It drives arts educators crazy. They know they hold deep and essential acumen about creativity to contribute to the national education conversation, but they are usually peripheral to the central dialogue, watching technology and engineering being taken more seriously than the arts. The mixed field of arts education, which includes arts teachers, teaching artists, out-of-schooltime arts instructors, administrators, academics, as well as specialists in arts organizations, can’t seem to get heard. Some shout, some whine, some seek those who will listen, but many feel like a generous person with food to give away to a hungry public that doesn’t notice them. We hear respectful, accommodating blandishments from those who make decisions; we notice that the arts are sometimes offered a seat at the table; but we feel viscerally how little of what we know is tapped and used to advance the creative learning agenda. When I, an arts educator, have been involved in mainstream policy discussions about creative education, it feels to me like the Polynesian adage: We stand on the back of a whale fishing for minnows.

Several years ago, when I challenged the leaders of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (with their Framework for 21st Century Learning) about the lack of input from the arts (this has been ameliorated somewhat in the last few years), I got an answer that said it all: we think the arts are valuable, they provide a special sauce for learning. Thirty thousand years of the arts centrality to human learning reduced to a condiment.

In this article, I present three essential aspects of creativity that arts educators and artists understand and use; we know they belong dead center in any and every discussion of creativity in schooling. We have been ineffective in getting our message heard. But set aside the condiments: here come three healthy, human-delicious, main courses from the arts that can improve our anemic educational diet.


It’s all about motivation. Through extrinsic motivators, you can get people to do all kinds of things that pass for learning—regurgitate information on command, perform mental and physical tasks, make things that fit various assignments. Our education industries have convinced us these are acts of true learning because it is convenient to think so. But you can’t compel someone to create, or to make a new personally-relevant connection, or learn from experience—the fundamental acts of learning—through extrinsic motivators. Learning can be transformed into understanding only with intrinsic motivation. The learner must make an internal shift, must choose to invest herself, to truly learn and understand. The intrinsic motivation required for creative accomplishment in artistic media applies to creative engagement in all media, including STEM subjects.

Harvard Project Zero’s research study The Qualities of Quality (2009) proposes that the individual’s inner attitude toward the learning opportunity is the single greatest contributor to quality in arts education, and that the social environment around the individual that influences such inner motivation is the second greatest contributor. I believe this applies to all learning. If you doubt this claim, do two things: read Daniel Pink’s book Drive, which delivers results from dozens of studies confirming the essentialness of intrinsic motivation for high and creative achievement. And then reflect on your own learning history. Underneath every significant insight, every great course, every worthwhile learning journey in your life, wasn’t your inner attitude of yearning urging you to know more, to master, to grasp?

How much time and pedagogical energy do we dedicate to nurturing this sine qua non of creative engagement?—precious little, or none. Indeed, most of our schooling squelches the natural eruptions of intrinsic motivation, in favor of learning what schools are tasked to teach. But in arts education (or at least in good arts education), we dedicate a lot a lot of energy to nurturing intrinsic motivation.

Let’s use an inclusive definition of art—to make stuff you care about—rather than the default definition of working in artistic media. In the arts, teachers specialize in creating invitations and social environments that encourage learners to set aside the usual ground rules of schooling and invest themselves intrinsically. This requires an act of courage by students, to bypass all the entrenched systems of reward and punishment in order to invest themselves in activities that have no correct answers and that reveal something about who they are. What good arts instruction has to offer creative education is the effectiveness of our ways for tapping such motivation, and the efficiency of the way we establish learning environments in which such investment can grow and flourish—even within school contexts that routinely ignore and suppress that motivation everywhere else. As the book Third Space: When Learning Matters (Deasy and Stephenson, 2005) reports, in tough schools with good arts programs, it is no surprise to find suspended students sneaking back into school for their arts activities, and it is no surprise to see schools that invest seriously in arts programming feel the benefits radiate into improved motivation in all subjects.

This is why arts-integrated curriculum (when done well) advances learning in both the subject area and the arts being applied. It is because the students’ motivation has switched to intrinsic. There is an important nuance to point out here. Arts integration does not work automatically because activity in artistic media (e.g. dance) is brought into the subject area classroom (e.g. math). Indeed, I witnessed “the dance of the fractions,” a culminating project in which kids performed a clever dance that embodied their study of fractions; and indeed they tested better on fractions as a result of this clever kinesthetic math project. It was not creative learning, in my view, because their artist-selves were never activated; they solved math problems in interesting ways, but they never made stuff they care about, and they were no more invested in dance as a result of the project. However, when we get the arts integrated curriculum right, when we provide strong arts programming of any kind, we get positive learning results, with the reliable side benefit of some test score increases.

