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Teaching Creativity

by Sarah Scoles

Welcome back from the holiday season. Now that it is officially not the holiday season, it's time to get back to writing blog posts and stop eating dessert with every meal. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself.

Today, upon my return to the working world, I read an article in the Science Education Forum called "Teaching Creative Science Thinking."

Upon reading that, you might think a couple of things:
1. Bah, humbug, creativity has no place in science.
2. You can't teach creativity. Students are either daVinci or not-daVinci, and you can't change that.

However, the article (which is short and easy to digest) plans to prove you wrong. And, since I'm summarizing the article, so do I.

The author, Robert DeHaan, defines creativity as the union of two types of thinking: associative and analytical.

Associate thinking is what you're doing when you think, "I'm really tired. I wish I were in bed. I remember that one other time I was sleeping. Earlier that day, I'd eaten Lucky Charms. Who discovered marshmallows?"

Analytical thinking is what you're doing when you think, "I'm really tired. How will I solve this problem? The problem is that my body needs time to repair itself. If I would like my cells to regenerate, I should go to sleep."

When these two types of thinking come together, new, eureka-style insights arise from newly seen, but logical, connections between the elements of a situation. Seeing novel, meaningful connections, or seeing a problem in a new way, is essential to good scientific work.

Scientists primarily engage in a creative process called "distributed reasoning," which means taking a problem apart, rearranging its elements to see the problem in multiple new ways, and coming up with multiple explanations and/or hypotheses to test.

And, it turns out, scientists best reason in a distributed fashion when they are having discussions (or perhaps capital-D Discussions) with each other. This interaction, especially between people with diverse backgrounds, lead to both the best and the most novel hypotheses. The social interaction spurs the scientists' associative thought processes to wander around for longer than they would if left on their own (kind of like how you run faster for a farther distance and try not to sound like a hyperventilating turtle when you're running with other people). The injection of new ideas spurs new ideas, which causes the scientists to keep thinking when, alone at their desks and out of coffee, they might just decide to go get more coffee instead of thinking more.

DeHaan proposes three ways that these interactions can be encouraged even in large lecture courses. Because, after all, if the purpose of science classes is to teach science, and a big part of science is creativity, it makes sense to train students in scientific creativity.

Students can:
1. Think-pair-share-create: The teacher poses a question; the students think about it individually; they pair up to share their thoughts; and then they go back to the problem and try to reframe the problem and think of as many solutions as they can, rather than sticking to the one that first entered their heads.

2. Peer instruction: The teacher poses a question, and students individually think of as many sensible answers as they can. They choose their best one and defend their choice to a partner.

3. Think-aloud pair problem-solving: Students are paired up as "explainer" and "questioner." With only their memory of whatever the hell the teacher has been talking about, the explainers use two minutes to restructure the problem and to find a new solution. The questioners then attack the solution with Inquisition-like voracity.

I wish I had a class on which to try these techniques, because they have been shown to increase associative skills. But, alas, I'll just have to pose a question to myself and my dog and then pair up with my dog (who happens to be great at reframing).


ResearchBlogging.orgDeHaan, R. (2011). Teaching Creative Science Thinking Science, 334 (6062), 1499-1500 DOI: 10.1126/science.1207918

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Reader Comments (4)

For courses with a lab-style component, I also think the CAPER team at Wyoming has a lot to offer as far as creativity with their backwards-faded-scaffolding approach: http://www.uwyo.edu/caper/.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Great article! I love all three of the suggestions for connecting associative and analytical thinking, and I especially appreciate the emphasis on collaboration. I'll also check out the CAPER offering suggested above.

January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRob King

You can use my classroom! I love this kind of teaching but rarely have time to develop something that doesn't become a gnarled mass of teenage angst.

January 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Smith

Awesome, Anne! I think that's a great idea.

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Scoles

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