Science, Creativity and the Real World: Lessons Learned from the U.S. Homeschool Community
A great deal of concern surrounds the lack of quality in science education in the United States. A simple Google search of “science education in America” brings up link after link on the horrific failure of standards and the many additional problems inherent in the current system of education. Moreover, the need for appropriate education for gifted students is also under attack—as it has been for many years. The combination of these problems is damaging to society as a whole due to the wasted potential and overall lack of scientific literacy, and is also harmful to the gifted individuals whose needs are not being met. Giftedness often goes hand-in-hand with a great deal of creativity, which is the foundation of scientific discovery. The U.S. school system is designed in a way that often limits critical thinking and exploration, thereby constricting learning by all students and by gifted students of science in particular.
A 2012 study by the Fordham Institute identifies four main factors for the failure of science standards to produce a flock of achievers: an undermining of evolutionary theory, vague goals, not enough guidance for teachers on how to integrate the history of science and the concept of scientific inquiry into their lessons, and not enough math instruction. While a greater quantity of guidance for teachers might be helpful, we propose that a focus on increased quality and opportunities for creativity through experimentation, exploration, and failure might be a better approach.
Let’s first examine the needs of the gifted learner, with a particular emphasis on creativity, and how those needs are expressed in the context of science learning, followed by a discussion of the limitations of the rote method of scientific education for these learners and some alternative options gleaned from homeschoolers and others who take a more flexible approach to education. The fact is that a gifted scientist needs room to think, to ponder, to consider outside-the-box possibilities—to be creative. We are failing our students when we restrict learning to memorizing only what other people already think they know. We need to learn from our mistakes.
Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
So what exactly does it mean to be gifted, and how does that enter the equation of science education and creativity? The term “gifted” can have a multitude of meanings, depending on context and desired outcome. Considerations such as IQ, achievement, and aptitude measures are only a few pieces of the puzzle. Typically, an IQ score falling in the range of 130 or higher on the most recently normed testing tools is used to identify gifted students. However, many other traits and qualities frequently go along with the more quantifiable measures of giftedness, and those come into play here: abstract thinking skills, rapid non-obvious (to others) connections, keen observation skills, need for novelty, dislike of rote repetition, need to do work that “matters” in the world, concern for fairness and the well-being of others and an intolerance for boredom. Similarly, according to most standard definitions, creativity requires the ability to view things in new ways or from a different perspective, with motivation for this coming from the need for novel, varied, and complex stimulation, as well as the need to solve problems. If this list sounds familiar, it should. Looking at it, one can easily see how a traditional “drill and kill” approach to science would leave a gifted student cold and uninterested.
Another trait of many gifted learners that does not always work well within a traditional classroom is their goal-driven motivation of whole-to-part learning. The usual sequential, standardized approach to teaching tends to take a part-to-whole view, building upwards from smaller units of information into larger ideas. Gifted students may be better served by considering the goals and then working backward to create the needed path. Not unlike a child who learns to read by recognizing whole words and then figuring out the individual letters that make it up, a gifted student may decide they want to understand an idea or cure a disease or invent a way to do something new and will then figure out how to get there. Gifted students are often frustrated by a slow, sequential pace where they are taught to take Step A and then wait to take Step B with the rest of the class without ever being told where they are going. Oftentimes, if they knew the intended endpoint, these kids would happily figure out a different, more creative—and possibly more effective—approach on their own.
This more whole-to-part manner of learning about science is particularly suited to gifted students who may think in pictures rather than words, as some do, and who can “see” ideas long before they are able to translate them into language. A gifted child who sits at a desk, day after day, using workbooks at a set pace or performing only experiments with known results will quickly lose interest in the topic at hand. A good teacher not only imparts information, but answers questions, inspires curiosity, and injects applicability into the process. A good teacher will find a way for these children to work at a pace appropriate for them.
"Education Is Not the Filling of a Pail, But the Lighting of a Fire.”
~William Butler Yeats
In the typical classroom, a science teacher has a specific group of facts which they are expected to feed into the minds of their students. Little leeway is available in how that information in imparted, as the teacher has limited time to teach the lessons and move along in order to prepare for the next standardized test. Students are therefore restricted in their ability to process and assimilate the information. Rather, they must memorize names and formulae, and any hands-on opportunities are guided by step-by-step directions for Getting the Right Answer (and thus a good grade). Data goes into their working memory, sticks around long enough to be regurgitated on the test, and then it’s gone. There’s little opportunity for a meaningful consideration, there is no ‘hook’ to hang it on in their brains to give it context, and there is no motivation to think about any additional implications.
Equally important is that the student who does attempt to think creatively often gets graded down for not following directions. That’s a terrible use of time and a waste of brainpower. Moreover, it eliminates any possible chance for a student to let their creativity flourish. It is understandable that school curricula are geared toward mastery of basic, broad scientific content—not every student will have the desire to pursue further study in the sciences, and there are many other topics about which to learn—but there need to be opportunities for those students who would be fired up by the sciences. Further, when the curiosity of gifted children is tamped down, they lose not only the spark of interest but may actively avoid following their ideas for fear of unpleasant consequences. Since gifted children are frequently highly sensitive and likely to take all feedback personally, the potential exists for serious negative impact on their emerging self-concept as a result. These children need to be urged along in an environment where creativity and mistakes are valued, and where opportunities to explore are better supported. Homeschoolers often have such chances while they are learning on their own or in smaller groups, unhampered by the need to pass a standardized test and unlimited by structured curriculum.
Science and Homeschooling
Despite the misperception that homeschoolers are religious zealots opposed to evolution, the reality is that a growing U.S. homeschool demographic is very forward-thinking and cutting-edge in science, technology, and education. Many of these families have gifted children whose needs were not being met in school. Some of these families have chosen to homeschool specifically because they live in areas where science is not a valued part of the local school curriculum; some simply appreciate the freedom to be creative and learn “outside of the box.” These families, and the teachers whom sometimes work with them, incorporate science into life, and vice versa. This population embraces new technologies and views creative thinking as a feature, not a bug. There is enormous benefit to allowing gifted students to follow the paths that beckon them, jumping from question to question, and considering new possibilities whether someone else has already traveled that road or not.
Science is essentially the story of life. As Dr. Elizabeth Murray has written, “In general, human beings are curious and we’re also pretty good problem solvers. Every day —in restaurants, grocery stores and airports—we make observations and invent explanations for them.” This kind of exploration is, in fact, what we have always done. When our cave-dwelling forebears encountered a new animal or plant, they would pick up a long stick and give it a poke, testing their hypothesis about whether or not this was a dangerous thing. To this day, we solve our problems using the same scientific method based on logical patterns of inquiry, whether we name it the scientific method or not. Why should we as adults not simply provide students with a running narrative, supplemented by books, videos, and, especially, first-hand interactions? When science is compartmentalized as an isolated subject, as it is in traditional school settings, students often end up feeling intimidated by the scientific pursuits which are really only another way of understanding what they see around them on a daily basis.
Some of the ways that homeschoolers learn about science come from boxed curricula or classes at local science centers. Many families get together with small groups or co-ops (including, but not limited to, scouting and 4-H programs) to try experiments and discuss new concepts. But even more important is that many of these families incorporate science into life. For example, at the ice skating rink, a young gifted child might ask why there are all of those droplets on the ceiling—offering the perfect opening to introduce condensation and beginning chemistry. A hike in the woods offers ample opportunities for lessons on botany, geology, and ecosystems, as well as more interdisciplinary topics such as local history, anthropology, art, and politics. The child who doesn’t want to brush his teeth may be regaled with stories illustrating germ theory, while the adolescent girl who is fascinated with cars may be able to get under the hood with a parent or mentor and learn firsthand about physics and engineering.
The number of books and videos available for a range of ages, with science tie-ins, both fiction and non-fiction, is increasing at a tremendous rate, allowing wonderful possibilities for self-teaching. State and national parks have Junior Ranger (and Junior Paleontology) programs for kids at the parks and online. The array of quality virtual resources is astounding, and many are free or cost very little. Some homeschoolers enroll in courses at their local community colleges as a supplement to their homeschool activities, and many find mentors in areas which especially interest them. These options are available, as well, to students in classrooms where the teachers and administrators are willing to think creatively about education.
Gifted students often thrive with a mentor who shares their enthusiasm for a specialized or unusual interest, particularly when they are willing and able to provide a depth of exploration which is unlikely to be covered in standard curricula. The opportunity to find a mentor who will share knowledge and toss ideas around with gifted young people is extremely valuable. Homeschooling’s inherent flexibility has allowed many families of gifted children to take advantage of human capital in ways that a public school schedule can only accommodate with the cooperation of the teachers and administrators. Some homeschool families have found mentors for their children in adult friends and neighbors; others are located more haphazardly. A family might allow their children to spend time at the local reptile shop to soak up herpetology, while another might stop by a professor’s office hours for a discussion of string theory or climate science. A public school schedule can be adjusted to allow for time to work with mentors by bringing the mentors into the classroom or making time and space available on- or off-campus. The mentor-student relationship encourages a tailored learning experience, as well as the sense that real people are scientists and the child can become one, too. The student can ask questions as they arise with no worry that they will be brushed aside due to lack of time or asking the question out of order.
A Good Approach for Future Scientists
It’s important to note, of course, why it matters that future scientists are not discouraged from exercising their imaginations. Throughout history, creative leaps have led to new and unexpected conclusions, just as the application of creativity, rather than the following of predetermined instructions, has solved problems. We live with seemingly simple technologies as rubber bands and Post-it® notes, yet we forget that someone first had to come up with the idea (or determine a use for an accidental discovery, such as penicillin). It’s a safe bet they weren’t prompted to discover these ideas from reading a textbook.
A prime example of the creativity needed to solve complex problems in today’s world is the landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars in August 2012. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team faced a situation that had no precedent. They were given a problem to solve (landing the rover in a precise spot in a specific crater) and had to begin by brainstorming ideas and identifying obstacles. This is how science works outside of the classroom: either an individual experiments with her own ideas, or teams of people share ideas and collaborate to create something that never before existed. Either way, neither the group nor the individual initially works with a blueprint; they advance ideas, explore concepts, and solve problems through experimentation. Testing failures become opportunities for further innovation. This skill set is not, unfortunately, being encouraged in the classroom. Science educators need to acknowledge that cultivating this mindset is far more useful and constructive than rote learning. It simply would not have been possible for the MSL team to have begun by saying, “Hey, let’s build an all terrain vehicle and figure out how to ship it and land it and drive it from another planet,” if the scientists in question had sought answers solely by looking backward at what had already been done.
Moving homeschool-style innovation into the classroom setting
The innovative practices that emerge from the highly individualized, small-scale educational settings which make up the homeschool world could also effectively be viewed as an idea incubator for the public school system. Pilot projects within most school districts are often impractical due to size and administrative or regulatory limitations. Whereas formal partnerships such as independent study programs already exist in some areas, allowing educators and families to collaborate, informal opportunities are less common and entirely dependent on the flexibility and willingness of the individuals involved. Parents and educators of gifted and twice-exceptional children frequently find themselves needing to work together to develop creative solutions for the appropriate education of these children. It makes sense to incorporate lessons learned under the umbrella of homeschooling into the bigger picture of our system for learning in the U.S.
One brilliant instance of how creativity can be cultivated in the classroom and translated into a real life experience might be that of Kenneth Boehr, an elementary school science teacher in Kansas City, MO, who allowed his students time for creativity and took their ideas seriously. When his student Clara Lazen, age 10, modeled an unusual-looking chemical compound, he photographed it and sent it to Robert Zoellner, a friend and chemistry professor at Humboldt State University. Zoellner realized it had never been seen before, and published a paper on it in Computational and Theoretical Chemistry, listing Boehr and Lazen as co-authors. 
This is a good example of an effective classroom strategy. Creativity is at play on several levels of this story: Clara had a good grasp of the big picture of how chemistry works, the teacher allowed her the time and space to experiment with the ideas that she was being taught, he recognized and respected innovative thought, and he was able and willing to extend himself beyond the confines of the typical educational environment to ask interesting questions and invite collaboration. Each of these steps illustrates a key point in the differences between business-as-usual test-based science education and a creative approach that is more akin to work in the real world. It also shows that what works well for many homeschoolers can be brought into the schoolroom, with dramatic and highly successful outcomes.
Another way to apply homeschool experience to the classroom could be the implementation of a mentorship program. There are many ways to locate an appropriate mentor. Many corporations have programs to promote volunteerism or to host interns in exactly this manner. They recognize the business sense of essentially training future employees. One benefit to students is the chance to see how scientific concepts apply in the adult world, as well as the chance to be guided through aspects of a professional or business environment. Retirees may also be excited about sharing their expertise with students. College students are often willing or even required to spend time in a mentorship. For students living in rural areas or who cannot find a local mentor, online possibilities are everywhere. Skype, Google Plus, Facebook, and other web-based services make such communication free and easy. A variety of non-profit and for-profit clearinghouses also exist to play matchmaker.
One other pioneering idea that comes from the business sector is the concept of the 20% project. Where a homeschooler might be free to pursue the interests of their own choosing a majority of the time, a school setting, like a typical office environment, rarely leaves time for such flexibility. The corporate sector has come up with an interesting take on this problem: giving employees one day per week (20% of their time) to work on their own side projects. Companies have realized huge benefits from such a policy—GMail is one of many products that were developed as result of Google’s implementation of this idea.
Innovative teachers have come up with ways to apply this to classroom time, with intriguing results. Interestingly, while the concept arose in a science and technology-focused sector of the business world, the educational world seems to have adopted the idea primarily in the “softer” subjects, notably English and social studies. It would seem there is a great, largely untapped, opportunity for science educators.
One English teacher, Kevin Brookhouser, who teaches at York School in Monterey, California, sent a letter to his students and their families about the 20% project in his classroom. In it, he stated,
“Before I get into the details of the project, I want to explain why we’re asking students to participate in this activity. For over 20 years a trend in education has been gaining momentum that suggests the role of the teacher ought to shift away from an industrial model where the teacher stands in the front of the classroom to dispense knowledge through lectures, and the students sit to consume the information. Rather than being the “sage on the stage” as some pedagogical experts maintain, teachers increasingly ought to play the role of the “guide on the side.” In this role, the students play a much more active role in how the content and knowledge is acquired. In this model, teachers provide resources, ask questions, and suggest projects for students to explore their content. While I will play the “sage on the stage” role in much of this English class, the 20% project is one place where I will be the “guide on the side.” Put simply, this is a student-centered project rather than a teacher-centered project.” 
This is another excellent example of how creative teaching can lead to creative learning opportunities.
One final classroom idea that educators have been putting to use with exciting results is modeling class projects on real-world problem-solving challenges. The Apollo 13 near-disaster-turned-engineering-triumph is a popular example. In that situation, engineers on the ground had to solve the problem of CO2 buildup in the spacecraft using a collection of bits and pieces that happened to be available to the astronauts, and they had to do so within a rigid time frame. They had the added challenge of communicating this over a great distance, with astronauts who were not functioning at their peak.
It’s interesting to note that this historic example of science in action has spawned a multitude of lesson plans, some of which limit themselves to a study of how the engineers solved the problem, along with a list of materials and steps to duplicate the process. Other educators have seen the potential for modeling the spirit of the situation, and have created analog classroom projects which focus on the problem-solving, individually or in small groups, with a limited and specific inventory of materials, using a host of different problems and materials. These educators are moving beyond the content to teach the essential processes that underlie the work of “doing science”
Faced with a decline in science education, it can be tempting to solve the problem with a frantic attempt to cram more information into young minds, hoping that a “more is better” approach will result in desired improvements. In a crisis, however, it can be far more effective, as it was with the Apollo 13 challenge, to pool our knowledge and materials in order to create an innovative solution using the existing resources at hand. Homeschooling experience is one of the many existing resources that is right here, but is frequently ignored or dismissed as being irrelevant. If we are facing our own Apollo 13 in science —and it appears that we are—does it make sense to leave any potential solutions out of the problem-solving process? It’s time that homeschooling, as both an educational option and a breeding ground for educational innovation, is given its rightful place at the table. The risks are few, but the potential for positive outcomes—for educators, for gifted students, for the development of creativity, and for the benefit of the world—seem enormous.
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 Computational and Theoretical Chemistry, Volume 979, 1 January 2012, Pages 33-37 Robert W. Zoellner, Clara L. Lazen, Kenneth M. Boehr
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A good example of this is: Fleetham, Mike. "Use the famous Apollo 13 mission to boost children’s thinking and learning skills." Thinking Classroom. 11 Aug. 2012. <http://www.thinkingclassroom.co.uk/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=5kPP5yP5brk%3D&tabid=92>.