The (Maybe) Final Recordings of the 2019 NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

This week the National Endowment for the Arts posted the final recordings of works created for the NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge. Last Spring, six works by seven high school students were chosen as winners of the competition.

The subjects of their works were: mermaid kingdoms threatened by pirates; The American Civil War; Australia’s Great Emu War of 1932; choosing whether to attend college; Greco-Persian wars; and time travel.

The thing I really appreciated about the release of the final recordings is that the NEA also posted the original songs each person submitted alongside the final song they developed in conjunction with a mentor. This helps reinforce the reality of the process in creative process. Many of the songs have different lyrics and music by the time it came to do the professional recording.

Having the initial and final pieces side by side helps people understand the adage about genius being 98% perspiration and 2% inspiration is very much real. If the creators continue to work on these projects, in all likelihood these final recordings will turn out to actually be an intermediate step in the development process.

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)

It’s Time To Paint The Town Red

Hey all! If you live in a small or medium sized town and have always thought the asphalt and concrete slabs of your streets wouldn’t be so bad if they just had a coat of paint, Bloomberg Philanthropies is making it possible to take your art to the streets.

Their Asphalt Art initiative is open to applications from communities with populations of 30,000-500,000 people. Deadline is December 12, 2019

The initiative will fund “visual interventions on roadways (intersections and crosswalks), pedestrian spaces (plazas and sidewalks), and vertical infrastructure (utility boxes, traffic barriers and underpasses).”

There is a CityLab piece on the project with gorgeous examples of what other cities around the world have done. Bloomberg Philanthropies also offers a free guide and promises to include project planning information like model contracts, permits and insurance. If you don’t intend to apply for a grant, but are contemplating a project along these lines, these resources could be valuable.

A type of project along these lines that has been very popular lately is painting crosswalks with the goal of making pedestrians safer in the theory drivers will tend to slow down when driving across/near an image that doesn’t conform to familiar road markings. If that is an appealing notion, you should be aware that the Federal Highway Administration frowns on crosswalk art and actively requests cities remove them.

The Kentucky removal particularly peeved Lydon, who said that piece of street art saved lives.

“That was at an intersection with almost 10 crashes a year,” he said. “After it went in, it went down to zero. But the state DOT there too them to get rid of it because of the letter from [the federal authorities].”

And locals living near new street art in Rochester, New York told local radio station WXXI that the rainbow designs there calmed traffic on streets that were less than pedestrian friendly.


But the Highway Administration doesn’t see it that way, ruling in its report that “crosswalk art is actually contrary to the goal of increased safety and most likely could be a contributing factor to a false sense of security for both motorists and pedestrians.”

There are still a lot of other type of projects one could undertake. There are a number of pictures of pedestrian plazas and parking lots in the articles, but I think vertical structures like utility boxes, traffic barriers and underpasses are particularly ripe for development. I passed this information on to some people I know who were eyeing a train underpass I frequently walk under. I think more people would feel safer walking through there if there was more light and color.

Knitting Needles Over Netflix

So via Georgia Council for the Arts’ social media is a study on Artsy finding that many Americans would rather do something creative than watch TV or surf the net.

I initially wondered if there might be a bias to the study seeing it was commissioned by “Bluprint, NBCUniversal’s subscription service for online creative learning,” even though I am pretty sure NBCUniversal probably wouldn’t want to advertise the fact people would rather not be watching tv or streaming content.

The study was conducted by IPSOS with over 2000 randomly selected people so the results are probably relatively dependable. They asked participants about their creative hobby which was defined as “anything from drawing and painting to knitting, baking, making music, beer brewing, or journaling.”

What the study found was pretty interesting (my emphasis):

Americans have creative hobbies, but they’re hungry for more creative stimulation.

  • 75 percent of participants reported having at least one creative hobby.
  • The most popular activities were baking, gardening, cooking (beyond everyday meals), home decor, and DIY crafting.
  • 68 percent said that they are eager to use their creativity more often.

Participants with creative hobbies reported that making things by hand brings them joy.

  • 79 percent said they “love the process of creating something from scratch.”
  • 88 percent agreed with the statement: “Successfully finishing a creative project brings me joy.”
  • 75 percent reported that they “make mistakes along the way,” but that doesn’t lessen their “enjoyment.”

Some would sacrifice streaming TV and movies for their creative hobbies.

  • Of those who have Netflix, 77 percent would rather give up their subscription than give up their creative hobby.

Parents want their children to have ample opportunities for creativity.

  • 77 percent agreed with the statement “I want my child(ren) to be more creative than I got the opportunity to be when I was a child.”
  • 61 percent agreed that “public education doesn’t focus enough on creative arts.”
  • 72 percent agreed that “standardized test scores are prioritized more than creative thinking in schools.”
  • 79 percent of parents would prefer that their children “make just enough to get by in a creative job that they love,” rather than “make lots of money in a job they aren’t passionate about.”

Those findings I bolded really jumped out at me. I was interesting to me that they asked about mistakes and failures being a disincentive to continuing their hobby. It made me feel like the survey creators understood some of the underlying concepts behind creative expression. (Versus a sense that only something that is marketable has value.)

The bit about giving up Netflix before their hobby probably runs counter to a lot of the assumptions we all make about how people prefer to spend their free time.

I was also surprised that nearly 80% of parents wanted their kids to achieve just enough in their careers to support their creative pursuits rather than make a lot of money. Honestly, I wondered if it was the way the question was phrased or if people knew what answer they were ideally supposed to chose rather than what they would push their kids toward in practice.

My cynicism aside though, it was good to read something outside the circle of content I regularly consume specifically mentioning that people are recognizing that they have the capacity for creative expression and have begun to exercise it.

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