Creativity and Science: An overlooked relationship?

Hello again!

After a long break here is another blog. If you are our reader, you may have noticed something of a hiatus in regularity of the blog when it’s my turn. Bernie is obviously not working hard enough and seems to have bags of time. In the UK October/November tends to mark the deadline for all research bids, so I have been terrifically busy – begging.

Anyway, I have a book out this month on Creative Science so thought I might write about just that. Strange really that the two are often seen as being so distinct, for curiosity is a key scientific attitude as is a willingness to change ideas in light of evidence. Therefore, science is, by its very nature, twinned with creative thinking. Furthermore, Murphy (2005) suggests that learning science enhances the development of creative thinking skills, such as fluency, flexibility, originality of ideas and imagination.

It is interesting that Torrance (1965), an eminent creativity researcher, nearly 50 years ago put forward the following definition of creativity ‘As the process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies; testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results.’ (p. 663-664) This definition, a scientific definition of creativity, met resistance, with objections that he had no right to use the term ‘creative’ outside such fields as art, music, and writing. He argued that his definition seemed to fit the creativity of both artists and writers as well as it did that of the creative scientist. p. 665 Fortunately, things have moved on from then and the notion that science and creativity may not be mutually exclusive is certainly plausible.

In his highly regarded TED talk (Robinson 2006), Sir Ken Robinson made a robust case for creativity in formal education stating that it should have equal status with literacy. He argued that all children have tremendous talent and have an extraordinary capacity for innovation. However, he declared unequivocally that children are ‘being educated out of creativity.’ To be creative, he asserted, you have to be prepared to be wrong, and that the current model of formal education leaves children frightened of being wrong. Unfortunately, this is particularly pertinent in science where there is often a perceived ‘right’ answer and this notion drives down creativity and divergent thinking. Scotland have rooted creativity firmly in their Curriculum for Excellence and it is seen as fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a ‘successful learner’ in the Scottish education system (Education Scotland 2013).  Unfortunately, the recent National Curriculum for England (2013) does not seem to be embracing creativity as much.

Why creativity is important

Science is exciting and engaging in many of the ways in which it is already explained and taught. Some teachers, or trainee graduates, particularly with science backgrounds will already hold a clear and functional view of what science is and what is important in terms of teaching it. You may have very clear ideas of what constitutes a scientific approach and quite strongly held views on what is really important for children to understand about ‘science methods.’ However, such interpretations can framework and even confine your approach to teaching.  The issue here of course is not everyone, even within the scientific community may share your view. We may be very different in terms of the subject we studied (such as physics, chemistry, biology) and the different skills and approaches that this imparts. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those with science degrees, training to be science specialists on initial teacher training courses, to express concerns about teaching areas of science that they “know nothing about!”

In teaching we can utilise all sorts of creative and imaginative methods and apply these to topics not normally associated with science curricular. Of course the obvious question is why should we bother to change? Well, the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, we want to reassure those who are new to science that they have a whole range of valuable skills that can really promote and encourage children to see science as a creative and relevant subject and secondly, to address a wider issue; that something is going wrong in science education for across many of the ‘high-income countries’ (including the UK) a distinctive downward trend in the numbers studying science has been recognised (Fensham, 2004). Yet, for those of us who work around children, it is plainly obvious that they are natural scientists in that they have an almost universal curiosity about the world around them. Young children are always asking the question “why?” Yet, somewhere along the line they appear to lose this curiosity and fascination.

Of course paradoxically in the last 20 years the advances in science and technology have bordered on the revolutionary, particularly in areas such as biomedicine and electronic communications. The technological tools that we have developed now allow us to explore not only adjacent planets but to view horizons that span from the edge of the known universe to sub-atomic space. Never before in our history have we understood so much about ourselves, or the physical world around us and never before have we had the means of communicating this understanding (as well as intriguing questions concerning that which we still do not understand) to such a wide and literate audience. The advances that we have made and the pace of such developments have been little less than spectacular.

It is also undoubtedly true that the planet is facing a seemingly worsening environmental decline and that there needs to be a profound change in the way we live that is based on sustainability. Science also has a profound role in providing the knowledge and skills that young people will need to face the problems that the future will certainly pose.

