Why We Should Celebrate Everyday Creativity

“I am not a creative person!” is a fairly common refrain to hear when people talk about their own creativity. Most people associate creativity with eminent people like Einstein or Mozart, but completely overlook their own creative acts. However, these smaller creative acts that we engage in everyday life, like finding a new way to optimize a routine or coming up with a new way to teach a concept, are highly beneficial both as an individual and at a larger societal level. 

Ruth Richards talks about the lack of attention we give to everyday creativity in terms of the 3 U’s: “Our creativity is often underrecognized, underdeveloped, and underrewarded, in schools, at work, and at home. Why is it, after all, that in so many schools students are trying to get 100% on someone else’s test and not making up more questions of their own?”

Our everyday creativity is a universal ability that gives us survival advantages – it allows us to adapt to changing environments and handle new situations. It also equips us to better handle life’s ups and downs and lead happier, more fulfilling lives. Here are key reasons to celebrate everyday creativity, both at work and in schools. 

Paving the road to bigger creativity 

Joseph Renzulli discovered that creative accomplishments arise from an interaction between three clusters of traits – above-average ability, creative thinking skills and perseverance. It’s impossible to come up with a ground breaking theory in physics without having a deep understanding of physics, approaching the problem with multiple different perspectives and spending immense hours trying to solve it. 

Everyday creativity works the same way with all the traits scaled down for smaller, “little-c”, creative accomplishments. Most people already possess the ability to handle everyday tasks and the needed perseverance to make small innovations. The primary advantage of everyday creativity, then, is in providing a fertile ground for building creative reasoning skills and building creative confidence. Building creative problem skills in smaller ways paves the way for higher creative accomplishments over time. 

Everyday Creativity in Schools

A recent trend in invention related education is to challenge students to solve bigger societal problems like global warming. While there is nothing wrong in educating children about the problem, asking them to find creative ways to solve global challenges actually does the opposite – it drives them towards more unoriginal ideas.  Most students lack the scientific or technical knowledge to meaningfully address such challenges. So their solutions end up looking more like “awareness campaigns” that aim to influence others to invest in or solve the problem. 

Posing big, global problems is the equivalent of asking students to solve calculus problems while they are still grappling with basic number operations, or asking them to write essays when they are still figuring out paragraphs. They rob students from the opportunity to build creative thinking skills.  

Instead, we need to provide opportunities where students can pick areas that they are intimately familiar with to apply their creative thinking. For example, some of the invention challenges that we have posed to students are redesigning school supplies or designing a useful gadget for their pets, areas that students fully understand and can innovate in. 

Everyday Creativity at Work

Everyday creativity doesn’t just help individuals in their journey from little-c to big-C creativity, they also help group outcomes. When companies harness the everyday creativity of their employees, they can create solutions that are similar or better than what experts would produce. 

In one experiment, software programmers from all over the world participated in a challenge to solve a complex immunogenomics problem. The participants, roughly half of whom were students, didn’t come from academic or industrial computational biology. Despite that, several solutions outperformed industry standard software used as benchmarks, and the top most solution was two to three orders of magnitude faster than the benchmark solutions. 

While each participant didn’t possess domain expertise or exceptional creativity, as an aggregate the group performed like an eminently creative person. Establishing a system to channel individual little-c creativity among employees can help solve much bigger problems effectively and provide a strong competitive advantage to companies.  

Building a healthy, positive attitude

Our human creativity affects our health, well-being and personal growth. It enhances our social-emotional as well as our intellectual development. 

Everyday Creativity in Schools

Higher creativity is associated with better coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety among students. When students are able to think in more divergent and flexible ways about problems, they come up with original and better ways to solve their problems. Higher creativity is also associated with higher self esteem, better ability to handle ambiguity, better mental health and optimism. In a study designed to understand the effect of creativity on the ability to handle stresses, researchers found that students that rated higher on creative thinking, were also better at handling stressful situations. The researchers noted,

Any effort on the part of parents, teachers, or other professionals to encourage and provide opportunities for the enhancement of children’s creative thinking skills may have secondary payoffs with regard to their coping abilities. In this regard, children may respond much more readily to creative-thinking opportunities than stress management or social skills training workshops or classes.

