Creative Thought in Philosophy

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Luís Pinto de Sá, Graduate Student, Philosophy

At a sufficient level of generality, creative thought in philosophy does not differ much from creative thought in other fields. I suppose that by “creative” we mean both new and interesting. If so, no creative thinker can afford to ignore the work of those that preceded her. Just like a musician learns about the expressive possibilities of her instrument by studying the great works composed for that instrument, so the philosophy student learns about the craft of argument and its possibilities by studying the philosophical masters.

Even more so than, say, the piano, philosophical questions have been with us for a long time. Coming up with something both new and interesting (as opposed to merely new because clearly misguided) is hard. How then to foster creativity in philosophy?

Fortunately, two realities come to our rescue. First, the arguments of the historical greats tend to be forgotten, as the discussion necessarily shifts over time. There is great creative work to be done in philosophy by rediscovering what the great (and not so great) historical figures have to say that may still be relevant to, and indeed inject new life into, the contemporary discussion.

Second, and related to the first, the reader of philosophy is never passive before the text – or at least she shouldn’t be. There is always a work of personal appropriation of the text, of struggling with and critiquing old arguments from one’s unique personal context. Since that context includes highly idiosyncratic features of the reader – her temperament or past intellectual history – this work of appropriation, if done with sufficient depth, often generates new and unique insights.

The teacher of philosophy must therefore:

(1)    First and foremost, foster interest among the students. No personal appropriation of the text can occur as long as the student is simply not interested.

(2)    Relatedly, foster genuine (as opposed to forced) respect for the text. This respect should not come from the mere authority of fame of the author being read. Rather, the teacher’s job is to show how original, deep and important the contributions of said author are – how they are important for anyone struggling with the same issues.

(3)    Concurrently with (1) and (2), to allow students the freedom to engage critically with the text, valuing and nurturing their input while also gently steering them away from what may be logical dead ends (by showing them these are dead ends rather than merely decreeing them so).

Argumentative skills are best developed via oral discussion and thoughtful writing of argumentative papers. I therefore prefer these over tests or exams as tools of evaluation. I’ll end with some practical considerations that have helped me foster both oral discussion and thoughtful writing.

Oral discussion can be fostered in a variety of ways – mock debates or asking provocative and leading questions. One strategy I have adopted is to assign reading questions for each class whose answers students must turn in online at least one hour before class. That way I can look at their answers and know what their first impressions of the text were and so direct class discussion accordingly. If I know that a particular student has given a particularly interesting answer, I may gently attempt to draw that out of him/her, while being careful not to make the student feel like he/she is “on the spot.”

For every paper assignment, I ask that the student present and analyze a given philosophical argument from a text assigned in class. I then ask for the strongest possible objection to that argument that the student can think of (it need not be original, so long as it is cogent) followed by the strongest possible reply to that objection. Finally, I ask the student to give her own take on the argument, weighing in on the objection and the reply. In this way, I attempt to foster a crucial argumentative skill – to be able to put oneself in the position of one’s opponent, and from that perspective, from within so to speak, to find the inner contradictions or tensions discoverable in the opponent’s position.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, spring contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does creative thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Fostering Self-Reflection at Mid-Term

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

Mid-term can be a powerful time for reflection – reflection for you on how you’re experiencing your teaching, reflection for students on how they’re experiencing their learning.

For students who have found course content challenging during the first half of the semester, it can be a time when the proverbial lightbulb turns on, when connections begin to be made, when things start to “click.”  For students who have found the first half of the term fairly easy, it can be the calm-before-the-storm, the quiet before final projects rev up, before course content becomes more challenging.  For most students, mid-term is a time to get through as quickly as possible, more focused on passing exams than on deepening learning.

We can help students experience mid-term as more than just a high-stress exam period by asking them to engage in a mid-term reflection.  The importance of self-reflection is underscored in the research on motivation, self-regulation, and meta-cognition, among other important areas of study. The following questions may serve as a starting point for mid-semester reflection:

What has surprised you about your learning so far this semester?

Where have you felt most drawn in or energized in this course so far?  (This could be topics, readings, problems studied, cases examined, and so on.)

What in the course content has challenged you this semester?

Where in this course have you seen connections to other courses, other learning, other experiences you are having this semester?

What could you do to deepen your own learning for the rest of the semester?  Identify one concrete action you can take to engage more deeply in this course for the rest of the term.

