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In 2010, the American magazine Newsweek reported that creativity scores in America have been declining since 1990—especially in children. Why? The amount of time kids spend watching television or playing videogames is one possibility, the article explains; insufficiently developing creativity in schools is another.

Fortunately, the creative process can be taught, argue Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, professors at Michigan State University, in Psychology Today. The Root-Bernstein’s argue any subject can be taught creatively. But the arts seem to be an appropriate place to start. Since art is both subjective and expressive, it welcomes freedom of interpretation. That said, sparking creative thought and cultivating innovation are two reasons to make time for the arts today.

Schools the world over are criticized for suppressing creative thinking. It’s a topic Sir Ken Robinson, an English author and educational advisor, addresses in a TED Talk. With nearly 40 million views, the talk appears to strike a chord. Robinson recognizes the outdated school system educating today’s youth. Overhauling school curriculum is a lofty goal. On a smaller level, however, some art museums are changing their educational tactics: from a hierarchical approach to learning about art towards a discussion-based one. This is a worthy pursuit to bolster creative and critical thinking skills.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) does just that. It’s one method some art museums and schools are incorporating. The idea is simple: teachers or museum educators begin discussions urging students to share their own opinions grounded in observation, while also listening and considering those of their peers.

Key to this strategy is open-ended questions. “What is going on in this image?” is the first of three questions Philip Yenawine, co-founder of VTS, asks according to the article “A Conversation on Object-Centered Learning in Art Museums.” The question prompts storytelling, he adds. Luckily there are often many different stories to tell with a piece of art.

By way of example, take Claude Monet’s painting “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare.” In response to Yenawine’s first question, you could craft a story about the mass of people crowding the train. Alternatively, you may devise a narrative about the industrialization of the modern world.

Next Yenawine poses a second question, “[w]hat do you see that makes you say that?,” in order for the viewer to back opinions with evidence. The large locomotive and billowing clouds of smoke in Monet’s painting support the previous claim that the artist captured the industrial modern world. Or think about the 32 canvasses making up Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans.” Perhaps you see this body of work as a comment on America’s commodity culture because the display reminds you of soup cans lining a grocery store shelf.

Lastly, Yenawine asks “[w]hat more can you find?” to promote more careful study. Maybe you notice Monet’s use of quick, “impressionistic” brushstrokes. After noting the subject of George Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” for example, you may notice the dots of color Seurat used throughout.

Are any of the above interpretations wrong? No. This model allows students to take risks: sharing what they know and observe. Possibly most important, the VTS model points to independent thinking. In contrast to traditional educational models, VTS does not tell students what to think; rather it’s an active and engaging process that encourages students to share their impressions and reasonings. As Yenawine puts it, VTS “asks people to look, and look again. To draw conclusions based on evidence.” Arguably, examining art in this way encourages important life skills: taking intellectual risks, thinking individually and dealing with uncertainty.

Fostering innovation

The arts also stimulate innovation, which is second reason to make time for them. “Hobble the arts and you hobble innovation,” claims another Root-Bernstein essay. In response to economic woes and cuts in the arts, the pair provides countess examples of how art and innovation work together. They highlight Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, who used his understanding of lace making to advance the suture method used in operating rooms; together artists and painter-scientists developed the idea of fusing red, green and blue dots to create messages that appear on electronic screens. Even patients with psychiatric disorders use painting, sculpting and drawing for treatment, the Root-Bernsteins’ add.

How exactly do the arts foster innovation? According to journalist Grace Hwang Lynch, kids develop innovation when “encouraged to express themselves and take risks in creating art.” This assertion hints at the VTS model, where students are vulnerable in order to convey opinions in response to broad questions. Art is an apt subject to take such chances because there are many ways to interpret an artwork, as demonstrated by Monet’s “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare.” Put another way, with art you are allowed to be “wrong.” This type of thinking is essential today. “The kind of people society needs to make it move forward are thinking, inventive people who seek new ways and improvements,” recognizes Mary Ann Kohl, author and art educator, “not people who can only follow directions.”

Yenawine shares her sentiment by acknowledging how VTS extends beyond the confines of an art museum or gallery. “If by helping people dig into art, we help people learn to appreciate ambiguity and value multiple, plausible viewpoints, we also build capacities that transcend art,” he says. “The openness carries over, and we desperately need more open attitudes to solve the crises that surround us.”

People value art for different reasons. Some find aesthetic significance. Others regard art as the pinnacle of happiness. And still others find art liberating and the height of self-expression. The arts also have the potential to stretch intellectual abilities and impact society—qualities desperately needed today. Whether you attend gallery openings, docent tours or incorporate the VTS model in a group or by yourself, the important thing is to make time for art in your life. Personal and societal benefits abound.

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