Teaching the Thinking that Counts – part two

  • Based on Robert Swartz’s editorials for ENIAC published in Madrid, Spain, September, 2015 – January, 2016

4. Can Creativity Be Taught? Inventions.

A few years ago I visited a classroom in which the teacher of a group of 5 year olds had brought in a few medium and large empty cardboard boxes that the school had put in the trash. The teacher asked the children what people usually do with boxes like these. One student said: “they put TV sets in them and deliver them to people’s homes.” Another student said:” they also put winter clothes in them and put the box in the closet until next winter.” I said to myself: these kids are remembering times when someone delivered a TV to their home in a cardboard box, or when perhaps their mother put their winter clothes away or the season. And they are thinking, same kind of box, you could do the same thing. This is sometimes called “analogical reasoning”. But whatever we want to call it, it happens all the time with not only children but adults.

But the teacher also said: now let’s think of something different that we can do with these boxes. And its ok to take them apart if you want. Make something useful. Well, what happened next was like a cloudburst. As if they had planned it, one student said: let’s make a boat. So they pushed on one side of the box and made a crease that became the bow of a ship. And they pushed on the back and rounded it. Then two kids put some mats in, and sat on them so they could put their arms out the sides and make like paddles. Another child put a box on its side, crawled in, and closed the lid like a door. She wanted to be alone. And two other children tore off one side of the box with the lid remaining, put it on the floor, and twisted the lid so that they could lie down and put their heads under the folded lid. They said “It’s for looking at picture books on a sunny day”.

Kids playing with a cardbox

Unlike putting a TV in one of the boxes, these were creative ideas for how the boxes could be used. And all the children were involved, and thinking. This, too, turns on analogy and experience. The kids who built the sun shade – well, one or both had seen real sun shades – umbrellas, baseball hats, etc. And they saw a piece of the box folded so that they could make the folded part look similar to one of these sun shades. Well, imagine a few tears, twists, and turns and this “useless” piece of cardboard can actually become a useful sun shade.

Even the shy girl who kept to herself did this. And the technique that the teacher used to prompt the students in order to bring this out was like what we now call “brainstorming” – think of as many ways of doing something as you can, even if they are “wild” ideas, because maybe some of those wild ideas will turn out to be not so wild and actually the way to solve a serious problem!

I have two reflections. The first is that a lot of people used to think that only some children are born creative. The others aren’t. And those that are gifted will be the Mozarts and Picassos, but the others, well, too bad, they just never will. Well, I have seen enough of the same thing in classrooms to see how wrong this idea is. All of these children are capable of doing this kind of thinking, and have this creative ability in them. What their teachers must do is to find a way to draw it out like this teacher did.

But the second reflection is more to the point in the 21st century. Everybody remarks how creative very young children are, but how, by grade 2, they seem to lose it all. Or maybe most of them do, and those remaining, well they will be the Mozarts and Picassos of this century. Well, yes, it is true that something happens to children when they get to grades two or three: their teachers start to impress on them that there is only one right answer and that you get penalized if your answer is different. So they close up. If this happens for the next 10 years in school, well, any creative talent that these students are harboring may never come out again.

Pablo Picasso portrait

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not even the introverted kids, like that little girl, need be restrained from taking us to the heights of creative talent, and even in classrooms that stress “right answers”. In many classrooms in such schools teachers now also guide students explicitly by posing a problem like: “How can we get across this deep and rapid river without a boat?” and then using prompts like: “Think about what you are trying to do what it is like when you do this with something like a boat”, then “Think about how you might do something similar with the things around you. And don’t worry: it can be as wild an idea as you want. There is not just one right answer here.” These are the two steps that the students who built the boat, the sun shade, and the private space engaged in. But this teacher, who now does this explicitly in a classroom in a traditional school, and indeed writes this on the white board as a strategy for creative thinking that the students can follow, is telling the students that developing creative ideas in this way is acceptable, and they can take risks in their thinking and they won’t be penalized.

