Last week Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, published an article in the New York Times on How to raise a creative child. There are many articles and papers that have been produced which outline the importance of the arts in children’s lives, especially in regards to promoting creativity. However what I found particularly interesting was Grant’s assertions being driven by the belief that a focus on technique in the arts can be of complete detriment to an individual’s creativity. He argues that this occurs via a causal effect of the brain developing domain expertise which result in a reduction in cognitive flexibility. This is to say that the more one practises and technically studies a particular art form, the more one’s mind becomes increasingly regimented in its approach to it. This then reduces one’s ability to adapt, problem solve and generate new creative processes. Through this, the author argues that children who are ‘artistic prodigies’ are often experts at memorization and reproduction of technique as opposed to being capable of producing new creative thinking pathways.
I agree with this argument to an extent. From my experience working as a designer of children’s art exhibitions in Australia, the deepest creative experiences are those that offer a carefully crafted combination of allowing children’s creativity to naturally unfold whilst having an adult gently ask questions, challenge assumptions and introduce new skills and techniques. However, it is the child’s creativity that is at the centre of the experience, not the adult artist’s – a subtle yet fundamentally distinct approach. Finding a balance between these two forces can be an ongoing challenge for art educators working with children. There is still an important place for the acquisition of technique however it should never be the sole focus of a child’s artistic experience.
Within a gallery context, almost every ‘creative’ experience offered for children starts with a product and not a process – i.e. looking at an adult artist’s work instead of letting a child explore their own creativity. If Grant’s argument is true, this could be significantly a low-value creative experience for the child. From a developmental perspective of learning, one may argue that through offering the opposite – i.e giving a child the ability to firstly explore their own creativity in complex and diverse ways through different art forms such as music, dance, performance, visual art, cooking, that they are then able to go on to understand the products of other people’s creative processes in a much more complex and meaningful way.
Grant’s bold statement that parents need to back off and let children direct their own learning holds great sentiment within an education curriculum driven by highly regulated outcomes. Within this outcome-driven system, time for open-ended creative play is devalued due to its free-form and inability to predict outcomes. Whilst the direct transfer of knowledge is important within the school education system, and within art galleries, this needs to be delivered in parallel with opportunities to explore individual creative processes fueled by children’s own curiosity, love and passion.
One way to address this is through the development of informal learning spaces within the community, such as art galleries, that allow for open-ended creative play. In doing so, children are able to experience intrinsically motivated creative thinking that moves away from a transmission model of learning. These spaces should aim to diversify thinking patterns, not just deepen the processes that are already there. They should aim to connect different members of the community through non-hierarchical collaborative activities where everyone is valued as both a master and an apprentice. The introduction of interdisciplinary creative experiences allow for heterogeneity of ideas, putting together theories that have not been done before. Jeff Sturges, Founder of the Mt Elliott Makerspace in Detroit, explored this educational approach within the context of the Maker Movement during his recent TedX talk. Most importantly, with an increase in the privatization of play spaces, it should be a government and social responsibility for all to make these spaces free, accessible and open to all children within our community.