The formal reason for sending our students to school every fall is to help them receive a good education and set them up for success in their future careers. In the past, a good education has generally been accepted as being able to read and write as well as having at least a basic understanding of math, history, and the sciences.
But more and more people have begun to question whether that should be the focus. Is much of the subject matter really that important? Does anyone use advanced calculus in the real world? If not, then why is it taught? Are there other ways to educato our students that are more important in today's society?
Regardless of your thoughts on how many students need to know advanced mathematics, one area that is becoming increasingly the subject of discussion in educational pedagogy circles is the idea of teaching students to know "how to think," rather than "what to think." If it is the case that in today’s knowledge-based economy, pure statement-of-fact is less important than problem-solving skills, then why do we still have students sit in classroom, listen to lectures, and then tests their knowledge weeks later about what they heard in those lectures?
According to famed German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, students are not going to remember 95 percent of what they learned within three days. As time goes on, they remember even less. He theorized that the key to remembering more and retaining it is repetition. Some will say that is what homework is supposed to accomplish. But how many of our students take homework as seriously as teachers want? As educators we have to figure out a way to engage all students in using their brains to problem-solve and do so in the wide-array of challenges we face in our professional and personal lives. If our education system is really meant to setup students for success, creative problem-solving is the fundamental skill we need to teach them.
What actually is Creativity?
When we think of problem-solving as a skill, we need to consider how we come up with solutions. Can our students identify solutions that may not be immediately obvious, or are they stuck in simple, linear thinking? This is where creativity comes into play. One common refrain educators hear from some students is that they “just aren’t creative like that!” When students usually think of creativity, they imagine the arts. They think of Michelangelo painting a masterpiece, J.K. Rowlings writing a Harry Potter novel, or John Lennon writing a hit song for the ages. Most people describe creativity as ideas that are new, odd, unusual, unique, or out-of-the-box. While that may be the widespread perception of creativity, there is more to the concept than that. Creativity really is a skill in developing new or unique ideas, and when we combine this with problem-solving, we get a truly powerful educational methodology to set students up for success.
The common perception of creativity being tied to the arts has led many to believe that it is something only a few artistic people have. We believe that creativity is something we’re born with, rather than a skill we learn. But the way American psychologist E. Paul Torrance describes it, everyone has creativity within them. He called it “… a distinguishing characteristic of human excellence in every area of behavior.” Psychologists Rothenberg and Hausman talked about the importance of it in their groundbreaking studies from the 1970s:
“The investigation of creativity is at the forefront of contemporary inquiry because it potentially sheds light on crucial areas in the specific fields of behavioral science and philosophy and, more deeply, because it concerns an issue related to our survival: our understanding and improvement of ourselves and the world at a time when conventional means of understanding and betterment seem outmoded and ineffective.”
Basically, they are saying that we are all creative. The trick comes in figuring out in what way we are and in how to nurture those creative skills.
The relationship between creativity and problem solving.
Solving problems is something we all have to do every day. The problems we have to solve may be as simple as figuring out how to get to school on time, developing the answer to a problem in class, or determining how to ask out the pretty girl three lockers over. They can also be much more intense like choosing a college to attend, figuring out how to go to work and finish homework, or how not to get caught sneaking in after curfew. As our lives progress, it seems the problems only get harder and harder.
Where creativity comes in, is in how we approach solving those problems. Some psychologists say that there are only two ways to approach a problem—creatively or non-creatively. In their book, Creative Approaches to Problem Solving, Isaken, Dorval, and Treffinger describe the benefits of using a creative approach to problem-solving:
“A creative approach implies that you are attempting to advance toward an outcome that is new, unstructured, and open-ended. These situations often involve an ill-structured problem and unknown solutions. Although you need to use your knowledge and skills for evaluation, a creative approach requires you to engage your imagination, as well as your intelligence, during your approach because no ready-made answer exists. It also requires you to take a more comprehensive view and use the entire system of people, method, content, and context in the approach.”
Students will use their imagination and intelligence as they take a more comprehensive view. Basically, creative problem solving teaches students how to think. Isn’t that what school and education are supposed to be all about?
How do we teach creativity?
Like many logical things, creative problem solving is a great theory. Any educator would be happy for his or her students to become better thinkers. But tapping into the creative side of some students is easier said than done. Ebbinghaus would say the key is simple—repetition at the correct intervals. But pure repetition alone is not the best way to engage students. Teachers can tell their students to review their notes after class and assign homework. But if that were all it takes, then the world would be full of geniuses.
The trick is connecting with students so that they want to solve the problem. There is no better way to do so than through competition and challenges. Of course, not every competition works the same. For us to engage the creative side of students, we need to stress key mechanisms of creative thinking and problem solving. One program that has been a pioneer in this area is the Future Problem Solving Program, built upon the legacy of creativity psychologist, Dr. E. Paul Torrance. The mission of the program says it all:
“To develop the ability of young people globally to design and achieve positive futures through problem-solving using critical and creative thinking.”
Participants are given a series of topics/problems from which they have to choose one they want to devise a solution for. They have to evaluate the solutions they come up, pick the best one(s), and then design an action plan. Some students may balk at this type of contest because it is not their type of thinking. Maybe they aren’t good at presentations or the planning part of it. No problem! Participants can take part by telling a story instead, either through writing out a scenario or orally telling a story.
To complete the creative problem-solving process, students need to be able to express their answers. The FPSP provides students with a variety of avenues in which they can present their finished product.
So, back to the original question— how does combining problem-solving and creativity changes students? It not only teaches them how to become better thinkers, but it also teaches them that the learning process can be fun. Mathematics isn’t just about finding the right answer, it’s about solving problems, it’s about finding creative solutions to real-world challenges that we face. The same goes for science, engineering, and every other traditional school subject. So maybe it’s time our classes focused a little more on real-world creativity and problem-solving skills within each of their subject rather than on the rote memorization of the content itself.