All posts by Pronita Mehrotra

About Pronita Mehrotra

Pronita Mehrotra is the founder of MindAntix, a startup focused on enhancing creative thinking skills. She can be reached at pronita_at_mindantix.com.

Tips To Bring Improv Into The Classroom

When you say improv, most people think of the hugely popular show,  “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Watching how Colin, Ryan and Wayne, effortlessly create brilliant sketches and songs, can make the idea of using improv in classroom quite intimidating.

Which is ironic, since improv actually started off as exercises for young students!  

Viola Spolin, considered to be the mother of improvisational theater, was an educator who developed a lot of the games that are now used in improv, for her students. Her goal was not just to teach students theater techniques, but to make them more spontaneous and draw out their creativity. She believed that students learn best by direct experience and she evaluated students as a group in a non-judgemental way, giving them the safety and space to learn by themselves. Much like what Project Based Learning (PBL) aims to accomplish now.

Working with children from low-income neighborhoods, many of whom didn’t speak English, Viola invented these games that could reach across language and cultural barriers. Her inspiration came from Neva Boyd, another educator who she had closely collaborated with earlier, who said, “Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination.

In more recent times, improv has seen an upswing outside of theater in educational and business settings. Several research studies have confirmed the benefits on using improv in building teamwork and creativity. Using an improv mind-set for case discussions in business classes led to more collaboration among team members and more creative solutions. In addition, improv exercises build confidence and reduce the fear of failure. Ronald Berk, Professor at the University of John Hopkins, who advocates the use of improv as a teaching tool, comments, “All students get to express themselves creatively, to play together, to have their ideas honored, and to have their mistakes forgiven.

We routinely use improv games as warm-up exercises in our programs and find that they build more engagement, improve teamwork and set a more fun tone that is conducive for creative thinking. If you are curious about trying improv in your classroom, here are a few tips to get you started.

Start Simple

The main obstacle in starting improv is the fear of doing it. So the first step is to explain to students that improv isn’t necessarily about being witty or funny – it’s about keeping a conversation going. In fact, if someone focuses too much on being funny, the overall sketch often falls flat. Then start with some simple games that involve creating extended scenes but focus on building specific skills that don’t put too much pressure on students.

Some good exercises to start with are Storytelling, One Word at a Time (where students sit in a circle and create a story together with each student just saying one word to keep the story going), Fortunately/Unfortunately (where the group again tells a story but students alternate starting their sentence with “Fortunately” of “Unfortunately”), or Presents (where a student gives a box of present to another and the student receiving the present opens and declares what is in it).

Introduce Improv Concepts Early On

One of the key benefits of using improv is that the improv rules force behaviors that build collaborative and teamwork skills. The most important of these rules are:

  • “Yes, And”: The “Yes, And” rule is all about accepting what someone has said and building on it. For instance, if one student says, “Why do you have a banana on your head?”, their teammate can’t say, “I don’t have a banana on my head”. Instead, she could say, “Oh, that’s my hat for the royal wedding” or if she doesn’t want anything on her head, she could just say, “Oops, I forgot to take it off” and move on with the scene. When applied to the other kinds of teamwork, it’s clear that “Yes, And” encourages team members to listen, incorporate and build on each others’ ideas.
  • Deny, Order, Repeat or Question (DORQ): These are things that should not be done in an improv scene. When a student denies a reality that someone created, it violates the “Yes, And” rule. When they order someone else in a scene, they take away the other person’s ability to be creative in the moment. Repeating something that someone else says, ends up wasting time and not moving the scene forward (it’s essentially saying “Yes” without the “And”). Similarly, posing a question puts the onus on others to find a way out of the situation. All of these guidelines are also useful in improving productivity and psychological safety in any other kind of group discussion as well.
  • Make Your Team Look Good: One of most fundamental rules of improv is to treat everyone on the team like a genius. If a team member says something that doesn’t sound too interesting, but others treat it as brilliant and run with it, it often turns out to be brilliant in the end. When everyone in a team treats the others like they are geniuses, back each other up, the dynamics and outcome that result are so inspiring to watch!

Weave Into The Curriculum

Once students understand the basic tenets of improv and have some practice, you could include improv games into what students are already learning for a more fun and engaging session. For instance, if you reading a novel in the class you could create some fun twists to the story (by changing an event or character) and each group could find a different way to take the story forward.

