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,
sorting
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
of 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
choosing. 
Sometimes individuals spent several days
in a row with no direct contact with me at all,
teams
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,
arguing
sometimes, but fully engaged with each
other and I didn’t disturb them. 
The
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.
They 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 that
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 show
this effect, the article invited readers to do an
experiment by humming quietly, listening
to themselves, 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.
It was consistent with that idea, they
argued, but was also with the idea that
bone does not conduct sound. 
They
considered the study inconclusive,
designed their own, and con-
ducted it in the nurse’s
office.

You already did
the article’s
one-person test, but
theirs took two.  A hummer plugged
a listener’s ears and hummed. 
If bone
conducts sound to our ears, they reasoned,
it would be as loud as it had been before
for listeners under this condition. 
If
it grew quieter, it would refute
that hypothesis.

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

Correctly,
given a hidden, implicit,
absolutely critical, but incorrect
assumption they made when they
read the article, they concluded
incorrectly that sound is
not conducted by
bone.

Their conclusion was
incorrect.  B
ut there was something
very right about what they did to reach
that incorrect conclusion and
it is
very important.

Most of
their logic was solid.
Their experimental design,
how carefully they conducted it,
and h
ow they analyzed and
interpreted their results
were impeccable.

But they
missed something difficult
that scientists must learn to do in
our work: to realize it when
we assume things. 

They thought
the authors meant
shoulder, arm, and finger
bones
conduct sound to our ears
when we plug them, and their
work
did refute that idea.  B
ut the article
was
about the skull bones
and the boys didn’t
realize it!

When they
realized their hidden
assumption and reinterpreted
their result, they had a good laugh with
no loss of face. 
The next day they presented
their research to the rest of their class, to
my other research class, and to a
10th grade class, then wrote
it up as a scientific
study.

A good time
was had by all, and
the
boys gained fame and prestige
for their courage and creativity. All
learned important things about science,
especially that it is exciting, engaging,
and dangerous – – that we have to
keep our wits about us.

They learned
about logic, about language
and assumptions, and about the wonder
and significance of sensation.
I think we spent the
time well.

 

That 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? 

Among other things,
it shows that we learn to work
creatively by confronting problems
that matter to us;
when it is
our own work.

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

Those profound
truths run 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
that families and schools
so often suppress. 

In this case,
students discovered a
problem themselves by meeting
a weekly reading assignment, then
worked independently to solve it.  M
y
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.  They couldn’t, and
it’s not that at all. 

But they must
own the work intellectually,
whether or not they discover the
problem for themselves.

They must own it
emotionally, feel it as
their own, engage in it actively,
and work without interference
by more experienced people, either
independently or in collabor-
ation with their peers. 

They must
participate fully at every
stage of research, from asking
questions that point to answers to
imagining hypotheses, designing and
conductiong experiments, and analyzing
and interpreting the results. W
hether
or not they write any of it up, they
must talk about it with
each other.

And we get to watch what happens.

The key
is to encourage
process over product in
the short term and require high
quality product
in the end.  In this
example
the process was simple:

Find articles
to read, read them, and
write about it. 

What could be
simpler than that?  I offered
opportunity and gave feedback,
but everything else came
from the students
themselves.

Beyond that,
I didn’t have to do
anything.

I  didn’t
bring technical expertise
to the table and students worked on
their own.  I encouraged them when I
could and respected, trusted, and
listened carefully when they
wanted to talk about it.

Together,
the class and I, had been
creating a culture in
which it was safe
to fail.

 

This isn’t
rocket science. 
Anyone
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. T
his 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
it doesn’t assume students necessarily need
direction, guidance, or anything other
than opportunity and recognition
for doing well, once we get
them started.

Keys
to this and many
other examples are to

invite
students to discover
interesting things in interesting
places and give them ways to do that,

respect
their efforts to learn to learn,

encourage
them to share their
learning with others and
give them ways to do that,

protect
them from loss of
face
and dignity, and

celebrate
their accomplishments
publicly with all due ceremony.

Voyages of discovery
yield both large and small discoveries.
Small discoveries they don’t realize
they’ve made are especially
important to call to
attention. 

 


This story relates to everything I have ever thought,
written, said, or done in education.
I don’t know what stories
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
r
eprinted in Creativity at
Work
 and Repubhub.

 


Edited February 2021

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