As we continue with the focus on creativity in this week’s episode, assessment expert Katie White stops by the show to discuss how we can nurture a culture of creativity in our art rooms through how we use assessments. Listen as she and Tim discuss a culture of creativity, the steps of the creative cycle, and how every teacher can make assessment work for them. Make sure you look for Katie’s presentation at the NOW Conference on July 27th! Full episode transcript below.
Resources and Links
- Challenges to Foster Creativity
- Cultivating Creativity in Our Students
- Read Katie’s book Unlocked: Assessment as the Key to Everyday Creativity in the Classroom
- Check out Katie’s website
- Find out more about the NOW Conference
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.
A couple of weeks ago, we had a great conversation with Andrea Slusarski on the psychology of creativity, and that was incredibly well received. People just love talking about creativity, so we are going to dive into creativity a little bit more. And today’s guest is Katie White. Now, I will let her give her bio, but I will just say that she is an assessment expert and she has an eye toward creativity when it comes to assessment, which I really appreciate. And she has a presentation upcoming at the NOW Conference at the end of this month. Her presentation is called Using Assessment to Nurture a Culture of Creativity. And I love the topic. I’m super excited to share her presentation with everyone. I think it’s going to go over very, very well.
And in the podcast today, we’re not going to spoil anything that she’s going to be telling you at the conference. But instead, I think we’re going to explore the idea that assessment and creativity can not just coexist, but they can really thrive together. And I’ve read a couple of Katie’s books. I have so many questions for her. I think there’s so much to talk about. So yeah, I just wanted to give her some more time to share her ideas beyond the 15 minutes at the NOW conference. So let me bring on Katie and we can dive into this conversation on assessment and creativity.
All right. Katie White is joining me now. Katie, how are you?
I am great. I’m enjoying a beautiful sunny day here in Saskatchewan, Canada.
I love it. Love it. So welcome to the show. I guess, first of all, and to start with, can you give our listeners a quick introduction? Maybe just tell us about your career, your work, what you do, what kinds of things you’re interested in.
Sure. So my career feels complex, but I’ll try to be concise. So I started out as a classroom teacher in middle years, which was unexpected because I thought I was going to be a high school English teacher, but I ended up in middle years and stayed there for many, many years, 15, but eventually migrated down to elementary for a while and then moved up to high school where I taught high school art and I was also the vice principal. And then I headed back into elementary when I became a principal, and then I became a coach. And so I’ve held lots of different roles. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I’ve just retired from my position as a coordinator of learning for my local school division. So that was the last position that I held in public education as of two weeks ago.
And now after 31 years, I’m going to focus on writing. I write books about assessment and creativity, and I’m going to keep doing that, keep doing some consulting work that I do, and hopefully continue with my time in teaching art. I’ve taught art since I was 15 years old, and I just really love doing it both in a school and community setting. So we’ll see where I go with that. In terms of my interests, I’m pretty interested in intersections, if that makes sense. So I’m interested in, we’re going to talk today about the intersection between assessment and creativity. I’m also interested in the intersection between student investment and risk taking and how we can nurture that. And I also spending my time, I explore educational literature, but I also like looking at literature or research that’s adjacent to education, looking at things around innovation, curiosity, those kinds of things. So that’s really where I spend a lot of my time.
Oh, that’s fantastic. Well, let me first say congratulations on the retirement. That’s exciting.
Thank you. It is.
I love the fact that you’re going to continue to write and if you can teach more art, we always need all of that. So that, that’s all good stuff. But yeah, no, I wanted to kind of chat a little bit about one of those intersections for sure. I’m super excited for everyone to see your presentation at the NOW conference, which I think we titled Nurturing a Culture of Creativity Through Assessment. So I guess that that’s probably a good place to start the discussion is talking about the relationship or the intersection as you called it, between creativity and assessment. So can you just talk a little bit about why that intersection matters and how those two ideas of creativity and assessment can work together?
