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Creativity: The MacGyver of 21st Century Skills

Creativity: The MacGyver of 21st Century Skills

This is the first of a series of entries by long-time ArtSpace teacher and current Enterprise and Development Manager,“Capt. Josh” Batenhorst that will take a deeper look at the methods employed for teaching and learning ArtSpace.

SWANNANOA, NC, August 24, 2015 — When I was a kid, MacGyver was “must-see tv.”  The character, played by Richard Dean Anderson, was always getting into situations where he had to dexterously call upon his experience and knowledge to solve a seemingly intractable problem, usually a life-threatening problem involving a time-detonated explosive device.  To me, this is the ultimate in creative thinking:  Pulling in knowledge from one domain into another in order to solve a problem or make something new.  

Since ancient times, great minds have pondered the nature of knowledge.

Since ancient times, great minds have pondered the nature of knowledge.

Since the beginning of time, those who were trusted with the tenets of knowledge – priests, philosophers, and teachers – have been interested in what it means to “know” something.  Aristotle famously broke knowledge into a hierarchy of “truths” and considered human knowledge to take “form” through three activities of the “soul” – sensation, thought, and desire.  Dr. Benjamin Bloom famously developed these forms into a taxonomy (Bloom’s Taxonomy) in order to promote higher forms of thinking in education.  This theory was further revised by Dr. Lorin Anderson and others in the early 2000s, and this revision put “Creativity” at the very top of the list of knowledge complexity.  In other words, creating and creative thinking is considered by many to be the most complex human knowledge process.

Around this same time, a group of educators, legislators, and business leaders came together to discuss the question:  “What skills will American children need to master in order to succeed in the 21st Century?”  It was becoming clear that the clasic “Three R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” were not enough.  In addition to a number of research and personal skills, this group – the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.p21.org) proposed the “4 C’s” – Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, and Collaboration.

The “4 C’s” pose a special challenge for teachers.  These skills are not easily acquired through traditional methods of teaching.  Students cannot “sit and get” them because their very nature requires being presented with opportunities to problem solve and work closely with others.  The arts provide particularly fruitful ground for the acquisition of the “4 C’s.”  The process of putting on a performance or expressing an idea through a creation requires the intellectual application of a variety of these skills.IMG_4433

Creativity, though, is especially cultivated by the arts.  Essentially, creativity is sparked by what Aristotle might have described as an “impulse of the soul.”  To solve a problem creatively requires one to honor that impulse and have confidence that the solution lies somewhere in the direction of the impulse.

Recently, at the A+ Schools 20th Anniversary National Conference, I watched Michelle Pearson, an A+ Fellow and celebrated performer with a number of dance companies including Dance Exchange, lead a crowd of 200 or so participants in a group dance.  She took ideas from the audience for movements that might represent the conference goals of “Celebrate, Share, and Inspire.” She took the audience choices, altered them ever-so-slightly, and then put them to the beat of a song.  As she worked, I wondered at her capacity to choose and choreograph on the fly.  This was creativity on display.  With her choices, she was taking years of experience as a dancer and teacher, using that knowledge to artfully select movements that the crowd could perform from their seats, and then skillfully pull them together to create meaning and context.  While there was no threat of an imminent explosion, like MacGyver, she had a small amount of time to come up with something that would work, and she achieved it beautifully.

The arts encourage “creative confidence.”  As a student’s skill level rises in the arts, their choices – whether they be a brush stroke, intonation of a phrase, or movement – become ever more complex.  They are immediately challenged or honored through the feedback they receive.  Either the canvas looks like what the artist had in mind, or it doesn’t.  The musical phrase hits the desired note or it does not.  The movement is artfully completed and achieves its intended meaning or it does not.  

This feedback is difficult, but it is the very difficulty that makes it valuable.  As students understanding of the world around them grows, those engaged in the arts make more and more connections – both concrete and abstract – about which pathways will “work” and which will not. Eventually, this continual effort in the arts establishes confidence in the learner’s creative impulses.  These aesthetically and artistically satisfying choices become ingrained in the artist’s experience, in their brain, and in their Aristotelian “soul.”   

Although I don’t remember it being covered in the TV show, I am pretty sure that MacGyver had a broad exposure to the arts as a youngster.  While his creativity often came in the form of ever-more-interesting uses for paper clips (or whatever), his confidence in his knowledge and creativity belies a type of thinking that is trained and evolved through engagement in the arts.  There is a reason that Einstein, when approaching a difficult problem, would pick up his fiddle.  He was massaging those parts of his brain/soul that had solved so many problems in the past.  As we move into a world where creativity is beginning to be acknowledged as an educational end in and of itself, arts education should likewise be acknowledged as the primary path for acquiring this indispensible skill.

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