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Perfect Child

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No two things in nature are exactly the same, yet everything is made from perfect, exact particles. Nature is like some eerie living Minecraft game, where electrons and atoms simulate bricks and build incredible, unique structures. The implication of this is that nothing in nature is identical, so nothing is perfect.

 

9d41c36f5-1
If only nature had a duplication function!

 

We are brought up with concepts such as perfect shapes, Platonic solids, geometry and perfect numbers, but in nature these don’t exist. If you were to make a set of all the shapes produced in nature, you wouldn’t find any perfect circles (not even the sun), squares or triangles; you’d find lots of squishy shapes, some nearly perfect and some far from perfect.

There aren’t even any perfect numbers. How can you say one plus one equals two when you can’t have two things that are exactly the same? You can say there are two ‘things’ in front of you, but you can’t know their true value unless you measure each one exactly and even exact measurement is an illusion.

The point of these mind games is that everything created in nature is imperfect, yet all around us children are bombarded with ever greater versions of false perfection as the ideal to which they should aspire.

From the moment children are born they are caught in vicious cycle of competition and attainment. The prettiest, the cleverest, the strongest, the fastest, the toughest, the bravest, the most creative. Parents are competitive too. Quick to boast of their offsprings achievements even when outwardly they claim not to be bothered. This doesn’t compromise the deep love parents feel for their children, but even when parents don’t want to play the competition game it is often thrust upon them by society.

Children don’t do themselves any favours either. They taunt and tease each other for every imperfection, the cruel irony being that they aren’t perfect either. At school the pressure increases. From five years old pupils are tested, ranked, rated, assessed, grouped and compared to each other.

They quickly learn that the brightest kids do best, that school and thereby life, requires things they don’t have. And every day they are reminded of that. In social circles, children learn there are popular children; the prettiest the funniest, the hardest, the coolest, the best dressed, the richest.

Children are then saturated with Photoshopped images and notions of perfection. TV stars, celebrities and sports people ooze good looks and tales of overcoming adversity to enjoy the amazing success they have.

Teachers teach children they must work hard, strive and endure if they want to be successful like these false notions. Everywhere they look children see images of perfection and the highest ideals are held up as normal.

And failure? Failure is portrayed as a pitiful warning to all of the dangers of not attaining, of not achieving. Young people can’t simply exist happily and contentedly within a humble framework, there is silent pressure to strive for more, to be compared against peers to have climbed higher, achieved more.

Maybe you think I exaggerate. Maybe I do. But ask yourself; what would the barometer of what I’ve said be? How would a sickness like this manifest itself? In what way would it show itself to us?

Wouldn’t there be an epidemic of unhappiness amongst children? A rise in #mentalhealth issues? Wouldn’t there be so many more children needing support, more reports of self-harm, hospitalisation and medical treatment for alcohol and substance abuse among young people?

 

5413-Stephen-Hawking-Quote-The-universe-doesn-t-allow-perfection
Link to image

 

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Creativity myths

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1.Without knowledge you can’t be creative

If you believe this then probably don’t remember making art and crafts as a small child. You’ve probably forgotten the sheer joy of creativity for creativities’ sake. We can and do work purely from instinct and intuition, without needing to know about types of paint, technique and skill. We can learn by exploring. And it is really important that children learn this creative process because as we grow we become increasingly aware of skill (or our lack of it) and become convinced that skill is the most important thing. But artists use their intuition just as often; their pleasure in the process comes, not from their proficiency in skill, but rather their abandonment to the creative flow, to the release of mindful intuition and the release of that all-too familiar creative anxiety. Cynics call it messing around, those who do it call it creativity.

“I felt a focussing of intellect and emotions… followed by a flood of predictions as if I were a bystander….Only then was I able to formulate a theory…Was it Science? Our later tests showed it was. But the processes I used and the responses I felt were more like those of an artist.” William Lipscomb Nobel Prize winning Chemist

2. Creativity arises naturally as a result of knowing more

The most knowledgeable people aren’t necessarily the most creative. In fact, it’s often the naive newcomer with a fresh pair of eyes that makes a breakthrough. Increasing knowledge means increasing awareness of more and more rules and this can lead to creative doubts before you even begin.

“The important thing (in science) is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Sir William Bragg.

3. Creativity can’t be taught

There’s no conclusive neurological evidence on this one way or the other, so no one can claim this is true or untrue. What is certain is that some people seem to be more inherently creative than others. And what is also true is that creativity as a process is important to innovation. So it makes sense to try to understand what it is and try to teach it. Should we do nothing and leave it to chance?

Moravcsik: “Even if one believes that creativity is to a large extent a matter of innate ability, one can acknowledge there are many ways education can encourage, practice & enhance traits & skills so that whatever creativity the student has, it is more effectively converted”

4. Creativity is too vague a notion to properly define.

Creative innovations occur via familiar processes: observation, serendipity, visualisation, adaptation, trial and error, alternative viewpoints, methodical approaches, collaboration, new insights and more. These are well researched, well proven and evidential. Yet they are usually taught as an incidental by-product of classroom learning. If we want to teach young people to be creative we need to be more specific.

5. Creativity is an arts domain

We need to make it clear that creativity is not the sole property of artists. All educational domains can be creative but in different ways. What does it look like in your domain and how do we learn it?

6. Creativity isn’t important to the learning of hard subjects

Recent research shows that drawing is one of the most effective ways to remember new information. Drawing especially goes right back in time to our first conscious expressions of thought. It’s a powerful learning tool even in the most complex of subjects if used well. Creativity can also be used to reduce cognitive load by translating complex information into visuals, aural and sensory outcomes. We are human beings first. Emotions come with the territory. If we aren’t engaged emotionally we won’t learn anything. Try teaching the times tables to a kid who’s crying or misbehaving. Facts are learned best when we are emotionally secure. Creativity can help us control our emotions.

7. Creativity is domain specific.

The argument goes something like this: a creative scientist can’t be a creative artist and vice-versa. You need the knowledge of your domain in order to be creative. It’s easy to swallow this argument. It seems to make sense. Except it’s wrong. A person who knows and uses the tools of creativity will employ them wherever and whenever they can, regardless of what they know or don’t know. It doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t mean whatever they create will succeed (it probably won’t) but then most people don’t make huge Creative acts, we only make creative acts (see my post explaining big C and little c creativity).  And often, scientific breakthrough’s occur when people switch domains. There’s something profound about it. Francis Crick was a physicist who decided to switch to biology before discovering the structure of DNA. Many great innovations have occurred when people move out of their comfort zone because and apply their talents to new domains.

8. Creativity cannot be transferred between domains

Do you know how creativity occurs in maths, science, the arts? Have you studied it? Do you understand it? Large-scale creativity occurs through a series of processes such as observation, seeing things from new perspectives, trial and error, serendipity, adaptation and visualisation etc. Whilst we need the domain knowledge in order to make a significant creative act, we can and should employ the same or similar creative processes whatever the domain we are working in. So the creativity can be transferred easily between domains and this is borne out time and time again through history. Francis Crick was a physicist who switched to Biology before making his DNA discovery for example and there’s something about transferring between domains that gives us fresh insight and perspective.

finally

If you’re interested in the neuroscience of creativity then you really should read this! https://theconversation.com/amp/creativity-is-a-human-quality-that-exists-in-every-single-one-of-us-92053?__twitter_impression=true

Memory & learning blog 3 – MARGE

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notes from the pdf MARGE

by neuroscientist Arthur Shimamura. Thanks to Daniel Willingham for posting this.

Learning is the ability to acquire knowledge from sensory experiences, where learning is perceptual (reading an x-ray), conceptual (linking new facts & ideas to existing knowledge), and skill learning.

Efficient learning depends on top-down processing which is the active use of the existing knowledge to guide the brain as to what to process.

Bottom up processing is where the teacher distributes facts while the student attempts to rote memorise them. It is the most inefficient form of learning.

A well organised memory system is built around an organised framework, where links are formed between information centres. (White matter to grey matter). The stronger the (white matter) connection the better it is remembered because these links between information are as important as the information itself.

Our brains determine how new facts fit into existing knowledge (schemas) and so memory processing distributes new information according to what we already know.

M – Motivate

The trick to remembering is to expand the spectrum of pleasure-seeking experiences and place ourselves in new learning situations. Placing yourself in a new context is perfect for this because it breaks you away from your habits of mind. Intrinsic motivation of things you are interested in will motivate you to remember them better. Using trips, galleries, stimulating resources, stories (which are organised schemas), personal opinion (which engages emotional brain circuits) and big questions to arouse curiosity will help. Web-based resources are a great entry-level gateway to conceptual information. Learning is best when it is pleasurable and engaging. The best way to encourage active learning is to get moving!

A – Attend (attention)

if we aren’t paying attention and our thoughts are scattered and our ability to process new information is diminished. The most critical problem for new learning is mind wandering and only 40-46% of students are paying attention at any one time. So student engagement is essential at the start of the lesson where you need to consider goal orientated questions, demonstrations or real-world examples. Also, breaking the lesson into sections via demonstrations or new material is important.