In my own work, in which we stress how much deeper learning can be accomplished by helping students explicitly develop thinking skills and then use them to reflect on something important in the curriculum, I have seen wonderful examples of creative thinking applied to problems like ways of raising money for a school event, dealing with air pollution that turns into acid rain, and, based on what we can learn about sound, trying to do something creative about the noise in the school cafeteria.

But there are levels of creative thinking. Building on what I have discussed, here’s a challenge for our creative minds. We have all seen images of a centaur, a mythical creature, representing power, but guided by goal-directed thinking. How is that accomplished? Well, it is simple. Take two ordinary “creatures”, a man, a symbol of the ability to reason, and a horse, a symbol of power and force, and put them together, not as rider on the back of a horse, but a single creature that blends a man and a horse. Wow. 15 years ago we had cell phones and we had laptops, and they did different things. But now we have one powerful instrument that can combine the two. The centaurs of the 21st century! But your I-phones are not imaginary beings, they are real and they work. Double Wow.


At the same school I also observed another teacher of ordinary upper primary students who gave them a challenge: Let’s all develop some creative ideas that no one else has ever developed before for things that can help protect the environment and/or serve to make this world a safer place! A noble objective! This teacher used the same prompts as the teacher who challenged the students about getting across the river.

Well, people have come up with a lot of really creative ideas about items that we can use to do things that have seemed impossible. But often they end up in works like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “The Martian Chronicles”, or “The Hobbit”. This is the stuff of science fiction and fantasy! Our creative imaginations can roam there to their heart’s content. But this isn’t the outcome that this teacher wanted the students to achieve.

The Martian Chronicles

Yes, this is creativity parexcellence, and the teacher has explicitly guided the students not only to brainstorm, but to then synthesize two or more ideas into something new – their centaurs. But this teacher has also taught these students some important critical thinking skills, and guides them to ask: will this work? So they work together and make a list of what they need to find out to see if it will work like cost, availability of materials and required technology, etc. Then they work in teams to find these things out. They have already learned in this classroom how to do this, and how to put together the data they get to make a judgment of how likely it is that their “inventions” could become realities. Now they are working in the real world. And when they have a positive result the teacher asks them to report to the class, which critiques their presentation. Then, finally, with the endorsement of the class, they are ready to go and present their ideas at the school “invention convention”. When I saw all this, well, this was triple Wow! And these students were from the 5th grade!

Pablo and his students want to save the world – part one

1.1. What’s in the Box?

This is what I saw when I visited Pablo Carrion’s Grade 6 classroom at Colegio Lope de Vega in Benidorm, Spain, a few years ago. This student was showing the other students an invention of his and explaining what it does. The students looking on were fascinated.

Students shows model proyect to classmates

1.2. Solving Problems Creatively

So what actually is going on here? Well, Pablo is trying something new. It may not look this way but he is now asking his students to tackle some of the deeper and more stubborn problem areas that have challenged human beings since we found ourselves in a world of challenges to our very survival. Each student formulated what they thought were these age-old challenges — and challenges we had not done too well at — and he asked them, to use, as a base, their creative thinking skills to come up with more innovative solutions that they thought could work. And he wanted them in so doing to make use of anything that they had learned that may be relevant. For example, a mountain climber has slipped on the slopes of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps and has broken his leg. And he is climbing And the alone. For many in this situation this has meant a slow and painful death. So how can we help such a person with a good chance that he or she will survive? Well here is the rec-ommendation advanced by one student: use a drone to which is attached and operated by a large box with a series of compartments mechanism carried by the drone, that has life-saving supplies in it organized by types of mountain-climbing accident. And the drone is constructed to get exactly the right package of medical supplies to the injured climber. Each student is asked to display a model of his or her creation to the class.