Patience and Practice

While improv is easy to introduce to students and the underlying concepts are fairly simple, becoming good at improv takes time. In the beginning, students make mistakes in their scenes where they violate one or more improv rules. A quick debrief at the end can be useful in understanding what went wrong and what they could have done instead. Other students might be too shy to start right off  and need some time before they feel comfortable. But with some time and practice, it becomes a lot easier. Students start internalizing the improv rules and their teamwork skills start spilling out into other areas.

Creativity Is Learning

One of the most famous psychologist and epistemologist of all times, Jean Piaget, developed the material for one of his most noted books in an unusual way. The subjects of his book, “The Origins of Intelligence in Children” were his own three children, whom he observed from infancy to about 2 years of age, over a period of several years. Piaget made detailed recordings several times a day, of at least one of his children, constantly for 3,000 days!

The result of these detailed observations led him to his theory of learning, providing the underpinnings of the constructivist theory of learning in more recent times. Piaget explained learning in terms of schemas (basic units of knowledge) and the process of adaptation. When a new information comes along, it can either be assimilated into an existing schema but if not, it triggers the process of accommodation where new schemas and organization takes place. A process of equilibrium in a child occurs when most new information can be incorporated through assimilation.

It is easy to see how Piaget’s theories tie into the constructivist model of learning. The fundamental tenet of constructivism is that learning is a meaning-making process and “each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning as he or she learns.” From a pedagogical perspective, constructivism implies putting the learner in the center of the learning process, providing them with experiences and opportunities to construct meaning for themselves. As Prof. Hein further explains, “The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands.

Piaget’s concept of schema is intimately tied to the associative nature of our brain. Daniel Kahneman, illustrates the concept of ideas and how they are related to each other in our brain. He is uses the analogy of nodes in a network, where each node is an idea and the vast network is our associative memory. He explains, “There are different types of links: causes are lined to their effects (virus -> cold); things to their properties (lime -> green); things to the categories to which they belong (banana -> fruit).” When an idea is invoked, it brings to mind other connected ideas in turn. For instance, if you hear the word “Strawberry”, you might then think of a smoothie if the link between strawberry and smoothie happens to be  particularly strong in your brain.

Learning something new in the associative model implies creating new nodes and relationships, between ideas. Psychologists have found that human associative learning results from conscious reasoning efforts. In their expanded model, propositions connect ideas and “learning is not separate from other cognitive processes of attention, memory, and reasoning, but is the consequence of the operation of these processes working in concert. There is, therefore, no automatic mechanism that forms links between mental representations. Humans learn the causal structure of their environment as a consequence of reasoning about the events they observe.

In essence, both Piaget’s model (and constructivism by extension) and associative learning provide similar definitions of what learning means –  the building of ideas and relationships that are continually updated to incorporate new information. But how does this relate to Creativity?

Creativity is coming up with ideas (or building products) that are both novel and useful. Looking through the lens of learning, novelty implies that the existing structures (ideas and relationships) aren’t enough to represent the new idea, and some form of accommodation is needed to incorporate the creative idea. So, the process of creative thinking forces the learner to expand his existing structures, thereby improving his ability to assimilate future new information.

In other words, creativity isn’t just about making new things – it is learning in itself.

 

Building Creativity Through Integrative Learning

Integrative learning, or the concept of combining multiple subjects or educational strategies, is not new. In the early 1800s, Johann Herbart, a German philosopher, psychologist and educator believed that only large units of subject matter are able to arouse curiosity and keep a young mind engaged in deep learning. Even when teaching a particular subject, he proposed teachers support the learning by correlating with and integrating other subject areas.

While his ideas gained ground in the US and other countries, social and economical changes in the early twentieth century led to a different pedagogical approach of teaching subjects independently of each other. Professors Mathison and Freeman write, “Industrial efficiency studies and scientific thinking characterized by objective, quantifiable measurement has led to the assumption “that complex tasks become more manageable (i.e. easier) once broken down into their so-called basic parts”” This approach of simplification-by-isolation soon became the predominant approach in teaching.

However, interest in integrative learning is rising once again in response to the more complex educational challenges of the 21st century. Professor Julie Klein, lists the three catalysts that are driving the trend back towards integrative learning. The first is “knowledge explosion” that over the last few decades has resulted in new areas of specialties like machine learning that didn’t exist before. The second is the complexity of problems we face today that require pulling solutions from multiple domains. Finally, the focus on educational reform is linking the two concepts with complementary pedagogies.

