Joanne Emery | May 2018
Fostering Curiosity and Imagination
Over the years, when speaking about integrating the arts into the classroom, I have frequently been met with a bit of resistance, especially if my audience considers themselves as not possessing artistic ability. Many people continue to think of artistic ability as something special, a rare activity that is only bestowed upon a few unique individuals. In my view, art is part of personal identity. It helps to cultivate critical thinking, express ideas, and foster joy. In his 1940 essay, “Time and Individuality,” John Dewey stated, Art is not the possession of the few who are recognized writers, painters, musicians; it is the authentic expression of any and all individuality.” (Dewey, 1990) Thinking about art in this way makes a whole world of possibilities accessible to children. They do not have to try to fit in the math box or the literature box, the science box, or the art box. Children can view themselves as having multiple talents and interests with which to investigate.
This article details the many ways in which classroom teachers can integrate creative arts-based strategies in their teaching practice, which will in turn foster their students’ curiosity. The inclusion of the creative arts and design thinking enhances active engagement and increases student motivation. I further explore how the cultivation of imagination mindset allows children to ponder questions, which are personally relevant, and encourages them to take risks. This focus on developing students’ imagination mindset makes learning a dynamic process and is key to constructing an innovative classroom culture. By tapping into students’ natural curiosity, the classroom becomes a studio for inquiry and investigation in which the teacher and students co-create a year of learning.
Teachers can nurture curiosity by creating an open space to ponder, wonder, and question. By honoring students’ questions, teachers facilitate learning, which is relevant and motivates students to question further and seek out possibilities pertaining to any subject. To be curious and to question is intrinsic to learning. Warren Berger in his book, A More Beautiful Question, quotes research scientist John Seely Brown who explains that “…if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things – then change is something that becomes an adventure. And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.” (Berger, 2014, p. 28). This adventurous spirit reminds me of a time when one of my young three-year-old students was outside playing. He suddenly looked up at the sky and was enthralled by the presence of the moon. He could not take his eyes off the moon and wondered why it was out in the daytime. In his experience, the moon only came out at night, and now all that he had come to know about the moon and sky was in question. That was an important moment for him as a learner, and it was an important moment for me as a young teacher. I could have patted his head, given him a cursory answer, and brought his attention back to something tangible like the sandbox. Instead, I listened and encouraged his questions and helped him to better understand the workings of the universe. Indeed, this young boy’s curiosity sparked weeks of learning about the nature of the sky for all his classmates. We read numerous books about the moon, created a moon surface, made a mural of the phases of the moon, and even built our own lunar explorer. Teaching is at its most effective when it promotes risk-taking and relentless experimentation, which is the true heart of constructivist teaching. When teachers and students start asking open-ended questions such as: What do we want to learn? Why do we want to learn it? How will we go about learning it? How will we show what we’ve learned? – They co-construct an atmosphere of curiosity and investigation. This approach affords multiple avenues for learning, giving teachers and students freedom to learn in a personal, creative, and active way.
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explores the notion of growth versus fixed mindset (Dweck, 2007). Dweck defines fixed mindset as the belief of people who regard intelligence as having a finite number of traits, whereas people with a growth mindset view intelligence as being able to develop over time with effort and persistence. When people have a growth mindset they become motivated to learn and obstacles don’t stop them. Artists usually have this growth mindset; they are able to view learning as a challenge, which is worked through creatively. When considering growth mindset, I was reminded of the traits I believe all creative artists possess. I call this ability to think outside the box, imagination mindset. In my experience, artistic people maintain a strong belief in their ability to create. They are tenacious when solving a problem, view the world with childlike wonder and curiosity, and are able to hold ambiguity in their hands suspending judgment. That is, artists are people who are willing to fail. And when they fail, they fail forward, learning from their mistakes.
In the classroom, students need both structure and freedom: the ability to explore ideas within a framework and the freedom to express ideas and new learning in various ways. Beginning with an imagination mindset, the teacher acts as a facilitator, supporting students’ play and work. Learning is viewed not as a structured set of skills, but as a whole world of information to discover, and skills are practiced within the creation of that world. Students are encouraged to take risks and ponder new approaches to problems. Project-based learning allows for integration of the arts and content areas so that deep meaning and enduring understandings can be developed.
