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

Computational Thinking and Creativity

In the decade between 2002 and 2012, the number of Bachelor degrees awarded in Computer and Information Sciences fell by more than 17%, the largest decline for any field in that time period. While graduation rates in Computer Science have been ticking up more recently, we still do not produce enough graduates to fill the growing demand for STEM jobs prompting Obama to comment: “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job.”

One reason for the low number of STEM graduates is the high attrition rate (~50%) due to students who switch their major. Students whose first exposure to a programming language is in college find the coursework and getting good grades challenging. Researchers studying this phenomenon found that, “due to the difficulty experienced in learning to program, some students drop from the major all together instead of continuing and learning a different programming language or choosing an alternative technology track.” One clear solution is to start introducing computer science fundamentals, or computational thinking, earlier in schools. Computational thinking is an approach to formulating problems in a way that computers and other tools could be used to solve them.

Proponents of introducing computational thinking in K-12 point out, “All of today’s students will go on to live a life heavily influenced by computing, and many will work in fields that involve or are influenced by computing. They must begin to work with algorithmic problem solving and computational methods and tools in K-12.” That leads us to the next problem – how do you introduce a kindergartner to algorithms and programming concepts?

One approach that is gaining traction worldwide is the Computer Science Unplugged project. Initiated at the University of Canterbury, it uses games and activities to expose children to the kind of thinking that is expected of a computer scientist, all done without using any computers. One reason that the Unplugged approach is becoming popular is that it requires less commitment and resources to introduce children to computational thinking. But what exactly does computational thinking involve?

Mitchel Resnick, professor at MIT whose group created the Scratch programming language for kids, and his collaborator identified three dimensions of computational thinking – computational concepts (the concepts designers employ as they program), computational practices (the practices designers develop as they program), and computational perspectives (the perspectives designers form about the world around them and about themselves).

In our newest after-school program, currently in pilot, we are using the unplugged concept to not only introduce children to computational thinking concepts (like sequential logic, conditionals or flowcharts) but also creative thinking (changing perspectives, associational and analogical thinking) and storytelling. During this program children will create a puppet show that incorporates some programming and creative thinking elements, to make a fun and interactive final show.  

Both computational thinking and creative thinking are now considered critical 21st century skills. In fact, merging creative thinking exercises in computer science education has actually been shown to improve learning of computational thinking. Our goal with this program is to help children grow into more effective problem solvers.

A Left Brainer’s Guide to Right Brain Creativity

When I first started coaching my daughter’s Destination Imagination team, I struggled with getting my team to really think outside the box. I found that during brainstorming, most of their ideas showed, loosely borrowing computer science terminology, either “temporal” or “spatial” locality. For instance, when they were deciding a plot for their play in December, most of their ideas were around toys and Christmas. Or, if I pressed them for more ideas, they would start scanning the room to see if anything triggered their imagination. It frustrated me that my team wasn’t coming up with more diverse ideas but I did not know how to make them think differently. That’s when I started researching on how to boost creative thinking.

Michael Michalko, a leading expert in Creative Thinking, started his work in the field when he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. After spending several years refining various techniques, he published Thinkertoys in 1991 which is currently one of the best compilation of different creative thinking techniques. Even earlier in the 1940s, Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet inventor who first started work as a clerk in a patent office, wanted to discover rules or patterns that would help in the creation of novel ideas. He analyzed thousands of patents and developed his Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) which includes 40 principles that can guide novel thinking. What’s interesting with both Thinkertoys (specifically, the Linear Thinkertoys, which focus on conscious problem solving) and TRIZ is that even though they originated differently and target different audiences (businesses vs. technical inventors), they both share many common techniques. But how do you keep all these different tips and tricks in your head when trying to solve a thorny problem?

