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Oklahoma’s lessons for teaching creativity. Hint: don’t kill the arts

Creative Oklahoma hosts annual creativity forums. Here, a presentation on drone technology.

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For a long time, Susan McCalmont has worried about the marginalization of the arts in schools. As she saw it, music and fine arts were shoved aside as a result of prioritizing science and math. The focus on outcomes as defined by standardized tests only made the problem worse.

"What happens in the future if our children only become compliant test takers?" she wondered. "What if they go through school told to get the highest GPA and go to college, but not to imagine, to think, to have ideas?"

Working in philanthropy in Oklahoma, she heard from concerned business and university leaders about the lack of creativity among graduates. She hypothesized that it could be related to a lack of arts training, and campaigned to support arts in schools.

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Then Ms. McCalmont went to a conference where she heard Sir Ken Robinson (this was in the days before he was a "Sir") talk about how schools stifle creativity. "He totally changed my paradigm from focusing on arts education to focusing on the broader frame of creativity," she recalls. "What we then understood was that not only were the arts being marginalized but so were the sciences and the humanities."

The revelation led Ms. McCalmont and a group of like-minded leaders to launch Creative Oklahoma in 2007, a non-profit dedicated to increasing creativity in Oklahoma. In consultation with Sir Ken, the group began organizing initiatives and conferences aimed at bringing leaders from education, cultural and business together to boost the creative economy and innovation in general in the region.

Oklahoma is a largely rural state with only two considerable cities; the rural areas struggled with poverty and a weak agricultural sector. The tornadoes that pass through yearly can wreak havoc, such as this week's massive, devastating one. Add to that the fact that the state contains 39 sovereign Native American nations, and it was clear that Oklahoma needed some new solutions. At a summit Ms. McCalmont organized in October of 2005 participants from all sectors agreed that the key to making that happen was to foster flexible, creative thinking.

Creative Oklahoma has since hosted annual creativity forums that are now attended by educators and business leaders from around the world. Through its cSchool, the NGO has gathered academics and educators who research creativity and innovation and help businesses be more innovative through evidence-based approaches. They've launched a number of prizes to incentivize schools and businesses to increase their creativity education and they've taken a leading role in national and international groups with similar missions. "The end goal," explains Ms. McCalmont, "is economic prosperity in the state and more jobs and startups, as well as helping existing businesses to improve the quality of their products. But fundamentally, it's to improve our quality of life."

Despite broadening her focus to attempt to foster creativity not just in the arts, Ms. McCalmont still sees the creative industries as a key part of the puzzle. She helped establish Academy of Contemporary Music, for example. But perhaps more importantly, Oklahoma has launched A+ Schools, a network of 70 schools that are incorporating Sir Ken's ideas to encourage more creative thinking.

"Oklahoma has produced more astronauts per capita than anywhere else, but we also produce more musicians than perhaps any other state. We are exporting talent."

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