Productive Thinking
(creative and critical)
in Science and Life

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.


The following "ideas about thinking" are described in
the context of science, but are useful in all areas of life:

      9. Productive Thinking
      The mental operations used in science (and in other activities) can be summarized as "motivation and memory, creativity and critical thinking." [the quotes indicate that these words are used in my diagram for Integrated Scientific Method]   Motivation inspires effort.  And memory — with information in the mind or in external storage such as notes or a book or a computer file — provides raw materials (theories, experimental techniques, known observations,...) for creativity and critical thinking.  At its best, productive thinking (in science or in other areas of life) combines knowledge with creative/critical thinking.  Ideally, an effective productive thinker will have the ability to be fully creative and fully critical, and will know, based on logic and intuition, what blend of cognitive styles is likely to be productive in each situation.

This page contains Section 9 from
a model for Integrated Scientific Method
that I developed as part of my PhD dissertation:

there is a short summary (above) from
An Overview of Scientific Method

and a continuing exploration (below) from 
A Detailed Examination of Scientific Method.

      9. Productive Thinking
      Even though science occurs in the context of a community [as described in Section 8], it is done by individual scientists.  Interactions with colleagues can stimulate productive ideas, but an idea always begins in the mind of an individual.  The mental operations that occur within a scientist are summarized, in the ISM diagram, by "motivation and memory, creativity and critical thinking."  Similar cognitive processes are involved, whether the focus of generation and evaluation is to produce an action (an experiment,...) or a theory.

      MOTIVATION.   Motivation inspires effort.  For a scientist, motivating factors include curiosity — such as asking (when generating a theory) "What would nature be like if...? or (when generating an experiment) "What would happen if we...?" — and a taste for intellectual stimulation, along with practical concerns and psychological motives, such as a desire to receive project funding or to be accepted into a prestigious professional organization.
      Often, necessity is the mother of invention.  For example, Newton invented a theory of calculus because he needed it to fill a gap in the logical structure of his theory for celestial mechanics.  His immediate practical goal was finding a method to show that the gravitational force produced by (or acting on) a spherically symmetric object is exactly the same as if all the object's mass was concentrated at a point in the center of the sphere.  Calculus did show this, which enabled Newton's theory to make easy calculations for the approximate forces acting on planetary objects.
      Conversely, an absence of perceived need can hinder invention.  For example, there are clear benefits to having more than one theory, because competition usually produces lively pursuit with more testing that is designed to falsify a theory, and a more objective evaluation with less danger of accepting a theory because "it's all we have."  But despite these benefits, usually a scientist who already has one theory will not try to invent an alternative; based on a study of research in classical genetics, Darden (1991, p. 268) found that "a single scientist usually proposed one alternative and began testing predictions from it; other scientists did likewise."

      MEMORY.   Although memory is not sufficient for productive thinking, it is necessary to provide the raw materials of knowledge (theories and exemplars, analogies and metaphors; experimental techniques and systems/observations; problem-solving algorithms and heuristics,...) for processing by creative, critical thinking.
      For example, theory generation by either selection or invention requires memory.  With selection a theory is proposed from memory.  With invention a theory is proposed from imagination, but this usually occurs by the revising or combining of existing ideas, in a mental process that blends memory and imagination.
      Productive thinking can be nourished by ideas from a wide variety of sources.  To build the solid foundation of knowledge required for productive research, scientists engage in preparation by reading and listening, and learning from experience.
      To stimulate and guide the process of thinking, knowledge must be in the "working memory" of a scientist.  There are two ways to get knowledge into the mind:  ideas can be retrieved from internal storage in the scientist's long-term memory, or they can be retrieved from external storage in notes, articles or books, in computer memory (locally or on the internet), or from the memory of colleagues.