Ask students to jot down their responses to these questions (or others like them), either in-class or at home.  If students are comfortable sharing their responses with you (particularly for the first three questions), you’ll gain important insight into how they are experiencing the semester.  You might even consider jotting down your own responses to the questions and sharing them with the class as a way to model self-reflectiveness.

Have other ideas for mid-term reflections?  Share them in the comments section.

Upcoming Events: March 2016

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214

Teaching with Technology: Effective Practices for Lecture/Lesson Capture

March 3, 3:00-4:00 p.m., Des Peres 213

To register, click here.


Ignatian Pedagogy Institute

March 10, Il Monastero, St. Louise Room

During this day-long institute, participants will increase and deepen their knowledge of Ignatian Pedagogy as an extension of Ignatian spirituality using the lens of imagination. Through multiple interactive sessions, participants will engage in imaginative thinking strategies focused on deep discovery and social justice learning that may be adapted to a variety of disciplines and pedagogical purposes.

Please visit the webpage for schedule details and registration.


Where Teaching Meets Copyright©

March 16, 3:00-4:30 p.m.Boileau Hall

Following an introduction to copyright and fair use, this workshop will address copyright topics that commonly arise in teaching and learning environments. These include use of images and films, student work, posting of materials on class websites, and associated ethical and legal issues.

Georgia Baugh, M.A., MALIS – Pius Library
Chris Grabau, Ph.D. – Reinert Center
Miriam Joseph, Ph.D., MLS – Pius Library
Donghua Tao, Ph.D., MS, MLS – Medical Center Library

To register, click here.


What is Thinking Creatively in My Discipline?: A Panel Conversation

March 30, 10:00-11:00 a.m., CGC Seminar Room 124

The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning invites you to attend “What is Thinking Creatively in My Discipline?: A Panel Conversation”. During this event, faculty panelists will explore what thinking creatively looks like in their disciplines and highlight how they help students to learn how to do that thinking work.

Faculty Panel:
Lauren Arnold, Epidemiology
Brad Carlson, Marketing
Colleen McCluskey, Philosophy

To register, click here.

Designing Effective Lesson Plans

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Kelly McEnerney, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Imagine you will be teaching a class next week without textbook-prescribed course modules, chapters, and PowerPoint slides that dictate what students should know and how learning should take place. In such a case, what would you use to structure class time? In the absence of the textbook script, you would likely be forced to consider what you think students should learn – what they should understand and be able to do at the end of the class period that they were unaware of and unable to do at the start of the class period. You would need to establish a set of learning objectives, a vehicle for achieving those objectives, and a method for assessing them—in essence, you would design a lesson plan.

Janice Skowron (2006) has written on the topic of preparing effective lesson plans that hinge on a larger pedagogical context. From this context, the instructor uses learning objectives to shape her own and student activities, as well as to assess learning.  The following guide outlines the process of preparing effective lesson plans, going beyond the textbook script.

The first step to designing an effective lesson plan involves establishing a set of learning objectives, or outcomes that are concrete and measureable (Skowron, 2006). You can think of learning objectives in terms of the descriptive actions students will use to demonstrate their learning, such as analyzing, comparing, predicting, and creating.  These objectives establish a way to be purposeful in selecting content and activities most essential to the learning process. For a class on the experience of living in Saint Louis, for example, one might establish these objectives to include students being able to objectively evaluate the pros and cons of living in Saint Louis.

Once you have established your objectives, the next step is to plan how you will assess those objectives (Skowron, 2006). Assessment can be formal, such as when you establish a set of criteria, or an answer key, to evaluate students’ strengths/weaknesses and content knowledge/thought processes. However, assessment can also be informal, such as when you observe students’ performance, often at different stages of a learning activity or task. Assessment criteria allow students to monitor their progress towards achieving learning objectives. They also allow instructors to plan activities that accommodate students’ current understandings and scaffold new learning. Importantly, the assessment criteria should align with the course’s learning objectives, as well as students’ current approximations to them. Indeed, the assumption is that students do not enter the class demonstrating the target objectives; their learning begins with understandings/abilities that are more basic or incomplete. The purpose of the learning activity, the final component of the lesson plan, is to scaffold students’ learning in the direction of course learning objectives.

