Student Engagement

The Creativity Index: No Artist Left Behind

Confusing innovation with art

March 20, 2012

Some of you may remember the scene in The Dead Poets Society in which Robin Williams' Mr. Keating mocks the approach to poetry of Dr. J. Evans Pritchard. In a nutshell, Pritchard has a method for mathematically calculating the measure of a poem's greatness. "If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness." Keating has students rip the pages out of their books, sardonically exclaiming, " . . . we're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry . . . I like Byron, I give him a 42 . . . "

That scene recently came to mind when I read that a number of states are developing Creativity Indexes to gauge how effectively schools are promoting creativity and innovation. I wondered whether a marching band would score as highly as a painting course and whether producing digital media for advertising would be higher on the index than poetry writing. I once again felt like I was entering the world of Lewis Carroll. Curiouser and curiouser!

Does Innovation Equal Art?

The President's Council of Advisers on the Arts and Humanities has declared, "Building a capacity to innovate in our students is central to guaranteeing the nation's competitiveness." Ergo, the Creativity Index. The emphasis is primarily on developing creative and innovative thinking that political and business leaders will like -- and somehow measuring this. The driving force is entrepreneurship. And once more, our concern is about how we compare to the rest of the world.

It's a no-brainer that promoting creativity and innovative thinking in our schools is a good idea, as is preparing students for the world of work. But this new thrust is far more a variation on the drive for higher achievement than an effort to promote the spirit and sensibilities associated with the arts. The key value is entrepreneurship, not artistic creativity. Once again our depleted public education programs in the arts aren't even a blip on the radar screen.

Additionally, as Robert Sternberg, one of our most eminent experts in studying creativity, cautions, "We don't want an index that trivializes creativity, such as by counting numbers of activities that, on their surface, sound creative rather than exploring what is actually done in the activities to encourage creativity . . . . We don't want to encourage quantity over quality of activities." Given past history, it's unlikely that policy makers will pay attention to this cautionary note.

El Sistema

During a pause in shaking my head as I read through some of these proposed Indexes, I received a copy of a book that reminded me of what a real stimulus to creativity can look like when it is inspiring, non-entrepreneurial, and truly invested in the arts.

Tricia Tunstall's Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music is the story of a revolutionary Venezuelan music program, El Sistema. José Abreu, a musician and economist who believed that music had the power to change the lives of poor children, started it with eleven students in an old abandoned garage and went on to create a nationwide system that put instruments into the hands of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids. The effect was transformative in the lives of children, their families and their communities. The most well known product of El Sistema is the great young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, who is being compared to Leonard Bernstein in his talent, passion and captivating personality.

El Sistema was effectively captured in a segment on 60 Minutes that is available online. There is also an excellent DVD, El Sistema: Music to Change Life.

Importantly too, what began in Venezuela has now spread to the United States, headed up by a national organization, Sistema U.S.A. El Sistema-inspired programs are underway in more than 50 locations in the U.S., including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, Miami, New Orleans, Juneau and Honolulu.

Lost in Translation?

Of course, the U.S. programs, unlike the Venezuelan one, are not receiving government support and are dependent on private funding. Equally importantly, as Tunstall notes, the U.S. programs have also needed to be conscious of gathering data to show quantifiable success to funders, even though the most potent elements of El Sistema's pedagogy, the way it inspires kids, strengthens their egos, and provides hope, are not quantifiable. What all the programs share, however, is a vision of mutually reinforcing musical and social goals. As Abreau notes, "If you put a violin in the hands of a needy child, that child won't pick up a gun."

So what is a sentient educator to do? One can start by reading this book. Think about a similar system that focused on art, or the performing arts, or film and video. You might also check out two excellent new books about creativity and the arts in education: Why Our High Schools Need the Arts by Jessica Hoffman Davis; and The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Arts in Education, edited by Herb Kohl and Tom Oppenheim.

Then see if there is a similar program in your community and, if not, think about starting one. Try to avoid creating an index! Remember that the emphasis is not on measurement but on a combination of skills, inspiration, hope, and the joy of the art itself.

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