Given this, how can it be that young people are being put off science apparently by even as early as 7 – 8 years old? The only possible answer is somewhat worrying. Children do not tend to ‘do’ science at home and only rarely in ‘out of school’ settings. They come across it predominantly at school and therefore something is quite clearly going wrong at this point. Put plainly, children appear to be put off science at school.

How can we halt this decline? One way in which this may be achieved is to remove the artificial barriers that lead to the compartmentalization of science in teaching. We suggest a more holistic approach to science teaching; one that both blurs the distinction between approaches in arts and science and also one that sees science as an integral part of social, emotional and personal development. In a way we would like children not to be able to necessarily distinguish science from any other area of the curriculum. Going even further, sometimes barriers are not just theoretical, but made from bricks and mortar and in the same way we would wish to see artificial divides removed, we’d extend that wish to the classroom walls. Teaching in the environment, for the environment may be a well-worn phrase now, but it is still a valuable sentiment.

We would like to move science away from being a distinct subject to having a more integral role across the wider curriculum. A potential problem with this lies in the way in that science is sometimes perceived. How would you describe science? Logical? Precise? Analytical? Or creative, imaginative and inspiring? Most people would probably draw up a list close to the sentiments at least to the first set of words


Calls for new approaches to teaching science are of course not new, the famous Nuffield Science Teaching Project was developed in the 1960s and the Schools Council Integrated Science Project in the early 1970s.

We have over 50 years of pedagogic and curriculum development as a backdrop to the decline in numbers studying science. Given the amount of time, money and enthusiasm put into these projects to re-contextualize science and to change the approach to science teaching one wonders about the real impact of any suggested change in teaching approaches. Perhaps the difference here is that we only want to utilize the skills and develop the confidence of teachers in primary settings not to see science as something daunting and separate from everything else that goes on. In fact to see ways of teaching science that don’t necessarily depend on designing and carrying out experiments, that maybe are creative and artistic in the way that data are presented, that can lead to discussions about ‘bigger’ ideas and concepts, not being afraid to engage in potentially controversial areas. In reality of course, all the characteristics of good science!

What we are not suggesting here is a ‘new science’ but rather different ways of teaching and seeing the old one. Whenever there is an attempt to change the way we approach teaching science, we have to be very wary of slipping into what could be called pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is perhaps best described as something that purports to be scientific, looks scientific, even sounds scientific (in terms of the language it uses) but on close inspection it is not. It is a bit like a science ‘tribute band’ – it looks a bit similar from a distance, but doesn’t stand any degree of closer inspection. It normally lacks supporting evidence, employs non-scientific methods and cannot be reliably tested or verified. In this sense it is different from something that has come to be called ‘Bad Science’. Bad Science is just that, poorly designed, erroneous results, it is generally just poor practice. Any endeavor, however noble and well intentioned can be carried out badly, it sometimes happens and can be understood. Pseudo-science cannot.



Prawns, Porritt and the Science of Hope

Every few weeks I get an email from Bernie, cheerfully pointing out that it’s my turn to blog. This always concerns me, as Bern is an experienced blogger with big things to say, whereas I always have to think “err…what’s happened this week then?”

So I warn you, this will be a bit of a ramble.

So, this week a couple of things have happened that might be of interest. Firstly, I attended something called the PEDRIO conference at Plymouth University and although I can’t remember what the daft acronym stands for now, it was about teaching and learning in Higher Education. The second event was the TED-ex session at Exeter University, about which I’ll return to in a bit.

At the PEDRIO conference, I attended a seminar session in the morning on education for sustainability. A number of people gave fairly brief reviews of their work. One that I thought was quite intriguing was on promoting what the presenter called ‘energy literacy’ amongst students. A big survey had been carried out (big as in around 1000 respondents) and showed that by and large students appeared to see the University as leaking energy all over the place (rooms too hot, lights never turned off, PC’s on standby etc) but nevertheless, there remained a need to improve energy literacy. One novel way of doing this was being carried out by the Art School through a project on ‘carbon visualisation’. The graphic shown was of a two-storey house with cube frame around it and purported to show what one tonne of CO2 might look like.

At this point I began to shift uneasily in my seat. Err…actually a house weighs significantly more than a tonne, so OK that’s not the point. A tonne of CO2 would have the volume equivalent to a house. Err…no, not necessarily, if I remember the Gas Laws from school that rather depends on things like pressure and temperature. In fact in its gaseous form CO2 may have a variable volume, a tonne is a measure of mass. A tonne of CO2 may be the size of a family car, or the size of the London Olympic Stadium, so I was at a bit of a loss at this point.

