Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Creativity, working memory, & trivial pursuit

If you have ever played Trivial Pursuit against Mr. Lipstick, most likely you have lost. I try my hardest to always be on his team, just because, against him, there is little hope. I mean, why does anyone walk around with such tiny little facts swimming in their head? Mr. Lipstick doesn't watch much tv, and he doesn't watch any movies, but he can still rock the entertainment category. He's like a trivia freak of nature (and I say with complete and utter love).

In college I hated playing trivial pursuit. Absolutely loathed it. And because I went to one of those colleges that isn't an ivy league school, but most people that go there thought they should have gotten into the ivy league, people played it a lot to prove how smart they were. (It never occurred to me to compare actual grades- I immediately figured that if I couldn't pull random trivia out of my rear end then I wasn't nearly as smart as any of those peeps walking around talking about how they turned down Harvard. Hmmm....)

Anyway, I absolutely assumed that something was wrong with me because I didn't walk around with these little facts swimming around in my brain. I couldn't figure the game out. Really? I was suppose to know every movie Carrie Grant was in so I could identify which one he didn't wear a bow tie? It didn't seem possible.

Then I watched Mr. Lipstick play and I realized that despite the fact he really does know a lot of ridiculous trivia, most of how he plays the game is in his strategy. He reasons things out, he uses what he knows and then pulls what he knows together in order to tease out a guess. (A guess that is usually right). So he's actually not a walking encyclopedia on useless facts. He's pulling information out of his long term memory and pulling it into his working memory, where he can link it together by making connections between what he knows. Because he has random facts in his long-term memory he's able to group facts together, make these connections and distinctions. He does not know every answer to every question. He is able, however, to answer questions correctly because he's able to play with the facts that are already in his long term memory.

The Newsweek article on creativity made me think about playing trivial pursuit with my husband. When we're memorizing facts and trying to get children to regurgitate them on a test, we might be putting information into their long term memory (we hope...) but we're not actually teaching them how to use that information to make connections, problem solve, and apply what they know to other tasks. In fact, sometimes they're not even able to use that information on a test because although they know the information in one form, they aren't able to pull it into working memory and use it to answer an awkwardly worded question. They know the trivia, but not the strategy.

Our education obsession with accountability and standardized testing has left us teaching scared. We are giving them facts but not anything to do with those facts. And somehow (which is a post for another time, when we teach scared, people seem to like it. It makes people more comfortable to know that we're teaching facts because it's clear, defined, and controlled. It seems measurable and makes everyone accountable.)

We have to put information into our student's long term memory. Whether it is the names of the letters, the sounds they make, or the laws of physics, there is some information our kids need to have in their back pockets that they can pull out without even thinking about it. Allowing them to have this information tucked away frees up more room in their working memory for them to be creative, make connections, analyze new information, and problem solve. But knowing the information isn't enough. If we only teach to knowing the information you are left with me, depressed college student, listening to a trivial pursuit question, thinking there is something wrong with me because I didn't automatically know that small detail even though I know information on the topic of the question being asked. I didn't know how to use what I knew in any successful way. I might as well have not known the information at all.

The Newsweek article points out that a Creative Quotient predicts what a student can do more than an Intelligence Quotient. It makes sense. It doesn't necessarily matter what you know- it's whether or not you are able to use & apply what you know.

The article also sites that creativity can be taught with practice over time. It makes it essential to not just be teaching our students facts, but also teaching them how to be creative. How to think, not just what to think.

Of course, once our students know how to use their long term knowledge in new situations, and how to apply it, analyze it, transfer it, question it, compare it, and connect it- they'll be better off at answering standardized assessments. Like Mr. Lipstick, they wont have to know every answer, but they'll know enough to reason out the answer. And isn't that what we want our students to be able to do- use reason?

The Newsweek article's stance on creativity made me think of Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School? which I read a few weeks ago. Willingham makes the case that in order for our children to be able to problem solve, they need facts in their long term memory.

So as teachers, our tasks (along with keeping them safe, making them good citizens, collecting lunch money, etc, etc) is to:

1) Determine which facts are essential for our students to know

2) Get those facts into our students' long term memory to free up room in their working memory

3) Teach them to think creatively so they can use what's in their long-term memory along with new information, in order to problem solve and think quickly within their working memory.

Now, just how do we do that?

1 comment:

Tom said...

I watch Jeopardy! the same way I play Trivial Pursuit -- if I don't know the answer right away, I try to read into the question. Of course, there are times where I completely overthink it, but what are you going to do? ;)

I'd say in teaching how to think creatively and creativity, we'd have to start young and I think we also need to emphasis that with said creativity comes work and criticism.

I teach mostly high school sophomores and when we write, I am very honest with them about the quality of their drafts. However, it's not without warning--I think my speech about rough drafts goes something like, "They always suck, that's why they're ROUGH drafts."

It's like the next few steps are ... get them thinking and creating, then get them into the work ethic that goes along with the creativity and push them (not exceedingly tough but not kissing their asses either). I always love the idea of "Let's take this further to see where it goes," just like I love the idea of opening a book and saying, "Let's dig deeper beyond simply what happens."

Just be ready for a lot of pissing and moaning on their part because you're *gasp* making them do more than just vomit info.