Sparks of Genius: The First Two Thinking Tools

by ChristinaPilkington on March 14, 2012 · 10 comments

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About five or six years ago I read a wonderful book called Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People.  In the book, highly creative people described the way they thought and went about the process of expressing their creativity.

I had been doing a self-study on creativity and had read about a dozen books on the subject, but this one really resonated with me. I think what drew me in so much was the first chapter called, “Schooling the Imagination.”

In that chapter the authors Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein share story after story about highly creative people who pointed out the often huge disconnect between a person’s academic learning and the transference of that learning to practical, every-day situations.

Many of the creative people in the book also talk about how their self-education was far more valuable than any learning that might have taken place in school.

As my kids have grown older and we’ve chosen to not participate in the institution of school, I’ve noticed the direct link between their creativity and the huge amounts of time they’ve had to devote to self-designed play.

 As I pulled out this book last week and skimmed through the pages, I realized the 13 Thinking Tools the authors came up with, after an exhaustive study of some of the most prominent creative people in the world, are tools that self-directed learners naturally gravitate towards.  They seem to be natural tools that creative people use to help them think way outside the box.  

I decided for the next five Wednesdays to bring you a series of posts where I’ll summarize the 13 thinking tools (although I’d highly recommend reading the book for a more in-depth look at each tool), give you some tips for different ways that interest-led learning families can explore those tools even more, and share a few resources that you might enjoy checking out that relates to those tools.

In today’s post I’m going to share with you the first two thinking tools: Observing and Imaging.

One warning: I’m sharing some suggested tips and resources. I’m not suggesting at all for anyone to turn this into some type of curriculum. That would just take all the joy out of it! Just see which ideas or resources might interest your family and then ask your kids if they’d find any interesting to do. Jus thinking about these tools will help you see you world a little bit differently.

Thinking Tool #1   Observing


The authors begin with this statement – All knowledge begins in observation. We usually think of observing as something we do with our eyes, but to really observe something we must use all our senses. (I’ll add that when kids are restricted to sitting down and only using their senses of sight and hearing, they are limited in the depth of knowledge they can have of any topic).

True artists have learned how to look at something over and over again in new ways. The key to observation according to some scientists is in time and patience. Writers must closely observe people, places and things to correctly describe scenes; musicians must closely observe sounds and how they affect people to create a moving masterpiece.

The chapter advocates spending a lot of time creating art, writing and reading literature, studying music and studying natural history, medicine or anatomy as ways to help strengthen observational skills.

My favorite sentence from the chapter: “The keenest observers make use of every kind of sensory information. In fact, the greatest insights often come to individuals who are able to appreciate the “sublimity of the mundane,” the deeply surprising and meaningful beauty in everyday things.

Tips:  (There are a lot of other great suggestions for similar activities on the book, too)

-          Take a nature walk. On the way try to observe as many things as you can using all your senses. When you get home have each person try to recall as many different sights, smells, tastes, sounds and things they touched.

-          Read a book and then watch the movie version of the book. Then discuss the similarities and differences between the two.

-          You could play the well-know game of placing a dozen or more things on the table, take one items away, and see if your child can guess the object that is missing. Or work on drawing a picture with your child. Each person adds one detail to the pictures while the others look away. Then the others need to tell what new detail was added to the picture.


* A microscope  This is a nice hand-held one that plugs into your computer. We bought this for Alexa for Christmas and have loved finding lots of things to look at. We’re especially excited to find some insects and spiders to observe this summer. So far our favorite this has been watching snow melt.

* Nature Journals – Drawing in general is great for honing observation skills.

* Come Look With Me: Exploring Art With Children  This is just one of a series of books where you can look at a picture and answer some open-ended questions about the picture. It really does get you to look at art and other visual things in new ways. 

Thinking Tool #2: Imaging


Imaging is to imagine the look, smell, sound, touch, or taste of something without it being physically present in front of you. The authors discuss how most creative people will spend hours imaging something in their minds, and either create something, solve a problem, or invent and experiment before they even start to do it for real.

I know that I do this a lot with my writing.  I’ll think about a topic or story for a long time, playing around with words, phrases, and lots of images in my mind, mentally shifting paragraphs and thoughts around, until the piece in clear in my head. Then when I sit down to write, I can write very quickly and not have to edit that much.

My favorite sentence from the chapter: “What we can observe, we can imagine; what we imagine, we image.”

Imagination is deeply connected to experience. The reason I feel so strongly about introducing a huge range of experiences to my kids, with traditional academic experiences being just a small part, is because they more experiences they have, especially using all their senses, the easier it will be for them to image or imagine these things in their heads and bodies later. The more images they store up from all their senses, the more they can manipulate those images in unique ways.

I really believe that developing this skill is the key to problem-solving, creating, inventing and several other very important skills as they get older.


-          Any type of drawing, photography, or creating models is great for increasing your visual perception.

-          Try to describe your experiences with one sense using the language of another sense. For example, while you’re listening to music without words, see if you can create a story about what you’re listening to. If you taste something, see if you can draw a picture describing it without just tasting the food. If you smell something, see if you can sculpt something out of clay that represents that smell.


Pentagames  It’s a collection of 162 board, paper-folding, card and magic games.

Knots on a Counting Rope  In this story, a blind boy is encouraged to see using his other senses




Photo Credit: USDAgov

What are your thoughts about the skills of observation and imaging?


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  • Natalie

    I am looking forward to the rest of the series. I was just thinking recently that my daughter is a quick thinker, but her observational skills (including her ability to observe her messy desk or things out of place) could use a lot more practice.

    • christinapilkington

      I think most of us could improve observational skills! I think we get so trained to thinking observing is just seeing, though, and we forget how to observe closely with feeling, smelling, tasting and listening to things, too.

      I think you’ll really enjoy hearing about the other thinking tools. They really connect so well with each other.

  • Onceasmallseed…

    Thank you for this post. I can’t wait to read the others!

    • christinapilkington

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Steph

    I LOVE this series — what a great idea. Most kids are so academically hurried that they don’t have enough time for open-ended observation and imaging. I agree that it’s incredibly important.

    • christinapilkington

      I’m so glad you like it. I wasn’t sure how interested everyone would be in reading it. I found the book so facinating. I’m really looking forward to sharing more with you all in the next few weeks.

  • Susan

    Very neat post, Christina, and I look forward to this series. I write in that same way you described…I think about it a lot ahead of time, playing around with wording and ideas, then when I do actually sit down to write it’s an easier process for me.

    • christinapilkington

      I’ve always had a hard time just sitting down to write without having any idea of what I was going to say. I get my best ideas either at night or while I’m doing other work. I work on the ideas til it’s like I can’t stand not writing it down anymore.

  • Karen Terry Cagle

    What a great book that is I am sure. I agree that imaging and observing are both so important. We all learn so much better using those tools. Keilee gets almost nothing from dull reading or droning lectures. But let her get her hands or eyes really on something and she never forgets it.

    • christinapilkington

      I really think we all learn best that way. Doing is so important to build your imagination. That’s why I don’t understand why it’s not done so much more in schools. It’s common knowledge at this point.

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