‘Back to Basics’ Basically Flawed

My best friend Graham used to work with air traffic controllers.  Actually, he was their teacher.  He tells this wonderful story about one day when his students are taking an exam.  As he’s walking around, he notices one particularly stressed student who is anxiously pouring over her radar screen during a simulated landing/take-off situation.  Graham walks up behind her, leans over and says gently: “Relax – what’s the worst that can happen…”

This is the story that comes to mind when I read comments and opinions such as that of  Calgary’s David Steele, in an article run in the January 30 Calgary Herald, about the value (or decisive lack thereof) of arts in education:


Mr. Steele argues that music, dance, and painting are “essentially a waste of time unless a child has some aptitude for them”.  Fearing the kids will be destined either to welfare lines or busking in train stations, he asserts we should stop wasting resources on such “airy-fairy nonsense” (fine arts), and that we should “Go back to the basics”.

I love reading comments like Mr Steele’s.  They become a source of motivation and learning, not only because it helps me refine and re-define my position on arts education, but because I can find some value in his statements – like a rich fertilizer.

I love the expression ‘Back to basics’.  It’s one of those notions based on a peculiar and arrogant assumption that is unique to our part of the world.  For most of the world, “basics” means food, shelter, and water.  Satisfying these ‘basics’ is a matter of life and death.  And death wins too often.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what Mr. Steele meant by “basics”, but let’s take a look at the progression from these ‘basics’ to what we have now.

Obviously our attention should be focused on supplying these basics of life – to do otherwise would be foolish.   Once our bottom-line food/shelter/water ‘basics’ for survival have been met, only then can we think of expanding beyond these basics to include things like education, or general advancement in society.  (And, for the record, it would be completely naïve and morally irresponsible to assume that all of the citizens in this part of the world are able to meet their ‘basics’ of survival.  I still believe that if even one kid is going to school hungry, we’re not doing our job. Period.)

But let’s assume that we have the ‘basics’ covered.  Food, shelter, water. Enough? Hardly.  From there it becomes a question of human experience, and a matter of opinion.  I believe, from his comments, that Mr. Steele would see the value of an education.  Usually this implies proficiency in the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills so heavily emphasized in our “modern” system (I put the word ‘modern’ in quotes because our current system is actually based on a model that has been around since before the invention of electricity…) From the sound of it, Mr. Steele would likely be clam-happy with these two skill sets covered.

But, is that enough?  Should we really be satisfied with such base, minimal, and, frankly, dated skill sets?  Or should we, perhaps daringly, aspire to more: more for our society than the ‘basics’, and more for our kids.  And, possibly, more for the rest of the world too?

Fact: Our schools have been operating with a priority on ‘basics’ for about a century.  Yet only two thirds of our children graduate.  And still, on this day, more than half the world continues to struggle to provide their idea of ‘basics’. For their survival.

Enter the realm of ‘fine arts’; two words which have apparently evoked some measure of recoiling from Mr. Steele and the likes.

For the sake of transparency, let me state that I am an arts education advocate, and my background as a classical pianist has certainly contributed to my exploration of the true value of the arts in education.  However, my ‘in-school’ experience of the arts came to a halt in elementary school, not long after our obligatory introduction in fourth grade to that most beloved of instruments: the recorder.

My entire ‘artistic’ development happened outside of school – nevertheless, I am a staunch defender of the myriad benefits the arts provide not only to our society, but the overall education of young people.

There are those (including much of our society, and a President or two) who eagerly point out the “economic relevance of the arts”.  There are also those who advocate the merits of the arts as a “quality-of-life/society” enhancer.  And of course, there’s the Mozart-effect-phenomenon argument that has everyone and their fetus plugging into his symphonies.

While these justifications have merit, it still seems a bit like trying to convince the general population to take vitamins, eat better, and exercise more (we’re still overweight, lethargic, and continue to die of heart disease).  Obviously we’ve not yet uncovered a more tangible reasoning behind the purpose of arts education.

So I’m going to invoke the words of Dr. Elliot Eisner, Professor of Education and Professor of Art at Stanford, to build a strong and convincing case for arts education.  Dr. Eisner points out seven things that “the arts do, or demand, that are profoundly beneficial to the overall education of young people.”  Here I’ll list three (the rest are worth discovering yourself). And a couple of my own.

First: In the arts (and in life), relationships matter.

