The author, who gave the closing keynote speech at UNESCO’s first worldwide arts conference, has worked for decades developing active-learning approaches that derive directly from the arts.
Twelve hundred people, in delegations from 97 countries—it was UNESCO’s first-ever worldwide arts education conference in Lisbon, Portugal in March 2006. The United States government chose not to send an official delegation, but a number of good U.S. practitioners and researchers were sharing their best work, and I was asked to give the closing keynote speech (the only major speech by an American) to pull together the learning at the conference. The unmistakable main message of the conference was about creative active engagement of learners. Presidents, ministers of culture, and educational leaders from around the world came to the podium with speeches that laid every social crisis, from an explosion of mental health problems in youth to poverty, AIDS, global warming, and worldwide economic disparity, at the feet of arts education to help resolve problems by bringing creative engagement into the lives of the young. And, poignantly, most presenters acknowledged how frail and undersupported a tool arts education is in its current position around the world—how little school time there is, how little funding, how little teacher preparation.
They decried a worldwide mental health crisis in the young (that the United States doesn’t acknowledge and often “drugs” away), and they pleaded for the arts to actively engage their young people in the way the arts healthily, historically, can provide. Ministers of national economies urged creativity as the only way countries, developed and developing, can succeed in the long run. Some countries could brag about their accomplishments—such as Finland, where the government has proactive creativity policies, and students spend 80 percent of their school day actively engaged in learning creativity skills in the arts and in all their subject matter.
It was clear to me that there was worldwide agreement about a banner that arts educators, indeed all educators, could march behind. I was able to announce it in the last hour of the conference, and, for the first time in our three days of listening politely with simultaneous translations pouring in our ears, the audience got up and cheered. Our worldwide education banner read: “Literacy, Numeracy, Creativity.” Increasingly, good educators around the world believe these three priorities should be taught across the curriculum, in all subjects, working in a complementary synergy to tap every child’s learning potential.
And creativity is not the exclusive domain of the arts. While I believe the arts provide an unusually good way to develop the skills of creative engagement, all subjects, all learning situations, need to engage creative participation. I cautioned the conference audience that “teaching” creativity isn’t so easy—even those of us in the arts do not usually prioritize it in our instruction. Just because a teacher and student are working in an artistic medium doesn’t mean creativity is being developed. A student can spend a year with a clarinet and not develop creative capacities. As a field—locally, nationally, and internationally—we all need significant professional development to become effective creative engagement coaches. In fact, music learning was cited by the conferees as the artistic discipline in which creativity was given lowest priority (technical accomplishment always ranks higher). Nothing is wrong with fine technique, of course, but the leaders from around the world believed that we must raise the priority on our students’ capacity to pour themselves creatively into all kind of tasks in all our teaching and that we must do it now.
In my work around the United States, my commitment to arts learning is not only to increase its presence in schools, but to make sure art teaching focuses on its essential elements and to nurture those same elements in active creative engagement in many different kinds of settings. In my decades of inquiry and experimentation into its tools, I have worked with hundreds of clients, from arts organizations to education institutions, businesses, and public gatherings. I suppose “active creative engagement” has become the overt feature that identifies my work. The following musings about active engagement pull together some general thoughts that inform the way I design and lead many different kinds of work—from board retreats to weeklong conferences, from yearlong curriculum to online learning, to solving a particular problem within an institution, even to one-shot events. This practice is more art than science, and I offer these thoughts as a catalyst for those who will spend their lives guiding the creative engagement of others—especially teachers who are likely to spend their lives nurturing creativity and curiosity within schools that are not only unsupportive of those priorities, but diabolically designed to actually squelch the spirit of active creative engagement that nurtures the lifelong learners we purport to care about. These thoughts are intended to apply to all learning settings, from professional conferences to professional development to classrooms. I am not writing only for classroom teachers but for all teachers, which, in the end, means all of us.
Thoughts on active learning
Information delivery is rarely the most effective way to maximize learning. Yet our traditions and habits lead us to rely on that approach, and to assume that because we have said something, or written and delivered something, its content has been communicated. I think we need to take more responsibility for the efficacy of our contributions, and to attend to the full picture of the learning involved in our work in and around the arts, and anywhere creativity is valued. I think we are all educators all the time, with colleagues, within and beyond our disciplines and institutions, with the public—and we would do well to intentionally embody what is known about effective educating. Active learning also happens to be full of fun and life. We are great talkers about the power of the creativity, and much is known about learning in the arts. We have not, however, put our blather and our knowledge to work for our own learning where we usually do not include the power of the arts in fundamental ways beyond presentations. Basically we do what the public senses we do—use the arts and think of creative engagement apart from the serious business of life.
There is a depth of research that challenges the default notions that shape so much of our professional communication. And yet, because “education” is balkanized to special buildings, most professional educators do not embrace the deep research and abundant examples of what makes for effective learning. There are so many ways that work better than telling and assuming the message has been heard or presenting arts activities and assuming arts learning has happened.
