Cultivating Creativity in Our Students (Ep. 235)

On today’s episode, Jason Blair joins Tim to discuss how we can grow and cultivate our students’ creative capacities. Listen as they talk about Jason’s idea of inconvenient creativity, the best approach to help nurture collaboration and creativity, and the importance of a personalized approach to learning.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

As promised, this week we are going to take some time to step back, look at the big picture, and talk about collaboration, creativity, and how we approach creativity in our teaching and in our students’ learning.

My guest today is Jason Blair. You may have heard him last month on Nic Hahn’s Everyday Art Room podcast. And when I listened to that interview, I was intrigued. Jason had so many great things to say, and I felt like there was a lot still there. There’s even more to talk about. So, I invited him here today to share some of his ideas on Art Ed Radio.

And like I said, there’s a lot to discuss, so I want to get to this interview fairly quickly. But before we do, I want to talk to you about all of the great things we have going on at the moment on the AOEU website. The Return To Learn page in particular has resources for everyone, as we’re still trying to figure out how this school year is going to go and figuring out exactly what our teaching is going to look like. But on that Return To Learn page, no matter what teaching model you’re in right now, we have resources, articles, podcasts, and everything else you need for help and for support this fall. So, take a look at everything that’s on the AOEU website, check out the Return To Learn page, and we will link to that in the show notes as well.

It is time to bring on Jason and begin the interview. Here he is.

All right, Jason Blair is joining me now. Jason, how are you?

Jason: I’m super, Tim. How are you?

Tim: I’m very well. I want to thank you for taking the time to come on the show. This is your first time here, so I was hoping, maybe, can you just introduce yourself? Talk a little bit about what you do, where you are, and what interests you as a teacher?

Jason: Yeah, sure. My name is Jason Blair. I’m a 19-year veteran teacher for art education, elementary level, here in Dublin, Ohio. It’s a suburb outside of Columbus. In addition to that, I’m also currently the teacher in residency at the Columbus Museum of Art, and then also currently working as co-Assistant Director on the Cultivating Creative & Civic Capacities project that’s a collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero.

I’d say things that interests me right now, I guess there’s a couple. One is, in my own classroom, just trying to shift away from kind of that competition, individualized system to a more collective community-based one. The learning in my classroom is really more about learning with and through others, and not so much isolated. So, that’s something that I’ve kind of really been working on in my room, to kind of create experiences around that.

Another thing that’s really interesting me right now is, a few years back, I kind of came up with this term called “inconvenient creativity”, and it really was something that I kind of started to see as I became more of a veteran teacher. And I think a lot of times we talk about creativity and we love it when it’s convenient for us as adults, when it’s neat and tidy on a painting or on a project. We tend to kind of label it as a box on a rubric, like, “Creative, tick here if you’re creative.”

Tim: Yeah, yes.

Jason: … and we don’t really know what that means. But for me, I started thinking about these moments of inconvenient creativity when they kind of are not the most convenient times for us. So an example would be, my daughter, one day during the holiday season, she had taken all of her stuff and we couldn’t find her. And it had been a long day. We’d been home for a while, and my wife was like, “Have you seen Killian?” And I was like, “No, she’s going to turn up. I’m not really worried.”

And so about 15 minutes later, I was walking by the front window and I looked and I said, “I found Killian. She is in the front planter.” She was laying down in a robe with … She has picture frames of us out there and she has a basket with her duck, and she’s got a spring outfit because she’s going to be out there for a while. So she finally came in and I said, “Kilian, what are you doing?” And she said, “Well, at school, we were doing something for helping people that are less fortunate,” it was during the holiday season, “and one of the things we talked about was kind of raising awareness about being homeless.” And she said, “I didn’t know what that meant or felt like. So I wanted to try it.”

Tim: Oh, wow.

Jason: So in that moment, it was like, that’s an inconvenient creativity. It wasn’t convenient for me that she was taking all this stuff outside and that she had our frames and everything else, but I realized, in that moment, that she was trying to embody this experience. And so it started to make me take a step back and realize that we have a lot of moments in our lives where we can either uplift and celebrate our kids’ creativity or we can diminish it and extinguish it. And I think we don’t too often think about those little sort of micro-moments of inconvenient creativity that actually have a profound effect on that child moving forward. So that’s another thing that I’m really in tune to now is, how do I make space in my room for inconvenient creativity?

