Teaching with Technology

What’s On Our Minds Lately: The Instructional Design Team

Printby Chris Grabau, Instructional Designer, Reinert Center

As a part of the Instructional Design team at the Reinert Center, we encounter a lot of interesting artifacts related to teaching and learning.  From new and exciting commentary on pedagogy to the latest trend in educational psychology, the amount of information found by the ID team creates a lot of great water cooler conversations.  Here is just one of the topics we have been discussing lately:

Creativity and the Brain:  What We Can Learn from Jazz Musicians

Charles Limb, associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at John’s Hopkins University, has been doing some interesting research investigating brain scans of jazz musicians.  Jazz music relies on the musicians’ ability to create sophisticated improvisations, which Limb suggests may provide a nice window into investigating creativity.  For his study, Limb created a plastic keyboard that can be brought into an MRI scanner and asked musicians to improvise while being scanned.  He found that when the musicians started improvising on the keyboard, their brain scans revealed that parts of the brain responsible for syntax are active while the limbic areas of the brain – the areas responsible for semantic cognition or meaning – were deactivated.

Limb’s scans show that when improvising, the brain shuts off “self-censoring” components in order to generate new ideas without restrictions.  The process suggests that improvisation creates an experience for the musician that is similar to what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls, Flow.  Flow is an event where a person is performing at her/his optimal level of experience.  Time slips away and a perfect balance is struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the individual.  Athletes often describe this experiences as being “in the zone” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Limb’s discovery could suggest that creativity may be an essential feature of the human brain.  In fact, the creative function of the brain may have contributed to allowing the species to adapt repeatedly over the course of human history. “Very early on there’s this need for the brain to be able to come up with something that it didn’t know before, that’s not being taught to it, but to find a way to figure something out that’s creative,” Limb said. “That’s always been essential for human survival (Schwartz, 2014).”  Limb’s research may help describe the neurological process for “flow,” and it may also help further research to investigate how human brains can be developed.

If creativity is a hardwired component of cognition, how can Limb’s research help faculty with teaching?

Perhaps a greater understanding of how and when creativity occurs may inspire faculty to adopt teaching strategies that result in a little less directed and restrictive learning environment.  “It doesn’t have to be so directed all the time,” Limb said. “We’ve taken a lot of the joy out of things that used to be joyful.”  The results could be a learning experience where students are free from self-censoring and encouraged problem solve and to develop new ideas.   (Schwartz, 2014; López-González, 2012).

If you already use strategies to promote more self-directed learning, share them in the Comments section.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

López-González, M., & Limb, C. (2012). Musical creativity and the brain. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum On Brain Science, 2012.

Schwartz, K. (2014). Creativity and the Brain: What We Can Learn From Jazz Musicians. Mindshift / Big Ideas. Retrieved from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/04/the-link-between-jazz-improvisation-and-student-creativity/