Lighting a Fire: Why Art Education is the Key to Innovation (Ep. 034)

Are we finally moving away from standardization and the Common Core? Could we possibly be headed toward an educational world that values innovation, collaboration, and creativity? We hope this is the case, and if so, art is the perfect subject to help shape students for a creative world. Andrew brings on Kasey McCurdy, VP of Engineering for a company called BunchBall, to discuss innovation and motivation. Their discussion focuses on a lot of great topics, including students’ disengagement in the current educational system (6:15), the most important skills we can teach (13:00), and specific ideas to start improving the educational system (16:00). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host. Andrew McCormick. The times, they are a changing. I think there’s talk anyway out there about a shift in education away from standardization and cookie cutter accountability and common core curriculum or what I like to call the least common denominator to a new day where innovation, collaboration, and creativity take their rightful place at the front of what great districts and great teachers should be focusing on.

Now maybe it’s just talk and deep down school districts, administrators, and the educational powers that be are just saying the new chic and glamorous thing the innovation and creation should be at the forefront, but maybe they’re bluffing, and maybe they’re still a bunch of data-loving bean counters that such all the joy and individualization out of education. I think as art teachers, we should call them out on this bluff. With every PD day I sit in on or every conference I go to, every PLN I build, I see education shifting as evidenced by all the acronymisms and catch phrases that are being used out there.

Standards based or standards reference grading, SPG; product-based learning, PBL; STEM; STEAM; rigor and relevance, growth mindset; the 4Cs of 21st Century Skills. I mean, think about it. We are the natural leaders of all of those outlooks. We are the champions of the idea that what you can do and demonstrate trumps what you can actually cram and memorize from a book. We are the innovative educators that can show students how to think creatively and problem solve for innovation in a rapidly changing world and economy.

Because I’m so passionate about how art education has the ability to shape students for a world of creativity and being a communicator and being a problem solver … I don’t mean just in the arts, but in the broader economic and social realms I was really thrilled to invite on Kasey McCurdy. Kasey is Art Ed Radio’s first non-art education guest, which is really cool.

Kasey: My name is Kasey McCurdy . I’m vice president of engineering for a company called Bunchball. We’re based in California, but we have an office in Des Moines. What we do is we motivate human beings using big data and technology. Art education is this beautiful playground for people to play with ideas and learn to fail. It’s really hard to experiment or tinker with geometry. It is what it is, but you can get into art class and it’s very subjective, and I love that about art.

Andrew: At the beginning of this school year, Kasey visited our entire school district and really lit a fire in our staff in the name of innovation and ditching dispassionate, boring education. He gave some stats on just how disengaged students are from modern day education, which in many realms isn’t modern at all. I mean, education is very much still built on an industrial revolution model. If that’s too old, then at the most recent, education often focuses too much like a business. Students are clumped together by their age and not their abilities.

Schools make decisions about staffing and scheduling based more on district transportation woes than what we know is really good for kids. I think, and I think Kasey would agree, if art teachers are able to light a fire and promote innovation not just in the art room but in the entire building, we will be in a much better place. In this talk, we’re hitting on ideas of creativity and innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and economics. When I think about this, I think that art teachers we also have to be innovative. We have to branch out into new domains. Have you tried some new STEAM projects? Have you advocated for your department as a champion or even an exemplar class for all things PBL?

If not, I think you’d really benefit from checking out the project based art room at I’ve enjoyed teaching this class the past spring and summer, as I’m a big STEAM loving teacher. Not only will you see connections in the arts and STEM and economic innovation, you’ll also connect with other great like-minded teachers out there. The project based art room is a 3-credit class, and new sessions start up every month, so head on over to and check out this and all the other great classes under the courses tab. Let’s check in with Kasey and see how we can light a fire and bring the arts into the forefront of the innovation discussion.

Hey, Kasey. Thanks for coming on. I just want everyone to get a little back story on you, as I believe that you are our first Art Ed Radio guest that is not actually in the art education world. I saw you give a speech at the beginning of the school year that was really awesome, so I was just wondering how did you become such a passionate supporter of innovation in the schools.