Sure. So before we talk about the intersection, we just have to acknowledge, I think, that the concept of creativity and the concept of assessment come with some baggage and a really long history in our schools. There’s many misconceptions, and I mean even misuses of those things in a school context. So I think if we’re going to talk about a healthy intersection between those ideas, or I call it restorying the relationship between those two things, we have to start to imagine teaching and learning in the area of creativity as part of what it means to be human. So that sort of existence of innovation and wonder and interrogation exploration is just part of being a person. And we want to nurture that in classrooms, but we have to do it alongside assessment, which sometimes doesn’t do that. So we got to start thinking about how to talk about creativity and how to talk about assessment alongside each other in new ways.
So I think what I would start by saying is creativity in terms of misconceptions and sort of honoring the truth of creativity, it’s accessible to everybody, it’s part of who we are. But the question in a school context is, how do we encourage students to develop those creative skills or how do we stretch that creative life that we have? And the radical thing that I’m going to say is, I think assessment is one way in, but if we’re going to have assessment as our way into creativity, we got to imagine that. So to explain my view of assessment, assessment is how we make decisions every day. It’s just part of who we are. And when you think about assessment as this balance between imagining a future state and taking stock of our current state and then making a decision, with that definition of assessment, we can start to see how it might dovetail with the concept of creativity. Because creativity just can’t exist without decision-making.
So if we use assessment formatively, gathering information and adjusting or pivoting as teachers and students, and if we embrace reflection and self-assessment by our learners, then we can actually use assessment to power that creative decision-making. So it’s through assessment that we advance those creative muscles. I hope that makes sense.
No, that makes a lot of sense. I like that. And I want to talk a little bit more about that in just a second. But first I want to talk a little bit more about creativity, what that looks like from your view. As I know in your presentation, you talked a little bit about what we call a culture of creativity. And I would love for you to just define that. Talk about what does that look like in the classroom? What are students doing when they’re part of a culture of creativity?
Sure. So the way that I phrase it in the book, “Unlocked,” that I wrote about this, is I call those that creative culture, like the creation of a healthy creative space. And so we think about the physical space that we offer students, but we also really think about a safe emotional space, a safe social space, a safe intellectual space, all of those parts of that space that we have to create. Because in that space, we really want students to take risks. I mean, that’s the foundation of creative thinking, is trying something out. But alongside risk-taking, we’re going to have people who make mistakes because part of taking a risk is potentially having the outcome not work in our favor. There’s going to be moments of discomfort where we just aren’t sure what to do next, what materials to choose, what approach to take, and we might just falter a bit.
And so part of creating that culture of creativity is making sure that mistakes are part of the process and that’s how they’re framed. It’s turning that discomfort into something that’s constructive. So when we feel uncomfortable, what’s available to us? How can we walk through that instead of turning away from it and avoiding it? And how do we turn those missteps into something productive moving forward? So that’s part of that social, emotional safety that has to be part of a creative space. And then, we insert things like imagination. I mean, these aren’t foreign words to people who work in the arts, but imagination, experimentation, wonder, play, with flexible spaces where students have agency to collaborate, experiment with each other, with themselves. And I also think that creative spaces are, of course, problem focused. So there’s that real emphasis on experimentation and curiosity, but also connected to relevance for students.
So students often feel safer making mistakes and picking themselves up from failure when it matters to them. And so that notion of choice in the middle of ambiguity, stretching, but also supporting students where they need support in terms of skill development. And the last couple of things I would say around that creative space is just being attentive to the language we’re using around the development of creative skills and decision making and that strong purpose. Just making sure that our students are aware of places where they can make decisions and how they might gather what they need to do that well. And then the last, I don’t know, thing that I would say that feels, again, a bit radical is just de-centering the teacher as the primary decision maker in that space, which is something to just throw out there, but definitely assert that that’s not an easy thing, and there’s a lot of nuance to that.