Sadly, schools rarely use the knowledge and ability of their best arts teachers as a resource to increase the creative investment across the curriculum. Sadly, arts teachers are stretched so thin that they can’t flex these muscles well in most of their teaching, to provide the ripple of benefits that accrue when we awaken this giant in young people. Sadly, pre-service training of teachers rarely focuses on the essentialness of nurturing intrinsic motivation in their students.

The scope of this article doesn’t allow me to describe the ways in which good arts educators routinely accomplish this learning marvel; these ways include the learning environment, the kinds of activities, the kinds of assessment, the sheer heart of such teachers. There are great arts teachers, great teaching artists, great teachers of other subjects who teach artfully, available almost everywhere; they are ripe for being tapped as resources.


A second essential for creative learning that lies within arts educators’ expertise deals with the skills they intentionally develop. I have long argued that art is a verb (to language arts teachers who bridle at that ungrammatical proposal, that is a metaphor). Our culture defines art by its nouns—things made in artistic media, and the special, set-apart places where we go to encounter high-quality nouns. However, the aliveness, the true power of art, lies in the things people do to make those nouns, and the things we do to make personally relevant connections to those nouns. Works of art are tombstones that mark locations where significant acts of learning once took place, and they await the infusion of fresh verbs to bring them back to life.

Arts education has expertise in the verbs of art, wherein essential learning skills are effectively developed. Any subject area becomes a medium for the work of art, when we engage intrinsic motivation and the verbs of art kick in. This is why the terms “the medical arts,” “the art of bricklaying,” and “the art of motorcycle maintenance” were common in my youth (though less so now), in the inherent understanding that every worthwhile endeavor raised to a high level of expression becomes the work of art. Every individual has latent artistry, and if we guide this potential well, we can spark creative engagement in any subject area.
There are many models available to describe the essential skills of creative engagement. I recommend to your attention The Studio Habits of Mind ( from Project Zero, along with my own Habits of Mind of Creative Engagement ( For the purposes of this short article, I will only mention a few of the key skills that have wide agreement: brainstorming, divergent thinking, metaphor-making, flexible thinking, multi-sensory connecting, asking great questions, and empathy.

Brainstorming is the capacity to generate multiple solutions to a challenge or question. Good arts educators develop not only the capacity for multiplicity, but also the pleasure of the process, a feeling that is prioritized nowhere else in average schooling. As this skill starts to be developed, the act of flexing this ideational fluency muscle, playing with the generation of lots of possibilities, comes to feel good. All researchers on creativity affirm that significant creative accomplishment requires the generation of lots of ideas. In the words of Linus Pauling, a man who won Nobel Prizes in two different categories, “If you want to get a great idea, first get a lot of ideas.” The pleasure of brainstorming can be developed in every subject area—if you want to know how to do this efficiently and effectively, talk to your local arts educator, or remind yourself what it feels like by coming up with a quick list of ten ways a brick might be useful in the kitchen.

Divergent thinking is the capacity to come up with original, unexpected, surprising ideas. (What is one way of using that brick in the kitchen that no one else might have thought of?) While I have seen over sixty definitions of creativity, the most common element of most is the meaningfulness or value of the new form creation. Divergent thinking capacity celebrates the originality aspect of creativity, ideas that are unexpected and valuable. Some people seem to have this skill more powerfully than others, but all people have it, and it can be developed in all. The process of developing it is a matter of acknowledging and consistently celebrating its appearance. Do you invite students to imagine widely in all subjects? Do you encourage thought experiments about the flow of history if the Santa Maria had been blown further south to Panama?

Metaphoric-thinking is a fundamental arts capacity but an increasingly underdeveloped one. We live in a belligerently literal culture; I notice it is becoming harder for people to accept, no less embrace, the truths held in a metaphor that is not literally true. We use metaphors all the time, in every news article, even in every scientific report published in barely-readable scientific journals reporting hard facts. But we rarely unpack them for the truths they contain (when was the last time you explored the aspects of fatherhood George Washington manifested in his leadership of the country?), and we do not develop the creative pleasure in producing the little artworks that metaphors are. Learners need sustained play in metaphor making to reclaim their birthright in symbolic thinking, to become powerful communicators and leaders.