I am a pianist.  Though I could (arrogantly, yet correctly) assume the capacity to function audibly as an entire orchestra unto myself, my performances simply cannot exist – or be expressed – in a vacuum.  Choirs, ensembles, orchestras, theatre, and dance companies know this.

Not only do artists learn their relationship between members of the group, but between themselves, the audience, and often (fascinatingly), a time-travelling voice from the past.

We learn to play nice in the sandbox; to co-operate and collaborate.  We learn details like subtlety, nuance.  We learn to listen, to evaluate, and to re-evaluate. We learn (successfully) to think on our feet. We learn ‘work ethic’ without compare.  Our reputation, development, and existence as artists depend upon this.

Judgement without rules is the name of the game here.  I can certainly think of a few real-life situations where this particular skill would come in handy.  Graham’s students would agree.

Two: In the arts, one must learn to think within the confines of a medium or material.

In a word: Discipline.  In another word: Mastery.

We can see the analogy easily when it comes to the ‘discipline’ of ‘mastering’ an instrument, but how many other life opportunities examples did you just come up with yourself?

I prefer my air traffic controllers disciplined and masterful.

Third (fourth in Dr. Eisner’s list): Not all of what we know can be conveyed in literal language or in numbers.

A while ago I attended a seminar where one of the presenters was discussing the different ‘levels of literacy’.  Apparently there are four.  Three and four are much higher than, and preferable to, one and two.  We were at tables of eight or so, and were given that irresistible large poster paper, and a bunch of (scented!) color markers.  We were asked to discuss, record, and then present our “priorities” regarding literacy, and how we viewed one’s role in that endeavour.

I loved this – and hijacked the direction of the conversation (if Graham will forgive the analogy).   I challenged those at our table – a table of very learned and distinguished professionals – to draw their ideas in picture form, without using any words or language to describe. When it came time to present, their pictures had such voice.  After dozens of written presentations, ours stood out.

After our group’s presentation, I mischievously asked our presenter which of the four literacy levels he would assign our presentation.  At the end of the seminar, I’m pretty sure he told me – albeit in Welsh – to kiss his ass.

Four: (Now I’m going to throw in a reason of my own) Empathy.

This may be a leap, but consider.  My entire performing career has been based upon my ability (assuming technical facility, discipline, and mastery) to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of some long-deceased composer.  I need to do this in order to express, as musical translator, what I thought he (as usually it is a ‘he’) was thinking or feeling with that particular piece of music.

Turning to present day relevance: Every single experience or engagement of or through an artistic form, whether it be in an actual ‘arts’ class, or in a math, science, computer, or French class (a ridiculous and unrealistic division which I find utterly archaic and stunted, for the record), offers the opportunity to empathize with another’s thoughts, situations, viewpoints, and so on.

Empathy is the single-most important characteristic of personal development, in my opinion.  This one aptitude will enable every creative, every cooperative, every innovative thought and idea to find its full fruition – to the benefit of mankind.   Teaching through the arts can accomplish this.

Five.  As a topper, I get to throw in: Imagination.

I’ve gleefully forsaken the need to defend the imperative for imagination – especially within the context of education.   Now I simply refer people to NASA (that little institution which sends people into space), who have embarked upon an initiative with Lincoln Center (that little institution which includes the Julliard school, the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and their amazing Center for Arts in Education) to develop creative strategies within the education sector.  And, to one of Lincoln Center’s largest clients: the Department of Homeland Security (that little, small-budget department in the US that is responsible for – well – the security of their country).

Yet despite the seemingly universal acknowledgment of the importance of creativity, imagination, and the arts, expressed by such renowned thought leaders as Sir Ken Robinson*, Scott Noppe-Brandon, Eric Liu, Daniel Pink, and so many others, there are still those such as Mr. Steele who either refuse to believe, or for some reason doggedly resist, the legitimacy and necessity of what he labels ‘airy-fairy nonsense’.  Try telling that to the largest military security system in the western hemisphere, if not the world.  Go ahead.  (I’m fairly certain the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t fancy in its ranks a bunch of “little Beyonce’s or Van Gogh’s” eagerly awaiting their big break…)

As a colleague of mine (who trains managers at Wells Fargo and Boston law professors) claims, “there’s nothing in the history of mankind that hasn’t been taught at least once using the arts.”  So, when I hear such comments about getting ‘back to basics’, I will rail.  It’s simply – clearly – not good enough.  And I am secure in the overwhelming international corroboration of this premise.  It’s kind of like having an entire army/navy/marine corps/central intelligence agency as a protective older brother defending my honour.