One way, that I find easy to explain to children, is to integrate these different techniques in a broader model as a three-step problem solving process:

  • Dissect: The first step is to list all the different dimensions or attributes of the problem like material, shape and functionality. The trap that most of us fall into at this step is that we only think of physical attributes. You can get trigger more diverse ideas by also thinking about less tangible dimensions like the underlying assumptions or the environment. For instance, the thinkertoy, False Faces, focuses on underlying assumptions as it’s attribute.
  • Transform: The next step in the process, once you have selected the dimension, is to manipulate it in some way. As Professor Kyung Hee Kim points out, novel ideas are generated from mental actions, not external objects. You could make a physical attribute bigger or smaller, change materials, add more remove functionality, or even turn around assumptions. For instance, in False Faces, Michalko reverses our assumption that all restaurants have menus. By working with the reversed assumption, we could imagine a restaurant where the chef creates a meal out of ingredients that you pick and names the dish after you, to provide a unique and personal experience.
  • Associate: The final step in thinking creatively is to pick one or two random objects and see how they are related to solving the problem. This technique allows you to tap into the brain’s natural ability to find associations between things that may be unrelated and give you completely new, unanticipated directions to think about. This isn’t necessarily the last step – you can use associations any time in the brainstorming process. The Brutethink technique in Thinkertoys, that works by pairing two things that have nothing in common, uses association to reveal novel connections and ideas.

So, why are we inclined to think in a temporal and spatial sense? Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, explains that ideas are like nodes in a vast network, called associative memory. Each idea is connected to many others through different types of links, one of which is the contiguity in time and space. So when you have a starting thought, your brain subconsciously starts finding other ideas that are related, and not surprisingly, picks ones that are close in time or space. When we have two unrelated ideas, the same associative engine gets to work under the ground to find what connects them. Which is why the third step in the process (association) works so well. The trick to being more creative is to recognize that our brain by default lights up only a few directions, and that we can consciously provide additional triggers for more unique (and sometimes profound) ideas.

By thinking of creative brainstorming as a three-step process, you can learn to significantly increase the number and quality of novel ideas. So, the next time you are stumped with a challenge, try out the three-step process of dissect, transform and associate. List out as many attributes and dimensions of the problem as you can think of, find different ways to change things, throw in some randomness, and then rinse and repeat.

Want to be more creative? Start small.

When my daughter was six years old, she decided that she wanted to be an inventor. And one of her first “inventions” was a singing toothbrush. She could never keep track of her two minutes of brushing time, and like any other six year old, she kept forgetting to set the timer or watch the clock. So she came up with an idea – if her toothbrush could play a song for two minutes then she would know exactly when to stop brushing. She didn’t know that toothbrushes like that were available, so as far as she was concerned this was a pretty clever, novel idea. Would you consider her singing toothbrush idea creative? If you are like most people, your answer is probably “yes”. And until recently, you would have been wrong.

Creativity research is usually split into two kinds based on the magnitude of creativity – Big-C, which focuses on eminence-levels of creativity like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and little-c or everyday creativity, which covers all other smaller-scale novel ideas or products. But what makes it into these categories depends on what we mean by creativity. Since the latter half of the 20th century, creativity has been defined as a novel yet appropriate solution to a problem or response to a situation. Unfortunately, the focus on “novel” discounts ideas that are new only to the person who creates them but not to others. So, by this definition, our singing toothbrush wouldn’t really be considered creative.

To overcome this limitation, psychologists, Kaufman and Beghetto, proposed adding the “mini-c” category of creativity which they defined as “novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences, actions and events.” Mini-c focuses on the personal creativity that was missing from the previous definition. They also added another category, Pro-c, to account for professional creators that have not yet reached eminent status. But their contribution wasn’t limited to just defining some new categories and expanding the definition of creativity.

Most importantly, based on prior creativity research, the authors laid out the trajectory of creativity categories with people potentially progressing from lower levels of creativity to more higher forms of creativity over time. (See a simplified view of their 4C model in the picture above). The major realization from their model is that everything starts with mini-c – without being good at mini-c creativity, one cannot reach eminent levels of Big-C creativity. The path to making breakthrough accomplishments in any area starts with humble, small forms of personal creative expression.

