Last week, I had lunch with some friends of mine, all college-level instructors. I brought up the subject of creativity, which has been much on my mind lately. Our discussion highlighted some of the barriers to creativity in education, especially from the side of the instructor.
Creativity means artsy, doesn't it?
At one point, I asked the chemistry professor in our group about the role of creativity in the first few college-level chemistry courses. She was confused by the question at first, because she thought I meant something like writing poems about chemical reactions. (That reminds me of a scene in Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign, in which a biochemist decides to rewrite the abstract to his dissertation in sonnet form. “Can you think of a word to rhyme with glyoxylate?”)
Actually, I meant creativity in the sense of creative problem solving. You know, the kind of thing MacGyver might do with 2 aspirins, a tube of superglue, and a Diet Coke. This misconception that creativity is the exclusive property of the arts is quite common. If we the instructors of techncial courses don't think of what we do as creative, then we are hardly likely to portray our discipline in a way that encourages creativity.
I'm using the word “arts” here to mean traditional arts like painting or poetry or music. I happen to think an elegant algorithm can be quite beautiful and artistic, but I don't expect a layperson to recognize it as art.
Foundations, Foundations, Foundations
A common theme in instructor comments was that students need to learn the foundations and basic skills of the discipline before they can do much that's creative. There's certainly some truth to this. But how long of an apprenticeship can we expect somebody to serve before finally exposing them to the beauty and wonder, the fun of the creative side? Do we save up all the creative parts for a senior-level capstone course (or even later), or can we intersperse skill development with appropriately-scaled opportunities to use those skills creatively?
A favorite movie of many teachers is The Karate Kid, especially the part where Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel karate by having him do household chores such as waxing cars or painting fences. Eventually Daniel rebels at what he sees as pointless menial labor, and Mr. Miyagi demonstrates that Daniel has been learning valuable defensive moves all along. The point teachers usually draw from this example is that students can learn valuable lessons without realizing that they are learning, but there's another point here as well. What if, instead of confronting Mr. Miyagi, Daniel simply quit coming to his lessons? That's the situation we face as college teachers. If we give students too much skills development up front without any hint of a payoff, they'll simply stop taking our courses and never come back.
There's another danger as well. I saw this among my fellow students in graduate school. Students who had spent their entire undergraduate careers very successfully learning foundations and practicing skills were often lost when they were finally expected to do creative research. It was completely different from what they were used to, and often they found that they didn't like it.
Think of a piano teacher who makes her students practice nothing but scales for four years. By the time she feels her students are finally ready to play real music, she may find that the only students she has left are the ones who would rather play scales than anything else.
Incorporating creativity into a college classroom can be hard, especially in large classes. The lecture format is particularly bad at nurturing creativity in the listeners, but a teacher facing several hundred students often has little choice.
Grading also becomes substantially more difficult if you design assignments that allow students room for creativity. Suddenly, there's no longer a single, “approved” solution that can be easily checked for. Instead, you need judgement to evaluate quite different solutions individually. This can be especially difficult in a course where TAs are expected to do most of the grading.
Fortunately, I suppose, I don't have large class sizes and I don't have any TAs, so I don't have those excuses to fall back on.