Einstein, Pooh AND Tchaikovsky, Too! Thinking outside and inside the Box

March 10, 2011
Charlene J. Barva and Laurie Alisat

“The present belongs to the sober, the cautious, the routine-prone, but the future belongs to those who do not rein in their imagination.”
—Kornei Chukovsky (1963)

You are probably wondering what the title has to do with this article. The title stems from a personal conversation one of the authors had with a friend about the friend’s eight-year-old daughter. Let us explain. Shannon (not her real name) mentioned that her daughter, Emily (not her real name), will enjoy a video about astronomy and then delight in a Winnie the Pooh cartoon. She’ll discuss protecting endangered animals and then fight with her baby brother over a toy. According to her mother, Emily is profound, sensitive, wise, unwavering in her convictions and furious about the injustices of the world. She talks like an adult and then acts like a two-year-old. She is sweet, sassy and brave—willing to try anything. Emily loves music, is highly curious about everything and has a great imagination. In the conversation, it was intuitively indicated that Emily might be gifted and that she might even be creatively gifted.

The 21st century is in many respects an astonishing time to be a child growing up and just beginning to understand life, and an equally astonishing time to be the parent of that young girl or boy. Soon enough, she or he will move into higher education and careers that have been reshaped by professional changes that have occurred in a generation or less. Stephenson (2009) says the work world now urgently demands particular talents. One of the educational implications of living in these challenging times is that it is essential for educators (and parents) to encourage children to develop the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Creativity and critical-thinking skills are vitally important means to that end. But what does it mean to be a critical and creative thinker? And how can teachers nurture or enhance these skills in their students?

“Creativity is … seeing something that doesn’t exist already. You need to find out how you can bring it into being, and that way be a playmate with God.”
—Michele Shea (quoted in Smutny and von Fremd 2009)

“Critical thinking … is the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself.”
—Albert Einstein

Creativity is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “artistic or intellectual inventiveness.” As Stephenson (2009) writes, “Creativity involves thinking ‘outside the box’ in order to solve a problem, create something new, do something differently than it’s been done before.” Creativity is that sudden “Aha!” moment when it all comes together and novelty is the outcome. To reinforce creative thinking, Davis (2007, cited in Smutny and von Fremd 2009) suggests that a teacher can

  • solicit many ideas and thoughts about a topic or issue;
  • engage students in exploring diverse points of view and then reframe or simplify the ideas;
  • promote open-mindedness and tolerance for imaginative, perhaps playful, ideas; and
  • give students opportunities to develop and elaborate their ideas.

Critical thinking involves the application of logical thinking and analytical and reasoning skills to complex problem solving. To think critically means to think from one’s higher mind or spiritual mind (Mukherjee 2011). Teachers can facilitate the development of students’ critical-thinking skills by asking students to

  • evaluate problems, issues or situations;
  • compare ideas (for example, ideas that students themselves have suggested);
  • generalize from concrete information to more abstract meanings and conclusions; and
  • summarize information.

Kaplan (2004) found that critical thinking can be strengthened by teaching students to prove with evidence, make logical predictions, create classifications and identify main ideas.

Creative- and critical-thinking skills are not mutually exclusive and are complementary powers of the human intellect. While creative thinking can be thought of as more right-brain, and critical thinking as more left-brain, they both involve thinking. Any discussion of thinking skills must include Benjamin Bloom’s (now revised) taxonomy of six educational objectives (Bloom 1956; Anderson and Krathwohl 2001), which extends from simpler low-level objectives to increasingly complex high-level objectives. The eye-opening observation—novel in 1956—was that the low-level objectives of knowledge and comprehension were routinely taught in schools, but the progressively higher-level objectives—thinking skills of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation—were not. One recommendation was that “regular” students might invest most of their effort mastering lower-level knowledge and comprehension objectives; faster-learning gifted students could spend more time exploring higher-level objectives.

Some examples of complex critical- and creative-thinking opportunities come from the Calgary Board of Education’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes. GATE offers a full-time group setting for identified gifted students with opportunities to participate in a challenging curriculum and apply higher-level thinking skills and diverse problem-solving strategies to real-world issues, to interact with like-minded peers and to explore areas of particular interest through independent research. GATE programming is built on the development of higher-level thinking skills through learning experiences that are active, motivating, interesting and innovative.

