Thursday, April 1, 2010

Creative Thinking in the Classroom, Part 1

Sirens seize our attention. They scream, “Crisis!” and we scan the horizon or media streams to secure the details.

Despite their obvious function, sirens do little to actually address the emergencies they signal. After awareness is achieved, sirens fall silent while those charged with solving problems shift into high gear. The perp is pursued, the fire is fought, the EMT's and ambulance crew care for the injured. It’s these individuals on the ground who address whatever triggered the siren’s screech across the airwaves.

Creativity has become the target of many sirens, pundits who find purpose in critiquing current educational practices. Some, such as Sir Ken Robinson, go so far as accusing education of killing students’ creativity. (By the way, this is not a criticism of Mr. Robinson. I appreciate his thinking, share his talks with others, and have read all of his books!) These sirens have served a purpose: educators are aware of and talking about the need to develop students’ creative capacities. However, many of us are not shifting into high gear to address this problem because we have not been equipped to do so. Returning to the analogy, if I am the first on an accident scene I’ll do what I can while praying for the EMTs to arrive soon. I’m simply not equipped to deal with serious injuries. And with all due respect, suggesting that more dance or drama be added to the curriculum does little to help the people “on the ground,” classroom teachers, foster creative thinking in students.

To explore creative thinking in the classroom we must first recognize that creativity is broader than the arts. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a HUGE supporter of arts in the schools. Music, drama, writing, architecture, and literature are major contributors to my life, and I’m learning to appreciate the arts not included in that list. I believe strongly that young people should receive regular experiences and instruction in the arts.

However, creative thinking is a valued process in nearly every field. The Root-Bernsteins realized this when they launched their ground-breaking research on creative thinking. From their penetrating study, the Root-Bernsteins identify “thinking tools” employed by creative individuals.1 These tools cross disciplines, showing creative breakthroughs in multiple professional fields. For example, a practicing biologist is just as likely to gain insight from analogizing as a sculptor of abstract artwork. The Root-Bernsteins show us that creative thinking possesses value beyond the stage and easel. Unfortunately findings from the study “Are They Really Ready to Work?” reveal that only 21 percent of American corporate leaders reported excellence in this area among recent college graduates seeking employment with their companies.”2 Nearly ⅘ of the corporate world is dissatisfied with the creativity new hires bring to the workplace. Creative thinking needs to be an emphasis in all of education, not just students’ training in the arts.

To integrate creative thinking into our teaching, we need answers to a few questions: 1) What do we know about creative thinking?, 2) Is there any relationship between creative thinking and learning?, and if so 3) How can we engage students in creative thinking while continuing to teach our required curriculum?

While much of what sparks creativit
y and the neurological processes that enable it remains a mystery, evidence suggests creativity includes a period of disorganization prior to creation. In the landmark book The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen hypothesizes:
...that during the creative process the brain begins by disorganizing, making links between shadowy forms of objects or symbols or words or remembered experiences that have not been previously linked. Out of this disorganization, self-organization eventually emerges and takes over in the brain. The result is a completely new and original thing: a mathematical function, a symphony, or a poem.3
My favorite description of this disorganization-reorganization process comes from architect Steven Holl, who writes:
In each project, we begin with information and disorder, confusion of purpose, program ambiguity, an infinity of materials and forms. All of these elements, like obfuscating smoke, swirl in a nervous atmosphere. Architecture is the result of acting on this indeterminacy.4
Perhaps the presence of “obfuscating smoke” is what prevents us from knowing more about creativity. However, it appears that a period of disorganization gives way to a period of defining and organizing, which is followed by a period of associating data with known concepts through which patterns begin to emerge.

If true, creativity shares some cognitive processes with learning. In fact, since learning involves the transformation of data into meaning, some researchers describe learning itself as a creative act. It is possible that these shared processes result, in part, from shared brain geography. As Science writer Greg Miller explains, researchers at University College London found that the hippocampus, a brain structure critical for forming new memories, is also essential for imagining scenes. Such findings “provide experimental evidence that memory and imagination may share neural circuitry.”5

These findings hold potential implications for us as educators.

First, if creative thinking promotes personal and professional success, it is something we should be addressing in schools. Sir Ken Robinson is right: “Creativity is possible in science, in technology, in management, in business, in music, in any activity that engages human intelligence.”6 As such, creative thinking should be one of the portals through which we engage students in our subject matter.

Second, if creativity and learning aren’t completely different languages—if, in fact, they share cognitive processes—then integrating creative thinking into learning should be possible. We should be able to design instruction that engages creative thinking that not only fosters its own development but also deepens the learning of our original subject matter.
We need to find ways to welcome the “obfuscating smoke” into our classrooms!

We’ll explore some how-to ideas in the second post on this topic. Perhaps then we can silence, or at least dampen, some of the sirens.

By the way, these ideas are explored in depth Chapter 8 of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain. Copies are available directly from Clerestory Press or through

  1. Root-Bernstein, R. & Root-Bernstein, M., Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People (Boston: Mariner Books, 2001), 118.
  2. Rappaport, J., Arts Skills are Life Skills.
  3. Andreasen, N.C., The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 77-78.
  4. Holl, S., Phenomena and Idea.
  5. Miller, G., A Surprising Connection Between Memory and Imagination, Science, 315, (2007), 312.
  6. Robinson, K., Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (Oxford, UK: Capstone Publishing, 2001), 10.


Anonymous said...

I love this entry... and really liked what Steven Holl (he designed our MoMA in Helsinki) said. We often see creativity as coming up with something that disregards all the rules or breaks boundaries, but as he said, often making an order from disorder is a very creative process.

This is something I've tried to teach my students at the seminars: crafting a thesis and doing the research for it is a very creative process, not just about having to learn all the million rules of scientific research. Or rather, bringing together your own ideas of a study, learning new things WHILE conforming with the formal criteria of scientific research is a creative process.

It is often difficult to explain why I, as a supervisor, can't tell them what to do, and why they have to make their own choices, hopefully driven by their creativity and acquired understanding of the topic. I can try to keep them out of harm's way, by helping them steer around some of the wrong choices, but that's it.

And about rules and creativity: twitter spurs our creativity and imagination BECAUSE it is so limited. Crafting a 140-character message gives us similar satisfaction as doing crosswords, another activity that fuels and feeds on creativity, while imposing certain rules.

I think these "boundaries" for creative thought, "the box" that a crossword or twitter has, are needed to inspire out-of-the-box thinking. The safety that clear rules bring about helps us let go of our self-imposed boundaries.

I have a very fuzzy memory of studies where people were supposed to name as many "somethings" as they could in a given time, while what the "something" was was manipulated, so that it was a wider or more narrow category of things (animals <-> birds), or perhaps additional criteria were given (birds starting with the letter C). Again, I might have made this up on my own, but did the more narrow category induce more responses? I need to look this up, or if anyone remembers these (or knows that these experiments were only done in my head :D ), I'd be glad to hear.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Excellent thoughts and insights! Yes, when we have too many options our brains tend to power down rather than feel creative, and boundaries often do force creativity because they force a second look—another organization of material. A "re-comprehension," if you will. This is addressed further in Part 2 of this series.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Oh, and Tommi, I agree with your assessment of Holl. Not only is he an intriguing architect but a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer, as well. His writings on architecture are some of the deepest thought you'll find in print!