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Jan 1999 Vol. 3   No. 1

........   TECHNOLOGY  ........
The Integration of Creativity and IT in the Teaching of Thinking
By Associate Professor Ian D. Smith & Assistant Professor Steven J. Coombs
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University


This paper introduces several Information Technology (IT) tools that not only assist the teacher to integrate creativity and IT, but also significantly improve the teaching of critical and creative thinking. IT is inevitably changing the role of teachers from knowledge dispensers to knowledge facilitators. As the new millennium approaches, it is essential that teachers exploit these technologies so that our students can make full use of a resource that is rich, flexible and infinitely patient to optimise their creative potential. After defining what we mean by critical and creative thinking, we shall give examples of various reflective thinking generic IT tools as they are applied in a postgraduate instructional technology teacher training programme at NIE.

What is Critical & Creative Thinking?

Creativity is usually defined as the thinking processes involved in the creation of novel ideas or products. Sternberg and Lubart, for example, defined creative insight as the ability “to entertain unusual, novel, or unpopular ideas for solving a problem at hand” (1995, p. 538). Creative thinking involves critical thinking or reasoning about complex issues in order to make a decision about an original idea, product or service. According to Marzano (1992), critical thinking involves the use of declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge and conditional knowledge to solve a problem.

Psychologists believe that most people are capable of critical and creative thinking and that these higher-order processes may be taught to primary school pupils. IT is a particularly powerful teaching tool: it allows access to a rich variety of resources, enables flexible thinking to flourish, and can operate as an inexhaustible learning coach due to its inexhaustible patience. The goal is to teach pupils useful strategies to locate and select appropriate information from large databases (e.g. the World Wide Web) and to avoid becoming overwhelmed by an overload of information. This can be achieved by providing learners with reflective tools that stimulate various critical and creative thinking skills.

The Benefits of Teaching Thinking with IT Tools

Encouraging a learner to progress through a defined pattern of thinking steps represents a reflective process that may also be explained as a creativity heuristic. The thinking steps underpinning a reflective tool can be designed as content-free, “empty” templates. The learner can use these generic reflective tools as a self-coaching device, developing an ability to focus thoughts and ideas and turn them into useful concepts and knowledge (Coombs & Smith, 1998).

Representing a user-friendly thinking tool, IT may be employed as a catalyst to both assist and accelerate this kind of reflecting process (Coombs, 1998). Generic IT tools such as Word© and Excel© may be developed to produce content-free, reflective templates that encourage the user to perform focussed reflections relative to some learning task. Thus, reflective tools are employed in the context of “task-managing” a purposeful learning activity that provides the learner with meaningful feedback of his/her actions. This means that knowledge and understanding of authentic learning events can only be gained through reflective activities that encourage the learner to make sense of the experience. Harri-Augstein and Thomas (1991) believe that reflective tools achieve this learning process through the recursive and cyclical nature of critical reflection relative to some active learning task. Many IT instructional systems contain task-based recursive learning features and, therefore, provide an educational value-add that aids reflection and improves critical thinking.

The use of a word-processing tool encompasses some of the learning attributes of using a pen and paper, including reflective skills involving text literacy, user control of the system, specific content knowledge being authored, and coding knowledge of the English language. The pen-and-paper method has the additional benefit of touch, as the medium represents a more tactile interface than that of the word processor’s keyboard. However, using a computer to write has four additional benefits: i) a recursive reflective learning feature in using the word processor as both an editor and reviewer of authored content; ii) a text format and design feature aiding better quality manipulation and organisation of the material; iii) additional thinking steps when using language utilities (e.g. thesaurus, grammar, spell checker); and iv) the ease of an icon-supported graphical user interface. Compared to the use of paper and pen or other types of instructional media, these additional features of a word-processing IT medium can significantly improve the quality of students’ critical and creative thinking.

Figure 1. The Spidergram - a reflective personal management tool

Personal Experiences (PE) referral sheet. Enter the topic, issue, subject or event you wish to think/explore about into the Focus balloon. Think deeply and reconstruct all the personal events of your experiences that relate to this focus and enter them as raw data labels/expressions into the PE balloons. Add extra balloons as needed. If a PE becomes a focus for a sub-set of experiences, then put this event as a new focus into another Spidergram conversational template. Continue as necessary until you have exhausted your focused brainstorming session!

Open discussion session during the seminar on “The Integration of Creativity & IT in the Teaching of Thinking”

How IT Reflective Tools Have Been Integrated into a Teacher Training Module

Because of these additional reflective learning benefits that IT tools can offer learners, we decided that the critical and creative thinking templates discussed earlier would benefit from having an IT interface. To test the effectiveness of these IT reflective tools by using them meaningfully in the curriculum to support learners on a teacher training module, the Spidergram and the Reflective Learning Log (Figures 1 and 2 respectively on Page 15) were provided as Word file templates that could be downloaded from the NIE School of Education’s Website. Since July 1998, over one thousand teacher-trainee students in NIE’s post-graduate diploma in education (PGDE) programme have used these generic templates to support the pedagogical thinking components of their IT practical project work. Besides the Spidergram and Reflective Learning Log, two other new downloadable templates were also designed: a Reading Table and an IT Pedagogic Table. More details of the PGDE IT project work supported by the use of these templates, including working copies of these templates and exemplars, can be obtained by visiting the PGDE IT Website, which is currently located at:
(last accessed: 20 December 1998)

The above discussion has outlined how creativity may be integrated with IT in the teaching of thinking. The use of reflective scaffolding tools (e.g. the Spidergram and the Reflective Learning Journal) in their project management of various assessment tasks has benefited students undertaking the Instructional Technology module at NIE. These IT tools have provided them with a rich, flexible and untiring resource that represents a significant advance over previous critical and creative thinking tools such as brainstorming and concept mapping, because of the advantages of computer software over pen and paper. The value-added benefits of teaching thinking with IT tools promise to make student thinking even more creative in the future.


Coombs, S. (1998). The psychology of user-friendliness — implications for IT learning systems, Paper presented at the inaugural Malaysian Educational Research Association conference, Penang.

Coombs, S. & Smith, I. D. (1998). Designing a self-organized conversational learning environment, Educational Technology, 38(3), 17—28.

Harri-Augstein, E. & Thomas, L. (1991). Learning conversations: The self-organized learning way to personal and organizational growth. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Marzano, R. (1992). Teaching with Dimensions of Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sternberg, R.J. and Lubart, T.I. (1995). An investment perspective on creative thought. In R. J. Sternberg, and J. E. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of insight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.





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