No Creativity Here, We Are Serious About Education

I recently saw an article on Arts Professional UK reporting that the governments of England and Wales would be opting out of the new creative thinking assessment section of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international standardized test administered to 15 year olds. (The United States also participates, but I haven’t been able to discover their stand on the new test module.)

I had some mixed feelings about this news. Students will continue to take the test in math, science and reading,  so it raises my hackles a little that they will still be testing those subjects and eschewing creativity. According to one commenters, there is a fear that measuring creativity would indicate you aren’t serious about education.

Professor Bill Lucas, Co-chair of the PISA 2021 Test of Creative Thinking….some people fear opting into the creative thinking assessment would give “a signal that you don’t value standards in English, maths and science as much, because you are somehow potentially aligning yourself with a view of the purpose of education that is beyond the basics of the core subjects.

Thinking the purpose of education is beyond that of reading, math and science?! The horror! Satisfying a voracious curiosity is so outdated.

The creativity test has been designed to (my emphasis),

…measure and reflect “the nature of real world and everyday creative thinking”. …

…will provide policymakers with valid, reliable and actionable measurement tools that will help them to make evidence-based decisions. The results will also encourage a wider societal debate on both the importance and methods of supporting this crucial competence through education,” the assessor says.

“Creative thinking is thus more than simply coming up with random ideas. It is a tangible competence, grounded in knowledge and practice, that supports individuals in achieving better outcomes, oftentimes in constrained and challenging environments.”

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know I am a proponent of anything that emphasizes the concept creativity is a process requiring effort, reflection, and trial and error rather than a magical ability granted or retracted at the caprice of the gods.

On the other hand, if you have read this blog for any length of time, you also know that I discuss the fact that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean the result you get is meaningful.

One of the things countries do with this test is compare themselves with other countries. As I am reading about the test design, there is discussion of how cultural norms and expectations affect creative thinking. Even assuming the test prompts are appropriate to the culture of the country in which the test is administered, I would expect the way different cultures view creative expression would impact the results in ways that couldn’t be compared like math and science competencies could.

For that matter, there may not be a firm basis of comparison in the same country between the 15 year olds that took the test one year and those that took the test when it was administered three years prior.

Is there really an objective, comparative measure for creativity when students are given one hour to:

…engage in open and imaginative writing (with constraints limiting the length of written text that human raters will need to evaluate); generate ideas for various written formats by considering different stimuli, such as cartoons without captions or fantasy illustrations; and make an original improvement to someone else’s written work (as provided in the task stimuli).


…engage in open problem-solving tasks with a social focus, either individually or in simulated collaborative scenarios; generate ideas for solutions to social problems, based on a given scenario; and suggest original improvements to problem solutions (as provided in the task stimuli).

There is also a visual expression section with tasks similar to the written expression section described above and a scientific problem solving section with tasks similar to the social problem solving described.

As a way to give the individual something to reflect upon in regard to their own skills and providing a bit of an imprimatur to creative expression, these tests could be useful.

As a thing schools and countries should fret over as something with real relevance and providing indications of future success, it doesn’t really have any real meaning. (Though if they fear appearing too frivolous about education, there might even be a few countries who will be ashamed if their students attain too high a result.)

These tests just reflect what a cohort of 15 year olds can do in an hour on a certain day.  Whatever that means in terms of math, science and reading, it means even less when it comes to subjective judgments about how creative someone was in generating captions for cartoons or how original their suggested solution to a problem might be.

I didn’t realize until I started searching for links to other PISA related stories that the result of the last test were actually released today (The Arts Professional UK article came out last week).

The headline on a New York Times piece is “It Just Isn’t Working: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts. – An international exam shows that American 15-year-olds are stagnant in reading and math even though the country has spent billions to close gaps with the rest of the world.”

Part of you might be thinking the test scores wouldn’t be as bad if schools would actually introduce the role of creative thinking and problem solving into the education process.  That is likely true. But should creative capacity be measured by tests? Do you want fretful headlines about American kids doing worse in creative measures than 65% of the world?  It would be a clear indicator that people were paying attention and invested in creativity, but there are lot more constructive indicators of those things available.


NB: As a perfect illustration of how you can’t be creative within a strict time period: The moment I hit publish on this post, I immediately realized I should have titled it “No Creativity, We’re British,” as a take off on the play, No Sex Please, We’re British — something that would have qualified as an original improvement on someone else’s written work noted as a measure in the creativity test. (Granted, you might be hard pressed to judge it an improvement)

Kabuki Jedi

Hat tip to for the link to a Guardian piece about a kabuki version of Star Wars. The adaptation (or at least the video available online) covered moments from the most recent films and focuses on the Kylo Ren character – Kairennosuke Three Shining Swords in the traditional Star Wars opening screen crawl. (Kylo Ren rendered as KaiRenNosuke)

According to the Guardian article, this is an attempt to shake the dust off the kabuki performance form and provide relevance for younger audiences. It is also clearly an opportunity to promote the opening of the next film in the franchise given the big placard announcing the opening on December 20.

The video includes Kylo killing Han, the climatic battle against Snoke and Kylo’s fight with Luke.  Despite the laser beam blasts during the interludes, the staging appears to follow many of the kabuki conventions. (I am certainly not an expert and don’t speak Japanese). So while Snoke seems to manipulate Rey with the Force, Ren slays Snoke with his own hand rather than manipulating a light saber with the Force as in the movies.

One particular point of discomfort for English speakers was the exclusion of Rey during the battle in Snoke’s throne room. I wondered if it might be a staging convention to only depict one hero battling and exclude allies because the Rey character reappears at the end of the battle posed with her own light saber.