Yeah, for sure. I think that’s a discussion that happens a lot amongst art teachers, just like, what role do we play as an educator? And that varies by comfort level, just by what grade you’re teaching, by how much art your kids have had in the past, like you said, it’s very nuanced, but I think that is a discussion that’s worth having. But I would like to circle back to you talking a little bit more about assessment and you mentioned using assessment to guide our creativity or to use it as how it can be a way in to being creative. And so I guess I would love to just hear a little bit more about what that looks like or what you’re envisioning there. Just thinking about how can assessment help or how can it support with our kids becoming creative with developing that culture of creativity?
Okay. Well, okay. There’s a few things, and they’re probably not in the best order, but I’m going to give it a go. So again, going back to the idea that assessment is really imagining a future state, whether it’s a product or a performance or just a process that we want to try, materials we want to investigate, but just imagining that future state and then figuring out where we are in this moment and looking at the distance between those two things and pivoting in a way that makes sense. If that’s what assessment is, then we can start to imagine ways that we might insert more intentional taking stock of where we are today, moments. So it’s those, it’s that check-in, right? Where, how are we doing? What decisions have we made up to this point? What are we seeing? What are we noticing? What are we wondering? What are we hoping for? And then what options are available to us?
But even within that, again, I go back to the word nuance. There’s a couple of nuances that are, I think, are unique to the creative space. When you talk about assessment in general education, you often talk about setting criteria right off the hop, making sure that students know what’s expected of them and descriptions of quality. But I think in a creative space, we have to delay that criteria setting somewhat. I think there needs to be moments where students are playing and investigating and wondering without the structure initially. And then when we actually engage in criteria setting with students, they have a scaffold of experience on which to hang that. And so they can become partners in determining what the outcome might be. So that’s kind of a different thing for a creative space than I think what we talk about in other classroom spaces.
Alongside that is, I mean, I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but delaying that summative judgment for as long as possible. Because as long as things are high stakes, we just don’t get that risk taking that’s essential for really authentic meaning making by kids. And then we got to find places to embed feedback, reflection, that sort of pause and check in process. Students checking on their own goals, but also students checking in with each other and with us to figure out where they might go next. Really positioning them as the decision makers again. So the purpose of that feedback in that assessment process is to cause thinking and decision making, not to fix a particular product or performance necessarily, which is an art, the art of feedback. And then lastly, I would just say elevate those observations and conversations as assessment methods, because it’s really by watching and listening that we can gather that really strong sense of where students are and where they’re hoping to go so we can help facilitate their movements in that direction.
That makes a lot of sense. Okay. One thing you said in there, talking about high stakes. It’s the idea that kids shut down. We see that as teachers all the time, kids shut down when they’re faced with high stakes. And I love what you said earlier about mistakes and missteps, highlighting those as part of the creative process, and I know that can help, but I would love just more advice from you on how we can adapt as teachers when it comes to this idea of kids shutting down when things become more high stakes. How can we avoid making our work or our assignments really pressure filled or really high stakes for the kids, but still do what we need to do in order to help them learn, in order to help our students do what they need to do?
Yeah, it’s a quandary for sure. I think part of the challenge in answering this question or thinking about this question is sometimes there’s high stakes that are placed upon students by the educational system, but sometimes the high stakes are placed upon the students by themselves or their perception of what it is that they’re doing. And so like with any assessment experience, we want to engage in a nice root cause analysis of what’s going on there. Why are students feeling that pressure, and is it through the language we’re using and that the timing of introducing a score or a grade, is that the problem? Or is the problem a perception around what it is that they’re trying to do? Sort of a mismatch between their current skill level and their intended outcome. So that’s a little bit part of it. I also think that this is the hard part in a creative space, well, in any space, if I’m being honest, any learning space.