Kasey: Well, I think I’ve always been this huge believer in people following their passions and just doing what they love. I’ve always said if you do what you love, you’re never going to work a day in your life, and I’ve gotten to experience that in the 15 years that I’ve been in I guess the real world, the working world. Kind of recently and due to utter serendipity, I’ve been knee deep in research that backs up what I’ve been feeling all along. That people really do better at things that they love. I have kids now and I see they’re going to be going to school. My 7 year-old is in school. I want him to have awesome opportunities and be able to feel and experience what I do every day.

As far as how I got involved in schools, there’s this software engineer part of me that wants to see the process continue to get better, continue to improve, and continue to change. I’m sure everybody listening will know, education doesn’t always move the fastest. At least the process and regulations and things behind it. With a sister-in-law that’s a teacher, I get to hear a lot of good stories, and I get to hear a lot of bad stories. I wanted to dive into the educational world and start to see if I could have an impact with kind of the mindset that I have being a software engineer and working for a software company.

Andrew: The big focus of the talk that I saw you give at the beginning at the school year was kind of how bleak and boring and unengaged so many students are with the way that school runs right now. I wonder if you can talk about what do you think is the root of that disengagement, and if you think that art education can actually do something about that.

Kasey: Yeah. I guess I didn’t realize it was that dark and bleak. It was like I was giving a talk on the black plague or something. It had a positive end to it I think.

Andrew: That’s right, yeah, yeah.

Kasey: Well, really at the root, in my opinion and due to a lot of the research that I’ve done, is that in many ways with many students, we’re trying to jam square pegs into round holes. We’re telling everybody to sit in these rows and columns and be obedient, sit still for God knows how long. I know I can’t get my 7-year-old to sit still for 5 minutes. I don’t know how the teachers do it all day long. Really, we’ve been forcing people to learn the same way in many cases, and if you look at some of the roots of education, it’s really based in a lot of 1920s industrial work, making people for factories to just sit on the assembly line all day.

The world has changed. The world has changed a lot. Our society is different. Knowledge is everywhere. I learned how to tear apart a dryer because I didn’t want to spend $200 to have it fixed. I could do it myself for a $5 part. The world is just different like that. The few talks I’ve given, I’ve told people to look to Netflix, for example, where every movie you have ever seen is going into some sort of recommendation engine, and there are teams of data scientists that are going to mine that data and figure out what movie to recommend you. They had a million-dollar prize for somebody that could beat their algorithm just so they could get that much better. That’s how important it is to them.

With education, many times it’s one size fits all, and I think that’s really where art comes in. It’s like this beautiful playground where you can tinker with ideas. You can fail. Really there is no right answer. It’s very subjective. If you look at mathematics or any other thing, it’s very objective. You either have completed the problem or you haven’t. I think that’s important to learn that there isn’t always a correct answer in life. I think that’s where art education has helped me the most and where it helps others is to learn that there are those gray areas, and then there’s these nice … There’s so many lessons you can learn in art. There’s critiques. There’s the gray areas in life. There’s continually getting better and just doing things for a sense of pride. Art has changed my life, absolutely, even though I’m not technically an artist day to day.

Andrew: Man, that’s awesome that’s such a great answer, but I’ve got to circle back to something. I’ve got to ask you about this dryer just for a second because …

Kasey: Yes, I did get shocked.

Andrew: When did you take apart the dryer, and did you just watch YouTube videos …

Kasey: Yeah.

Andrew: … to figure it out?

Kasey: This is like a year and a half ago. I always use it as an example of just absurdity because we had a dryer that kept eating out clothes for whatever reason. It’s a front-loading dryer and our clothes would just come out … one piece of clothing … usually, it chose the most expensive dress of my wife’s or whatever. It would just get gnarled up. We were like, “Let’s go get another dryer. I guess it’s what we do.” I put my foot in the sand. I said, “No, we’re done. We’re going to fix this.” I found out that it was a $5 piece of felt that I could order online. I learned how to then take apart my dryer by watching a bunch of YouTube videos. You’re absolutely correct.

Andrew: Well, man, I’ve got to say, I knew from the day I met you that we were kindred spirits because I did that about 3 or 4 years ago because I was like, “Man, I don’t want to do this. I know it’s just something.” The parallel I think that’s so interesting is … and here’s why I think we’ll circle this back to why education can be so frustrating … is the universe of knowledge is at our students’ fingertips …

Kasey: Yes.

