Grab the mic, it's physics karaoke

December 9, 2005

It takes more than a novelty tie to be creative, says Harriet Swain, and if you are to reach the heights of original thinking, be prepared to fall flat on your face along the way and perhaps to indulge in a spot of singing

On a hot day you've been known to take your seminar group outside. You include amusing cartoons in your lecture notes. You're rather fond of jazzy ties. So you're confident you already tick quite a few creativity boxes.

Well, stop ticking and start thinking outside the box - or try to clear your head of thoughts altogether.

"Good ideas often come in a state of light trance," says Kevin Byron, who gives workshops to academics on systematic creative problem-solving. He says you need to develop your intuition, visualisation and attention span while managing your lifestyle to give you spare capacity for creative thinking.

Byron's ideas include taking a break 15 minutes later than usual to extend your attention span, taking regular short walks to give you a break from thinking, learning to visualise yourself doing things before you do them and combining ideas, objects and processes that appear to be totally unrelated.

"Keep notes of all your ideas, especially the crazy ones," he suggests.

"Review them once a month and seek connections between them."

Byron argues that the nature of academic work is to make use of the information available and converge on a solution. He says academics need to learn "divergent thinking" and to take risks. This can be done through forcing connections, shifting perspective, using metaphor or changing attitudes. Simple things such as making your office more visually stimulating or taking a different route to work can also help, he says.

He argues that teachers need to develop their own creativity before teaching it to others, since original thinking thrives best in an environment where it is accepted.

"Mistakes shouldn't be penalised," he says. "If you aren't making mistakes, you aren't being creative."

Marilyn Fryer, director of the Creativity Centre, says you need to test boundaries and encourage students to do the same. She advises setting students tasks that require creativity and that develop their problem-solving skills. You need to let them get deeply absorbed in such tasks and encourage them to question and challenge assumptions. "Give them challenges to sort out for themselves, but ones that are workable," she says.

Norman Jackson, director of the Centre of Excellence for Professional Training and Education at Surrey University, has spent the past four years leading the Imaginative Curriculum project. He says you need to give students permission to take risks and give them experience of making their own decisions. Students are much more likely to be creative if they have control over what they are going to be doing, he says. They also need experiences that will excite and challenge them. Real-world problems with many solutions are the best. "A lot of being creative is about selling your ideas to people who don't believe them," he says.

He suggests simple creative-thinking techniques that encourage students to make connections with ideas that are far from those that appear to be central to a problem. He says this can really stimulate imaginations and help students move beyond the boundaries that normally constrain their thinking.

Dominic Dickson, reader in physics at the Science Communication Unit, Liverpool University, says the key is to approach a topic from a different angle. He gets students to fit new words explaining difficult scientific concepts into a pop song - "I call it physics karaoke," he says, although it could work for any subject. Alternatively, you could get students to write a poem or design a poster trying to explain something.

He particularly likes to use methods taken from the performing and creative arts. For example, he will use mime to explain whether a particular force in physics is upwards or downwards, perhaps getting students to shut their eyes while pointing their hands in what they think is the right direction.

Or he plays music when students are copying something from the board. Or he will act out the movement of an electron or planet or the process of chemical bonding.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? -style quizzes, in which students are able to phone a friend or go 50/50, are popular, Dickson says, as is having a question box in which students can post anonymous queries.

Dickson warns that you should not be too radical because students get confused and worried when other seminars or lectures are more closely allied to what is expected in the final exams.

Fryer says you need to be aware of the different ways in which students learn and to make sure you address all of them. You also need to make clear whether creativity is to be assessed and explain how this will be done.

Lyn Bibbings, partner in the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning project Towards Learning Creatively, says the first task is to make students believe that they are creative. This is best done through non-threatening activities that are not assessed, she says. You then need to develop a type of assessment that recognises students' individual skills while meeting quality requirements. This semester, for example, she asked her students to produce dossiers of learning in which they reflect on what they have learnt and include general jottings, jokes and photographs.

If you find it difficult to be creative, it may be worth entering a trance-like state to consider this advice from Byron: "In seeking creative solutions to problems, spend as much time identifying the true nature of the problem as you do in seeking ideas to solve it."

Further information
Creativity Centre:
Higher Education Academy's Imaginative Curriculum Project examining assessment and student creativity:


  • Challenge boundaries
  • Don't be afraid to make mistakes
  • Build creativity into assessment
  • Learn to be creative yourself before teaching others

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