Our project based learning modules use an integrative and interdisciplinary approach to make for a more wholesome educational experience. Here are three things we typically do in each module:

Integration with Arts

Integrating arts into the regular curriculum has been found to improve test scores and reduce the academic achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students. In most of our sessions we typically use theater and improv exercises as warm-up games. Some of the improv games build the same cognitive thinking patterns that underlie creative thinking, which is likely why improv artists come up with more (and better) product design ideas than professional product designers.

Interdisciplinary

Our projects also integrate multiple subject areas like science and humanities. In our latest module, Imaginary Worlds, students are diving deeper into topics like natural and man-made habitats (architecture and geography), social hierarchy and norms (anthropology and anthrozoology) and mathematical symbols and operations (mathematics), as they work towards developing their own fantasy worlds.

Blended Learning

While students use the online platform during the module, they never spend the entire lesson on the computer. Each lesson also incorporates group activities or discussions, time for each student to think and work independently and also collaborate in groups.

 

We find that using the above approaches gives us a more well-rounded and engaging approach to teaching different concepts, including areas in STEM that some students find intimidating.

 

This Is Your Brain On Creativity

Scientists have always been interested in how the brain works and how specific parts of the brain aid in specific tasks or behaviors. One of the earliest people in this domain, Franz Gall, developed his keen interest of observing his classmates’ skull sizes and features into the field of Phrenology. While phrenology is now debunked as pseudoscience, advances in brain scanning technologies have led to a much improved understanding of the brain, and the birth of cognitive neuroscience.

Recent work by cognitive neuroscientists in the field of creative thinking has shown that some of our earlier beliefs about the right and left parts of the brain are not exactly correct.

In one study, researchers split participants in high creative group and a low creative group based on their performance in the Creative Functioning Test. They then gave the two groups tasks for fluency (FAS – list as many words starting with the letters ‘F’, ‘A’ or ‘S’) and divergent thinking (DT – list as many uses of a brick). They found that the high creatives used prefrontal regions on both hemispheres on the brick task compared to the low creatives who mostly used regions in the left hemisphere.  

In another study, researchers gave the Unusual Uses task from the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) to two groups – one that scored in the 99th percentile on the TTCT and the other that scored 50th percentile. The 99th percentile group showed elevated activation of both the right and left hemispheres during the task (although the activation was higher for the right hemisphere).

So one key takeaway from these and other studies is that creative problem solving recruits both sides of the brain. As psychologist, Keith Sawyer concludes, “there is no evidence for the popular belief that creativity is located in the right hemisphere of the brain. Many regions of the brain, in both hemispheres, are active during creative tasks.

One reason that both hemispheres show activation during divergent thinking (DT) is that semantic memory is primarily stored in left hemisphere. However, these semantic memory traces most likely include primary associations. So when a user thinks of different uses for a brick, the first set of responses come from these primary associations and which lead to more common responses. To come up with more original ideas, secondary associations need to be tapped and these are more likely to be in the right hemisphere. Given this theory, the classic brainstorming advice of going past the initial set of ideas to get to more original ideas makes more sense. Once the initial set of ideas that use primary associations are exhausted, the second wave of ideas start recruiting structures from the right hemisphere more.   

A better way to think about creative cognition is not in terms of the left-brain right-brain dichotomy, but as distributed networks in the brain that span both hemispheres.

Professor Scott Barry Kaufman lists three large scale networks that play a crucial part in creative cognition:

    • The Executive Network: The Executive Network gets involved in tasks that require focused attention, that place demands on working memory, like solving a tricky math problem.
    • The Imagination Network: The Imagination Network, also known as the Default network, is associated with spontaneous and self-generated thought that includes mind wandering and social cognition.
    • The Salience Network: The Salience Network monitors both external stimuli and internal stream of thought, and flexibly switches between the two as needed.

 

Advances made in cognitive neuroscience are helping us understand how the cooperation between these three networks leads to more creative thought. It has now become evident that the right side of our brain isn’t just an intuitive center – it plays a critical role in creative and complex problem solving!

Imaginary Worlds and Creative Giftedness

As a little boy, Satoshi Tajiri loved the outdoors and was especially fascinated with insects. His interest in collecting and observing different insects in his hometown of Machida near Tokyo, earned him the title of “Dr. Bug” among his friends. He spent several hours everyday finding new insects, and understanding their world and unique behaviors. In his own words, “They fascinated me. For one thing, they kind of moved funny. They were odd. Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found.

