Teaching for Creativity in Science

By Lee Gass PhD

In my first year of teaching high school biology I discovered a large pile of scientific magazines. I hired 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 allowed students to select articles to read.

I developed this library system that year and used it the next in 10th grade survey and 11th and 12th grade research courses. A computer-based system would be easy to develop now, but summarizing and categorizing articles would remain labour-intensive. Tenth graders read and reported on any article each week in addition to their other work, and research students read two. The system was fast, easy, and ran by itself with no supervision by me, in parallel to the two courses. Once we began, students filed their reports each week without reminding, they enjoyed it, and I enjoyed reading and commenting on them.

The research course was very successful. I rarely lectured, and used few structured exercises after the first month, so there were always many kinds of things going on in the classroom. I helped when necessary, but tried to stay out of students’ way and let them do their research. Sometimes individuals spent several days in a row without interacting directly with me at all. Teams did excellent original research, several got publishable results, and one student later completed a PhD on the project he began as an 11th grader. Later I learned that not only were the research students not disadvantaged by their year of research, but they enjoyed strong advantages as undergraduates, even in traditional courses.

One day two research students sat in a corner, talking. Periodically they argued, but they were fully engaged and I didn’t disturb them. The next day they asked to go to the nurse’s office. They said they needed a quiet place to do an experiment. Without probing, I let them go. On the third day they approached me again.

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 decided that the article was wrong. The article contended that sound reaches the nerve endings in our inner ears not only through our ears, but through our bones as well.

To demonstrate this effect, the article invited readers to do a simple experiment. If you hum quietly and listen, then plug their ears with your fingers and hum and listen again, the sound will be louder when you plug your ears. The boys agreed with the result, but disagreed that it proves bone conducts sound to our ears. They agreed that the result was consistent with that interpretation, but argued that it was also consistent with the idea that bone does not conduct sound. They concluded that the demonstration was inconclusive, and met that night to design an experiment that they performed in the nurse’s office the next day.

In their experiment, a “hummer” plugged a “listener’s” ears and then hummed. They reasoned that if sound is conducted by bone, then it would grow as loud under this condition as it had in the other experiment. If it grew quieter, this would refute the hypothesis. In the nurse’s office they repeated both experiments many times, taking careful notes.

In every case the sound grew louder when the listener did everything but quieter when the listener just listened and the hummer plugged his ears. Correctly, given a hidden, implicit, and incorrect assumption they had made in reading the article, they concluded incorrectly that the authors’ interpretation was wrong and sound is not conducted by bone.

The boys’ conclusion was wrong. But there was something very much right about what they did to reach that conclusion, and it is important.

Most of their logic was solid, and their experimental design, the care that they took in executing it, and how they interpreted their result were flawless. Unfortunately or not, they made a mistake in one of the most difficult things scientists must learn to do in their work: to know it when we assume things.

They assumed that the article’s authors meant that our shoulder, arm, and finger bones conduct sound to our ears when we plug them, and their experiment indeed refuted that. But the authors were not writing about those bones. They were writing about skull bones! But for that critical assumption in a critical place, the boys were impeccable creative scientists and I was proud of them.

When they realized the hidden assumption they had made, they reinterpreted their data and had a good laugh with no loss of face. The next day they proudly presented the story to the rest of the class, to my other research class, and to a 10th grade class, then wrote it up as a scientific investigation. Everyone had a good time, the boys gained fame and prestige for their courage and creativity. Everyone learned important things about science, including that it is an exciting and dangerous enterprise, about language, and about assumptions, and about the wonder and importance of our ability to hear. I think we spent the time well.

The example illustrates a way of teaching and learning that must become common in schools and universities, in my view, in Singapore and elsewhere, if students are to become the creative problem solvers that national policy envisions. What does it illustrate?

We learn to work creatively by confronting real problems that matter to us personally.

