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!

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