Unpacking epiphany

What “big ideas” do people discuss at ideas festivals? At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival (which runs through tomorrow), some people are discussing how to measure imagination and creativity. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Imagination Institute, we are  failing to identify creative students; some get labeled as learning disabled.

Before continuing, I must admit to two things: serious doubt that “big ideas” ultimately carry the day (I generally favor medium-sized ideas, though I consider the quality of an idea more important than its size), and occasional fascination with some of them. Overall, I favor pursuing these ideas but not jumping to conclusions about their applications and implications.

For instance, this passage (from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) struck me as interesting, though not revelatory, since it meshes with my own experience:

Meanwhile, Mark Beeman wants to unpack epiphany. One thing Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found is that, before a sudden insight, people show increased activity in several parts of the brain including an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. Also, before an insight, people tend to be focused on something other than the problem they’re trying to solve, like playing with their kids or taking a shower.

But I would be wary of a pedagogical approach that involved steering students onto another topic in order to produce an insight about the topic left behind. “Ok, everyone, stop what you’re doing and draw a tree!”

Identifying creative students is a worthy goal, but creativity comes in many forms, and I doubt one test, or even a “battery” of tests, could detect them all. The Chronicle article notes the limitations of current creativity tests:

The tools that we now have to measure creativity are fairly crude. A researcher might ask someone to list alternate uses for a bowl and then count the number of ideas he or she comes up with. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t get at the deep creativity necessary to become a brilliant physicist or a mind-blowing sculptor. Something else is going on there, and it’s worth figuring out what it is.

Amen. Too often I have seen creativity equated with brainstorming, and they are not the same.

One possibility–not mentioned in the article–is that “deep creativity” has something to do with deep involvement in a particular subject or medium. That is, you aren’t “creative” in a vacuum; it’s your relation to the subject that draws your creativity out. Also, there’s a doggedness that goes with creativity. It isn’t a static trait.

Thus, even if we had better creativity tests, there’s still a good chance that people would get mislabeled. It’s one thing to show some traits that are generally associated with creativity; it’s another to do something with them.

There’s much more to say on this subject–but since I’m traveling today, I’ll leave it at that.

Teaching students to ask questions

What would education be like if students knew how to pose, prioritize, and use their own questions? Vastly better than it is now, argue Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). If students learned how to formulate good questions, according to the authors, they’d be that much closer to becoming “independent thinkers and self-directed learners”  and practitioners of “democratic deliberation.”

On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. The ability to ask good questions can enhance both individual lives and common culture. Many people need special instruction in this skill; most of us have room for improvement. I am not convinced, though, that any of this requires the elaborate group processes that Rothstein and Santana describe.

The research started when the authors were working in a dropout prevention program. They heard from parents that they wouldn’t come to meetings at school because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” Rothstein and Santana began by giving them questions but then realized that this was only increasing their dependency—that they needed to know “how to generate and use their own questions.” Over time, the authors developed a technique for teaching just that. They and others founded the Right Question Project, now known as the Right Question Institute, which teaches the technique to people around the country and abroad.

The book explains the Question Formulation Technique, which consists of six components: (a) a Question Focus; (b) a process for producing questions; (c) an exercise for working on closed and open-ended questions; (d) student selection of priority questions; (e) a plan for the next steps; and (f) a reflection activity. The authors provide numerous case studies to show how these components have played out.

Before starting the process, students are introduced to the four rules: “(1) Ask as many questions as you can; (2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; (3) Write down every question exactly as it was stated; and (4) Change any statements into questions.” Students are supposed to reflect on these rules before proceeding. The authors explain:

The rules ask for a change in behavior, officially discouraging discussion in order to encourage the rapid production of questions. Students thus need to think about how they usually work individually and in groups. They name their usual practices and become aware of how they generally come up with ideas. They then must distinguish their present learning habits from what the rules require of them.

After receiving their Question Focus from the teacher, the students begin producing questions in groups. They are reminded to ask lots of questions and to refrain from judging, answering, or editing them. The teacher is not supposed to give examples of questions, even if the students are having difficulty.

From here, the students work on improving the questions. [Read more...]

Writing alone

Brainstorming isn’t the key to creativity, writes Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker.  “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” says Keith Sawyer, a Washington University psychologist.

As a new teacher, Greg Graham would break students into small groups, telling them to “brainstorm” ideas, read each other’s writing and provide feedback. Writing in groups usually doesn’t work, he writes in Education Week’s Teacher.

. . . a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups.

With 36 teaching hours per semester, “I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit.” So he walks students through writing exercises, urges them to share their work with the class, tries to “connect the subject matter with their world” and acts as “a moderator orchestrating the interaction in my classroom.”

He provides class time for solitary writing, “providing writing prompts that provoke personal awareness, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity.”

In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture facilitates this kind of in-depth thinking. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance they will land in a group rife with anti-intellectualism, “getting by,” and conformity. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll act as a coach and mentor, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.

“Our students need to learn how to work out their thinking on their own,” Graham writes.

As an English and Creative Writing major, I did all my writing alone, though never in class. We read our work aloud and listened to feedback. We did not “brainstorm.”  Of course, this was the dark ages. We didn’t draw pictures or diagrams or little balloons either.

Brainless group storming

Guest-blogging at The Core Knowledge Blog, Diana Senechal deconstructs a lesson plan on the Pennsylvania Department of Education web site, “Brainstorming in Groups,” designed for grades 7-12.

Divide the class into small groups of equal size (3 or 4 students per group). Each group selects one person to be the recorder. The recorder will need three pieces of paper. Explain the prewriting strategy of brainstorming, emphasizing that the point is not quality, but rather quantity of ideas at this stage of the writing process. Give the class one topic to brainstorm in their group, allowing about four minutes. Then give the next topic, allowing another four minutes, then give the last topic, and again allow about four minutes. Ask each group to count the number of ideas that were generated for each topic. Select one topic and write all ideas on the board or overhead projector. Conclude with a discussion of the value of this group activity as a prewriting strategy. If time permits, create an outline for a formal essay working with the topics generated in the groups. Suggested Topics: Poverty in America, Contemporary Music, Technology in Education, Fads, Violence and Television, College Life, Effective Parenting.

I can’t do justice to Senechal’s line-by-line critique. You’ll have to read the original. In summary:

Quantity over quality is stressed. Keeping discussion to four minutes ensures students won’t have time to “sort through their ideas and eliminate the ones they thought were bad. Nothing is bad here, and nothing is good.”

With time for a discussion on why this was such a great activity — but no room for disagreement with that premise — time will not permit outlining an essay using all the good, bad and indifferent ideas, Senechal writes.

The suggested topics are chosen on the belief that students will be able to talk without “the crutch of knowledge.”

They will be glib and gird themselves with the gadgets of catch-phrasery. They will have the social interaction skills needed for life and the workplace.

Reading holistically — it’s all the rage — she concludes “the point was not to learn anything at all or nothing at all, but rather to learn how to learn nothing at all.

I’ve done this sort of activity at conferences.  A lot of time is spent writing things on butcher paper.  Nothing ever seems to come of it.