Information Age Education
   Issue Number 81
January, 2012   

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Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
The Positive Roles That the Arts, Arts Education, and
Creative Obsession Will Play

Susan Stauter
Artistic Director
San Francisco Unified School District

Arts Education

An overwhelming number of K-12 Arts Education programs faded or disappeared in the United States during the last part of the 20th century. At the same time, the cultural role of the arts in society increased. This article will argue that the disconnect occurred in part because K-12 arts education got untracked by standards and assessment programs that misunderstood the role of arts in education and society.

The Arts

Our brain's basic task is to plan, regulate, and predict our movements, and to predict the movements of others and objects. Humans often add aesthetics to various movements and call it the Arts, a phenomenon deeply imbedded in human psyche and history. The artist articulates the culture—defining and challenging in ways that reflect personal truth but also become aesthetic cultural hallmarks. Those who wish to understand the history of a culture need to listen to its music, observe its clothing and architecture, and read its plays, poetry, and literature—all of which describe humans who are moving physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

That the images of the caves of Lascaux focus only on live moving animals tells us much about the tribesmen/artists who cared enough to record the images and the value system that drove the imagery. Through music we communicate across languages, value systems, and space. We are able to 'speak' through the arts in ways that are emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating. Questions are raised, deepening levels of inquiry are pursued, new ideas introduced, and challenging ways of viewing the ordinary are posed so that life takes on a newer, extraordinary meaning. It has been said that the arts make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

The arts are supremely engaging. That they're processed in so many of our brain systems demonstrates their centrality to our personal life. But they also surround us and are thus integral to the breadth of our cultural life—and this causes a sort of cognitive dissonance when they're reduced or cut from the K-12 curriculum to save money. They've come to be viewed as an 'extra' or sort of dessert to be served, perhaps, after the real academic meat and potatoes have been prepared and put on the curricular table.

With disengaged students struggling to understand the disconnected facts that schools so energetically teach and test, we should value the cultural breadth and integration the arts could provide as a part of the daily education of students—to engage and help them move aesthetically.

Aesthetic movements can be somewhat predictable, such as those of a pianist playing a well-practiced piece, or they can be improvisational, such as a pianist who elevates common keyboard skills and a simple melody into a unique artistic expression. The ability to improvise, to be flexible and make changes on the spot, to take risks and work both independently and as part of a larger ensemble, translates to the workplace and will be considered an important 21st century workplace skill.

Assessing the Arts

Many such skills, while directly related to the arts education experience, are not easily translated into the current right/wrong fill in the blank mentality of testing, and are easily marginalized, if taught at all. Assessment of the arts becomes tremendously challenging in this "Age of Assessment". It’s chilling to look at the ways in which an artist like Vincent Van Gogh was "assessed" by his contemporaries and potential purchasers. Imagine the world without those sunflowers and that starry, starry night—the fruit of his artistic capabilities and obsession. When his brother Theo told him the paintings weren’t selling, Van Gogh persisted and created something new. Now we assess this work in an entirely new way, with billionaires competing for the privilege of having one of these images on their walls, and major museums vying for them so that we may stand in front of them in wonder.

And yet, when we assess student art we too often fall into a coloring book mentality; staying within the lines and drawing up grocery lists of rubrics and standards and mandates, the very things real artists abhor once they get beyond mere technique. Picasso famously stated that he had to work his whole life in order to once again make art like a child. The combination of technique and style make art, and while technique may be registered more easily, style is personal by nature and harder to quantify, qualify, and assess. This is the conundrum.

Art is unique. If the results of aesthetic movements are predictable and practical, we call it craft. The prototype of a manufactured vase can thus be art, but the reproductions are craft. We consider multiple performances of a stage production to be art, even though the script, technical elements, and set are constant. Subtle to important differences will occur during a series of performances, however, so each performance is art, as it happens in the moment and is changing constantly along with the factors surrounding it—many of them driven by the direct response of the live audience in the room. The actor changes metabolically during the performance; weeping, sweating, laughing, crying. The body literally mirrors the emotions being channeled by the character being played. It happens in real time and the bodies of those watching from the audience change as well, as inspiration and emotion cause us to change metabolically.

The arts are experienced directly. We cannot read a book on painting and be a painter any more than we can memorize Hamlet and step on the stage to play it. We have to do things; we have to experience the arts on all sides, as creators and as perceiver/audience members, and what drives us to make art is primal and might be labeled obsessive.


The word obsession carries a negative connotation for most of us. Issues around control and the lack of it and possibly being consumed by something out of our control connect with the word itself. The feelings of a person who is in the grip of obsession may be strongly driven by an image, an idea, an unanswered question or an overwhelming desire.

Artists in the grip of the creative process often feel a level of obsession, with all of their energies going towards the solving of a creative riddle or the realization of an image, musical score, or choreographed movement pattern. The creative artist works around, over and through sometimes seemingly impossible obstacles. The drive to create is often fueled by an intense, obsessive energy that reaches its conclusion when the creative act is complete and the 'problem' seemingly solved, at least for the moment. Artists talk about feeling as if they are gestating and then giving birth to their creative products, sometimes carrying the unfinished design with them, or perseverating about a role or movement pattern as part of their own unique creative process.

