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

3 indoor activities to build creativity

With current school closures and approaching summer holidays, most parents are worried about the impact of extended breaks on learning for their children. While most of us associate academic work with learning, there are many different ways for children to learn and build crucial skills during these times. Students learn as much, if not more, from play and social interactions than with pure academic work. 

Here are three different ways to stretch your child’s thinking and build cognitive skills like creativity and critical thinking, in a much more stress free way.

Reframe challenges as opportunities

One powerful way to build an innovation mindset is to reframe problems as opportunities that are just waiting for a creative solution. The easiest way to find problems is with day to day activities and chores that children engage in. 

Ask your child what activities and chores they find inconvenient and how can they improve that experience. When posed as a challenge, children can come up with clever ideas. One of our students, who found cleaning his pets’ cages gross, came up with a clever idea of a new kind of trash bag with drawstrings all around that can be used to line the cage. When you need to clean the cage, you just have to pull the drawstring and all the mess gets caught in the bag.  Another student came up with the idea of a remote controlled mechanism to take out regular trash so you don’t have to carry a stinky bag for a long time. 

While not all ideas will be immediately helpful, it helps children to start thinking of problems as opportunities that they can find clever solutions to.   

Join the imaginary play

Young children can spend, what often feels like, an inordinate amount of time in imaginary pretend play. However, pretend play is also a child’s cognitive playground – where they can freely practice how to think and problem solve in different situations – and in the process build a deeper understanding of the world around them. 

In more elaborate forms, pretend play can grow into fantasy worlds or paracosms, where a child constructs an entire imaginary world with its own rules and systems. Michele Root-Bernstein, Professor and creativity scholar, found that engaging in building fantasy worlds as a child was indicative of creative accomplishments in adulthood. Highly renowned people across different disciplines like the Bronte siblings, Nietszche and Mozart invented imaginary worlds, as did a large number of MacArthur genius award recipients. She believes that the creativity involved in building fantasy worlds, equips children with skills like imagining, empathizing, modeling, problem solving and rule-breaking that are essential for any creative work. 

Pretend play and paracosms also provide an opportunity for parents and other family members to help stretch their child’s thinking. You can join your child in their fantasy world and co-create situations that need to be addressed or problems that need to be solved. In doing so, you give them a safe space to experiment with ideas while building a deeper understanding of society. 

Add counterfactual thinking to reading time

The benefits of reading books with your child, from cognitive to social emotional are well known. In a study designed to understand the effect of reading in toddlers, children were assigned to an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group received age appropriate books and additional reading time compared to the control group. The results of the study showed that families in the intervention group that did shared reading with their toddler groups, and not just reading aloud, showed significantly larger vocabulary scores compared to the control group. 

Parents can give an additional boost to shared book reading times by adding counterfactual thinking, which builds both creative and critical thinking. Save some time after reading a book together to discuss the book and pose additional questions. You can create different counterfactual questions by modifying or adding an event in the story or by changing characters and settings. For example, what would have happened if Dumbledore never gave Harry Potter the cloak of invisibility, or what would the story of Snow White look like in modern times? Sharing your ideas to the same prompts after your child shares theirs can help improve their ability to think in more diverse ways.  

The original version of this article appeared on edCircuit

We’ve partnered with Belouga to grow creativity globally!

Our popular How To Be An Inventor course has been selected to join Belouga’s collection of educational resources and is now available to educators and students around the world through this global learning platform. Belouga provides students and teachers with meaningful learning experiences, sourced from the most reputable learning organizations across the world. Belouga’s mission to build community and foster curiosity makes them a perfect partner to build an innovative mindset in students all over the world.  

Technological advances like AI are making routine jobs redundant and radically changing the nature of our workforce. Jobs that require creative problem solving are growing, while predictable jobs decline sharply. It’s not surprising that LinkedIn’s data shows that creativity is the top most skill employers look for. Now more than ever our educational system needs to adapt in ways that foster creativity instead of stifling it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted psychologist and expert on creativity, puts it succinctly, “In the Renaissance creativity might have been a luxury for the few, but by now it is a necessity for all.

Our approach, reflected in our How To Be An Inventor course, is to build underlying thought patterns, like associative or reverse thinking, that lead to creative ideas. The course takes a hands-on, minds-on approach to learning and engages students to think both creatively and critically. Over the last few years, we have run different versions of the course and have had several of our students win national level awards for their ideas! Needless to say, we are excited that students and educators all over the world can now access the course through Belouga and build critical 21st century skills.  

The course is available on Belouga as a five-part series to fit within the platform’s collaborative online learning environment. It provides more than two and a half hours of content to increase creativity and innovation for students globally. 

