Sunday, March 16, 2014

2014 Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in Public Education - Impressions from the Attendees

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………"

I couldn't attend last week's Westaf / CAC / Frank Gehry sponsored Symposium on Creativity and Innovation (in Public Education) due to traveling, so I asked several people if they would share their base impressions - not necessarily a line by line recap of what was said, but rather their strongest take-aways from the event.

Here first is Symposium Director Bryce Merrill's (WESTAF) introductory note:

The 2014 WESTAF symposium was streamed live and will soon be available as a video archive; we will also publish the proceedings online. I would encourage everyone interested in the topic to peruse the symposium readings, watch and rewatch the presentations, and contact the participants to have longer, deeper conversations about creativity and innovation in public education.

One concept presented at the symposium that provides a fitting framework for reflecting on organizing this event is James Haywood Rolling Jr.’s “swarm intelligence.” Rolling Jr. presented a view of creativity as a swirling, collective, and sometimes chaotic process--think of creativity as murmuration of starlings. To encourage creativity is to foster collaboration and interaction, not individualization and isolation. Applied to educational instruction, Rolling Jr. argues that a swarming classroom is a creative classroom.

The 2014 symposium was certainly organized by a swarm, with WESTAF, the California Arts Council, and Frank Gehry Partners (represented by Malissa Shriver) actively and sometimes chaotically collaborating to make the event a success. WESTAF alone has been organizing these symposia for more than 15 years, and we have a reliable system for doing so. Collaborating on this symposium challenged our typical way of doing things, but with favorable results. For example, the CAC and Gehry Partners wanted to make this typically closed event, where scholars engage with each other instead of outside audiences, a public one. The CAC arranged to have the event streamed (with thanks to Charter Communications) and Gehry Partners accommodated as many people in their studio as possible. While the live streaming was not picture-perfect, and the fifty in-house observers could have used more leg room, we were ultimately able to include a much broader audience for the presentations. And, as my welcome letter to the symposium reminded observers, WESTAF symposia are meant to open academic-level conversations to a broad field of practitioners and advocates, without sacrificing the sophistication of the content. With the help of the swarm, I believe we succeeded in fulfilling our mission and creating a new, more public space for the symposium!

Another novel arrangement at this symposium was the addition of a workshop on the third day that connected the symposium participants directly to a specific arts research and policy project. CREATE CA is a statewide initiative to advance arts and creative education in California led by the California Department of Education, California Arts Council, California Alliance for Arts Education, and the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. Symposium participants--broadly speaking, all experts on creativity--were invited to review the project, including its unique partnership structure (based on organizational principles of Collective Impact) and substantive objectives (embedding arts in common core, ballot measures to increase funding for arts and creative education, and so on). CREATE planning partners were then invited to engage with the participants in a facilitated dialogue about how the scholarship of creativity might inform the CREATE initiative. Themes from the previous day’s symposium were reiterated in the conversation, including the importance of recognizing the creative potential of all students and the academic notion that concepts like “creativity” are defined and redefined in multiple, often contested ways, depending on the disciplinary orientation of the researcher. This latter point is important for practitioners who often bemoan a lack of concept standardization--when trying to advance a policy to support creativity, it is helpful to know what it is! These exchanges--and many more!--between the symposium scholars and CREATE CA organizers were helpful for understanding the applied value of excellent scholarship.

WESTAF also encouraged the symposium presenters and CREATE CA organizers to view the symposium as the beginning of a lasting relationship. Many of the presenters expressed admiration and enthusiasm for the CREATE initiative, and offered to help shape its future in whatever ways possible. Certainly one workshop could not afford the amount of time and attention needed to thoroughly and thoughtfully advise on the development of this project, one that is complex and has several moving political, empirical, and ideological parts. However, for WESTAF, the point of the workshop and symposium was to ignite a dialogue with individuals (academics, policy makers, practitioners) that can make important contributions when included in the process.

I should also note that there we many individuals that would have been excellent contributors to the symposium but could not participate for scheduling reasons. The organizing partners of the symposium have a list of additional experts and thought-leaders to consult on CREATE CA beyond the outstanding group that attended the symposium.

Many of WESTAF’s values as an organization were on display at this symposium. We are fundamentally committed to using established and excellent scholarship to advance the arts field. We believe that when it comes to arts research, accuracy should never be compromised for the sake of advocacy. WESTAF also supports the progressive innovation of state arts agencies. Partnering with the CAC on this symposium supported the CAC’s efforts to become a thought-leader in the arts in California. Advancing the field through public-private partnerships is a core strategy advocated by WESTAF, and collaborating with Gehry Partners on this event further demonstrated the efficacy of this approach. Finally, WESTAF strives to keep up with--or stay ahead of--the times, taking risks and challenging status quos to better support the arts. This symposium intended to infuse arts education conversations with cutting edge research and programming on creativity and innovation. To that end, this was not an arts education conference; it was one that creatively looked to the future of arts in education through the lens of creativity and innovation.

