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Teaching Creative Thinking: 1. How can I teach my students to be creative when I’m not sure I am? (RB)

Creative thinking is a skill that faculty members are often nervous about teaching. If a suggestion is made that they incorporate instruction in it into their classes, they are likely to respond with (or at least to think) the title of this blog.

An easy way to integrate creative thinking into teaching is to include some idea generation activities in class. The most familiar activity of this type is brainstorming, in which participants come up with as many ways as they can to answer an open-ended question or solve a problem. Following are some illustrative brainstorming prompts.

List possible

  • ways to verify a [calculated value, derived formula]
  • ways that could be used to determine a physical property or variable [with no constraints, with no required instrument calibrations, as a function of one or more other variables, involving a stuffed bear]
  • uses for [any object, something that would normally go to waste]
  • ways to improve a [process or product, experiment, computer code]
  • real-world applications of a [theory, procedure, formula]
  • safety and environmental concerns in this [experiment, process, plant]
  • flaws or possible problems in a proposed [design, procedure, code, grading rubric]

Consider conducting a brainstorming activity for active learning groups in class. Tell the students to organize themselves into groups of 2–3, ask a question or pose a problem, and give the groups 2–3 minutes to come up with ideas. Then stop them and collect ideas on the board. (If you’re not sure how small groups would work in a large class, take a look at our introductory active learning tutorial at www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Tutorials/Active/Active-learning.pdf.)

Tips for brainstorming exercises[1]

  1. Focus on quantity. The goal of the idea-generation phase of problem solving is to generate as many ideas as possible, be they good, bad, ridiculous, or illegal. The more ideas there are, the more likely the best one is to occur.
  2. Welcome unusual ideas. A seemingly absurd idea can serve two vitally important purposes. It can move the idea generation process in a new and unexpected direction, possibly leading to good ideas that otherwise might not have come up. In addition, it can lead to laughter (approving, not mocking) and possibly serve as an incentive to come up with an even more far-fetched idea. Eventually the ideas may start flowing as fast as anyone can write them down.
  3. Build on the ideas of others. The power of brainstorming lies in the fact that hearing ideas often stimulates people to think of related but different ideas.
  4. Withhold criticism. Creative ideas flow best in a relaxed environment, and nothing kills a sense of relaxation more than trashing ideas as soon as they are raised. Once people start worrying about being criticized, the flow of ideas shuts down. If you think an idea is bad, don’t criticize it—just come up with a better one.

Answer to the blog title question. Yes, you can teach creative thinking without being creative yourself. The brainstorming activity described above provides a good illustration. You can ask students to brainstorm a list of anything, and evaluate the quantity, variety, and originality of their ideas, without having a trace of creativity. The fact is, though, that most faculty members—probably including you—are more creative than they give themselves credit for.

Additional reading on teaching creative thinking

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, pp. 222–230. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fogler, H.S., LeBlanc, S.E., & Rizzo, B. (2014). Strategies for creative problem solving (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Additional reading on active learning

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Ch. 6. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

(RB)

[1] Osborn, A.F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

 

What’s it all about? (RF-RB)

We all have opinions—things we love, like, admire, dislike, are contemptuous of, can’t stand, and so on. The idea behind all blogs is an assumption that someone out there in Cyberland cares about what we think. This blog is no exception. Since you found your way to our website, we assume that you have some interest in different aspects of education and maybe some curiosity about our ideas. If so, great—we’ll be delighted to share what we think and to hear what you think about what we think, until either you or we get tired of it.

We’ll begin by giving you a snapshot of what you can and can’t expect to find on the blog. We’ll talk about good and not-so-good teaching methods; attributes and quirks of students, faculty members, and administrators; books and articles we think you might enjoy; and occasionally some stuff just for fun. Some of the ideas will be ours based on things we’ve learned from others, and some will come directly from others. We’ll invite your comments on anything we write, and will post those that stay within reasonable bounds of relevance and good taste.

We also have strong opinions and feelings about a lot of things that don’t directly relate to education, such as music, art, literature, food, travel, politics, and incredibly clever things our children and grandchildren have said and done. We’ll do our best to keep those opinions and feelings to ourselves, or at least to keep them offline.

For now, let us give you some hints about the education-related beliefs and biases in our book and our other publications that you’re likely to encounter if you follow this blog. If we had to choose a single word to describe our teaching philosophy, it would be balance. Good teaching involves striking a balance between teacher-centered instruction (lecturing) and learner-centered instruction (active learning), theory and real-world applications, visual and verbal presentation of information, live instruction (when possible) and technology-assisted instruction, individual work and teamwork (cooperative learning), convergent and divergent thinking and metacognition (thinking about thinking), and on into the night. The rest is details.

If you’re a skilled experienced teacher, you’ve already worked out a lot of the details, but suppose you’re either a relative newbie or a more experienced teacher who has up to now only taught traditionally. Let’s have a little Q and A:

You: How do I do each side of those dichotomies effectively?

Us: We wrote Teaching and Learning STEM and lots of papers and created this website to offer answers to that question. Here’s the approach we propose. Read some publications about teaching and maybe attend a teaching workshop or two, decide on a small number of new techniques you want to try, and plan how you’ll do it. If you have a mentor or colleague who is good at such things, run your plan by him or her and get feedback on it. Then try the new techniques a few times—enough so that you and your students begin to get accustomed to them—and see if you’re getting the results you’re hoping for. If you are, keep using the techniques; if you’re not, decide what if anything you’ll do differently next time you use them, or if you just don’t like them, drop them. Next course you teach, try one or two new methods. Over time, your teaching will steadily improve, which is the desired result.

You: What are the appropriate balances between lecturing and active learning, individual work and teamwork, and so on?

Us: Sorry, there’s no recipe. The optimal balance for each dichotomy depends heavily on the course subject, level, and specific content, the backgrounds and abilities of the students, and your background, areas and levels of expertise, teaching philosophy, and experience and level of comfort with different teaching approaches and techniques.

You: But if you’re not going to tell me the appropriate balances for a course I’m getting ready to teach, how am I supposed to find out?

Us: Same way you learned to do everything you’re good at now. Give it your best shot when you first do it, reflect on how it went, get feedback from colleagues and the students, and do it again. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. You may never reach that hypothetical optimal balance because it’s a shifting target, but as long as you keep getting better, you win.

And that’s that. Our plan is to post 2-3 times a month and more if the spirit moves us, with the posts ranging from quick teaching tips and quotes to longer pieces (but rarely as long as this one). Let’s see how it goes.