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TEDxColumbus: How to Teach like an Artist

Cindy Foley’s daughter sees art when she looks at mud.

On the massive screen behind her, Foley projects a kindergarten worksheet, which shows a picture of an amorphous blob with a space below for children to fill in the correct word describing the drawing. Five-year-old Adeline Foley assessed the blob and determined it to be “art.” Her teacher marked it wrong, informing her that the correct answer was “mud.” She was dejected until she got home to her parents, whose response was far different.

“This is awesome! This is the best answer ever!” they told their daughter. For Cindy Foley, the moment was indicative of one of the central problems in modern art education—we are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

“How can something so nebulous be so concrete?” she asks the crowd of 900 people that has filled the theater by the beginning of her talk.

Her journey began at the University of Kentucky where she studied under George Szekely, a guru of art education who inspired Foley to cultivate the power of creative thinking, which she defines as the imagination applied. From there, she traveled to Ohio State for graduate school and worked at the Wexner Center before landing at the Columbus Museum of Art, where she serves as the director of learning and experience. Her epiphany struck once she married an artist, Sean Foley; after seeing his creative process up close, she began to question how we teach.

“Why is it that education doesn’t mirror the kind of learning that we do in our professional lives, especially curious, driven learners?” she says.

The emphasis on standardized testing has created a culture in which each discipline must have correct answers, and as such, art education has leaned heavily in favor of things like art history because that’s far easier to test than the creative process. Teachers have become the master builders, Foley says, and students are merely factory workers, churning our replicas from famous artists. While the importance of creativity is touted by the likes of IBM and economist Dan Pink—a Bexley native who gave one of the most-viewed TED talks ever—young students’ scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking have been on the decline for decades.

Art education is disconnected from creativity—teaching creativity should mean students learn about the habits and thought-processes of artists: comfort with ambiguity; encouraging idea generation; and conducting transdisciplinary research.

Foley’s response? Paint all the walls gray and stop teaching in art classrooms.

“I dream and fantasize that the future of learning will look a lot more like the way that artists practice,” she says. Art education is disconnected from creativity—teaching creativity should mean students learn about the habits and thought-processes of artists: comfort with ambiguity; encouraging idea generation; and conducting transdisciplinary research. The gray walls represent ambiguity, perhaps the most important facet of the learning process, especially as students grow into lives where not knowing is commonplace. Art, it turns out, can be mud.

“Art is the ultimate gray. You know, there really aren’t concrete right and wrongs, yes and nos. It can all be interpreted and finessed,” Foley says. “I don’t know if it’s as bad as we think it is, but we feel the pressure of the testing culture, and that has led us, I think, into pathways that are more black and white.”

The second part of the equation is changing the language of “art rooms,” where creativity and artistic thought are walled off from other subjects. Instead, Foley proposes Centers for Creativity. In her vision, these places are hubs where students are free to be curious and pursue what interests them through long-term projects that draw on all the resources of the school—transdisciplinary research. The centers would be idea-generators to fuel the creativity of the whole building.

And then it’s clear that David Staley’s foreshadowing was accurate; she’s talking about reforming education as a whole, starting with art and expanding outward.

“Imagine if the future of education wasn’t about discrete disciplines but was rather about taking this model that’s curiosity-driven and allowing students to develop ideas, to develop projects based on their wonderings,” she says. Though the method would be a drastic change, it has a prototype in place—the Center for Creativity at the Columbus Museum of Art.

At Foley’s urging, the museum substituted its education program for a place where visitors go beyond observing art, and instead it fosters a questioning, experimental, playful mindset that the staff believes to be critical to the future of art, and if Foley has her way, education.

It’s a new model for teaching, she says in her final moments at center stage, where “ideas are king and curiosity reigns.” The audience erupts in applause, and she cedes the large red dot.

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