By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Character: Choices That Matter Around the World
This year for Valentine’s Day, instead of lacy cards and sugar hearts, my kids gave their classmates little wire puzzles. I’m sure you’ve seen the sort—two twisted shapes are interlocked, and the goal is to separate them. There’s the two figure eights that slide through each other as they spin, the double horseshoe that has to fold flat to release a ring, the ring on a spring that looks as if it will spiral off but instead must be slipped straight off the coils, and more.
My wife is a school psychologist and I write about the brain, so we decided to crash the class parties to see what kids did with these puzzles. What we saw was fascinating. Some kids shoved the puzzles into the bottoms of their brown paper Valentine’s bags, never to be seen again. Other kids immediately started yanking on the puzzles, trying to rip the pieces apart via the obvious (and almost always incorrect) gaps. Still others laid out the puzzles alongside the instructions and started working carefully through the steps. And a few kids just sat there staring at the puzzles with a look that my Labradors reserve for things like wind-up toys and broccoli.
The kids who followed the instructions tended to finish first. (After all, these puzzles are pretty easy once you know the trick.) And that’s an extremely valuable sort of problem solving. It’s the skill of a computer algorithm or a geometry proof or a cookie recipe, in which each step done with precision eventually yields the correct result. You’ve probably heard it called convergent thinking: a defined process lets kids converge on the one correct answer.
But what I want to talk about in this article is not the problem solving of convergent thinkers, but rather the creative problem solving of divergent thinkers. As an interesting aside, a paper in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that kids who use convergent thinking (for example, by following the step-by-step instructions for a LEGO project) may in fact blunt their creativity on subsequent tasks.
In any case, instead of following the kids who followed the instructions, let’s take a step back to look inside the brains of the kids who at first seemed to be spacing out. Here’s what happened: they looked at the puzzle, eventually tried it one way, failed, looked at it some more, and tried it another way until they either blundered into the correct solution or gave up (usually passing through the stage of yanking on the thing for a bit). It was a dangerous strategy, one that guaranteed frustration and did not always lead to success. But science suggests they were doing anything but blundering.
As much as creative problem solving seems to depend on magic—a unique solution pops fully formed from the ether!—it’s actually a defined skill, like convergent thinking, with defined elements that make it work, like the ingredients in a cookie recipe.
Ingredient 1: Time
One of the first steps in this process has to do with how to spend your time. A landmark study of creative problem solving showed that expert solvers spend their time understanding a problem’s “starting state and constraints”—in other words, the landscape of the problem and what is and isn’t allowed. Novice problem solvers jump right in to trying to solve it.
In that study (and a series of follow-ups), researchers Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser saw this difference between students and professors working on physics problems. The students read the problem, then immediately started trying to plug numbers into equations. The professors spent more time conceptualizing the problem, and only after they had it crystalized in their heads did they reach into their bag of tricks for the one equation that would do the job. The same was true in a study of a fictitious country’s hope to boost food production: novices dove directly into brainstorming possible solutions, whereas people with agricultural expertise asked more questions about the culture and government of the country. Of course, in all these cases, taking the time to really, truly understand the problem had a better chance of leading to realistic solutions.
We saw the same thing in the third- and fifth-grade puzzlers. Expert solvers took their time to understand how the wires worked. Novice solvers started tugging.
Ingredient 2: Experience (and an Open Mind)
Researcher Eugene Sadler-Smith defined another ingredient of creative problem solving, namely experience. But it’s not quite what you’d think: some experience is good, but too much experience causes people to fall back on patterns they’ve seen before, solving problems by rote and potentially missing new, better solutions. For example, in studies of chess players, those with a certain mid-high ranking are prone to overlook creative solutions, instead depending on the solutions they’ve seen before; in doctors, experience can lead to squeezing symptoms into the box of a common diagnosis, even when that requires overlooking a strange, new symptom that could hint at another cause.
That is until chess players or doctors reach a very high level of expertise in which the brain again becomes open to possibilities. High-level chess experts and doctors are able to listen to the wisdom of their experience without being bound by it.
For kids, this could mean that creative problem solving comes with practice. It’s not something magical that only prodigies can do; it’s something that comes with experience (like a jazz musician who learns from past masters and then innovates). Later, the trick for kids is to continue to evaluate each problem as if it were new, instead of pairing a new problem with one they’ve seen before and applying the old solution.
Ingredient 3: A Quiet Mind
Finally, the brain has to be ready to hear a creative solution. In a series of papers and now a book, researchers John Kounios and Mark Beeman show that making the brain ready for a creative solution has less to do with reaching for the solution than it does with muting all the other white noise that can drown out the solution. In MRI studies, Kounios and Beeman saw that the brain state most conducive to creative problem solving is not the buzzing activity of thought but the lack of thought. It’s as if creative solutions are always there and the trick is learning to hear them.
The Science-ish Side of Magic
What seems like magic is actually science—or at least a science-ish side of magic. By focusing on the problem rather than the solution, teaching the process of problem solving, and quieting the brain’s background noise, you can help kids find creative solutions.
Who were the third and fifth graders who came by this process intuitively? They were about who you would expect: the same kids who commandeered hay bales meant as outdoor seating for a school play and instead used them to build forts; the kids who tend not to be tripped up when the math they learned yesterday suddenly shows up in a story problem today; the kids who poked their gloved fingers into the arteries of pigs’ hearts to figure out the path of blood through the chambers during our dissection at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
They were not necessarily the kids with the highest IQs. Instead, they had a mix of personality and intelligence that let them focus their intellect on discovery. By luck or by accident, they had internalized a process that led to solutions.
Garth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and PsychologyToday.com. He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors.
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