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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Humans have a few basic needs: air, food, water, clothing, shelter, belonging, intimacy and Wi-Fi. (OK, the last one is not really on the list.) Regardless of my attempt to be funny, what is no laughing matter is that we have primary needs. What might surprise you is that another primary need is the need to be creative. We are creative creatures and have been since we first existed, as evidenced by the first cave paintings formed over 40,000 years ago. But somehow in this modern day, we've forgotten that being creative is part of the human experience.

There is plenty of talk in the news about making our children more creative to prepare for the jobs for the 21st century. The word "creativity" is used a lot, but no one is taking the time to define it. Plato used to think frequently about creativity and would describe it as being a channel for a muse. OK, where can you get a muse these days? eBay? As you can see, this intangible and hard-to-describe resource makes it very hard to identify, never mind nurture and teach. However, we know creativity when we see it. And, despite all this confusion, we also know that everyone is creative (to varying degrees).

Creativity is the secret sauce to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It is a STEM virtue. While most scientists and engineers might be reluctant to admit that, and to accept the concept of STEAM (where A is for Art), I’ve witnessed that the best of the best are the most creative.

So how do we make our children more creative?

Researchers have found that play is important for productive thought. Playing with ideas also increases learning. We must encourage playing with concepts to nurture creativity in students.1 Can you show the material you are discussing in far-out ways? Can it be compared to a sport, an event or a celebrity? Try it. Playing with concepts provides multiple entry points and multiple ways of engagement.

Creativity Breaks the Ice to Enable Learning

Recently, I taught a chemistry class to liberal arts majors. It could have been a setup for an epic fail. These students had avoided science all through their college years until now, and they needed this course to graduate. So I had to find ways to break the ice and make these chemistry concepts more palatable and fun. My approach was to merge two things that we never really link -- compare how humans and atoms behave similarly in certain situations. Everyone believes he or she is a human-relationship expert, so why not compare the known to the unknown? That is, how humans act when bonding with each other can be compared to how atoms bond too. This anthropomorphized or metaphorical approach bridges the scary with the not-so-scary. It also increases dialog and understanding, and serves as an idiom (where one can use less words to describe something). Metaphors are a beautiful thing.

Creativity is really the art of metaphor.

Metaphors create a linkage between two dissimilar ideas and are useful in the sciences because they allow information to be attained by connecting the unknown with the known.2 And this is the key element to scientific creativity. Metaphors are important because they create a means of seeking answers, and sometimes they free us from the common thinking and enable scientific breakthroughs.

Most scientists won't admit it, but metaphors are part of their toolkit. They are peppered into scientific language, unsuspectingly. Scientists will say light waves, electric current and magnetic fields.3 But they do not literally mean an ocean of light, a stream of electricity or a pasture of magnets. These phrases make connections between that thing we know and that thing we are trying to explore. Metaphors are thought-mappings that help understanding.

Newton figured out that celestial bodies and the earth were linked by gravity. An apple falling to the earth was a metaphor for the linkages between the earth and the moon. Kepler linked the workings of a clock to the motion of the planets. Bohr visualized the atom as a mini-solar system. Metaphors can help us take a cerebral leap. We need parallels -- a cell is a city, atoms are billiard balls, and DNA are spiral staircases -- so that we can play with these concepts to uncover answers and enable learning.

Metaphors are wonderful tools for teaching and learning. As I say in Save Our Science, the skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars that can link the unlinkable. These scholars must be willing to try many combinations before finding the right answer. They must be comfortable with concepts that they can play with in new ways. We want smart-thinking creative people. This is the formula for a better tomorrow.


1H. Poincare, in The Creative Process: A Symposium, B. Ghiselin, Ed. (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1954).
2A. I. Miller, in Metaphor and Analogy in the Sciences, F. Hallyn, Ed. (Kluwer Academic Publishing, London, 2000), pp. 147-164.
3G. Simon, in Metaphor and Analogy in the Sciences, F. Hallyn, Ed. (Kluwer Academic Publishers, London, 2000), pp. 71-82.

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Jim Kelly's picture
Jim Kelly
Providing OER resource links to improve k-12th grade mathematics.

"So how do we make our children more creative?" By recognizing the need for their teachers (or future teachers) to experience creativity themselves. How can we promote creativity if you have not experienced it yourself ! PhD's have been forced to be creative [at least once in their life]. Authors of materials are forced to be creative; yet teachers and future teachers are rarely forced to be creative. They sit in classes where the lecturer talks on and on about the creativity of others without giving future teachers the time to be creative. Research efforts need to figure out how to allow creativity to be part of the process of becoming a teacher. Then the teacher can "make our children more creative."(period)

Alex Kluge's picture
Alex Kluge
Dedicated to bringing the best in design and visualization into instruction.