But it’s the balance between moving ahead with projects and performances that we’re trying to engage students in, but also seeking confirmation of readiness for some of the evaluating that we might be doing. So partnering with students and asking them if they’re ready to share, are you ready to perform this for other people? How are you feeling in terms of your safety in being able to show this to someone else? And I think that part of that is really lingering in what I call explorational and elaboration stages. Well, I don’t call it that, the research calls it, but they’re beautiful stages where we sort of front load the time that students can spend messing around with things so they don’t feel that pressure. So they can actually experience that feeling of play and wonder before we ever introduce that sort of pressure of scores and grades.
And that’s why that’s, going back to my delaying criteria setting, even something as small as that, after a day of messing around with materials saying, okay, so what have we learned about what we’re going to be using? What might start to emerge as criteria? That can just be a very freeing discussion around assessment as opposed to giving them this rating scale of things that are expected. A lot of it is in how we language the work we’re doing and the amount of time that we give students before we ever attach a score or an evaluation or judgment to that.
That makes a lot of sense. You’re giving me a lot to think about. I’m taking a lot of notes here.
No, and also, I appreciate you, in every answer I feel like you’re giving me a segue into my next question of what I want to ask you, but I want to talk about the stages of the creative cycle because I think that’s something that just about everybody who teaches art should be thinking about maybe paying a little bit more attention to. So I was diving into these when I was reading “Unlocked,” book that you wrote, but you’re talking there about the creative cycle with exploration, elaboration, expression, and then ending with reflection and response. So I guess for people who are unfamiliar with that cycle, with those different phases, can you just talk a little bit about each of those stages and I guess if you want to get into the specifics, how assessment can fit into each of those?
Sure. I’d love to. So exploration is often the first stage of any creative process for students. It involves a whole variety of things. Like some of the things, I mean, a lot of this will be very, very familiar to arts teachers, but it’s where we introduce catalysts like questions or images, materials. Students have a little bit of time to mess around and then incubate a bit. They can collaborate, they can start to curate what it is they might select for whatever it is that they’re doing. But really at exploration, it’s that it’s the time when they just begin to formulate that future state. They’re just starting to imagine an outcome. And we can help them along by modeling that or sharing mentor texts or mentor images or things like that. But it’s really a chance for them to ease their way into that future state.
And at this stage, we’re really heavily engaged in feedback. How you feeling? This is what I’m noticing. What are you wondering? This is what I’m wondering. A little bit of pre-assessment. What do we need really to get into this? What materials do we need? What time do we need? Who do we need support from? So it’s just starting to get our toes into the water of whatever creative expression we’re working on.
And then we move into elaboration, which is deeper research. Where do I need to go for answers or ideas? Getting some insight. There’s lots of analysis and refining and experimenting at this stage. We’re probably setting our criteria, starting to say, Hey, what might this look and sound like when it’s a good quality at the end? We’re playing around with form. And so this’ll be like in terms of assessment, this is lots of formative check-ins, feedback, again, that self-assessment, and probably students are ready to start setting goals or intentions for the time that they’re spending, like “In the next 15 minutes, this is what I’m going to try, this is what I’m hoping to accomplish.” And I imagine teachers are engaging in some pretty heavy observation and conversation at this point because artifacts and performances are starting to take shape. And the advantage for a teacher is we can step back a little bit and watch. We can watch who’s leaning in, who’s leaning back, who’s leaning on each other, and where might we insert ourselves as a further catalyst into that sort of refinement that we’re doing.
Expression is that time when students make a decision in the creative process to share it, and it can be sharing it with us as teachers, that handing it in, but it can also be performing it for an audience, small or large. It can be sharing it with a partner, it can be sharing it with a trusted family member or someone we care about. And at this stage, we’re really inviting students to think about, I mean boundaries. What are you ready to share? What are you not ready to share? How can you prepare yourself and your audience for what you’re going to share? Students are probably practicing and refining, analyzing whatever it is they’ve created against the criteria, making a decision about whether the criteria changes or their product or performance changes. And so it’s just getting ready to make that public in whatever, that can be a big P Public or small p.