This a profound truth expressed throughout the vast literature on creativity. We can help in many ways, but we cannot supply the imagination that humans are born with (but that their families and teachers traditionally suppress). In this case the boys discovered the problem for themselves, “forced” by the weekly reading assignment, and worked independently to solve it. My only input was to help them uncover their hidden assumption and gain rather than lose face from their error.

There are many ways to organize experiences like this for students, so the lesson is not that they must work independently at all stages. But it must be their research whether they discover the problem or not. They must own it emotionally, become engaged in it actively, and work without interference from more experienced people, either independently or cooperatively with other students, during the creative stages of logical development, experimental design and execution, and interpretation.

The key is to encourage process over product in the short term, but insist on high standards of product in the end. For many reasons, doing this is a major challenge for most teachers. The payoff is deeper, longer-lasting learning.

Teachers must both encourage high standards and make it safe to make mistakes.

These are not in conflict in principle, but are often thought of as contradictory by educators. Traditional ways of teaching, especially in universities, sacrifice the freedom to err for high standards. Paradoxically, this inhibits development of creative problem-solving skills. The core issue is emotional, not directly intellectual, and it is the single most critical issue that I identified while working here at NUS.

Science students do not trust their teachers enough to risk thinking critically in class. They understand, mostly correctly, that to think creatively is to risk error, and they’d rather not. Most of the same students were happy to risk with a safe, gentle stranger who knew what he was doing and they trusted him.

Your students’ minds are fine, although they are not practiced in thinking with them. Until they feel safe enough to do it with you, there will be something seriously wrong with their learning environment and you will be unable to help them learn to think effectively. Trust and respect are central in education; they far overshadow nearly everything else.

Students don’t merely feel unsafe. They are unsafe, in some cases inexcusably so. I saw professors interrupt students aggressively to correct incorrect assumptions, for example, in one case embarrassing them severely. The professor gained great face (although not in my eyes), but all of the students lost more through the event. Professors everywhere and at every level must stop actively discouraging their students from thinking. We are right to insist on high standards, but absolutely wrong in failing to encourage processes that generate mistakes.

Mistakes are worth bragging about. 3M Corporation advertises the most magnificent failures of its employees throughout the corporation, and rewards them financially and with time released from normal duties to try new things. This is a way of encouraging creative imagination, and it works. Last term I asked a group of undergraduates whether it could work in Singapore to make heroes of students who fail in creative efforts. They found the idea intriguing, and concluded that the peer recognition it would generate would be an important factor. They cautioned me, however, that both parents and teachers would have to be brainwashed to understand the value, or they would torpedo the idea.

A teacher’s job is not to teach students. A teacher’s responsibility is for students to learn.

These are not the same. I have come to believe that for professors to shift from thinking of themselves as conveyors of information to facilitators of learning is the single most important shift they can make.

This story is one of many I could tell to illustrate an approach to teaching for creativity in science. Simply, the approach minimizes my direct interference with students’ learning, and at the same time provides rich opportunities for them to discover. It does not preclude guiding students when necessary, but is not based on that presumption.

Perhaps most importantly, the story reminds me that although I am responsible for everything that occurs in my classroom, I do not and cannot plan all of it in detail. I planned the reading/writing assignment believing that “good things would result”, but I had no clear expectations.

The specific keys to this and many other examples are to

  1. Provide freedom for students to discover things
  2. Respect their efforts
  3. Encourage them to share their learning with others
  4. Protect them from suffering loss of face, either at my hands or those of their peers, and
  5. Celebrate publicly their accomplishments

About Lee Gass

Lee Gass Phd, is a sculptor, educator and scientist renowned for his research on hummingbirds. He was an associate at the Department of Zoology of the University of British Columbia (UBC) for 30 years. Today he is a professional sculptor in stone and wood, and his works are part of art collections world wide. Visit his website at leegass.com

© Copyright 2000, Lee Gass. All rights reserved.

This article was first published in CDT Link, Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning National University of Singapore July 1998.

Revised Oct 7, 2016