Student shows drug drone project

So?? There’s a mountain climber who has slipped and broken his leg. And he is alone. Well, what has he done to try to help himself? He has taken the little device from his pock-et with a little green button on it and pressed the button. Many kilometers away a specially equipped medical supplies drone is activated into action. And it contains a mechanism that leads it in the direction of the injured mountain climber. It also contains a height adjuster, so that it climbs to a level about 1/2 kilometer above the injured climber. Then it stops and hovers. Why hover there? Well, that mountain is known for the build-up of strong air cur-rents — wind– arising seemingly at random, on its surface. It would not be safe for any ve-hicle, let alone this drone, to try to land on these slopes. So when the drone arrives and hovers the injured climber presses a red button which signals the drone that he has a bro-ken leg. That activates the package beneath to drone itself to rotate until it is in a good po-sition, then the door under the compartment opens, and out falls a good-sized package that contains medical supplies necessary to set and splint a broken leg, and it is gently transported to the climber by a small but strong parachute. Then — success. The climber will now set his leg and use a pair of folding crutches, specially-designed for use on slopes up to 45 degrees, which the climber will use to work his way down to the nearest base camp.

1.3. Teaching Students to Think Creatively

Wow, ingenious. What a special gifted student this must be to be able to come up with this. Well, this student was no more “gifted”’ than the other 75 students at his grade level. Ra-ther, starting at four years old, he had gotten used to employing creative thinking skills to solve problems. How? Well, at Lope de Vega the teachers learned in a special “Thinking-Based Learning” training provided by our Center how to translate this into class-room practice that helped their students learn that the essence of creative thinking ap-plied in this context was to combine two or more things, processes, or components to yield some result that could solve the problem in a new or original way. And the “two or more things” that they were thinking of were usually yielded by a memory search of things in the past experience and/or learning of the students that had some significant simi-larity to at least some aspect of what could solve this problem like “using something rigid to hold together two parts of something broken,”. like a long piece of wood that was nailed onto two parts of a broken fence post in the garden of one students’ home. Or a student might ask himself or herself”, or “What ways do we know of that medical supplies can be provided to someone who needs them?” — and then “What special ways do we know of that important things can be transported a distance to a high mountain?”. And of course the medical supplies had to be supplies that could help someone with a broken leg so that when used by the injured person they could treat the injury.

So a standard way to be able to put together some creative ides requires a base of learning that can be accessed by a person using his or her active memory. And it this base is not there, well, second best may be to ask someone else who may have this breadth of stored prior acquired knowledge, or if not to go and find it yourself. And note, these all may have been initiated by previous teachers who not only taught students how to make these connections, but gave them plenty of regular practice in doing this from their early years of schooling on..

But this retrieval process is not enough. To solve this problem well these ingredients need to be able to be put together in ways that fit together to yield something that the thinker thinks can do the overall job. And this “job” may be very complex to one degree or another. Such a product, then will be a new and creative product aimed at being able to do some-thing that either has not been accomplished before by this student, or that at least replaces something that has been used before but no longer can be used in these circumstances. Ah, creative thinking at its best: a search for something that can do a specific job and that usually involves a synthesis of successful searches for ingredients which, when put together, yields something that new that looks like it can do a specific job (thank you, Benjamin Bloom, for using this word to describe a special type of thinking process).

Just as a special aside, look at these examples from starting this process in a students’ early years, for example, putting together discarded pieces of paper and cardboard and other things, to make models of vehicles of transportation, or using unorthodox material to make something like an article of clothing now made out of something new that com-bined with something of the original, for example a boy’s necktie worn with his new suit, but the necktie made out of snakeskin the colors of which matched the fabric of the suit, or a newspaper-made pair of shorts.