Here are three attendee reports:

Dalouge Smith - President and CEO San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory

All people are creative.

This assumption underpinned much of the discussion at WESTAF’s “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education” symposium in Los Angeles earlier this month. Two of the nation’s most prolific and creative artists, Frank Gehry and Herbie Hancock said it. Academics and practitioners in the room said it. Even The Bible says it.

The first chapter in the book of Genisis describes Gods actions over and over as those of a creator. Before the chapter ends it states, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The only image we have of God at this point is the image of a creator. If mankind is created in God’s image then all mankind must also be creators.

I accept this statement that all people are creative like I accept geometry theorems. In case you’re geometry is rusty: a theorem is a general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning or a truth established by means of accepted truths.

Theorems provide us with two choices. We can spend time attempting to prove them or we can apply them to new problems. I found much of the discussion at the Symposium focused on measuring and proving creativity. Several references to the application of creativity were mentioned but it wasn’t until late in the day that Joel Slayton directly posed the question, “To what end is creativity applied?”

Upon further reflection, I started to realize that what struck me most about the day’s dialogue were the factors identified as most associated with creative behavior, not the descriptions or measurements of creative behavior and thinking. I heard three key factors that contribute to people having robust and mature creative processes surface repeatedly: motivation/passion/agency, skills/aptitudes, and breadth of experience and knowledge.

Self agency and intrinsic motivation were separately mentioned by Professors Mark Runco and James Catterall. Additionally, Julie Fry of the Hewlett Foundation described this as “belief in one’s own creativity empowers us with agency.” Professor Robert Bilder referenced the drive and emotion necessary to persist despite struggles. With self agency, anxiety over risk is mitigated while passion continues to drive action.

Accumulating skills, aptitudes, and knowledge provides individuals with tools to apply and adapt as they are confronted with challenges and opportunities. James Catterall named this “Means” in his presentation. Gerald Richards described how his organization 826 National imparts writing skills that participating children can then manipulate toward creative ends. Similarly, Lorne Buchman emphasized the level of aesthetic and technical skill students entering Art Center College of Design must demonstrate through their portfolio to simply achieve admission. Once admitted, they continue acquiring skills and practice application of their skills to “form focused problem solving.”

In addition to the vertical achievement of specialized skills, developing a breadth of experience and knowledge from other disciplines will extend the range of creative output a person can achieve. This was most explicitly highlighted by Professor Robert Root-Bernstein’s presentation on the polymath nature of Nobel and MacArther Award winners. Particularly in the sciences, these award winners have experience and training in many more subjects, including the arts, at much higher percentage rates than non-winners in their same filed. The data he and his research partner (and wife) Michelle offer may be the most compelling we have for promoting STEAM education instead of STEM.

One factor that didn’t include evidence to suggest its importance to exercising creativity but must not be ignored is empathy. Lorne Bachman highlighted this late in the day when he added that Art Center College of Design expects its students to study the humanities and human experience so they are practiced at exercising empathy even as they problem solve.

Days after the WESTAF symposium, Yo Yo Ma answered questions at Harvard’s Kennedy School and affirmed the key points I took away from the Symposium. He spoke of how easy playing the cello was for him even as a child and this motivated him to solve technical problems on his own. He spoke of learning the importance of moving past technique to discovering his own sound on the instrument. He advised the students in attendance to lift their heads out of the specific specialty they were pursing so they could see and participate in the wider world around them.  Finally, he described how his sensitivity to different cultural experiences and points of view was developed through his study of anthropology while an undergraduate even as he continued to study music. (

Bill O’Brien of the NEA pointed out at the symposium that “Trying to isolate the impact of arts education without reference to the larger system is to miss the point of its integrated presence.” I believe the same is true of creativity. I encourage us to stop wondering if we are successfully teaching creativity. Creativity needn’t be taught.

All people are creative.

Children need to be given the tools and experiences necessary for practicing creativity. This means ensuring every child discovers what motivates them, has opportunities to develop their skills to the highest degree possible in this motivating activity, is stretched to learn skills and have experiences in a variety of additional subjects, and has exposure to the breadth of human experience so they develop the empathy necessary to apply their creativity to the benefit of society and the world.

Making this happen requires us all to reach new heights with our own of creativity!

Cora Mirikitani - President and CEO - Center for Cultural Innovation-

I was pleased to attend the full-day WESTAF cultural policy symposium on “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education” on March 4, 2014 at the Frank Gehry Partners, LLC studio in Los Angeles.  This was the 15th such symposium convened by WESTAF, designed to bring scholars and practitioners together to offer critical thinking and exchange on intractable issues in the arts.  The format of the day was organized around 14 key presenters – primarily scholars – sharing knowledge and perspectives about research and policy work needed to advance creativity and innovation in public education.  Roughly 60 observers (including me) also crowded into the room to hear the proceedings first-hand along with a substantial virtual audience beaming in via a live streaming webcast, courtesy of the California Arts Council and Charter Communications.