Also important is chunking, where we organise information into meaningful smaller units that are easier to remember. If we link these chunks to existing schemas then they become easier to remember.

Mind palaces or journey’s also are a great way to remember complex information.

R – Relate

Conceptual learning requires: 1. Activation of information in working memory 2. Relational binding of that information 3. Memory consolidation by reactivating and relating it to existing information.

This means that we need to relate new information to what we know. Do this by the Three C’s method: categorise, compare and contrast.

So when learning anything new try to recall anything you know of that is related to help you catalogue and assimilate it into what you already know. Learning is facilitated by finding similarities (comparing) and differences (contrasting) between new material and what you already know.

Verbal and Visual mediators are effective to create arbitrary associations to help us remember such as mnemonics, acronyms and visual associations such as wild imaginative mental pictures. Metaphors and Analogies can be used to connect new schemas to existing ones, such as comparing a camera to the human eye.

Another technique is to group information into meaningful hierarchies.

And rather than note taking in lessons, provide partial outlines that includes the main heading, sub-headings, titles, key words, topics. Students then fill in detailed facts.

Concept or mind maps also help to create mental hierarchies though they mustn’t be overly complex.

G – Generate

Think it, say it, teach it. By repeating the information you’ve just learned out loud things will stick better in your memory. Describe it to someone else and you strengthen it even further. You need to repeatedly use and reactivate learned information to create strong neural connections. But it’s not as good to simply restate or repeat what is being taught because you have to re-phrase it into your own words. Re-reading text books and highlighting key sections is a low-value memory exercise. But closing the textbook and trying to retrieve it from memory doubles retention. Rephrase the knowledge in creative, interesting and original ways to learn it best.

E – Evaluate

Metacognition is the ability to evaluate our own mental processes. We are constantly doing this to assimilate what is happening around us and decide on future actions.

There are two types of knowing: familiarity and recall. We don’t naturally recollect everything we learn, so we should test memory at intervals (minutes, hours, days, weeks etc.) Insert opportunities to retrieve information during class time by asking open ended questions that students must reply to individually and discretely. Anything that stimulates active responses such as clickers, mini-whiteboards etc. improves recall.

Of courses mini-quizzes and tests at regular intervals are good but so are other things such as doing a short presentation, speaking, making visuals, diagrams, recording or reading and re-writing the information in your own words.

You can also extend the earlier visual associations and mind palaces by creating flash cards of the information you want to learn then adding imaginative images to them.

Interleaving is where you mix-up and alter the order of learning. Think of it like exercising, where instead of doing thirty minutes on the treadmill then the rowing machine then the exercise bike, you do three ten minute cycles of each one. You learn different topics and subjects then test yourself on previous subject learning not the one you have just learned.

Lastly, you have to be cautious to not over-focus in specific brain regions, such as left or right brain learning.

Another important factor is that the student must be an active participant in learning to create a top-down processing model.

Explaining Creativity in education

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Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says we can be creative or Creative. Small ‘c’ creativity he describes as that which does not lead to a change in the symbolic domain of the culture; so small scale, personal acts of indulging in a playful, intuitive process would be creative. But when creative acts are accepted by the culture and lead to a transformation of the symbolic domain they become Creative. Creativity with a capital ‘C’ therefore is; ‘to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added into the culture’.

A lone genius might produce incredible creative acts, but unless they are accepted by the wider culture they will remain creative not Creative. Also, if a Creative act falls out of cultural acceptance then its creative influence is lost. So creativity can be viewed as both personal and original to oneself, whilst at the same time it can also be a more significant act when it leads to change or influence in wider culture. This implies that creativity is both intrinsic and extrinsic. It is systematic as well as being an individual phenomenon.

This is not to undermine the value of small c creativity to the individual. Almost all creative acts will never lead to wider change in the culture, but their importance is in what they bring to the emotional well-being of the person doing them. Engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to have considerable impact on well-being. And in addition, they may be valued as Creative at a later date, just as Van Gogh’s or Mendel’s work was.

Knowledge
Factual knowledge is one of the four pillars of knowledge; factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognition. Each of the four domains are important, but you might argue that some subjects are weighted more toward factual knowledge, others towards skills and others towards conceptual. (I think all subjects require metacognition.)

In education, it isn’t enough to simply label lessons as creative activities and hope a creative person will come out of it. Teaching science in a brightly coloured suit with lots of bangs and explosions won’t lead to any increased creative ability. What we need to do is to determine what we mean by creativity within our own domain and understand the factors and approaches that can lead to it. (In mathematics I’m reliably informed, innovation occurs at a paradox or areas of uncertainty.)