Art and Visualization
When first integrating the creative arts into the curriculum over three decades ago, I used the visual arts as a vehicle to begin the process, because it was an area with which I was most familiar. As an early childhood teacher, it was easy to put art supplies in little hands and watch them create wondrous places and fantastic creatures. As the prolific abstract artist, Wassily Kandinsky once said, “The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world.” (Kandinsky, 1994, p. 373) Young children were skilled in mixing fantasy with reality; it was a completely natural process for them. As children mature, however, they often lose touch with their ability to imagine. In order to support students’ natural imagination mindsets, teachers can provide ways in which to make learning visible.
Guided imagery is one technique for bringing ideas to life. Richard De Milne, in his book Put Your Mother on the Ceiling, offers teachers many imagery scripts, which he calls “games” to develop students’ visualization abilities. When done systematically, visualization exercises increase student awareness and helps to create deeper understanding by using one’s own “mind’s eye.” (De Milne, 1955) When students learn to make images in their heads, they become more aware of possibilities. By sharing their imaginings, children begin to understand the many perspectives their classmates can have visualizing the same scene. These exercises not only stretch creative muscles, they also connect students to each other and help form a foundation of collaboration. Teachers can further develop visual acuity by asking students to look closely at paintings and photographs, noticing everything they can. Regular practice viewing art enhances analytic skills. Students need time to consider questions such as: What do you notice? What makes you curious? What can you conclude? They need space to share their wonderings with their classmates to develop deeper comprehension.
A number of years ago, I had the good fortune to teach third grade at the Dalton School in New York City, where I was encouraged to integrate art into the existing curriculum. Each month, we would study different visual artists and take field trips to the various city museums to view their work and discuss what we noticed. After reading about the artist and viewing his/her art, the children returned to the classroom to create personal masterpieces. During one of these classroom studio sessions, I set out a still life with colorful flowers and a deer skull, since we were exploring the art of Georgia O’Keefe. I set out pots of paint and paper, encouraging students to create what they saw. One of my students, Matthew, who had limited experience with mixing paint, became engrossed in the activity. He dipped and blotted moving from one pot to the next, eventually announcing that he had discovered a new color: dark muddy chocolate brown! He was so excited by his discovery that he gave each of his classmates a sample of his new color, and they in turn added his color to their palettes. That day, Matthew began to see himself in a new light, as someone who could create color and form out of simple materials. He was the inventor of dark muddy chocolate brown! Georgia O’Keeffe explains, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” (Reily, 2009, p.379). During the rest of the year, Matthew continued to explore color and form, and was not afraid to get messy in the process of artistic discovery. It is for this very reason that including art into the classroom is important for making learning both visible and relevant. The process of reading, viewing, and inventing allowed all my students to think of themselves as creators. They began to investigate various creative avenues of expression.
Movement and Music
As I worked to integrate all aspects of the arts into my teaching, I stretched myself beyond my personal comfort level into the world of movement and music. I wanted to cultivate my students’ inherent love of movement and foster an atmosphere for exploring both the real and imaginative worlds. A truly engaged classroom is a place where students are in motion: reading, thinking, planning, problem solving, designing, and constructing. Project-based learning allows children to use their natural affinity for movement and apply it when examining subjects of interest.
One investigation into movement that I have done with elementary students is an in-depth study on inventions. We read about inventors, their unique inventions, and the process by which people create new ideas. During this study, students created real and imaginary inventions. An integral part of introducing this study was an activity called “Human Machines.” During this activity, children worked in small groups (three or four children per group is ideal) to create a unique machine. First, they thought together about the type of machine they wanted to create, then they thought about how that machine might look using their bodies. One person got into a position and then others joined her, gradually linking up to make a whole machine. They used the motion of their arms, legs, heads, and torsos to create a machine that moved, and then they added sounds to accompany their movements. When the group was done perfecting their machine, they presented it to the rest of the class, telling the name and purpose of the machine and showing how it worked. Movement is such an important part of student understanding. Children can read and write and wonder, but it is the trying and doing that allows them to fully comprehend ideas and concepts.