Tim: Oh, yeah.

Jason: And then the last part is just kind of this research project about cultivating creative and civic capacities. It’s been a fascinating journey and it’s something that I’m really kind of focused on this year.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. And that’s actually what I wanted to ask you about first. I want to talk about creativity too, but first let’s talk about that. It’s Project Zero with Harvard Columbus Museum of Art. Did I get that right, first of all?

Jason: Yes, yep.

Tim: Can you just, I guess, talk about that project, kind of its goals and the types of things that you’re trying to accomplish both for students and for teachers?

Jason: Yeah, sure. It’s a three-year research project and it’s been spearheaded by the Columbus Museum of Art and it’s, as I said earlier, it’s titled Cultivating Creative & Civic Capacities. And so we’re working closely with two researchers from Project Zero, and then a bunch of area teachers from different disciplines and different age ranges, and it’s under the kind of leadership of Jen Lehe from the museum. And then there’s also another co-director, who’s also a teacher, Brittany Reisner, who’s an amazing teacher as well.

And so kind of the goal of this is thinking about, how do we cultivate civic and creative capacities in both ourselves and our students? But it’s kind of like looking at, what does that mean? The civic spaces don’t always have to mean raising awareness about this or raising money for that or doing fundraisers, but the civic could just be in how we interact with each other and how we have the sense of community in our classrooms, and how these moments of kind of disagreement or lack of perspective-taking can actually be the seeds for really rich conversations to kind of dig deeper on.

And so the goal is not just to help teachers and students create these conditions, but also eventually to develop some tools that might sort of help these conditions be more readily available to anybody. And so, if we’re thinking about what we’re trying to accomplish with it, it’s a work in progress right now, but one of the things is trying to help kids become problem finders. So kind of shifting away from problem solvers to problem finders. And that’s where that kind of creative mindset comes in, is that, that artist’s lens, that kind of slows down and notices the world around them, that’s kind of where the problem finding comes in.

And then also having these kids and teachers possess a bold imagination. Providing open-ended learning opportunities, and kind of pushing back a little bit on the backwards by design idea and kind of having experiences where the end product is not really predetermined. It’s kind of unfolding and it’s kind of more emergent.

And then the other piece of it would be to promote social action. So getting kids to take some sort of action, and again, it doesn’t necessarily … We’re trying to get away from, it doesn’t have to only mean traditional means when we think about that, as far as raising awareness or protesting or things like that. It’s much more about social action of, “How do I create a sense of community? How do I understand somebody else’s perspective? How do I exercise empathy? How do I look at the world through somebody else’s eyes?” So that’s kind of what we’re trying to get at is, how do we slow down in our spaces and kind of look and see what really is there? And how do we slow down to see those creative and civic opportunities, name them, act on them, and then act on them in a way that really creates a more just and sustainable world?

Tim: Yeah. That’s really well said, and that gives me … I’m taking notes here and I wrote down about eight things right there, which I think is a good sign that you have a lot of really cool things going on there.

But I guess I want to talk a little bit more about creativity in general. I know that, as a teacher, you think a lot, you talk a lot, you write a lot about creativity, obviously one of your passions. And as we’re speaking to art teachers here, we all know how important that creativity is, but can you talk a little bit about why, I guess, you personally, why you think it’s so important, and also what we can do as teachers to foster creativity a little bit more in our students?

Jason: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, this is like a passion of mine. I’m sure it is yours as well. But the reality is, our world needs creative thinkers now more than ever, and I think on two levels. One, these kids that, in all actuality, might not grow up to be a fine artist, but what we need them to be is creative thinkers. And what we need them to do is think like an artist, because the dispositions of an artist are what we need right now. You know, the fact that they slow down and notice, the fact that they are playful, the fact that they experiment, and the fact that they’re curious. Those are dispositions that we inherently foster in our art studios that are going to grow the creative thinkers we need for today and tomorrow.

