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Building creative capacity: Arts education in the 21st century (Part 3)

Several months ago, four students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education deliberated how to advance education from a passive institution to a driving force that develops essential learning and life skills. Brought together from four countries by Harvard, the role of art in each of their personal narratives inspired them to choose art as the agent of change. They formed Creative Capacities International, using music, dance, spoken word poetry, and visual arts to teach critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and creativity. From an idea in a classroom in Cambridge, they have recently brought the transformative power of the arts to the remote foothills of the Himalayas and dirt-floored classrooms on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This is the third post of a four-part series on arts education.

By Shua Marquis, Ed.M. ’12

“Today, we’re going to push the limits of your creativity. In order to do so, we’re going to give you a list of obstructions.”

Shua Marquis and Haitian student.

My students watched as we began passing out paper and paints, puzzled but intrigued. After a few days of classes, they knew that a small team from Harvard hadn’t traveled 8,000 miles to the foothills of the Himalayas to simply dabble in paint or read poetry. Together, we were pushing the boundaries of a 21st century education. Even better, we were doing it through art.

The sharp outline of Mt. Kangchenjunga’s five peaks provided the perfect backdrop, as the clear mountain air and wispy clouds swept away limitations. The silhouette of the Himalayas modeled for the students’ lesson on contour drawing, the first art activity we were using in our critical thinking curriculum. Contour drawing develops close-looking, the first step in learning how to think critically. Together we constructed more steps, building deductive reasoning skills through a class on the color wheel and teaching students how to assess credibility in a lesson looking at various interpretations of several famous works of art. The power of the arts to develop critical thinking was evidenced through our students’ insights and creations. The possibilities for positive development enabled through artistic endeavors were endless.

The “obstructions” we gave our students were simple, such as depicting a nature scene without using the color green, or not using any straight lines in the entire piece. The activity is designed to have students practice making decisions and construct alternatives, life skills with far-reaching implications.

A student's nature scene drawn for the "Five Obstructions” lesson.

In many developing countries, finding an alternative solution is much more difficult than layering blue and yellow to create the impression of green or cross-hatching straight lines to create the illusion of curves. But enabling children to discover that they have the agency to create and implement solutions to obstacles is a goal that can powerfully influence their life course. Through artistic activities, children are equipped with tools to change their perception: of their surroundings, of themselves, of possibility.

In a recent project in Haiti, a school principal told us: “You have changed the way I view education. Now I realize that the best help for Haiti is to teach students how to think, how to critically solve problems.” By pushing the limits of creativity and critical thinking, we believe in changing an educational paradigm to include the potential power of art.

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