About Belouga

Belouga was founded in 2017 with the mission of making education impactful and accessible on a global scale through peer-to-peer and classroom connection, communication, and collaboration. Realizing the rapidly changing landscape of technology and education, the Belouga team looked to create a central location, which takes the heavy lifting out of global education, and provides teachers and students with a personalized learning experience through community and content without sacrificing creativity or curriculum needs. Learn more at https://belouga.org/ 

See the full press release here

Inventor Spotlight: Ayana Bharadwaj

Our featured student inventor is Ayana Bharadwaj, who came up with an interesting concept to make educational games more accessible. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Ayana talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Ayana and I am in 10th grade. I enjoy playing the piano and doing Taekwondo. In school, I enjoy the STEM field. I want to become a computer scientist. 

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is a website that hosts educational board games that are easy to download, print and play for anyone. My goal was to make board games accessible for anyone in the world, so they can not only have fun but also learn in the process. These games have been designed by me and other students – it’s been fun for us to design the games and we hope that it’s fun for other children who play these games. 

What inspired you to develop this invention?

I noticed that many board games we had at home were also educational in some way. That made me realize that learning for a lot of us comes not only from schools but also from other games and activities that we participate in. However, for many people in this world education is a luxury, and many parents can’t afford to send their kids to school let alone get them games to help their education. By making these games free and printable, my hope is that kids with very few resources will be able to benefit. 

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

My prototype did work. The Google Site could be easily navigated and the games on the site were well liked among the test subjects. It was rewarding to see others appreciate the effort after working hard on developing not only the site but the individual games.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

One thing I learned was the principle of Jugaad invention, or frugality. Basically, taking something that we use in our daily lives and trying to make it in the cheapest possible way, to benefit others who may not be able to afford those. 

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventors are the Wright Brothers because flight seemed something of fantasy, but they designed a functioning glider. They also exemplify the frugal mindset – they didn’t have the same kind of money and resources as others who were working on making flying machines. Yet, they used their creativity and perseverance to be the first ones to demonstrate flight. 

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I want to solve problems that make things more equitable for everyone. I want to continue finding interesting ways to make things more affordable for others.

How will you use your prize money? 

I haven’t decided yet but I might use some of the money to help bring these games to students who need it most.

Congratulations Ayana for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

Inventor Spotlight: Nora Redmond

Our featured student inventor this time is Nora Redmond. Nora designed a cool board game along with her sister, at one of our camps held in collaboration with the Archimedes School. Their idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Nora talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Nora Redmond. I’m in 5th grade. My favorite subject in school is math. My favorite animal is called an Okapi. 

What is your invention and how does it work?

Our invention is a board game. It can be played by 2 or more players. Each person uses a 3D printed game piece. First they roll the dice. Next the player will move their 3D printed game piece the number of spaces forward as the dice shows. After this, the player picks up a card. Each card has a picture of an endangered animal on it along with an action which states the animals names and tells the player another action to take. Some examples of what the cards say are: skip a turn, a giraffe ate your map, and on the bottom a fun fact such as: did you know a giraffe’s heart is 30 times the size of a human one. This helps teach players about endangered animals, and maybe help them to help the animals. The next player then follows the same steps.

What inspired you to develop this invention?

My favorite animal is Okapi: a type of endangered animal. Not many people know what an Okapi is. I thought we could raise awareness of Okapis and other endangered animals. We decided to have cards with actions, photo and facts about the endangered animal.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

Our prototype worked and was fun to play with, which was great. 

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learnt how to 3D print objects which might come in handy in the future. I learnt how to research and look up facts.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventor is Jane Goodall. She discovered how alike chimpanzees are to humans.

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I want to work on environmental issues such as climate change and conservation.

How will you use your prize money? 

I will save my prize money up for when I go to college.

Congratulations Nora for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

Inventor Spotlight: Tara Redmond

Our featured student inventor this time is Tara Redmond. Tara designed a fun board game along with her sister, at one of our camps held in collaboration with the Archimedes School. Their idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Tara talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m Tara Redmond. I am in 8th grade. My favorite subjects in school are math and science. I like coding and working with computers. When I grow up I think I would like to be a computer scientist.

What is your invention and how does it work?

Our invention is a board game. You have to get the pieces from the start to finish. There are cards that have directions on it along with interesting facts about endangered animals. 

What inspired you to develop this invention?

We were inspired by interesting animals that most people have never heard of. We incorporated those animals into our board game.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

When we first made it, it worked pretty well. Then we made more cards to make the game more interesting.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learnt how to brainstorm ideas and I also learnt how to use a 3d printer, which was really fun.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

My favorite inventor is Grace Hopper. She invented the world’s first compiler for computer language. 

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

One of the reasons why I want to become a computer scientist is because you have to think and solve problems by using your brain. That is something I hope to do in the future.

How will you use your prize money? 

