The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience

The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience

The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience

In this age of innovation, even more important than being an effective problem solver, is being a problem finder. It’s one thing to look at a problem and be able to generate a solution; it is another thing to be able to look at an ambiguous situation, and decide if there is a problem that needs to be solved. That’s a skill that isn’t really targeted by traditional teaching methods, and in fact, it is often discouraged. Rule-breaking , to an extent, should be tolerated and encouraged, and yes—even taught. To reach this end, we should be teaching and encouraging creative disobedience.

“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done - men who are creative, inventive and discoverers” –Jean Piaget

Looking back on my childhood, the times I remember most fondly were spent with my father, learning how to be a scientist. He’s not a scientist himself, though—but an artist. He’s one of those people who knows a little bit about everything, quite a bit about most things, and loves sharing those bits of insight with anyone that will listen. He is a perpetual observer, a noticer of peculiarities, a collector of knowledge. Being a relentlessly curious child, I saw him as my walking encyclopedia. My afternoon routine consisted of perching myself on a stool in his workshop, peppering him with random questions as he worked.

Why do chameleons change color? Can lightning follow a trail of water? Why do we go to the basement during a tornado? How do those guys karate-chop planks of wood without breaking their hand? (Because I had tried this myself and believe me, it wasn’t pretty.)

No matter how silly or trivial the question, he always had a generously detailed answer for me, thick with scientific evidence. I was perfectly content with this symbiosis until one afternoon—I must have been about 7 or 8 years old—when everything changed.

The Irresistible Taste of Color

There was a question that had been plaguing me for days, and I wanted my dad’s full attention. He was working on a new project, so I bided my time, respecting his need for silence during his creative flow. I loved watching his process, trying to imagine what was going on behind his eyes right before his pencil struck the surface. His arm moved swiftly across a large sheet of paper, effortlessly laying out a composition in a series of graceful sweeps and snaps of the wrist, a conductor creating life in a symphony of strokes, dancing, and multiplying before me. The intensity of his concentration was clear in his grimace. I held my breath. A minute or two of heavy staring at the page, a few more swipes at the paper, and he stepped back, smiling to himself. That was my moment.


“Mmm hmm.”

“What are black holes? I mean, how do they work?”

He turned to me and laughed a little. I had managed to shock him with my latest inquiry.

“What specifically do you have a question about?” he asked. He was probably regretting buying that set of World Book Encyclopedias, which I had since claimed as my own.

“Well, where does all the stuff go after it gets sucked inside? I thought the matter couldn’t be created or destroyed? It has to go somewhere, right? So—where does it go?”

“I’m not sure,” he responded, “I don’t think it follows the same rules.”

I was stunned. He didn’t know? How? Why? In my young schema of the world, my father knew everything there was to know. I looked to him to be The Teacher of All Things Important in Life, and I was watching my reality crumble away in one unanswerable question. Realizing for the first time that my father was not a god was life-altering enough, but my world changed in an even more profound and quite unexpected way: in that uncomfortable moment of dissonance, when my thirst for knowledge went unsatisfied—I was exhilarated. There was a scientific mystery, and neither one of us knew the answer. It was ridiculously exciting, and I didn’t quite know why, but I was drunk with wonder. We spent the rest of that afternoon discussing black holes—looking through books, making little diagrams, trying to make some sense of theoretical physics—together.

My mind awakened that day. I fell in love with not just knowing things, but in solving mysteries. No longer content to just get an answer, I went seeking answers, pleased with my newly discovered investigative prowess. And when I came upon something interesting, I shared it with my Dad, and we discussed it like colleagues, sorting out the little pieces of the puzzle together—not always succeeding, but having a splendid time trying.

It was as if a whole new color was added to the world’s palette that my eyes had never noticed before. More and more hues revealed themselves in time. Life became deeper. Things moved slower, had more parts. There was so much I didn’t know, and so much I wanted to find out, layers upon saturated layers of discoveries waiting for me to uncover. I was hooked. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was when I first became a scientist.

The pain of withdrawal

I wish I could say that was the happy ending of my childhood story. Instead, it was the beginning of a rather torturous developmental period. My new outlook on life, which could be summarized as “Don’t tell me—I want to figure it out myself!” was not an attitude that went over too well in school. For many years I struggled with wanting to please my teachers—listening to directions and following the rules—but feeling creatively unfulfilled and unchallenged. At times I had an instinct to speak up and offer an alternate explanation, or an urge to try something a different way, but I quickly learned that only ‘undisciplined and obnoxious children’ challenged authority and caused disruption. These were not the kinds of students that teachers favored. I learned to ignore the pangs of my creative spirit, which only seemed to bring me misery when answered.

