Teaching Thinking Skills (Creative Thinking)

         Teaching Creative Thinking skills in schools may prove to be the most delightful but difficult among all the Thinking Skills. Schools generally undervalue creativity (Sternberg, 2003), and may even discourage it, with research showing that most teachers associate creativity with undesirable student behaviours (Moran, 2010). As the intensity of test-taking, normalising behaviours and singular focus on academic performance heats up across the United States, since 1990, even as IQ scores have risen (till the emergence of the negative Flynn effect), creative thinking scores have significantly decreased, with the decrease for kindergartners through third graders being the most significant (Kim, 2011). Despite schools being seen as being unwelcoming towards creativity, they are essential to creativity (Sawyer, 2012). Sawyer (2012) explains that creative thinking requires a high degree of domain knowledge (domain-specificity), and schools are the best avenues to acquire the domain knowledge, and if specific Creative Thinking strategies and climate were introduced alongside such knowledge, creativity will undoubtedly flourish. In fact, Sawyer is a sceptic of Creative Thinking techniques, arguing that building domain knowledge is far superior to any existing domain-general Creative Thinking programmes which have little robust research supporting their claims (Sawyer, 2012). To a large extent, I do agree with him, but only from the perspective of Big ‘C’ Creativity, which is the extremely rare creativity of geniushood found in the likes of Einstein and Van Gogh. Little ‘c’ Creativity, on the other hand, is the everyday type of creativity which most, if not all, people are capable of if they set their minds on it. Fostering little ‘c’ creativity is the catalyst to the special few, who have both acquired sufficient domain knowledge and have the perfect context to put their creativity in place, to create the ground-breaking idea or product.

         Thus, as educators, how do we foster creativity among our students? Do we merely ply them with lots of domain knowledge, expecting them to “pay their dues” (Sawyer, 2012) and learn as much content in the hope that they will somehow utilise those knowledge in great ways some time in the future when they are no longer our responsibility? Or can we promote dispositions towards Creative Thinking through our actions, lessons, and learning conditions, knowing full well that mastery of knowledge and a creative disposition is far more likely to produce the individual who is creative in daily lives, be they professors of philosophy or processors of insurance claims? If you believe in the latter, there are many theoretically-sound activities and teaching practices which one can do to develop Creative Thinking among your learners.

         The first theoretical consideration is knowing what classroom beliefs, practices and environment leads to more creativity. In one of the pioneering works on Creativity, Stein (1963) observes that “to be capable of creative insights, the individual requires freedom- freedom to explore, freedom to be himself, freedom to entertain ideas no matter how wild and to express that which is within him without fear of censure or concern about evaluation (p.119).” As such, developing Creative Thinking skills requires the teacher to manifest such beliefs as both verbal and actual practices in the classroom. Encouraging original or alternative viewpoints, accepting the students as equal to that of the teacher or expert, affirming effort and creating a positive classroom climate are fundamental practices for Creative Thinking to take place. Creative Thinking and the concept of “Flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) are closely intertwined, and Flow is defined as an “optimal experience” where the individual is fully immersed in the task at hand (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). People often achieve the most meaningful Creative Thinking experiences while in a state of Flow, and the teacher’s primary responsibility is to provide the conditions for Flow to take place. Schaffer (2013) proposed seven Flow conditions:

  1. Knowing what to do

  2. Knowing how to do it

  3. Knowing how well you are doing

  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)

  5. High perceived challenges

  6. High perceived skills

  7. Freedom from distractions

         Operationalising these seven Flow conditions in the classroom can then be described in these corresponding teaching actions:

  1. Providing clarity on the task and process.

  2. Scaffolding and providing guidance when needed.

  3. Providing feedback on progress: The more immediate, the better.

  4. Providing the long-term goal of learning, and the value of the task in relation to the relevance to the students’ lives.

  5. Providing significantly challenging tasks which requires Thinking, but not beyond the realm of reasonable possibility.

