02/27/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Tapping in to the Real Value of Creativity

The California Arts Council -- the state's agency responsible for arts education policy-setting -- recently concluded a comprehensive strategic planning process involving an extensive statewide survey and numerous stakeholders to explore the future of state arts policy and arts education. At the heart of the Council's new five-year plan is a focus on creativity. This new focus on creativity came from a recent windfall to the state agency made possible by a resurgent California economy. The focus on creativity was also institutionalized through the Council's new CREATE CA coalition that reframes the conversation about the value of arts education from one where the arts plays a marginal role in the economy (and therefore, is one of the first areas to be cut during an economic downturn) to one where the arts and creativity are at the center of efforts to revamp the educational system of the world's twelfth-largest economy. Even more encouraging is the introduction last week of Assembly Bill 1662 by Assembly member Ian Calderon (D-Whittier), a nod to the growing importance of focusing on creativity as essential to student success and ultimately, to the state's creative economy.

These recent developments are even more important given California's efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards for mathematics and language arts and the Next Generation Science Standards. Layer on top of that a growing educational technology market fueled by Silicon Valley's software and application developers, which in turn raises healthy conversations around the appropriate role of technology in facilitating meaningful and effective learning.

This is a critical time for one of the largest and most economically and culturally diverse public school systems in the country (if not the world). What we are witnessing is a re-envisioning of the California public school classroom that is not only about what students are learning, but also about why the "how" and the "why" they are learning matters. Creativity provides a powerful and useful framework for exploring how we might design the 21st-century learning experience.

Henry Giroux, in "When Schools Become Dead Zones of the Imagination," reflects:

This approach to critical pedagogy does not reduce educational practice to the mastery of methodologies. It stresses, instead, the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions such as: What is the relationship between learning and social change? What knowledge is of most worth? What does it mean to know something? And in what direction should one desire? Yet the principles and goals of critical pedagogy encompass more. Pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices teachers and students might engage in together and the values, social relations and visions legitimated by such knowledge and practices. Such a pedagogy listens to students, gives them a voice and role in their own learning, and recognizes that teachers not only educate students but also learn from them.

Giroux makes the case that learning isn't just about the "what" but about the "how" and "why" as well. In a creativity-focused learning environment, it's not just about sticking the "A" (i.e. the arts) in STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering and math) and turning it into STEAM. Creativity is essential to all disciplines and shouldn't be treated as an optional subject to be taken up only if there are the resources for it.

A creativity-focused learning environment is about teaching practices that truly put the student at the center of her/his own learning. It's about teachers effectively asking questions that are not intended for the child to regurgitate a right answer but instead get her/him to arrive at her/his own conclusions and to think outside of the box. It's about technology tools that meet a student where they are at, and that go beyond flashy animations and cute characters to encouraging a student to be invested in their progress down a learning track.

A creativity-focused learning environment is about values. It's about students learning to collaborate. It's about them negotiating differing viewpoints to arrive at a common solution or vision that they can own together. It is about -- as we like to say at the Children's Creativity Museum -- failing forward, learning about the importance of making and learning from mistakes quickly and therefore, building up confidence and resilience.

Ultimately, a creativity-focused learning environment provides kids with the tools to engage in social change. Children learn to be effective critical thinkers and creative problem-solvers. They begin to see the world as malleable and responsive. Students become global citizens with the capacity to envision new solutions to the problems they face.

This is a truly exciting time for the state's public school system, with the adoption of new content standards and the availability of new technologies that enable teachers to bring curricula to life, not only in entertaining, but in engaging ways for the student. As we move together through this confluence of powerful societal forces, creativity can be the difference between teaching to yesterday's workplace and empowering the next generation of creative leaders and innovators.