As much as I loved learning, the school was uninspiring and left me hollow. I saw school as a necessary time commitment, but not much else. I ended up doing most of my learning and exploration on my own with whatever tools I had at my disposal—books, observation, watching people, and of course—my imagination.

Obviously my love for science and learning was not completely destroyed by my early school experience, or I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I certainly bear some scars. Now that I know a lot more about neuroscience and psychology, I wonder:

What effects did the discouragement of creativity and independence have on my developing brain, and how much of it was permanent? How much of a role did the inflexible, rule-dependent nature of school play in my cognitive development, versus my own independent or experiential learning?

Even bigger question: Was school helping or hurting my intellectual growth?

Before I answer those questions, let’s take a look at this from the other side first—how creativity and exploratory behavior is diminished by traditional teaching models—then I’ll explain how that relates to intellectual development overall.

We already know that everything we do changes the brain in some way, but to help frame this in a practical context, I’m going to put out a few broad hypotheses to consider as we look at some research and discuss what it means over a child’s lifetime.

Hypothesis I: Teaching and encouraging kids to learn by rote memorization and imitation shapes their brain and behavior, making them more inclined towards linear thinking, and less prone to original, creative thinking.

Let’s take a look at our typical education paradigm: From the earliest days of school, we hammer specific scholastic values into our students: pay attention, watch the teacher, imitate what the teacher does, stay in your seat, don’t question authority, and receive praise. But instead of teaching children to think, we are teaching them to memorize. Instead of encouraging them to innovate, we expect them to follow the outline and adhere to rules.

There are two very interesting studies recently emerging from the field of developmental psychology that address the issue of early childhood education and teaching methodology. The first one, by Elizabeth Bonawitz and colleagues, has to do with direct instruction and the limits it puts on exploratory behavior. The second, by Daphna Buchsbaum and her team, looks at imitation of action sequences—what situations and specific criteria make a child likely to imitate an act, or to perceive it as a “correct” answer.

Alison Gopnik, a researcher that worked with Buchsbaum on the second study, wrote an article for Slate, Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire, in which she explains both of these studies and what their results imply for learning. The two studies each took a different approach to assess how teaching style influences learning, but both drew the same conclusions. The type and intensity of direct instruction we give children, from a very young age, has a profound impact on how they approach learning and creative exploration. They found that too much direct instruction—showing a child what to do, rather than letting him figure out the solution himself—can severely affect his ability and/or instinct to independently and creatively solve problems, or to explore multiple potential solutions.

Gopnik explains:

“Perhaps direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills, but what about curiosity and creativity—abilities that are even more important for learning in the long run? Two forthcoming studies in the journal Cognitionone from a lab at MIT and one from my lab at UC-Berkeley—suggest that the doubters are on to something. While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.”

This “new and unexpected solution” she is describing is at the core of creativity, and what we should be encouraging in children. However, it seems that by directly instructing children—giving them the answers to problems, then testing them on memory—we are inhibiting creative problem solving, to quite a significant degree.

She goes on to describe one of the methods used in her study on action sequences:

“…[We] gave another group of 4-year-old children a new toy. This time, though, we demonstrated sequences of three actions on the toy, some of which caused the toy to play music, some of which did not. For example, Daphna might start by squishing the toy, then pressing a pad on its top, then pulling a ring on its side, at which point the toy would play music. Then she might try a different series of three actions, and it would play music again. Not every sequence she demonstrated worked, however: Only the ones that ended with the same two actions made the music play. After showing the children five successful sequences interspersed with four unsuccessful ones, she gave them the toy and told them to “make it go.”

The same nine sequences were used with all the children. The only difference: in one group she acted as if she had no idea how the toy worked—trying out different actions until it made music—and in the other group, she acted like a teacher—telling them to watch her, making it clear she was showing them the correct sequence to get the toy to make music. The children who were shown the “correct” three-action sequence (the direct instruction scenario) were indeed able to imitate the researcher and get the toy to make music. Good, right?

