Education

Timing Improvisation UPDATED

As I try to remember that I don’t teach year-round anymore, and that I need to stop and enjoy this summer, I’ve been catching up on some reading. One of the books that I am glad to finally read is “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer. I haven’t finished it yet, and I plan to post a full review when I do, but here is a tidbit that I want to share.

Update: Jonah Lehrer has just admitted to some egregious breaches of trust that include lying about his sources and fabricating quotes. As such, I can no longer recommend this book, no matter how true the referenced chapters may be. I apologize for my poor judgment.

The entire book lays out our research-based understanding of the nature of creativity. Lehrer discusses the conditions and practices that are associated with novel ideas and invention. In a chapter entitled “The Letting Go”, in which the author reveals the importance of improvisation and loosening of restrictions, he examines the critical role that unconfined brainstorming and unscripted explorations play in the creative process. In looking at jazz musicians who must master their craft before ad-libbing, however, he notes:

“It’s only at this point, after expertise has been achieved, that improvisation can take place.” (p. 105)

This struck me as an interesting idea. We often consider free-association exercises and open-ended creative activities as a learning opportunity in our classrooms. I continue to see value in them.

However, I will now think twice before starting a lesson with this form of improvisation, because it seems clear that improvisation is much more powerful after students attain mastery of a topic. Consider the powerful role that ad-libbing can have in extension activities for students who reach mastery ahead of the rest of the class. Divergent thinking activities may be an ideal form of differentiation for these students.

How do you utilize improvisation in your instruction?

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Education, Science

What We Can Learn From the Paper Clip

Those who know me well are aware of my strange obsession with office supplies.  That’s why I couldn’t resist this recent article on Slate.com about the paper clip written by Sarah Goldsmith.  It turns out that this simple device, which was invented in 1899, represents an extremely rare artifact in the history of design: an object whose design hasn’t changed in over a hundred years.

After reviewing the conditions that created the right atmosphere for the development of the paper clip, Goldsmith explores what makes them so unique.  She writes:

“Paper clips can be used to pick locks, clean under fingernails, and hack into phones. Straightened out, they are used by office workers to distract themselves from the monotony of their intended use.”

As I read this section, it occurred to me that this is the heart of what science education should be.  We should be focusing as much on innovation and exploration as we do on vocabulary.  Students need to learn the concepts of science, but we won’t really grab them until we engage their minds and their interests.  The way to our students’ hearts is through their curiosity.  We need to work harder at giving students opportunities to open things up and look inside.  We need to encourage them to find new uses for the objects around them.

I’m in the middle of Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine, in which he explores the source and importance of creativity.  This idea–that teaching innovation by allowing students to explore the world around them–is based on research that is central to our understanding of how the human brain can create novel ideas.

Can we teach creativity and innovation?

photo credit: Lady-bug via photo pin cc