Domestic Affairs

Teaching students to think creatively

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-12-01 11:03
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An editorial last week in China Daily revealed that a survey of 21 countries, conducted by International Educational Progress Evaluation Organization, highlighted that Chinese students tied for last place when it came to using their imagination and were fifth from the bottom in creativity. Chinese students finished first in math.

According to the editorial, the survey confirmed what Chinese parents know, that their children rarely are challenged to use their imaginations to solve problems.

Undoubtedly, teaching students to think creatively is important. A July Newsweek Magazine article entitled "The Creativity Crisis," concluded that the "necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed." The Magazine cited a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs which identified creativity as the No. 1 "leadership competency" of the future.

There is a perception that Chinese education focuses on rote memorization at the expense of creativity. A November news story in an American newspaper promoting a joint exchange between the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) and Beijing University of Technology (BJUT) suggested that "for centuries, Chinese education has focused on memorizing information and practicing skills."

UMF President Theodora Kalikow said the question Chinese educators most often asked her last month on a visit to Beijing was, "How do you teach creativity?". Without providing specifics, President Kalikow hinted that American educators could teach Chinese professors a great deal about the subject.

Other recent reports suggest that China has already begun to teach creativity. The "Newsweek Magazine" story featured an exchange between Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University and colleagues at Chinese universities.

When Plucker was asked to identify trends in American education, he described America's focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. The Chinese professors laughed. "They said, ‘You're racing toward our old model. But we're racing toward your model, as fast as we can.'"

But merely telling students to think creatively or use their imagination isn't enough. Students must be given specific instructions. One of the activities I used to teach my students to think creatively was adopted and modified from a book my brother wrote. (Mattimore, Bryan (1994). "99% Inspiration, Tips, Tales & Techniques for Liberating Your Business Creativity").

I showed my high school students an empty covered box (at least the size of a shoe box) and told them the following story:" I am a member of my school's restructuring team and was asked to help develop a new model high school. In researching models for restructured schools around the country, I located an award winning model with an architect's plan and that is what is inside the box. Before I show you all the model, I would like to see if you can guess the design. I'll answer your questions truthfully, but the questions must be ones that can be answered yes or no." I then let students guess at the design of the school for five minutes or so before revealing to them the empty box.

Put aside for a moment the thought that I had deceived my students. That was a topic that was relevant to discuss in my psychology class but is not pertinent here.

The activity induced students to ask critical questions. The goal of the activity was to teach students to incorporate new information into what they already knew, thereby creating a model which would be a product of their collective imaginations.

My job as teacher was to keep track of students' questions and provide consistent answers. However, the students created the "restructured school" and it was always different.

At the end of the activity, I would ask students to think about their own thinking processes, how they revised their thinking based upon new information, and how such a process is useful in thinking about other problems.

Teaching students to think creatively to solve problems is both an art and a habit. Just as students can be taught to memorize answers, they can learn to approach problems and develop novel solutions.

Patrick Mattimore taught psychology in the US for many years and is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism.