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An appreciation of Dr. James Catterall and everyday creativity

By James Palmarini posted 08-28-2017 11:12


The arts education community lost one of its champions last week. Dr. James Catterall passed away in Los Angeles on August 23. Dr. Catterall has been called “the father of arts education research” and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. Over four decades, his landmark studies showcasing the impact of arts experiences on students has been the benchmark that advocates, policy makers, teachers, fellow researchers and a host of others have used to make the case for arts education programs in our schools and communities. 

I considered him a friend and colleague, so I’m going to dispense with a formal title and say this about James: His work serves as the bible of proof as to why every student should have the opportunity to engage in art making as part of their school career. Reports like Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development and his seminal longitudinal study, Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, in which he tracked the connections between high involvement in arts learning and general academic success in students over a twelve-year period, offer rigorous evidence of what those of us working with students—whether in theatre, music, dance, or visual arts—have witnessed time and time again: that encouraging children to create and share the art that they make and do helps them become better, more positive human beings able to make their way in the world today and for the rest of their lives.  

In 2015, James published The Creativity Playbook: A guide to our creativity debates, a text that addresses the fundamental questions: What is creativity? Can we measure it? Can we teach creativity? Is creativity a skill or thinking disposition? It’s a small book in all kinds of ways—162 pages, digest size, and decidedly not an academic study with lots of charts and graphs; the 29 chapters are short, succinct, and often possess an almost whimsical tone, as if to better embody the whole notion of what it means to be creative. But it is an enormously important coda, I think, to James’s perspective and why he spent much of his career studying the impact of the arts on children. In it, he explains why “…ordinary creativity has vast importance that must be recognized if we want to pursue a national agenda of creative development that touches all and benefits society broadly…. An idea or envisioned object should be considered NOVEL or NEW if it is NOVEL OR NEW to the creator. Period.”    

That sensibility is particularly reflected in the Next Generation Creativity Survey, an instrument that he co-created with Dr. Mark Runco and used in multiple studies to measure the effect of arts experiences on children in nine creativity indicators. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with him during the past two years, using the survey in the Educational Theatre Association’s JumpStart Theatre, a three-year scalable pilot program designed to build sustainable musical theatre programs in middle schools where there previously were none. At his passing, I was working with him and the staff of the organization he co-founded, the Centers for Research on Creativity (CRoC), to finalize the second-year data report, which considered how musical theatre experiences had influenced the creativity of participating students in four Cincinnati-area schools. As always, his thoughtful comments in the report are measured and fair, noting that the pilot thus far demonstrates that the program has significant impact on students critical problem solving and thinking, empathy, and creative fluency, among other things. But, researcher that he was, James cautions about reading too much into the data at this point. In other words, we’ll see what the future data has to say as well.

The model of creativity that he articulated in The Creative Playbook resonates in his report comments:  “The ideas that the JumpStart Theatre Program brings to creative education focus on smaller acts of invention, often known as ‘everyday creativity’ or ‘little’ or ‘mini c’ creativity, which are nonetheless skills and behaviors that fit common, general definitions of creativity. These definitions focus on two qualities – creative processes that lead to ideas, or things, that (1) are new or novel, and (2) have value. Thus, a creative idea is an original or unusual idea that can be put to some use or purpose that has value to someone. Furthermore, the creative processes, in which learners experiment, explore, imagine, tinker, test, and take risks are often of equal or greater value than the resulting creative product.”

James’s generous definition of creativity made me better understand and appreciate the small but important student moments in our pilot theatre program—an instance where the ensemble makes a group decision to rehearse in a parking lot when their theatre becomes unavailable; when a student drops a line during a performance and another picks them up with the next line without missing a beat; and when a tech crew solves a blocking challenge with an imaginative set piece made of cardboard, tape, and bit a string.    

Others no doubt knew James better and longer than I did, so my experience is certainly not data reliable, so to speak. But here’s the thing: I think his special skill was the ability to bring a very human and accessible face to arts education research. James was astoundingly articulate when called upon to explain data trends, extrapolating and comparing baselines, effect sizes, and gains. But he was also gifted at explaining the implications of “ordinary creativity” in a way that the broader, non-research community could understand and apply in their own lives and work.

This past spring, when James visited Cincinnati to attend the JumpStart Theatre showcase performance, he sat down for a brief interview. In it he said, “I just think the program has the potential to send a lot of kids off into a better future.” It’s a straightforward remark, but a good example of his optimism and commitment to arts education, not just a researcher’s perspective, but as a keen observer of what happens to children who have a life-changing experience. At the end of day, James loved the arts and his insatiable curiosity and skills as a researcher led him to a career that the rest of us have been fortunate enough to bear witness to. His passing is a great loss to his family, the CRoC staff, and the rest of us who either worked him directly or used his research to better understand and support arts education. But he has left us with a legacy on which we can build.

One more thing I know about James: he was an artist in his own right—a musician. Many years ago, when I was preparing to meet him for the first time, I dutifully did my research and discovered he was a cellist who regularly played with a local symphony. At dinner, we chatted about his research, some of which was focused on music education. When I asked him if his interest in music education was prompted by his work as a classical musician, he responded, “Well, yes and no.” It turns out he was cellist and a rock ’n roll guy, having got his start in high school playing in a garage band. We spent the rest of evening discussing the merits of various British bands of the sixties.

So, it was no surprise when, as he was departing Cincinnati in his last visit, he told me he was on his way to San Francisco to reunite with his old bandmates “and maybe play a gig.” I’m not sure if they did that gig but they did play—James sent me the MP3s of a couple cover tunes—The Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” among them. It was indeed an act of everyday creativity, meaningful and important for those who created it. And I’d say, pretty important for the rest of us as well. Want to listen? Check it out—I think James would like it if you did.Mr_Tambourine_Man.m4a