Our two most recent blog posts have argued that the emerging ‘new normal’ for education must incorporate a diverse range of knowledge systems, especially the aesthetic dimension which informs all human consciousness. We have also argued that one benefit of the aesthetic dimension is that it creates and dwells within what Maxine Green has called the ‘variously meaningful’. This final post on this theme needs to address the implications of these perspectives for classroom practice. What is to be done to amplify the place of sensuous knowledges, namely the cognitive, emotional and intuitive insights that inform action (p.32) and the tolerance of ambiguity which accompanies the plurality and openness of the variously meaningful? Not surprisingly much work has already been done on this, but has been conducted principally as research into creativity and play.

 Nancy Andreason, the influential neuroscientist and researcher of human creativity, provides a framework for this discussion. From her longitudinal study of high achieving creative artists and scientists she sets out the creative process in four stages. Most interestingly for our purposes, she identifies the Incubation stage as crucial, arguing that during this phase the association cortex of the brain takes the many ideas in flux and forms them into new stable combinations. She observes such connections are made most “often at a relaxed time, often unconsciously”. How then can educators ensure their students have the time and circumstances they need for Incubation; for ideas, intuitions and feelings to come together to produce novel outcomes, objects and products?

To help design your courses, or revisit existing designs, here are some subject-neutral ways you might use to infuse more imaginative thinking and aesthetic engagement into your practice. 

 1.    Lead students to ask “What if…?” questions.

It’s always valuable to pose questions to students, but it is equally, if not more important, to build in opportunities for your students to pose questions themselves and then explore or investigate them. 

‘What if…?” questions are among the most catalytic for they shift perspectives and open up new possibilities. They are propositional by nature and almost always set up opportunities to investigative through hands-on action.  When students ask “What if…?”, they are motivated to discover, test, and experiment. 

At the same time, “What if….?”  is also the gateway to imaginative play. For example, what would you do if you were given an instrument you’d never seen before and asked to make something of it? You’d probably start with “what can this do?” and then, to really know it’s creative potential, you’d try something else…and then something else.  You’d be asking “What else might I try? What else can this do?”

2.    Let students build a box… to get outside of the box.

How might play enable creative productivity in the classroom? How can you infuse this artistic dynamic into your course? 

 Game design scholar Katie Salen succinctly defines play as free movement within a structure and distinguishes between rule bound play (“Ludus”) and free form play (“Paida”).  Free form play is most relevant for through it the actions of the play alter the structures that give the play shape. Enabling such free movement of play, driven by curiosity and the impulse to experiment, is substantively different from the astroturfed fields with parents shouting from the sidelines (p.284). 

Similarly, artists place self-imposed limits on their own expressive explorations in order to play within and often go beyond those limits. Belgian painter Nel Alerts expresses it this way “I try to set boundaries in order to create space”(p.8). Teachers need to be alert to when, where and how they can enable learners to set structures or boundaries themselves, in order to play within and then venture beyond them.

 3.    Provide time for Free-Form Play

One of the most powerful ways to bring artistic rigor into your teaching is also one of the most simple – provide time to play. 

To truly understand the expressive potential of anything you have to push past the point where you think you’ve tried it all; past the point where you think you’ve exhausted all possibilities or seen everything there is to see. The strength of the artist is the strength to linger in play past boredom. Post-pandemic learning works to build a stamina for play. 

4.    Model playfulness by suspending critical judgment.

As well as setting aside and protecting time for play, teachers need to offer the prompts and protocols that encourage students to suspend their judgment during that time. Judgment has its critical place; options must be sorted and solutions distinguished…eventually.  But when premature judgment is imposed during incubation, and the ‘variously meaningful’ restricted, then the most novel, inventive and often effective solutions are less likely to emerge. Suspending judgment for a time leaves room for “what else…?”.

Finally, allow some exemplars to be ridiculous. This lets students know that there is space for the playful and provides the freedom to risk following “what else?” in order to see where it takes them.

Calling for learning design that activates more aesthetic, imaginative, and creative muscle is not the isolated plea of a few arts educators. The Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky describes the impact this way: In play, a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (p.371). Drawing on anthropological evidence, Rutger Bregman asserts human beings, it turns out, are ultrasocial learning machines. We are born to learn, to bond and to play.” (p.71) And, as Andreasen’s research demonstrates, when we ultrasocial learning machines have open time, our brains fire the creative, associative cortices. The evidence from psychiatry, anthropology, and neuroscience is coming together; we educators in the age of the ‘new normal’ ignore it at our peril.

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Professor Emeritus Brad Haseman, EVP, Kadenze, Inc.
John Holyoke, Associate Director, Lincoln Center Education, New York.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash