Structure and Creativity in the Learning Process

by Lorraine Sherry

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As a technical writer/computer programmer, I am familiar with the necessity of casting information into some sort of structure or form. The human mind thinks in structures: moving figures as distinct from the stationary background, groups of similar objects, parallel constructions, closed figures, connected nodes, and the like. For example, given a list of twelve random items, an individual asked to memorize them and then recite them back still generally remembers about seven of them. However, if that same individual can group those items into, say, three categories, we find a great increase in the number of items remembered.

As a building represents a tangible structure, so does language. That is why the instructions to computers are now written in languages -- usually structured languages such as PASCAL or C -- with specific syntax and grammar. We start with definitions and declarations, and then move on to executable statements in an orderly fashion. The computer operates more efficiently under those constraints, and the programmer can generally locate errors more easily in a structured language.

Structure is a fundamental construct of mathematics. The field of discrete mathematics, in fact, is the foundation of data structures, upon which computer science is built. Though not tangible in the manner of a building, these structures are nonetheless describable by simple rules, and are also easily visualized. Visualization is the key to any structured application: if you can draw it, then you understand it. This is true of maps of memory, graphs and charts, stacks and queues, and the like.

Structure has now begun to invade technical writing and training. One method of presenting textual information (information mapping) is based on compartmentalizing information into chunks centered on a specific idea, to label each chunk, and to group the chunks according to the principle of relevance. A map, then, consists of several chunks of information that can be referenced in an index or table of contents.

The concept is very visual, and it borrows a lot from structured computer languages. It is easy to search a manual for the desired map title and then to scan the page for the appropriate information. It conveys information quickly, efficiently, and with little room for misunderstanding. It not only speeds up the learning process but also makes it predictable and reproducible. This is all well and good if all we wish to do is teach policies and procedures, processes and classifications, and the like.

Where, then, does the creative process of learning enter the scene? The answer is simple: it doesn't! It has been lost.

Structured procedures are efficient for computer programming and writing good REFERENCE manuals, but they can become the very antithesis of creative learning. Learning involves change, and structures by their very nature are changeless.

Consider a structured classroom in which the teacher goes through a textbook of computer science, and systematically presents it to the class. True, the students will learn, provided the material is presented clearly. However, what will the solutions look like? Generally, most of the class will produce similar solutions for a given problem. Finally, the more sharing of ideas that takes place among the students and the more recognition that is given to each student who presents an unique solution, the more creative and exciting the end will be. Row can this be accomplished?

In a David Bohm book about the creative process that I read recently, he suggests that the answer lies in breaking old paradigms and replacing them with new ones. Bohm's premise is that metaphor is the heart of creativity. This is a unique and very provocative concept which is alien to many teachers, writers, and trainers, but which was well-known in pre-literary times.

There are three basic tools which are actually part of traditional structure, but which can be used to replace it:

These tools transcend linguistic and cultural barriers which are becoming more prevalent in the classroom today, as more and more highly intelligent and motivated international students find English to be the accepted technical language rather than their own.

It is clear that the amount of information conveyed to the student depends on the number of senses which perceive that information. A presentation of any subject matter, whether spoken or written, will convey more information if it consists of visual as well as verbal material.

Great scientists have always visualized. Einstein envisioned himself riding a beam of light; Feynmann was a compulsive doodler who found the answers to some very elusive problems in particle physics hidden in his sets of wavy lines. For the computer scientist/teacher, concepts such as stacks and queues, maps of memory, and the way a computer stores a floating point variable are all very visual concepts. The more visualization can be used to enhance -- if not replace -- words, the more the students are likely to grasp the material.

Examples are also extremely important. Many technical writers say that if you need to use an example, then you haven't explained your subject matter thoroughly. Nothing could be further from the truth! A good example can make a concept click, especially in a very abstract area.

Consider graph theory, which is usually a rather confusing area of discrete mathematics for the beginner. One of the fundamental and difficult problems in graph theory is Dijkstra's Algorithm: to find the most efficient path in terms of time, cost, and some other weighted variable, through a connected graph. Then consider the problem faced by many college students anticipating vacation: whether it is better to take the expensive, direct flight to Daytona Beach, or to switch in Newark to save cost at the expense of time. Chances are, most would rather switch flights in Newark. Dijkstra's algorithm gives the student the answer in a direct and relevant manner.

Analogy and metaphor are more basic, and therefore, less likely to be used. However, excellent teachers use them in abundance, because they are very intuitive. Analogy puts concepts in an entirely different light, and new ideas can be drawn from the parallels that they create.

Consider the address stack in memory which is used to branch to a function and then return to the main program that called the function. A stack can be compared with a stack of dishes in the cafeteria. A student pops a clean dish off the stack and serves him/herself. After eating, the student pushes the dirty dish onto the top of the stack of soiled ones near the dishwasher. Draw the analogy, one dish = one address: visualize the dishes, and the concept becomes clear.

Metaphor, however, can generate entirely new parallels for a creative student -- parallels that even the teacher may not have thought of. For example, isn't the C language much like a candy store, in which there are as many choices for solutions to the same problem as there are types of chocolates, truffles, and mints? Such creativity may imperil the existing paradigm, but it can give rise to some very. novel ideas such as relativity theory, imaginary time, and virtual space. Metaphor transcends the purely rational and puts one in touch with the same kind of intuitive knowledge which is found in myth and saga. Moreover, metaphor enabled the Indians to create their Vedic philosophical hymns, and the Old Norse to sing their sagas, and to pass on huge amounts of information in pre-literary times with little or no chance for mistake or misinterpretation.

Think of how many lines of rap songs our teenagers memorize, and contrast that with the amount of classical poetry or math tables they know. Perhaps it is time to consider a new paradigm? The ability to learn is there, but we must consider new ways to tap it.

© 2000 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published July/August 1990 in the Boston Broadside