Well, the “correct” three-action sequence demonstrated by the researcher was not actually the best solution; a two-action sequence worked better. However, the three-action sequence was the one demonstrated, so that’s what the children imitated. No need to explore other possibilities, right? The scientist in me likes to think that I would totally be the type of kid to find my own solution to make the toy work, but then I remember how obliged I felt as a child to follow the teacher’s rules, and it saddens me. I probably would have performed exactly as the children in the study.

Gopnik explains,

“When she (the researcher) acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.”

That last sentence is key. When the teacher instructed the children and gave them a working sequence, they were able to replicate that correct response effectively. Some would say that the children “learned” that information. But what did they learn to do? They learned to imitate. The fact that they generated the less intelligent response immediately, then stopped looking for alternate solutions, is quite troubling to me. Yet this is the type of behavior is expected and encouraged in most schools. Do we want children to learn how a system works, exploring lots of possible solutions—even if some of them fail—or to merely copy one “correct” method of arriving at a solution? What happens if that one solution stops working? Then what?

As a behavior therapist, teaching children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other learning disorders, this has been one of my hot button issues, and the subject of quite a few battles I’ve had with defenders of the Errorless Learning paradigm. The goal shouldn’t be getting a correct answer; the goal should be learning why that particular answer is correct, and why others are not—as well as knowing when and if there are multiple correct answers to one problem.

What these two studies showed, is that children are very susceptible to adult instruction. We seem to be hard-wired as children to turn to adults for direction, and from an evolutionary perspective, this would make sense. But the inclination to obey and follow adult instruction is both good and bad. On the one hand, if very young children weren’t instinctively driven to listen to adult directions, there would be some major safety concerns. Let’s face it—the world can be a dangerous place. But we’ve come a long way since the days of running from wild beasts in the woods and living in caves.

Creative problem-solving skills are increasingly important in this age, and over-instruction inhibits their development. We shouldn’t be so quick to teach everything to a child in explicit detail and hand him the ‘Instructions for Life’ just because we know things and he’s still naive—that prevents him from developing the urge and the ability to explore and solve problems independently. Also, what if the adult is occasionally (gasp!) wrong?

Hypothesis II: Teaching kids to ask questions and think about problems before receiving the solution encourages more non-linear, divergent and creative thinking, to produce better innovators, problem-solvers, and problem-finders.

The studies we just discussed looked at how direct instruction and teaching imitation of one solution can inhibit creativity and exploration, so now let’s take it to the next theoretical level, only this time—reverse it. If restricting kids from asking questions and teaching them one solution (or giving them the correct answer) inhibits creativity and encourages less innovative behavior, then what happens if you encourage asking questions and require them to think problems through and come up with their own solutions? Will this tend to result in greater creativity over time? What about learning? Will they learn at the same level as kids who are taught in a more traditional method?

You know what? There’s data on that, too. Short answer: Yes. Also, they’ll learn better.

In the previous post I wrote on increasing your intelligence, I mentioned a study done by Dr. Robert Sternberg, called The Rainbow Project [PDF]. The goal of this project was to find out if it was possible to develop both teaching and testing methods that were a better measure of the quality and quantity of material learned over a college course. He wanted to see if by teaching creativity—both using creative teaching methods, as well as teaching students to think creatively about a problem—then testing for practical application of the material learned, if more learning took place. Basically, he wanted to show there was a better way to learn rather than sitting in a lecture hall, listening to facts being presented to you.

His results? A huge win. As I summed up in my previous article:

“On average, the students in the test group (the ones taught using creative methods) received higher final grades in the college course than the control group (taught with traditional methods and assessments). But—just to make things fair— he also gave the test group the very same analytical-type exam that the regular students got (a multiple-choice test), and they scored higher on that test as well. That means they were able to transfer the knowledge they gained using creative, multimodal teaching methods, and score higher on a completely different cognitive test of achievement on that same material.”

There are an increasing number of studies on educational methodology that demonstrate the same types of results—they find increased learning and participation in classes that use an integrated approach to teaching, as opposed to the traditional lecture. A recent report in Science showed that a group of students taught by an inexperienced instructor, but one that utilized hands-on demonstrations and student involvement, learned twice as much and was more engaged in a Physics course, even when compared to a similar group taught using traditional methods (lecture) by a highly rated experienced professor.

The quality of the instructor didn’t have nearly the impact on student learning that getting the students actively involved in the learning process did. Just by moving the students from passive observer to active participant, you are lighting a fire in the brain—making more connections across association areas, increasing plasticity, and enhancing learning. Not only that, students that are more actively engaged are more intrinsically motivated to learn—no bribes or artificial rewards needed, just pure enjoyment of learning.