CREATIVITY and CRITICAL THINKING.   These two aspects of thinking are discussed in the same subsection because they complement each other, with a blending of both required for productive thinking.  In defining creativity, Perkins (1984) emphasizes the criterion of productivity:
Creative thinking is thinking patterned in a way that leads to creative results. ...  The ultimate criterion for creativity is output.  We call a person creative when that person consistently gets creative results, meaning, roughly speaking, original and otherwise appropriate results by the criteria of the domain in question. (pp. 18-19)

      Of course, getting "appropriate results by the criteria of the domain" requires critical evaluation.  This close connection between creativity and criticality is similar to the connections between generation and evaluation.  In fact, it can be useful to consider generation and evaluation as the result of creative thinking and critical thinking, respectively.  This perspective is adopted in the "red plus blue makes purple" color coding used in the ISM diagram: generation plus evaluation yields productive thinking in design.  But this interpretation, although interesting, is not logically rigorous, because a process of generation that is truly productive (to get a high-quality idea, not just an idea) is usually guided by critical evaluation, even in the initial stages, so equating generation with pure creativity is not justified.  Instead, it's better to consider the entire combination of "motivation and memory, creativity and critical thinking" that results in productive thinking with the generation of a theory (or experiment, product, strategy, action,...) that is evaluated as being useful, and actually is useful.
      Considering the close connection between creativity and criticality, perhaps a process of productive thinking that skillfully combines creative and critical thinking could be called "creatical" thinking?  Well, maybe not.  But calling it productive is certainly appropriate.

      The basic principles of critical thinking in science are explained in Part 4 (Theory Evaluation) and Parts 1-3 (for three types of evaluation criteria: Empirical, Conceptual, and Cultural-Personal).  A simple two-part strategy for skillful critical thinking is knowing how to do it (as explained in Parts 1-4) and deciding that you will do it, which requires motivation (wanting to do it) and discipline (so you'll do it consistently).

      And what about creativity?  The process of productively inventing useful ideas requires both modes of thinking (creative and critical) but being overly critical, especially in the early stages of invention, can stifle creativity.  We shouldn't hinder the motion of a car by driving with the brakes on, and we shouldn't hinder the flow of creativity by thinking with restrictive criticism.  But a car needs brakes, and a creative person needs critical thinking.  One strategy for creativity is to "play games" with the modes by shifting the balance in favor of creativity for awhile, by experimenting with different balances between the modes during different stages in the overall process of productive thinking.
      For example, instruction designed to enhance creative thinking often uses a technique of brainstorm and edit.  During an initial brainstorming phase, critical restraints are minimized (this can be done in various ways) to encourage a free creativity in generating lots of ideas; in a later editing phase these ideas can be critically checked for plausibility and/or utility.  During the brainstorming phase, inventors can afford to think freely (by consciously trying to see in a new way, to imagine new possibilities without critical restrictions) because they have the security of knowing that their wild ideas will not be acted on prematurely before these ideas have been critically evaluated during the editing phase that follows.  The principle of this strategy is to allow the effective operation of both creativity and criticality.

      Viewing a situation from new perspectives can increase creativity.  By contrast, sometimes a knowledge of "the way things are" and (especially) a certainty about "the way things must be" can block new perspectives and hinder creativity.  The following passage describes a dilemma and suggests a strategy:
Human "theories of the world" are essential to our learning and making sense of the world.  However, there is a curious paradox about schemata.  Just as they are the basis of human perception and understanding, so too are they "blinders" to interpretations that fall outside their scope. ...  Creativity involves the ability to go beyond the schema normally used to approach a problem... and reframe the problem so it might appear in a different light.  Characteristically, the creative person has the ability to look at a problem from one frame of reference or schema and then consciously shift to another frame of reference, giving a completely new perspective.  This process continues until the person has viewed the problem from many different perspectives.  (Marzano, et al, 1988, p. 26)

      Productive thinking often involves a tension between tradition and innovation.  Sometimes new ideas are needed, but often a skillful application of old ideas is the key to success.  Seeing from a new perspective, or perhaps just seeing more clearly from a familiar perspective, can inspire the inventing of a new idea or the remembering of an old idea.  For example, when a new organic compound is discovered (in nature) or synthesized (in the lab), instead of inventing new experiments it may be more productive to use an existing methodology consisting of a system of experiments that in the past have been useful for exploring the properties of new compounds.
      There may be a similar tension between other contrasting virtues, such as persevering by tenacious hard work, or flexibly deciding to stop wasting time on an approach that isn't working and probably never will.  A problem solver may need to dig deeper, so perseverance is needed;  but sometimes the key is to dig in a new location, and flexibility (not perseverance) will pay off.

      One of the most important actions in science (or in life) is to recognize an opportunity and take advantage of it, whether this involves observation or interpretation.  In science the imaginative use of available observation detectors — either mechanical or human, for controlled experiments or planned field studies, for expected or unexpected results — can be highly effective in converting available information into recorded data.  Following this, an insightful interpretation of observations can harvest more meaning from the raw data.  Sherlock Holmes, with his alert awareness, careful observations, and clever interpretations, provides a fictional illustration of the benefits arising from an effective gathering and processing of all available information.  Of course, being aware, careful, and clever are also valuable assets for a real scientist.

From Section 7 of A Detailed Examination of Scientific Method,

      PREPARATION.   Before and during problem formulation, scientists prepare by learning the current now-state of knowledge about a selected area of nature, including theories, observations, and experimental techniques.  Early in the career of a scientist, as a student, typically most preparation comes by reading books and listening to teachers, with supplementation by first-hand experience in observation and interpretation.  Later, when a scientist is actively involved in research, typically there is a shift toward an increased reliance on the learning that occurs during research, but some learning still occurs by reading and listening.  When a scientist becomes more intellectually mature, less knowledge is accepted solely due to a trust in authority, because there is an increase in the ability and willingness to think critically.
      As suggested by Perkins & Salomon (1988), our use of knowledge can be viewed from two perspectives: backward-reaching and forward-reaching.  Scientists can reach backward in time, to use now what they have learned in the past by reading, listening, and researching.  Or they can focus on learning from current experience, because they are looking forward to potential uses of this knowledge in the future.
      Because one scientist can interpret what another observes, sometimes an effective strategy for collecting data is to be a "theoretician" by reading (or hearing) about the experiments of others, for the purpose of gathering observations that can then be interpreted.



And from An Overview of Integrated Scientific Method, describing the symbolism of colors in my diagrams for Integrated Scientific Method,

The connections between generation (red) and evaluation (blue) are symbolized by purple — because red plus blue makes purple (with pigments) — in the "creativity and critical thinking" part of the diagram (which is described in Section 9) as a reminder of the continual productive interplay between creative thinking (the main mode of thinking in generation) and critical thinking (the main mode of thinking in evaluation).

The references cited in this page are located in another page.



This website for Whole-Person Education has TWO KINDS OF LINKS:
an ITALICIZED LINK keeps you inside a page, moving you to another part of it, and
 a NON-ITALICIZED LINK opens another page.  Both keep everything inside this window, 
so your browser's BACK-button will always take you back to where you were.
Here are some related pages:

Creative-and-Critical Thinking in Science
(during Theory Generation and Experimental Design,
with selected excerpts from Sections 5 and 6 in
A Detailed Examination of Scientific Method)

Problem-Solving Projects in Science (from Section 7)

Visual Thinking and Visual-Verbal Communication

a sitemap for Thinking Skills in Education:
Scientific Method, Problem Solving, and Design

A "homepage" with links to pages by many authors:
PRODUCTIVE THINKING (Skills and Methods)

An Introduction to Design
how to design a product, strategy, or theory
(this includes almost everything we do in life!

Motivations (and strategies) for Learning
goal-directed personal motives for learning;  teamwork;
how a friend learned to weld, and how I didn't learn to ski

Aesop's Activities for Goal-Directed Education
a creative coordinating of goals and activities will
help students gain experience and learn from it

this page is

Copyright © 1997 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved