COLLABORATIVE’S THOUGHT LEADER CONVERSATION ON CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION IN THE ARTS AND STEM
The Collaborative’s Research Thought Leaders help provide the strong research foundation upon which the Collaborative’s work rests. Each Thought Leader is nationally and internationally recognized in their own field and brings an extensive depth of experience and expertise. They also are adept at working across disciplines.
In our previous newsletters, we brought you interviews with each of our Thought Leaders and also examined ways to apply their important ideas in STEAM learning. This new series will showcase conversations between various Thought Leaders around an important and relevant topic.
This first article in the series features a conversation between leaders in the arts and STEM worlds. Rob Horowitz, PhD, is Executive Director, ArtsResearch, and Associate Director, Center for Arts Education Research, Teachers College, at Columbia University. He is well-known for his arts education research that demonstrates the important relationships between in-school arts learning and cognitive, social, and personal competencies (see newsletter article for resources and information about him). Hubert Dyasi, PhD, is Professor of Science Education, The City College, City University of New York (CUNY) – retired. He is known for the teaching and learning of science in pre-college education in the US and in Africa (see newsletter for information about him and his recounting of how curiosity led to science centers across Africa). Future articles in the series will feature further conversations about the intersections of creativity, neuroscience, the arts, and STEM.
In this conversation with Collaborative Executive Director Lucinda Presley, Rob and Hubert engaged in an inspiring discussion about the importance of creative and innovative thinking and these thinking skills' relation to their disciplines and to the intersections of the arts and sciences.
Why is it important for today’s students to develop creative and innovative thinking skills?
Not only today. We have always said this is important.
“The arts can be a counter to the rote learning that often happens in education.”
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Each discipline can be as creative as any other discipline in a lot of ways. Along with creativity, I’ve really been impressed in this pandemic by some ways the arts are the glue bringing social and emotional perspectives to children. You can see this, when parents are trying to get their kids to stay online and stay focused on schoolwork, that it’s often an arts activity that gets the student to move or do something creative.
It would be very useful for us to go to the Innovation Collaborative’s effective ways of dealing with creativity and the Collaborative’s creative and innovative thinking skills because those actually relate to science learning. In science teaching, there’s always this important question relating to facts about a phenomenon: How do we know what we say we know? Also, what kind of evidence are we going to use to decide if this is something worth considering and is it based on the field’s standards for valid evidence? These Collaborative thinking skills help address that.
Why is creativity important in the science field?
"Imagine if people in science never questioned what they were told, or never thought of other ways to answer a particular science question."
For example, around 200 AD it was believed that blood originated in the liver and went from there to different organs in the body where it was used up. Imagine if no one ever questioned that. In fact, people didn’t publicly question it for over 1500 years. It took a long time for scientists to say there has to be another way of looking at this because they had seen in animals they dissected that the heart beats all the time while the organism is alive and they had asked: “what is its function?” The scientists who thought seriously about this surmised that the blood goes from the heart to different parts of the body and returns to the heart in a continuous flow; it’s the heart and not the liver that pumps blood to the rest of the body. But there wasn’t an easy way to find this out. At the time, this was really creative thinking.
A British doctor named William Harvey (1578-1657) said we know that every time the heart contracts, the amount of blood it pumps out is only about 2 oz. Knowing that the heart normally beats 72 times a minute, Harvey calculated that the heart pumps out 8640 ounces of blood per hour. It was inconceivable that the liver could make this large amount of blood from food and distribute it to every organ in the body every hour of the day. So, based on his knowledge of the heart’s anatomy and functioning, Harvey proposed that the blood must be flowing in a closed system and circulating throughout the body from the heart and back. He also concluded that the heart acts as a pump to move the blood to and from the organs.
This process all started with knowledge and curiosity and creatively developing evidence to support a scientific theory. Scientists had to use their creative thinking abilities to come up with an explanatory model that fits the evidence, something that can be replicated or checked by others. They also had to use the creative thinking skill of envisioning - visualizing in their minds what they were thinking - to develop the investigations. So, creativity in science is important. These investigations don’t come out of nowhere. They build on what’s known and the evidence that’s there, and that’s very important.
How do the arts look at creativity?
"The arts aren’t inherently more creative or innovative than other disciplines."
Like Hubert said, there is all this creativity in science. I agree with Hubert that there is no reason that creativity and innovation couldn’t apply equally to science and math – or maybe any subject.
"What distinguishes the arts are the interpretation and the representation of an idea and the emotive aspects within it."
And the representation in that creativity is artistic. That leads to the intersection of art and science because the arts have an inherent communicative component where you are expressing ideas and feelings that could be scientific, too.
As in science, there’s also this idea of building on a prior network of knowledge and understanding. This is inherent to scientific inquiry, but also to creating meaning and expression in the arts, especially when we add the affective or emotional dynamic.