His fascination with insects and his interest in video games led Satoshi to create a world of pocket monsters, which eventually became Pokémon, one of the most lucrative game concepts.

Creating imaginary worlds, or paracosms, is not unusual among children and are an indication of creative giftedness. Famous examples of paracosms include the fantasy kingdoms of Gondal, Angria and Gaaldine created by the Emily, Anne, Charlotte and Branwell Bronte. The Bronte sisters went on to be accomplished novelists and poets. Compared to the typical imaginary play, paracosms are much more complex and elaborate requiring a sustained interest over several months or years. The Bronte family actively engaged with their fantasy worlds for several years and frequently revisited them in adulthood.

Michele Root-Bernstein, creativity scholar who studies paracosms, found that the prevalence of creating fantasy worlds in childhood were significant higher among recipients of MacArthur genius awards, a group that is known for their creative contributions among and across disciplines. She believes that the creativity involved in creating paracosms prepares children for bigger creative achievements in adulthood. The kinds of skills required in building fantasy worlds, like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking are exactly the kinds of skills needed for high creative accomplishments. As she explains, “childhood worldplay does appear to provide an early apprenticeship in absorption and persistence, discovery, synthesis, and modeling.

Beyond problem solving and creativity, such imaginative play has also been found to have other psychological benefits. Creating imaginary worlds has been found to build a sense of self among children and also provide a sense of control and order.

These creative and psychological benefits come largely from a child’s ability to create their world, as opposed to simply participating in existing virtual worlds like in some video games. Dr. Bernstein suggests encouraging children to expand and elaborate on the virtual worlds they encounter through games.

While these pursuits in and of themselves stimulate imaginative participation in invented worlds, the child’s part in that invention remains largely a passive or, at any rate, a reactive one. The child consumes a world imagined by others and does not construct or create her own. Unless she furthers the play experience in book or video game by adding to it some imaginative construction that is under her full creative control, she is not engaged in the creative behaviors and processes of imaginary world invention.

The long lasting benefits of imaginary worldplay prompted us to create a project-based learning program where students get to experiment with paracosms. In this program, elementary aged students will create imaginary worlds, with real and fictional characteristics and then dive deeper in to specific aspects. Over several weeks, we will  study ancient civilizations, modern laws and customs, animal societies and other topics to help students refine their own fantasy worlds, and at the same time build a deeper appreciation for worlds that already exist.

We hope that the program not just helps students learn topics from school curriculum but also provides a stimulating playground to build their own creative potential.

Designing Products to Build Intrinsic Motivation

In a recent study researchers wanted to explore the relationship between rewards and motivation in the context of education. In order to understand the impact of gamified elements on student motivation and learning, they designed a long-term study for students enrolled in a semester long course. Students were divided into two groups – a gamified group that used a reward system aligned with the learning goals, and the control group that received the same instruction but without any gamified elements. They looked at student grades at the end of the course along with student surveys, and confirmed what some educators had always suspected.

The researchers found that the non-gamified group not only did better at the end of the semester exam, they also reported higher levels of motivation and satisfaction at the end of the class! As the researchers explain, “The results suggest that at best, our combination of leaderboards, badges, and competition mechanics do not improve educational outcomes and at worst can harm motivation, satisfaction, and empowerment. Further, in decreasing intrinsic motivation, it can affect students’ final exam scores.

While typical gaming elements like points and badges can lead to increased engagement in the short term, it is now believed that the initial appeal is due to a novelty effect, and that engagement and motivation decline as the novelty wears off. And this effect is more pronounced for younger age groups, where novelty and interest declines faster.

Educational products routinely employ rewards like badges and scores to get initial interest and traction among users, however, as research is now pointing out, these elements have negative long term consequences as they promote extrinsic motivation instead of building intrinsic motivation among students.

So,  how can we design educational products that focus on building students’ intrinsic motivation?

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, professors of Psychology, have studied motivation for several decades and developed the Self Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation. According to their theory, three innate psychological needs play a role in motivation – competence, autonomy and relatedness. The main premise behind their theory is that humans have an inherent tendency to learn, have agency in their development and connect to others. Their theory has been widely used in many contexts, including gamification.

Based on the underlying theory of self determination, here are some high level product approaches that can be used in lieu of rewards to build the right kind of motivation:

Exploration

Creating a playful environment that leads to self-directed exploration ties to the underlying need for autonomy and competence. Games or products should allow for the freedom to fail, by allowing users to recover from mistakes without penalty. Games should also provide a freedom of choice, where users can decide what they want to work on or what skill to develop.