So the good news is, the brain is plastic, and these types of thinking patterns can still be taught, even into adulthood. It may take more work to break habits of behavior the longer you’ve engaged in them, but the brain can still adapt to new ways of thinking.

Here’s something to consider: those last few studies involved college students. Can you imagine how much increased learning could occur over a lifetime if we started utilizing some of these teaching principles in grade school?

The fringe benefits of teaching for creativity

In this age of innovation, even more important than being an effective problem solver, is being a problem finder. It’s one thing to look at a problem and be able to generate a solution; it is another thing to be able to look at an ambiguous situation, and decide if there is a problem that needs to be solved. That’s a skill that isn’t really targeted by traditional teaching methods, and in fact, it is often discouraged. In order to teach problem finding, more creative methods must be utilized. Rule-breaking, to an extent, should be tolerated and encouraged, and yes—even taught.

Teaching how and when to break rules and take creative risks isn’t a neat and clean process—it can get a little messy, and errors will be made. But we should be aware of this from the beginning and reward smart risk-taking, even if it leads to an error.

You need to make mistakes in order to learn. If you never know why an answer is wrong, you will never be able to come across a novel situation and make a good decision about how to act. Making errors and struggling through problems is what increases cognitive ability. Spending time pondering a question, weighing choices, thinking about whether or not an answer fits, and why—this is what drives positive change. That’s what learning is. That’s what our education system should be focusing on.

So how can I put this information to use?

Data and research is interesting to read about, but you may be thinking: How do I use this information? Direct instruction discourages creative thinking, but I want to encourage my child to be an independent problem-solver. Yet I want to provide him/her with a rich learning environment, so completely backing off seems counter-productive. What are some other ways I can teach my child and encourage independent problem-solving, while still providing guidance, without falling into that single-solution-answer-trap?

Glad you asked! It’s really not difficult, just takes a little more time and patience. I’m so used to taking this approach with my young clients, that this has become my baseline response pattern to children’s questions.

When your child asks you a question, rather than immediately delivering the answer, hold back for a moment, and say, “I’m not sure—what do you think?” He may be unbelievably off-track with his answer, but that’s ok. At least he tried. If he gives an obviously incorrect answer, explain why it’s incorrect, or why that method won’t work, maybe a give a general set of rules for that condition. And if it’s a novel response, and there’s the slightest chance it may work, consider that possibility and reward that response like he just won the gold medal. In fact, reward all attempts at novel solutions to problems, even if he makes errors. Provide differential reinforcement, though—more praise for answers closer to the correct one—so he has a benchmark to gauge the worthiness of an acceptable response. This teaches him to make decisions about choosing the best answer, given a selection of multiple correct solutions.

Another method I like to use is purposely making a mistake, such as getting ready to play a game, without having a critical piece there, like the spinner (you can increase the subtlety of the missing piece as he gets better). Act as if you have no idea there is a piece missing, and see if he catches it. If he realizes the piece is missing and brings it to your attention—reward this like crazy. He is on his way to being a problem-finder, which is exactly what you want.

Finally, take a lesson from the research referenced earlier on imitation patterns—don’t always play the role of teacher. When you act like a peer, engaging with a child on his level, he is less likely to imitate you and expect answers. He will probably be more independent and try more things out on his own if he isn’t inclined to turn to you for instructions on what to do.

Time for action

In summary, we’ve looked at quite a bit of information that shows traditional teaching methods:

  1. Encourage linear, single-solution thinking, rather than exploratory learning (rewarded for the single correct answer, i.e. standardized tests, conformity is expected)
  2. Hinder creativity and discourage innovative thinking (once students have the answer, they aren’t motivated to look for alternate solutions; errors are not rewarded when resulting from a potentially beneficial risk)
  3. Don’t measure up to other types of integrated teaching models in regards to the amount of information retained by students (less effective at actually teaching material)
  4. Aren’t as motivating or engaging for the students (students report less satisfaction and show poorer attendance)
  5. Really aren’t that much fun for the teachers, either

So—why are we still using these out-dated methods in our schools?

The biggest problem I see: once the research is conducted, the data collected, and the conclusions drawn, the researchers move on to the next study and everyone forgets all about that most important part—putting the research to practical use in actual schools with real students, not just subjects in a lab.

