When a student is working on a math problem, we always implore them to show their work. There are many reasons why we do this:

  • To know what they were thinking
  • To understand the process they were going through
  • To know how they arrived at this product

And yet, when a student creates a piece of art, or composes a little diddy on their violin, or writes a poem, we rarely ask them to “show their work.” Instead, we let the art speak for itself. Unfortunately by doing this, we are not forcing the artist to consider the creative thinking that went into the work. 

Understanding the Why

I have heard a theory on why the best athletes do not always make the best coaches. This theory suggests that the athlete often does not know how he or she performs athletically. Their abilities seem to come naturally to them. Thus they do not know how to coach someone else into doing this action because they themselves do not understand the why. Their talent goes unspoken, and we do not learn the creative thinking that went into the action. 

I feel this way about poetry and art. I will read a poem and interpret it one way, only to have someone else interpret it in a completely different way. Who is correct? Who is way off? Poets many times do not explain their poems, or why they made the stylistic device selections they made. Some people would argue it is supposed to be left up to interpretation, but imagine what insight we could get if the Eagles would merely explain their creative process behind “Hotel California,” or if Jackson Pollock explained the pain and stories behind many of the paintings he created. 

Encouraging Creative Thinking

We need to be promoting creative thinking in the arts— asking students to explain the choices they made (e.g., what colors were used, why they included certain things, why they didn’t include others, and what they were trying to accomplish with the painting, whether it be a feeling, a story, or a commentary). This does not need to be a formal essay; it can be a Flipgrid video, a journal entry, or anything that helps them to explain the following question: Why did they create the art that they did?

Although some individuals may believe this process may be tedious, it serves another purpose: it allows students to reflect upon their practice. Examining the creative thinking that occurred behind the art helps them to understand the process and to be self-reflective (i.e., what they did well, what mistakes they made, and what improvements they would make). This self-reflection makes better learners and develops grit in them because they see how they overcame constraints. 

Using the Arts to Explain the Why

In addition to asking the why in the arts, we should also be reversing it and encouraging students to use the arts in the classroom to explain the why of the core subject areas. Could a student rap what they learned about the Constitution, or paint a picture depicting the characters in The Great Gatsby, or act out a scene where Louis Pasteur invents vaccines, or write a children’s book that teaches fractions? The why in these cases would be what they learned expressed through the arts. Their creative thinking would have an answer, a shape to take. Using the arts allows students to express their creative thinking in ways traditional assessment would not permit.  

Asking Why

The next time a student creates a drawing for you, don’t be afraid to ask why they drew what they did. After sitting through your child’s dance or piano recital, ask them why they made the choices they did and what results they received. The next time you have an assessment for students, remember to encourage them to doodle in the margins to show their thinking process, or better yet, allow them to create artistic alternative assessments to combine their logical and creative thinking together. Creative thinking occurs during the logical reasoning process, and conversely, logical reasoning is occurring during the creative thinking process.  We just need to be more aware of this and encourage more of this to create thinkers who thrive.

Key Takeaways

Three Key Takeaways

  1. If we are asking students to show their work in math class or to explain themselves in ELA, why are we not doing the same when it comes to the arts?
  2. Understanding the why of doing something gives one insight into the thought process and allows one to repeat the desired effect or to avoid an undesirable outcome. 
  3. We need to encourage students to explain the why, and also allow them to use the arts to explain the why in core subject areas.

Todd Stanley is a National Board teacher and the author of many teacher-education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st Century Classroom, Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning, and his latest, Enrichment Activities for Gifted Students: Extra-Curricular Academic Activities for Gifted Education. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years where he worked with all grade levels in all subject areas in all types of service. He is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools where he lives with his wife and two daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at thegiftedguy.com where you can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given.

%d bloggers like this: