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Engaging young minds: Part four

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By Huw Thomasheadteacher and writer

The fourth part of Huw Thomas’ series, discussing how understanding the way our brains work can help motivate learning, looks at creative thought

Illustrated head and cogs

In nine months a screaming baby gains nearly 100 billion neurons. Averaged over time such growth works out at 4000 neaurons a second. These neurons grow and find other neurons, making the connections we call synapses – information flows from one neuron to the other via the synapse. More neurons are created than will actually be needed – those that don’t make connections die away. Our daily experiences quite literally change our brains, making different synaptic connections between cells. We’re not fixed. Instead our heads are places of ongoing creativity.

Having looked at how our brains engage, enquire and analyse, we now home in on that business of creativity and look at its essential place in learning. (Take a look at the other articles in this series.)

1. Originality

One facet of creativity is the original slant creative thinking puts on things. Human beings have the tendency to search for information that is in keeping with the ideas we already hold – something called a confirmation bias. For example, asked how many squares there are on a chess board, we will most likely count the number of little boxes. We may not ‘think outside the box’ and ask whether we can also include squares made up of four smaller squares, or whether the whole board isn’t a square.

2. Lateral thinking

The thinking guru, Edward de Bono, coined the term ‘lateral thinking’ – presenting the image of hole digging as a way of understanding how our brains work. De Bono presented two types of thinking. Vertical thinking is a bit like digging deeper down the same course of thinking. De Bono acknowledges the place for such thinking, but suggests we need skills that enable us to think laterally, too – a bit like digging a new hole in a different location.

Faced with a problem, such as how to tackle litter in the lunch hall, lateral thinking would involve strategies such as these:

  • Random words – having a set of words on cards that, while interesting, are gathered at random, can provide a tool for creative thinking. Selecting the word ‘jolly’ from the pack, our task is to let that word prompt our thoughts – maybe getting us to think of fun ways of filling the rubbish bins, such as having some competition between days of the week to see if Tuesday’s bins can be fuller than Monday’s.
  • Asking ‘why?’ – this potentially never-ending quest involves posing ‘why’ to the problem – ‘Why is there litter?’ Then challenging answers, so ‘Because children don’t walk to the bin’ can be challenged by ‘Why don’t they walk to the bin?’ We could keep going – or we could find that the answer that children are keen to rush onto the playground causes us to move the bin to the lunch hall doorway.
  • Fractionation – take a problem and split it, and you have looked at it creatively. Split further and you keep taking that different perspective. ‘Litter in the lunch hall’ gets split into two aspects of the issue – ‘litter’ and ‘hall’. Split again and you divide litter into ‘unwanted’ and ‘floor.’ You could split further, but lateral thinking has dug a new hole and you may find yourself asking why the rubbish is unwanted. It may lead nowhere – but it’s creative thinking.
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