Cash in on Learning: Creative Thinking: Brainstorming Your Way to Solutions

by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., Free Spirit Publishing author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century

When I was in elementary and high school, I was not considered the most outstanding student. In elementary school, my grades reflected less-than-average achievement, and I was often doomed to being in the lowest reading and math groups. When I reached high school, I avoided taking classes where I would have to rely on sophisticated levels of reading and math abilities. Because of that, I enrolled in all the music and arts courses I could. I found success in those courses and was able to graduate from high school in the top 25 percent of my class. Although I had reached “honors” status, I never felt my type of “intelligence” was considered valid.

It wasn’t until I enrolled in college (pursuing a degree in theater) that I found kindred intellectual spirits. I was surrounded by people who thought like I did—through their creative intelligence. I relished going to my theater classes, exploring the multidimensional ways of thinking and doing, all while building my self-esteem as a productive individual. It was when I had to attend my required courses in English and math that I felt I was once again thrust back into a world I didn’t understand. I graduated college with a much better appreciation for the kind of learner I was: creative. I came to understand that my creative learning process was seen by many as random and abstract. Getting to a solution in the traditional schooling was linear and sequential—not a good fit for a creative thinker!

idea light bulb commonsBasically, creativity is the ability to think through different dimensions to come up with solutions or new productive ideas. Creativity can only happen when we feel safe to make mistakes, have trusted relationships, and are willing to take intellectual risks. It’s a journey, not an end point.

With the rapid changes going on in our world, creativity is a skill all students must develop to be successful in their future. Therefore, we need to help our students develop productive creativity skills for solving problems and generating useful ideas.

There are four categories of creative thinking that can be cultivated in learners through both isolated practice and embedded curricular practices.

  • Fluency is the ability to generate many ideas. Students who think with fluency have an abundant flow of ideas, and the ability to modify or change the direction of thoughts.
  • Flexibility is the generation of a wide range of ideas. Thinking of things in different ways helps students build perspectives they may overlook when trying to solve complex problems.
  • Originality is the pursuit of unique, unusual, or not-thought-of ideas. Development of innovative ideas is an essential component of higher-level learning.
  • Elaboration is the process of providing extensive or extended details. When students are encouraged to go beyond, or “color in all the spaces,” they will develop a more holistic sense for solution building.

creativecommons_org_vector light bulbsBrainstorming is a wonderful method for generating solutions that uses all four of the subcomponents of creative thinking. Keep in mind that critical to the brainstorming process is the avoidance of judgment or evaluation of ideas until the very end of the process. Delaying judgment allows for a broad range of ideas to be cultivated, considered, and acknowledged. You may find that the “weirdest” idea may be the most beneficial to solving the problem.

The first step in the process is to generate as many ideas as possible (fluency). No matter how crazy the ideas may seem, allow them to flow and accumulate. I always encourage students to work as quickly as possible at this stage of the process to avoid the temptation to overthink an idea or self-evaluate what may not be a good idea. It is critical that we have enough ideas from which to choose in order for us to find the very best solution. Also during this step in the process, assist students in “piggybacking” or “hitchhiking” onto others’ ideas. Hearing others’ ideas may spark connections to things we know or ways to add onto those ideas.

Once the group has generated a good number of ideas (between 5–10 minutes of quick response), you can begin the process of categorizing them. When you categorize ideas, you are using the creative strategy of flexibility. Separate the ideas into categories such as: realistic/unrealistic; possible/impossible; effective/ineffective; timely/time consuming; affordable/costly; efficient/inefficient; safe/harmful; moral/immoral; defensible/indefensible. Remember, when being flexible you must consider multiple possibilities and allow for variations in the ways students sort their ideas.

Creative Light BulbNow that the ideas have been categorized, it’s time to select the best ones. Based on their placement in the categories, choose the idea(s) that seem the most feasible and the most beneficial as a solution. This evaluative process is both critical reasoning as well as finding the most original idea.

You are now free to enhance your final idea(s) through elaboration. If necessary, add ideas to the solution or spruce it up for greater appeal. Elaborating an idea also includes looking beyond its immediate effects. We should ask students if there are implications that have not been considered if the chosen solution is to be applied. Using questions such as:

  • How might the solution affect the environment, other people, the economic structure, and so on?
  • What could happen if the solution is applied incorrectly?
  • When will we need to reconsider our solution?
  • How will we evaluate the success of our solution?
  • Where will we see our greatest impact if the solution is applied correctly?

One of the greatest lessons I learned through struggling with my divergent thinking process was there is great value to being a creative thinker. We may not always be appreciated in the educational system because of its linear structure. However, the ideas of creative people have greatly enhanced our lives. We must encourage our creative students to hone their skills while helping them learn to adapt to the linear-sequential nature of schooling. We must also nurture the creative spirit in all students for their success in the 21st century.

How do you encourage creativity in the classroom?

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Suggested Resource
Click here for a reproducible handout summarizing the brainstorming steps.

Springy Book Anniversary © by Free Spirit Publishing© 2013 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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