This paper is part of the series of submissions received for the Futures Of Education (FoE), a UNESCO initiative in partnership with Kidskintha. 

Some of the trends that marked the beginning of the 21st century will continue to accelerate as we head deeper into the century. Automation is increasingly taking away jobs that are routine in nature, thereby placing higher demands on our ability to think in novel ways. Technology adoption is increasing in all areas of life, including education, as standards of living across the world improve. The world is becoming more interconnected, not just economically, but also in values and aspirations. 

At the same time, challenges that the world faces now, like growing unemployment and climate change, are far more complex and go beyond national boundaries. These problems are ill-defined, dynamic in nature, and involve a large number of factors including technical, social, and cultural. Solving such challenges requires the ability for creative problem solving (CPS), which is emerging as one of the most important competencies to possess.  

What do you mean by creative problem-solving?

Researchers who study CPS define it as “a collection of self-regulated psychological processes and activities necessary in dynamic environments to achieve ill-defined goals that cannot be reached by routine actions.”

Partly fueled by the focus on standardized testing, creativity scores among students have been declining over the last few decades. Many educators still use creativity as a substitute for arts and crafts. 

Creative problem-solving is not just one skill – it is a multidimensional bundle of underlying skills in which creativity and collaboration play a central role. As complex problems seldom have an obvious solution, multiple creative ideas and strategies are needed. Solving these problems also requires a high level of collaboration between multiple stakeholders across different knowledge domains. To build students’ ability to solve complex problems when they enter the workforce, our educational system needs to move beyond academic content towards a much stronger focus on skills like creativity and collaboration. 

Unfortunately, the current trend of creative thinking skills is alarming. Partly fueled by the focus on standardized testing, creativity scores among students have been declining over the last few decades. In addition, despite the research on creativity, there are many misconceptions about what creativity means and how it can be nurtured. As a result, many educators still use creativity as a substitute for arts and crafts.  

How do you develop creative problem-solving skills?

Creativity is a cognitive skill 

Psychologists define creativity as the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. Research has identified several different thinking patterns that can lead to more creative ideas. These patterns and techniques can be incorporated into what students learn in schools. Some of these patterns are:

  • Associative thinking: the ability to combine ideas from different domains in a meaningful way. 
  • Reverse thinking or challenging assumptions: the ability to identify assumptions and reverse them to find new insights. 
  • Counterfactual thinking: the ability to examine alternate scenarios of what can happen typically by asking “what if” or “if only”. 

In addition, we also need to build an innovation mindset in students so that they start to view themselves as problem solvers and active contributors to society. 

What are some examples of creative problem-solving?

Here are two examples of how we are helping students build both the cognitive skills underlying creativity and an innovation mindset.

Cognitive Tools

We designed a project, “How to be an inventor”, to introduce students to different creative thinking techniques as they go through the process of making a real invention. In one exercise students had to combine an unrelated concept with their core idea to make it more original. For example, one student who was designing a new kind of scissors combined with a glove to come up with a safer and more comfortable version of scissors that could be worn on the hand while cutting. Another exercise asks students to reverse their assumptions to get new insights. A student group who reversed the assumption that “tables have legs”, came up with a table design that could be suspended from the ceiling. The table could be raised when not needed to create additional space. Using the techniques allowed students to come up with ideas that they would not have been able to discover otherwise.  

As part of the project, students also had to work with others to come up with joint solutions. Students learned collaboration skills like “yes, and” to build on each others’ ideas such that the combined idea becomes more creative than any individual contribution. 

These creativity and collaboration techniques add to the cognitive toolbox for students to use in other open-ended problems. 

Innovation Mindset

To build an innovation mindset, we exposed students to how creativity plays an important role in nearly every domain including science and math. Progress in any domain can be traced back to people identifying a problem and then finding a novel way to solve it. 

In one scenario for mathematics, we used the evolution of numerical systems to see different ways creativity played a role. For example, in the early days, people kept track of numbers by carving lines or carrying sticks which functioned as simple counters. As humans developed language, they realized that it makes sense to assign symbols to numbers which could save a lot of space when dealing with large numbers. In this case, people combined a concept from one domain (language) to solve a problem in a different domain (numbers), an example of associative thinking. Similarly, as people started doing more trade and had to perform operations on numbers, early numbering systems like the Egyptian system were not very efficient. The creation of place value, like in the decimal system, allowed big numbers to be represented by fewer symbols, and operations like addition or subtraction were simplified. 

Finally, students also made their own number system using their own symbols and bases. We found that students were more confident during the process, more engaged, and developed a better understanding of concepts like place value and bases. 

Technology is rapidly changing the world around us. However, our educational system has not adapted well to meet the needs of the changing landscape. Crucial skills that students now need to be successful go beyond acquiring knowledge to finding creative applications of knowledge in solving real-world problems. Our educational systems need to prioritize teaching creative and complex problem-solving skills so students can thrive in the 21st century.

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon from Pexels

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Pronita Mehrotra

Dr. Pronita Mehrotra is the founder of MindAntix, a platform to build cognitive creative thinking in students. As an advocate for bringing more creativity to the classroom, she speaks at educational conferences and runs professional development programs for teachers. In addition, she also teaches Project Based Learning programs to elementary and middle school students. Prior to starting MindAntix, she spent several years in the Technology industry in different research, development, and program management roles.

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