Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Drawing the right lessons about creativity

An article in Newsweek, excerpted on JoanneJacobs, discusses the creativity crisis in America and how schools can go about addressing it. Its recommendations, unfortunately, risk taking schools further down the unpromising garden path along which they've already been wandering for quite some time now.

According to Torrance’s Creativity Index, a measuring tool that has had a high success rate predicting which children will go on to become "entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers," creativity among American children has been declining since 1990.

"One likely culprit," explains the article, "is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools."

The ingredients for creativity training, neuroscience research suggests, are tasks that combine left-brained "convergent" thinking (with its narrow, analytical associations) with right-brained "divergent" thinking (with its broad, long distance associations).
When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.
Consistent with the idea that in creativity, the left brain is as important as the right, the article makes several observations:
*The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.
*Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. 

*From fourth grade on, creativity no longer occurs in a vacuum; researching and studying become an integral part of coming up with useful solutions.
*What’s common about successful [creativity training] programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. Real improvement doesn’t happen in a weekend workshop. But when applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.
All this meshes not only with the research, but (less importantly, of course) with what I've long suspected about creativity. Despite what popular education theory keeps claiming, it is enhanced, not stifled, by content knowledge. And it is limited neither to right-brain thinking, nor to right-brain people.

Unfortunately, however, those whose recommendations the Newsweek article reports, like countless others who make recommendations without visiting actual classrooms, aren't aware of this bias, and their suggestions include things that will only make it stronger.  Consider what else the article reports:
*The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, financing teacher training, and instituting problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults.
*In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.
*Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into homeroom.
While the real-world, problem-based inquiry project that the article describes appears to combine left- and right-brain thinking, it has students working in groups (something that isn't entailed by the above research), and too much resembles the projects that are already proliferating around our schools, too many of which are far too open-ended to foster the focused, left-brain thinking that creativity, it turns out, requires:
Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?
So here's my prediction: our education experts will read this article and conclude that we need more, not fewer, assignments across the curriculum that ask students to Be colorful! Be creative!, and more, not fewer, open-ended, real-world, group projects.

All of which will fail to inspire creativity, it turns out, not just in our left-brained math and science buffs, but in students in general.


Annic said...

Exactly what is creativity?

Which kind of video games? There is actually a lot of problem solving in quite a few video games. Also, for some online games, leadership skills and team management.

GPC said...

A couple of things really stood out when I read this article in Newsweek.

This quote relates to the students doing the sound problem.

"And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing."

The problem I have with this is the fragmentation involved. Students are picking up bits and pieces of knowledge through these teaching methods. They aren't developing any overall understanding of the various sciences, math or writing. Unfortunately, few of these students will be able to go on to science or engineering majors because they lack a strong foundation in these subjects.

I am all for teaching problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking in school. But it should be in addition to a knowledge curriculum that provides a strong basic foundation. Why not teach the basics of physics first and then assign real-world problems based on concepts taught? Why not put the horse before the cart instead of the cart before the horse? Knowledge is at the root of problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

"Ted Schwarzrock...had been pushed into medical school, where he felt stifled and commonly had run-ins with professors and bosses. But eventually, he found a way to combine his creativity and medical expertise: inventing new medical technologies."

Schwarzrock combined his strong medical KNOWLEDGE with his creativity to become so successful. Medical knowledge alone would have allowed him to be successful. But creativity alone would not have got him where he is today. Both together are best. Schools need to realise that "skills" divorced from knowledge are meaningless in the real world.

Anonymous said...

Annic makes a good point. Leadership, teamwork, research and problem solving are natural and normal parts of children's play and their day-to-day lives. The schools aren't teaching these things. At most you can say they are giving students opportunities to put these skills to use.

Schools should focus instead on giving students knowledge and skills they probably won't get in their day-to-day lives, such as grammar, math, geography and science.

It's interesting also that schools are using group projects as a means of promoting creativity. Studies have found that groups actually lessen creativity because groupthink tends to occur. It is often far better to send your team home and come up with potential solutions to a problem separately and then come together to afterwards to discuss those solutions. But this is for business purposes where each individual plays a certain role and so solutions can't be implemented by individuals. In schools, there is really little need for groups to deal with problems. It would make more sense to encourage more individual problem solving.