I got $50 in prize money and I am saving it to use when I am older.

Congratulations Tara for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

Inventor Spotlight: Sachita Ghosh

Our featured student inventor this time is Sachita Ghosh, who designed an interesting board game at one of our camps, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School. Her idea won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education

Here is Sachita talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is Sachita Ghosh. I’m in 6th Grade Quest at Timberline Middle School in Redmond. My favorite subjects are Science and Music. During my free time I like to build puzzles and games. My dream job is to be an architect!

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is a board game called “Inventors and Architects”. In the game, you trade for resources such as Wood, Rock, Metal, Brick etc. Then you leverage these resources to build cities and shops, there by collecting points. In addition, there are challenge cards which give you extra points and make it more fun. These add an element of surprise in the game, making the game more interesting, and they also enable you to develop different strategies to win. 

What inspired you to develop this invention?

I used my love of games and building things to create something really fun. Leveraging 3D printing to make actual game pieces was a very creative way to put together my love of games and building.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience? 

My prototype did work. When others tried my game they said they liked it and thought it was fun and creative. That experience was one that I will never forget, because I enjoyed creating the game and then watching people have fun playing it.

What are some things you learned from your MindAntix camp that will help you in the future? 

I learned how to design an object using an online tool and then 3-D printing those objects out. I also enjoyed learning about how the 3-D printers worked. We also played several games which helped me look at games from the viewpoint of a creator. The camp taught how to be creative and think outside the box. By leveraging technology and creativity, I could create something that others could have fun with.

Who is your favorite inventor and why? 

Leonardo Da Vinci is one of my favorite inventors. His ideas were far ahead of his time and he had many varied interests from art to architecture to science to mathematics. He is truly inspiring!

What kind of problems do you want to solve in the future?

I would really like to help solve problems related to poverty and homelessness. No one in this world should have to suffer or have problems, and I would like to come up with creative solutions to help address these problems.

How will you use your prize money? 

I plan to use this money to buy materials for my future builds. I will also put away some of it to donate to a cause.

Congratulations Sachita for winning the award! We wish you the best in your future creative endeavors.

How Play Helps Creativity and Learning

Some of the most groundbreaking innovations didn’t get their start from a serious effort to solve a problem but from much more frivolous, playful ideas. After the first music boxes were invented, people got interested in making programmable music boxes that could play different music when the cylinder was replaced. But this basic idea – that the behaviour of a machine could be changed – became the catalyst for more serious inventions like the programmable Jacquard loom and the general purpose computer. 

Most people tend to dismiss play as childish and silly. However, a playful approach to problem solving can bring out fresh, creative ideas that may not have surfaced otherwise. Not all environments encourage play, though. 

Mitchel Resnick, Professor and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, uses the metaphor of playpen vs playground to differentiate the different kinds of play they support. A playpen is a restrictive environment where children have limited opportunities to explore, whereas a playground promotes open exploration, problem solving and creativity.

So how does one create a healthy playground? Here are a few ways to promote play in student work.


Environments that support guided and open exploration have been found to be more effective in student learning. To allow for more tinkering, allocate time during projects for students to explore different ideas or directions to pursue, even if most of them don’t lead to any success. Similarly, allocate time for students to iterate after they have chosen an idea and started developing it more. Asking students to explain the thinking behind their ideas also helps them discover shortcomings that they can improve as they iterate. The focus during tinkering is not to judge ideas, but simply to understand and help students elaborate the idea in as much depth as possible. 

Social Interaction

Most play has a social element that allows ideas to be exchanged freely. Creating a space and time where students can explore others’ work and bounce ideas off of each other also helps in improving creativity and learning. The best ideas in a group setting tend to filter to the top and get incorporated by different teams. While this may feel like “cheating”, it’s how most innovation works in real life – by merging bits and pieces from others into your own unique creation. 

One way to increase healthy social interactions, is to teach students how to critique others’ ideas and allow them to suggest constructive improvements to other projects. When done well, this builds both social cohesiveness as well as critical thinking. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Creativity flourishes in environments that foster intrinsic motivation and suffers under extrinsic motivation. When students are intrinsically motivated they are more likely to explore and take risks. A focus on grades or scores can push students from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation. Instead of external grades that evaluate project work, use self-evaluation forms so students can assess for themselves what aspect of their project could stand to improve. 

Play can be a powerful way to bring out student creativity and enhance learning. By creating a low stress environment where students can freely explore their own ideas and share with others, some of the beneficial aspects of play can be incorporated into student project work. 

How To Build Creative Confidence

Albert Bandura, a psychologist and Professor at Stanford, who first proposed the concept of self-efficacy, discovered that people’s beliefs about themselves plays a huge role in how they feel, think and act. People with a strong belief in their abilities tend to take on more challenging tasks and persist despite failures. As Prof Bandura explained, “A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. Such an efficacious outlook fosters intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities.

