ground breaking results that change our lives.

But the question “How do we teach this rare commodity called creativity?” remains. I don’t believe there is a simple answer and we may not even truly know what creativity is.

I do know this, if you want to engage a whole group of people in math, teach them music. If you want to elevate everyone’s attention to detail, teach them the visual arts. If you want more people to be passionate about geometry, teach them central perspective (at the right time) and they’ll most likely move on with a fervent eagerness to learn calculus.

In many ways, central perspective may be the perfect analogue to what I am trying to say. Most Art Historians will tell you that unlike other ancient discoveries in visual arts, central perspective was discovered in one place and at one specific time because it was such a radical departure from normal that it only came about because of prolonged experimentation and research. While I do not disagree with that, I find it subordinate to the fact that central perspective was discovered during the Renaissance and like the fundamental underlying message of the Renaissance, central perspective was disseminated freely to all who wanted to learn it. And we have been the rich beneficiaries of that teaching for five centuries now.

Central perspective could have been discovered in other places at later times had those that discovered it decided to hoard it to themselves. But the Renaissance was about learning and applying those lessons in a creative manner. It wasn’t about learning new applications of geometry, it was about having a creative vision and developing the tools to realize that vision and then giving those tools to fellow human beings so they too could create their vision.

Creativity seems to be born out of the free expressive exploration of techniques that stimulate the senses. The key element though is an active exploration of these techniques – it can not be learned passively. We have to engage our offspring in undertakings they can become passionate about and not just teach them to clearly defined objectives that are learned by rote.

Just the smallest experience in the creation of art teaches us to make concrete decisions as to why we want something some particular way. It forces us to contemplate more points of view and consider the results of our actions in a more diverse way than our monolithic produce and consume society typically trains us to regard. It gets us out of the superficial exercise of placing check marks in boxes and makes us choose a particular shade and hue (both metaphorically and in real life) for a particular reason and we will succeed or fail based on those decisions. But even if we fail, we eventually succeed as the lesson will come full circle and teach us the reasons for not doing it that way.

Earlier I referred to stimulating the senses. We must keep in mind that we have presumably mastered the use of our senses prior to being able to speak. But a modicum of training in the arts quickly reveals that we only attained a journeyman level of proficiency at best. One of the major benefits of artistic growth is we begin to understand that there isn’t a clear demarcation between input (the senses) and processing (cognition) like contemporary education teaches but a gradual transition with each dependent upon the other. I am convinced that it is within this understanding that creativity is born and flourishes.

If we look objectively at our educational system, we will come to the conclusion that we primarily train people “what to think.” Whereas the creation of art develops our “how to think” abilities. It seems to me that because of how we presently educate, true creativity is restricted to those gifted with natural talent. While the average person may never contend with the true prodigy regardless of the amount of education, training, and practice provided, they will use the traditional tools taught in schools today in a more creative manner if their education includes well rounded instruction and practice in the Arts. And that is the best direction our education system and our society could possibly go.

Consequences – When Education Is Biased

Although a noble concept education does not serve all the purposes it was meant to serve. The issue at hand, the fact that education tends to reaffirm existing inequalities, is not easy to explain since the ideal behind education in everyone’s mind is the exact opposite. We tend to think that since almost everyone in the western world has access to all levels of education and thus a chance to improve him/herself that person can accomplish something better in life than he or she already has. But the facts show that we do not all have the same opportunities and in the long run the present system of education sustains the existing “order” of society.

One of the largest scaled researches on this issue was conducted for the US government in 1964 by a sociologist named James Coleman. His research showed that academic achievement depends largely on the socioeconomic background of the students rather than school facilities or other factors as he originally expected. Rutter another sociologist who did research on this issue found that school conditions (student-teacher relationship, proper motivation, etc”) could actually improve the academic achievement of children who were of low social and economic background and were otherwise expected to perform poorly. But how can something like this be explained? Three theories seem to explain the reasons why adequately.

According to Basil Bernstein “children while growing up acquire a certain linguistic code depending on the social position of their family, something which later on affects their performance at school”. This difference in language does not concern vocabulary or other linguistic skills it is the difference in the use of language according to Bernstein that makes the difference. A child that grew up in a working class family is used to what is called a restricted code of language, a code that includes a lot of unstated assumptions which is more suited for everyday life rather than academic use. On the other hand a child that grew up in a middle or upper class family is accustomed to an elaborate code with which he/she is able to discuss and express more abstract ideas and is able to suit many kinds of social settings, especially that of the academic world. Such a difference is sure to influence a child’s educational chances.

There are probably many other reasons that explain why education expresses and reaffirms existing inequalities, reasons that have to do with the race, gender or ethnic and religious background of students in different countries. But there are also many things that can be done in order to improve the system and give equal chances to all for a better and more prosperous life. It depends on all of us to abolish inequalities but unfortunately history has shown that people fight for changes only when they have nothing to lose and those who design our lives have made us believe that we have lots to lose if we try to make any change.

How the Cricut Expression Can Help Teachers in the Classroom

For many teachers, the Cricut Expression die cut machine tops their back-to-school wish list of classroom tools. This die cut machine by manufacturer Provo Craft, typically used by scrapbookers and other crafters, has many features and add-on accessories, including the Classmate line of educational cartridges, which will not only make the job of teaching easier, but over time, will also save schools money.

The most obvious example is the classroom bulletin board. In the past, teachers either had to purchase expensive die cuts to decorate their classroom bulletin board, or would have to painstakingly cut out letters and pictures by hand, in order to create a display that caught the attention and interest of their students. The Cricut Expression has the capability of cutting letters and other shapes in a variety of sizes, spanning from a quarter of an inch to almost twenty-four inches in size. Using this tool, educators are able to create an appealing bulletin board with nothing more than a small stack of card stock or other colored paper.

Although the Expression is great for cutting basic lettering and shapes, Provo Craft is specifically targeting those in the education field with its line of Classmate cartridges, which are designed for use in the classroom. This line of Cricut cartridges for early childhood educators and elementary school teachers can be used for teaching several subjects, including language, phonics, social studies, and even cursive.

Using the 50 States cartridge, for example, teachers can create a cutout of each state. In addition to being used for displays, these die cuts can be pieced together by students to form a puzzle of the United States, making it a useful tool for social studies and geography lessons.

Also part of the Classmate line, the Word Builders cartridge series is designed to help elementary students with their language, phonetic, and spelling skills. Using the Word Builders cartridges, educators can make puzzle-type cutouts of letters and groups of letters. These die cuts, when pieced together in the correct combinations by students, form words.

This is just a couple of the many ways that these types of die cuts can be used directly for instructing students. Whether it’s making puzzles, or creating their own educational version of popular children’s games, such as “Go Fish”, or even making bookmarks and stickers to reward students for their work, teachers can use the Cricut Expression countless ways in the classroom.