I just finished watching President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Regarding education, the President said, “Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools.”

Do you see a problem with that statement? I do.

For me, the President’s words imply a view of education that values quantitative subjects above all else.

After all, the only subjects he mentioned were math and science – areas that typically get assessed with standardized tests. He didn’t point to topics such as writing, collaboration, languages, and, of particular interest to me, the arts.

I believe that my 30 years of teaching outfit me to say with some authority that the sorts of thinking that students require to be flexible learners and adept problem-solvers aren’t typically being taught in K-12 math and science classes.

They could be, but when school districts’ budgets hinge on how students score on government-mandated math and science tests (as is the case with many schools today), their curricula inevitably become centered on test preparation, which can foster anti-creative mindsets.

As I see it, creativity gets stifled when children are pressured, above all else, to score well on standardized tests in which they’re rewarded only for getting the ‘right’ answers and picking ‘correct’ responses on multiple-choice exams.

In such school cultures, students start thinking in absolutist, black-and-white sorts of ways, and mistakes become costly: wrong answers lower grades and can even undercut school funding.

Yet we all know that we learn best in environments that encourage experimentation and in which the error-and-revision process can proceed without students feeling shamed.

Sure, math and science skills are essential, but they aren’t the only skills that matter. Nor are they necessarily the most important subjects for students to master. Nor does the study of them have to supplant education in the arts.

In my book, The Musician’s Way, the section titled “Solving Problems” (p. 54-70) points out the limitations of educational models that nurture narrow, convergent ways of thinking.

That is, a math problem will commonly have a single correct answer, but artistic problems and social predicaments can have numerous solutions.

Creative problem-solvers, therefore, think in divergent ways.

For us musicians, our artistic success depends on our ability to recognize, define, and solve problems in the practice studio and rehearsal hall. We have to think both independently and collaboratively. We have to try out various interpretive and technical ideas, weigh them, make choices, go forward, have things not work out, try other ideas, etc. (See my post ‘Constructive creativity‘).

I don’t know about your experiences going to school, but in my math and science classes, little of that sort of creative thinking took place. Instead, problems were set in front of us, and we were all expected to arrive at identical answers.

I’m not suggesting that President Obama believes that we should scrap every subject other than math and science. But when he talks about education and appears to tow the old math-science lines, then I feel obliged to speak out and say that students need a very different kind of education today than the one they’re ordinarily receiving, an education that places arts and creativity at the center.

And the evidence is mounting that kids who receive arts educations out-think those who do not.

For instance, in a 2009 issue of Psychology of Music (37/3), researchers Piro and Ortiz report that second graders who were given twice-weekly piano instruction dramatically improved their verbal scores by the end of the school year compared to a control group that had no music instruction.

Of course, the true value of arts education isn’t its power to help students excel in other subjects. Arts education stands on its own merits, which include its capacity to stimulate creativity and integrated intelligence as well as bring about the beauty, self-actualization, and community-building that result from artistic expression and shared meaning.

In sum, I can’t sit back and let our nation’s leaders promote educational systems that merely aspire to train workers to function in technically demanding jobs.

I hope that you’ll join me in supporting educational systems that promote the sorts of creative, divergent thinking that made America great and that spawned the artists and innovators that we celebrate worldwide.

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Do you believe that our school systems cultivate flexible, creative thinking? In what ways did your schooling help or hinder your creative powers?

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein