• context-based learning;
  • inquiry-based learning;
  • science education;
  • scientific creativity;
  • teaching for creativity

Perceptions and practice: Creativity

  1. Top of page
  2. Perceptions and practice: Creativity
  3. Perceptions and practices: Science
  4. Perceptions and practices: Science education
  5. Towards learner-centred practice
  6. Recommendations
  7. References

Creativity is a highly contested social construct 1–3 that occupies a unique place in the scientific arena as both a requirement for innovation and a personal characteristic that can be developed through quality education 4, 5.

Psychologists and social scientists recognise two forms: (a) big C creativity (BC), which describes development of transformative performances or products; and (b) little C creativity (LC), which is concerned with construction of novel solutions to problems of limited relevance 2. Within this framework, LC may be combinatorial (establishing new connections between old ideas) or exploratory (operating within a limited domain, or limiting set of rules) 1.

In recent decades, some practitioners of science have claimed that increasing emphasis on collaborative, multidisciplinary research means the historical stereotype of the BC scientist working alone on a research project of their own devising is no longer functionally viable 6. Others argue that corporatisation and commercialisation of funding and facilities is a greater threat to creativity and innovation 4 because it leads to ineffective, unfocussed experimentation and research 7.

Lexicographic studies provide historical insights into the battle for control over perceptions of scientific creativity. The word ‘genius’, for example, originally served as a collective noun relating to a communal state of transcendental insight, but has been reified as a result of processes concerned with establishing and defending a system of intellectual stratification based on quantitation of comparative ability or attainment 8. Although the reification may have been conceived with the innocuous intention of overturning post-Darwinian reservations regarding the moral and social value(s) of science and scientists 8, it has insidious ramifications in contemporary contexts.

To view scientific creativity as an ephemeral, nebulous trait personified in a subset of élite individuals is dysfunctional at a societal level because there is no singularly creative archetype: creativity correlates with a wide range of personal traits 1, 2, 9–14 and its actualisation is a product of dynamic interplay between personal and societosocial factors 15. As long as a fundamental level of proficiency is attained, the capacity for creativity exists within all individuals 16. The crucial ingredient for realisation is not possession of innately superior neurochemical or neurobiological schemata, but access to opportunities to refine cognitive speed and processing capacity 16.

Perceptions and practices: Science

  1. Top of page
  2. Perceptions and practice: Creativity
  3. Perceptions and practices: Science
  4. Perceptions and practices: Science education
  5. Towards learner-centred practice
  6. Recommendations
  7. References

Any given domain of scientific practice occupies a nexus between sub-fields and the current pace of scientific and technological progress means that new disciplines are continually emerging 6, 10, 17. Despite projected increases in employment opportunities within science and technology sectors 3, 17 however, enrolments in science subjects are in decline 3, 18.

Surveys of student and community attitudes identify rote learning and rigid, dogmatic thinking as traits seen as essential for success 5, 18. Although many individuals recognise that science has delivered benefits in the form of medical, technological and industrial innovation 5, 17–19, they appear unable to appreciate the creativity required to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge 5, 17, 18, 20.

Individuals draw their understanding of science and scientists from a diverse array of sources; educators, peers, employers, the media, prominent journals, weblogs and popular-science books. Iconic, mimetic examples are Professor Peter Medawar's The Art of the Soluble (1967) and Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), which propose that the secret of success is to focus on a pseudomathematical zone of optimal difficulty (The Medawar Zone) because those who solve problems that are either too simple or too difficult will not be recognised and rewarded for their achievements.

Medawar's contribution is historically and culturally significant because it reflects the widespread acceptance that, for scientists, the real currency is not quality and originality of work per se, but the value attributed to it by one's peers.

The notion of knowledge as valid only when canonised through publication is enforced early in scientific education and training 21, 22 and the operational reality of science is one where antithetic achievements are exulted and rewarded (fiscally and socioculturally) more readily than creativity 4, 7, 10, 17. This is, however, inconsistent with the true nature of science.

Scientific progress occurs through systematic identification and extension of the limits of existing theory 23. Anomalies and contradictions are important because they signal that existing schemata require reconfiguration, or abandonment 24. Fouccalt's idea of heterotopian loci as initially independent intellectual positions beyond the realm of accepted practice, which are colonised by an increasing number of individuals if the meme takes hold 25, is useful in this context because it allows success in science to be seen in terms of assimilation of heterotopian perspectives, or reinforcement of a self-authenticating status quo.

Ostracism of those who operate on the periphery of accepted theory and/or practice is generally justified by the contention that skepticism is a hallmark of quality science 26. However, this means that any individual(s) who articulates or occupies a heterotopian locus (loci) is vulnerable. A resultant tendency to dismiss, or ignore, the work of those who do not conform to accepted norms impedes progress not only in science, but also in science education.

Perceptions and practices: Science education

  1. Top of page
  2. Perceptions and practice: Creativity
  3. Perceptions and practices: Science
  4. Perceptions and practices: Science education
  5. Towards learner-centred practice
  6. Recommendations
  7. References

Rhetoric surrounding new pedagogical paradigms aimed at reversing the trend of declining enrolments in science subjects tends to focus on the need to generate a technologically competent workforce and the economic, environmental and social benefits associated with initiation and development of novel technologies and industries 6, 17, 27. Although this implies that reform will assure sustained quality and originality of scientific output, long-term results require an overhaul of policies and practices that oppose and suppress creative teaching.

Surveys of science educators reveal a deep conviction that creativity should be a central focus of education programs 19, 28–30. In practice, however, many feel constrained by pragmatic issues 7, 19, 31. At a tertiary level, a tendency to approach teaching positions as opportunities to avoid the perils of funding-dependent salaries, or obtain academic merit points 32, 33, means that teaching positions tend to be filled by scientific personnel nominally reclassified as teaching staff 34.

This reinforces exclusionary, hegemonic perceptions of science as incomprehensible and inaccessible to all but a select(ed) few of the most gifted individuals 35 because it assumes that scientific knowledge alone is sufficient to ensure quality teaching. The net effect, which flows through to secondary and primary levels, is positioning of science education, and science educators, as distinct from (at best) and subordinate to (at worst) science and scientists.

The assertion that scientific knowledge is an innate, bivariate (present or not) trait expressed in a single (validated/canonised) dialect is also inconsistent with evidence from creativity studies. The likelihood of any given individual generating creative output is dependent on a complex combination of social, psychological and intellectual traits and events 36, 37. This means that, regardless of their status as gifted or non-gifted in childhood, all individuals are capable of reaching at least an LC stage of development.

To understand how and why educational outcomes differ within and among cohorts requires appreciation of teaching and learning theory. In general terms, learning theory is an extension of psychological theories of personality/character development, which include: (a) psychoanalytical theories that emphasise internal cognitive/emotional processes; (b) psychometric theories that focus on quantification of specific personality traits/learning styles and (c) social learning theories that emphasise situational influences and the tendency for individuals to alter their personality and behaviour in response to changes in their social environment 38.

For the education professional, the utility of these theories lies in design and implementation of effective teaching strategies governed by the developmental/constructivist notion of situating all students (regardless of current ability) within a zone of proximal development that provides opportunities for extension 21, 39.

This is why contextualised, inquiry-based approaches have a long history in science education 20: science educators are aware that presentation of complex tasks based on real-world questions or problems encourages higher-order cognition 19, 20, 30 and facilitates transition from LC to BC 3. It is important to note, however, that implementation of any learning programme in a manner that is incompatible with the prior knowledge and experience of the student population leads to disengagement and confusion 19, 31, 40.

