Where Imagination Meets Cognition

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By Lark Palma, head of school

This issue of the Caller features great news: Catlin Gabel plans to build a new Arts Center. This will affirm the centrality of the arts in student development and mark a lasting moment in our history.

In undertaking work on the Arts Center, we are acting on our beliefs about the vital importance of the arts and the role of creativity in all our lives. At Catlin Gabel School the arts have been core to the development of students’ minds and hearts. While we weren’t privy to brain research in the 1920s, Ruth Catlin and Priscilla Gabel set our course for vibrant performing and visual arts, fostering creativity, risk-taking, and new ideas by stimulating students to use their whole selves in pursuit of the arts.

I started teaching in the late 1970s. We understood some things about children’s brains then, but with the growing sophistication of brain scans and imaging, much more has been revealed to us. Our teachers have become active in learning about and understanding current brain research, and they bring that knowledge to bear in their classrooms. Many organizations are now devoted to the understanding of how creativity works. The Dana Foundation, a consortium of seven universities, is dedicated to the study of the correlation between training in the arts and improved math and reading skills. New studies find that children who participate in the arts also do well academically and suggest that changes in attention networks in the brain may be one reason. The studies not only look at children’s behavior, but also at the way their brains function as they pursue the arts.

While the arts are a priority at Catlin Gabel, the arts are at risk in our nation. Any museum director, art school president, or working artist will tell you so.

The history of the arts in American education tells us that with Sputnik, “artsy” pursuits were abandoned in many schools in pursuit of math, science, and technology. We simply were not keeping up with the Soviets on the world stage.

Since the ’80s we have witnessed a decline in arts programs of all kinds in elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges. Music, theater, and visual arts programs are still being cut. Colleges are putting their resources in business, science, technology, and sports. The thinking is that the arts are just not as important and do not draw the same crowds. What can you do with an art major, they say, much less an acting degree?

I see three solutions to this problem in American schooling:

* Reposition the arts as central to the cognitive growth of students.

* Ensure that the link between arts and cognition through neural mechanisms is studied and explicitly put into pedagogical practice in schools.

* Ensure that the creativity needed to pursue entrepreneurial ideas is explicitly extended to the rest of the curriculum.

How do we do this at Catlin Gabel?

Our teachers learn more every year about the link between arts and cognition, and how to apply that in and out of the classroom to expand students’ capacities for original thought. Every child every year has an opportunity to delve deeply into visual and performing arts, with projects and assignments often linked to other disciplines. This not only provokes creative thinking in the classroom and school activities, it creates a habit of thinking that lasts a lifetime.

As one example, our robotics team had to conquer the problem of propelling a ball of a certain weight forward a certain number of feet. By trial, error, and mathematical calculation they got closer to the solution, but it was a flash of creative insight that revealed that an underhand throw gave the height and distance needed. See the article on page 16 about the many ways technology has helped to facilitate insightful thinking, with examples of students learning language, understanding complicated mathematics, and more.

An onlooker need only observe our children at Catlin Gabel pursuing arts with focused determination to see that imagination at work. In creating an artifact or performance, unlike playing a video game or participating in an athletic event, the child makes up his or her own rules. The act of making, creating, and imagining comes from the child, not from a system already in place.

In his new book, The Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner introduces the Creating Mind. He says, “More than willing, the creator must be eager to take chances, to venture into the unknown, to fall flat on her face, and then, smiling, pick herself up and once more throw herself into the fray. Even when successful, the creator does not rest on her laurels. She is motivated again to venture into the unknown and to risk failure, buoyed by the hope that another breakthrough may be in the offing.” The relationship between creativity spawned by the arts and Catlin Gabel’s unflagging belief that children must make their own mistakes and learn by trial and error intersect beautifully to educate and graduate such risk-takers.

This magazine is filled with stories about our alumni who have forged culture-changing businesses and creations. I think that Catlin Gabel can claim credit, since its founding and that of its predecessor schools, for understanding and continuing to believe that students’ creativity and risk-taking can create better possible futures. You can witness this creativity every day on the Catlin Gabel campus in places such as the new science laboratory, the media arts classroom, the environmental studies class, the Urban Leadership Program, and the Not as Easy as It Looks preschool circus. See it flower after Catlin Gabel in the lives of our alumni who risk everything to pursue an original idea, backed by the self-confidence they gained during their years on our campus.