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Literature Review on Teaching Visual Arts in the Digital Media Age

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Published: 28th May 2021

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Tagged: ArtsEducationMedia


As an artist and visual arts teacher, I have wondered about creativity many times throughout my life. From being in art school to teaching high school, I have always wondered what makes a person “creative”? Is creativity something that one possesses naturally or can it be taught, just like any subject? If creativity can be taught, then why was it missed in my education or was it forgotten somehow? Was it overlooked or not important to all of my teachers? I have always been taught that drawing is a learned skill; by that, I mean everyone can do it: people just have to be taught how to do it. Does the same go for creativity: can it be taught, how can I develop my own creativity, is that even possible later in life? These are some of the questions I have always had while I head down this road/journey of questioning what is creativity? After a time, the questions transformed into what is the role of creativity in the age of digital media in the art curriculum and the influence creativity has on students’ resilience and expression? How can high school art teachers use the visual arts to teach creativity?

Definitions of Creativity and Imagination

It is common to see articles focusing on creativity with a lack of a clear definition of what creativity is. Most define creativity as the individual’s use of knowledge, imagination, and judgment within the constraints of an environment and its resources (Slocombie, 2000) in order to solve problems in an innovative, high quality, appropriate manner (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2007). This study has helped me to have a better understanding of what creativity is.

While trying to make the connection of creativity and imagination we run into the same issue, there is no clear definition of imagination. Apparently, there is a great amount of confusion as to the meaning of imagination, Maxine Greene (1995) sees imagination as the capacity for confronting the wall. The wall is an opportunity for one to be rebellious, creative, and resisting certainties, according to Greene (1995). It will be through Imagination that the wall will be conquered, or the wall will conquer you. Everyone has the opportunity to conquer their own walls, although some refuse to see the wall for what it is. Visual arts teachers or teachers, in general, should help students to address the ways in which they can overcome this obstacle of not being able to see what the wall really is.

Students not only learn from the teachers, the students sometimes switch roles and become teachers, the teachers learn from their students simultaneously (Greene, 1995). “In my view, the classroom situation most provocative of thoughtfulness and critical consciousness is one in which teachers and students find themselves conducting a kind of collaborative search, each from his or her own lived situation.” (Greene, 1995, p 23). This is where visual arts teachers should take the opportunity to have their students search for solutions to real issues, issues that are not made up in the classroom for students to practice their critical thinking skills, but that are important and/or meaningful for the students. As Greene says teachers need to take advantage of the “not yet” way of thinking in the students and bring it into being. Teachers need to explain to their students they cannot possibly know the answer to everything or every question, but they do possess the tools to figure out the answers and conquer those walls. Greene (1995) talks about the importance of considering the multiple realities and or experiences of the students and ourselves as teachers so that we work at pushing the limits of dominant discourse. We should also expose our students to the arts, a rich literature of multiple types (poetry, prose, plays), music and film and the importance of making connections to a higher level and critical thinking.

Greene (1995) along with Eisner (2004) argues the importance of the arts in education, Greene believes this to the point where she says the arts is fundamental in education. “At the very least, participatory involvement with the many forms of art can enable us to see more in our experience, to hear more on normally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily routines have obscured, what habit and convention have suppressed.” (Greene, 1995, p 123). Students need to do, create, and experience the arts to expand their thinking and awareness. This can be seen in the visual arts classroom when students create an artwork they are proud of, their eyes brighten up when they are asked about their artwork, it makes them more eager to create new work. This also increases the intrinsic motivation (the satisfaction one gets from one’s own artistic expression) towards producing works of art that Eisner (2004) puts forth. Everyone has a natural wanting to help solve problems, look for new ways to communicate, to create and make new things or improve on old ones. Greene states: “Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light.” (Greene, 1995, p 133). Greene says these experiences cannot be add-ons but are essential to developing new understandings and critical thinking. “We want to enable all sorts of young people to realize that they have the right to finding works of art that are meaningful against their own lived lives.” (Greene, 1995, p 150). As visual arts teachers, we must remember that each student has a different background and experience not just of our own but to everyone else. Knowing this each visual arts teachers’ priority should be igniting the imagination and creativity in each of our students, peers, and anyone else who wants to become more creative or improve their imagination, this should be the central point of our education.