A strong factual knowledge base and an ability to communicate that knowledge to peers is vital to Creativity. In the rigid domains of maths and science it is virtually impossible to make a Creative contribution without internalising the fundamental knowledge of the domain. That said, having a wide factual knowledge base on its own isn’t enough because Critical Thinking & the Understanding to apply that factual knowledge through problem solving for example are also important. This is an area where information outside of pure factual knowledge, logic and reasoning is often important because problems aren’t only solved in linear ways but in abstract, conceptual ways too and this where creative thinking becomes important.

Creativity doesn’t just spring from a person when more and more factual knowledge is added. If it did then the most knowledgeable people would be the most creative and that just isn’t true. In fact the reverse is often true. Naive people coming to a profession with a fresh mind and new insight, who challenge the status quo are often the ones who make a significant breakthrough. (Yes they will have a level of expertise or they couldn’t understand the problem). Sometimes belligerence and sheer dogged determination lead to Creativity rather than possessing the most knowledge. Often it’s good fortune, sometimes it’s playfulness and sometimes its a collaborative effort. Creativity is very diverse.

Of course some researchers such as Sweller have argued that certain skills such as creativity have ‘evolved’ in our species over time and that we tend to find them easier as a result. But surely our species have developed varying degrees of creativity and is dependent on the individual. Yes we have utilised some skills over a longer period of time and constructed complex knowledge domains as a result of discovery, invention and innovation which are difficult to master, but again, this is individual. Some find learning academic subjects much easier than being creative. I can say that in my twenty years of teaching both Art and Maths I found that very often, students who were bright in academic subjects struggled to be creative and imaginative in art and vice-versa. In generalising our abilities we are on thin ice with the ‘creativity is easy’ argument and miss the point. Acts of creativity, invention and discovery are clearly extremely difficult or we wouldn’t struggle so much to make them. Treating creativity as a by-product of greater knowledge is to misunderstand the very nature of it.

The domain is vital to determining creativity.
Some domains are by their nature, aligned more naturally with little c creativity. Domains such as the arts, sports, areas of languages and some humanities involve greater modes of expression, earlier creative use of their knowledge base and can be employed at a more successful level (in terms of acceptance by the culture) with less expertise. (Think popular music.) The expert knowledge threshold is lower because the demand for new, innovative product is centred on things such as style, fashion and taste. This must irk classically trained musicians who earn a pittance compared to a millionaire pop star who can only play three chords.

In academia, domains that have more quantifiable measurement usually take precedence over ones that do not. There is a greater factual knowledge base to assimilate before innovation can be made. Academia values things that effect real change or where change can be seen, over one’s that are more ambiguous and harder to measure. Not necessarily because they add more value, but because they can be verified more easily. You might argue that knowledge domains that bring medical technological innovation and the like are more important, but then others might argue that more intrinsic things such as morality, purpose and quality of life are. We tend to accept the benefits of some change more easily than others. We can see the benefits of building a new motorway much more readily than we see its costs to air quality and environment. We tend to value the striker much more than the defender; the public installation sculptor much more than the embroiderer. This does not mean that more rigidly organised domains do not require creativity or that less-rigid domains don’t need a firm knowledge base. It is impossible to understand creativity within a domain without understanding the structure of that domain and how it operates with regard to new ideas.

This notion is supported by influential psychologist Daniel Willingham who states that the processes of thinking are entwined with domain knowledge and nested in subject matter. Trying to teach critical thinking skills as a separate entity or leaving thinking processes to chance by not teaching them at all is flawed.

Further considerations to creativity
The single most important factor to developing creative people is to instill a sense of curiosity, motivation, awe and wonder about their subject. If that is present then anything is possible. When we are motivated we’ll build bridges; when we aren’t we’ll give up and sit on the bank wondering how to get to the other side. Of course, it helps if you know what bridges are and how to make them and that is why a strong, factual knowledge base is vital, but the desire to connect two remote areas of land is what leads us to invent bridges in the first place.

Creativity is also dependent on environment. In ‘reactive’ conservative domains, only a few items are accepted and novelty is usually rejected. In proactive domains novelty is encouraged and stimulated. The environment of the extrinsic creativity must also support the development of ideas and in this way funding and an open, flexible atmosphere to change is necessary.

Summary
What all of this means is that creativity isn’t restricted to the acts of an individual. Creativity (big C) does not act in isolation. It is a collection of variables; some of which are; creating the right environment for it to happen, stimulating innovative thinking, understanding the market forces or audience, identifying the correct problems, asking the right questions, serendipity, building teams, leadership and understanding the content of the domain to name a few.