This was best illustrated to me a number of years ago, when I taught second grade. Although, I gave my young learners many creative arts experiences, true music integration was more difficult within the sphere of the classroom. My students had formal music education classes twice a week in which they learned both voice and instrumental skills. As with the visual arts, I wanted music to be a daily practice in my classroom in order for students to gradually deepen their understanding.
Although I was not a musician, I realized the importance of holding all children’s musical investigations in high esteem, and I thought of ways to honor them and connect music to our classroom culture. As Carolyn Hildebrandt asserts, “…teachers do not need special training to foster creativity in music. The only thing we really need is an interest in children’s music and a willingness to listen to their songs.” (Hildebrandt, 1998, p. 72). I began to develop my own intrepid spirit when creating musical experiences for my students. During that year, I deliberately found space in the day to add music: playing recorded music that reflected what the children were learning, collaborating as a class to compose lyrics about taking care of the earth, scheduling musical show-and-tell sessions in which students showcased their instrumental and vocal explorations, and integrating musical activities into content areas.
I created an invention station in a small corner of my classroom packed with various recycled materials, where students were encouraged to design and build. In addition to creating imaginative machines, the children made a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments. The building of instruments entailed both free exploration and direct instruction. By constructing various musical instruments over many months, my students experimented with sound and progressed from producing various noises to creating music. In its simplest form, the children made string instruments with rubber bands and milk cartons or created tambourines with paper plates to aluminum pie pans and dried beans. While working on their musical instruments, students began to collaborate, making several iterations, and finally coming together to perform in duets, trios, and full bands. Children began to problem-solve and naturally integrate what they were learning in science, social studies, and reading into musical lives. These open investigations were the foundation of whole class instruction: we created rain sticks while studying the rainforest, constructed panpipes while learning about Andean culture, and built water xylophones while experimenting with sound and pitch. Music and movement were two more tools children could access to better understand the world around them. What had been natural play in early childhood needed to be deliberately nurtured and developed during the elementary years. Step-by-step, the children began to see themselves as composers and choreographers – creators in the dance of life.
Children need a firm foundation on which to grow their wonderings; they need a consistent place to practice. In her book, The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp describes the need for the artist to have a routine, a starting point from which creativity flourishes. She explains how the great composer, Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: “He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. Perhaps he needed the ritual to feel like a musician, or the playing somehow connected him to musical notes, his for the day. Perhaps it was nothing more than a simple method to get his fingers moving, his motor running, his mind thinking music. But repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.” (Tharp, 2006, p. 16-17) It is during this intentional practice that children question, experiment, and fully explore their craft. By consistent practice, students begin to perfect the foundation of their creative identities.
The interconnection of music and movement reminds me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist. Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening. When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio. As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance. As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled. Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school. Gillian went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer. She is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009). It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities. By providing students with the opportunity for artistic expression, teachers guide students to explore their personal strengths and passions, becoming authors of creative narratives of their own design.
A Community of Storytellers and Actors: Dorothy Heathcote and Vivian Paley
Drama and storytelling are dynamic strategies for helping students develop creative narratives and explore artistic identity. The single best way to connect with children is through story. Story is the creative glue that holds all social interactions together. It is through story that people learn about each other and the larger world around them. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone needs an attentive audience. Classrooms are perfect stages upon which to set these stories.
Two influential approaches to storytelling, which have influenced my teaching, are that of the British drama teacher, Dorothy Heathcote and the American early childhood teacher-researcher, Vivian Paley. Heathcote’s approach provides children with space in which to carry out the story, creating it as they go along, while Paley’s approach focuses on young children’s story dictation and dramatization. In Heathcote’s approach, the teacher presents a topic or event to the children to explore. This topic might be directly tied to a specific topic the children are learning, but it might also be broader in scope. The children make the decisions as to what the play is about, where the scene takes place, and what happens. The teacher sets the stage for the children to uncover the topic. During this process, the teacher encourages the students to reflect and experiment. By making decisions the students cannot be idle; they must get into the scene, they must act! Students are tasked with putting emotion and meaning together and to work out human interactions upon the stage. Heathcote’s method involves working from the inside out. The actors reflect on their feelings and come at a problem in a new way.