The importance of creativity in the age of digital media as an educational component is extremely important for students to understand. With the ever-expanding impact of technology on western society, more companies are looking for employees with the ability of divergent thinking, can this way of thinking help to develop creativity in our students? There has also been much written about the elements that can help or hurt people’s ability to be creative. Researchers in the field of creativity have several different main focuses of their research endeavors, some researchers focus on the environment (which is the person, the process, the press, or the product), while others look for “systems” models that combine several focuses into one single model (Baer, Cropley, Kaufman, Reiter-Palmon, & Sinnett, 2013).

Guilford (1957) believes that creative artistic talent and/or ability is not a unitary or uniform product but is to be considered in terms of a large number of factors or primary mental abilities. According to Guilford, the creative abilities of artists are not the same abilities as others may possess (Guilford, 1957), this seems to follow Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence. Guilford (1967) was one of the first to discover that there was a correlation between creativity and intelligence. Although the correlation of creativity between intelligence may vary at different levels of intelligence. Guilford found a direct relationship in the lower to average IQ range while there was no relationship in the above to average levels of intelligence. Guilford stated that “the pattern of bivariate distribution of the cases suggests that although high IQ is not a sufficient condition for high DP (divergent production) ability, it is almost a necessary condition” (p. 168). Thus causing the idea of high intellectual ability is a necessary condition for high creativity has become popular among researchers.

Many in the arts believe that creativity is a very complex human performance and occurrence, and is one of the high accomplishments any person can aspire to develop and maintain. Many subcomponents of creativity are combined simultaneously and/or successively to approach the almost total human being response (Smith, 2005). Teaching creativity in the visual arts classroom might seem easy or automatic, but do all students learn creativity the same way, just because the teacher is teaching does that mean the students are learning?

In the 1960s the focus in education had shifted to minority and low socioeconomic status students and those with special needs (Jolly, 2009), which caused gifted and talented education to almost disappear from American public school system. Thanks to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, research on gifted and talented children/students was conducted. In 1970, the United States Congress asked that the status of gifted students education be studied. Marland was tasked with assembling a group of experts, which included both researchers and practitioners in the field of gifted education. Included in the 1971 Marland report were the qualities of gifted and talented children/students, which creativity was one of.

Sternberg’s Twelve Keys for Developing the Creative Habit

Sternberg (2007), a renowned creativity researcher, described the issue of creativity in education as a developing habit. Creativity can be taught and improved, creativity requires ample effort and care so that is roughly encouraged. Sternberg believed that to encourage creativity, three ingredients are needed: opportunity (students must be given a chance and a safe place to express themselves), encouragement (students should have someone who can encourage them to develop their critical thinking skills and push them), and reward (there has to be some type of incentive for the student to be creative). Sternberg described the twelve keys for developing the creative habit that would help to answer the question “what should we do?” (Sternberg, 2007, p. 8-16). These are as follows:

1) Redefined problems. Steinberg explains redefined problems as taking the problem and turning it on its head. Getting outside, the box and thinking of new ways to approach the problem. Instead of the teacher explaining how to solve the problem, allow the student to develop his or her own ideas on how to solve a problem.

2) Question and analyze assumptions. Everyone has assumptions. Quite often people do not know that these are assumptions because they are so widely shared by society. Society once thought the world was flat and the sun revolved around the Earth. So, too, teachers can be role models for students by questioning assumptions, showing students what they assume they know, they really do not know.

3) Do not assume that creative ideas sell themselves; sell them. Everyone would like to assume that their creative ideas sell themselves, but as many failed entrepreneurs know, they do not. Quite the contrary, these creative ideas are usually seen with skepticism and distrust because people are comfortable in the way that they think and are very slow to change in their way of thinking.