Our ‘basics’ need to expand and develop into far-reaching, all-encompassing, powerful tools for human development.  They need to become the scaffolding for the onset of a future that should realistically scare the pants off Mr. Steele and everyone who believes the old system adequate and sufficient to tackle the issues they can’t even imagine lie in wait.

If more than half the population of the world remains powerless to provide the basics for their very survival, our outdated, soon-to-be obsolete idea of ‘basics’ isn’t working.

Waste of resources? Have it your way.  Let’s continue along this same rusty old industrial-model path of education as we propel headlong into an uncertain and unpredictable future.

Really.  What’s the worst that can happen?

For kicks, a 24hr world-wide view of air traffic:


*If Mr. Steele is reading this and is still holding fast to his ‘back to basics’ ideals, I am inviting him to Sir Ken Robinson’s (head of the British government’s advisory committee on arts and education, and author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything) upcoming Public Dialogue in Red Deer on February 9.  My treat.

Posted in Creativity, Education | 14 Comments

Dear Will,

I’ve spent the week mulling over your comment from my last (first) blog – and I promised that my next blog (this) would be dedicated to you. And I hope I can include in that dedication everyone and anyone who has ever questioned their own ‘Creativity’ or talents, or envied those of others.

Bit of background: you and I met last fall at a convention called RebootAlberta in beautiful Kananaskis, Alberta.  There were a few hundred people there of all stripes and flavors, all gathered to discuss the future of our Province;  among them, politicians, professionals, activists, advocates, artists, and others; all passionate people, and I believe most of them self-professed ‘Cultural Creatives’.*  And you stood out with your Mack jacket and uninhibited speaking style, and I automatically, mentally plunked you into the – surprise –  ‘artist’ category.

So to hear you label yourself an “UN-creative” was, well,  surprising. And saddening.  And I don’t believe you – I’ll tell you why.

How comfortable would you feel walking into a classroom of kindergarten children in your town and randomly singling some out as ‘creative’, others ‘un-creative’?  Even if little Johnny’s stick-man was nowhere near little Chloe’s replication of the Mona Lisa, would you be able to say with 100% certainty that little Johnny was, in fact, “un-creative”?  I’m betting you’d be mighty uncomfortable with that kind of definitive label, and likely even more uncomfortable being the one doing the labelling.

So when does this happen? How do we move from the belief that all children have an innate creative capacity (a belief I will defend to the death), to the pronouncement that some of us are ‘creative’ and some of us, well, play hockey? (which, for the record, I am not proposing are mutually exclusive).  What happened to Will’s innate creative potential? Did it atrophy from disuse? Did it get teased and intimidated into hiding? I’m pretty sure it hasn’t disappeared Will, in fact I’ll bet on it. Anyone who has the chutzpah to initiate a Poetry Festival in his own hamlet of hundreds is most definitely, unabashedly, 100% ‘Creative’.

And if we’re on the same page believing that everyone has this ‘Creative’ capacity, can we not then assume that this is an innate way of thinking, being, and living?  Then, the question becomes, not “are you creative”, but “how do we as a society nurture and become stewards of our creativity”.

It’s the ‘How’ that interests me most: How can we enable this shift toward the “Conceptual Age”, as Daniel Pink has called it, and not just empower the ‘expressives’, or artists, but really tap into this gold mine of potential: our youth.

And I believe I have a pretty great starting point as suggestion.  There are entire systems of education that exist on our continent where kids are not just engaged (that should be the minimum), but enthralled by what they’re learning – get this – at school.  I can tell you stories (or, as this is the video age, show you videos) of classrooms of five-year-olds using polysyllabic “dollar words” in sentences and stories –  kids who have never even been able to read or write before – because they got to experience ‘language’ through opera – and often in languages not their own;  classrooms of junior high students enthused about physics through their work with gifted mime artists and the graphic plotting of intricate physical movements; classes of pretty cool high school kids moved to tears during their study of the Holocaust through their creation of masks portraying both victims and perpetrators.  And poetry – think of the thousands of children who will become what we value so highly in our land: ‘critical thinkers’, just by asking “what does this poem mean to you?”.

Because once we all agree on the value of ‘Creativity’, and are ready to implement these pretty strong tools of engagement in education, then, finally, we can go about the actual task of getting on with this nurturing and cultivating because, frankly, we don’t have a choice – if we want to do more than just “survive” and plod about the next few decades, creativity must become an overarching mindset for our community.