Everyday Creativity at Work

Several research studies have highlighted the relationship between creativity and positive affect. Engaging in creative problem solving as part of work increases a sense of accomplishment and purpose. In a study on organizational creativity across several industries, researchers found that the majority of the participants reported a primary positive reaction of joy, pride, satisfaction and relief. A couple verbatim comments capture the positive emotions felt by participants as they engaged in successful creative problem solving. 

 “I really enjoy the type of work I was doing today—like solving a great big puzzle and using really great tools to do it.” (A female participant in a high-tech company)

“.|.|. [In] consideration of the enormous complexity and machinery involvement, I was forced to think. An alternative idea soon came to mind. [Description of the idea.] This not only simplifies our [current] trial tremendously, it also vastly increases the probability of success for the [trial next week]. It alternatively saves about six man days of labor, a week of schedule time, and over a thousand dollars in outside cleaning costs. This WIN-WIN eureka boosted our

spirits and let us finish the week on a high note.” (Male participant in a chemicals company)

Everyday creativity is a skill that we all possess but often forget. Engaging in small creative acts, especially at younger ages, can help pave the path for bigger creative accomplishments later in life. And perhaps, even more importantly, help us lead happier lives. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

3 Ways Creativity Improves Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year mental health is of particular concern among students due to the impact of Covid-19 and school closures. CDC data found that mental health related emergency visits among K-12 students increased by 25% – 31% last year. Several survey results show that student mental health issues have exacerbated during the pandemic. In one survey, over half of teen students indicated that they faced mental health challenges like anxiety and trouble concentrating, and a third of the parents indicated that their child’s emotional and mental health had become worse during the pandemic.  

These sobering statistics were further compounded by the fact that many approaches to mitigating mental health issues like healthy social interactions or building trusted relationships were harder to do with school closures. 

When social connection is not easy, individual practices can help. Teaching students mindfulness meditation has shown to reduce anxiety and stress. However, in this article we will look at a somewhat less known way to improve mental wellbeing –  engaging in creative problem solving and building a creativity mindset. 

Stress and Coping Skills

Creative thinking skills allow students to approach daily challenges more effectively.  In a study of 3rd to 6th grade students, researchers found that students who scored higher on creative thinking, had better coping skills in the school environment and exhibited fewer disruptive behaviors.  

As the researchers explained, “The ability of children to keep an open mind and not judge or reach conclusions about people, situations or problems too impulsively may be a significant factor in successfully managing the stresses of daily life. Also, the ability of children to maintain flexibility of thought and to generate ideas that are not only fluent in number but original may contribute significantly to successful coping.

In addition, the study also noted that students may respond more readily to creative thinking opportunities than training workshops on stress management and social skills. 

Other research has shown that creative people are more comfortable being on the “edge of chaos”, are better at reframing challenges into opportunities, and less likely to withdraw from college or fail academically. 

In other words, teaching children creative thinking has the secondary benefit of building better coping and stress management skills, that can last well into adulthood. 

Interpersonal Skills

In a study to understand the relationship between creativity and interpersonal problem solving, researchers tracked K-8 students over a period of two years. They found that creative thinking, and in particular ideational fluency – the ability to come up with several ideas – was significantly correlated to different aspects of interpersonal problem solving. 

One potential reason for this is that both creativity and interpersonal problem solving involves related underlying skills – coming up with several solutions, evaluating the impact of ideas and flexibly adapting to different situations to produce novel outcomes. 

Another study showed that more creative children displayed less aggression than less creative children. Research also seems to suggest that creativity is related to successful aging and longevity. 

Higher Values

Abraham Maslow studied creative people and talked about self-actualizing (SA) creativeness which came from possessing an “openness to experience” attitude, and displayed itself in everyday life. SA creative people were not just eminent people who produced groundbreaking work, but also regular people who approached everyday situations with creativity. As he explained, “I learned from her and others like her that a first-rate soup is better than a second-rate painting, and that, generally, cooking or parenthood or making a home could be creative while poetry need not be; it could be uncreative.

More interestingly, Maslow found that SA creative people seemed happier, more at peace and more fulfilled. They were more motivated with higher values like truth goodness and beauty, and focused more on larger endeavors. 

These qualities are good for individual growth but are much more important for solving larger societal issues and driving social progress. 

Teaching Creativity

Often the most effective interventions are those that don’t even appear to be so. Building more creative thinking skills has a spillover effect into daily life. Creative people are able to use their cognitive style in a flexible and open manner to solve problems and cope with daily life stresses. Teaching creativity has the potential to develop more well-rounded and well-adjusted citizens. Unfortunately, despite being a critical 21st century skill, creativity isn’t often taught often or encouraged in schools. 