Towards learner-centred practice

  1. Top of page
  2. Perceptions and practice: Creativity
  3. Perceptions and practices: Science
  4. Perceptions and practices: Science education
  5. Towards learner-centred practice
  6. Recommendations
  7. References

Although it does not prove that current policies and practices fail to cater for variation in student ability and interest, widespread disengagement and confusion of students in science education programmes 5, 17–19 certainly justifies a more inclusive, learner-centred approach. This is not incompatible with the mandated content (national curriculum) approach currently favoured by many countries, but it does demand acknowledgement that appropriate, differentiated instruction requires: (a) high levels of pedagogical and content knowledge; (b) adequate preparation and planning time and (c) access to a diverse range of resources and support options.

For most science educators, however, the reality of practice is that their ability to integrate pedagogical and content knowledge remains underappreciated and/or underdeveloped; the time available for preparation and planning is far from adequate; and access to resource and support options is limited. To overcome these obstacles and make creativity a core goal of science education programmes, arguments for reform must be based on more than a perceived mismatch between educational practice and workforce requirements 41.

Criticisms of this nature are often dismissed as misguided political correctness or resistance to change, but this is an ill-informed view that fails to recognise that, regardless of the field of endeavour, the pace of social and technological change means what is taught or learned in education and training will be irrelevant to workplace practice within five years 42. Any prescriptive reform of educational policy and practice will therefore only ever meet the needs of a relatively small number of individuals, for a limited period of time 43.

Success in science does depend on acquisition of subject-specific knowledge 40, but expertise and proficiency develop via processes that are paralleled across all domains of human activity, as individuals navigate through a dynamic landscape of physiocognitive, psychological and sociocultural challenges 38. Distinction between non-creative and creative individuals is meaningless because domain knowledge and higher-order procedural/strategic knowledge develop in tandem 40, 44 as individuals develop personalised awareness of the recursive, evolving status of all knowledge 45–47.

Quality education demands activation of intrinsic motivation through deployment of learning and assessment tasks that support acquisition and development of deeper understanding, as well as obvious skills and abilities 41, 48, 49. To this end, science educators often seek opportunities to collaborate with scientists 30, but collaborations based on perceptions of science educators as possessing limited, or limiting, skills and abilities simply undermines the long-term goal of developing and maintaining a capacity for scientific creativity because they constrain: (a) content knowledge of science educators; (b) pedagogical development of scientists and (c) the quality of education and development opportunities offered to students at all levels.


  1. Top of page
  2. Perceptions and practice: Creativity
  3. Perceptions and practices: Science
  4. Perceptions and practices: Science education
  5. Towards learner-centred practice
  6. Recommendations
  7. References

Surveys of student and public perception consistently indicate a lack of appreciation of science as a creative endeavour. This is a deterrent to students and is inconsistent with the nature of science as a dynamic, multidisciplinary undertaking where ideas and concepts are non-static entities that can, and should, change when contradicted by experimental evidence.

Current focus on national curricula supported by inquiry-based methodology has pedagogical potential, but effective implementation requires:

  • (1)
    Validation of science education as a significant field of endeavour that requires a dynamic, flexible range of skills and knowledge.
  • (2)
    Attenuation of outmoded, dysfunctional perceptions of scientists as an elite subset of the population in possession of a unique, and entirely innate, form of intelligence.
  • (3)
    Equitable and ethical approaches to establish and maintain positions at the interface of educational and scientific culture and practice.

Only when this is achieved will it be possible to respond to the abilities and interests of individual students through design and implementation of learning programmes that provide numerous, diverse opportunities to:

  • (1)
    Acquire a high level of domain-specific knowledge;
  • (2)
    practise application of that knowledge in a range of situations and
  • (3)
    be challenged to link domain-specific knowledge to other fields by solving problems with personal relevance.


  1. Top of page
  2. Perceptions and practice: Creativity
  3. Perceptions and practices: Science
  4. Perceptions and practices: Science education
  5. Towards learner-centred practice
  6. Recommendations
  7. References
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