If creativity is biologically primary does that mean it wouldn’t tax the working memory in discovery learning, thereby eliminating one of the main arguments against the pedagogy?

As humans we are naturally inclined to problem solve. When we problem solve we employ creativity. It as an instinctive aspect of our human condition primarily because our lives are dominated by cause and effect – every decision we make is influenced by a perceived outcome, and we get good at creatively solving problems so we can survive in this way. In this sense, problem solving and creativity are synonymous. Think about the decisions you’ve made today – you invariably did everything to achieve a goal. Of course, most of the decisions were likely to be automatic and subconscious, like cleaning your teeth, but nonetheless, they are goal orientated. To illustrate, imagine if your toothpaste had ostensibly run out. What do you do? Stand there, helpless? No, you find a way to scape every last drop out of that tube – you roll it up, you cut it open etc. You do this because you have the problem of going to work with unbrushed teeth and the social implications your mind conjures up with that fact are unbearable. We find solutions to hundreds of things all day, every day.

Despite the very large elephant in the (class)room of the above notion rendering such an insistent focus on teaching creativity in ’21st century’ curricula practically redundant, even if it is removed as a central focus of curricula, can we not exploit this natural biological tendency in students to be creative and immerse them in project based or discovery learning in which students will creatively solve the problems presented before them via instinct. Wouldn’t this cultivate an independent learning environment but crucially, without it placing excessive load and strain on the working memory and incapacitating it? As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.” Is this cognitive science wanting its cake and eating it too?


It’s not the general problem-solving strategies which are to blame in overloading the working memory, it is the limited amount of knowledge the novice possesses that denies the problem solving from taking place in the first place. The instinctive problem-solving brain, if prompted, scurries to solve whatever it is confronted with by mixing and matching what it already knows into new and novel ways, but if it can’t access any knowledge to creatively apply to the current context, it can’t do it. It’s like one of those shows like Taskmaster where contestants are provided with a problem and given a limited number of resources to overcome the issue – but they come across a challenge without any resources whatsoever. What would contestants do without anything to use? They would revert to what information they already had in their minds. And some will have more than others based on their cultural literacy and thus be able to achieve better solutions. And this is where discovery learning can become enormously disadvantageous for those students with limited background knowledge. Discovery learning can exacerbate the Matthew Effect significantly.  

But what if the student did possess enough background knowledge to creatively apply problem-solving strategies, would discovery learning then be a suitable approach? Yes, it would be, and I contend that it is important to regularly provide such a context in education (which I discuss below), but with two caveats for educators: there’s lots of content to learn in so little time, and it’s far easier not to learn it.

The path of least resistance is deleterious

Learning biologically primary knowledge such as learning to speak and learning to walk is easy and relatively effortless because it is an adaptive evolutionary strategy we need to survive. However, learning biologically secondary knowledge like learning to read and learning to write is not easy as the brain hasn’t evolved sufficiently yet to do it effortlessly. David Geary’s article explains this concept here. It requires dedicated focus and enormous amounts of scaffolding. Setting up a context where students have to continually find the knowledge for themselves in order to promote the end goal of autonomous and independent learning is an inefficient way of going about it. It requires significantly more effort than biologically primary learning, resulting in most students naturally shying away from pursuing it and taking an easier option.

It is not me being some pessimistic bore that exhorts that students will take the path of least resistance, and not engage in a range of learning activities of their own volition. It’s a human trait. The loss is most evident when the path of learning chosen from the inquiring mind is ultimately and ironically determined by what it already knows, and won’t make giant leaps in thinking if it simply doesn’t have the tools/knowledge to do so. It might ask itself questions that arise from the learning that are significantly removed from the current understanding, which is fabulous, but when it comes to the reality of trying to answer those questions, if the knowledge isn’t there that the mind can creatively mix and match to solve the problem, the path of least resistance will take over, and little learning will eventuate. This is an ironic corollary for those citing constructivism as a justification of discovery learning. By the way, if you’re interested in how constructivism has been incorrectly conflated with the need to make learning in schools an unguided affair, read this by Mayer.

It is at this point of the student mind flailing that the teacher would be expected to step in and scaffold the learning to accommodate the inquisitive philosophy, but again, in reality, it would be impossible to fill the gaps of a class full of discoverers. Take this sequence as an example from a ‘pure’* discovery context: a teacher initialises learning with a prompt which the student then learns about thereby opening the door to a tangential aspect of the learning, which the teacher then adapts to and designs necessary assessment of, including the interleaving of that assessment to ensure learning is actually happening. After several iterations of this, the student would find themselves significantly diverged from the initial teaching moment.

Even in a utopianly small class of 5 students, this becomes totally unmanageable, with the teacher effectively teaching 5 lessons in one. The teacher ends up working infinitely harder than the student. And that’s just for a class of 5. Also, the fact that the divergence is all student led could result in a very thin range of knowledge being learnt – only knowledge that is desirable to the student. It’s difficult to not sound patronising when I use the analogy of it being like allowing your child just to eat what they want and avoid anything that they don’t like, but I think it is a similar level of maturity that tends to guide most children’s/teen’s educational aspiration if left to their own devices.  

It is only an assiduously designed, unbounded and appropriately funded curriculum that could possibly facilitate a true discovery approach to learning for an individual, and we all know this just isn’t practical.

Another thorn in the side of discovery learning is that it is incredibly difficult to assess. We know there are problems with summative assessment, but it is still by far the fairest way of assessing a mass of people and providing relevant stakeholders with information that is wanted in selection processes (jobs, universities etc). Assessing discovery learning relies on subjective perspectives against criteria that must be adopted for a vast range of projects, which not only suffer greatly from marker bias, but also raise issues of parity when projects are so diversified: which tangents are more desirable, which show greater insight etc? Therefore, the validity of such assessment comes under question.

So it seems that despite the pressure from a misinformed public’s view of creativity, fashioned largely through emotive claims, which in a time poor schooling context has enormous implications for which components of curricula, by default, must be missed out, proponents of discovery learning really do want to have their cake and eat it too!


That’s the focus of the next post.

* ‘Pure’ discovery is where the jumps in learning can be cognitively managed as there is adequate knowledge to draw on.  

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blof for more educational discussions

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