As Dr. Richards, an advocate for teaching more creativity, laments in Everyday Creativity, “How odd it may seem, considering the benefits, that we do not stress everyday creativity more in schools, homes, businesses, healthcare settings, senior centers, and centers for personal growth and development. Why, one may ask again, is our creativity so hidden or diminished (or underrecognized, underdeveloped, and underrewarded)?

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

World Creativity and Innovation Week: April 15 – April 21

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, marked by an increased use of AI and automation, is expected to have a profound impact on the workforce. 

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report found that by 2022, machines and algorithms will increase their contribution to specific tasks by 57% and in some categories of jobs the ratio of work done by machines vs. humans is going to tip towards machines. Tasks that are repetitive in nature and involve sequential thinking are easy targets for automation. Creative, non-linear ways of thinking are much harder to automate and future job growth is expected to come primarily from the creative domain. As the report outlines, “Proficiency in new technologies is only one part of the 2022 skills equation, however, as ‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality and initiative, critical thinking, persuasion, and negotiation will likewise retain or increase their value.

Creativity is no longer just nice-to-have, it is now an indispensable skill for students to build. 

The UN recognized the growing importance of creativity, and in 2017 it designated April 21st as the World Creativity and Innovation Day (WCID). Their goal is to raise the awareness of the role of creativity and innovation in human and economic development. April 21, the day before Earth Day, April 22, was deliberately chosen to emphasize the role creativity plays in solving global challenges to create a sustainable planet.

The origin of the WCID goes back several years. It was founded in 2001 by Marci Segal, after seeing an article on the Canadian Creativity Crisis. Having studied creativity at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, SUNY Buffalo earlier, she decided to raise awareness around creativity and its impact around the world. In 2006, the day expanded to a week-long celebration starting on April 15th, Leonardo daVinci’s birthday, and culminating on April 21st. The World Creativity and Innovation Week (WCIW) was born!  

WCIW starts next week on Thursday (4/15) and there are several events planned for that week. Here are a few fun events geared towards building and encouraging student creativity. 

  • Seven-Day CreateTUBEity Challenge, April 15-21 12 pm EST: Dr. Cyndi Burnett, Creativity expert and Director of Possibilities at Creativity and Education, and children’s book author Barney Saltzberg, are going to subject themselves to a new creativity challenge led by a different creativity expert each day from around the world. Join them for a FREE daily 15-minute live-stream event on CreateTubeity. Appropriate for the young, and the young at heart!
  • Global Innovation Field Trip (GIFT), April 17th-April 18th: GIFT is a 24-hour, virtual, multi-country event hosting presentations from innovators currently spanning 28 countries. Young innovators and educators from across the globe will share their ideas to support and inspire innovation, and the event is free for anyone to attend. “GIFT provides an excellent platform for students to share their stories of innovation with a global audience and inspires educators to incorporate innovation, invention, language, culture and a variety of other subjects utilizing STEAM skills into their regular daily lessons,” says Juli Shively, GIFT Co-Founder and COO of Innovation World. 
  • Belouga’s Creativity and Innovation Playlist: To inspire students and educators to learn more about creativity, Belouga has created a playlist of lessons for the World Creativity and Innovation Day. There are over 50 lessons corresponding to over 30hrs of content, covering many different aspects of creativity in our lives. 

I hope you can find time to join in these creativity focused events next week, or be creative in your own way! And if you choose to do your own creative activity, don’t forget to register it with WCIW and share with others. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit

The Educational Challenge For This Decade: A Story In Two Graphs

As we start the new decade and move towards the post-pandemic phase with cautious optimism, the question of how education needs to evolve is still looming. The pandemic shone a light on challenges like the magnitude of inequity in our society, but it also became a catalyst for better technology adoption in schools. Without technology platforms that made remote learning feasible, it is scary to imagine what last year could have looked like. 

However, the role technology has played in education so far has been to enable the same teaching that took place in person to occur in remote settings – it hasn’t really transformed education in deeper ways. But transformation is what’s really needed to address underlying issues.

The problem with our current educational system has been in the making for several decades – we are simply not adapting fast enough to keep up with the technological progress. The gap between skills that students acquire in schools and skills that are needed in the workforce continues to widen. 

