• Things Education

What is creative thinking?

…how to nurture it.

Hello! Welcome to the 13th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

Creativity is considered one of the skills of the 21st century. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has recently announced plans to introduce a ‘Design Thinking and Innovation’ skill module in middle schools to hone creative skills. This module is a big step towards fostering the mindset and the skills to solve local, national, and global problems. The question it raises, though, is: what is creativity, and is it a skill that can be improved upon in everyday classrooms?

It is always thought that creativity is limited to a certain naturally talented section of the population. Some think it is difficult to focus on building a creative mindset in a structured and standard-based classroom. Another common belief is that creativity can only be cultivated in art-based subjects such as music, drama, art, and crafts. There are a lot of similar thoughts associated with the skill. Let’s understand what creativity is in a classroom with examples from our experience...

Last month, our team conducted a month-long Forensic Science course with a set of students ranging in age from 12–15. The approach to learning the content of forensic science—be it scientific principles or legalese or even deductive reasoning—was based on solving cases. The active learning experiences help students deeply understand complicated and sometimes dense scientific content. There are three anecdotes from the course that stand out and will be great as examples:

  • To solve a particular case, students decided to analyse soil samples from the footwear of three suspects and match them with the soil found at the crime scene. They chose different kinds of experiments to conduct soil analysis on their own. Some chose to physically separate each soil sample based on its grain size, some chose to observe the shapes of soil particles under a microscope, and others chose to check the absorption capacity of soil by conducting water percolation studies (time taken for water to pass through a column of soil).

The group who worked on the percolation analysis first conducted the experiment using a filter paper folded as a funnel. The experiment failed in the first attempt since the filter paper was thin and not strong enough to hold wet soil filtrate. The second time, they used two layers of filter paper, which was again not sturdy enough. They looked around and explored what they could use to make the setup sturdy. In their third attempt, they took a transparent sheet, cut it into a hemisphere, folded and stuck it into the shape of a funnel, with filter paper folded and kept inside it. Let me emphasise that they didn’t stop till they got reliable results, even though that led to voluntarily working during their breaks!

  • To solve another case, we had to check for the presence of alcohol in an evidence liquid. The students were investigating the chemical characteristics of alcohols, which could be used to test for their presence in the evidence liquid.

We started from the basics by learning the structure of atoms, elements, valency, and how sharing electrons in covalent bonds happens in the case of smaller compounds such as CO₂, H₂O, etc. Now, students had to independently figure out the structure of ethanol given the formula, C₂H₅OH. Karan, the youngest student in the class, instead of being overwhelmed by how elements would be arranged and bonded in such a large compound, focused on solving it mathematically. He wrote all the different elements of the formula with the outermost electrons and made a note of how many electrons each one needed to be stable using simple subtraction. He arranged all the elements in the formula in all possible ways. Then he deduced the structure by evaluating in which arrangement all elements have a stable number of electrons in all the outermost shells.

  • To understand how perception affects our observation skills, each student was provided with an opaque box with certain items in it, and each box had a twin box with the same items inside. Each student was expected to find the other student who had their twin and prove the identicality to the class. Megha wanted to show that her box was a twin of Shyama’s box by demonstrating that they had the same weight. Due to the unavailability of a weighing scale, she created a traditional balance scale using the materials in the classroom. She used the lids of her kit box as pans, the wool thread and sticks that were present for another activity.

What is common in all three situations? In all of them, students displayed different facets of creativity. So let's define creativity using them.

In situation 1, the group of students working on the percolation experiment tried, failed, and tried again till they were able to create a satisfactory, stable experiment set-up. One of the components of the creative process is being okay with making mistakes. Due to the culture of validating only correct answers or ideas, students tend to fear mistakes and build constraints in their thinking process. The mistake-friendly environment is the fuel for creative thinking.

