Creativity and computation

Sonalee Mandke

At a fundamental level, artists and scientists analyze the world around them in surprisingly similar ways. The creative process resonates with the scientific process; artists and scientists observe, collect, analyze, compare and notice patterns. So why then is the science classroom so very different from an art classroom? Picture an ideal art class; children immersed in a variety of materials, cutting, tearing, sticking, joining, sprinkling, separating – learning through making, through mistakes, and through play. Would it not be wonderful if the same sense of curiosity and exploration were brought into a science classroom? Most teachers of science try hard to foster a sense of wonder through their teaching. Even so, the methods and approach to teaching in areas of science are markedly different from those in the artistic fields. This is largely due to the prevailing notion that advocates creative thinking for the arts and critical thinking for STEM subjects. With the movement toward STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, Mathematics), there are new opportunities to explore creative thinking skills in conjunction with critical thinking. The untapped potential to practice creative ways of inquiring and learning in science is an exciting space in pedagogy and curriculum design.

learning-through-making All ideas are welcome
There are specific approaches that teachers can use in the classroom to promote creative thinking, and there are many resources available online and through organizations which are of immense help. The most important aspect is creating a culture of acceptance in the classroom. No idea is rejected; every idea has value and is accepted by the group. When such a safe space is created, children, and even adults, feel free to explore outside the lines. More significantly, this approach removes cognitive biases from the process to an extent and enables students to analyze their own and others’ ideas objectively. It is important for the participants to consciously not censor their own ideas, even if they themselves do not think that the idea holds merit.

There are specific thinking tools that aid such an objective. These can be used in group discussions as well as individual work. For group discussions, the tool of ‘Yes, and?’ is very useful. In a discussion when a student proposes an idea, the response of the other students is often to think of reasons why the idea might not be effective. For example, in a discussion about the uses of MS Word, a student might say, “we can use Word to draw pictures”. To which another student might respond by saying, “No, but we only write using Word.” Teachers can anticipate this and preface the discussion by disallowing the use of the words or attitude of ‘no, but…’. Instead, replacing this with ‘yes, and’ might elicit a response such as “yes, and we can use punctuation marks to do that!”. The ‘yes, and?’ tool can also be used as a prompt for students to pursue a line of thinking or to develop an idea that is not yet fully formulated in their mind.

Another fundamental way that teachers can positively influence the flow of ideas in the classroom is by using the question ‘how might?’ rather than ‘what is?’. “How might you design this table in Excel?” “What are the ways in which we might construct this flowchart?” Such questioning encourages multiple solutions and divergent thinking. It is important for the teacher to be mindful when asking questions. Implicit in the language of the question is the idea that there is no single right answer. Students are free to imagine a variety of solutions or processes for the same action.

Lateral and divergent thinking
Lateral thinking or divergent thinking is concerned with the generation of ideas beyond obvious associations in order to solve problems. There are two hallmarks of divergent thinking; fluency and flexibility. Fluency of ideas is the sheer volume of ideas that a person might think of for a given situation. This can be achieved through rapid-fire idea generation exercises, where the goal is to have the largest number of ideas. Flexibility is the degree of difference between the ideas. High fluency and rich flexibility are indicators of a dynamic creative thinking process. Such approaches can be used as warm up exercises to bring the mind into a creative mode of thinking, or they might be adapted to become a part of the core pedagogy and curriculum design for computer science.

The author is a graphic designer and design educator. Her areas of interest and practice are Visual Design, Creative Thinking, and Design Pedagogy. She can be reached at

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