The Art and Science of Creativity

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On June 5, 2011

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Postcard from the Arts Education Partnership Spring 2011 National Forum
(Reprinted with permission, National Endowment for the Arts, Facebook page)

The following post is by Sarah Cunningham, Director of Arts Education, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington DC.

The Arts Education Partnership Spring 2011 National Forum brought together educators from around the U.S. to reflect on the role the arts play in a complete education. Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, opened the conference by talking about “The Art and Science of Creativity.”

Lehrer provoked the audience by talking about what the arts teach us about how we think. Lehrer is interested in understanding how great thinking happens when we stop consciously thinking. He recalled the value of Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test to understand self-control in children. In these experiments, four-year-olds are given a marshmallow. If they can wait for 15 minutes without eating it, they receive a second marshmallow. Researchers then leave the children alone in the room, to see if they can refrain from eating the one marshmallow placed in front of them on the table. YouTube videos of these children are hilarious. The children stare straight at the marshmallow; some turn their backs on it; others lick it. In follow-up studies to the original Marshmallow Test, Mischel learned that the children who delayed gratification–and could subsequently “strategically allocate their attention elsewhere”–scored up to 210 points higher on SATs than their peers. Children who could delay gratification are now earning more money and are in better health than their peers.

But what does this have to do with the arts? Lehrer explained that the arts can help train our attention, and thus improve performance in the classroom. Both viewing and making art teach us how the mind works, how we think, and how we can think better. Viewing great works requires acute attention to details, while the artistic process itself sheds light on the creative mind. Not only do creative individuals tend to have high IQs, but they are able to draw together seemingly unrelated concepts to reveal new possibilities. Lehrer admitted that neuroscientists sometimes had a checkered history of moving neuroscience findings into classrooms, but enthusiastically recounted the dynamic relationships between the arts, cognition, and creativity.

Fifteen additional conference sessions were divided into three strands: Capturing Data, Picturing Effective Practice, and Presenting the Case. For each, practitioners gathered to share best practices in research, pedagogy, and advocacy.

One of the highlights of the AEP Spring Forum was the release of a report by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, an 18-month study to understand and improve arts education in America. This report, Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools, includes numerous recommendations for policymakers. In a week of new reports, AEP also made available a helpful summary of What School Leaders Can Do to Increase Arts Education. These two days provided further evidence, thanks to AEP’s efforts, that arts education can help all students create, learn, and achieve.