The Intersection of Arts Programming and Teaching and Learning: Creative Thinking

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Liz Lerman with the Creative Thinking students from Summer 2012.

by Julie Dalley

In a studio classroom, 12 students sit in a circle, look around themselves and at each other, and peer curiously at a gang of course instructors milling about the room. They are the inaugural class members of Creative Thinking,1 an experimental new course offered at Montclair State University designed to generate unique opportunities for students to explore how creativity happens. Their instructors, led by Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, a physicist of Mathematics and Physical Science, included Dr. Mika Munakata of Mathematical Sciences, Dr. Tiger Roholt of Philosophy and Religion, Dr. Marissa Silverman of the John J . Cali School of Music, Dr. Debbie Saivetz of Theatre and Dance, Dr. Jerry Fails of Computer Science and Dr. Yawei Wang of Marketing. The students will spend the next four weeks immersed in exploring their own creative abilities, perspectives and approaches.

The students were exposed to multiple approaches to creative processes. They observed rehearsals for the opera, Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter, directed by Robert Wilson. They spoke with the visionary stage director,2 asked him questions about inspiration, structure, design and practice. They participated in a two-day workshop with choreographer and MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman. Lerman led them through a series of simple movement and naming exercises designed to focus awareness on their own thinking patterns—a process she called “harvesting .”3 They spent two class sessions with artist and visiting professor Iain Kerr, called “Worldmaking.” They discussed creativity from the perspective of the individual’s role as part of a collaborative process within a system, to dispel the idea that creativity is a mysterious, intangible element.

Though the ability to interact with creative artists—brought to campus as part of the Peak Performances series programmed by Arts and Cultural Programming (ACP)—and explore artistic processes was critical to the course design, the students went far beyond artistic expression. Under the guidance of their seven instructors, they played logic games; wrote and acted out stories about themselves; discussed, debated and learned to speculate solutions to complex conceptual problems; tested out approaches; and reflected on and journaled their thoughts and ideas. They conceived of and probed their own interests, how new perspectives could challenge their ingrained or habitual approaches to problem solving or course assignments, and even the constraints of thinking disciplinarily, i.e. “this is how we structure scientific questioning” or “this is how we approach this issue through writing.” The students learned to question convention and understand their own individuality as able to uniquely contribute to the world. In the words of one student, “This course changed my life.”

Students from the Creative Thinking Summer 2012 course.

Students from the Creative Thinking Summer 2012 course.

When the course was over the students had produced their own piece of creative work—an oil painting set to music, a pencil sketch showing the students’ transformation as he went through the course (a very good one), a comic book idea, a short story, a documentary, and an innovative idea (and demonstration) of a spherical projection system for film . But the objective of the course was not to produce a singular “thing” that others might evaluate as creative but to experiment with processes that can lead to creativity. Thus, a primary function of the course was to ask, “what is creativity?” and to expose students to myriad ways that creativity can be interpreted, as well as have meaning for them personally.

The idea that creativity is an inherent trait, something we are born with or that happens mystically due to genetic makeup, is a persistent myth in our culture . The faculty developers of the Creative Thinking course, in collaboration with ACP and the Research Academy for University Learning, came together in the summer of 2010 to find ways to disrupt this myth and create a course that both inspired creativity and provided opportunities for experiencing how creativity happens across disciplines. The foundational work behind the course was inspired by Dr . Paul Baker, professor and artist, and author of Integration of Abilities, a book Baker wrote in 1967 to document the set of exercises he used in his own courses “to inspire creative growth.”4

The course developers, in addition to bringing their own practices, disciplinary expertise and experience, went beyond the core knowledge of their group and
also spent time with artists, dancers, filmmakers, musicians and scientists, and consulted emerging research on creativity to inform the evolution of the course, making it both structured around central ideas and fluid to new creative influences . They were curious how students would adapt their understanding of intelligence and how we define knowledge, how the course would affect their lives both on and off campus, and how they could shift their approaches to their own learning (deep, surface, strategic) and recognize opportunities for creativity . The student’s (summer 2012) were surveyed pre- and post-course using an Adaptive Expertise questionnaire (Fisher and Peterson) and a Study Process questionnaire (Biggs). While the results of that data are pending further analysis and comparison to the full-term version of the course, preliminary results indicate that students showed positive changes in how well they confronted challenging tasks and how likely they were to use the skills learned in the course in other areas of their lives, and it had a positive impact on their ability to handle failure . Students showed the likelihood to take deeper approaches to their learning, they better understood their own learning processes, and they grew more comfortable with the belief that knowledge is flexible, built through collaboration and open to change . Thus, the work of the faculty and the multi and interdisciplinary approach to the course has seemed to heighten student’s awareness of creative opportunities, their own learning and the collaborative nature of knowledge-making.

The Creative Thinking course at Montclair State is not the only course in higher education to explore and foster creativity as a curricular goal. It is, however, the first of its kind to be uniquely designed to shift and change depending on the disciplinary makeup of the instructors and students, and to be offered to all students, no matter what major . In an effort to instill a spirit of creative experimentation that moves beyond novelty to sustainable and enduring ideas, it promotes an openness to diverse perspectives for problem-solving, and a holistic understanding of where we find inspiration. The underlying concept of the course lies in the idea of taking risks and of embracing failure to achieve new and exciting, as well as personally satisfying, creations. The integration of visiting artists, who bring fresh perspectives and creative insights from a range of performing mediums, and may change from semester to semester, is made possible through the ACP and the Peak Performances series, which curates a steady and diverse field of artists from across the globe to visit and perform on campus each year. Along with the artists, student’s exposure to creative ideas across a spectrum of disciplines, brought by a multidisciplinary instructor pool, offers students in all majors a chance to see creativity in action, and to understand that artistry, innovation and inspiration are informed by more than some sort of innate and mysterious talent, but by concepts and processes related to science, math, literature, writing, education and more.

1. The Creative Thinking course was initially funded by a Creative Campus Innovations Grant, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and administered by the Association for Performing Arts Presenters. For more information about this grant and the programs and projects it has funded, please visit: apap365 .org
2. From Robert Wilson’s Peak Performances profile: The New York Times described Robert Wilson as “a towering figure in the world of experimental theater.” Wilson’s works integrate a wide variety of artistic media, combining movement, dance, lighting, furniture design, sculpture, music and text into a unified whole . His images are aesthetically striking and emotionally charged, and his productions have earned the acclaim of audiences and critics worldwide .
3. Liz Lerman’s approach is rooted in the use of movement and the body as a resource for learning . Her techniques are drawn from her years of experience creating new choreographic work with communities of non-dancers, as well as dance professionals . A “toolbox” that she’s developed with her former company, Dance Exchange, can be found at d-lab .org .
4. Taken from The Baker Idea Institute website. For the full range of Baker’s work and ongoing programs and projects based on his ideas, visit bakeridea .org .

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