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.
Each summer a distinguished group of global change-makers comes together, tasked with solving some of the world’s most challenging problems. But they aren’t the world’s top politicians or business moguls, they’re the top high-school problem-solvers competing for the Global Issues Problem Solving (GIPS) competition in the Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI). As they take the stage, a tense silence falls over the conference center. The crowd of thousands waits to hear how the speakers propose tackling global problems including everything from environmental disasters to cyber security to the fast-paced changes in technology and growing inequalities in society.
The Future Problem Solving Program International’s Global Finals gives the next generation of critical thinkers a chance to test their skill at solving all kinds of challenges. Students from around the world are presented with the daunting task of solving future problems ranging from desertification to the treatment of animals to artificial intelligence. The 2017 topic focused on bio-security. Each team works out a proposed solution to the challenge, which they pit against the others in a bid for the title of top problem-solver. And trust us, these students are good.
Over the last four years of the competition, one state has far out-paced all others in their ability to produce great problem solvers. And it’s probably not who you expect. We looked at all the results from the Senior Division of the competition (high school level) and analyzed the teams placing in the top 10 each year. What we found was surprising to us - Kentucky reigns supreme in the GIPS.
Yes, a state smack in the middle of Appalachia, one of the most economically impoverished areas of the country, and ranking only #24 on the US News and World Report’s list of PreK-12 education rankings, placed more teams in the top 10 problem-solver spots than any other state at every GIPS competition for the past four years. Not only that, they had more than twice as many as the next contender (Minnesota).
While not always taking the top spot, the Bluegrass State consistently lands between 2 and 3 schools among the top 10 finalists each year – and it’s not even close! Kentucky’s total of 10 top placements over the past four years absolutely dwarfs the next closest total – 4 for Minnesota and 3 each for New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut and Washington. Setting Kentucky even further apart from the rest of the pack, for the past 4 years they have had at least two teams placing in the top 10 every year! No other state has had two teams in the top 10 more than one year. And not a single other state has had 3 teams make it into the top 10 in any year, like Kentucky achieved in both 2014 and 2017!
Of course, teams from different regions of the country have made their way in and out of the top 10, some with more success than others. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and New Jersey’s West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, for example, have each managed to crack the final a handful of times. But no state has come close to maintaining Kentucky’s ironclad grip on the top spots.
Reviewing the placements from Kentucky and other states highlights the consistently impressive performance of the Appalachian teams. Included below are the figures for the average number of top-10 placements and the ICS badging point totals over the past four years (take a look at our badging points system page if you need a refresher – the badging points provide a way to measure overall placements across multiple competitions):
While the rest of the pack is clustered at an average of less than one top-10 placement per year (with MN just squeaking in at an average of 1 per year), Kentucky smashes through that barrier at 2.5, earning more than double the ICS badging points of the closest competitor, Minnesota. What does this mean? It means that not only are Bluegrass State teams ending up among the finalists, they’re leading the pack with more 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes than any other state! A look at the 4-year badging point totals gives us a clear picture of just how handily Kentucky is outperforming the rest – hitting 36500 total points versus the next highest at 14500!
Unfortunately for those of us outside of the Upland South, this dominance shows no sign of letting up. The share of top placements held by Kentuckians has remained consistently strong each year, earning them 13,500 ICS badging points this year. After a stellar performance in 2017 – three top ten placements and two of the three highest point totals, expectations will be high for Kentucky’s problem solvers in 2018. Though most people might point to Kentucky for its history of coal and bourbon, the state should also be recognized as a leading producer of amazing teams of young problem-solvers.
The 2018 Future Problem Solving season is already getting underway as teams prepare for local and regional competitions. We’re watching to see which states might have a chance at stepping up to Kentucky’s high bar in solving our future Global Issues! So stay tuned as the next round of the world’s top problem solvers are crowned.
Dealing with problems is a part of life. People are faced with them every day. Some large, some small. From relatively simple problems like ‘what route do you take to work to get around traffic?’ or ‘How do you fix the copy machine?’ to complex, world-changing problems like global-warming and homelessness, the strength of your problem-solving skill-set can either make or break your career.
Colleges and companies alike are increasingly looking beyond grades, essays, and interview questions to determine who they admit or hire to be a part of their team. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management in 2016 found that employers actually care more about soft skills than they do technical abilities like reading comprehension and mathematics. And the international hiring firm Monster notes that, “you can be the best at what you do, but if your soft skills aren’t cutting it, you’re limiting your chances of career success.”