4) Encourage idea generation. The environment for encouraging ideas should be critical, but should not be harshly critical. Students need to acknowledge that some ideas are better than others. Teachers and students should collaborate to identify and encourage any creative idea that is present. When teachers see that these creative ideas have little value, they must do more than just criticize. Teachers should suggest new approaches that incorporate some ideas from the ones they thought had little value.

5) Recognize that knowledge is a double-edged sword and act accordingly. Without knowledge, one cannot be creative. Many students have ideas that are creative to themselves, but not in the field that they are working in because others have had the same idea before. Those that have a greater knowledge base can be more creative in ways that others who are still learning the basics in a field cannot be.

6) Encourage children to identify and surmount obstacles. The question is not what obstacles there may be; there will always be obstacles. The more important question is will the creative thinker have enough resilience to overcome those obstacles. Teachers can prepare students for these types of experiences by describing obstacles that they, their friends and other well-known figures that have had experienced obstacles while trying to be creative. Otherwise, students will think they are the only ones that have been confronted with these obstacles.

7) Encourage sensible risk-taking. Few students are willing to take risks at school because risk-taking can have some negative effects. Failing to achieve certain academic standards can be seen as a lack of ability and motivation, which may lead to a lower grade, fewer opportunities, or even failure. Without knowing it, some teachers may encourage students to “play it safe” by giving assignments without choices and specific answers to questions. Teachers need to encourage risk-taking and also reward it.

8) Encourage tolerance of ambiguity. There is a lot of grays in creative work, it is not just black and white. The artist who spends many hours working on a painting often has said they feel scattered and unsure of their thoughts or ideas. Sometimes they even wonder if they’re on the right track, starting over several times to realize that the original painting was better than all the rest. Creative thinkers need to accept the ambiguity and doubt until they get the thought or idea just right. Very rarely do creative ideas come all at once, they tend to come in pieces or patches over time.

9) Help children build self-efficacy. Many people often get to a point where they feel that no one believes in them. Many artists have reached this point, having feelings that no one values their point of view or even what they are doing. Believing what you are doing has value and is extremely important in creative work because creative work often is looked down upon or lacking in value. This does not mean that people should believe that every idea they have is a good idea. But people need to realize that, ultimately, they have the ability to make a difference. The main limitation on what students can do is what they can think they can do. All students have the ability to be creators and to experience the satisfaction connected with making something new, but a strong foundation for creativity must be given first.

10) Help children find what they love to do. Teachers must help students to find what excites and motivates them to unleash their student’s best creative performances. Teachers also need to remember that this may not be what really excites students, they might have multiple things that excite them. People, who excel creatively in a field, if it is work that you have to do or if it is work that you do for pleasure, almost always certainly love what they do.

11) Teach children the importance of delayed gratification. Creative people are able to work on projects or tasks for an extended period of time without immediate or interim rewards. Students must learn that rewards are not always immediate and that there are benefits to delaying gratification. Most of the time, people are ignored when they do creative work, sometimes even punished for doing it. Many people believe in an immediate reward for children who have good performances, and that the child should expect the reward. This style of teaching and parenting highlights the here and now and often comes at the expense of what is best in the long term.

12) Provide an environment that fosters creativity. There are many ways teachers can supply an environment that fosters creativity. The most powerful way for teachers to develop creativity in students is to model creativity for them in a way they can understand. Students develop creativity when they are shown how to be creative, not when they are told to be creative. The teachers most remembered by students from their time in school are not those who packed the most substance into their lectures. The teachers most remembered by students from their time in school are those teachers whose thoughts and actions served as a model for the students to follow. These were the teachers that could connect with and care for the student’s well-being. These teachers balanced substance with teaching students how to think with and about the content of the subjects being taught to the class (Sternberg, 2007, p. 8-16).