And I’m thinking about it in different ways of … It helps us gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. And yet, still, we’re seeing right now, too, people making cuts to the arts and they’re being marginalized in a lot of different ways. And it’s hard, because, like I mentioned, we need creative thinkers right now, and you can hear any district across the country talking about the need of creativity, but the very disciplines that kind of grow those creative capacities are still being marginalized. And I think we, as art teachers, have the power to kind of stand up and show the amazing thinking that’s going on in our spaces and articulate that to people and say, “These are the kind of thinking dispositions we need in our world, and this is the space we’re going to start to develop them.”

Seth Godin talks about, “You’re either an artist or you’re a follower”, which I think is genius. I mean, I think that’s so true. An artist kind of creates the path in front of them as opposed to the follower, who’s just kind of going behind them.

So, we need to provide space in our art rooms to kind of do that, to think deeper, to think flexibly, to have a playful imagination. And then, if I’m thinking of ways we can teach for that and teach for creativity, I think about creating opportunities for connections, and creating open-ended opportunities, the ones where kids can really dig deeper into their learning and make connections, not only to content, but also to their life.

An example of that is, which kind of also goes with the Project Zero work, I did a worry project with fourth grade, and the idea of this worry project was that I wanted the kids to write down a worry they had on a piece of paper. Then they had to go up anonymously and grab the other person’s piece of paper and read what their worry was, and then they could fire back questions and things about, “What was this worry? Why were they having it?”

We talked a lot about, this one student’s worry is not this one student’s worry, this is all of our worries, because we’re all in this together. And so what I wanted them to do is, I wanted them to create this brave space, this space for being vulnerable, and create an artifact that would somehow address that and address somebody else’s worry, and in a sense, bring their worry into their own space. So it was truly creating a sense of community.

I’m going to pause a second and play an audio clip of one little girl that’s kind of reflecting on the symbolism behind the artifact that she created for somebody else’s worry.

Tim: Okay, nice, nice. I’m looking forward to hearing this.

… Just an idea that came into my mind, it’s like a key because it’s helping them belong, like a key to the door that they need to open up to … They need to get out of their comfort zone and ask people at recess to play with them, to maybe make them feel like they belong.

Jason: So to me, hearing her say that, and the symbolism behind that, of taking on this other student’s worry, of being worried they didn’t belong, and then creating this symbolic key that she could hold and squeeze when she’s feeling that way, and to meet other people at recess, was just … I can’t create a lesson that says that. I have to create the conditions for that to appear. And another important part of those is, afterwards too, whenever there’s these deep open-ended experiences to kind of cultivate creative thinking, we also have to make space to really reflect on it and really make the connections. Because I feel like the meaning is really made when there’s time to step back and say, “What just happened?” And so I’m going to share one more clip of a girl who’s reflecting on what it felt like that somebody else made an artifact for her and her worry,

Student 2:
It’s like that you stand out and you like to help other kids a lot. I hear that from teachers a lot, and when it’s from a boy in my classroom, it’s more meaningful. And that I’m not just another person in the room, I’m not just another girl on the wall. I’m special. And when he was saying those nice things about me, it really made my face glow, that it’s not just coming from a teacher, because I hear that a lot. But that it’s actually coming from another person that people actually notice me.

Jason: So again, even hearing that, that ability to reflect, I feel is so powerful. And it was one of those things that kind of spirited what I was talking about at the beginning, of learning through and with other people. I realized that kids, a lot of times in my studio, were creating for me or for themselves. And I wanted to see an experiment, what would it be like if they created for other people? How would that impact them? How would that create a stronger sense of community? How would that enhance and grow those creative and civic capacities? So it was pretty amazing.

And the last thing I’ll say, just about growing those creative thinkers is, providing tools in the classrooms for that Reggio approach for the hundred languages the kids speak. So in my classroom, I’ll have paintbrushes and [inaudible 00:00:15:55], but I’ll also have drills and saws and hammers, because there’s all sorts of languages that these kids speak. And it makes me wonder, if I was a kid growing up today, how my grades would have changed if I went into a science lab and there were paintbrushes and clay in there, or in a math room, there was hammers and sewing needles. I mean, we have to be mindful of the many languages these kids speak. So I think those are some of the ways we can start to grow those creative capacities.