Andrew: … through YouTube and Khan Academy and just the entire Internet. Yet, we still are kind of like, “No, sit in a straight row,” like you said. Column, right or wrong, answer the odd questions on Page 34. It’s just like there’s a disconnect from how we actually learn as human beings when we’re not in this building to then what we think kids have to learn. I think some of that disconnect is why so many kids are unengaged and a little disappointed in the way education is.

Kasey: Right. I think that YouTube is a marvelous just kind of observation on our world. You can either use YouTube to get lost in Justin Bieber videos all day long or whatever else trips your fancy or you can actually use it for good and use it to fix a dryer. Hey, that’s a lesson right there.

Andrew: I knew one of the things I liked about you when I first met you was even though you’re an engineer, you talked a little bit about your art background in high school and in college. I’m just wondering if you can look back at those. I know you’ve touched on this a little bit, but did those skills in an art background make you ready for this new fluid type of economy where your degree from a college is way less important than your skill set and your demeanor?

Kasey: Absolutely. Can I say that again? Absolutely. There. I always talk back and … I look back, I should say, at my art experience. I’m using air quotes. You can’t see this right now. It’s not a video podcast, which is probably a good thing, actually. My first art class was called Introduction to Problem Solving. It was taught by an art teacher. His name is Dale Gentry, Rockwell city, Iowa. Great small-town school. This guy had just a mind that was like nobody else. You’re looking through. You’re like, “I want to take art. What’s this problem solving class? That sounds like math or something. What is that?” No, it was an art class.

You get there, and usually on the first day, he would things to mess with the students like they’d be no chairs in the room or all of the tables would be stacked in the center of the room. Or he would be standing on the tables walking back and forth. He was always an eccentric teacher. He worked on hot rods for a hobby and had a side business. He had Airwalk shoes with flames on them. Just out there. What he was doing … I think maybe he was just weird, but I think maybe there was a master plan here. I’m going to go ahead and go with the latter. What he was doing was teaching us to prepare for the unexpected. That sometimes you’re going to get to a room and there’s going to be no chairs. Guess what? You’ve just go tot figure it out.

It taught us to be really flexible. Life isn’t perfect. Things aren’t always perfect. I think what sometimes hits people when they get out of academia, they get out of even high school and they go into the real world where maybe in high school you’ve never gotten an F. Everybody passes. You all get a trophy. You all get a ribbon. You get to the real world and it’s like, oh, that doesn’t work here. It’s completely different. Art education, thanks to Mr. Gentry, taught me that throughout all of his classes. I don’t know if everybody got everything out of that that I did, but as I look back at my life and I reflect on that, I definitely see that as a huge fork in the road for me.

Also, he played really good music in class all the time. That was the one class I could go to that I knew you know what, Mr. Gentry’s got that new Metallica tape. Yes, it was a tape. He’s going to play that in class or yeah, he would always play enigma, this tranced out kind of like monks chanting type music. I still listen to that to this day when I need to focus, so profound impact.

Andrew: Man, that’s awesome. Shout out to your amazing art teacher. I’m going to have to bring in some Enigma music to play for my students tomorrow. Sounds awesome.

Kasey: Yeah, it was good.

Andrew: I think all art teachers have to be a little bit odd to make it work and to survive. That’s awesome. I’ve been talking a lot to people about what makes for an amazing art teacher and amazing experience. Rarely, if ever, does anyone say, “My art teacher was amazing because they taught me how to do a 3-color linoleum print.” That’s such a specific skill set. It’s more the environment and sometimes we talk about those soft skills of being flexible like you said or being passionate about something or being able to critique something or problem solve. I think that’s what I really feel like art education gets people to get out from it, so …

Kasey: Yeah. Absolutely. To my background, I’m a software engineer now. I lead a team of software engineers. I still love to code and tinker. When I get done with this, that’s actually what I’m going to do next, but I sent through commercial art. That was the degree I took. It’s a 2-year degree from a community college, and I have this degree essentially in art, creating commercial art, advertising, all sorts of things. You’re right. I always bring up Mr. Gentry as an example, but I don’t bring up the college instructor that taught me how to draw the same thing in 16 different color schemes from like here’s tertiary. Here’s primary colors. I’ve actually forgotten the other 14 different schemes that we had to draw. That’s how not important to me that was.