The next important component is learning from mistakes. In the percolation experiment, each mistake gave students an opportunity to better the design. In each attempt, they adapted by questioning their thinking and reflecting, which enabled them to analyse and think through what they might do differently to improve in the next attempt.

Another important aspect is making connections between what they know and the problem to be solved, irrespective of subject boundaries. It is apparent that creativity has no limitations to subjects and can be applied to all subjects. Not just this, having knowledge of different subjects allows students to make cross-disciplinary connections and broaden their perspectives. It provides them with different ways to look at and apply to the problem. In situation 2, Karan liked mathematics and was new to the concept of chemical compounds. He incorporated mathematical ways to solve a problem in chemistry.

Being able to recognize alternate possibilities, imagine unexpected combinations, and generate ideas is the core of the creative process. One way to look at creativity can be that it starts with combining different things—be it knowledge or materials—that already exist. In situation 1, the percolation group experimented with the different available materials to create a sturdy funnel as they learned and developed their thinking. In situation 2, Karan started by listing all possible outcomes of chemical structure to solve the problem. In situation 3, Megha made the best use of the materials around her to build something new—a balance scale.

So far, we are clear on the fact that creativity is an integral part of learning. In a classroom, students can be on different levels of creativity, but everyone can imagine, see alternatives, generate ideas, and express them. If given the opportunities to practise and foster in everyday learning, creative capabilities would become intuitive to apply at a major level to solve global issues.

How to build creativity?

Students can improve their creative thinking skills every day with the appropriate strategies and learning environment. Here are a few strategies that we can use:

  • Building on creative confidence: It is important to understand that it requires certain values and attitudes to originate creativity. Here are some ways to encourage such attitudes:

  1. Allow them to make mistakes and embrace uncertainty: Begin by encouraging them to view failed attempts as a learning opportunity. Make them feel that it is okay to be incorrect and not know something. Give them time and ask questions that help them reflect on how they can improve. Teachers can be role models by accepting what they don’t know in the classroom but showing curiosity and involvement to figure it out together with their students.

  2. Appreciate taking "sensible risks" in their tasks: Even though an idea is not technically valid or the correct solution, celebrate and reward it for being an unexpected combination and "out of the box".

Students received badges as a celebration for “out of the box” thinking to solve the cases.

  • Encouraging students’ thinking with important, open-ended questions: Traditional and lecture-based teaching methods of spoon-feeding students with facts deprive them of the most fun part of learning—inquiry. Asking questions that have "more than one right answer" sets them into the world of exploring and inquiring. They might struggle in the beginning, but that would inspire them to look at unknowns in multiple ways, using the knowledge they already have. This would be a stepping stone towards building their own creative process. In addition to all of this, the process of learning becomes fun and motivating. In all three situations, students were provided with specific but open-ended questions: how would you design an experiment to differentiate one soil from another? Knowing how elements combine to form a compound, what do you think is the structure of ethanol? How can you prove that your box is the twin of the other box? Also, they were provided with the freedom to choose and design their own methods using known knowledge and skills.

  • Scaffolding instructions for challenge and support: The scaffolding should be carefully planned to provide adequate support while also being challenging with open-ended questions. During the soil analysis session, we supported them by asking guiding questions such as "what evidence can be collected from the crime scene?" and "Will you be able to study it?" and then we challenged them to decide and work out their own experiment for soil analysis.

We have deep-dived into one of the many ways to scaffold classroom instructions in the 3rd edition of our newsletter.

On the one hand, it is true that building creativity is difficult and requires time and effort. On the other hand, it is also evident that appropriate classroom strategies can help nurture creative thinking processes and attitudes in everyday learning. This would lay the groundwork for the modern world's innovative problem solving, development, and lifelong learning. Engage students in the world of exploration and inquiry using these strategies, and see the creative juices flow in your classroom!


Useful Links:

  • In this article, Ben Johnson explains common strategies to help students develop creativity.

  • In this article, the author discusses the role of parents still to help their kids grow to be more creative adults.


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Edition: 1.13

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