Tim: Yeah. I think those are some wonderful suggestions. And also, just thinking more along those lines of creativity adapting to what our kids need, I read your article recently that was called ‘The Key to Cultivating Creative Minds’, and I was hoping we could talk about that really quickly. You know, one point in there that you make is that our current teaching situation, while not ideal, obviously, it can actually be kind of beneficial in nurturing creativity. So can you explain why you think that’s possible and maybe talk about how we can approach that idea?

Jason: Yeah, I think it’s interesting, because I think we all had to take a hard look in the mirror when that cap happened in March, of how we were going to approach things. And I think, for us, in particular, in the arts, it was very challenging because we’re a performance-based discipline and process-based, and now we’re going all remote. So when I stopped to kind of think about it, I thought, “Okay, what do I need? What do I need to help these kids, and letting their creativity shine?” And I thought of that idea of going back to the dispositions. If I want these kids to come back to me, whenever they do in the fall, kind of stronger than they left me, then I got to focus on these dispositions. I got to focus on, what is it about an artist and thinking like an artist that I really want them to practice?

So I want them to practice problem finding. I want them to practice being curious. I want them to practice being imaginative and playful. And so what I had to do was design these open-ended kind of challenges that focused on those. So one of the first things I did was this focus challenge. And I had the kids, I created these little, quick YouTube videos to send home to them, and one of them was, “How are you going to focus when you’re at home right now to do your creativity?” I said, “Create a video, that hopefully your family can participate in, where the world is crazy around you and you’re still doing that one thing.”

So I had these really great videos the kids submitted back on Flipgrid of like, maybe they were reading or drawing, and then their parents or siblings were screaming or dancing or throwing the football in the background. And they were solely focused on the camera. And just that playfulness, trying to get them to, in light of what was going on in the world, a chance to kind of step back and look at the world through an artist’s lens and exhibit some of those dispositions. And I feel like, if we don’t focus necessarily on a specific content statement, but say, “Okay, step back. What’s the big picture? The big picture here is to get them to be curious or problem finders or comfort with ambiguity”, then design experiences where they can practice those things and then let them share that and celebrate that.

So one other example would be, when I had problem finding, we did this challenge where it was kind of quarantivity. It was like, “How do you use quarantine times to grow your creativity?” So I had them hunt around the house and look for strange problems that they could use their quarantivity to solve. So they, again, came back with some really clever videos. But again, I had to be mindful of the fact that not every kid had Blick art supplies in their house. They had a whole bunch of things. So I tried to design the experiences where they were very minimal to no materials needed, but the opportunity was there, if you did have those, to do that. So it just was kind of looking at it a different way and focusing not so much on the project itself, but focusing more on the dispositions that I wanted them to kind of practice.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. And that seems well put together, and a lot of really good ideas there.

And then just one last question for you, just to kind of dive in a little bit deeper and kind of put a bow on everything, I guess. I’ve seen you write a lot about the importance of taking a personalized approach to learning. And you talked about that a little bit here, especially with that Reggio idea, and just kind of playing to the kids’ interests. But I guess the question is, why is it so important to let our students follow their own interests and their own talents when they’re creating art, when they’re working in our art rooms?

Jason: Yeah. So I think, for me … I mean, to back up a little bit, I started off, 18 years ago, pretty much very traditional, my approach. I was DBA trained, and kind of the fall leaves and the portraits. And I kind of stepped back at one point and just had a reflection moment. And to me, it was like, “This is the Warhol factory without Warhol.” It was just like a factory. They were just mass producing stuff that I had designed for them, but I didn’t see their voice. I didn’t see them expressing themselves. I just saw them kind of copying what I had guided for them. So for me, it was giving them that voice and choice. But also, the other layer I would add to that, is that voice and choice, but also centering it on a deeper issue or question to guide their art making journey.