And ‘Art’, Will, becomes a choice. So the good news is that you can most definitely do something about it.  You can be the first one in your hamlet to be strong enough to be “weak” and express yourself, whether in song, or prose, or poetry, or welding, or gardening, or teaching, or inventing, or even hockey-ing. Try on that feeling.  Its the feeling of being an ‘artist’ instead of just a cog – ’cause it’s one or the other.  And your labouring neighbors may or may not go along with you for the ride, but they may surprise you – they may also be host to these”lonely” & “empty” feelings you say you’re experiencing, and may truly wish for an end to the ”’work-myself-to-death-from-morn’-till-eve-cause-that’s-the-respectable-way” cycle.

It’s all ok, as long as we can, at the end of the day, say that we’ve done our best to not only not extinguish any of these pretty fragile sparks (as you can attest to), but that we’ve actually ‘created’ (there’s that word again) an environment where they are first assumed to exist, and then nurtured.

Your kids won’t have to “get” – like a daily dose – any artistic creativity in your home, because they’ll know they are the artistic creativity in your home, as are you, and the fun will begin.  Permission to be creative granted.  Let them surprise you – they will.  And likely you’ll surprise yourself more.

Please keep in touch Will, and likewise I will blog next with details of some exciting new initiatives under way with our Creative Alberta Society.

*to see whether you’re a Cultural Creative: http://www.cambridgestrategies.com/index.php/cultural-creatives

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Let’s Get Creative Alberta

This is a blog about creativity. It’s about what makes us tick, and what could very possibly make us – all of us – amazing.

But I have a considerable back story. It’s everything that has led to this point, how it has shaped, led, and ultimately taken me on this journey I’ve embarked on: for myself, my family, my kids (your kids too), and, selfishly, my little corner of the world – which, much like Columbus discovered (actually he never really did, but more on that later…) that there are no corners of the world. No corners, no straight lines, no boundaries. None.

So bear with me on the back story to the actual journey which began one year ago today. I’ll try to offer it in small-ish bites, after this initial, inaugural introductory blog (aka – long)


My daughter was diagnosed with autism the same week my mother was diagnosed with alzheimers.

Armed with computer and some pretty considerable research skills, I started my journey to find out not so much the ‘what’, but the ‘now what’.  And guess what: it’s not exactly charted territory – again with the Columbus analogy.

What I did find though were some substantial insights and research by some pretty significant players, including Dr. Oliver Sacks (Awakenings).  His latest publication Musicophilia was the one that hit home hardest. And I could relate – being a musician – to the explanations about not just how, but why brains tick the way they do, especially – here’s the kicker – on music. (For a great demo, take a look at this video featuring Bobby McFerrin: Science/Creativity:our brain on both. Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale http://youtu.be/Hodp2esSV9E)

Now (with the sole intention of shortening the tale as much as possible without losing the gist, and most definitely not espousing a cure for either autism or alzheimers): My daughter, now 9,  is a straight-A student with a kajillion friends, and truly an amazing musical talent – as I write this I’m serenaded through the closed door by a frighteningly accurate impression of the Jennifer Hudson ‘Dreamgirls’ tune.

As for my mother – she may not always recognize her four daughters, and she may mistake her purse for a cat, but she remembers every single word and note of the Norwegian National Anthem (in Norwegian), and some pretty obscure Freddy Fender tunes as well.

I discovered first-hand that there is definitely something to this “artistic, or “creativity” stuff as I struggle to define it.


Autism and Alzheimer’s are extreme cases – neatly packaged in a way by their diagnosis.  And, I’ve discovered, to receive a diagnosis of anything is often the only starting point to a path of wellness, or, at the least, coping.

What about a bunch of symptoms that receive no diagnosis at all? Or, worse yet, are denied or ignored by virtually every ‘authoritative’ voice, perhaps by the only ones who have it within their influence to do something about it.

(Tangent: At this point I am reminded of our province’s oh-so-childish denial of any “scientific” findings of the ecological damage from the oil field mining on the Athabasca river, which if it continues, we may have to re-name De Nile; definitely not just a river in Egypt…)


Here’s a question: If you found out that 35% (or, more likely closer to 50%) of the entire population of your province would receive the diagnosis of autism or alzheimers (or virtually any other possible pathology), would that concern you?

Give this some thought, I’m not intending to be flip here. I’m not asking if you’d jump off the couch to ‘do’ something about it – this is not a call to action – this is to honestly gauge your rate of unsettled-ness.