But then, as these students move up through the grades, switching to real needs and how to create something that would serve a needed purpose by not only combining things, but by combining two or more uses of something to create a result that had never before been achieved with things like these — or never been achieved, period. For example, using a split piece of bamboo to lay horizontally at the edge of a roof to collect rain water and prevent the water from running into the walls of the house, and then to swing in to provide a water supply for an indoor garden And these stu-dents love being creative in these ways. it

To summarize this important series of classroom practices and their result now: These students had learned how to be creative by combination — by synthesis,, — based on what they knew about what they were trying to achieve, and what they had learned about other things and processes that might help, which, in combination with other things or processes, they thought would achieve what they were trying to achieve. And they did this all themselves working together because, of course, something that one student knew that another student doesn’t, might work together with something that the other students knew about that the first didn’t. The result is making this kind of thinking
social thinking and, in particular, social creativiety, –, the main reason why collabora-tive thinking was a key ingredient in TBL training that this school did that yielded such great results.

And of course, as these students moved up through the grades, they had plenty of prac-tice doing this because all the teachers in this school used the same techniques to make skillful thinking the basis of content learning and the transfer and extended use of these techniques outside school.. Here’s an example from the higher grades: ,let’s save our natural resources by not simply discarding natural resources that we don’t immedi-ately need– like dumping into the sea the dirt and rocks that we did up in order to build a large building with a basement, but rather using them to serve other human needs. Well in an instant we can come up with at least 20 other different possible uses that we could put a pile of dirt and rocks to, as did the students.. So now these students were exercising their creative thinking abilities to put things together to create a union — and it could involve more just two things — by engaging in thinking in a more complex way that could solve a serious problem. So here we have a life saving drone for high-altitude moun-tain-climbing accidents.

1.4. Another Creative Idea

Well, what were some of the other creative ideas that Pablo’s students developed ? These two girls were concerned about what they had learned about our bodies that could lead to harm or death — in this case tension or stress in our lives causing an increase in our heart rate which could, if too sudden or intense, cause a heart attach. They had learned about this in their science class — “The Human Body” unit they worked on last year in Grade 5 Primary science course. And one important thing that they learned was that when this hap-pened it transmitted a pulse through certain veins, for example the veins in our arms, and the pulse could be detected in our wrists. This, they reasoned, is something that we often have no control over: an auto accident, a sudden storm, faiiling a test that you thought you had passed with a really high grade. So how can we help people with this natural early de-tection mechanism we have built into our own bodies? Well, they invented a stress brace-let. How does it work? Well, it is a nice looking bracelet But it has in it a heart-rate detec-tor, which us activated by a person’s pulse. But that isn’t all. If the pulse rate exceeds a certain amount indicating a dangerously high heart rate, a device in the watch is activated that send a reverse pulse back to the heart, and cancels the stress-related signal that had been received. Wow again.!!.Try to imagine the thinking that these girls did — and did to-gether — to come up with this ingenious idea. Is this Creative thinking at its best.

Students in science class create an anti stress bracelet

1.5. Creative Thinking

So you get the idee. Creative thinking that works for us !! Well, let’s go back to the student who we saw holding a box with a small jar on op of it. He is explaining how his device works to the class — an important stage in the creative process that each student engaged in. And these students look very intrigued and interested. So what is his device? In fact like the other two, it too looks like a real invention. And, of course, with such practical concerns the development of creative thining skills, which are accessible to all students if their teachers commit themselves to teaching them, and to helping their students develop these very practical ideas, are ready to be used to help us make something, or develop a plan to do something, that will meet a creative challenge presented by a problem that once again,.has been hard to solve.

In the previous two situations the problems have been difficult to solve, prior solutions have been inefficient, and the rate of success minimal. Now we have a better chance to develop ways of solving these problems that has a chance itself of being more successful. And it is early writers on creative thinking like Paul Torrance, Edward de Bono, and Robert Stern-berg, to mention just a few, that we should thank for starting us thinking about techniques we can develop that will make developing creative ideas more natural. They have stimulat-ed many of us to focus in more depth on how to teach students to be creative thinkers. So what’s in the box. We are going to have to wait for Part Two of this commentary to find out.

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