Chemistry needs creative approaches and it is possible to teach them

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If I question students about what it means to be creative, they talk about art, drama and music. With no intention of being dismissive of these valuable disciplines, solving global challenges like food security will not come down to the arts. A culture shift is required if, from the bottom up, schools are to enable and propagate the kind of thinking in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines that will solve tomorrow’s problems.

Creativity is a word we hear a lot in teaching – it is at the top of the tree as far as Bloom’s taxonomy is concerned and at the heart of good lesson planning. The drive for a skills-based curriculum is never far from the news in educational theory. Not long ago, think tanks such as Demos championed creativity in schools and encouraged teaching for creativity. This has never really left the table. For example, skills-based questions became more prevalent in A-level science in the latest reforms in England.

Chemistry lends itself to creative thought processes – challenging existing paradigms is central to making sense of observations and practical work. Teachers guide discovery by pushing students out of their comfort zone, challenging thinking and pre-existing models and daring students to reconstruct their view of the world. This is creative thinking, not least by the teacher who employs just the right amount of scaffolding to allow it.

Science is not, however, traditionally associated with creativity. Few students appreciate the whole scientific process. There are failed attempts and null hypotheses discarded on the way to the one breakthrough that makes the news. With high profile movements in education extolling the virtues of persistence in the face of adversity, it seems exposure to creative problem solving in science benefits our students in the short and long term.

Creativity can be taught

Authorities from psychology recommend various ways to foster creativity in school. Psychologists have defined creative students as those who can identify problems and solve them through application of existing knowledge in a new context. There is a great deal of literature supporting the value of these skills in the classroom, but fostering a skill often proves much harder than defining it.

However, creativity can be taught. Advise students to enjoy being confused, to follow their intuition, to evaluate ideas and to start afresh where necessary. This is paramount to encouraging creative skills. Removing time constraints to formulate answers seems counterintuitive in preparing students for exams, but let students go through the options and assess the validity of the first response. They might then adapt their answer.

Advise students to enjoy being confused, to follow their intuition, to evaluate ideas and to start afresh

I tried to see whether teaching for creativity could help pupils meet traditional learning objectives. I taught one class to solve problems, research and then apply their knowledge to complete a fairly contrived forensic investigation. I taught a comparable group the ion tests, they practised applying the tests and completed questions. The group who had to be creative slightly outstripped their peers, albeit to a statistically insignificant extent, in the end-of-unit test.

While I can’t offer quantitative evidence that strategies to promote creativity improve attainment, I noticed qualitative differences in the attitude and application of lower ability students. In the short term, those students exhibited problem-solving skills I had not witnessed in other contexts.

A worthy pursuit

The results encouraged me to revise schemes of work for 11–16 age students to encourage open-ended investigation, learning contextualisation and problem-solving. Short answer questions, worksheets and prescriptive practical procedures were replaced with investigations that students had to plan and evidence. Open questions without an obvious right answer replaced closed questions requesting textbook responses. Using strategies to facilitate discussion, and providing thinking time before seeking answers, allowed more creative thinking from students.

Four years later, students exposed to these strategies sat the new linear A-level in 2017. Comparison to previous year groups wasn’t possible, but question-by-question performance data allowed comparison with the national cohort. Students exposed to more teaching strategies noted to foster creativity excelled in problem-solving questions needing ability to think outside the box. Our students outstripped the national average by 9% in these kinds of questions. In contrast, they performed 6% better than the national average in recall and knowledge-based responses.

That improvement corresponds to a 50% increase in performance against the national average compared with our previous three year groups in knowledge application and problem solving questions and just a 25% increase on recall questions.

While the disproportionate improvement in creative responses may simply reflect the change in teaching emphasis, or even a relative lack of preparation for recall, it is encouraging. If I have improved the ability to think differently, or fostered thinking skills that future chemists need to solve unimagined problems, I am convinced that teaching for creativity is a worthy pursuit.

We cannot prepare our students for everything they’ll encounter in the workplace, so creativity is the most valuable weapon with which to arm them.