Jonathan Rochelle, who started the Google Apps for Education team, captured the essence of the problem we face in education today. While comparing the progress we have made in machine learning to human learning, he quippedwe are teaching machines to be more like humans and we are teaching humans to be more like machines.” 

Is Creativity The New STEM?

The impact machine learning is having on human livelihood brings us to the first graph (Fig. 1). 

Research by economists Henry Siu and Nir Jaimovich shows that economic growth over the last two decades has come entirely from non-routine, or creative jobs. Routine work – both manual and cognitive – has been steadily declining due to automation. Machines learning is getting better at increasingly complex tasks, performing them with fewer errors compared to humans. 

We are teaching machines to be more like humans, and we are doing that quite well. 

As a side note, the graph also shows that every recession accelerates the decline in routine work, and in a few years we will learn the full impact of covid on long-term job trends.

The current situation is reminiscent of the early 2000s when various reports (e.g. Rising Above the Gathering Storm) raised concerns about the quality of math and science education, and the shortage in the STEM workforce to meet the growing demand. 

In response to that Obama, who had earlier called STEM education our “Sputnik” moment, announced incentives for schools that create STEM programs for their students in his 2013 State of the Union address. That triggered an intense focus on STEM education from many players including schools, nonprofits and the technology industry. These efforts have paid off to an extent. Access to coding and other STEM programs is much more easily available to students of all age groups and backgrounds now. There are indications that although we have a scarcity of STEM graduates in certain geographical areas and domains, we also have a surplus in others. 

We are yet again at a junction where economic forecasts are pointing to the need for a skill that isn’t being adequately addressed. It’s likely that Creativity is the STEM of this decade. 

The Decline of Student Creativity

How well students are doing in their creative thinking abilities brings us to the sobering reality of our second graph (Fig. 2). 

Professor Kyung Hee Kim first discovered that student creativity as measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) has been declining since the 1990s and her analysis led to the highly popular Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis. She found that measures like originality (thinking of novel ideas) and fluency (thinking of several ideas) – the hallmark of creativity – have shown a significant decline over the years. 

Part of the reason for this decline, according to Prof. Kim, has been the heavy and narrow focus on standardized testing which doesn’t leave room for building higher order thinking skills. Learning in school heavily prioritizes “one right answer”, which machines are good at, as opposed to multiple possible solutions, which give students the opportunity to exercise their creative muscle. Or as Sir Ken Robinson expressed, “we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

Current EdTech tools used in schools aren’t helping either – they primarily help students express their creativity instead of building it. 

In other words, we are teaching humans to be more like machines, and unfortunately, we are doing that quite well too.  

Navigating the Skill Gap

Educators have long recognized the importance of fostering creativity as part of student learning but the current economic environment is making this an urgent need. 

The good news is that creativity is a cognitive skill that can be developed with practice, and cognitive creativity programs have shown promising results

The not-so-good news is that most focus on divergent thinking which is disconnected from academic content students are learning. As one study pointed out, “It is hard to see how listing 100 interesting and unusual ways to use egg cartons will help Johnny improve his scores on state-mandated achievement tests.” 

One approach taken at MindAntix is to identify thought patterns, like associative or reverse thinking, that aid in creative thinking and actively incorporate them into school curriculum. Other educational approaches, some of them domain specific, have also been effective in improving creativity which offers room for some optimism. 

If we start teaching humans to be better at what makes us uniquely human – our ability to think creatively – we stand a much better chance at improving educational and career outcomes for our students. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Creativity In Education: Reflections From ISTE 2020

The ISTE conference, one of the largest in the edTech space, concluded earlier this month after the pandemic delayed it from its regular summer schedule. Apart from presenting our approach to creativity this year, I was also interested in learning about tools and techniques educators are using to foster creativity among their students. 

Overall, I found it heartening that educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of creativity and discovering ways to nurture it in their students. Creativity is a crucial 21st century skill. Unlike linear and sequential thinking, creativity relies on non-linear processes making it hard for AI to automate. This is one of the main reasons why creativity is now the most sought after skill among employers. 

EdTech tools, on the other hand, haven’t progressed much in improving student creativity.   

(A quick note – while I looked at several different sessions related to creativity, this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis as there were several hundred sessions this year.)

What is Creativity?

One of my first observations after watching several sessions related to creativity was that most educators use creativity as a proxy for open ended projects where students have freedom to express themselves. While this is clearly better than assigning work with one right answer, it’s not sufficient.