For people familiar with the movies, the adaptation of the movies will be of interest, though perhaps some elements will be confusing. The way they handled Kylo realizing Luke wasn’t actually physically there was clearly recognizable, but I am not sure what the role of the illuminated child was. My best guess was that he represented Luke’s message to Ren during that fight.

Anyway, check it out soon. No telling when Disney may pull the video of the stream. The performance itself starts around the 13 min mark.



New York Theater Tourists Don’t See

I was really excited to see the article title on Non-Profit Quarterly, “NYC’s Small Theaters Have Limited Budgets but Great Cultural Influence” I thought it was great that someone was focusing on cultural impact rather than economic impact of the arts.

But this isn’t entirely the case. The subtitle of the study conducted in NYC is “New York City Small Theater Industry Cultural and Economic Impact Study” Cultural impact does come first, but it is only covered in about a two pages while economic impact is covered in 7-8 pages of the study.

The cultural impact part of the report probably doesn’t contain anything revelatory for most people in the non-profit arts, but it is gratifying to see it acknowledged. For example (my emphasis):

In recent years, a number of small theaters in New York have evolved beyond singular-purpose performance houses into neighborhood-oriented cultural centers. As venues continue to open in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, many have made efforts to strengthen connections with local communities and businesses. Educational and family-oriented programs, as well as discounted tickets for local residents and local hiring, are commonly used to foster connections. In this way, they provide ‘social capital’ in addition to ‘cultural capital’ for neighborhoods and the city-at-large. This role often includes providing non-performance programming aimed at the needs of the local community, including social justice initiatives, as well as providing their theater venues for community events when not being used for rehearsals or productions.

The study also points out that a number of shows like Hadestown, The Band’s Visit and Hamilton had their initial development in these theaters. But few hit shows emerge from these spaces compared to the continued, on going impact of these other activities, initiatives and partnerships.

Another familiar topic that is covered is the challenge of audience development as print advertising loses its effectiveness and fewer people are producing quality critical reviews of work via a centrally accessed source:

As a result, newer and less-known theaters bear a considerable burden, as the cultivation of an audience base relies heavily on word of mouth and social media, as well as critical review. In order to address this, theaters are adopting a wide variety of strategies and tools. These include using innovative marketing efforts, leveraging social media and online platforms to target younger demographics that may not traditionally find their way to the theater, initiating strategic partnerships across theaters within the sector, such as co-producing, or neighborhood-oriented partnerships like in the historic South Village, below Washington Square Park, and utilizing the existing and growing number of listing platforms. When successful, these efforts not only boost ticket sales but also achieve a broader goal for a number of theaters, which is to increase inclusivity by cultivating audiences who have historically been underrepresented in the theater, including people of color, people with disabilities, and younger audiences. Theaters are looking to be more rooted in a specific place, deeply embedded in the local framework and engaged with local communities.

One of the great benefits of this study, even for people who don’t live in NYC is the level of detail it goes into on many operational topics. It looks at the role of unions in NYC; wage requirements; finance; donor cultivation; maps & statistics on venue closures since 2011.

It explores the challenges faced by theater companies that end up performing their works at different places all the time, making it difficult for interested people to find them again.

The report also provides a glossary defining many theatre related terms and job roles.

All in all, it is a good introduction to the non-Broadway theater operating environment in NYC which has its own unique characteristics, but also shares alot in common with any non-profit performing arts venue.

One Of The Most Significant Music Venues In Washington DC Is Outside A Cellphone Store

Today CityLab had a post titled “How Go-Go Music Became Kryptonite for Gentrification in D.C.” This was actually a follow up to an article that had come out in the Spring that I bookmarked with a notation “A T-Mobile store is the cultural axis for Go-Go music?”

I had bookmarked the story with the intention of returning to it in order to draw attention to the way centers of cultural signficance often emerge organically rather than by plan. I don’t think anyone uses a cellphone store as a model when drawing up plans for a cultural facility.

Briefly, the story here is that a guy who owned a nightclub which featured go-go bands opened a cellphone store when the venue closed and started playing his go-go music collection over the speakers outside his store. The neighborhood has gradually gentrified since the mid-1990s and residents of the new condo across the street complained about the music being too loud.

You may not know that residents of Washington DC claim go-go as their own, feeling the music style is synonymous with the city. Hearings were held on October 30 in support of a bill to make it the official music of the city.

They rallied around the store in a big way:

Thousands of people flooded Shaw’s streets and thousands more signed a petition (80,329 to be exact) demanding that Campbell be allowed to keep playing go-go at his corner, all done under the banner #Don’tMuteDC, which was to say “don’t mute—or erase—black people in D.C.” … which was to say, “don’t let gentrification have the final say.” And it didn’t. Several forces converged—including the CEO of T-Mobile, which owns the Metro PCS cell phones and service Campbell sold at his store—to declare that “the music will go on,” which led to the condo tenant dropping the complaint and acquiescing to the will of the streets.

Often speakers/writers about non-profit organizations challenge people to think about their place in the community and ask the question, who would miss you if you were gone, as a way to gauge the degree of relevance your organization has in the community.

Something of a corollary to this question is whether there is an entity in the community so that is so closely tied into the identity of the community that people would become angry if it disappeared. It may not be your organization, but really asking the question and paying attention might be revelatory. On the surface, it may seem obvious. In some communities, everything may seem aligned toward high school or college football. But there may also be some powerful, but overlooked element your organization could do a better job embracing and/or magnifying. Or at the very least recognizing and acknowledging the importance of.

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