While some creative artists need to have long gestation periods before arriving at their creative product, others work quickly and actually thrive with pressure and difficult, short deadlines. One unifying driving force is the fact that the goal for the creator is high stakes; that is to say it matters a great deal. The resolution of the problem, the creation of the new work, is of greatest importance to the creative artist and acts as a driving force. Some playwrights seem to continue to write the same play over and over again, consumed with certain issues and concepts. Perhaps what we call 'style' in visual art is a coded response of artists to make visible that which consumes and is of great interest to them.

When we stand amazed before Michelangelo's David or sit listening to the music of Stravinsky, we are in the presence of work that was created by a human being who was driven to create it with a tremendous need and energy. We marvel at what possessed the artist to create the masterwork, and we puzzle over the sometimes tremendous obstacles that the artist faced and overcame. Does it take a level of obsession to create art, and how do we find a new way to view creative obsession, through the lens of creativity and the creative process?

The word obsession also carries with it notions of a lack of balance, both emotional and intellectual, a giving over of the self to that which obsesses. Artists take risks when they choose to confront great truths and unanswerable questions delving into areas of life that are sometimes difficult, dark and dangerous. They symbolically take us with them as fellow travelers, without the actual danger of real life experiences. With the artist as guide, works of visual and performing art provide a way for all of us to both lose and find ourselves—to deal with emotional questions and find ways to speak unspeakable truths.

As children we drew and sang and played out our fears and interests, sometimes with tremendous intensity. I watch my four year old grandson 'become' a 'scary monster' one minute and a 'train' the next. Fearlessly and with great physical, emotional, and intellectual energy, he works out what interests and obsesses him, and he doesn't want to stop until he gets it right. This is the seed from which art grows; the need to articulate and give form to what is of greatest interest. Far from the binary 'right and wrong' answers called for in our current test driven education systems, the passionate creative act has more than one 'right' answer, is subjective, and exceedingly difficult to assess.

Our culture is replete with the stories of struggling artists whose success came after they left conventional society, and when our children tell us they want to be artists, who among us is not initially taken aback with the image of the obsessed, failed artist. And yet, it is this drive, this passionate need to create, to solve the problem and to give it form that is ultimately of highest value in a creative society.

The recent death of Steve Jobs, (a creative genius although not an artist in the strict sense of the word) sparked praise and mourning for a man whose obsessive drive to create resulted in dramatic aesthetic changes in technology that affect all of us. While in the throes of his creative journey, Jobs persisted in seeing his ideas take shape and form, and his standards were notoriously obsessively high. He was, as all artists are, persistent in his pursuits, driven by something other than money and fame, both of which he had in excess. We say we are inspired by Jobs and people like him, and we revere the work of great artists not only for the persistence of vision that formed the crucible for their creations, but also for the way they change our lives and add to our experience of being human. We honor the fruits of their obsession, though we may be afraid of this quality in ourselves. And yet, to tackle the daunting problems that face us will take extraordinary creativity, perseverance and vision. And it will involve the same sort of risky out of the box thinking that artists understand and embrace in their work.

21st Century Arts Education Challenges

When we allow students to experience deep and authentic arts education, we afford them a place to put the tremendous energy that fuels them, and to go to levels of engagement that encourage a love of learning that transfers to subjects other than the arts. When students are taught technique, both in the visual and performing arts classes, they are given a palette and a lexicon with which to paint, dance, sing, and act out their feelings and individual creative voice. The parts of our brain that process emotion are integral to processing the creation and appreciation of the arts—connecting us not only to our own feelings but also to empathic feelings for others. While certainly not all students will grow up to be artists, many will become the educated consumers of art and their lives and communities will be richer for it. And some will be artists, and they will take their place in the long line of creators who go back to the caves and who define the cultural history of our species.

At any age, when we are disengaged we cannot learn, and are not motivated to solve problems or to create. While obsession may be dangerous at some levels, a little bit of it may be what drives us as human beings to fearlessly tackle the big ticket issues and problems that face us. Obsession and the obsessive drive to create may be qualities we need to redefine and value as we search for ways to re-engage and create new solutions to sometimes seemingly insolvable problems. Creative artists have never been afraid to go to the limits, and those who will take us to the next level will no doubt think as artists do, taking risks, pushing past obstacles and doing what has previously been labeled impossible to save what we value and move us forward.

References and Resources

Eby, D. (July 4, 2010), The Creative Mind with Douglas Eby, Creative Obsession

Information Age Education Newsletter. Issue 58, January 2011. Assessing Student Achievement in Difficult to Assess Curricular Areas: The Arts.

Maisel, E. (2002), Creativity Newsletter #28, In Praise of Positive Obsessions.

McCarthy, K., Ondaatje, E., Zakaras L. and Brooks, A. (2004), Gifts of the Muse; Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts, Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation.

Susan Stauter

Susan Stauter is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Unified School District, the former Conservatory Director of the American Conservatory Theater, and the founding chair of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Theatre Department. Among the organizations she has consulted for are Disney Entertainment, the Grammy Foundation, and The New World Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Stauter is a lead trainer for the Leonard Bernstein Artful Learning School Reform Model and a frequent keynote speaker and advocate for arts education.

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