“Thigh bone connected to the hip bone… neck bone connected to the head bone…”

Lyrics from “Dry Bones”


We all have the same basic skeleton. Though each may be slightly different—variable in size, strength or density.  There are 206 bones in the human body which medical students must memorize bone by bone—femur and patella, lemur and Nutella.

How would fifth graders learn the 206 bones of the human skeleton?

In 1964, my fifth-grade science teacher, Dixie Douglas, decided that memorizing bones in schematic diagrams was dull.  Instead, she had each student built her own skeleton.  There were two rules for the students: the homemade skeleton had to hang for vertical display and it had to have 185 of the 206 bones.  (The 22 bones of the head were reduced to one skull.)

Beyond those two vague guidelines, there were no directions, no Ikea assembly pictures and no owner’s manual.

“How do we make a bone?  What should we use for the head?  How do we connect the bones?”

Ms. Douglas offered no answers and no suggestions.  We were on our own.

Students scavenged an assortment of bone stand-ins: cardboard cores of paper rolls, shirt hangers, pipe cleaners, empty spools of thread, twine, wire, oak tag, paper clips, beads, wood scraps, cans, and more.

I threaded a straightened hanger through 33 wood spools, one for each vertebrae of the backbone.  One student added pieces of felt for the discs.  Another student made ribs from aluminum foil.

The skull was a challenge.  I tried to whittle a skull from an orb of Styrofoam.  One student used a cigar box.  Another tied a Halloween mask onto a wad of old socks.  But, the best skull was a fresh head of iceberg lettuce.  A head for a head.

The standard human skeleton rendered 34 different ways by 34 fifth-graders.

Students used divergent thinking: finding multiple solutions to the problem.  Styrofoam, a cigar box, a mask, wood or a head of lettuce (dressing on the side) were transformed into skulls.

They used convergent thinking as well: multiple paths to the one solution, a 3-D depiction of the human skeleton.   They planned proportions, structural supports and connecting materials.  The joints were supposed to move like a real skeleton.

And if they ever had any doubt about the song: they joined the neck bone to the head bone and to the other 183 bones.

Congratulations to Ms. Douglas: it was a brilliant way to teach the skeleton.  But, more importantly, students had to engage their imaginations.  The assignment had a goal, but no one laid out the path.  The teacher set the goal, but the students were responsible for implementation.

Ms. Douglas is an inspiration to teachers of all kinds: shift the responsibility for learning onto the students.  Students are not vessels to fill.  They should be actively asking questions and seeking answers.  Here are examples of questions for teachers, parents, and whoever facilitates learning to ask students.

To become future innovators and independent thinkers, students must practice using their imaginations.  We must ask students “What will you create? How will you create it?” and “what do you need to learn to create it?”  These must be frequent questions in all disciplines.

To understand history, it is not enough to know that there were nearly 4 million African American slaves (12.6%) in the United States in 1860.  A child must learn why and how slavery was a national and personal catastrophe.   My son wrote a diary of a slave’s life, trying to imagine the diurnal life of a slave and the questions he faced: Would he escape at the risk of his life or torture? What would he leave behind?  What would he gain?  Where would he go?  My son was responsible for learning a slave’s life by imagining how he would feel if he were the slave.

To understand politics, it’s not enough to know the three branches of government and the Constitution.  A student must learn how government affects her directly, how to engage in politics, and how decisions are made in a democracy.

For example, a high school teacher in Oklahoma got tired of hearing her students complain frequently and loudly about all the detestable aspects of school.  Most of us would respond by defending the school or dismissing the complaints as typical of unruly teenagers.

However, this teacher respected her students’ views.  So, she assigned them the responsibility to improve high school.  She gave them six weeks to design the ideal high school from the ground up.  The students began addressing brick and mortar issues, classroom size, curriculum and limited budgets.  Working as a committee, they established an ad-hoc form of self-governance.  Pie-in-the-sky dreams, like year-long vacation, Olympic-sized swimming pools and jet-pack transportation from room to room, were quickly dropped.

Serving every student preference was impossible.  So, students quickly learned the art of compromise and, indirectly, the role of politics in human life.

“Design the ideal high school” challenges student imagination because it is an open-ended question: no one knows the answers in advance.  Instead, students engaged their own and classmate imaginations to develop solutions.  The high school teacher did not lecture students on democracy and the art of compromise.  She set them off on a journey to learn it on their own.  Along the way, they learned empathy, planning, budgeting, goal-setting, divergent and convergent thinking and more.

To foster future creativity, students must engage with their imaginations.  But, it doesn’t happen by having teacher simply urging students to “be creative.”  A teacher learns a lot from her colleagues about what may work.  But, why not ask students, too?  As in: we are going to have a unit on anatomy, let’s talk about how we can best learn about the human skeleton.

When the teacher asks students, he demonstrates respect for their thinking.  He also draws students into the circle of a classroom, like spokes on a wheel, each student has a responsibility for the success of the learning process.

Students must generate ideas, too.  They will have productive and unexpected ideas.  But, not with consistent reliability and not necessarily in line with prescribed curriculum.  So, in choosing projects and assignments for your classroom, home or any group, ask yourself:

  • Do I know the outcomes now or can I be surprised?
  • Are the possible routes to success limited or can 34 students find 34 different ways?
  • Are there gaps that the students must fill with their imaginations?
  • Does the assignment allow for the student to demonstrate her imagination, how she sees the world?

To promote creativity, students must practice imagination to the point where they can be stumped, wander to the refrigerator, and get a heads up from a head of lettuce.