Monday, April 12, 2010

Creative Thinking in the Classroom, Part 2

Time. Is there a greater challenge for educators? It seems like instructional time is often the target of well-meaning but time-devouring programs. Assemblies, pep rallies, fund-raising motivational events, and those intercom announcements eat precious minutes, and these are on top of an already bloated curriculum. As a result, we tend to eliminate anything that has a whiff of being extraneous.

One major casualty: creative thinking. However, as I discussed in Part 1, for the brain creative thinking is not just the predecessor to producing art. It is a means of deepening understanding. In other words, creative thinking is a cognitive gateway to deeper, more meaningful learning. Let’s examine how learning can spark creative thinking, which can lead to deeper learning.

Learning involves four “core processes,” two of which are comprehension and elaboration. If learning proceeds in a straightforward fashion—experience→comprehension→elaboration→application—it can bypass opportunities for creative thinking. This is unfortunate because learning can spark creative thinking:
The resulting understanding prompts a creative curve. The mind says, “Wait a minute! Let’s explore that again, but this time from a different perspective, or with a different reference point, or in multiple dimensions, or by combining it with _____.” Neuroscientist and writer Gregory Berns describes this as “reverse perception.” Creative thinking, claims Berns, “comes from using the same neural circuits used to perceive natural objects,” but in reverse. Instead of perceiving what is and acting on it, the mind seeks what else could be. The individual re-explores the new data, returning to comprehension to disorganize, relabel, and re-sort the data in a different way. This difference may be in perspective, in scale, in dimension, or in any ways that alter initial thinking about the data. For example, the creative individual may engage a creative tool (e.g., drawing an analogy) or explore representational variety (e.g., a multiple intelligences approach, such as representing verbal data in a musical or spatial form).1
This figure shows the “creative curve.”
When given the opportunity to re-explore understandings, the brain often engages in re-comprehension, the sorting of critical details, and re-elaboration, the recognition of new patterns. These new patterns may be new, unique, creative. As the individual examines these new patterns, methods of expressing them may come to mind. These possible expressions are then examined for potential, and if deemed effective, the individual may proceed to producing a creative product. At this point the individual’s skills in the chosen medium come into play—i.e., an experienced and capable painter will likely produce work of a higher quality than the novice. However, both beginner and master benefit from the thinking preceding the expression because it’s the thinking that deepens understanding of the original topic.

Note that learning and creative thinking are actually overlapping processes. Both engage (re-)comprehension and (re-)elaboration, and as a result, both have the potential to deepen understanding. If deep learning of subject matter is the goal, creative thinking can help achieve it. Also note that creative thinking requires time and space. If learning proceeds too efficiently, opportunities for creative thinking are lost. Challenging students to revisit subject matter, reorganize its details in different schemes, and explore those reorganizations for new patterns can initiate creative insights. Those insights contribute to deeper learning. When creative thinking leads to creative products, another opportunity for deepening learning is generated:
…creative works can deepen learning in the classroom. For example, Erica, a middle school teacher, has her students develop a series of symbols to summarize a work of literature. For example, one student summarizes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in a series of three symbols: a tightly clenched hand, that same hand with three different colored streaks of light surrounding it and a large timepiece in the background, and finally an open hand extending forward. The results become new data for the other students. As they examine the symbols, the students reprocess the details of the literature, consider the connection between the story and the symbol, and make a decision regarding the symbol’s effectiveness. This reprocessing—interacting with the symbols as if they were ‘another person’—mirrors learning’s core processes, engaging recall and thought about the original stimulus. This rethinking fosters deeper learning of the subject matter.2
There are also implications for our teaching. Want to be creative in your instructional design? Your brain needs the time and space to explore the subject matter—to reorganize it, search for new patterns, and apply the resulting insights to teaching plans. Unfortunately this time and space is probably the biggest challenge to our teaching more creatively. One way I deal with this is to look ahead and identify the major upcoming instructional units. This look ahead creates a space between what I’m currently teaching and what I will be teaching and gives my mind time to explore the subject matter in ways that enable creative thinking.

Getting away from my normal work space seems to help. Many of my creative ideas find me during morning runs. Actually, research suggests such a change of scenery increases the likelihood of creative thinking:
Sometimes a simple change of environment is enough to jog the perceptual system out of familiar categories. This may be one reason why restaurants figure so prominently as sites of perceptual breakthroughs...When confronted with places never seen before, the brain must create new categories. It is in this process that the brain jumbles around old ideas with new images to create new syntheses.3
Creative thinking and learning are complementary processes. Learning enables creative thinking, and creative thinking deepens learning. This is why my target-based organization of thinking does not include a separate ring devoted to creative thinking. I see creative thinking as a type of learning. As such, teaching students to think creatively is critical if we seek to develop self-directed learners. Add skill in expression, such as the methods and approaches taught via the arts, and we’ll be graduating creative thinkers with the skills to engage the world through art—or at least bring artful expression to their lives and work.

  1. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 231-232.
  2. Ibid., 234-235.
  3. Berns, G., Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008), 33.

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