Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

home >> Teaching and Learning >> Teaching for Creativity in Science
posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning, Creativity, Science and Nature
Teaching for Creativity in Science


In my first
year of teaching high
school biology, 1966, I found
a large pile of scientific magazines
in my prep room.
I hired work-study
students to examine, cross-index, and enter
hundreds of articles into a simple system of
punched cards.
By running a knitting needle
through a hole representing a topic of interest
and lifting, cards on the topic fell out,
on other criteria reduced the set, and
information on the cards helped
students select articles
to read.

I used this
library system the next
year in 10th grade survey and
11th and 12th grade research courses.
10th graders read and reported on one
article of their choice each week, plus
their other work, and research students
read and reported on two. 
The system
was fast, easy, and ran by itself with
no supervision from me in the five
sections and 140 students
in those two courses.

Once we began, students filed their reports
without reminding, enjoyed the experience,
I enjoyed reading and commenting on what
they wrote
and I learned from the articles.

In general
in the research course, I
helped when students needed it
but stayed out of their way and let them
do their research, which was also of their own
Sometimes individuals spent several days
in a row with no direct contact with me at all,
did excellent research, several got publishable
results, and one student later completed
a PhD on a project he began
in 11th grade. 

I learned later that
not only were those students
not disadvantaged by a year of curiosity
driven, essentially for-fun research
but enjoyed strong advantages
as undergraduates, even in
traditional courses.


One day
two research students
sat in a corner, talking,
sometimes but fully engaged with each
other and I didn’t disturb them. 
next day they asked to go to the nurse’s
office, saying they needed a quiet
place to do an experiment
and w
ithout probing
I let them go.

On the third day
they wanted to talk.
had read an article on conduction
of sound by bone, and after designing and
performing their own experiment to test the
main point of the article they concluded the article
was wrong. 
According to the article, sound reaches
nerve endings in our inner ears not only through the
air in our ears, as we all well know, but comes through
our  bones as well. 
To demonstrate this effect, the
article invited readers to do an experiment by
humming quietly and listening, then
plugging both ears with their
fingers and humming
again.   The sound
will be louder.

Please do the experiment yourself
so you’ll understand
and appreciate
what follows.

The boys
agreed with the result
but disagreed that it proves
bone conducts sound to our ears,
considering it consistent with that
interpretation, but  also consistent with
the idea that bone does not conduct sound.
On that basis, they decided the experiment
was inconclusive and met that night
to design their own experiment
and performed it in the
nurse’s office.

You’ve already
done the article’s
test. Theirs took two people.  A hummer
plugged a listener’s ears and hummed. 
bone conducts sound to our ears, they
reasoned, it would be as loud for listeners
under this condition as it had been
and if it grew quieter
it would refute that

They repeated
both experiments many
times, took careful notes
each time.
Every time, humming was louder when
the listener plugged his own ears while
and quieter when hummers
plugged listeners’ ears for them
and did the humming.

given a hidden, implicit,
absolutely critical but incorrect
assumption they made when they read
the article, the boys concluded incorrectly
that sound is not conducted by bone.
conclusion was incorrect, b
ut there
was something very right about
what they did to reach their
incorrect conclusion and
it is
very important.

Most of
their logic was solid
and their experimental design,
how carefully they conducted it, and
ow they analyzed and interpreted their results
were perfect.  But
they missed something difficult
that scientists must learn to do in our work: to know it
when we make assumptions.  M
istakenly, they thought
the authors meant shoulder, arm, and finger bones
conduct sound to our ears when we plug them,
and their
experiment did refute  that, but
the article was
about skull bones
and the boys didn’t realize it!

But for a critical
assumption in a critical place,
they were impeccable creative scientists
and I was proud of them.  W
hen they realized
their hidden assumption and reinterpreted the data
they had a good laugh with no loss of face. 
The next
day they proudly presented their research to the rest
of the class, to my other research class, and to a
10th grade class, then wrote it up as a scientific
everyone had a good time,
and the boys gained fame and prestige
for their courage and creativity. 

Everyone learned
important things about science,
especially that it is exciting, interesting,
and dangerous. They learned about logic
about language, assumptions, and the
wonder and significance of
I think we
spent the time well.


The story
illustrates a way of
teaching and learning that must
become common in schools and
universities, I think, everywhere
and at every level,
if students are
to become the creative problem
solvers everyone wants
them to be.

What does it illustrate? 

other things,
demonstrates that
learn to work creatively
by confronting problems
that matter to us.
When it is our
own work.

We learn to learn cooperatively
by working cooperatively in learning.
We learn to think scientifically
by thinking scientifically.
We learn to sculpt
by sculpting.
We learn
to learn.

These profound
truths are throughout
the vast literature on creativity.
Teachers can help in many ways
but we can’t supply the imagination
all humans are born with but
families and schools
often suppress. 

In this case,
students discovered the
problem themselves by meeting
a weekly reading assignment and
worked independently to solve it.  M
only input was to help them uncover
a hidden assumption and gain
rather than lose face
from their error.

It isn’t
that students must
work independently at every
stage.  Not that at all. 
But they must
own the work intellectually, whether they
discover the problem for themselves or not,
own it emotionally, feeling it as their own,
engage in it actively, and work without
interference from experienced people,
independently or cooperatively
with their peers. 
They must
participate fully in every stage
of research from asking powerful
questions, inventing hypotheses to
answer them, designing experiments,
performing them, and analyzing and
interpreting the results,
or not they write any of it up.

The key is
to encourage process
over product
in the short term
but insist on high standards of product
in the end.  Here
the process was simple:
read articles and write about them.
verything but the opportunity
and the feedback came
from the students.

I  didn’t
bring any technical
expertise to the table. Students
were free to work on their own, I
encouraged them when I could,
and I respected, trusted,
and listened carefully to
them when they were
ready to share
with me.

A critically important factor is that
together, we had been
creating a culture
in which it was safe to fail. 

This isn’t
rocket science. 
can learn to do it and nearly all
students respond well to the opportunities
it provides. 
The payoff is deeper, longer-lasting,
more useful learning for students and a more
exciting and fulfilling experience of teaching
and learning for everyone
and this is only
one of many stories I could tell to
illustrate an approach to
teaching for creativity
in science. 

Simply put,
minimize direct interference
in students’ learning but provide rich
opportunities and rewards for them to discover.
This doesn’t preclude guiding when necessary
but doesn’t assume students necessarily need
direction, guidance, or anything other
than opportunity and recognition
for doing well, once we get
them started.

The keys
to this and many
other examples are to
students to discover things in interesting
respect their efforts to learn to
encourage them to share their learning
with others,
protect them from loss of face and
celebrate their accomplishments publicly,
especially the tiny ones they might
not notice.

This story relates to everything I have ever
thought, written, said, or done in education.
I don’t know what to recommend.

An early
version of this story

was published in CDTLink, a
publication of the Centre for Development
of Teaching and Learning, National
University of Singapore, then
eprinted in Creativity at
 and Repubhub.


Edited January 2019

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