For example, Lori Gale, a GATE social studies teacher at Henry Wise Wood Senior High School, had her Grade 10 GATE classes do a project called the “Identity Photo Essay.” The project asked students to tell the story of their personal identity through 30 photographs—15 photos of their own and 15 images retrieved from the Internet. They punctuated their essays with up to 10 short quotations. Gale reports, “It’s an interesting project in that it challenges them to think in a way that they have not yet encountered. They are responsible for doing a lot of brainstorming—many are reluctant—but they have to generate ideas before they can get started. I always tell the kids that they must do something unique, no scrapbooks or posters because that’s been done so many times before. I’ve gotten some truly amazing stuff!” One student interested in geology made a geological survey of his life story; another built a giant Rubik’s Cube with images making up the squares; another, a keen golfer, made a small golf bag out of cardboard and affixed the images to that. “It’s cool to see their imaginations go wild. It is a lot of work for me—because students in Grade 10 are likely to want to settle on their first idea—so I interview each student individually, to make sure that they are generating lots of ideas. The results are amazing!”

In a GATE language arts class at Elboya School, Jana El-Guebaly had her Grade 7 students study the book Silent to the Bone, by E.L. Konigsburg (2000), using the big question, What is truth? El-Guebaly says, “The kids and I were totally into the content and had some rich discussions. As well, the kids tried to communicate using only 24 words, as in the book, and no gestures. They altered their cards along the way as they discovered what was truly necessary to communicate. They also learned what could be communicated with silence!”

For the human rights and immigration unit in social studies, Patricia Paterson, GATE learning leader at Queen Elizabeth High School, had her Grade 9 students view the Titanic exhibit at Calgary’s Telus World of Science. The students simulated the passengers’ experiences through journalling; a Titanic dinner with costumes, food and speeches; poetry; and general studies of the seven stages of disaster and recovery. Paterson comments, “The students were engaged, activities were fun, and we all learned so much throughout the experience.”

On a larger scale, GATE students at Hillhurst School, John Ware School and Forest Lawn High School held a joint school Global Citizenship Forum as the culmination of their investigations into the question, How do we demonstrate thoughtful citizenship in our global village, locally and worldwide? Students worked with community mentors on issues such as urban planning, water treatment, education, poverty and homelessness, refugees and new immigrants. Students worked collaboratively to develop action plans for personally making a difference.

As you can see from these examples, the development of creative- and critical-thinking skills is a fundamental goal of GATE programming and is essential for gifted learners. However, these skills can be integrated into every subject area at every grade level. By using the revised Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson and Krathwohl 2001) and Howard Gardner’s (1999) multiple intelligences as planning tools, teachers of all students can offer differentiated critical- and creative-thinking opportunities that prepare learners for the fast-changing workplace and global knowledge economy of the 21st century. E. Paul Torrance (1995), the great pathfinder in creative/critical teaching and learning, wrote a book called Why Fly? that has become a guiding light for many educators who want to steer their students to the higher realms of the imagination.

We leave you with the words of Einstein: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” You never know when one of the sparks that you ignite will become another “Einstein, Pooh and Tchaikovsky, too!”


Anderson, L.W., and D. R. Krathwohl, eds. 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Complete ed. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B.S. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Chukovsky, K. 1963. From Two to Five. Trans. M. Morton. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. Quoted in Matthews and Foster 2005.

Gardner, H. 1999. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. New York: Basic Books.

Kaplan, S.N. 2004. “The Achievement Gap Among the Gifted and Its Relationship to Differentiation of Curriculum and Instruction.” Presentation at the Great Debate #2, meeting of the National Association for Gifted Children, Salt Lake City, Utah, November.

Konigsburg, E.L. 2000. Silent to the Bone. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Matthews, D.J., and J.F. Foster. 2005. Being Smart About Gifted Children. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Great Potential.

Mukherjee, B. 2011. “Teaching Critical Thinking.” www.buzzle.com/articles/teaching-critical-thinking.html (accessed February 1, 2011).

Smutny, J.F., and S.E. von Fremd. 2009. Igniting Creativity in Gifted Learners, K–6. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin.

Stephenson, C. 2009. “Teaching Critical and Creative Thinking in a Global Education Setting.” http://ezinearticles.com/?Teaching-Critical-and-Creative-Thinking-in-a-Global-Education-Setting&id=3208812 (accessed February 1, 2011).

Torrance, E.P. 1995. Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Dr. Charlene J. Barva, a former educator, is a psychologist/specialist in gifted education with the Calgary Board of Education. Barva is a gifted and talented education representative on the ATA’s Special Education Council, where she continues to support and enhance the interests of gifted learners.

Laurie Alisat has worked for the Calgary Board of Education in the regular classroom and in a congregated GATE setting, and continues as a strategist in gifted education. She has taught from Division I to postsecondary. Alisat is working on her PhD in interpretive studies in gifted education.