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Creative Problem Solving Pt 1: Discovering originality and Value

Creativity is at the core of our personal and collective evolution – whether as individuals or as teams and creative ability is well understood, can be clearly explained. Everyone is capable of creative effort given well-designed training, experiential exercises and reflective practice.

Most children are born with an innate creative spirit of experimentation, playfulness and a disregard for social convention.  This natural creative spirit is often systematically rendered mute by the imposition of structured formal education and societal pressure.  It was for me, for millions of others and it’s still a fact of life for many.

Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl who was drawing a figure when the teacher asked “What are you drawing?”. “ God” she said.  “But know one knows what God looks like” said the teacher. “They will in a minute!!” said the little girl.

Our task as educators and mentors is to restore that sense of inquisitiveness, curiosity, playfulness and creative invention.  In a fast-paced world of unrelenting change, it should be a forgone conclusion that we develop a case for the incorporation of creative problem solving within the core of every evolutionary training program’s design – either included within each subject or as a stand alone program of study.

With the industry’s persistent expectation for excellent teamwork, clearly communicated concepts, innovative thinking, life long learning and reflective practice, creative problem solving is an essential skill for today’s professional practitioner.   Add the constant evolution of hardware, software and communications technologies and the result is an intimidating, demanding yet stimulating environment for the learner and a major challenge for formal and informal learning practice.

Creativity is at the core of our personal and collective evolution – whether as individuals or as teams.  Yet creativity behavior is poorly understood and commonly misinterpreted – often for historical reasons.  It’s frequently seen as something difficult to define, a mysterious phenomenon and an ability that some people have and others do not. The facts are different. Creative ability is well understood, can be clearly explained. Everyone is capable of creative effort given well-designed training, experiential exercises and reflective practice.

Creativity is characterized by ideas or concepts that show originality and have value. Of course these are often arbitrary and contextual, that is, they are relevant to an individual, a situation or a cultural context. When the products of creative thinking are completely original, they are characterized by distinguishing or emergent features that are clearly identifiable as breaking entirely new ground.

Creative problem solving demands two sets of complementary skills – convergent thinking and divergent thinking.  The former is necessary for analyzing problems and situations as well as selecting, evaluating and implementing ideas.  Divergent thinking is necessary for exploring, investigating and generating new concepts by finding ways to associate ideas that are generally not connected.

So, the question is – how do we teach ourselves and guide our students to develop creative problem solving skills and how do we integrate them into the curricula and training?  It’s a major challenge and central to the impending transformation from the Information to the Conceptual Age. 

I started my own research many years ago when I spent a decade of summers at the Creative Education Foundation’s summer workshops in creative problem solving at the State University of New York in Buffalo (these workshops are still ongoing I understand).  As a result I started teaching CPS in the late 70’s and integrating creative methodologies in the Computer Animation Program at Sheridan that I founded in 1982 and in most of the programs I have designed since.

Creative behavior is best understood and integrated into learning through practical projects, challenges and tasks that are designed as experiential exercises accompanied by reflective practice.  Simply put is means accepting a challenge, experimenting, inventing and then analyzing the thinking processes you used to create solutions. More formally it’s been seen a six-stage CPS process of problem acceptance, problem definition, ideation, selection, evaluation and implementation. Personally I find the formal CPS process somewhat rigid and at odds with the essential nature of creative thinking but it’s well tested and a good place to start for most introductory programs

However, some of the core ideas I apply to the process of integrating creative problem solving into today’s curricula include:

•    Creative behaviour is best understood through experiential exercises and practice – not through theoretical instruction.

•    It’s critical to provide a safe, non-judgmental psychological environment.

•   Exercises must be designed to demonstrate core principles and to challenge the mind but within achievable goals.

•   Programs should be structured to include analytical and critical thinking as well as the development of creative ideas.

•   Conceptual diversity must be encouraged – even demanded.

•   Mentors must lead by demonstration and example.

Creativity is about breaking boundaries. It’s about breaking and making connections between things that are not normally associated together. Finding new ways to see problems and to solve problems.  Fortunately we have incredible access to the widest variety of information and resources with which to work and to create through the Internet and our connections to diverse perspectives and opinions. 

All this is an introduction to a recent project – the design of a short creative thinking course for students of animation that will be delivered in Nanjing, China starting next month. 

The problems with Western approaches to creativity are that they frequently involve cultural and linguistic strategies, conventions and references that just don’t fit across cultural boundaries.  In addition, in order to address the problems caused by a tradition of Chinese formal rote learning and academic practices, large class sizes, digital distraction, a “copying” culture and language translation – it’s been necessary to assemble strategies that will give students creative experiences that will break the mold of their conventions.  Much is built on past experience in China over the past ten years and an understanding of the cultural and academic environment – but with a direct infusion of Western methods in CPS and visualization. Each instructional period is divided into roughly 20-minute segments of alternating instruction and practical exercises. 

The first part of the course uses visual problem solving and design to identify, analyze and communicate concepts and ideas. This involves an introduction and exercises in the use of mind maps and concept maps to organize and document information in a primarily visual form.  It serves to reinforce analytical and convergent thinking patterns and reinforces the importance of building connections among disparate information and interconnected ideas.

The result is a range of visual design skills, but at the same time it encourages the student’s individual expression and personal perspectives about the perception of the world around them. It also reinforces the importance of drawing and systematic design.

The second part of the course is devoted to idea generation techniques for both individual and group applications.  These classes emphasize methods for forced connections among typically unrelated ideas.  The exercises are designed to be both pragmatic and playful – encouraging the students to experiment with wild ideas and unusual solutions. This involves a combination of visual and verbal brainstorming techniques that support teamwork in time-sensitive tasks and problem-solving activities.

The final section of the program is devoted to a major assignment that focuses on effective teamwork, coordination and creative group skills and that is also directly related to concepts used in film and television animation.   In addition, we hope to organize a celebration evening where students can demonstrate their creative imagination and practical skills to the university community.  A set of explicit evaluation rubrics provide the student with a clear framework for how there creative skills will be assessed and how their participation and performance they will be evaluated.

While I have designed the course – others will deliver most of it but I hope to share the results with you at the end – hopefully in January and I’ll share details of the specific exercises with you and the resulting student works.

Until next time………

P.S. My own published research in creative behavior involves the development of a unified field model of creative process based on the physics of catastrophe theory. Sounds complicated but in fact it results in a rather simple 3D model of creative behavior that we can “travel” through and that illustrates the many ways in which personal and group creativity unfolds in the real world.