A space for possibilities: 4 lessons all teachers can learn from the arts


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

The importance of imagination goes far beyond the need to improve our economy or society. Yes, imagination will yield more efficient ways to do things and create more jobs. Yes, imagination improves problem-solving scores in school. However, from my experience as an artist, art therapist, teacher, and school administrator – imagination can be central to our self-concept.

Imagination connects our mind to our heart. It generates ideas from within, providing glimpses into the soul of a human being. When we allow space for students to exercise their imagination, they open up in ways that help them grow intellectually as well as spiritually.

I taught art in a public school for several years and was humbled each day at how students felt alive when they entered my classroom. It was a bit of a safe haven for them between preparing for standardized tests and receiving critical feedback on their limitations. When they entered my room they knew of only one limit – their own imagination.

I learned so much from my students while teaching art. They taught me that imagination wasn’t just an important break in their day; it opened the world to possibility, promoting deeper levels of critical thinking and problem solving. They also helped me see the importance of asking the right questions and the power of discovery. Finally, and most importantly to me, when I challenged students to use their imagination, they learned more than just art – they learned about themselves.

Think back to a time when someone wanted to know what you thought. What you really thought. Think of how it felt when you used your imagination and your creativity improved something. This is how we make a difference in the world! Not from improving our quantitative reasoning ability by 15 percentage points. Imagination not only makes us feel alive, it brings new life to ideas.

Artists often talk about the rush that comes with creativity. That rush is associated with increased dopamine levels in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that controls the reward and pleasure centers. There have been studies with Parkinson’s disease patients who took dopamine agonists to ease muscle tremors and rigidity. Some of the patients entered into the most highly creative period of their lives, producing beautiful works of art and poetry. Some even became so invested in their newfound passions that they neglected daily activities.

So imagination is important. We all agree. But the cultivation of imagination should not be left solely to the arts and extra-curricular activities. What can we learn from the arts that will help all of our classes be a space for possibilities?

  1. Take a back seat

Art teachers spend most of their time alongside students helping them navigate the creative journey. Students are the drivers and teachers the navigators. Art classes are the epitome of inquiry-based and project-based learning (PBL). But what I am talking about here goes beyond inquiry and PBL. As teachers, we all ask questions and have kids work on projects. However, I’m talking about throwing out a hand grenade of a question from time to time and stepping back to let kids put the pieces back together. When I introduce the unit on genetics in AP Psychology, I ask the students to google designer babies and let the kids debate the moral, ethical, and spiritual implications. Constructive controversy is a problem-solving approach for developing robust and creative solutions to problems.

  1. The jigsaw method

The jigsaw is a cooperative learning technique with a three-decade track record of increasing positive educational outcomes. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece–each student’s part–is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product. If each student’s part is essential, then each student is essential. While studying a unit, consider assigning key concepts to groups and have them report back to the class unique things they have learned that are not in the book. To make this technique even more exciting, I ask the students to integrate the arts into their presentation. While they still teach the basic concept, they are doing it as a skit, rap, drawing, etc. The result is hilarious and often very memorable – which is the goal, right?

  1. Studio day

My favorite part of teaching art was spending all day in the studio with students listening intently to their ideas. I spent way more time listening to them than teaching them “stuff.” Although, I would argue kids learn more when you ask them the right questions than when you tell them the right answers. At my school we are blessed with a modified block schedule with three traditional 55-minute classes and one 90-minute block each week. This lends itself perfectly to the lecture-lab scenario typical of college freshman science classes. Even if you don’t have an extended block of time, think about making a studio day where you empower students to construct knowledge by producing something relevant to your topic.

  1. Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is something you do along the path of learning that leads to a summative assessment. The best formative assessments give students multiple opportunities to learn. In many of our public schools today, we are testing kids to death with summative standardized tests. And it isn’t their knowledge we are killing…it is their creativity. Students need more formative assessments. In art classes, everything is formative. A work is never really complete. It can always be improved. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everything could be like this in school? So next time you give a summative assessment and students don’t perform well, make it a formative assessment and provide more practice. That is our job!



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