As noted, learning activities are vehicles that help students achieve course learning objectives (Skowron, 2006). The activity should be congruent with students’ current abilities, as well as push them to acquire a measure of learning, as defined by the learning objectives. Jensen (2000) outlined a list of “engaged learning activities,” or activities that require students to “do” something with the course material, which encourage students’ approximation to course learning objectives. In the early stages of a course, these activities might involve graphic organizers, or concept maps, that allow students to visually represent the relationships between different events or concepts. For example, students might use concept maps to delineate the order of a series of historical events.  Creative retelling is another engaged learning activity that allows students to link events by telling a story. In the later stages of a course, these activities should encourage students’ closer approximation to the course’s learning objectives. They might involve role-playing in which students play the part of different historical figures. Students might ultimately take part in a debate, for example, negotiating the pros and cons of living in Saint Louis, an activity closely aligned with the course learning objectives.

Thus, in the process of moving away from the predictable textbook-dictated modules, chapters, and PowerPoint slides, learning, as the teacher defines it, becomes more focused and planned. The instructor’s role moves to that of a facilitator who provides students with the background information/material needed to perform engaged learning activities, and, ultimately, achieve the desired course objectives.

To learn more about how you can streamline effective lesson plans in your courses, I encourage you to attend our March 23rd Teaching Essentials workshop, Designing Effective Lesson Plans. You can access the registration link here.



Skowron, J. (2006). Powerful lesson planning: Every teacher’s guide to effective

instruction. Corwin Press.

Jensen, E. (2000). Brain-based learning. San Diego, CA: Brain Store.,204,203,200_.jpg



Is Your Flip Flopping?

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Sandy Gambill, Sr. Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Have you put in countless hours recording lectures for a flipped classroom, only to find the model isn’t working as well as you had hoped? Perhaps the students don’t seem engaged during classtime or are complaining about the amount of work expected outside of class.

Technology is only one factor in making a flipped model work. If you are interested in more student engagement and retention of content in the flipped model, you might want to check out Julie Schell’s blog, Turn to Your Neighbor.

Schell, who is part of Eric Mazur’s group on innovative pedagogy at Harvard, has just started a three-part series on “Why Flipped Classrooms Fail.” Her blog is a wonderful resource if you’re interested in exploring emerging trends in cognitive science and how to apply them to technology-rich courses.

If you want to talk more about how it’s going in your own flipped course, or if you want to share your own successful strategies, contact the Reinert Center at

Divergent Thinking as a Path to Creative Problem-Solving

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

Much of the learning students are called to do in academic courses, especially at the introductory level, focuses on convergent thinking—thinking that aims to identify one right answer. At its best, this process requires students to learn how to use logic, analyze choices, and make decisions; in essence, convergent thinking is critical thinking. While one could argue, and I often do, that convergent thinking requires a measure of creativity on the part of students, it can also be said that, on its own, convergent thinking runs the risk of moving students away from creativity into rigidity.

Partnered with convergent thinking, divergent thinking obliges students to use imagination, generate possibilities, and create solutions. At its best, it causes students to experience fluidity among answers and ways to synthesize multiple perspectives to reach a common goal. Lauded by artists, mathematicians, and executives, a pedagogy of divergent thinking is often used when looking for new ways to approach challenges.  When one examines the eight types of fluency characteristics associated with divergent thinking, as classified by Guilford in her germinal text on the subject, it is clear why this style of creative reasoning is appealing in so many different disciplines. These characteristics are as follows:

1. Ideational fluency—the ability to generate many new and different ideas in a situation relatively free of preconceived expectations and restrictions

2. Associational fluency—the ability to produce words and phrases in a new context with individual meaning by transferring vocabulary and concepts from other areas of literacy

3. Expressional fluency—the ability to disassociate from one’s perceived organizational patterns to envision another form of investigation and expression

4. Spontaneous flexibility—the ability to produce a variety of possible ideas, strategies, visual figures, calculations, etc., in the moment freely or in response to a prompt

5. Adaptive flexibility—the ability to reconstruct a problem or situation allowing for and encouraging in-depth investigation, dissection, and understanding

6. Elaboration—the ability to supply unlimited details to complete and/or expand a given outline or initial skeletal form

7. Originality—the ability to produce uncommon, remotely associated, and/or clever responses

8. Sensitivity to problems—the ability to recognize that a problem exists from multiple perspectives and needs attention integrating resources and interconnecting participants (Guilford, qtd. in Gallavan and Kottler, 166).

When designing a divergent thinking project, assignment, or exam, it can be helpful to use the list of fluencies above as a way of categorizing the objectives one has for students. Of course, these characteristics can work both as individual characteristics, as pairings or as a set, depending on the project at hand.

