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« Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Evaluation and Reflection - Part 1 | Main | The Practice of Assessment as Information Gathering »

April 27, 2017

Shinique Smith in the K-1 Classroom: Discovery, Transformation and Crazy-Pants Art! Evaluation and Reflection - Part 2

From: Jennifer Childress

The effect of fear of judgment on creative work has been studied by a number of psychologists. Consider this article from Psychology Today, in their special issue, “The Enemies of Invention”:

Fear of Failure Narrows Vision
Wide-ranging thought requires a sense of freedom from consequence
By Peter Gray

“Support for this idea comes from Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile, who, in numerous experiments, sought the conditions that enhance or diminish creativity. She asked participants—sometimes children, sometimes adults—to produce a creative product, such as a collage, a poem, or a short story. Then the products were evaluated for creativity by a panel of experts. Though performed independently, the judges' evaluations were quite consistent from one to another. In general, they deemed creative those products that were original and surprising, yet also somehow meaningful and coherent.

“In several experiments, Amabile told some of the participants that their products would be evaluated for creativity by an expert panel. For others, she then added that their product would be entered into a contest—with prizes for the most creative products. A third group of participants were told nothing.

“In experiment after experiment, the participants who made the most creative products were those who didn't know their work would be evaluated. They were just playing—not concerned about judgments or rewards.

“These findings support the work of another psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She theorizes that positive emotions broaden our perception and thought—allowing us to put ideas and information together in new, creative, useful ways—while negative emotions narrow our perceptions and thought, because we are focusing primarily on the stimulus that initiated the emotion (for example, an evaluator, or the consequences of failure).

“Both these ways of perceiving and thinking are useful; both are products of natural selection. When not faced with immediate threats to our survival, we use our minds to find new ways of doing things and help one another. Faced with immediate threats, we use our minds to deal with the threat (if a tiger is chasing us, it's best to use well-learned ways of escaping from it, not dream up new ways of doing so). Fresh ideas run the risk of failure, so we're biologically constructed to cut creativity off when failure has serious consequences.

“Evaluation, when it is not asked for and when it has consequences, as it does in school or at work, is a threat. It inhibits new learning and new insights. Of course feedback from an expert can be helpful in improving any idea or product, especially if it is sought by the creator. But creativity is stifled if the main goal becomes feedback—either receiving the positive or avoiding the negative. It's no wonder children are less creative when classrooms are centered on evaluation. For students who take academics seriously, continual testing creates continual threat. Their minds are focused on fears: How do I deal with this test? How do I please this teacher?

“…It's hard to be creative in such conditions. Feedback generally promotes effort—because we want to impress the evaluator—but effort is insufficient for creativity. We can't be more creative just by trying harder. We must relax in a way that permits the full engagement of unconscious mental processes—ones that generate unusual associations and new ideas. These work best when we are playing, not when we are striving for praise or a reward (Gray, P., 2013).”

While Gray points out some not-so-surprising-for-teachers study results, we must ask ourselves, is the expectation that we not grade students on artwork or not give feedback realistic? Appropriate? Practiced by artists in their personal lives and artworld?  The answers lie somewhere in the juncture between the purpose of a lesson or a class, the age of the students, their expertise levels, and the appropriate when’s and how’s of feedback.

As we know from being makers of art and observing our artist colleagues, artists move back and forth between periods of dampened frontal lobe work (which allows suppression of judgment in order that many ideas to be allowed to generate) when they are in a state of flow, and periods of self-evaluation (editing, rearranging, etc.) as the works are iterated and take final form (Lano, 2012).  Then works are subjected to other reviewers, and eventually the public. Sometimes an artist revises work based on outside feedback, sometimes not; but usually as a result of some kind of final self-evaluation.

Increasingly, newer studies point to cooperation between the brain’s default mode network (the network that is active during creative flow) and the executive function network (self-control, judgment, etc.) in relation to creativity. The salience network is actively involved, helping the thinker to switch modes, based on stimuli. From the abstract, “Default and Executive Network Coupling Supports Creative Idea Production” (full publication available, see citations at end of blog post):

“…network efficiency was found to increase as a function of individual differences in divergent thinking ability. Moreover, temporal connectivity analysis revealed increased coupling between default and salience network regions (bilateral insula) at the beginning of the task, followed by increased coupling between default and executive network regions at later stages. Such dynamic coupling suggests that divergent thinking involves cooperation between brain networks linked to cognitive control and spontaneous thought, which may reflect focused internal attention and the top-down control of spontaneous cognition during creative idea production (Beaty, et al, 2015).”

Combining these studies with observations of how artists work, it would seem that judgment or evaluation is a critical (no pun intended) aspect of creativity, rather than the anathema suggested by Amabile and Fredrickson’s studies. We all have those terrible memories, however, of art teachers in school, or college professors in our degree programs (those looooooooong critiques) who did not spur us to work more freely or inventively, and sometimes damaged our budding efforts to become artists. Could it be that growing robust, resilient artists with thick-enough skins – whether in school or across a lifetime – requires a very delicate balancing act between internally and externally-directed focus? How do we become more aware of and sensitive to providing those opportunities in our classroom, and honoring the value of each? Of teaching our students to grow into adults who can manage a personally calibrated balance for themselves? What then becomes the purpose of assessment in art classrooms?

-JC

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Beaty, R.E., Benedik, M., Kaufman, S.B., Silvia, P.J. (2015, June 17). Default and executive network coupling      supports creative idea production. Nature. Retrieved from                   https://www.nature.com/articles/srep10964

Gray, P. (2013, May 7). Fear of failure narrows vision: Wide-ranging thought requires a sense of       freedom from consequence. Psychology Today. Retrieved from                   https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201305/the-enemies-invention

Lano, A. (2012, July 25). The science of creativity: Music-obsessed otolaryngologist Charles Limb believes his   studies of the brain could lead to improved treatment for hearing loss. The Hub. Retrieved from      https://hub.jhu.edu/2012/07/25/charles-limb-innovation/

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