Feedback

In a classroom, feedback can be slow and constrained as teachers can only provide feedback one at a time. Games where feedback can be immediate can have a positive impact on the need for competency. Feedback messages that are actionable (guide the student in the right direction) and focus on growth mindset have been found to be effective.

Collaboration

A typical classroom environment fosters competition among students instead of collaboration, which in turn reduces intrinsic motivation. Elements like leaderboards have the same effect due to social comparison. A better way would be to design products that allow meaningful collaboration among students, and tap into the need for relatedness. Social cues that signal working together have been found to boost intrinsic motivation.  

 

Intrinsic motivation has been found to link positively to learning outcomes as well as personal wellbeing. Introducing the right kind of gamified elements into product elements can boost intrinsic motivation among students, but it involves walking away from more traditional elements in games like badges and points.

Is Creativity Domain-Specific Or Domain-General?

From the earliest times people have been fascinated with creators and what leads them to make an original piece of work. Almost all cultures predating middle ages including Greek, Judaic and Hinduism, held the belief that a higher spirit or power gave “inspiration”  or even full formed ideas directly to these creative geniuses. In fact, the word genius literally means a guardian spirit that guides and directs an individual. For obvious reasons then, creative people were held in high esteem as they seemed to have special access to higher forms of power.

We now know that creativity has nothing to do with divine intervention, and a lot to do with the environment, personality and individual creative thinking abilities. And that everyone can learn to be more creative than they are. What we don’t know that well is whether creative thinking is a general skill that can be used in many different contexts or does it work in only one area. In other words, can a creative writer also be a creative product designer?

This question has led to some vigorous debate in the scientific community. For a while the scale seemed to tip towards a domain-specific view of creativity. A study conducted on 8th grade students who were asked to create a poem, a story, a mathematical word problem and an interesting equation, found low intercorrelations between the creativity ratings of different artifacts. Another study on undergraduate students, who had complete tasks in structure building, collage making and poetry writing, showed similarly low intercorrelations.

On the other hand, a large body of research has found that cognitive abilities for both creativity and general problem solving are applicable across domains. A reason that creativity looks domain-specific is that big accomplishments take many years, forcing people to choose domain specificity. So the consensus now seems to be that there are both domain-general and domain-specific aspects of creativity.

In our experience with students so far, we find that some of the cognitive processes used in creative problem solving show the domain-general nature of creativity. For example, our students have used associative thinking in coming up with novel product ideas as well as in producing creative stories.

However, there are some cognitive processes that seem to play a larger role in specific domains. For instance, analogical thinking seems to play a larger role in scientific creativity. That doesn’t mean that other kinds of thinking are not useful or haven’t been used in scientific breakthroughs, it’s just that analogical thinking leads to more “successes” (in terms of coming up with ideas that are both novel and useful) in science.

As we reflected on the work we have done so far, we have come to believe that regardless of the final outcome of the domain specific/general debate, we need to focus on strengthening the underlying cognitive processes used in both creative and critical thinking. And we need to do this in both domain-general and in domain-specific ways. If it does turn out that creativity is predominantly domain general, doing domain-specific tasks is still going to be helpful.

Our work so far has focused primarily on building general cognitive skills. But as we start next year, we’ll be working more on creativity in specific domains like literature, math or science. We hope to build up creativity focused content in the Common Core, which there isn’t enough of, and help improve student creative problem solving abilities in both general and specific ways.

Growth and Creativity Mindsets

As a graduate student, Carol Dweck was deeply influenced by Martin Seligman’s work on understanding depression. In experiments conducted in the 1960s, Seligman found that when animals are given a painful stimuli without the ability to control the situation, they become passive – a condition he called learned helplessness. This sparked Carol Dweck’s interest in human, and more specifically, student motivation.

She noticed that not all people show learned helplessness when faced with adversity and asked, “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

Her work with students over the next several decades led to the theory of Growth Mindset, which is now transforming educational outcomes. She found that students who believed that their abilities can improve with effort (growth mindset), outperformed those who believed that their intelligence is fixed (fixed mindset). This effect held for different subjects areas including math and science.

Growth mindset is especially important in creative work since such work often requires higher levels of perseverance. As she points out, “In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by growth mindset.