I’ve often found that to understand energy consumption in large institutions such as universities requires one to venture into the murky world of economics as well. Most producers and suppliers in the UK have different tariffs for energy usage, the more you use, the cheaper the unit cost. However, this is not necessarily a sliding scale. In my last place of employment, there was a famous occasion one Spring when all the heating was on full blast and the teaching rooms and labs were at temperatures normally associated with the core of Jupiter! We opened all the windows and probably stuck atmospheric temperatures up by about 5 degrees. The caretakers explained that the college needed to use more energy for a day or so to get onto the cheaper tariff!

Sorry I digress. Anyway, improving student’s energy literacy was generally seen as a good thing. Having agreed that we all spilled out to the buffet lunch.

Mmm…what was for lunch? Well you may ask. Having spent the morning talking about energy literacy, the buffet consisted of bloody great buckets (genuinely – bowls the size of buckets) of king prawns! Presumably flown in from former mangroves in SE Asia! For the healthy option there were enormous fruit bowls adorned with fresh strawberries. Mmm….strawberries, err…in April…err… in the UK? Talk about visualising carbon. A PEDRIO buffet represents several thousand tonnes! Why bother with a house? One of those ‘out of season’ strawberries alone in terms of its production and transport probably represents a tonne!

Despite pointing this out, I was rather ignored. People were too busy eating prawns.

Well, the next thing was TED-ex at Exeter University. I like TED talks (I was mildly addicted to them at one time) and use a few in my teaching. You have to be a bit careful with them, as they somehow give the presenter a curious ‘power’ of authority and rarely do you get to hear any critical responses other than the ‘comments’ section on the site. That aside, I think it’s a great idea and quite a few have made me really think and laugh.

The one at Exeter took sustainability as its theme. So it has been quite a ‘sustainability’ week for me.

Just like the TED website there was a really good mix of social, arts and science presentations, but the one that was most intriguing was given at the end by Jonathon Porritt.

If you are reading this outside of the UK you have probably not heard of him, but a couple of decades ago he was the youthful and articulate leader of the Green Movement in the Britain. I think (and I may be wrong) he was one of the founder members of the Green Party. A really interesting guy, who I won’t go on about (look him up) but despite a lower profile these days, still writes and campaigns on environmental issues. I must say, I’ve always really rated his books and articles.

He talked about how 20 years ago he was very ‘ecocentric’ in his views. However, in recent years, he had changed his mind. The way sustainable technologies had progressed (and were progressing) gave him real hope for the future. He gave an example of micro-filters that could purify the most fetid water that are being developed so that they could fit into children’s drinking straws. He also talked about energy (see the link?) pointing out that the cost of solar technologies had fallen so rapidly that electricity produced from solar energy was now approximating that produced from fossil fuels and as a result new solar power stations were now under construction in the Middle East.

In fact new ‘sustainable’ technologies in renewable energy, food production, communications, biomedicine give real and genuine hope for the future. It’s good to hear hope, science and the future being spoken about again, especially by such a renowned environmentalist.

On that basis, here is something to think about. I’d suggest that what we really need is scientific literacy. We need to be able to understand science better to stop seeing it as a threat at every turn. We need science literacy to dispel the rumours and myths. Perhaps ‘energy literacy’ is something of worth, but a scientific literacy offers more. The former seems to be constrained by only having one direction or outcome, namely to promote a reduction in consumption (could it ever promote an increase?) Science literacy on the other hand can take us in all sorts of directions and presents us with all sorts of possibilities.

I think Byron said something about hope being easily wiped away by truth. Well, it seems to me that actually in this case truth gives us hope. It’s myths and worries and pictures of CO2 and houses that promotes despair!

Pass the shrimps.


Why we need Mr Spock when it comes to teaching science outdoors

If you are the person that follows this blog you’ll know that I’m trying to write book at the moment about teaching science (hence the slightly intermittent entries). Recently I’ve been working on a chapter about the importance of teaching science outdoors. I won’t go into the details of why I argue it’s important (I don’t want to undermine sales of the book!) but I’d say that some of the reasons actually relate to the nature of science through contextualised observation, sense of enquiry, the excitement of exploration etc. I’m not alone in thinking this and there is a significant and current literature out there on just this topic. Even the UK Government now is pushing for more teaching to take place outside and no, not just to save heating bills, but through a realisation of its importance. In fact, what we call primary schools (I believe elementary elsewhere) are now part evaluated on their provision for outdoor learning.