According to Sternberg (2007), there still remains a missing component in the teaching of creativity to students or anyone else, a component that must be found. How do we turn Sternberg’s twelve keys for developing the creative habit into actual hands-on classroom components that teachers can build into their activities and or lessons to teach creativity? How do teachers create opportunities for students to refine problems in a project? How do teachers encourage idea generation activities for students? How do teachers give students opportunities to develop a “tolerance for ambiguity” (2007, p. 13-14)? With the world being so complex, there are no obvious answers to most of the challenges students face. Often, students are impatient and only seek the “right” answer and rush to judgment. Perhaps, some teachers also limit thinking because of constraints in their focus during teaching or their limited amount of time in the classroom. Maybe the more important question is how do teachers incorporate all twelve of Sternberg’s keys into a single activity or lesson in a meaningful way to ensure that creativity is encouraged and rewarded?

When developing the creativity habits, it is more important and effective to have real problems than fictitious ones for classroom activities. According to Sternberg, students are able to connect with real problems than ideas that are untenable because they can draw connections from their own experiences and background. Instead, focusing on one of the twelve keys for developing the creative habit alone, such as encouraging sensible risk-taking, may be a guide for student learning. The teacher must develop real problems that are engaging and relevant to the students that include all twelve of Sternberg’s keys for developing habit. For example, if the students spend a class period brainstorming how to use paper cups, they have only thought about one component of the problem. The teacher could incorporate Sternberg’s twelve keys for developing habit and spend that same class period having the students brainstorming ways they could use paper cups to build structures to house the homeless or how to transform the paper cups into a sculpture that represents their feelings about the school or city they live in.

For younger children, the same principle applies again although their experiences might be more limited. The contacts and the story are essential to creating a realistic and authentic problem in areas that students can interact with. One of these examples could be, using an issue based on how you would move dirty water out of a test tube, through a pipe, to another test tube, and back into the tube the original test tube, all wrapped in the story either about environmental issues or just a story about animals that have been flushed down the toilet and were somehow released into the real world, could be interesting and challenging. With the help of teachers as the creators of the context, drawing out or creating a backstory and providing the real detail of a problem, students can turn an abstract problem into an effective real creative problem-solving exercise (Cropley, 2014).

Historical Events Associated with Creativity Interest in Curriculum

With the launching of the space satellite Sputnik in 1957, the Space Race with the Soviet began. This event put into focus the attention on preparing a new generation of students in the areas of mathematics, sciences, and technology innovation to move the United States ahead in the space race and beyond. The first large-scale funding of gifted education began due to the passing of the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Shortly after the passing of the National Defense Education Act came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was supposed to bring equality to all people. Equality for all in education and for all types of learners included the gifted and talented children/students.

The research on gifted and talented children/students was completed because of Public Law 91 – 230, section 806, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which would become the foundation for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB 2002). In 1971 reports submitted to the Presidents of the United States and Congress by S. P. Marland (the Marland Report) was made up of a voluntary advisory panel of eleven researchers and practitioners in education from throughout the United States who created a new definition for potential high performing learners. The panels’ definition for gifted and talented children included those children identified by a qualified person who saw abilities or was capable of becoming a high performing student. Whereas these students required differentiated educational programs and services beyond the normal school curriculum, to obtain their potential.

The Marland report (1971) contains a well-known definition of the intellectually gifted and talented children. It was the first national report on gifted education in the United States. Students who possessed the following abilities (1-6) or potentially could possess those abilities were conserved to be gifted and talented students. 1) General intellectual ability, meaning the IQ of the child. 2) Specific academic abilities, English-Language Arts (ELA), reading (elementary), English (secondary) or mathematics. 3) Creative or productive thinking encompasses open-mindedness, flexibility, and adaptability and is essential to critical thinking. 4) leadership ability, Webster’s Dictionary defines leadership as “the power or ability to lead other people,” the ability to delegate, inspire and communicate effectively (Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary, 1999). 5) Visual and Performing Arts, performing arts are a form of art in which artists use their voices and their bodies, to convey artistic expression.

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