So for me, the way I break it down is, in my classes, each grade level has a different kind of big idea that I’ve had for the last five or six years. But within there, you can change it up every year. So first grade’s relationships, because at that level, that’s what they’re doing. They’re forming relationships. They’re kind of getting out of that self centeredness of being a toddler, and going into seeing the relationships with others, with other objects, with other people. And then in second grade, it kind of is all about community. Okay, now we have this relationship foundation now, what is it like to be in a community? What do we value? How do we move forward as a community? And then going on from that, communication in third grade. How do we start communicating these ideas?

Fourth grade was all about identity, because at that level, that’s where you start to see some of those kids maybe get a little more self conscious and think that art is only about making something realistic. So we really zone in on identity and letting your identity kind of be unique to you. And it’s not about fitting into a certain mold.

And then fifth grade, ending it as leadership as the big idea. So two kind of examples of that is, in the leadership project, one of the things we did was, I wanted them to think about questioning, how leaders question. So I use the Right Question Institute’s “provocative statement.” And the idea is that you kind of put a provocative statement out there that’s going to elicit a strong response. So my statement for them, for that project, was, “Fifth graders have nothing important to say.”

Now, that generated a lot of conversation and a lot of interest. And my goal there was to have the kids create from a place of passion and curiosity, not from compliance and conformity. So I had one kid create a piece of art about the environment. Somebody else created a piece of art about having their parents on tech too much. So what they produced was a wide variety, but it was still unified by this one question. So I feel like it’s not just a free for all. There’s a seed I’m sprinkling in that they will amaze you if you just provide that seed.

And then for communication, the other one that we did was, we looked into, “Okay, communicating. What are we going to communicate about that’s of relevance to you?” So we designed this Unfair Museum. So the students had to come up with something that they thought was unfair to them. And they had to create this sort of persuasive piece of art of why this was unfair. And so some kids worked together with other kids that they found some kind of commonalities, and other kids worked by themselves. And we used the design process. We went through like three stages. We went through inspiration, “What do you think is unfair to you? What do you think is unfair to others? What do think is unfair to the world?” Then we transitioned into the ideation phase, which was, “How are we going to make this unfair idea that you have, visible? In what ways? Is it going to be 3D? Is it going to be 2D? What materials? What tools? What’s going to help tell your story?” And then the last phase of implementation is actually taking the time to build it and iterate on it.

And one of the things that we’ll do in that working phase is, in the middle of the project, I might just pause them altogether and I’ll say, “All right, we’re going to imagine ‘if it'”. And so the idea behind that is that, an artist will present their idea in the middle of it and say, “Here’s what I’m thinking”, and then we kind of imagine “if it.” The idea is that the kids would then kind of pepper that artist with, “Imagine if you added this”, or, “Imagine if you changed that”, “Imagine if this was on there and that was not.” And the idea is that, it’s just kind of providing other seeds to that artist. They don’t have to take anything the kids say. It’s not about making somebody feel bad they didn’t include those things. It’s just about widening their view of that potential project that maybe they didn’t see.

And so the idea is, look, we’re strong by ourselves, but the smartest person in the room is the room itself. So let’s kind of harness that ability to kind of help us with our projects.

So, I mean, those are a couple of the ways that I think providing those deeper issues and those deeper questions, in addition to voice and choice, can really help them find a way to not only to find their voice, but use it with purpose and intent. And it lets the art amplify it to a level that we might not have seen if we were tightly controlling it. Does that make sense?

Tim: Yeah, it does. And I think it kind of puts everything together and puts, like I said, kind of an exclamation point on that idea of collaboration and kind of working together. I think you’re doing an amazing job with all of that.

So Jason, thank you for coming on, for sharing some of your ideas, some of your expertise. It was really good to talk to you.

Jason: No, thank you, Tim. I appreciate the opportunity. It’s always great to connect with fellow art educators, for sure.

Tim: All right, that was a long conversation. So I’m going to wrap things up very quickly here. Thank you to Jason for coming on. I think it’s fair to say we all enjoyed hearing about everything that is happening in his classroom. And more importantly, we enjoyed hearing about all of his ideas on what we can and what we should be doing in our classrooms to foster more creativity. I know he’s given me a lot to think about and I hope he has done the same for you.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. As always, thank you for listening, and we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.