At this point I should be thinking ‘great’, all these outdoor opportunities to apply science, to really get to grips with ‘real-life’ observations, setting up hypotheses and designing and carrying out experiments that children can see, not in some abstract sense, but just outside the door.

I should be thinking ‘great’ but I’m increasingly not. I know, I know, I always have to spoil things, but my recent experience of outdoor ‘science’ is very different to the picture above.

In the South West of England we have a good number of outdoor education centres (we have two National Parks and two UNESCO World Heritage Landscapes in the area) and I’ve visited a number of such centres over the years. What I’ve begun to notice is a little curious for those interested in science teaching. Gradually, boxes of magnifying glasses have been replaced with boxes of blindfolds, specimen jars have been replaced with mirrors and on the walls of the teaching rooms posters of results produced by children have been replaced with poems written by them.

There has been a significant pedagogical change in the approach to outdoor learning. The work of writers such as Joeseph Cornell and Steve Van Matre (and others) have provided practical approaches to teaching outdoors that I would argue are predicated (although the lineage may not be direct) on the philosophical approach of Deep Ecology. In other words, we try to ‘engage’ children in the environment through the use of different sensory techniques, hence the blindfolds and mirrors. We also look to employ emotional responses to the outdoors, hence the poems. They are methods that try to promote affective learning, in other words they try to illicit behavioural change in children (and adults). To be fair, these approaches are essentially used in environmental education, but nevertheless have really come to dominate outdoor learning.

For example:

Chawla & Cushing (2007); Perrin & Benassi (2009); Cheng & Monroe (2011); Duerden & Witt (2010); Ernst & Theimer (2011); Okaty (2012); Callado et al (2013); Hind & Sparks (2008, 2009); Kaiser et al (2011); Gilburton (2007); Perkins (2010); Lieflander et al (2012); Nisbet et al (2009)

These papers represent a quick trawl (precisely 2 minutes) through some outdoor education journals and all deal with behavioural change through ‘engagement’ with the environment – one even addresses methods for ‘measuring love of the environment’ (a couple more deal with ‘engagement indices’). Indeed, the term biophillia is commonplace in outdoor education and phrases such as ‘promoting a love of the environment’ and ‘deep engagement’ are frequently used with impunity but rarely (if ever) interrogated. Such approaches are now commonplace in the mainstream. There is nothing wrong with promoting a love of nature in itself, but we need to tread lightly here for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the promotion of ecocentrism is usually at the expense of ‘the human’, the outcome being that students emerge seeing ‘people’ as the problem, rather than providing a solution. I’ve lost count over the years of the number of students who have said, “The world would be so great if it wasn’t for humans.” This sort of fatalistic nihilism raises a whole range of concerns, too many for this blog; I’ll let you fill them in.

Secondly, we are in danger of throwing out the rational, or at least disparaging it, in favour of the emotional and intuitive. I’m not at all sure that my poems about flowers will be as useful to humanity as my previous research on the amelioration of water borne organic pollutants.

Now I’m not saying that using imagination and empathy when it comes to wildlife is a bad thing, nor is it necessarily bad to get children to experience the world using different senses (such as listening carefully, or feeling objects) but it is the idea that this is a more effective way of learning, rather than simply being complimentary to cognitive approaches that is worrying. It seems to me that Deep Ecology is having a subtle, but profound and disproportionate impact on our approach to learning outdoors and is driving learning strategies that are overly ecocentric (often based around a sort of New Age mysticism) eschewing the rational and cognitive and promoting the intuitive and affective.

If we’re not careful the outdoors will become the preserve of the emotional and the sensory and not a place for science. Holistic Scientists (people who don’t understand science – often finding it too hard) will take over, teaching children to talk to trees, to act like squirrels and that rocks have feelings.

OK, so this is a bit cruel and over the top and I don’t want to sound too much like Mr Spock, but come on scientists out there, let’s reclaim the environment and outdoor learning for the rational. It is after all, quite logical.

Live long and prosper.