Simply giving students the space to be creative doesn’t necessarily equip them with the skills to think creatively. What students produce may or may not be creative, and can only be assessed by digging deeper into student created artifacts. 

As a result, most educators and students have built misconceptions around creativity.

So, what really is creativity? Creativity as psychologists define it is the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. An idea that looks original but doesn’t solve a problem or is appropriate in a situation is simply imaginative, not creative. Similarly, if the idea solves a problem but has already been done by others is useful but not creative. 

There are several models of the creative process and at a high level we can think of it as two phases – coming up with the initial creative idea followed by expressing the idea and iterating if needed.

Do EdTech tools help or hinder creativity?

All of the EdTech tools I saw – which included products from Google, Microsoft and Adobe – were geared towards helping students better express their creative idea but didn’t play a role in enabling creative thinking. In that sense, they don’t really help build creativity.

That said, they can potentially hinder creativity in some cases. One of the problems in using digital tools too early in the process is that students end up producing work that looks very polished but isn’t backed up with deep thinking. Students might rush into creating the final product without spending sufficient time exploring and examining different ideas, leading to sub-par results. 

This doesn’t mean that these tools shouldn’t have a role in the classroom. These tools are great for building digital literacy, acquiring knowledge and collaborating with others. But, as far as creativity is concerned, we need to be mindful about how to use them in the overall workflow. 

How are educators fostering creativity?

I saw several examples of educators using digital tools in interesting ways to teach content to students. However, those approaches fall into the category of “teaching creatively” instead of “teaching for creativity”. Teaching creatively implies finding novel ways to make teaching more effective and engaging, but it doesn’t help build student creativity. Teaching for creativity, on the other hand, is to teach in ways that help students build their own creativity. 

Some educators have made teaching for creativity a core part of the student experience. Here are some examples:

  • Visual Thinking: Using sketches and doodling is a way to not just express ideas but to think. Sketchnoting can help students find connections between different concepts and build personal meaning. Manuel Herrera got inspired to use visual thinking after attending a design conference. He realized that not a single speaker at the design conference talked about any tools. Instead, the conference was all about the creative process before any tools are used. That influenced him to start using a visual thinking process with his students. One of his techniques is to ask students to fold a sheet of paper in eight sections for brainstorming. Students then take 30 seconds to sketch an idea in one section and then quickly move on to the next one. He found that when students get to the fourth or fifth idea, they start coming up with more original and interesting ideas.
  • STEAM Mindset: Tim Needles shared how he encourages the STEAM mindset which centers around creativity, failure, curiosity, design and fun. After working on many projects he has realized that the process is more important than the product – even if students don’t have a successful piece they still learn through the process. One of his techniques to spur creativity is to introduce a constraint which forces students to think in different directions. For example, in one project he asked students to create an untraditional selfie using a different material. Students  responded with creative self portraits made out of skittles, cheetos or leaves. 
  • Creative Thought Processes: Our own work on building creativity relies on identifying thought processes like associative or reverse thinking, that underlie creative thinking, and incorporating them in the process. This year I presented some fun warm-up games that can be used standalone as brain breaks or incorporated into what students are already learning (see resources here). For example, one game asks students to reverse an assumption and find a scenario where the reversal would make sense. One group of students who challenged the assumption that tables have legs, came up with a table design that can be lowered from the ceiling. Students often find that by challenging assumptions they can come up with radical insights.  

The future of creativity in education

Given the economic trends and forecasts, the role of creativity in education is only going to grow more. Current edTech tools allow students to express their creativity more efficiently, but don’t help build it. This leaves the job of improving student creativity to educators who are filling this gap through different creative processes. This doesn’t mean that EdTech tools can’t improve creativity. It is highly likely that as these tools evolve to incorporate creativity building elements, they will make a much bigger impact on student learning and creativity.

This post first appeared on edCircuit

Creativity Through The Lens of Evolutionary Biology

Understanding how we, as humans, think and behave has always held fascination for scientists. Creativity – the ability to think of novel and useful ideas – is often considered a key trait that has allowed us to flourish as a species. Evolutionary biology dictates that traits beneficial to the species as a whole survive in the long term, while the less useful traits die down. 

So, in what ways is creativity beneficial to us?

Research of innovation in other birds and animals provides clues that creativity evolved when brains developed more, and it provided distinct survival advantages. 

