The art of learning how to think


I have had a thought-provocative stretch these last few days. I have been engaged with the Indiana State Board of Education recently as it reviewed a proposal to recommend changes to the high school diplomas offered by all of the state’s schools. Not surprisingly, the board is struggling with the desire to raise the performance of our students regarding readiness to go to college or enter the workforce. The discussion of how to accomplish this has been centered on the addition of math classes to the curriculum. The board was in a place where adding math was the only suggestion on the table this week, and the deadline for decision making was upon them.

Ironically, simple math dictates that by adding more math we will have to subtract something else to make room for it. Fine arts programs and instruction immediately becomes that target.

This same dilemma presented itself in the 1995 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus. In the movie, the title character tells the school board in response to their similar spot that “you people are willing to create a generation of children that will not have the ability to think or create or listen.” Because these skills are the critical things we learn from exposure to the arts.

My wife and I and several thousand of our closest friends were at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to see Stevie Wonder in concert. During the show, he took a break between songs to encourage us to tell all of our politicians to help our troubled children find their way through our commitment to education in the arts. The iconic musician simply said “give them something constructive to do.”

I worry that education policy makers believe that pumping the most data possible into our children is the best way to produce a smarter person. I emphatically disagree with that strategy. In life after school, finding answers to questions of who, what when and where are easy to find. It’s the adult answers to the questions of “how” and “why” that separate successful people from the pack.

I am in the middle of my career. (Those who know me can insert old man jokes here.) But I have been successful and know a long list of other successful business people across an array of professions. There is no question that the most successful professional adults, are those with the best ideas. Ideas come from thinking. Not data.

I have a son in college. We shopped around for his school of choice, and he had great options on his list. The most memorable sales pitch I got during that process was from a school that told me “we won’t teach your son what to think, we will teach him how to think.” Sold.

And that is what makes an education special. When I was young, school was the only place to get answers to many of my questions. My parents had a set of encyclopedias in the house that me and my siblings wore out as well. It was just data. It seemed like lots of data. In today’s world, finding data is no longer the challenge. And like economic theory would show, the lack of scarcity of something is what drives down its price. Or in this case, it’s value.

So what am I suggesting? I want to see us double down on our commitment to the arts. It is the simplest way for large groups of educators to teach large groups of students how to create, reason, innovate, and listen. I’m sure there are other ways, but long division is quite a bit further down on my list.

The night before the Stevie Wonder show, I was lucky enough to attend “Waiting and Watching” an art display at the Harrison Center for the Arts by my favorite painter, Kyle Ragsdale. He is also the curator at the Center, and it is about 500 yards from my house, so I see his work often. I have never been drawn to paintings before, but I find myself staring at his work for some reason. Searching for that reason is an exercise my mind needs.

It is that kind of exercise that all of us can use. Learning this exercise has happened on accident many times to many people who are smarter than I am. Creating these “accidents” is what I want from an education system, and we know how to do that. We do it through teaching music, painting, sculpting. We do it through teaching languages. And we do it by teaching the circumstances of why and how these works were created.

I read a recent interview Ragsdale gave. He said, “My mom had heard that if you give a child a blank paper instead of coloring books, it would make your child more creative.” That kind of creativity is the source of newer and better ideas for our communities.

The State Board of Education called a timeout on the adding of more math to our graduation requirements this week. I am glad they did. Maybe in the meantime, we can give our kids a bunch of blank paper instead.


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