Sunday, February 10, 2013

Teaching Creativity

It's been a relatively quiet week.  The part A kids are back to having consistenly good discussions, the part B kids are headed into the final set of worksheets, and I'm feeling more and more comfortable with the "basics" of running a Harkness classroom.  In short, the new has become the norm, but there is still enough of an edge to the new that seems to be keeping complacency at bay.

The only glitch to the week was the test in part B, where most of the grades were some sort of B. After revisiting the test itself and then looking at the solutions the students gave, I came to two conclusions:

(1) The students are much better now than they were at the beginning of the year in terms of persistence.  They are far more willing to dig in to an exercise and at least try something, as opposed to simply skipping an exercise and waiting for someone to show them where to begin.  The tests in my class are 6 questions long, and each of the questions is essentially an open-ended problem solving activity. The overwhelming majority of the students gave at least a partial answer to all of the exercises on the test...something that did not happen at the beginning of the year.

(2) The students are still struggling with creativity.  Some of the exercises on the test required the students to put together pieces from both this trimester and last, pieces which individually I am certain they are able to do with ease...I've seen it in action in class and on previous tests.  However, when it came to the most recent test, the creativity required to put those pieces together was lacking.  Now I am certain that when I go through the test with the class the students will respond with phrases along the lines of, "Why didn't I think of that?"  But that leads me to ask the question, "Why didn't they think of that?"  

That leads to the next obstacle for me in the classroom: how do I teach creativity?  The persistence in problem solving the students have gained throughout the course has been acquired by asking the students to problem solve, a lot.  But the problem solving has been within certain "boundaries" until this test.  Specifically, the material on the tests has been essentially contained to the skills required to solve the exercises on the worksheets.  Some of these skills were from previous units or even previous courses, but the test questions did not stray far from these skills regardless of whether or not the skills were new or review.  This test, however, required the kids to make use of some of the skills they already knew (for instance, one of the questions required factoring the likes of which they have seen a lot, both earlier this year and in algebra 2), but which they were not specifically required to use as we went through the worksheets.  

Fortunately, the final set of worksheets has exercises that require the use of essentially all the skills with which we have worked this year.  Those skills that have been ignored recently will be forced back to working memory, and as we do so I will be making a point to emphasize the fact that rapid recall of these skills will be necessary for success in calculus next year.  My hope is that the students, as they have done all year, will take the up the challenge and commit themselves to finding a way to rapidly recall any and all of these basic skills as required.  And honestly, I have no doubt that they will.


  1. Johnothon: Great query (How teach creativity?). I think this was the essence of Polya's methodology contained in How to Solve It - a set of questions that kids have to keep asking themselves IN THE FACE of NOVEL PROBLEMS. Those seem to me the 2 essentials. But if creativity is about fluency of ideas, shifts of perspective, and overcoming feeling stupid it seems to me there are also lots of exercises (often used by design school people - see IDEO resources on design thinking and materials from Stanford). I would also recommend an old book: Problem Posing by Brown & Walter.

    Good stuff!

  2. Thanks for the suggestions...definitely going to look up the books.