Neuroscience, Creativity, and Innovation: A Collaborative Thought Leader Conversation – Part 1
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 showcases conversations between various Thought Leaders around an important and relevant topic. The first article in this series featured arts expert Rob Horowitz, PhD, and science education expert Hubert Dyasi, PhD, discussing the intersections of the arts and sciences. The second and third articles in this series feature conversations between leaders in the neuroscience and creativity worlds. In Part 1, cognitive neuroscientist Sandi Chapman, PhD, and creativity expert Bonnie Cramond, PhD, discuss the importance of students’ use of creative and innovative thinking. In Part 2, they will talk about practical applications of these thinking skills.
Sandi Chapman, PhD, is Founder and Chief Director of the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth. She also is the Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor in the UT Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She is a well-known pioneer in the field of brain health, developing brain health fitness measurements and protocols that benefit students and adults alike in the US and worldwide. (See newsletter article about her.)
Bonnie Cramond, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Educational Psychology and Gifted and Creative Education at the University of Georgia (UGA) and former Director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at UGA. She is known for her research in the assessment and development of creativity, especially among at-risk students, and for her highly respected work in the creativity field. (See newsletter article about her.)
In this conversation with Collaborative Executive Director Lucinda Presley, Sandi and Bonnie engaged in an inspiring discussion about the importance of creative and innovative thinking.
Why is it important for today’s students to develop creative and innovative thinking skills?
Bonnie: As Hubert Dysasi, the Collaborative’s science Thought Leader, pointed out in the Thought Leader interview in the last newsletter, creativity has always been important, but hasn’t been recognized as such. However, our problems are becoming more complex and are coming at us faster. Also, knowledge is accumulating, and people are interacting more, so that calls on us to be more innovative and creative.
For students, we should be teaching creative and innovative thinking with what the students are learning in school. For example, in science, I think students should be dealing with problems that have no answers and then be thinking of solutions. This thinking is not just something that should be taught outside of school.
“Creative thinking definitely should be infused in what students are learning in school if we want them to think like this as they grow older.”
Sandi: Our brains are uniquely and elegantly wired to be creative. Creative thinking is the brain’s turbo fuel that energizes how we create new ways to solve, learn, connect, and orchestrate our daily lives, starting young and remaining until late life. Creative thinking is remarkably apparent in young children but all too often learning in school shifts to rote learning and memory of facts.
Throughout our life, from elementary to middle to high school to young adult, our brain is wired to seek newness and to be innovative. It loves to solve problems. The World Economic Forum has said that some of the most important skills for thriving in the future, in whatever walk of life, are to be a flexible, innovative, possibility thinker, and to be able to solve problems that don’t yet exist. As Bonnie said, our world is changing so rapidly we don’t know what facts we need to know because they are being turned over so quickly.
We are moving out of the information age where knowledge and how much you know makes you smart and successful. Now, we can look up facts so quickly, kids often do not see the importance of memorizing so many facts and then ‘dumping’ them after testing. I am not saying that facts aren’t important to learn, it just may be more vital and a better use of our brain’s energy to learn to connect different ideas in new ways. And the added bonus is that such innovative problem-solving builds stronger neural connections. Certainly, our brain can be a massive fact storage machine, but it is designed to achieve so much more.
“We are moving into a brain economy where innovation is mandatory.”
To thrive wherever we are, we’ve got to train and stretch our brain skills to embrace innovation through “possibility thinking”. The more we engage the brain in this way, the more a child of any age will show excitement about new learning.
“Innovation and creative thinking are the key brain skills needed for students in schools and for emerging adults to prepare for our rapidly changing future.”
Bonnie: I can see this need for creative and innovative thinking in the different ways that generations think. For example, millennials don’t mail things or print hard copies, but our generation does need to print them out. It’s a whole different way of looking at the world. And the toddler living in my house will see the world even more differently. Things are changing and we can’t become static. Creativity is about moving forward and being flexible. In the business world, they talk about this as being nimble, meaning being able to change and adapt to changing circumstances. We need to be nimble in all fields to keep up with this dynamic world.