Creative problem-solving that uses divergent thinking strategies can be included in many different disciplines as an approach to active learning. For instance, asking students to find the commonalities between two or three different theoretical approaches, setting up brainstorming activities, assigning students to grapple with case studies that do not have one clear solution, presenting challenges that can be solved through multiple processes, organizing problems as sets that would not ordinarily be solved together, or providing readings from multiple genres and viewpoints, could each stimulate creative thinking. Ultimately, the most holistic approach to learning creates opportunities for students to practice both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, which can be especially effective when used in concert on one project or set of projects. In this way, students learn to use their abilities to think creatively and think critically as part of the same process, preparing them to do the kind of thinking work that will be required of them throughout their lifetimes.

To learn more about how to incorporate divergent thinking into your teaching, contact the Reinert Center at

Works Cited:

Gallavan, Nancy P. and Ellen Kottler. “Advancing Social Studies Learning for the 21st Century with Divergent Thinking. The Social Studies (2012) 103, 165-70.

Guilford, Joy Paul. 1968. “Factors That Aid and Hinder Creativity.” Studies in Educational Psychology, R. G. Kuhlen, ed. Toronto: Blaisdell Publishing. 334–341.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, spring contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does creative thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

Reinert Center Fellowships

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214The Paul C. Reinert, S.J. Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning is currently accepting applications for two fellowship opportunities for 2016-2017: the Reinert Center Fellowship and the Innovative Teaching Fellowship.  Both are available to full-time, permanent teaching faculty at the University.

Reinert Center Fellows work on specific faculty development projects (that they propose); projects focus on a topic related to pedagogical strategies, course design, and/or research on teaching and learning. Proposed projects must enhance the fellows’ own learning and expertise on a teaching topic, result in a tangible development opportunity for other SLU faculty from a range of disciplines, and enhance/supplement existing Reinert Center programs and/or resources.  Reinert Center Fellows receive a stipend of $1,000 (disbursed at $500 per semester) to support development and time.  Proposals are due Feb. 15.  More information, including sample projects, may be found here.

Innovative Teaching Fellows teach in SLU’s highly-flexible, technology-rich classroom, the Learning Studio. During this two-semester fellowship, faculty spend the first semester (re)designing a course to be taught in the Studio; in the second semester, they teach in the Studio.  This competitive fellowship provides funding to cover a one-course reduction in teaching during the semester of preparation and ongoing instructional development support during the semester of teaching.  The next fellowship period is for a course release in fall 2016 and teaching in spring 2017.  Applications are due Feb. 22.  Interested faculty must register for and attend a Pre-Application Information Session.  More information may be found here.

For more information about the Reinert Center, visit

2016 Winter Institute Reflection

critical-creating thinking banner 2015

What does it mean to think critically and creatively about teaching? The invitation to do instructional development at the intersection of these two concepts is what guided my participation in the Reinert Center’s Winter Institute on January 7. As each presenter facilitated discussion on a variety of teaching-related topics, I noticed two themes begin to emerge during my individual and collaborative reflections:

  1. Be critically mindful of the learner(s)
  2. Be creatively responsive to the learning

The critical dimension of my work encourages instructors to be mindful of their students when designing and facilitating a course. The goal is to move beyond universal notions of ‘the learner’ to begin considering how multiple learners, embodying myriad categories of social difference matter for the context in which learning occurs. The creative dimension of my work emerges from the unknown possibilities produced in the complexity of intersecting learner differences. I often invite instructors to imagine the breadth of these differences (e.g., gender, ability, religion, age, race, nation, health, etc.) and how each matters for the choices made in course design and facilitation (e.g., goals/objectives, readings, assignments, rubrics, technology, etc.). In this way, difference informs creativity and creativity affirms difference. This form of reciprocity is an exciting realization of the Jesuit concept of cura personalis, as it attends to the needs of others, their circumstances and concerns, and recognizes their particular insights for the ongoing consideration of how and why we teach.

The Reinert Center’s Winter Institute provided a context for me to re-consider my philosophical commitments as a teacher, but it also afforded me the opportunity to join an interdisciplinary conversation about instructional development in the context of Jesuit higher education. In previous blog posts, I emphasized the important role of communication in developing and sustaining engaged communities of learning. I am proud to be a (new) member of a Center that works to create the conditions for ongoing conversations about teaching, recognizing the powerful possibilities of coming together to critically and creatively support one another in this work. I am also proud to be a graduate (A&S ’05) of an institution that values difference and the unique gifts each student, faculty, and staff can offer in these ongoing moments of togetherness. As such, we must also be critically mindful of the teacher and creatively responsive to the teaching—and seek out contexts, again and again, to question the intentions of our methods and reflect on the lessons to be derived from our experiences.