And then reflection response is just, the way that I differentiate this from the reflection response that’s happening in the other three stages, because it’s happening all the way through, is this is a time for students, once they’ve chosen to share it, they’ve called quitting time on something for whatever reason. Then we ask them to think about the task or the product or performance as a whole. So what did I learn? How did I create it? What decisions did I make? Which decisions worked in my favor? And which didn’t? And at that point, students may make a decision, if we have time, to head back into a product or performance. For example, if they’ve done a performance in front of an audience and they have the luxury of another performance, they can make some revisions even between those two things. But it’s probably more going to be students starting something new, but transferring those strategies and approaches that they’ve used in previous creative processes to their next iteration.
And then the last thing at this stage really is, could be summative assessment by teachers. This could be the moment where we say, “Okay, are you ready?” And the kids say, “Yep, we’re ready.” And then we engage in that judgment if that’s required of us. We could withhold that even longer. I mean, I could have said this in the previous year, previous question. I mean, portfolios are a great way to continue to delay that summative.
Oh, okay. Yeah.
Because students have that chance to curate what goes in a portfolio, which pieces they want to share, for which purposes. And so we can even delay it. We could say, “Tuck this into your portfolio. This might be something that you’re ready to share when it’s time for me to give you a grade,” if that’s the case, but that’s another option at this stage.
No, I like all of that. So many awesome ideas within there. Yeah, I really like the idea of just the portfolio, and I’ve been thinking a lot about delaying assessment, pushing it back like you said, and that’s a great way to do that. But I do have one, I guess, last question for you. I would just, I guess, appreciate some advice for our listeners as I’m thinking in particular about teachers who maybe don’t do a lot of assessment. Maybe don’t feel comfortable in the world of assessment or just maybe they’re just overwhelmed by a conversation like what we’re having right now. So what would you recommend for those teachers? Can you offer a couple places to start, some things to focus on, or maybe just a reminder of the importance of assessment and how it can help our students?
Absolutely. So first of all, I would say give yourself some grace. Because everybody struggles with this. Assessment is hard because we control it. In our classroom spaces, we certainly have agency, but some of us feel like our agency is limited. There’s outside pressures, outside systems, there’s things like standardized tests that really cause conundrums for teachers. So I just want to honor the fact that it’s not easy to do this, and I never would want to communicate that to anybody. Part of what can help I think, is to remind yourself that for most of the time in our creative spaces, assessment is just a way of checking in. So if we take the pressure off ourselves to come up with a grade or a score or a number or even a rubric level every single time we check in with kids, and we remember that what we’re doing is checking in, we’re comparing it to goals that we or the students have and we’re adjusting, then that takes some of the pressure off.
Fold into that, again, I’m mentioned this in my earlier, embracing observation and conversation as valid assessment methods. I think a lot of people feel like they’re cheating when they don’t have an artifact that proves something. And so what I encourage teachers to remember is that we are professionals. There’s a reason why we’re called professionals. It’s because we hold professional knowledge about our students and their developmental readiness, about our domain and about pedagogy or how people learn. And so we are very positioned to know when a student is demonstrating something with a level of skill and quality that we’re hoping to see. And so in my session, I’m going to share a couple of templates or tools around collecting observational evidence and conversational evidence. But there are ways that we can quickly document, that make it, if we need that paper copy, we can do it. It doesn’t have to be cumbersome, but giving ourselves permission to listen and pivot is, I think, part of being a professional.
I think a third suggestion is invite really, amp up, I would say, students, the time students can spend setting intentions at the beginning of class, halfway through class. I still do some substitute teaching and I use intention setting all the time. I’ll say, “Hey, we got 15 minutes. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of that 15?” Can really insert that notion of setting a goal and then reflecting on whether they made the right decision in getting towards that. That’s a beautiful way to insert assessment. Ask more questions than you answer, I think is helpful. That’s the de-centering.
That’s really good.