Sandi: Creativity and innovation are continually seeking ways to improve some task, relationship, or habit. Finding 3 to 5 things every single day you can improve in some way helps the brain’s frontal networks strengthen. The frontal networks develop throughout the teenage years into early adulthood and are responsible for our higher order thinking, decision-making, and problem solving. Oftentimes it is just a small tweak, not a completely new output or task. It’s constantly looking for ways to improve life habits, meaningful relationships, or your big idea thinking. Innovation can be used in so many different aspects of building brain capacity. In our SMART program for middle schoolers, whom the majority are underserved and living in poverty, we train them a lot of the creative and innovative thinking skills from the rubrics that the Collaborative developed. What our research revealed is that students improve their learning when they innovate and create new knowledge across science, history, math, and English. These gains in learning fuel confidence and ignite individual belief in what their brain can achieve. The benefit of students learning to use their brain better to create new knowledge then cascades down to help students ‘learn the facts’ better. As a result, they do better on statewide standardized tests.
Innovation helps your brain see what it needs to know and then agilely see the application of these facts in a broader, real-life context. By giving students strategies that teach youth how to learn, not what to learn; we were able to close the gap of these middle school students, who were at least a year or more behind. In sum, by teaching innovative thinking, students improved their scores across all content areas.
“Innovation isn’t unique to any certain area; it’s everything. Innovation and creativity are what our brain is wired to do.”
Bonnie: When you talk about that, I think of the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow’s quote where he said a first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting. For example, when I talk to groups, I’ll ask if anyone is not intelligent and no one will say that aren’t intelligent. But people say all the time “I’m not creative” because they can’t paint or write poetry. But, when you talk to them, you find out they are really creative teachers or really creative parents. But people don’t credit, as you were saying, Sandi, the everyday things where they use their creativity.
“It’s important to understand that people can use creativity in everything they do and the creativity enriches their lives.”
Sandi: I agree with you, Bonnie, where we think creativity is only art.
“But creativity is everything.
It’s our human relationships, our purpose in life, our journey in life, and our ability to find emotional balance when everything is so depressing around us. I say we are moving into a brain economy because our brain doesn’t need to know rote facts. We can look them up on our app. But the brain can use innovation thinking to figure out a road map when we aren’t given one to succeed today. That’s why formal education is hurting our students in some way when they don’t embrace the power of the human mind. Bonnie, I love Maslow’s example of the soup.
Bonnie: I think I was my most creative when I came home from work and had to think of something nutritious to feed my kids or to make life more interesting. For example, when I fed my kids leftovers, I called it buffet night with little bits of this and that. My kids thought it was a wonderful treat and never thought they were having leftovers.
“Creativity is creating a fun challenge or a game out of everyday things.”
Sandi: Bonnie, another part of innovation that we need today more than ever - and that we train individuals no matter what age they are - is the innovation of relating to people, especially people with whom we disagree or have differences. For example, instead of an adult solving an elementary school student’s problem with someone they disagree with, the more effective approach is the adult asking the student to engage in possibility thinking and generate as many innovative ways as possible they can find common ground.
We are showing that compassion is one of the most complex cognitive tasks that people tackle in their day-to-day life – young and old. I tell people to forget Sudoku and instead do acts of compassion toward yourself, people you love, and also people you don’t really get along with. It uses your innovative talents to solve problems and it helps our kids to be constantly in problem solving mode to see how they can relate to someone in an innovative way.
“Compassion not only helps kids develop better social skills, but it also changes their brain’s chemistry.”
When you are nice to someone, you change your neuropharmacy, your brain’s neurochemicals. You get a push of dopamine and the person you’ve just been nice to when you were really mad at them also gets the dopamine push - the feel good brain chemical.
Coming in Fall, 2022 Newsletter
See Part 2 of this conversation to learn practical applications of these important concepts.
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