Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

Teaching the Creative Process

Teach how knowledge is made and you teach for creativity.

Posted May 21, 2011

Creativity is not a "you have it" or "you don't" kind of thing. It isn't a personality trait. It's not a "one size fits all" habit of mind. It's not, simply, a set of skills to test for or a roster of art classes.

The Thinker, by Rodin

The Thinker, by Rodin

Creativity is a response to a particular problem in a distinct context at a particular time. It involves the surprising combination of previously unconnected ideas or materials in novel and effective ways. While an individual can rediscover or re-experience the creative insights of others, each original creative act is a unique occurrence.  True, the best predictor of future creativity is past creativity, but there is no guarantee that a person who responds creatively to one task may do so with others.  

So what's a society to do? Especially one committed to constant innovation? Foster imaginative thinking? Check. Nurture can-do attitude and audacity of vision? Check. But most important of all, we can immerse our students in recreating creative process. In other words, we can teach them how artists, scientists, technologists and others have made discoveries and inventions as well as new ways of being in the world. Every discipline is full of examples of how the most influential individuals and groups produced their most significant innovations. Surprisingly, these are absent from curriculum guidelines and textbooks. Though we cram students with facts and ideas, we fail to teach them how that knowledge is forged by people like themselves. By and large, teaching has dehumanized knowledge and in dehumanizing it, eliminated its creative spark.

We know this for a sorry fact. Bob teaches college level physiology. Some fifteen years ago he was talking with a group of seniors going off to medical school. He asked them if they could tell him what insulin was and how it worked. All could do so. He asked them who had discovered insulin. None

Frederick Banting discovered insulin in 1921.

Frederick Banting discovered insulin in 1921.

could answer. He asked them how insulin had been discovered. None could answer. He asked them how they would go about isolating and characterizing insulin today. None could answer. He asked them how insulin is manufactured. None could answer. In sum, the knowledge these students possessed was passive. They had no conception of the wonderful, sad, surprising, infuriating, and amazing process that ushers new science into the world. They had no models to guide them on similar paths of discovery, innovation and implementation.

Bob has since developed a course for graduating Physiology majors on the nature of biomedical discovery. Every student must take a major discovery, find out who made the discovery, and learn how that discovery was made so that they can describe the process to the rest of the class in enough detail that everyone could recreate that discovery themselves.  By putting themselves in the place of these discoverers, each student begins to understand how to identify a novel problem, acquire the knowledge and resources necessary to address the problem, explore multiple routes to solving the problem, overcome failure, and finally convince skeptical colleagues. They learn that most discoveries are not made by experts, but by people who redefine problems in novel ways and then bring to these problems an unusual mix of relevant skills. Most of all, they learn that the creative process, never simple, straightforward, or easy, is a road they, too, can travel with preparation and perseverance.  

We urge all those concerned about the creativity crunch to consider the following:  Just as one masters knitting and carpentry by apprenticeship to previous masters, so one masters creative know-how by apprenticeship to demonstrably creative masters. Let's re-humanize education by putting people and their thinking processes back into the center of every subject. Let's test our

Creative spiral, creative path

Creative spiral, creative path

students not only on their knowledge of discoveries, inventions and other innovations, but on how well they have understood the processes by which they were achieved. The more paths to creativity that students explore vicariously and recreates mentally, the better prepared they will be to recognize opportunities for creative achievement in their own lives.

© 2011 Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein


Creative spiral from Go! The Art of Change (2008) by Jonathan Milne.

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