If we are to be Creative then people need to understand creative processes in relation to our subject. Rather than using the generic term creativity, we can employ the key creative processes than drive it. Scientist Robert Root Bernstein and others have identified thirteen creative thinking tools that are generic to all or most subject domains to a greater or lesser degree. Many of these have strong foundations in academic research. I’ve identified these:

Visualisation,
Adaptation,
Observation,
Knowledge,
Collaboration,
Alternative viewpoints,
Serendipity,
Methodical,
Trial and error

But there are more. These processes have led to many of the most innovative, ground-breaking discoveries and inventions of humankind. They crop up time and time again as the central process by which Creativity occurs. But do we ever teach these processes in schools or colleges? I think we do, but only indirectly and even then we could teach them much more effectively if we valued them more.

“Understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital,” Daniel Willingham writes. “It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.”

Critical thinking, the ability to critically analyse an argument depends on logic and reasoning, but also, according to Kerry Walters in his book Re-thinking & Reason, it requires more flexible approaches such as imagination and intuition.

Visualisation, an imagination dependent cognitive process, is a profoundly important tool for mathematicians, scientists and artists alike. In maths we use it to help us make predictions, in science to understand an organism and in art to invent and imagine. But do we teach it as an important thinking tool that should be learned? Do students know how and why visualisation is so important in this field? Do they know how can they become better at it? The same can be said for adaptation, observation and all of the other processes I’ve mentioned. They have been identified as crucial to helping us be more creative; much academic research has been done on many of them, yet we don’t directly teach them.

Why is that?

Sources
Creativity: flow & the psychology of invention and discovery, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sparks of Genius; the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people, Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein
Springs of creativity, Rutherford Aris, H. Ted Davis, Roger H. Stewer.
Discovering, inventing & problem solving on the frontiers of science, Robert Root-Bernstein.

Kerry S. Walters, Re-thinking Reason

Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel Willingham

Why increasing factual knowledge doesn’t automatically lead to greater creative insight & why simply being creative doesn’t either

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Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi says we can be creative or Creative. Small ‘c’ creativity he describes as that which does not lead to a change in the symbolic domain of the culture; so small scale, personal acts of indulging in a playful, intuitive process would be creative. But when creative acts are accepted by the culture and lead to a transformation of the symbolic domain they become Creative. Creativity with a capital ‘C’ therefore is; ‘to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added into the culture’.

A lone genius might produce incredible creative acts, but unless they are accepted by the wider culture they will remain creative not Creative. Also, if a Creative act falls out of cultural acceptance then its creative influence is lost. So creativity can be viewed as both personal and original to oneself, whilst at the same time it can also be a more significant act when it leads to change or influence in wider culture. This implies that creativity is both intrinsic and extrinsic. It is systematic as well as being an individual phenomenon.

This is not to undermine the value of small c creativity to the individual. Almost all creative acts will never lead to wider change in the culture, but their importance is in what they bring to the emotional well-being of the person doing them. Engaging in creative pursuits has been shown to have considerable impact on well-being. And in addition, they may be valued as Creative at a later date, just as Van Gogh’s or Mendel’s work was.

Knowledge
Factual knowledge is one of the four pillars of knowledge; factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognition. Each of the four domains are important, but you might argue that some subjects are weighted more toward factual knowledge, others towards skills and others towards conceptual. (I think all subjects require metacognition.)

In education, it isn’t enough to simply label lessons as creative activities and hope a creative person will come out of it. Teaching science in a brightly coloured suit with lots of bangs and explosions won’t lead to any increased creative ability. What we need to do is to determine what we mean by creativity within our own domain and understand the factors and approaches that can lead to it. (In mathematics I’m reliably informed, innovation occurs at a paradox or areas of uncertainty.)

A strong factual knowledge base and an ability to communicate that knowledge to peers is vital to Creativity. In the rigid domains of maths and science it is virtually impossible to make a Creative contribution without internalising the fundamental knowledge of the domain. That said, having a wide knowledge base on its own isn’t enough because Critical Thinking & problem solving are also important. This is an area where information outside of pure knowledge, logic and reasoning is often important because problems aren’t only solved in linear ways but in abstract, conceptual ways too and this where creative thinking becomes important.

Creativity doesn’t just spring from a person when more and more knowledge is added. If it did then the most knowledgeable people would be the most creative and that just isn’t true. In fact the reverse is often true. Naive people coming to a profession with a fresh mind and new insight, who challenge the status quo are often the ones who make a significant breakthrough. Sometimes belligerence and sheer dogged determination lead to Creativity. Often it’s good fortune, sometimes it’s playfulness and sometimes its a collaborative effort.