But there is also growth mindset about creativity, or in other words, the belief that creativity is not innate and can be developed just like any other skill. Research studies have found that when it comes to Creativity – people can hold both a fixed and growth mindset at the same time. They view great creative accomplishments, or Big-C creativity, as a fixed trait and believe that smaller levels of creativity, or little-c creativity, is malleable. In other words, people believe that Einstein was successful because he was exceptionally gifted but their own (limited) creative potential can be improved by putting in effort.

In an approach similar to the growth mindset, we teach children in our programs how their brain works as an associative engine and how that can help in coming up with creative ideas. In other words, everyone is capable of becoming more creative with some effort.

Apart from growth mindset, Creativity is also influenced by other beliefs and attitudes that help in different aspects of creative problem solving (collectively referred here as the Creativity Mindset). Some of these attitudes, and how we try to encourage them, are highlighted below.

Openness

Openness to Experience, which includes six dimensions, has been found to be the strongest and most consistent trait to predict creative achievement. One dimension, intellectual curiosity, has been found to be the best predictor of scientific creativity. Openness leads to the ability to seek diverse information and reconcile multiple perspectives which then often results in unique solutions. We encourage openness by building a collaborative environment where students take each others feedback and perspectives in improving their own solution.

Non-conformity

Having a non-conforming attitude means having the confidence to pursue ideas outside the mainstream norms. It helps people find uniqueness in their ideas, an essential component of creativity. One activity we use in building a non-conformist attitude is challenging commonly-held assumptions. We play games where students pick an assumption, reverse it, and find ways and situations in which the reversed assumption would be useful.

Playfulness

Being playful means taking things lightly and having an exploratory approach. A playful attitude enables flexible thinking and has been found to correlate with creativity. To build playfulness, we often use improv games as warm-up exercises.  The cognitive processes that underlie improv are the same as those used in creative thinking.  A research study found that improv comedians produce 25% more creative ideas than professional product designers.

 

In the end, both the growth mindset and the creativity mindset result in behaviors that are essential for high creative accomplishments. By fostering these mindsets in children and teaching them creative thinking skills, we can give them the tools to unlock their full potential.

Abstract Thinking in Problem Solving

Why does the Narwhal have a spiral in its tusk? While many people had wondered about this, the most rational explanation came from D’Arcy Thompson, Scottish biologist and mathematician.

Thompson’s explanation for the spiral was that each stroke of the narwhal’s tail produced not just a forward motion but also a twist that made the narwhal go slowly around it’s own horn. While some of Thompson’s theories were proven wrong, he found many interesting reasons for different shapes and forms in nature. His book, On Growth and Form, laid the foundation for the field of morphogenesis, the process by which body structures are formed.

One of the reasons that Thompson was able to find interesting patterns in nature, was because of his ability to abstract simpler elements from the form of an animal or plant. As Stephen Jay Gould, who was inspired by Thompson’s work, explainshe tried to explain form by reducing its complexity to simpler elements that could be identified as cause.” In other words, his abstraction abilities helped him understand the underlying causes of different forms in nature.

So, what is abstract thinking? There are two aspects of abstract thinking – simplifying by removing details to find salient features, and generalizing to find the core essence. The ability for abstract thinking underlies creative and complex problem solving in many different domains. 

Jeff Kramer, Professor of Computer Science, noticed over his 30 years of teaching that some students were able to handle complexity better than others. They were able to understand distributed algorithms more easily and produced more elegant models and designs. In his words, “What is it that makes the good students so able? What is lacking in the weaker ones? Is it some aspect of intelligence? I believe the key lies in abstraction: The ability to perform abstract thinking and to exhibit abstraction skills.

The ability to abstract plays a key role in creative problem solving as well. Tina Seelig, Professor at Stanford University and author of InGenius, notes that reframing a problem by asking “why?” can open up a whole new set of solutions. For example, by reframing  “How should we plan a birthday party?” to “How do we make this a special day?” can open up a whole new set of possible ideas.

Reframing a problem typically involves moving to a higher (or more general) level of abstraction. Two ways to reach a higher level of abstraction is to ask ‘why’ or find a category that a given concept belongs to.   

We created our new brainteaser, ‘High and Low‘ to build the ability for abstract thinking and make students comfortable with navigating different levels of abstraction. The brainteasers give a routine activity and the goal is to find one or more ‘High’ and ‘Low’ levels for the activity. The ‘High’ level corresponds to the more general level of abstraction while the ‘Low’ level corresponds to the more specific one.  

