Children’s Brains at Work: Creative Capacity Building and the Pre-frontal Cortex

IMG_2732“As a pathway to learning in Arts education, creative practices include such attributes as flexible thinking, creative problem solving, inquisitiveness, and perseverance.”                                                                    “Creative and innovative strategies build students’ ability in problem formulation, research, interpretation, communication, precision,  and accuracy.”                                               {“Creativity is the capability or act of conceiving something original/unusual. Innovation is the implementation of something new.”} ~ National Core Arts Standards: A Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning 2013                                       Watershed students at work                                   

If young people are to become impactful members of society, we must help them learn to think Graham at workin creative, innovative ways. Research tells us that the prefrontal cortex of the Pre-frontal cortex #2brain is responsible for filtering our actions, helping us make decisions, and “selectively maintaining task-relevant information”*. To determine if the pre-frontal cortex could also be a barrier for creative thought,  Dr. L Chrysikou and a team of neuroscientists, biomedical engineers, and psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania and City College of New York, tested their hypothesis. Their goal was to find out if one could improve his or her ability to push the boundaries of his or her creative thinking (*Dissociable Brain States Linked to Common and Creative Object Use, Evangelia G. Chrysikou and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill). It turns out that the left prefrontal cortex, hard at work making meaning of the world can indeed suppress creative thinking. Because the PFC is slow to develop in humans,  we spend much of our early childhood years with the gift of an enormous imagination and perhaps a reduced ability to focus for lengthy periods of time. As our brains develop and change, it appears that we have less and less access to the creative juices that once flowed freely.  Kindergarten Sea ExplorationWhat can we do in schools to keep our students’ imaginations active?  

We must build in time and opportunity for children to continue to stretch their minds, explore and collaborate on ideas, and test out original theories. Offering them problems to solve and a rich assortment of materials with which to work , we must teach them to recognize patterns and form connections on their own.           

Art  making is a vehicle through which children can build bridges across the curriculum. It invites open-ended thought that helps maintain their capacity for novel thinking as they move beyond the primary years.  

Third Graders’ Brains at Work                                                                                 

As a Third Grade teacher I introduced eight year olds to a study of Greek and Cretan mythology. Having learned about Theseus and the Minotaur and observed illustrations of the Cretan bull, we decided to replicate the renowned fresco at Knossos. We exploredClose-up of fresco related history for many months, fully invested in the process. Reading, Writing, and Math were at the heart of our studies, as we deepened our knowledge through research. Inviting a fresco artist into our classroom to demonstrate his technique, we devised a strategy for creating our own plaster model. First we created a grid over a copy of the art work. Bull-leaping fresco (17th-15th centuries BC) in Knossos Palace in CreteEach child replicated one rectangular section of the fresco on paper, applying mathematical and spatial skills. In time he or she transferred the design onto plaster in a cookie sheet and applied paint, using authentic techniques. Piecing individual elements together, we could finally see the whole, which, decades later, still hangs on the wall at the Charles River School in Dover, MA. As their teacher I realized that Art is key to propelling kids’ learning and pushes all of our thinking.

Third Grade fresco from studies of KnossosWe can help our children to maintain and develop their imaginations, a tool not just for looking back at history, but for paving the way to a productive future.  

With more research to come,

Nancy Harris Frohlich

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