Of course some researchers such as Sweller have argued that certain skills such as creativity have ‘evolved’ in our species over time and that we tend to find them easier as a result. But surely our species have developed varying degrees of creativity and is dependent on the individual. Yes we have utilised some skills over a longer period of time and constructed complex knowledge domains as a result of discovery, invention and innovation which are difficult to master, but again, this is individual. Some find learning academic subjects much easier than being creative. I can say that in my twenty years of teaching both Art and Maths I found that very often, students who were bright in academic subjects struggled to be creative and imaginative in art and vice-versa. In generalising our abilities we are on thin ice with the ‘creativity is easy’ argument and miss the point. Acts of creativity, invention and discovery are clearly extremely difficult or we wouldn’t struggle so much to make them.

The domain is vital to determining creativity
Some domains are by their nature, aligned more naturally with little c creativity. Domains such as the arts, sports, areas of languages and some humanities involve greater modes of expression, earlier creative use of their knowledge base and can be employed at a more successful level (in terms of acceptance by the culture) with less expertise. (Think popular music.) The expert knowledge threshold is lower because the demand for new, innovative product is centred on style, fashion and taste. This must irk classically trained musicians who earn a pittance compared to a millionaire pop star who can only play three chords.

In academia, domains that have more quantifiable measurement usually take precedence over ones that do not. There is a greater factual knowledge base to assimilate before innovation can be made. Academia values things that effect real change or where change can be seen, over one’s that are more ambiguous and harder to measure. Not necessarily because they add more value, but because they can be verified more easily. You might argue that knowledge domains that bring medical technological innovation and the like are more important, but then others might argue that more intrinsic things such as morality, purpose and quality of life are. We tend to accept the benefits of some change more easily than others. We can see the benefits of building a new motorway much more readily than we see its costs to air quality and environment. We tend to value the striker much more than the defender; the public installation sculptor much more than the embroiderer. This does not mean that more rigidly organised domains do not require creativity or that less-rigid domains don’t need a firm knowledge base. It is impossible to understand creativity within a domain without understanding the structure of that domain and how it operates with regard to new ideas.

This notion is supported by influential psychologist Daniel Willingham who states that the processes of thinking are entwined with domain knowledge and nested in subject matter. Trying to teach critical thinking skills as a separate entity or leaving thinking processes to chance by not teaching them at all is flawed.

Further considerations to creativity
The single most important factor to developing creative people is to instill a sense of curiosity, motivation, awe and wonder about their subject. If that is present then anything is possible. When we are motivated we’ll build bridges; when we aren’t we’ll give up and sit on the bank wondering how to get to the other side. Of course, it helps if you know what bridges are and how to make them and that is why a strong, factual knowledge base is vital, but the desire to connect two remote areas of land is what leads us to invent bridges in the first place.

Creativity is also dependent on environment. In ‘reactive’ conservative domains, only a few items are accepted and novelty is usually rejected. In proactive domains novelty is encouraged and stimulated. The environment of the extrinsic creativity must also support the development of ideas and in this way funding and an open, flexible atmosphere to change is necessary.

Summary
What all of this means is that creativity isn’t restricted to the acts of an individual. Creativity (big C) does not act in isolation. It is a collection of variables; some of which are; creating the right environment for it to happen, stimulating innovative thinking, understanding the market forces or audience, identifying the correct problems, asking the right questions, serendipity, building teams, leadership and understanding the content of the domain to name a few.

If we are to be Creative then people need to understand creative processes in relation to our subject. Rather than using the generic term creativity, we can employ the key creative processes than drive it. Scientist Robert Root Bernstein and others have identified thirteen creative thinking tools that are generic to all or most subject domains to a greater or lesser degree. Many of these have strong foundations in academic research. I’ve identified these:

Visualisation,
Adaptation,
Observation,
Knowledge,
Collaboration,
Alternative viewpoints,
Serendipity,
Methodical,
Trial and error

But there are more. These processes have led to many of the most innovative, ground-breaking discoveries and inventions of humankind. They crop up time and time again as the central process by which Creativity occurs. But do we ever teach these processes in schools or colleges? I think we do, but only indirectly and even then we could teach them much more effectively if we valued them more.

“Understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital,” Daniel Willingham writes. “It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.”

Critical thinking, the ability to critically analyse an argument depends on logic and reasoning, but also, according to Kerry Walters in his book Re-thinking & Reason, it requires more flexible approaches such as imagination and intuition.

