ISTE 2018 Coverage

What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Fostering Creativity

What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Fostering Creativity 

Technology is changing how students' brains are wired, setting expectations for faster, more interactive learning, said neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman. And the most important thing that schools should be teaching students is "cognitive flexibility," or the ability to be creative and put ideas together in new and innovative ways.

Eagleman spoke to a packed audience of educators and school administrators during the opening general session of the 2018 ISTE conference in Chicago.

As a neuroscientist, he has studied how the human brain is constantly rewiring itself, a concept known as brain plasticity. He said the brains of today's students are changing because they are growing up in a digital world. Rather than resisting this change, educators need to embrace it and teach students as they are accustomed to learning outside of school.

"The digital generation carries out tasks differently," he noted. "Kids need interactive, multisensory learning. If you're giving a boring lecture at the chalkboard, they're going to tune out. The onus is on educators to meet them halfway."

This means educators must change the kinds of assignments they give. Don't just ask questions that students can Google the answers to, he said; instead, ask open-ended questions that force students to dig deeper and think creatively about their responses. For instance, instead of asking: "What is a sphere of influence?" educators might ask "How does a sphere of influence form? Give me some examples."

This is important because it allows students to use technology to construct new knowledge, which is how they expect to learn. But it also prepares them more effectively for their future, where the jobs they occupy might not have been invented yet.

"We're moving from an information economy to a creativity economy, where what matters is innovation and doing things that computers can't do as well," Eagleman said. "That's good news, because as humans, this is our single biggest advantage over technology. It's what we do well."

To succeed in this creativity economy, being innovative, flexible thinkers is the most important skill that students can learn, he said. Yet, creative thinking is hard to cultivate, because of something that Eagleman called the "problem of the path of least resistance."

"The unconscious brain is ruthlessly efficient," he explained. "It is looking for the easiest path [to a solution]. You have to shake it off of that path."

Here are five ways that educators can help students overcome this challenge and foster creative thinking:

  1. Bend, break, blend. Have students practice bending (or changing) existing objects or ideas to suit a different purpose, breaking them into smaller components and blending or remixing them to create new objects or ideas, Eagleman suggested.
  2. Challenge students to go deeper. Get students to think beyond their initial response. For instance, Edison would challenge his employees to come back to him with seven possible solutions to a problem.
  3. Develop a culture of exploration. "Failures are the portal to discovery," Eagleman said. He urged educators to create a culture "where it's OK to get a wrong answer." Educators can learn from the world of gaming, he explained, where the stakes are low and students can explore freely without consequences.
  4. Build creative spaces. "Your environment matters," Eagleman said, describing how the brains of small mammals have been shown to have more neural pathways when their cages contain more objects to play with. "What are you doing in your classroom to engage and inspire? Nothing is meant to be glued down. The key is to change things up. This is what maintains brain plasticity."
  5. Maintain the arts in schools. Whenever schools are running out of money, Eagleman said, the first items they cut are typically programs such as art and music. "We need to make sure every student has creativity as part of their curriculum," he urged.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 17 years of experience covering education and technology. He can be reached at denniswpierce@gmail.com.

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