Now, if we spin it another way, how would it rate if you found out that, conservatively, 35% of this province’s youth will not graduate high school? Probably somewhere between ‘somewhat disconcerting’ and ‘outrageously unacceptable’ I’d predict.  And what if you found out that these statistics were intentionally skewed to appear lessconcerning’ than they actually are?  If you knew that the 35% figure was derived not from the standard 3-year high school completion plan, but increased to a 5-year standard (grade 10, 11, 12, 12, 12…?) and, that it only started counting the students once they began grade 10.  This means that we don’t even count a single student who drops out of school after grade 9. These numbers are considerable, and mighty unbalanced (more on this later).

Concerned yet?  Here’s some quick math: Each year our province sees around 60,000 students enter grade 10. And if I went in and told each class that 35% of them had no hope in hell of finishing high school, that would make 21,000 people every year who do not, will not have a basic high school education.  Would they believe me? Because it’s the truth.

More math: that’s 210,000 every decade. That’s 420,000 more adults out there (I really don’t know how many there are currently – and it doesn’t look promising that our federal census will help me out here…) by the time I retire.  A half-million more people in my province who will in some way impact some aspect of my life in its later stages (read: when I’m most dependent on them). And yours – unless you plan on heading south for retirement (I toy with the idea myself), which would be even worse.  Because, get this – here’s the kicker – we (Alberta) have the second best educational system in the world. Yup. Like an amusing Monty Python song, we’re second only to Finland.

But wait, there’s more: that’s only the students who don’t graduate. By this point in my life I have learned that it’s seldom black/white with these issues. There is a huge swath of student population out there who fall somewhere in between.  Ever-so-slightly higher than dropping out. These are the disengaged, disinterested, disconnected, disillusioned youth who make up much of the rest of the entire student population.

(And, if you are actually concerned by now, I invite you to have a look at this petition. Sometimes a signature is the most powerful agent: http://www.gopetition.com/online/35101.html )

I’m concerned. And not only about how my retirement is going to shape up to be, but because we (our province) seems to be squandering the most amazing natural resource of all: people. And until we start behaving like this is a precious, prized commodity (though I’m not entirely comfortable defining humans this way), we will lose. And we will lose big.


When I reduced it to a question of ‘how do we then try to engage students’, it became much more chewable.  This was the easy part – so I thought. Because many have been bringing this exact question to the international spotlight: Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, Mihaly Czikzentmihalyi, the voices of TEDtalks, and many many people who “get it”, as I’ve now begun to categorize people.

So with these inspired and motivating voices, I’ve made it my (as yet unpaid but all-consuming) job to see what I can do to help.

And, much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I’ve encountered and gathered many like-minded peeps along the way. These peeps have become my mentors, friends, and fellow troops with whom the bond has become like brothers-in-arms (and, yes, there are still considerably more ‘brothers’ than ‘sisters’, much to my husband’s chagrin…). Educators, administrators, political consultants, social policy influentials, artists, media members, and politicians, even a senator or two – it really is heady company, and I am honored to be their ‘Dorothy’, and we’re calling ourselves Creative Alberta.

And this contingent of Creative adventurers will be traveling to Oklahoma City this November, for the 2010 Creativity World Forum (http://stateofcreativity.com/), an international convention where, among other things, the 12 International Districts of Creativity convene (these districts include Flanders, Catalonia, China, France, Scotland, Germany, India, Finland, and Italy) and discuss best practices in Commerce, Education, and Culture throughout the world.  Of course, all those involved in bringing the ‘Creativity’ issue to the international spotlight will be speaking: Sir Ken, Dan Pink, Carol Coletta, David Edwards, and more – the list is impressive.

Oklahoma City is the only North American city to be designated one of the International Districts of Creativity – and, guess what – they are inviting our Alberta contingent to meet and discuss the possibility of becoming the next North American District of Creativity.

And maybe, with the strength of this global perspective, we can begin to address all kinds of challenges we face here in our own “corner of the world”, and obliterate the notion of corners, borders, and boundaries, and bring it all back to the more than 35% of our at-risk kids, and the other 65% who just plain need it.

Thanks for reading – I’ll continue blogging on the various and marvelous initiatives in place right now, including some amazing Alberta schools where we’re implementing an Arts Integration pilot, some specific programs within these schools, and the insightful people in our own land who are enabling and empowering these Creative shifts. (I name names!) TO BE CONTINUED

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