Flexible thinking is a hallmark of artistry. Artists are masters at using multiple points of view to make good choices, and at going back and forth between considering parts and wholes. This agility of attention is an essential balance, a natural companion, to the rapt focus of intentionality that comes with creative engagement. Yes, we want learners who can pour themselves into the full “flow” experience of optimal engagement; and creative accomplishment requires their flexibility to be able to use their attention and intention in other ways too—the young musician learns to hear his own performance, and the section’s, and the whole orchestra’s, at the same time. The arts are exquisite gymnasia for such cross-training workouts.

Multi-sensory engagement. The arts remind us that the human body is more than a gizmo for transporting a head around. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences include kinesthetic, spatial, and musical smarts; many educators add emotional, practical and intuitive acuity as important kinds of knowing that reach beyond thinking. Good arts education naturally engages the range of ways humans connect to new things, make meaning, learn, come to understand, and make things they care about. Good arts educators naturally activate the multiple ways we learn, connect, and create, learners’ innate range of competences, and draws them into meaningful form invention—the definition of creativity.

Empathy is a word that crops up almost everywhere my freelance work takes me these days. As a culture, in our arts, education, and civic sectors, we are concerned about empathetic capacity in young people. I have heard the term “crisis of empathy” used in more than a few places; while it often refers to instances of violence and bullying, it also applies to students socializing less fluidly, to stresses over diversity issues, and to the impact of increased time with electronic media. Without delving into the deep questions of causes for this problem, I know that arts education provides abundant solutions. Many reports cite the lack of bullying and violence, the positive social environment, the efficient group work, in schools that invest in serious arts programs. Too few schools, however, take the care to adopt what good arts educators know and do to create these results. You have resident or nearby experts in your arts teachers and teaching artists who can provide practicable tools to address the empathy deficit.


When given free range, arts education becomes exemplary inquiry-based learning. Students are going to spend their lives and their careers solving complex problems. But we do a poor job in primary and secondary schooling of preparing them to effectively, creatively manage what they will encounter.

The art-making cycle includes highly productive creative problem-solving processes: how many businesses could announce a year in advance the exact minute their five highly-complex new products will be launched, each one of which has to be a big success or the company may go bankrupt? Every regional theater and dance company in the country routinely takes that challenge in stride.

Beyond that, the artistic process includes essential skills of learning, including: ability to ask great questions and identify the best problems, experimentation with careful attention to results, productive relationship to failure, tolerance of uncertainty (even pleasure in ambiguity), appropriate risk taking, resilience, focus on issues of quality and excellence, natural and eager self-assessment, reflection infused throughout the work, rewards of enjoyment of process (not just result and reward), personal satisfaction, and connection to others through an expression of who you really are.

Creating something out of yourself, and having the courage to offer it to others in the belief that it is valuable and will be received as such, is the essence of responsible citizenship. Indeed, there is abundant research showing that people who are actively involved in the arts (even just as attendees) participate in activities associated with good citizenship more than those who are not artistically involved. Good arts educators know the power of the art-making cycle. The deep learning that unfolds in the serious play of an arts project develops exactly the skills students need to succeed in workplace and life.

Every school can learn from the knowledge of arts educators to dramatically increase the creative investment in classes. We can ask better questions in every classroom, and constantly search for the juiciest challenges to give students; we can encourage experimentation and celebration of unexpected results, including failures; we can nurture tolerance for not knowing, and help students relax and enjoy the exploration in uncertainty rather than race for any answer as an escape from the less comfortable aspects of learning. We can focus on the power of appropriate risk-taking in creative engagement, noting the high value of originality and the benefits of failures. We can encourage students’ motivation so they will keep trying, persisting through difficulty; we can have conversations about quality (not just accuracy) in every classroom every day; we can celebrate the satisfaction and fulfillment that arises naturally when students are guided through a creative art making cycle. We can foster a learning community that shares, dares, inquires, respects, and creates new worlds in small opportunities, and, we hope, in larger opportunities as they grow. We can not only create lifelong learners, but with the knowledge about intrinsic motivation that flourishes in good arts education, we can develop lifelong yearners who can creatively transform almost any assignment, almost any job, almost any life circumstance into something of greater value.

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