Yeah, you said soft skills and I think as I look at that art isn’t a science. Some might question that, but I would say that art isn’t a science. It’s an art. That’s why that term exists there. Neither is life. I don’t think you can science life. I think you have to just learn to roll with it and deal with the things that you get. The one thing, soft skills that it’s really taught me, is the ability to accept critiques. Standing up in front of a classroom of people and saying, “Here’s what I’ve worked hard on” and then have people just tear it apart. That’s a little rough on some people sometimes, but you get used to it and you realize it’s just all constructive criticism. It’s good to handle that.

Andrew: Now let’s talk some specific solutions. What can we as art teachers either start doing if we’re not doing it or continue doing if we’re on our game to undo some of this apathy? I mean, what do you see that we could do?

Kasey: How do we fix everything? Where do we start? Again, I said this earlier and I think it’s really important. I like this is missing sometimes, other than getting a failure on your report card, something to that extent. I think it’s important for art to be there to teach failure and to teach not only is is acceptable, but it’s this way to learn. Humans, we learn from mistakes. We learn from pain. There’s actually a great quote that says, “Everybody learns from their own mistakes; smart people learn from other people’s mistakes.” I try to do that when possible, but sometimes success feels really good when it’s earned. You have to kick and scream and claw at it.

I think art and art instruction can be really beneficial in that area because it’s just this imperfect thing. That’s what I love about art. Art teachers play a huge role in helping people find their way and see the world in a different way. Sometimes that’s what people need I think. As I said earlier with the education system being the way it is, it has a high likelihood of just churning out drones, people that just are good at tests. It’s always great to rescue someone’s mind. I think that’s a huge thing to do because the world is going to need those people. The world needs those people that think a little differently, the kind of weird ones.

You hate to dig into stereotypes or give in to stereotypes, but the art kids sometimes tend to be the weird ones, and I’m completely fine with that because those are the ones that change the world. I think there’s a quote there that says, “Not everyone will change the world, just the ones that want to.” I bet a majority of this kids think like … again, big air quotes here, “think like artists.” Steve Jobs is the classic example where he was a business guy, maybe not the nicest person in the world, but he cared very much about the arts. He cared about the fonts on OS 10 on Mac when it first came out. He cared about all the little things, and he thought differently.

There’s one more quote. I’m a fan of quotes that I think art education plays into huge. It relates to helping people see the world in a different way and give them some passion, those passions that I talked about so much. That is, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to collect wood, don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” That quote to me right there is just like wow. If you can open somebody’s mind up, you can show them that there’s a billion different ways to solve a problem, I think that’s to me the best way that art education can help people for the future.

Andrew: Oh, man. That was so great. I’m inspired now to go teach starting tomorrow. Man, that was awesome. Yeah, I love the different perspective you were able to give us being someone who’s in a slightly different world but still having a background and passion for the arts, so Kasey, what a pleasure it was having you on. Thanks so much man. I really appreciate it.

Kasey: I’m glad we could fix everything in a podcast. That’s good.

Andrew: Well, we will try. We will try.

Kasey: You’ve got to fix it tomorrow. I just got to talk to you and in inspire you.

Andrew: All right. I’ll let you know how I do. I’ll call you tomorrow.

Kasey: Sounds great.

Andrew: Thanks man.

Kasey: All right. Take care.

Andrew: I hope we can do this again and talk with other great people out there who while not directly in our world know how important we as art teachers are and will help us spread the word. They’ll start advocating for the importance and vitality of arts education. We can’t afford to let education stay boring for our students. Education cannot be a place where students go every day just to simply watch adults work. Education can continue to be overwhelmingly frustrating and boring and disconnected from the lives of our students. I think art education can and should lead the way in righting some of these wrongs.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Micheal Crocker. For fans of the podcast out there, do us a favor and give us a ranking or positive review on iTunes, as this is what helps us find new listeners out there. Totally helps us spread the message about our show. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on Thanks for listening.

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.