With so many arts people in the audience it was interesting to hear the discussion framed under the banner of “creativity” and not the “arts,” per se, as there are many in our field who still think of these as synonymous (they aren’t).  With a topic so large, the conversation was often dense but always rich, offering up many nuggets of information and interesting takeaways.  Here are just a few:
There isn’t full agreement on the definition of creativity but a critical mass of scientific and research-based evidence is emerging demonstrating creativity as a key factor in good educational outcomes.
Developing educational policies and practices promoting creativity is hard, because individual creativity often goes against the norm, threatens power and lives at the edge of chaos – a disruptive state that is unwelcomed by most educational and political institutions.

Universal systems for evaluating and measuring the impact of creativity in education are not in place, hindering policy development and necessary advocacy efforts with parents, boards of education and legislators.

At the same time, there is on-the-ground evidence that artists and the arts are successfully creating innovative products, community engagement and social outcomes – often accelerated by innovative collaborations between the arts, science and technology.

There is admittedly a huge amount of information to digest in order to fully wrap your brain around this discussion.  Happily, WESTAF plans to publish the proceedings from this symposium, as they have in the past, and I was informed by Anthony Radich that presentations captured from the live streaming broadcast may be posted on the WESTAF website as well.  Did we solve any problems at the symposium?  Not really.  But to paraphrase one participant, because communication among the scholars and stakeholders in this issue has been a problem, convenings like this play an important role in moving the dialogue forward.

Joe Landon - Executive Director, California Alliance for Arts Education

1500 accountants can¹t be wrong.

In his prepared remarks, Steven Tepper from Vanderbilt University, referenced a study which asked 3000 accountants whether they considered their work to be "creative". 1500 responded that they did.

In her prepared remarks, Julie Fry, from the Hewlett Foundation, described growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, where a solid dose of arts education was part of the staple every child received in school. That exposure influenced the direction of her life, leading to her work as a program office focused on arts and arts education. But she wondered aloud about her fellow students, who shared the same educational experience and went on to work in the local factory for the rest of their lives.

I couldn¹t help but connect the two narratives to the work we do advocating for access to arts education for every child. Our conviction is that exposure to the arts better prepares every person to live a more
fulfilling life, in which they experience their role as "participant" in the direction of their journey, not simply the victim of external circumstance.

To recognize one¹s relationship to creativity requires exposure to creative opportunities. Out of those opportunities one discovers what it¹s like to make decisions, based entirely on one¹s personal judgment. Those judgments can lead to deeper connections including moments of inspiration.

Or, they can simply mean that one is connected to one¹s aesthetic judgment in a way that determines why a particular song or pair of pants 'works for you' and another doesn't. I know of no better way to expose a student to that inner journey than through arts education. And that is why we advocate that arts education must be a component of the education that EVERY child receives.

My heart goes out to those other 1500 accountants.

Finally, Joe also forwarded me a poem written by Francisca Sanchez (compiled from quotes of what people said at the event):

"let's build a city
in honor of frank gehry, herbie hancock, and malissa shriver

let's build a city that sings community a biography of creativity
where genius flowers in the hands and minds and hearts of our geography
where imagination like an exquisite bird of paradise rises wild
with beauty and daring choreography at every intersection of our words

let's build a city that embraces grace and fearless artistry
where young people congregate to declare war on uninspired fate
where they break the rules with unrelenting joy and curiosity
and construct elegant answers to questions of their own divine design

let's build a city that once and for all discards denial and duplicity
where chain link will never be the unexamined aesthetic of choice
where radical connectivity conquers fear and hate with cool disregard
and silenced generations regain their participatory voice

let's build a city past stability to the far edge of chaos
where we can see anew under the ecstasy of undiscovered stars
where we will master the logic of what might be and then
know once more what it is to be fully human again

let's build a city that is not bound by any known architecture
where freedom provokes clarity and a measure of collective adventure
where, like with jazz, we improvise and find our way past insoluble
while our unbridled exploration shapes the multiple dimensions of our play

let's build a city where intrepid dreamers celebrate creativity¹s
a place where we are illuminated by our own burning brilliance
where days make room for the double swirls of life¹s dialectics
that like fierce eagles glide by on curled breaths of lifting air

let's build a city of juxtaposed possibilities and inspired invention
where our art is that we know from making and make to know
where without warning ideas spark spontaneous combustion
and the collage of our deconstructed lives re-members our humanity

yes, let's build a city where justice can come home again"

francisca sánchez
© 2014

Thank you Bryce, Dalouge, Cora, Joe and Francisca.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit