Manipulation, Pupil Creativity and the Power of Research in the Classroom

Really good teaching involves really good manipulation.  Though this may sound as if it should have string of negative connotations attached to it, what teachers say (and the way they say it), can heavily shape how pupils interpret and learn within lessons.  Language and the design of instruction are critical.  To exemplify this (and my core argument that the use of good quality research is essential), I will briefly discuss an example form my no too distant days as a Technology Teacher.  As part of a design and make task, pupils necessarily engage with the process of generating design ideas; the challenge, as a Teacher, is to foster the greatest level of creativity in doing so.  I will offer some provisional insight Picture 2 illustrates their work after the use of research:



Picture 1 (Before the use of research…)


Picture 2 (After the use of research…)

I am sure you will appreciate that the differences are quite stark, but what was done?  In short, research evidence was used as a basis to manipulate the ways in which pupils approached idea generation. Indeed, research reveals a number of things about the nature of creativity and how people (and pupils) tend to think during such endeavours:

1. It is generally held that, despite being conceptually very complex, creativity is a relative and socially defined construct.  This means that something is judged as creative in comparison to other things and within the context of the societal group in which it is conceived.  The act of creating a bike in a society that has never seen a bike before is likely to be considered more creative than doing so in a society where they are widespread.  From this stems notions of originality, novelty and uniqueness.  The real bonus for teachers, however, is not the idea of originality (though this is clearly important) but rather that the class can be defined as the ‘society’.

2. Pupils (and adults) often exhibit evidence of ‘cognitive fixation’ to greater or lesser degrees during idea generation.  This is the tendency to make something look like something else that has primacy their heads and can occur consciously or unconsciously.  There are two common cases here to be aware of.  The first is that they will attempt to make what they do look like what you have done (you are the teacher, and what you have done or shown them must be good).  The second is that in the face of high cognitive demand, they will tend to revert to cultural knowledge to satisfy the requirements and expectations of the task.  This is an immediate and readily accessible form of knowledge in their head and often takes the form of sports logos, love hearts, favourite hobbies or even their own initials.  This is not evidence that the pupil is not capable of being creative, it is simply that they are struggling at this point in the process.  Generating creative (and functionally sound) design ideas is, after all, a very demanding ask.  Pupils’ independence in this process does increase with age and experience, but, surprisingly, they are normally not capable of genuinely synthetic thinking until after they have left school!

Please contact me if you would like a free copy of the Research-Based Lesson Plan that accompanies this work.

Click here to view a Conference Presentation I delivered on this work at Edge Hill University. It includes the sketches used in the concept development process and an analysis of the sketches of pupils who took part in this process.

Key research articles on which this was based:

The Nature of Creativity:

Besemer, S. P. & Treffinger, D. J, ‘Analysis of creative products: review and synthesis’ in The Journal of Creative Behavior, vol.15, no.3, 1981, pages 158-77.

Cziksentmihalyi, M, ‘Society, culture and person: a systems view of creativity’ in R.J. Sternberg (ed) The nature of creativity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, pages 325-339.

Feldman, D.H., Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Gardner, H. (1994). A framework for the study of creativity. Changing the world. A framework for the study of creativity, pp.1–45.

MacKinnon, D. W. (2005). IPAR’s Contributions to the Conceptualization and Study of Creativity. Perspectives in Creativity. Taylor, I. A. & Getzels, J. W. (Eds.). Chicago, IL:  Aldine Publishing Company.

Runco, M.A. (2007). Creativity: Theories and themes: Research, development, and practice. Academic Press.

Mindsets, Cognitive Fixation and Knowledge:

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Jansson, D.G. and Smith, S.M. (1991). Design fixation. Design Studies, 12(1), pp.3–11.

McLellan, R. and Nicholl, B. (2011). ‘If I was going to design a chair, the last thing I would look at is a chair’: product analysis and the causes of fixation in students’ design work 11–16 years. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 21(1), pp.71–92.

Purcell, A.T. and Gero, J.S. (1996). Design and other types of fixation. Design Studies, 17(4), pp.363–383.

Acknowledgements: This work was undertake and developed in conjunction with the Faculty Head, Mr. Tommy McKinlay, departmental colleagues and Pupils at Braes High School, Falkirk. 


About dmorrisonlove

I am a lecturer and researcher in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. I am a member of the Curriculum, Assessment & Pedagogy Research Group and I am interested in the learning and teaching within Technology & STEM subjects in secondary schools. I have a keen interest in studying learning within and across different contexts, how children develop technological understanding and capability and better understanding how they learn and problem solve through interaction with physical materials and objects. I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a member of the International Technology and Engineering Education Association. I also sit on the National Technologies Forum for Scotland. I am very keen to hear from anyone who shares interests in similar areas.
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