Jean Piaget, the famous psychologist, observed “The principle goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done”. Unfortunately, our current environment is failing us – instead of educating a generation to handle increasingly complex challenges in creative ways, we are inadvertently creating a generation that is more likely to think inside-the-box. Our goal at MindAntix is to help build mini-c and little-c levels of creativity in everyone. We believe that creative thinking skills along with other key ingredients (topic of our next blog) will eventually lead to breakthrough levels of creative accomplishments.


Do Schools Kill Creativity?

There is a growing debate in the education world about how schools are squelching creativity in our kids. Sir Ken Robinson, a leading proponent of this theory, outlines his argument of how we are “educating people out of their creative capacities” in a humorous and immensely popular TED talk. For those who haven’t seen his talk, the video is embedded at the end of this blog and I highly encourage everyone to watch it.

There are a few ways that schools shortchange our children as Sir Ken Robinson points out in his talk. The first is that our view of intelligence is still dominated by academic ability. Despite the advancement in our understanding of intelligence – that it is diverse (as proposed by psychologists like Howard Gardner and Robert Steinberg), dynamic and distinct – our educational system still focuses primarily on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Our belief in what’s important to learn leads to a hierarchy of subjects with math and languages at the top and  humanities and arts at the bottom. This results in a system that discourages kids with strengths lie outside of the “top” subjects. And, this one-size-fits-all approach robs everyone of an opportunity to develop different kinds of intelligences and ways of thinking.  Finally, by creating a culture where mistakes are stigmatized, schools make kids more risk-averse and less creative. Sir Robinson raises valid points in his talk but is that the whole story – are only schools responsible for undermining Creativity?

Kyung Hee Kim, a leading researcher on Creativity, analyzed creative thinking scores for K-12 students over the last few decades and found that Creativity has been declining steadily since the 1990s. This is a worrisome trend, because, as she puts it, “it stunts abilities which are supposed to mature over a lifetime.”  In addition, she found out that the biggest drop in creativity, surprisingly, was for the K-3 age group, a group more influenced by home than school.

In her article, Kim outlines three factors that might be playing a role in the declining creativity trend.

  • Time to think: In our rush to provide children with enriching after school activities (ironically, to complement school’s left-brain slant), we are leaving them with less time for free play and for “reflective abstraction”. In two studies (1, 2) spanning 1981-2003, Sandra Hofferth, a professor at University of Maryland, found that discretionary time for children reduced by 14 hrs per week in that time period. In addition, structured activities are taking up an increasing portion of discretionary time leaving children with little time to think and reflect.

  • Problem Finding: Problem finding uses a different set of skills as compared to problem solving. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between  “presented” problems, which are formulated by others, and “discovered” problems which are self-identified. While creative solutions are often found for presented problems, major breakthroughs occur more with discovered problems. Einstein was not alone in holding this conviction when he said, “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than it’s solution.” Other studies have also shown that students show more motivation to solve self-generated problems and they come up with more creative solutions for them as compared to presented problems.

  • Collaboration: Creativity also emerges from collaborative groups. Studies have shown that other people’s ideas can be stimulating when group members actively listen to each other’s ideas. Children’s creativity can be enhanced by providing them with a receptive and encouraging environment to discuss ideas.

With so many changes in our values and lifestyle since the ‘90s it will be hard to narrow down all the factors causing a fall in creativity, so this debate is here to stay. But what can we all do in the meantime? I believe that we should encourage children to think in many different ways whenever they can – adopt different perspectives, challenge assumptions, ask “what-if?”, and find new kinds of problems (real or hypothetical situations) to think about at school and at home. Ask “why?” five times to get to the root of any problem and to find more creative solutions. And then ask “why not?”. Learning to think and ask different questions not only helps in acquiring deeper insights but also reveals more creative solutions. “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers,” said Sir Antony Jones, co-author of the famous British comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister,  “but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.