Yeah, because in fact, I think I probably annoy students and I’m okay with that. That’s my job. But I do often when students say, “Is this good enough? Am I done?” That whole notion, I refuse to answer that question. What was your goal? What were you trying to accomplish? How do you feel about that? So just continuing to de-center yourself as the person who’s going to make the decision about what’s quality and what’s not and what it is that we’re trying to achieve. Turning that agency back to students as often as possible, builds all of those really strong independent skills that we’re trying to get from students anyway. This way of imagining assessment as being a way to move us from elaboration or from an exploration to elaboration, to expression, to reflection, it’s assessment is the motor that drives us through the learning process.
So if we think of it that way, that it’s really powering decision-making, I think that puts assessment in the right view. It has a role in supporting us. It’s not an entity in and of itself. It supports learning. So that ultimately we’re growing for most of the time. And then when you do have to make a summative decision, which lots of us do, you will have a body of evidence on which to base your professional decision-making. So you’re not looking at a single artifact or a single moment in time. You will have documented the whole process. And I think our decisions are better when we do that.
Oh, that is some great advice. Thank you, Katie. I like, yeah, wonderful for a lot of teachers to hear that, to give them permission to explore some of those ideas a little bit more. And like I said, if they’re just starting out, those are some wonderful suggestion. So I will go ahead and wrap it up there. Katie, thank you so much for all of the knowledge. Like I said earlier, you’ve given me a ton of things to think about, and I think everybody who listens is probably in that same boat. But we really appreciate you just sharing all of that with us. So thank you.
Thanks for asking me.
All right. I think I said this during the interview, but I just took a plethora of notes from that conversation because it gave me so much to think about. And just looking back at my notes, there are three things that really stood out to me, or more specifically, three things that are bolded and have a lot of underlines in my notes. I’ll mention these fairly quickly, I promise. I know we’ve talked for a while already, but I wanted to let you know just, I guess, what I’m going to be reflecting on after this, and I would be curious to hear from you after you listen to this episode, what your takeaways from this conversation, what those takeaways are.
For me, first, I think that when we are building a culture of creativity, it’s important to emphasize that mistakes and missteps, as Katie said, are part of the process. As teachers, we talk a lot about failure, how we can learn from failure, but I think we need to go beyond just lip service. How do we make kids understand that? How do we normalize that in our classroom? How do we talk about that with our students? How do we help them realize that mistakes are going to happen and that those mistakes present learning opportunities?
Second, I think it’s important to note that observation and conversation are both valid assessments. I see so many people, myself included, get stuck thinking about portfolios and bodies of work and overarching rubrics and learning targets. But we need to remember that everyday discussions and everyday activities in the art room can be used as well. It’s worth remembering that fact and thinking about how those types of assessments can help us and help our students. And then final idea that I wanted to emphasize, is just the idea that we can delay setting criteria. That’s going to look different for everybody with how much freedom you have and to what extent you can push that. But the idea that you can delay sharing or setting criteria is a lesson that took me a long time to learn as a teacher.
I used to share the rubric with my kids when I presented the project and immediately tell them what they’re going to be graded on. And I know that can be beneficial in some ways. I know that helps some students, but it is incredibly stifling for a lot of students when it comes to creativity. So I think just exploring that balance is maybe worthwhile when it comes to how and when you decide on and present the criteria for assessment. And so if you can strike the balance with that in your own teaching, it may be worthwhile to think about how.
Okay, that will be it for today. So like I said, if you want to hear more from Katie, make sure you come watch her presentation at the NOW Conference. She will be there during the main event on July 27th. But beyond Katie, you get another 30 presentations spread out over three days. It’s an amazing opportunity for professional development before you head back to school in the fall. So come join us. Go check it out at theartofeducation.edu/now. But until then, go order Katie’s book called “Unlocked.” Maybe listen to this conversation again and see what ideas might be worth bringing to your classroom and how you might be able to nurture that culture of creativity.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back 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.