As Betty Jane Wagner describes in her book, Dorothy Heathcote: Drama as a Learning Medium, “She (Heathcote) does not use children to produce plays. Instead, she uses drama to expand their awareness, to enable them to look at reality through fantasy, to see below the surface of actions to their meaning… She does this not by heaping more information on them but by enabling them to use what they already know. (Wagner, 1999, p.15) Indeed, student interest holds the whole play together. This method relies heavily on improvisation and spontaneity; events and characters can change in the moment. Students must show confidence, work intuitively, take risks, and involve themselves in the action completely. Heathcote’s method brings out what children already know, but don’t yet know they know. What classroom teachers think of as activating schema or building students’ background knowledge, Heathcote calls “building volume within the student.” (Wagner, 1999, p. 16) The teacher continues to have authority and show leadership, even though the children are the ultimate decision-makers. If someone doesn’t want to participate, they can sit out for a while until they find a space to join in, and the teacher will find a way for the student to participate, if the student cannot. The one golden rule Heathcote emphasizes is that the actors must believe! They must believe in themselves as storytellers, and they must believe in the story that they are setting upon the stage so they can capture their audience’s imagination.
The work of Vivian Paley also entails dramatization, however, teachers create the play through the dictation of young children. Paley was a teacher at the Lab School of the University of Chicago, where she did action-research on the importance of storytelling in early childhood. The process is a simple one: students tell their story to a teacher who writes it down in the child’s precise language. Then the student and teacher gather classmates to perform the author’s story. The event is re-played for the whole class. As Paley explains, “When children play…their play needs to be seen again, heard again on a pretend stage, transposed into a story in their own words.” (Paley, 2013, p. 44). Young children will naturally draw adults into the story of their lives. Three-year-olds have often led me by the hand and brought me into to their dollhouse world, the imagined pirate ship, or the re-creation of their birthday. They often call out, “Can I tell you something? Do you want to know what I found out?” Their natural curiosity spills forth desiring an attentive audience.
Recently, while I was observing a pre-kindergarten classroom, a young girl was upset because she didn’t know what to draw. I sat down next to her and asked if she’d like to tell me a story. She was hesitant at first, but then began to tell me a story of a girl named Sally and her dog that run away from home. Sally’s mother finally finds the pair and everyone lives happily ever after. When the story was completed, three classmates eagerly acted out the play. During their performance, the once timid author was beaming and asked her classmates to perform her story again. After her story had been acted out for a second time, the author got to work illustrating her story. Now, she had no trouble thinking about something to draw once her story had come to life. By providing such storytelling opportunities and watching them unfold, teachers create a culture where children’s ideas are listened to and honored.
Flow: Curiosity, Motivation, and Optimal Learning
When the creative arts are integrated into the regular classroom curriculum, one notices that the teacher is not readily apparent. She is not in front of the room lecturing or at her desk dictating; she can be found working side-by-side with her students. In the creative arts classroom, there is a steady hum of industry: children reading, writing, building, questioning, and problem finding as well as solving. It is an imagination workshop with a true exchange of ideas, which builds upon each other pushing ever forward and transforming into new possibilities. Whether creating a piece of art, performing a drama, or designing a machine, students and teachers sense what renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow or optimal experience. Csikszentmihalyi explains, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3) When children are completely engaged in the classroom activity, they are not worried about how they compare to their classmates. They do not view the teacher as judge or jury. They see themselves as actors in the true sense of the word. They are part of a creative process, responsible for their own learning. The teacher, through curriculum, classroom design, and active engagement, cultivates an atmosphere of deep concentration and reflection. Creative arts, curiosity, and the imagination mindset coalesce to form a place for optimal learning, where understanding evolves and persists.
It is my hope that the creative arts strategies presented here will help teachers transform their classrooms into active studios for learning. In these studios, children are encouraged to follow their curiosity by generating questions and using forms of artistic expression which help them develop unique creative identities. Using creative arts strategies to stimulate divergent thinking will not ensure that all children will grow up to be concert pianists or brilliant painters, but it will provide students with a solid foundation on which to nurture ideas and bring an innovative sense to any endeavor they choose to explore.
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