Monster lists seven critical soft skills that every job applicant should have firmly under their belt to be the most sought after candidate. Chief among these is critical thinking and problem-solving. Companies want to know that you are able to take action when something goes wrong. Companies rely on problem solvers to navigate unexpected challenges.
So how do you demonstrate your problem solving abilities? It has to go beyond just showing good grades. You have to be able to highlight real situations where you have taken it upon yourself to identify and solve hard problems critical to the success of a project.
One of the best ways to do this is through academic competitions. For starters, competitions help to demonstrate that you can learn and grow from your failures. Managing failure itself is critical component to having a successful career in today’s high-tech, fast-paced workforce. We all know that yes, failing sucks, but sometimes you need to fail 100 times before you can identify how to finally succeed!
Additionally, many competitions are specifically designed to help you strengthen your problem-solving mindset, and test your skills in various creative problem solving techniques. The world’s best problem solvers don’t just go about it without a plan. They know how to break down complex problems and get to the core issues. They have tools and skills to help analyze the wide variety of problems they may face.
For those who want to strengthen their problem solving skills there are programs that can help. Specifically, the academic competitions with a direct focus on problem solving can provide a very clear path to creating a rock-solid toolbox of your own so that when your next college or career application comes around, you’ll be ready.
Check out these three competitions to get a start on improving your own problem solving skills for your future!
Modeling the Future
The Modelling the Future competition doesn’t ask high school juniors and seniors to come up with an invention that can change the world. Anyone with an imagination can do that. No, it wants them to take a given cutting-edge technology or industry as specified by the competition and describe how it could change the world.
For example, the current topic is autonomous vehicles. The technology has only existed for a couple of years, so the extent to which it can be applied in the transportation industry alone has yet to be realized. The competition wants students to express how autonomous vehicles can affect the transportation industry via mathematical models.
But the competition doesn’t want students to stop with the obvious. It wants to know how they will affect healthcare, the insurance industry, education, our communities in general, etc.
Picture autonomous vehicles as a rock thrown in a pond that creates ripples in the water. The competition wants students to describe those ripples with mathematical models.
Future City Competition
Open to only middle school students (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades), Future City gives some of the brightest young minds in the country a chance to shine.
It all begins with a fundamental, abstract question that can be answered in many different ways—how can we make the world a better place? To answer that question participants are tasked with designing and building a city of the future. They must imagine what a city could look like a century from now and include a solution to a citywide sustainability problem (i.e. storm water management, urban agriculture, green energy, etc.).
Participants will have four months to imagine, design, and build their city. In the end, they will be graded on five deliverables:
- Virtual city design: using SimCity software they must design their city and present in a slide show how it progressed to the end goal.
- City Essay: students will have to write a 1500-word essay describing what is unique about their city and how it solves a particular citywide challenge as designated by the competition.
- City Model: build a scale model of a section of their city using recyclable materials and including at least one moving part.
- City Presentation: students will give a seven-minute presentation on the unique features of their city and how it solves the citywide challenge.
- Project Plan: tasks of this magnitude require careful planning, Judges want to see how students planned to stay focused and organized so they could get the project completed.
Future Problem-Solving Program
The problems facing the world are not unique to any one age group or country. It stands to reason that the solutions for them could come from anywhere in the world and from someone who has yet to realize or express his/her full potential. The Future Problem-Solving Program gives kids of all ages (elementary school, middle school, and high school) from all over the world a chance to do just that.
The competition is broken up into four segments:
Community problem solvers are challenged to take a problematic situation, gather any and all pertinent data related to it to ensure it is understood, analyze it, and develop possible solutions. Part of the challenge is to not only come up with how to solve the problem but to factor in how to implement it.
Those taking part in the Global Issues Problem Solving component will work in teams or as an individual analyzing a series of global topics provided by the competition. They are then tasked with coming up with a six-step problem-solving process. Participants are then challenged to apply their solution in a segment of the competition referred to as ‘Future Scene.’
Scenario Writing and Performance give students an outlet to express their creative side. For Writing, they are asked to write a short story describing the world at least 20 years in the future and how they imagine one of the five topics of the year developing worldwide. Performance asks them to do the same thing, but rather than write a story they tell it in a four to five-minute presentation (no props).