Perhaps the article engages in a little bit of hyperbole. For example "Creativity is the secret sauce to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)" is much stronger than asserting that it is important, or that it is a virtue. I don't know any practicing scientists or engineers who would insist that creativity, drive and passion are not intrinsic to the actual execution of first quality science and engineering. But the importance of understanding and methodology makes the secret sauce statement a little strong. Perhaps creativity is one ingredient in the secret sauce.

I also see an issue with the idea that art is required for the creative aspect. My central point here is that creativity is one of the central features of science and engineering. Perhaps this is part of the problem we have with teaching these topics - we teach them without passion and without creativity. When you leave these aspects out you are not teaching science, you are teaching about science.

"I've witnessed that the best of the best are the most creative." Absolutely. This concept needs to percolate throughout education. It is just that it is not something that comes from outside of science or engineering, it is intrinsic to it.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

My point is that engineers and scientists do not claim creativity, but they indeed use it. When I was a scientist at Bell Labs, the most prolific inventors and thinkers where highly creative and could see problems and solutions differently then others. Einstein was highly creative. You might think my claim about creativity as the secret sauce is hyperbole, but from my experience in the lab as a scientist and as a professor, it is in my estimation a fact. We might just have to agree to disagree.

mlfb's picture
visual artist/ teaching artist, STEAM consultant

Hello Ainissa!

It is so good to hear that you have shown science as it really is, fascinating and beautiful!
As said in other comments, creativity already plays an important part in the progress of the Sciences. Could you tell us how you use the Arts, the A on STEAM, in your lessons?

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I was an elementary music teacher, so the A was always very present in my classroom. But I was often asked to help other teachers incorporate the A into their curriculum. We organized various interdisciplinary projects, from designing your own instrument in science class to writing melodies and songs for math concepts. Do you think this is an example of using the A in STEAM? I'm trying to think of other examples from practice. Do you have any others?

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

This is a very good question, which requires more thought, but let me share some brief ideas.

Last year, I taught a materials science course for liberal arts majors. For one assignment, I had each of my students write a 2-page entry and line drawing that we would compile into a materials science "book" for the general public. Their goal was to write something and make it understandable for their grandparent (barring their grandparent wasn't a scientist). This assignment required students to go a bit deeper in their understanding to come up with good analogies (which was one of the stipulations of the assignment). And, it forced them to make good choices about how much information the illustration should convey. This was really a hit wit the students, because the assignment felt real to them and they had a deeper understanding of the science. If they could play with the concept with an analogy, they had their own access point to the information too.

I also had students create crystal structures using styrofoam balls and toothpicks, instead of the usual trigonometry-laced lecture. Making science models is the "A" part (the "art" part) in STEAM. And, using illustrations to display information has both parts of the brain firing.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

Songs + Science is a perfect combination for STEAM at the elementary level. There are so many points of access to slip information into the brain and song is a seamless and fun path. (Again, it is about creating analogies and songs and poetry about science enable that.) SchoolHouse Rock worked for me. I think we need more of that (and an updated form) for the next generation. If you come up with a science rap, give me a ring.

As for other ideas, how about each student make their own guitar from scratch? You've got physics mixed with art mixed with "making." Your children might never leave the classroom. You can also look at the science of boomwhackers to steel drums.

Another skill kids need is the ability to compare, not only leaves to other leaves, but concepts to other concepts. The movement of gas molecules, is the same physics for the movement of people in crowds, and the same for the movement of galaxies and stars (a field called thermodynamics.). The more science you know, the more similar things become, but you've got to build that muscle for seeing the parallels. Adding more "A" to the class, gives students the permission to make these kinds of leaps.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

Thanks for your post. I just made an earlier comment on a materials science book that I had my students create for the general public and how this project enable a richer and deeper learning of concepts. Please take a look and let me know if that helps.

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

When I read about the importance of creativity in education, I'm usually reminded immediately of Ken Robinson who taught me that "imagination" is an activity that happens in the mind and "creativity" is imagination in action. It's not OED, but it is a helpful device for thinking and talking about imagination and creativity.

While the arts are not the only path to creativity, they provide a tangible and enjoyable path to get there. As an arts integration specialist, I am a strong believer that the arts are an effective method for sparking the imagination and leading to increased creativity. It is also a way to engage different modes of thinking in order to imagine things that may not have popped up in mind during traditional methods of instruction. For example, one of my personal goals is to work with a group of students to create a movement piece based on cell division. Once it is in their muscle memory, the students will remember cell division for years.

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