Liberman and Trope, describe how the high and low level descriptions can fit into a pattern, “superordinate, high-level descriptions of an activity fit the structure “[description] by [activity]” whereas subordinate low-level descriptions fit the structure “[activity] by [description]”.” For example, if the activity is ‘reading a book’, a high-level description could be ‘learn new things’ (I [learn new things] by [reading a book]) while a low-level description could be ‘by flipping pages’ (I [read a book] by [flipping pages]).

Our goal with these brainteasers is to build this crucial skill of abstract thinking early on through simple exercises. In a recent trial, we were excited to see 8-9 year old students solving these exercises appropriately and being able to apply abstract thinking in reframing problems. We hope that by starting to use abstract thinking in different areas, students will be able to handle complex problem solving more easily later in any domain. 

How Neurodiversity Helps in Creativity

As a child, Isaac spoke little and had trouble reacting appropriately in social situations. He found it hard to form friendships and preferred to spend time alone. He lacked the ability to understand the motives of others’ and was prone to having angry outbursts.

If you saw signs of autism in the description, you are probably right. But you might be surprised to know that Isaac grew up to have a successful career. Isaac, as in Isaac Newton, laid the foundations of classical mechanics, made significant contributions to optics and even developed Calculus!

Simon Baron Cohen, psychologist at the University of Cambridge, believes that scientists like Newton and Einstein likely had Asperger’s syndrome (a high functioning variant of Autism Spectrum Disorder).

If Newton was indeed on the spectrum, did his condition help him or hurt him in his intellectual pursuits?

A growing area of research, Neurodiversity, shows that some of the common neurological conditions actually help in certain situations and may have evolutionary advantages.

Recent research has found that disorders like autism, ADHD and Dyslexia can be beneficial when it comes to creative thinking, a skill that is becoming increasingly important. We certainly see some evidence of that in our work with our diverse student population.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism is primarily characterized with challenges in social relationships and deficits in the “theory of mind”.

However, Scott Barry Kaufman, author and professor at University of Pennsylvania, explains that people with ASD do care about others and desire connection – they just do it differently. As he writes, “Perhaps instead of viewing people with ASD as “socially awkward” individuals who need to be “fixed,” we should instead conceptualize them as socially creative. They may not do things the “right” way, but they do them their way.

Outside of social situations, people with ASD have show differences in cognitive creative thinking. For instance, in divergent thinking tasks, people with ASD produce fewer but more original ideas. Contrast this with the conventional guideline of “one needs to generate lots of ideas to get to the more unique ones“. Since the goal of brainstorming is to end up with creative ideas, autism seems to confer some efficiency in this process.

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is characterized by three key groups of symptoms: hyperactivity, impulsivity and distractibility. But these same traits are also helpful in some tasks.

Bonnie Cramond, director at the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia, found that the set of traits used to identify ADHD were nearly identical to the set of traits for creative people. 

Recent research has also confirmed the link between ADHD and Creativity. The part of the brain known as the Default Network or the Imagination Network, becomes active during the passive or rest phase and plays a crucial role in creative thinking. In people with ADHD, the brain structure responsible for filtering data from the Imagination Network is “leaky” leading to a more diffused attention style along with more creative thoughts. As Prof. Kaufman explains, “Both creative thinkers and people with ADHD show difficulty suppressing brain activity coming from the “Imagination Network.” 

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a reading disorder characterized by difficulty with reading, writing, spelling and grammar, and affects from 5 to 20 percent of all school children.

In dyslexic readers  brain areas (in the left hemisphere) used in recognizing letters and words, and  in sounding out words are under-activated but the parts of the right hemisphere become more active to compensate. That might explain why dyslexics are better at visual spatial skills, out-of-box thinking and holistic perception – skills useful in creative and entrepreneurial work.

In a survey sent to entrepreneurs and corporate managers, Julie Logan, professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London, found that 35% of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic compared to only 1% of corporate managers. Richard Branson, one of most famous dyslexic entrepreneur, has often commented that far from being a disability, dyslexia has been his biggest business advantage.

 

To clarify, in highlighting the strengths associated with these disorders we do not intend to trivialize the challenges faced in more severe forms of these disabilities. We hope that by understanding the cognitive strengths that accompany these conditions, we can create better environments for different neurotypes to work together and be productive. As Thomas Armstrong says in his book, Neurodiversity, “diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.