Posted by: clholoman | October 11, 2010

Looking for the top of the pyramid

An interesting cluster of articles in the Chronicle today that are relevant for Hilbert. Although we were very pleased with our CLA scores, they did indicate that our students were better at critiquing an argument than creating one. That jibed with some more impressionistic findings from looking at some of our syllabi that we may not be asking our students to do tasks at the higher orders of Bloom’s taxonomy, where “create” is at the top (hence the somewhat obscure title of this post.)

This article argues, persuasively, I think, for the need to think about creativity as an important part of our curriculum and ways that we can bring it about:

Many programs tap into recent research suggesting that creativity is not simply a product of personality or individual psychology, but rather is rooted in a set of teachable competencies, which include idea generation, improvisation, metaphorical and analogical reasoning, divergent thinking that explores many possible solutions, counterfactual reasoning, and synthesis of competing solutions. Creativity also requires an ability to communicate and persuade, and the skills and leadership to apply diverse and specialized expertise.

Developing and refining such capacities seem to be exactly what 21st-century undergraduates want.

This related commentary offers 12 specific things we can do in the classroom to develop creativity. However, I honestly don’t understand one of them, or at least the illustrative anecdote:

Recognize that knowledge is a double-edged sword. Some years ago, I was visiting a famous psychologist who lives abroad. As part of the tour he had planned for me, he invited me to visit the local zoo. We went past the cages of the primates, who were, at the time, engaged in what euphemistically could be called strange and unnatural sexual behavior. I, of course, averted my eyes. My host, however, did not. He began, to my astonishment, analyzing the sexual behavior of the primates in terms of his theory of intelligence. I realized how knowledge and expertise can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, people cannot be creative without knowledge. Quite simply, they cannot go beyond the existing state of knowledge if they do not know what that state is. On the other hand, those who have an expert level of knowledge can experience tunnel vision, narrow thinking, and entrenchment. It happens to everyone.

Many students have ideas that are creative with respect to themselves but not to a field. I tell my own students that the teaching-learning process goes two ways. I have knowledge they do not have, but they have a flexibility I do not have—precisely because they do not know as much as I do. By learning from—as well as teaching—our students, we can open channels for creativity.

Huh? Can you help me out here?

Finally, this article is not directly related, but is of crucial importance to us in the liberal arts sector. How do we do assessment of student learning (much less creativity) in a way that is meaningful to observers and allows comparisons across institutions, but still respects the diversity of the history and mission of institutions of higher learning?



  1. Very interesting post, Chris, and I agree that the author’s anecdote was a little obtuse. It became a little clearer (though not much) upon learning that the author was the psychologist Robert Sternberg, known for his triarchic theory of intelligence. He posits that intelligent behavior is a function of analytic, creative and practical abilities. So his illustration seems to be making the point that analytic knowledge by itself is not necessarily the measure of intelligence. Personally, I like the way Albert Einstein (1921) made a similar point when he responded to Thomas Edison’s opinion that a college education was useless: “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

  2. I enjoyed the Creativity 12 Things article, but agree it has some issues. On the two-edged sword of knowledge, one of the edges is that more knowledge can result in more dogma, or at least more opaque blinders. I think that is a hazard but by no means an inescapable consequence.

    That’s the easy edge.

    On the other edge, I believe the point is that you can’t be creative without topic-specific teaching, and I believe that is plain-old wrong. Most kids have the experience of inventing a concept, truth, or even joke, only to find out that it has been around since air was young. I came up with what I later learned was a thing called the Economic Order Quantity prior to taking any business courses. And there’s always Einstein on the trolley.

    A lot of the problem in this Edge argument to me is the use of the word knowledge, which is about as blunt as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. My soul longeth, yea fainteth for a distinction between teaching, experience, intuition, inspiration, and so on.

    The other trouble(s) with the article concern the question “is this really about creativity?”, the worst offender being the delayed gratification assertion. They point to a creativity (or its corporate brother, Innovation) panacea, which is very vogue these days and worth a bunch of other paragraphs.

    But not just now.

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