  6. Developing self-efficacy of the learners and providing relevant domain knowledge in order to complete the task.

  7. Creating a conducive learning environment, allowing students to find their preferred learning space during independent or collaborative work even beyond the usual classroom setting.

         I have applied many of these principles when conducting my Thinking lessons, and they are highly effective in allowing Creative Thinking to emerge. A simple process takes place in my Creative Thinking sessions:

  1. Students are given a context, usually a real-life scenario or a hypothetical one, in which a problem has occurred and they are given the responsibility to solve it. Such scenarios may range from the need to design an emergency warning system in a school for the deaf, or simply rescuing a Pokemon from across a magical floor where one cannot set foot on.

  2. The students are then divided into working groups of no more than four and are encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible without evaluation (Divergent Thinking, a key aspect of Creative Thinking). During this phase, students may leave the class to discuss but need to return at an appointed time.

  3. While the students are discussing, I will then move between groups at their discussion locations to check on their progress and their ideas. Acting as the expert and critic, I will provide necessary information, prompts to stimulate greater divergence in Thinking, or even additional conditions to stretch their imagination and problem-solving ability. For example, in the case of the school emergency system, I might add the fact that the system has to be created below the cost of $1000, thus rendering an announcement screen in every classroom impossible.

  4. Once they return from their discussions, I will then ask the groups to select their best and worst option (Convergent Thinking) and then think through and explain the criteria by which they judged the value of their ideas (Metacognition). Again, as they are selecting their options and reflecting on the criteria, I will provide immediate feedback on the validity and value of their criteria selected and provide sufficient scaffolding till they are able to justify with good reasons why a particular idea is superior or inferior. For groups struggling with justification, providing one criterion which sets them on the route to success might be introduced, and encouragement is always central to develop perseverance.

  5. Students then present their ideas to the class and constructive criticism as well as affirmation from their peers is sought. Praise is generously given for highly original ideas and used as teaching points for the other students. Allowing students to publicly explain how they arrived at the idea makes the pathway to Creative Thinking within the domain evident.

  6. Where time permits, students will actually make the “quick and dirty” prototype to demonstrate how their idea is made real, leading to innovation which is Applied Creativity. The process of innovation is much more difficult than creativity, but students will learn the value and effort involved in making an abstract idea concrete.

  7. Once the prototypes have been created, they are then put on display to showcase their efforts and success in solving one problem in the world through Creative Thinking.

         In the interest of space, I will not elaborate further on the specific techniques and processes used in my programme, but I will list them for consideration. More details on each technique or process can be found in my website: www.teachingthinking.education.

Activities to foster Creative Thinking

  1. Critical Event: a project or experience which is in some way ‘special’ or different from everyday practice, in order to create or enhance some of the conditions for pupil creativity (Davis, et al., 2013). E.g. The Pokemon rescue task.

  2. Learn through Play. Play incorporates far more complex Thinking processes than is commonly perceived and play interventions increase creativity (Li, 1985; Garaigordobil, 2006). The enjoyable experience brought about by play leads to positive emotions that enhance creativity by facilitating access to positive material in memory (Isen, 1987; Isen, Shalker, Clark, & Karp, 1978). E.g. Building Lego cities, making rockets/planes.

  3. Mumford et al.’s (1991) eight-stage model of creativity has become a widely known and used model. The stages include problem construction, information gathering, category search, selection of best-fitting categories, combining and reorganising category information, idea evaluation, idea implementation, and monitoring. Bringing the students through the entire process through an extended project situated within a topic from the main curriculum, e.g. Science or Mathematics, allows for the development of domain-specific creativity. E.g. Designing an asymmetrical piece of furniture: Problem or Possibility? (Mathematics and Art)

  4. Using the SCAMPER (Substitution, Combination, Adjustment, Modify-Magnify-Minify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse-Rearrange) Technique (Eberle, 1996) for brainstorming. Can frequently be used with an object or even ideas. E.g. Reselling a common object for other uses; Selling a refrigerator to Eskimos; Writing a simple story from a completely unexpected perspective.