Visualisation, an imagination dependent cognitive process, is a profoundly important tool for mathematicians, scientists and artists alike. In maths we use it to help us make predictions, in science to understand an organism and in art to invent and imagine. But do we teach it as an important thinking tool that should be learned? Do students know how and why visualisation is so important in this field? Do they know how can they become better at it? The same can be said for adaptation, observation and all of the other processes I’ve mentioned. They have been identified as crucial to helping us be more creative; much academic research has been done on many of them, yet we don’t directly teach them.

Why is that?

Sources
Creativity: flow & the psychology of invention and discovery, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Sparks of Genius; the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people, Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein
Springs of creativity, Rutherford Aris, H. Ted Davis, Roger H. Stewer.
Discovering, inventing & problem solving on the frontiers of science, Robert Root-Bernstein.

Kerry S. Walters, Re-thinking Reason

Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel Willingham

10 Classroom Strategies for Enhancing Memory

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This article is based on an article by Christopher Pappas for the eLearning Industry (Instructional Design -7 strategies for eLearning Professionals). I’ve used some of his methods and added my own.

If we want students to remember our lessons we have to ensure they have effectively processed the information, encoded it and then give them enough time and the skills to retrieve it. People do this at different rates and speeds and in different ways so there isn’t a one size fits all approach. I used to say to my students; ‘teachers fill your head full of facts everyday but they rarely teach you how to remember them.

With difficult concepts, students are much likely to access their familiarity memory first. They’ll think; ‘oh I know this from somewhere,’ then try to wrack their brains to access their semantic memory for recalling facts. So the more memory techniques they can use the more likely they are to remember. So in no particular order of importance:

1. Involve all the senses. Encode the information into visual forms by writing it down, drawing diagrams, illustrations, charts and maps etc. Make computer based audio and video presentations, speak, sing or use poetry/rap to verbalise the information, use particular scents and smells to associate with different knowledge domains, make tactile physical movements to form associations. Best for big concepts, or harder, longer more complex information. Creativity aids memory processing and recall.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat and revisit. This is probably the most effective and quickest way of encoding shorter pieces of information. But the information has to be revisited and recalled at different intervals both in the lesson and at future times in order to be retrieved. We do this through testing of course and testing is a very important way of helping us to remember things. This can also be effectively done by getting students to repeat the information to each other in pairs or small groups because aurally repeating the information out loud helps encoding. Repetition doesn’t have to be dull and boring drilling. Anything that repeats and reiterates the knowledge in our minds helps; including quizzes, games and presentations.

3. Use it! Active retrieval is more effective than merely repeating information. If students don’t use the knowledge or it is considered a low priority to them then students will push the information further down into deeper memories, away from immediate recall.

4. Simplify. Break complex information into smaller sections. Prioritise information and get rid of unnecessary clutter. Organise the lesson information succinctly. Structure the content to create flow.

Get pupils to make summaries or paraphrase each chunk of information in their own words so they encode the information more effectively and can retrieve it more easily.

5. Visual chunking. Chunking is where you take basic familiar elements and associate them together in a more complex whole. Visual chunking is where you associate images sounds and feelings in your mind with the information you’re trying to remember. Mind palaces are an excellent form of visual chunking but you could try linking each fact to a familiar object. If you can remember ten familiar common items you can then associate numbers with them. One swan, two shoe etc. Then visualise the fact you want to remember with the number, and the item, then add an action. One swan is waddling over the formula for speed. Two shoes are tapping on the the value of pi, etc. After ten you can use 11 swans doing something else, and keep going.

6. Utilise Schemas. Use familiar knowledge and concepts to make associations with new information. For example, relating new facts through football to a soccer mad fan might help them remember it more easily. You can of course create new Schemas! Or use analogies and metaphors to familiar things, for example the electrical current is like a water slide, if we add narrower lanes and more loops and turns we increase the resistance.

7. Scenarios and stories help people pair semantic facts with episodic memory and we recall episodic memories much more easily. Why not get students to create stories from sequences of information or use mnemonics. So the order of the planets could be My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.

8. Mood and Motivation are powerful way to remember anything, so if a student is emotionally connected they are more likely to remember something. Make emotional connections that are relatable to help move information more easily into recall. Also, create a positive environment and use praise appropriately and sparingly at opportune times to make students feel good. We remember nice things! (Unfortunately we also remember bad things but we won’t go there!).

9. Time. Give pupils time to process, encode, store new information. Very bright students have strong neural connections that make recall easy, but others need time to embed them. Don’t judge the whole class by the speed of the fastest student to recall it. Some students memorise quickly using only repeat and recall but others need more diverse methods and more time.

