Friday, May 9, 2008

Barriers to Creativity

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.'s hard!

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.


Bill Pyne said...

Times have changed so teaching methods must change as well. The range of students is much greater now - range meaning learning styles and motivations. People who, 30 years ago, would have graduated high school and gone to work in the family business are now choosing college.

Educators need to kindle a passion for a subject in their students by allowing them to create something.

Working on technique has its place. Without technique, a person is like a writer with only a 100 word vocabulary or a musician who only knows 3 chords.

My martial arts instructor and his master, who is from China, decided 15 years ago that the old way of teaching would not work for modern life. At one time, a student would train about 3 years before being allowed to learn fighting techniques and spar. This period had different purposes but an important one was to allow the teacher to judge the character of the student before showing him/her techniques that could hurt people. Nowadays people are not studying martial arts in the US with a particular need to defend themselves. Most of the people I trained with were more interested in their health, which martial arts are fantastic for. Waiting 3 years before being allowed to express the creativity of martial arts through sparring is longer than they need wait. It took me a while to understand their wisdom in observing this and going against custom.

Good luck. It sounds like you're on the right track and your students will benefit immensely.

Rich said...

How about teaching a software design class with a series of homework assignments every week to build a Something. The requirements for Something change slightly each week, just enough so that the students' original design will likely fall apart in some way. The goal is to teach students to design for the unknown requirement. Extra credit goes to students who make the fewest changes to their code from the previous week. Students will learn that by thinking creatively, they might be clever enough to build a Something one week that satisfies the requirements for Something the next week.

Raoul Duke said...

(This is a little bit near and dear to my heart since I find myself (a) fascinated with "real" CS and yet (b) having forgotten everything i ever learned from my undergrad Math/CS degree. I even had an abortive masters where I realized I wasn't motivated.)

My thoughts (time to be self important):

(a) motivation is tricky: the wrong carrot is a stick. if one is serious about motivation, then one has to get to know the students each and every time, and try to extract a motivation that works across most if not all of them.

(b) creativity is tricky: some folks would do better with being asked to try creativity up front while learning techniques, others not.

how can you teach a class where you have more than one "track" or approach to it all, simultaneously?

"If you want to focus on technique, please do the even exercises. If you want to focus on creativity, please do the odd ones." Or some such.

Dunno, but I'm super glad you are talking about this!

An aside: just having a teacher who is excited themselves is a great bonus. I always loved Peter Lee's undergrad classes because you could tell that he himself loved the subject area (or at least he did a great job faking it), even when we mostly didn't really understand what the heck we were doing hacking up a Prolog interpreter in SML and he had to break down and just give everybody the answer so they could actually get the program finished.

patchworkZombie said...

One of the grad students told me that the students in the beginning programming class she's teaching were orders of magnitude more successful when they chose to play around with what they were learning and make stuff outside of class. She said that she was a little frustrated because she didn't know how to get a greater percentage of them to do so. My solution was to ask each person why they chose to take this class, (I took a programming class because I wanted to simulate a population of plants) and then have them design what their program should do and as we learned each thing in class they could immediately thing about how they would use it in their program. The problem was many of the students answered that they were taking this class because it was required for their major and the other choice was a math class.