I see this as a collaboration problem and a funding problem, especially in regards to the research done with new technology and education. First, when teams collaborate on this type of research, there should be a final leg of the initiative that involves implementation, in the event of a useful outcome. I realize you can’t set up implementation programs ahead of producing a valid result, but there should always be an option of a Part II. That Part II should automatically be considered for funding, provided there were significant results from Part I that support it. Nothing more frustrating to me than to read a fantastic study on new educational methodology that really works well, like increased student learning utilizing virtual world technology, only to find out the team went on to the next new problem to solve and the findings were left to collect dust in a journal because there was no money or plan to get those results put to actual use. It makes a few headlines, provides for an exciting read on a few websites, then: nothing. Is that really solving the problem? That’s only the first step.

Once data has been provided that demonstrates the usefulness of a new educational method, as a society, I feel we are obligated to make sure steps are taken to put it to actual use. Otherwise, why are we funding educational research, anyway? Just because it’s cool or fun to see what kinds of positive change is possible? Don’t we actually want those changes implemented in our own kids’ schools so they can benefit as well? I see lots of talk about the government’s new commitment to funding non-traditional research on education, but what about the next step? As well as funding the research behind these studies, we need to think of some funding to get the methods implemented in practice.

Now of course, there are exceptions—schools that have gone the extra mile to implement brain and technology research in actual classrooms, and their efforts should be applauded. I also know of several experimental schools that are doing their best to encourage creativity and fight against the traditional model, but it’s not enough. We need more of this—much more.

Some final comments

I can look back on my childhood and see the transition from passive to active learner, at first asking questions and receiving answers, accepting them as truth, not bothering to contemplate other possibilities. I think as a child, that’s our baseline. But once I crossed that bridge over to the other side—experiencing the pure joy of solving problems and arriving at a completely novel solution—it was painful to try and cross back, just for the sake of conformity and obedience to whatever the status quo stated was appropriate behavior for someone in my position. Once you’ve taken flight with your ideas and experienced all those brilliant colors, is it fair to force a child to live back inside a box, lined with a black and white filter?

I’ve shared my own personal story, but I am not the only one who has lived it. Many children today face a similar fate, and it’s tragic. Whatever curious drive any one student might have entering school, it is pretty much beaten out of you by the time you graduate. The lucky few are the ones who are too stubborn to follow the rules arbitrarily. They suffer the consequences for their rebellion, but might have a supportive other (typically a teacher or non-family adult) that provides just enough encouragement to keep them on their path, even when it proves to be treacherous. Walking that path alone is scary, lonely, and wicked hard.

We say we want children to achieve at the highest level—to be the next generation of great scientists and innovators and artists and world leaders—yet the system we’ve put in place makes it nearly impossible for each child to reach their potential. Those worst off are typically the ones whose unique skills and talents we need the most—the most creative thinkers, the natural innovators, the ones who find comfort in the discomfort of not knowing, fearless in the pursuit of their vision.

What is supposed to be the most critical learning period for shaping children into the leaders of tomorrow has evolved over the years into a stifling of the creative instinct—wasting the age of imagination—which we then spend the rest of our lives trying to reconnect with. The time has never been more ready for systemic change than right now, and we’ve never had better tools to achieve this level of creative disobedience, to successfully prepare our children for the big challenges that lie ahead. It might be uncomfortable and take a bit of work, but our future depends on this radical change in order to survive.


The Double-edged Sword of Pedagogy: Modeling the Effect of Pedagogical Contexts

on Preschoolers’ Exploratory Play by Elizabeth Bonawitz, et al.

Why Preschool Shouldn't Be Like School: New research shows that teaching kids more and more, at ever-younger ages, may backfire by Alison Gopnik, for Slate

Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class. Science 13 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6031 pp. 862-864 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201783 by Louis Deslauriers, Ellen Schelew, and Carl Wieman

Evaluating computer-based simulations, multimedia and animations that help integrate blended learning with lectures in first year statistics by David L. Neumann, Michelle M. Neumann and Michelle Hood

Today's Learners: Applying Gaming Elements to Enhance Student Engagement in a University Visual Communication Course by Hamm, Breanna H.

You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential by Andrea Kuszewski

A Neurologist Makes a Case For a Video Game Model as a Learning Tool. By Judy Willis

This article it was originally published on July 7th, 2011 on

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