One example found in nature is the bowerbird, one of nature’s creative engineers. Bowerbirds, found natively in Australia and New Guinea, have an interesting courtship and mating ritual. The male bowerbirds build elaborate structures called bowers from sticks and vegetation, and then decorate them with brightly colored objects like shells, stones, flowers or berries. 

When scientists looked at the complexity of the bower, which indicates higher intelligence and creativity, and the brain size they found an interesting correlation. Bowerbird species that built more complex bowers also had a larger cerebellum volume. 

Similar research on birds and primates confirm the hypothesis that more advanced brain structures developed to allow more complex cognition, which conferred evolutionary advantages. In a metastudy of birds and primates, researchers developed an innovation index by coding documented innovative behaviors and found that higher innovation levels correlated with larger brain sizes. 

Two main aspects of cognition that have to work together to support adaptability are innovation and social learning. 

Innovation

The ability to innovate plays a crucial role for a species in its survival. When faced with a new environment, species that are able to discover new food sources, avoid new predators or adapt to a different weather have significant advantages over those that don’t. One example of innovation in adapting to new foods comes from black rats that occupied the Jerusalem pine forests. The only source of food appropriate for the black rats in that area are pine seeds. The rats developed a technique to strip the pine cone to reach the seed, a behavior they had not previously used, which was critical for them to survive in the new habitat.  

Social Learning

While discovering a new food source or developing a new tool to extract hard to reach foods can help an animal survive a new environment, the species as a whole can only benefit when animals can learn from each other. Using the earlier example of black rats, scientists found that black rat pups were able to learn the new pine stripping behavior from their mothers, while other adults were not always successful in learning through observation. This successful transmission of learning from mothers to their pups allowed the black rats to flourish in the new environment. 

Our own history offers numerous examples of successful innovations that were exchanged and adopted by others. Our ability to think creatively and learn from others have allowed us to thrive in new environments. As one of the research studies summarized, “The combination of innovation with social learning, as documented in a number of primate species, is likely to be especially advantageous for species in novel habitats, as it could allow copying exploratory behavior per se as well as permitting the rapid transmission of successful strategies.”

How Imagination Builds Creativity and Social Emotional Skills

Nikola Tesla is one of the most fascinating inventors and futurists in recent history. His numerous accomplishments include the AC induction motor, Tesla coil and radio communication. His method for creating and inventing was not conventional – he relied heavily on imagination and visualized his ideas in great detail before taking any action on them. He describes his thought process as: 

“I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything.”

Imagination is the ability to form internal images of objects or situations that are not present to the senses. It is often the first step for a creative endeavor, and often provides the initial insights that lead to a novel solution. Tesla’s ability to visualize and imagine complete devices was extraordinary and allowed him to save immense amounts of time typically spent in prototyping. This approach to imagining problems and possible solutions has been common to many creative endeavors and scientists like Einstein, Feynman and many others have described their own imaginative experiences that led to scientific breakthroughs. 

There are other aspects of imagination that go beyond conceiving a single creative idea to building a more holistic creative mindset for an individual. 

From the earliest ages, children engage in pretend play with each other and with their toys. They imagine themselves in new roles and new situations, which helps them build crucial social and problem solving skills. 

When older students can imagine a future self that is more successful than their current selves, they are more likely to regulate their current behavior and show more persistence. They are more likely to participate in class discussions, spend more time in homework and achieve better grades. 

Imagination’s benefits go beyond personal goals to more broader social contexts. Similar to pretend play, when students are able to imagine others’ perspectives and their feelings, they are more effectively able to build consensus and navigate tricky social situations. 

Despite the advantages of nurturing imagination and creativity, our educational system currently doesn’t prioritize building these skills adequately. As researchers in imagination point out, “…supporting youths’ capacities for social-emotional imagination – their abilities to creatively conjure alternative perspectives, emotional feelings, courses of action, and outcomes for oneself and others in the short- and long-term future – is a critical missing piece in many classrooms.

While imagination is often considered a “soft-skill” and therefore less important than critical thinking, it is really a cognitive skill that schools should encourage in students. Imagination helps not just in creative problem solving, it also helps build important social and emotional skills that are essential for success in the real world. 

The Creative Aspect of Autism Spectrum Conditions

A few years ago, a research study to understand the impact of autism conditions on creativity found an unexpected result. Researchers found that while people on the autism spectrum come up with fewer responses to divergent thinking problems (e.g. different ways to use a paper clip), the responses are more original than the neurotypical population. 

