Reflections on Creativity
Creativity is defined as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc. It also encompasses originality, progressiveness, and imagination. The need for creativity in modern industry is necessary for continued growth and progress.
According to Shelly H. Carson of Harvard University, creativity is the foundation of imagination and innovation, and there are multiple ways of developing the creative brain. One of The Five Minds of the Future by Howard Gardener is the Creative Mind, and another is the Synthesizing Mind, which people can use to apply their creativity to applications, innovations, and new ideas or problem solving.
Both Laura Masters’ presentation and Sebastian Seung’s I Am My Connectome TED Talk discussed the neural connections that develop in the brain, and how unique they are based on our experiences. In each individual’s mind, neural pathways die off if not used to develop stronger connections.
Sir Ken Robinson explains in a TED talk entitled How Schools are Killing Creativity that there needs to be a revolution in education, from the 19th century industrial model to the 21st century agricultural model of nourishing and providing experiences for children to create and thrive. He makes a plea for accepting Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory in developing the whole child in an accepting environment of diversity.
John Seeley Brown insists that creativity and flexibility are vital to our children’s future in the constantly changing atmosphere of the modern world. In his talk entitled A New Culture of Learning, Brown says we cannot imagine what jobs and what the future will be like for our children, but that they need a new set of tools to help them deal with whatever challenges they meet, because information is growing and available at an exponential rate.
This concept links well with Pat Wolfe’s idea of thinking maps and visual learning, helping students connect to the material, grasp information quickly, and learn visually. She posits that we remember pictures more effectively, and some language learning research suggests that we think in pictures as well. This idea forms the basis of many ESL classes. Wolfe emphasizes that the brain remembers and makes stronger connections when strong emotion is experienced.
All of this research needs to be synthesized in a meaningful way if educators are to provide the learning experiences for their students that lead to creativity. Louis R. Mobley (former director of the IBM Executive School) outlines one approach to answering this question in his article Can Creativity Be Taught and How. Keep in mind that Mobley works with adults, so one of the techniques he uses is to help them “unlearn” what was previously taught. This is congruent with Howard Gardner’s assertion that “You need to know what is in the box, before you can think outside the box.”
My own experience with these ideas in my middle school mathematics classroom indicates that creativity can be developed by moving flexibly between brain sets (as suggested by Shelly Carson) by solving a mathematical problem, then creating their own problem that has meaning to them, or presenting them with an extension to the problem by offering a “What if” question.
When teaching, I present the lesson visually in order to help my students easily grasp the concepts and steps. Allowing my students to collaborate on an open-ended problem and creatively present their solutions to the class for further discussion is also an effective strategy, and I encourage them to be creative on unit projects where their solutions are shared and tested. According to Mobley and Ken Robinson, failure is part of the process, and allows students to learn from their errors and continue working to find a better solution.
It is important that students feel safe to make mistakes. I tell students the best way to learn math is by getting the answer wrong, finding where they went wrong, and learning how to do better. Why do we use pencils with erasers, after all? It’s important to teach the steps, concepts, and procedures in a way that the students connect to on a more personal level. Research shows that problem-based learning and Inquiry-based learning make significant positive gains in conceptual understanding and deeper problem solving, but that the students need to be engaged and actively participating for these methods to be truly effective.
If the multiple intelligences are acknowledged, then the students can choose their own methods of presenting their work. For example, they could create a song, an artistic representation, a dance, a video, or some other digital technology. This provides the child with a voice in their learning, and the choice to present in their ideal modalities. One of my personal favorites is to have students make their own mathematical models using a problem of their own creation, then having them trade assignments and check each other’s work.
Creativity is fostered by peer-to-peer collaboration and fun. For twenty years, I have worked hard to make learning pre-algebra and algebra enjoyable, by using games that create a fun and positive emotional experience with mathematics. I believe that the ideas from this new research provide educators with more tools to develop or enhance any of their lessons.
As educators, we need to focus on the multiple ways in which human beings learn, and on creating experiences that foster stronger neural connections for greater long term memory – building foundations that help support students in the next levels of learning. My favorite poster in my classroom says “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” I combine that with a meme from the internet that says, “Just remember, there is a millionaire walking around out there that created the pool noodle!”
On that note, I’d like to ask the following questions: Which comes first, creativity or motivation and inspiration? Do we need to be motivated and inspired to create?
The author is a proud mother and wife, living in Sonoma, Ca. She has 21 years teaching mathematics. She loves technology and how it enhances student learning, engagement, and achievement.