10. Stage fright. And to finish I’d like to mention the phenomena of stage fright. I have to remember lots of lyrics and chord sequences to songs for performance. I use lots of techniques to help make them easily able to be recalled and at home I think I’ve got them off by heart. But go onstage look at the audience and the mind can go blank. This can happen in an exam too so try to calm down, settle the fear hormones flooding through your system and focus on something I call an anchor point. For my songs it’s the first line and I’ll construct a visual image in my head of what the the line means. If I’ve got the image in my head I’m fine.

The problem with Cognitive Load Theory for general learning

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This article is my own summary interpretation of the paper; Cognitive Load Theory, what does it mean for learning designers? By Walkergrove 2014.

Cognitive Load Theory is a well researched, well proven and generally unchallenged practice of instruction that demonstrates a strong and lasting influence on learners in many educational situations such as when complex tasks or large pieces of information need to be processed. But it is far from being a universal model for all teaching subjects and there is considerable debate over many of its principles.

One of the most significant criticisms of CLT is that researchers are unable to standardise a method of measurement for what constitutes cognitive load. Participants of the studies are asked to rate their load on a scale or physiological measurements are used (physical reactions to load). Both methods are highly subjective and vary from participant to participant. What constitutes cognitive overload or underload to me might not apply to you. In a class full of learners of differing abilities how do you tell? What is stressful for me is a thrill for someone else. One effective solution might be for each learner to have control of the cognitive load themselves (metacognition and independent learning?).

Cognitive load describes the burden placed upon the working memory by a task or information. It dates back to George Miller’s paper ‘the magical number seven’ from 1956. He thought that our short term memory is only able to process seven items before a decrease in retention but recent research has lowered this to about four for most learners. Learners can experience cognitive overload or cognitive underload.

In the 1980’s educational psychologist John Sweller used empirical studies of information processing to identify a set of principles that formed his theory of cognitive overload or CLT. His aim was to identify more effective ways of teaching maths and science and he proposed that a lack of learning occurs when the total amount of load induced by the learning environment exceeds the capacity of the learner. Other researchers quickly applied this to other areas where instructional learning takes precedent.

CLT assumes that working memory has a limited processing capacity, that long term memory is responsible for holding large amounts of information over longer periods of time and that people organise, understand and categorise information into constructs of information called Schemas. He identified three types of cognitive load; intrinsic (the difficulty of the task) extraneous (avoidable external information) and germane load used to construct Schemas. In CLT, the sum total of these working loads must not exceed the capacity of working memory. Proponents of CLT quickly considered it a universal theory to learning across all domains, media and learners.

However, further reviews of the evidence submitted by CLT researchers Clark, Nguyen and Sweller (2006) found that every study they used related to sciences, maths or complex processes and many of the lessons examined were very short. There has been a lack of research into the longer-term performance of those who have learned using CLT. The experimental data presented in the studies is in question also since the tests were all carried out immediately after the lesson and do not measure the long term effects of CLT. It may be that CLT is most effective for cramming before a test for example. The principle studies that led to the development of CLT were only involved with the teaching of complex mathematical and scientific problems. Yet it has been universally applied to all instruction without significant further research into its application to non-scientific or process-driven problems. Similarly there is a lack of research into long-term gains through the application of CLT principles.

Much of CLT has been adopted by eager enthusiasts uncritically yet many questions remain. The technique of chunking information is widely used for example yet there is little guidance on what a manageable sized chunk is and in any case this is surely likely to vary from student to student. Of course as a teacher I would want to break down complex information into smaller parts, but how small? Are the sizes the same for everybody? Another issue in question is whether the intrinsic cognitive load can be altered through instructional elements.

What is also relevant is the phenomenon of expertise reversal: that pitching your lessons at low levels actually depresses learning for those with more expertise. (Common sense?) This means that creating materials that have a low difficulty level could cause similar problems as cognitive overload. So it might seem that differentiation of learning is actually counter-productive to the whole class’s learning. This might be true, but again, these studies compared the whole class’s learning outcomes with lower level instruction. Targeted differentiation for isolated groups weren’t measured and again, we’re left with the feeling that the researchers are generalising whole group trends. The conclusion could be drawn that instructional materials cannot be the same for all learners, that there must be varying degrees of difficulty. If you pitch your lessons too low people won’t learn enough, pitch it too high and they will be overloaded. (Isn’t this just what every teacher knows anyway?)

To paraphrase: CLT has been shown to be very effective for teaching complex information. By paraphrasing complex information into smaller Schemas you can avoid cognitive overload and increase the amount learned. By breaking information into smaller manageable sections and ensuring that these sections are the right size for learners to manage (the Goldilocks syndrome) you should increase the effect of your teaching. However, CLT isn’t proven to work for other aspects of learning and in any case, cognitive load is difficult to measure and varies from person to person.