Effective learning includes issues of pedagogy, not just content, though many think about content far more than delivery. Indeed, look at the university paradigm—there is so little attention paid to learning new pedagogy, while all the energy goes into the quality of the content. This does not optimize the impact of that content or support the process of turning information into understanding and changed practice. Indeed, the best professional development in professional settings (and there are many fields in which professional development is taken very seriously) is very attuned to the ways adults learn best.
Including experiential learning is more art than science. There are not really templates to impose—rather there are perspectives, guidelines, and priorities to apply in each individual situation that maximize impact. Each case is different. Each setting requires different steps to create a conducive climate for maximum impact. Each set of problems and opportunities being addressed invites idiosyncratic experiments and processes. The culture of every arts organization and art form provides unique opportunities and resources to apply to the learning within that arts organization and the richest mine for finding active engagement strategies is the art form itself.
Ideally, the experiential component is braided in from the earliest stages and not applied later as a peppy add-on. Experiential learning is not a magic bullet. It cannot work a miracle any more than a good final report mailed to group of people can. It is a crucial part of the change process. It attends to the way the people involved engage with the information. It supports the ways people take ownership of information and turn it into understanding and change. It nurtures environments crucial to sustainability. It walks its talk, which produces learning in a hundred subtle and important ways.
Some Guiding Principles
Learners must participate. This is the foundation of constructivist practice, and it works. The nature of the participation must be appropriate to the setting, the people, and the nature of the issues being addressed so that it is inherently engaging, personally and professionally relevant, and productive.
Engagement before information
This guideline reminds us of the relationship between participation and information, which is so easily forgotten in our zeal to give information. Information is received more eagerly, deeply, gratefully and more quickly applied to practice if it comes after participating in active creative work that directly relates to the information. Such engagement enables the learner to discover the relevance of the body of information and invest herself in meaning-making within it, to create a personal context for the information.
Prepare the learning climate
This guideline has both short-term strategic and longer-term transformative implications. In the short term, one must create conditions that support learning—a conducive, receptive, and lively environment. In putting practices in place that support these aspects of a good learning environment for the longer term, significant transformation of the organization becomes possible.
Good learning develops ongoing habits of mind, especially productive self-assessment. The work around assessment, not only of programs, but also of individual and institutional learning, is fertile ground for changing entrenched patterns of dialogue and thinking. Evaluation is a larger issue, which lands differently in a culture that has developed habits of self-assessment. I hold the artist at work as a model of effective, ongoing self-assessment. Most institutions demand assessment that serves their needs and convenience; this must be balanced with other opportunities that empower the learner’s self-assessment as a top priority to build those skills for a lifetime.
People encounter the unfamiliar and enter new knowledge in a very different way if invited in through what they know and can already do. The new information becomes an embellishment or extension of understandings they already have. It also facilitates the delicate process of addressing understandings that are false or ineffective. Too often we confirm people’s sense of incompetence in an area we are trying to lead them to, making the learning much more complex.
Pose generative questions
Excellent questions are the educator’s philosopher’s stone with the alchemical power to transform lead into gold. More than great answers, great questions engage the processes of engaged answering, which draw in active engagement, which change the climate for use of those good answers. Finding the best questions is often a slow, creative process, with stages of insight that require much thinking and reflection. The capacity to discover and use great questions is the single most reliable indicator of innate education skills. In the arts, I recommend teachers never ask a question that has a single correct answer.
Include active reflection
In our time-conscious work situations, we usually stint the reflective component of learning. John Dewey told us bluntly that without reflection, we do not learn from our experiences. Reflection does not mean generic discussions or navel-staring silences; there are many active and lively ways to engage people in the essential acts of reflection, and to develop the reflective habits as individuals and working groups that are essential in any learning organization. We live in such a belligerently antireflective culture that we are doing crucial remedial work in intentionally using reflective practices.
Develop working group learning
There is a dynamic balance between the contributions of individuals and groups. The rhythm of this back-and-forth guidance and the richness of the challenges given to the groups can dramatically advance outcomes. Groups need to sense that they are accomplishing more in the collective endeavor than they do when working alone.
Find the essential question, the relevant catalytic through line, and structure the learning as an inquiry into that crucial question. The question needs to be one that captures the heart and gut of participants, that invites many paths of exploration, and that may yield some ground to serious exploration. Generally, less is more in this regard—one excellent question is better than three good ones, because (as we know from the arts), the right boundaries produce the deepest results. I think of assignments, activities, etc., as enabling constraints—limitations that support our going further.
Be the thing
This is an enormous challenge, and a larger opportunity. Seek to find and use the learning structures that embody the values, goals, and priorities of the learning. Authentic learning design means the way people learn is consistent with and is an elegant expression of what you want them to learn. Ghandi said this better: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
That reminder from Ghandi was the note with which I closed the UNESCO conference. I believe that 80 percent of what we teach is who we are. That requires us to remain active creative learners with our students because most of what they are going to learn about how to learn will be the way we model it. It is difficult to sustain the dynamic edge of active creative learning in the profession of teaching, and yet is the most important teaching tool we have. Make it your highest priority—to be creatively engaged in your own life, and bring your learners into the rewards and strength of that commitment, even within the squelching environments that schools can be—so your students can learn that, above all else.