The problem of schools as workplaces, part 1

The problem of schools as workplaces, part 1

Educators are given the task of preparing students for the challenges of the future, and it is a dauntingly tall order considering the unpredictability of the future in this rapidly evolving world.  Experts agree that now, more than ever, a teacher’s job is no longer only to impart knowledge, but also to prepare graduates who can think critically, experiment freely, collaborate effectively, create knowledge, and participate constructively in the teams that will face the problems of tomorrow.  As researchers such as Ken Robinson, Tina Seelig and Keith Sawyer claim, this is what creativity and innovation are all about.  They have written volumes detailing what is at stake and each offers some inspiring ways of educating for creativity and innovation in a fast-paced world.

Add to these studies countless workshops, lectures and conferences designed to help teachers move from the traditional role of imparter of knowledge to that of an educational guide who steers twenty-first century learners towards their own discovery of knowledge.  This twenty-first century role can be very motivating, particularly when it works!  However, this vision of the classroom can be a lot more difficult to achieve than it may seem.  Many well intentioned educators do a commendable job of keeping a steady eye on this goal, but don’t succeed as they would like to.  Indeed, the pedagogical practices that underlie creative thinking can be vexingly difficult to implement.


Like all matters in education, the obstacles are complex and multiple: technology, social factors, individual student profiles and funding are only some of the challenges that affect successes and failures in the classroom.  However, when it comes to educating for creativity and innovation, are our educational structures also to blame?  Is there a fundamental contradiction between the conservatism of schools as organizations and what many teachers attempt to achieve in the classroom?

Curiosity and memory

Curiosity is the drive to know or to learn something.  It’s a simple definition and we all recognize what it means.

What happens in the brain when a person’s curiosity is piqued is a whole other matter.  Neuroscientist Matthias Gruber explains that curiosity activates the brain’s “wanting” system, in the same way any other type of anticipation does.  It also activates the memory centres, which appears to have an effect on learning.  The surprising finding is that during the period between a person’s curiosity being stimulated and the curiosity being satisfied, any type of learning that takes place – not just learning related to the subject of curiosity – is much better retained.

The take-away is that piquing students’ curiosity not only helps to maintain motivation, it is also strongly instrumental in consolidating all the learning.

Watch Gruber’s talk here:


Jazz and the brain

Out of the blue comes this article on CNN’s website about neuroscience and creativity.

Dr. Charles Limb’s work shows that when jazz players get into “the zone,” the regions of their brain that allow for creativity become active at the same time as the areas responsible for inhibition and self-control in the prefrontal cortex are shut down.

Limb also shows that the same is true for other types of improvisational artistic expression.

There is an important lesson here because the relationship between an (over)active prefrontal cortex and inhibited creativity goes a long way to explaining why children tend to play a lot more than adults.  As our brains mature, we have a better capacity to self-monitor and inhibit the free thinking of childhood.

As the article explains, practice allows for easier access to “the zone.”  In other words, adults need to practice playing! How about it?

Improve your creativity: learn to be wrong

Improve your creativity: learn to be wrong


The idea sounds a little ludicrous at first, but heading down the wrong path or examining an incorrect hypothesis can be an important step to creativity and innovation.  This is true for three reasons:

  1. The process of attempting to prove an idea that turns out to be false or unfounded can generate a lot of information.  Independent of the original, unproven hypothesis, this data can be extremely useful to other, often unrelated enquiries.
  2. Sometimes, the original idea is incorrect, but not totally without merit.  In his book Rethink, Steven Poole points out that scientific discoveries often come about when an idea or a hypothesis needs to be re-thought or re-examined and another path forward conceived.
  3. Being wrong is also extremely useful to highlight what we don’t know. Steven Poole claims that what we don’t know is as important as what we do know to idea advancement.

This last point is particularly intriguing – and important.  How do we zero-in on what we don’t know?  In the realm of all that’s unknown, what do we want or need to find out?  Sound confusing?  The desire to fill in the knowledge gaps is at the heart of curiosity – when we want to solve the puzzle of the unknown. Steven Poole says that the key here is a reasonable gap in knowledge.  If the gaps are too big or too numerous, the scope of what is unknown is potentially limitless.  That’s a curiosity-killer.  A reasonable gap motivates us to find the answer to complete the idea.  This is where creative strategy comes in.  Conferring with others, Socratic questioning and well-managed brainstorming allow us to identify knowledge gaps that can pique our curiosity and lead to creative thinking.