Ask any football player, and he’ll tell you that he had sat in his locker before a game and imagined himself making the big play. There isn’t a pitcher alive that hasn’t imagined himself striking out the big home run hitter in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded, two outs, and a three-run lead. Basketball players imagine buzzer-beaters and boxers imagine landing the big knockout punch. It’s something athletes do. They imagine themselves playing well and being successful as a motivational tool. The image helps make them confident in their ability to do what they envisioned.

But while envisioning an outcome in the future can help make it happen, it wouldn’t be possible without something else— knowledge.

A quarterback must know how to complete a pass 40-yards downfield to a wide receiver that appears covered (no, you don’t just throw it). Basketball players needs to know at what angle he should shoot and how hard to make a shot. A boxer needs to know how to defeat his opponent’s defenses so that he can land a knockout punch.

Knowledge an imagination both play a role in helping people shape their own future. But is one more important than the other? Albert Einstein would say yes, having stated that:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Imagination can help a football player become better at his game. It can help a moviemaker create better movies. But what about the rest of us? Is imagination not as important to the factory worker, teacher, grocery store clerk, or politician?


The Importance of Imagination

In his article, The Importance of Imagination, Psychotherapist, and Social Ecologist Tao de Haas explains how a strong imagination helps us:

"The ability to imagine things pervades our entire existence. It influences everything we do, think about and create. It leads to elaborate theories, dreams, and inventions in any profession from the realms of academia to engineering and the arts. Ultimately, imagination influences everything we do regardless of our profession. Imagination is the key to innovation."

Dr. Haas went on to say:

"Yesterday’s knowledge alone will not suffice. Imagination is essential for anyone, especially for leaders, who not only have to lead people into the future but have to foresee the challenges not yet known that await mankind."

Okay—but how does imagining the future actually help us change it? By foreseeing challenges that could arise, we can develop a plan for dealing with them before they become an issue. For example, rather than wait for a virus to mutate and become a super-bug, we can develop a vaccine that eliminates it. On a smaller scale, it can help a person whose life appears to be spelled out in front of them change their circumstances for the better.

Researchers tested this theory in a pair of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. The results were especially telling concerning women with challenging upbringings. Envisioning a happier, more secure future helped drive them on the path towards achieving it. Mesmin Destin, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, had this to say about the results of the studies (Psychology Today):

“This research shows that (they) can draw from vivid and motivating images of their own futures to help support their motivation and persistence during challenging and uncomfortable tasks. It also suggests that faculty members should welcome students into their offices and engage with them about their goals as a potential way to help mitigate the power imbalance that many students experience.”


How Academic Competitions Help Students Imagine their Future.

Athletes test their skills against their peers on their respective game-field. Students can test their knowledge on a subject matter through examinations. But how can we put our imagination under the microscope to see how well developed it may (or may not) be? How can we train ourselves to picture the future in ways that will help us achieve the goals we want to? We’ve searched through the competitions database to pull out three competitions that are explicitly designed to help students use their imaginations of future possibilities to learn how to solve challenges and tackle hurdles ahead of them.


Modeling the Future Challenge

This competition challenges high school students to imagine how new technologies may change the future, but it also asks them to go a step beyond this and actually use real-world data and mathematical analysis to project how that change will happen. Students have to propose what the change is that they think a technology will bring, and then demonstrate logical reasoning and mathematical analysis showing what they know about the specifics of this change.

Get your students involved in the Modeling the Future Challenge to not only help them with imaging the  future, but also with using STEM techniques to project specific details of the change new technologies will bring.


Future City

The Future City competition challenges students to imagine a future design of a city that incorporates new technologies and new systems into the city structures themselves. Students must first imagine the future of the city they hope to see, and then examine how that city could come into being.


Future Problem Solving Program

The Future Problem-Solving Program has 4 competitive components: Global Issues Problem Solving, Community Problem Solving, Scenario Performance, and Scenario Writing. All of these components can help students learn to use their imagination to become better at solving problems and creating the future they want to see; but Scenario Writing and Scenario Performance particularly come in handy. Participants are asked to take one of the five topics for the year and imagine a scenario 20-years in the future (or more). What actions were taken to handle the problem in the scenario? What were the outcomes of those actions? What actions or events are currently taking place in the scenario and how well are they working out? Successful participants will have to use their knowledge of the subject matter and the power of their imagination to come up with potential solutions to whatever the issue is.


Competitions like Modeling the Future Challenge, Future City, and Future Problem Solving Program all give participants a chance to exercise their imaginations. By putting their imaginations to the test, they can develop them further and refine ways to use them to solve challenges that will help them design the futures they want. The better developed a person’s imagination is, the more possible outcomes they’ll be able to create.

By helping our students imagine a better future, we can help them figure out how to make it a reality. So what are you waiting for? Get imagining!

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.