However, self-efficacy can take some time to develop. Here are three ways to ensure students continue to build some creative confidence during the school year.  

Build Mastery 

Before students can build any confidence in an area, they first need to learn and become proficient in that area. A first grader is not going to feel confident about tackling double digit addition in mathematics, until he can easily do single digit addition. According to Bandura, building mastery is the first and the most important step in building self-efficacy. 

From a creative confidence perspective, that implies building creative thinking skills, like associative or analogical thinking, that can be used in problem solving. So starting with simple challenges that exercise the creative muscles, and give students a chance to master different creative thinking approaches can go a long way in building confidence. 

Stretch, But Attainable Goals

Before students can take on challenging tasks, they need to first feel confident about their abilities. Experiencing successes, even small ones, builds confidence whereas early failures can lead students to question their abilities. Only when students have developed a strong sense of self-efficacy, are they persevere through failures. 

To build skills and confidence, create sub goals that stretch students’ thinking a little but they are able to achieve their goals with a reasonable level of effort. For example, asking students to come up with at least one idea using a specific technique before challenging them to come up with several. However, if the goals are too easy, then students might come to expect easy successes and will not build the confidence to persevere through more challenging tasks.  

Supportive Environment

Students learn as much from others as they do independently. When students see their peers solving problems creatively, they are more inclined to believe that they have the same abilities. In a similar vein, when teachers (and others) encourage students to keep going despite setbacks and express confidence in their abilities, students start to believe in their own abilities as well. For example, if a student isn’t sure about how others might perceive their idea, let them know why you think their idea is cool and worth pursuing. 

This expectation maps to the social persuasion in Bandura’s self-efficacy model. In an encouraging environment with positive expectations, a student might conclude, “If others think I am creative, then I must be creative.”

Teaching students creative thinking techniques, setting appropriate goals and creating a positive environment and expectations as students practice problem solving, can build their creative confidence. Armed with this confidence, students will be willing to take on challenging tasks, persevere through failures, all of which will set them up for success both in the short-term as well as long-term. 

A Simple Technique To Generate Fun, Original Ideas

Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book based on decades of his research, used the associative nature of the human brain to explain different cognitive biases that we inadvertently succumb to. The same associative aspect can also be used in understanding how our brains think creatively and how sometimes we fall into an “associative rut”, where we keep going in circles with the same few ideas.

One way to overcome the associative rut is to find a connection between completely unrelated concepts, an approach that sometimes lead to very original ideas. Another simple, yet surprisingly effective, technique to generate amusing and novel product ideas  involves making an association map.

In this approach, the idea is to connect concepts that are related but not directly. In the examples used in the study, the researchers focused mainly on sensory attributes like sight and touch, which lead to more observable incongruities. However, we found that this approach works just as well with other attributes as well. 

In this approach, you start with an initial product – the subject of your innovation – which goes in the center of the association map. From there, you branch out with a few different attributes like “used with”, “material” or “similar to” to come up with the first order of associations. Since these associations are directly related to the object, they don’t really provide a chance for incongruence or novelty. However, once you start branching out more to the second order of associations, then things get more interesting. That’s where, when you make a  connection back to the subject, it’s not very obvious but at the same time not too hard for people to find the connection reasonable. It’s the perfect Goldilocks association!

Here’s an example, using a simple classroom supply. Suppose you want to make a more interesting ruler. So you start with the ruler in the center and choose some attributes like “used with”, “material” and “similar to”. Then, you list different values for each of those attributes like the material could be plastic or wood. This gives the first order of concepts that are directly associated with the ruler. The next step is to find another set of concepts, the second order concepts, that are associated with the first order ones.  Finally, you try to connect back the second order concepts with the original object and see if that helps uncover an interesting idea. 

For example, a ruler could be made of a flexible polymer and another use case of a flexible material is a slap bracelet. By connecting the concept of a slap bracelet with a ruler, one can imagine making a slap bracelet with ruler markings which a student can wear and use as a ruler anytime they needed one. With this invention, you always have a ruler handy (pun intended) whenever you need it!

The reason that the association map works well is due to the incongruity theory. When people notice an incongruity, they can either find it amusing or be disappointed. When people can tie the incongruity back to the product then it results in an appropriate congruity and the product feels more fun, interesting or amusing, but when people can’t find an underlying connection, the product appears confusing. 

In this example, a flexible strip of plastic material connects the concepts of both the slap bracelet and the ruler. So the incongruity between a slap bracelet and a ruler just seems appropriate and fun when connected together. 

So, the next time you are trying to come up with a new product idea, instead of using the typical mindmap, try making an association map and see if that leads you to some fun, refreshing ideas.