It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Creativity is an invaluable tool in problem solving. In a digital age where innovation is highly valued, teaching creative problem solving is essential.

It seems everything I’ve been up to recently has been leading to a focus on creative problem solving. The convergence of these events has had quite an impact on my thinking and teaching.

In January, I went to EduCon . . .

I attended an EduCon session entitled Learning Environments: Rethinking K-12 Communication and Collaboration, led by David Bill, Director of Educational Technology at The Urban School of San Francisco. In this session, the goal of the conversation was to define the different needs and challenges facing communication and collaboration in a variety of learning environments and to identify solutions that could be implemented in our schools.

David facilitated our small group discussions by providing a problem-solving model for us to use. In this model, the groups worked to identify the specific problem of one of its members, brainstormed possible solutions, and then worked to identify and refine an idea that could be integrated at their school.  Good fortune was with me that day, and my problem was the one chosen to be solved by the group. But wait… It gets better. In my small group were none other than David Ginsburg, noted educational consultant and Ed Week’s Coach G, and the remarkable Holly Jobe, President of ISTE!

David Bill got us started by having me talk about my school and our issues with communication and collaboration. The group asked me questions and identified the main problem. From there, we began to brainstorm ideas. David encouraged us to get really crazy with these ideas – to go big. The kicker was that we could not discuss them. We could not judge them or break them down. This phase was for idea generation only. It took us a few minutes to warm up to this approach, but eventually we were building on each other’s proposals, and we soon had plans to invite the entire school board to my classroom. Bruce Springsteen would be there via Skype and would perform a concert so they could see the benefits of connected learning and collaboration in the classroom. Pretty sweet, huh? J

In the next phase of the problem-solving model, we assessed our crazy over-the-top ideas, and began to narrow or refine them. We had to admit that the likelihood of getting Bruce to Skype my classroom might be a bit unrealistic. But was it possible to invite board members in to observe connected learning and collaboration in action? Absolutely. I was beginning to get excited. We talked about creative ways to extend the invitation and what board members would see. I had no idea that David’s session would not only help me think of ways to improve communication and collaboration at my school, but would also provide me with a very powerful problem-solving tool.

A week later . . .

My graduate classes for the spring term began. One of my classes? Creative Problem Solving. Kismet…

715 Current Trends in Curriculum & Instruction: Creativity & Problem Solving

In this course students will explore strategies to foster creativity and problem solving skills in the classroom. Students will gain an understanding of the habits of mind that lead to creative thought. Additionally, students will participate in authentic experiences as they learn a variety of problem solving approaches. Finally, students will identify opportunities within their curriculum to foster creativity and problem solving skills.

The text for this course, Creative Problem Solving: An Introduction, defines some of the methods that were now familiar to me, thanks to David’s session at EduCon. The text walks the student through “framing the challenge” (clearly identifying the problem) and then moves into the “generating ideas” phase. In this phase, you work to spin out “many, varied, and unusual” ideas. The rules are that “you must hold back judgment or evaluation of ideas during much of your work in this stage so you will be able to be as productive as possible. Do not react to them, judge them, debate their merits or demerits, or even discuss them.” The text provides some helpful generating tools such as SCAMPER and force-fitting.

As you may have guessed, what comes next is the “focusing” stage where these ideas get refined — and finally, “preparing for action,” where you complete specific plans for implementation. At this point, the value of teaching creative problem solving became so critical for me that I ordered this book for my students: CPS for Kids: A Resource Book for Teaching Creative Problem-Solving to Children.

Just when I thought the planets had aligned . . .

I read this blog post by my daughter, a Graphic Design major at Longwood University. In it, she talks about her process when presented with a new design project or job. I was astounded to see many of the same concepts. First, her rules for generating ideas – no stopping to judge or think!

I try to list words or images that I feel associate with the concepts I’m working with. Sometimes, while I’m making the lists, a few ideas will jump up. I try to jot them down and keep moving. If I stop to flesh out those ideas, I’ll likely get stuck with them and stop listing words.

She also uses what I learned as “force-fitting,” but she refers to it as “brute thinking.” She defines it this way:

Brute thinking is the act of forcing together two concepts or objects that aren’t normally associated. I always visualize it as two hands with a different word in each hand, crushing the two together like squishing a soda can. The actual process isn’t very different, honestly – you’re just crushing two concepts together and trying to make something from them. If the designer does a good job with this, they can often force the viewer to see the objects in a new light. Changing the way a viewer sees something is a powerful tool, because it makes the design memorable.

I am quite frankly amazed that I am just learning these concepts (although some of them are intuitive) at my “advanced age,” and am more convinced than ever that we can and must teach them to our students for them to be competitive in today’s world.

Do you teach creative problem solving? What tools or methods are the most useful? What projects can we use to develop these methods in our students? I’m looking to expand this practice in my elementary classroom. I know your ideas and suggestions can help. Let’s do some brute thinking together!

Dice image: jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Planets image: Dreamstime / licensed

About the author
Patti Grayson is a fourth grade teacher at Virginia's Hampton Roads Academy and a member of the digital learning leadership team. Her articles have also appeared at MindShift and Teach.com and she was named a Top 10 Teacher in the Hampton Roads community for 2012. She blogs at Patti's Ponderings Follow her on Twitter @pattigrayson.