The most common advice given for productive brainstorming —  to come up with lots of ideas which increases the chance of coming up with original ideas — doesn’t seem very relevant for this group. It appears that some of the characteristics of the autism conditions confer an advantage when it comes to creative thinking. As the researchers found, “…when fluency was statistically controlled for, people with high levels of autistic traits were more likely to produce unusual novel responses. This would be a potential cognitive advantage for creative problem solving.”

So why does this happen? 

One possible explanation lies in how we store and process information. Our brain is an associative engine, where all the concepts we know are stored as nodes interconnected through links. These links can be of different types and strengths. When we think of one idea, the next thought most likely to pop into our head is the idea that has the strongest connection to the first idea. For example, someone allergic to strawberries might have a strong ‘cause-effect’ link between “strawberry” and “rash”. Everytime they hear the word “strawberry” they might immediately think of a rash.

For most people, thinking of a concept leads to hopping from one node to the next strongest connected node in one train of thought. This phenomenon, also called falling into an ‘associative-rut’, is what leads to the initial set of fast, not-so-original ideas during brainstorming.

However, for those with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) it is possible that there isn’t one strong associative path to go down, and instead other paths are equally visible. In proposing the hyper-systemizing theory of autism, researchers noted that what appears as slow processing to an outsider might be due to the massive amounts of information being processed. An interviewee with Asperger’s syndrome explained his thinking as: 

“I see all information in terms of links. All information has a link to something and I pay attention to these links. If I am asked a question in an exam I have great difficulty in completing my answer within the allocated 45 min for that essay, because every fact I include has thousands of links to other facts, and I feel my answer would be incorrect if I didn’t report all of the linked facts. The examiner thinks he or she has set a nice circumscribed question to answer, but for someone with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, no topic is circumscribed. There is ever more detail with ever more interesting links between the details.”

The above description also provides a clue on why people with ASC come up with fewer but more original ideas. They ‘see’ more information which increases processing speed, but at the same time this ability makes it easier to avoid going down the routine path. 

In a similar vein, a study on verbal creativity found that people ASC generate more creative metaphors compared to neurotypical populations (e.g. “Feeling worthless is like offering a salad to South Americans”), while comprehension of conventional metaphors was similar between the two groups. The authors conclude, “Our results suggest that adults with ASD can create unique verbal associations that are not restricted to previous knowledge, thus pointing to unique verbal creativity in ASD.” 

ASC needs to be viewed more as a cognitive style, as opposed to a deficit. These differences in how information is processed has demonstrated several advantages, including superior ability in certain aspects of creative thinking. 

Building the 4Cs During Remote Learning

The rising infection rates in the current pandemic is forcing many school districts across the nation to start with a remote learning model in Fall. For teachers who had primarily taught in person earlier, structuring their learning to fit the new model can seem like an intimidating task. 

Beyond the challenges of understanding how to use technology tools effectively for instruction, there is an additional risk. 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration, might not get enough attention which will impact students’ overall development. These skills aren’t built in isolation. Instead, students develop these skills while interacting with their peers and teachers. 

So, how do we ensure that students continue to build these crucial skills when learning occurs in a remote fashion?

Community of Inquiry

Effective remote learning requires the development of healthy communities as outlined in the community of inquiry framework. Three essential elements – teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence – interact dynamically in the learning process.

Cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct meaning through reflection or dialog. Social presence is the ability of participants to bring their unique personalities to the community so others view them as “real people.” Social presence directly impacts social emotional learning (SEL) and indirectly supports cognitive presence when learners discuss ideas with each other. Teacher presence has two important roles – to design the content and activities for learners, and to facilitate the social and cognitive presence to achieve learning goals. 

The framework also applies to 21st century skills and the figure below shows how the 4Cs map to the framework. 