We work with less well-defined constructs than science and so it’s often harder for us to scientifically test those ideas. For instance, testing the notion of creativity. We don’t have a single definition of what that is. To define it and put it in a quantitative research model is very challenging. It’s more challenging than in the hard sciences where things are more easily defined and testable. Some of the more interesting constructs are some of the hardest to measure, such as transfer (of skills and knowledge between disciplines) or innovation.
The arts are unique, in that there’s a combination of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills. There are interesting and valid measures for creativity, but they probably have more error built in than measures in the hard sciences, where the testable idea is well-defined. We try, but we can only start to approximate the constructs that are the result of artistic experience. I’ve done a lot of work with the Torrance test of creativity. It’s a very interesting test and a valid measure. It worked well in many ways. But we saw that there are things it didn’t capture that relate to arts education and how we were thinking about creativity. That is, it only approximated the manifestation of creativity through the arts that we observed in arts classes.
"And there are notions of creativity that are still being debated in arts education."
For example, the Torrance test values originality, or thinking differently about a problem. However, some people believe that there could be a true, or perfect, solution that could reflect the highest artistic expression. I know this is debatable but worth thinking about when measuring creativity. For example, Bach had a phenomenally creative way of resolving cadences that are odd, and different – original – but also seem perfect and true. There are similar examples in other art forms and across cultures.
How do the syntheses of the arts and sciences promote creative and innovative thinking?
I want to go back to something Rob said about representation and communication as used in the arts. These actually are equally inherent in the sciences and engineering. Communication is essential in science and is one of the key components of science inquiry. If a scientist is poor in communication, their representation is going to be lacking. A scientist may visualize an idea but if (s)he can’t go beyond that and represent and communicate it so that someone else can understand it, the field is not enriched.
"In relation to innovation and creativity, if you are going to think of an event or a way to test something, you can do it the way it’s been done before, or you can think of a truly innovative way of testing that principle that people haven’t thought about before."
An example is Lynn Margulis (1938-2011), an outstanding botanist and evolutionary biologist. She challenged many peoples’ notion that at the base of evolution is idea of competition. She said that there is some evidence that basically within a plant cell there actually is symbiotic, mutually supportive, collaborative activity. In the plant cell, chloroplasts (organelles that contain chlorophyll which gives the green color to leaves) and mitochondria (an organelle that helps produce energy in the plant) - have different DNAs from each other and from the cell, itself. Their functions are to help the plant cell carry out its life processes. On its part, the plant cell serves as a sustaining host. The organelles and the cell are thus in a symbiotic co-existence.
So, when we support thinking in innovative ways, it’s not just about challenging ideas but it is also about thinking of new ideas or of other ways of looking at something that is not the standard way. But, like Rob said, just because it’s innovative doesn’t mean it’s better. But in Margulis’ case, it actually was enriching the science field by increasing the knowledge. You have to have creativity to know what to look for.
"We also talk of visualization in science and science education. Part of the thing about creative thinking is actually visualizing something and then saying, “let’s see if we can do it that way” and then seeing what happens. Saying “what happens if” is the outcome of the art skill of visualization and of the use of knowledge and creative thinking."
Talking about what Hubert was saying about communication, in the arts there’s always a need to share – even if you are sharing with others in your imagination. When we have an idea, we often build a mental structure in a spatial way. This could be a complicated science idea needing a complicated depiction, and you reproduce that in a physical sense. This could be an intersection with the arts where you can see the boundaries between disciplines break down.
These spatial representations take shape in art forms besides the visual arts, such as in music. There are many ways artistic representation coincides with scientific investigation. These disciplines may not be that separate, after all. Also, there can be a conforming quality to education, which is no one’s fault, but this structure can lead to a rote instructional approach that does not support creativity or innovation. In line with the Collaborative’s work, we have seen how teaching artists come into a classroom and shake things up, getting students to look at things differently. Scientists can do that, too.
"A scientist can come into a classroom, like a teaching artist does, and get students to look at things differently to enhance their learning. The Collaborative can shake that up and get people to work across disciplines. This can lead to creative and innovative thinking."
I’m so glad you made that point. We try to do that in science education with science inquiry and with students raising their own questions to investigate. That is now totally strange in schools. It’s not the fault of the teachers; it’s how education is done. I see what you are talking about how the Collaborative could play that role in increasing creative and innovative thinking. A key part of that is including science practices in the learning, as long as we keep in mind that you can’t separate the practices from the development of science ideas. I want also to note that the practices and the content are both important.
"The arts, the sciences, and the humanities all start by considering the same world and as we go in different ways, we must remember that connection, that we are dealing with the same world, the same nature, and the arts people are dealing with the same materials as the science people."
That idea of exploring materials in visual art is important. It parallels the scientific process. Scientific understanding really is inherent to all artistic creation. So, the arts and sciences do work well together.
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