How Do You Teach Creative Thinking?

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

As we welcome you back to campus, we’re reminding you of our theme for the year: Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively.  As I explained here, back in the fall, we’re spending this year examining what it means to think critically and/or creatively and how we teach students to do it.  Last semester, we focused more on the thinking critically part; this spring, it’s all about thinking creatively.

Whether or not you teach in a field that explicitly works with notions of creativity, you probably want students to think creatively.  Perhaps you want them to explore unexpected connections in a work of literature.  Or, to think “out of the box” in the lab, or in the clinic, or in their essays.  Maybe you invite them to find a metaphor that captures the essence of a computer system they’re designing, or to imagine alternative identities for themselves as they prepare to enter the job market.

For many of us, in almost every field, there’s a craving for our students to find “new” ways of thinking, of expressing themselves, of engaging with the material and concepts and data of our disciplines.  When we ask them to solve real-world, intractable problems, we entreat students to risk being “wrong,” to risk “failure,” in order to arrive at original solutions.  All of this involves thinking creatively – an inclination toward finding novel connections between seemingly disparate ideas, toward using their imaginations to synthesize data or material in novel ways. And for many of us, this kind of creative thinking is also connected to critical thinking.

Our explorations of thinking creatively this semester will happen in various contexts: a faculty panel, a workshop on using non-traditional projects in the classroom, a day-long institute on Ignatian Pedagogy, and our continuing blog series, to name a few.

If you’d like to add your voice to the conversation, let us know.  We still have open slots in our weekly blog series and would love to feature you there; just let us know by completing this form.

Please consider sharing any classroom strategies you use to help students learn to think creatively.

Impactful Reflective Practices

Reinert Center typeset_icon_2014_solid_082214by Ludwig Weber, Graduate Assistant in Reinert Center, Graduate Student in English

Continuous critical reflection is one of the most essential processes effective teachers employ. By constantly reflecting on the choices, successes, and failures experienced in the classroom, we learn to grow as pedagogues, and the impactfulness of our instruction grows with us. While this most likely is hardly news to faithful readers of The Notebook, I would like to use this space to share a specific reflective tool I myself employ: the teaching journal.

I’m sure we are all familiar with the benefits of journaling on the students’ side. While the discussions that I try to promote each class foreground the exchange and creation of knowledge, as well as the group dynamic of language, I also believe that individual reflective writing exercises are essential to the success of my students. In my classes, at the beginning of most class periods, I ask the class to take a few minutes to write in a journal. Sometimes, I do not give them a prompt, and merely ask them to jot down what they find interesting about the reading, what they would like to talk about, etc., putting them in control of part of the agenda for the day. Other times, I will ask them to write on a specific idea or question.

This assignment serves multiple purposes. First off, it is a chance for the students to gather their thoughts regarding that day’s subject matter. By encouraging the individual voice to emerge as often as possible, I am simultaneously contributing to the richness of discussions that will follow in the classroom. Secondly, it is way for me to see that they are getting the most out of this course, as I can verify their progress in the class. Lastly, writing is a craft, and practice makes perfect as we all know.

The same benefits of reflection and deeper critical engagement through short pieces of writing in a journal also apply to us as instructors. I have made it a habit of taking five minutes right after each class, or as close to the end as reasonably possible, and jotting down my observations regarding that particular class period, while they are still fresh in my mind.

Before employing a journal, I often found myself not remembering important things I had learned about certain elements of my teaching, be it the reception of a certain text, my way of introducing specific subject matter, etc., when it counts (i.e., during the preparation of the next class period, next thematic block, or the next semester). Having my reflective notes with me when planning future classes allows me to have a record of the reception of my approaches and materials with me during class planning, and therefore, allows me to make more informed pedagogical choices. Just as I am teaching my students that their writing is a process instead of a product, my teaching as well is an ongoing process subject to constant revision and improvement, and my teaching journal assists me in making accurate and targeted revisions.

For those interested in a larger discussion of various reflective practices and the assumptions that underlie them, I recommend Stephen D. Brookfield’s book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (Jossey-Bass, 1995). Seeing the primary purpose of reflection as the hunting of assumptions (p. 2), Brookfield introduces us to several pedagogical scenarios, and encourages us to critically reflect on what we know works in the classroom, and what we only assume does.

If you would like to schedule a consultation to talk about impactful reflective practices in your teaching, please contact the Reinert Center at Please also feel free to share your take on reflective practices in the comment section below.


Brookfield, Stephen. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. Print.