Communication and Collaboration

The first step in designing an effective remote learning experience is to set the right climate by focusing on healthy communication and collaboration. A good climate powers the social and cognitive presence and improves learning outcomes. Here are some tips to improve communication and collaboration among students: 

  • In a remote setting, students don’t get an opportunity to get to know their peers in an organic fashion. This is especially true for students new to the class or school. Consider incorporating opportunities where students share about themselves – their hobbies, likes/dislikes etc. You can also create time for students to simply chat with each other for a few minutes at the beginning or end of your remote session. 
  • Have students come up with rules of engagement for group discussions. These rules can include ensuring everyone takes turns, assigning roles, and critiquing ideas respectfully. Assigning one person to monitor the discussion and explicitly call on people who haven’t had a chance to speak is another way to ensure all voices are included. 
  • Collaboration can also be enhanced by using technology effectively. We found high engagement when students were collaboratively editing a document while being able to talk to each other through video conferencing. Students who were shy in group conversations were able to offer more ideas by simply editing the document, and more ideas got incorporated as a result. 

Creative and Critical Thinking

Creativity and critical thinking can be weaved into both discourse and content. Here are some tips to incorporate these skills into learning:

  • Open-ended projects, that are both minds-on and hands-on, provide an opportunity for students to build creative and critical thinking. A well designed project includes opportunities for students to explore ideas, exercise different cognitive thinking patterns like associative or analogical thinking, self-evaluate ideas and solutions, and iterate if necessary. Projects that use simple materials can easily be implemented in a remote setting. 
  • When students reflect on the topic before having group discussions, the outcome is better. For brainstorming ideas, the quality and originality of ideas is higher when students first think of ideas on their own before bringing them to the group. The creativity of ideas is further enhanced when students try to build on each other’s ideas (using improv’s “Yes, and” approach). Similarly, when students first research a discussion topic on their own, they are able to bring more facts into the group discussion and improve critical thinking outcomes. 

In-person instruction is effective as the core element of social presence occurs naturally. However, intentionally incorporating social aspects that build a healthy community and promote meaningful dialog can make remote learning equally powerful. 


The original and longer version of this article was first published on edCircuit

What should learning look like when schools reopen?

Over the last few months schools and teachers have had to drastically change teaching and adapt in real time to school closures. As summer approaches and schools start planning for the next year, they are yet again faced with the possibility of full or partial closures. However, the pandemic is also giving us an opportunity to try different models of learning that can be beneficial even in the long-term. 

Covid-related school closures have created a situation where in-person interaction has become a precious resource. Maintaining adequate physical distance, temperature screenings, and frequent deep cleanings are all adding a significant expense to normal day-to-day interactions that we had come to take for granted. We now need to treat classroom time as a precious resource―by conserving it and using it mindfully where it’s most effective. For example, a teacher giving a lecture to a classful of students is not a good use of classroom time as students could do that just as well remotely. 

The most effective way to structure learning would be to prioritize classroom time for building skills that require interaction and can’t be developed in isolation, while leaving individual work for offline.

Skills that need active interaction time with peers and teachers primarily fall under the 21st century skills umbrella – skills like creativity, critical thinking or collaboration. So it makes sense to “flip” learning along the boundary of 21st century skills and academic content. Here are some activities that would benefit most from in-person time, where the teacher plays the role of a coach or facilitator in helping students develop critical skills. 

Creativity and Collaboration

A key thinking pattern that underlies creativity is associative thinking―the ability to combine different ideas into something meaningful. When students discuss and build on each other’s ideas toward a common solution, they are exercising their associative thinking. The same skills also build healthy collaboration – instead of students trying to compete with each other to make their idea “win”, they try to include everyone’s ideas as best as they can. Teachers can help build these skills by observing how students interact with their group members, and guiding them to include all voices and focus on joint problem solving. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is when an individual improves the quality of their thinking by applying intellectual standards. It includes underlying skills like reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, judging, inferencing and reflecting. 

Socratic questioning and classroom discussions are a good way to discuss open-ended issues and build critical thinking. Critical thinking can be done both online or face-to-face, but there are differences. In online discussions students tend to use more evidence based reasoning as they can research before making their argument, while in face-to-face mode students listen to other ideas more and expand on them due to the spontaneous nature of the discussion. A blended model that capitalizes on the advantages of both models, can be a useful way to build critical thinking.  

Project Based Learning

Project based learning provides an avenue for students to be engaged in active, real-world problem solving. For students to gain most from PBL, they have to encounter and struggle with key concepts and skills behind the project. They build their thinking and knowledge in an experiential manner as they actively problem solve, by themselves or within a group.

The pandemic is causing significant disruption to the learning process and will require restructuring of lesson plans to address additional closures. Prioritizing 21st century skills for in-person classroom time can help stimulate students to think, engage in discussions, stay connected with their peers and learn from them. 

The full version of this article appeared on edCircuit