Creative Problem-Solving in Education: An Excerpt from Talent Zones

In the book Talent Zones, author Lee Hancock, Ph.D., presents ten evidence-based, developmentally appropriate strategies called Talent Development Zones (TDZs). These TDZs transform talent concepts and research into practical strategies adults can use to create environments for developing talents. We’re sharing an excerpt of one of those Talent Development Zones.

Creative problem-solving (CPS) is a method often used in education. It’s a process that helps kids redefine problems and opportunities they might face; come up with unique, imaginative, innovative responses and solutions; and then take action. The CPS process was developed by Alex Osborn in the 1940s and then improved upon in collaboration with Sidney J. Parnes and Ruth Noller in the 1950s in ways that are still used today.

In his 1953 book Applied Imagination, Osborn describes two distinct kinds of thinking: divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the process of generating potential solutions and possibilities for a problem or situation. This process is sometimes called brainstorming. Convergent thinking is the process of evaluating the options and choosing the one (or ones) that best fits the needs of the situation. People use a combination of divergent and convergent thinking to develop new ideas or solutions. Balanced use of both kinds of thinking is important. If there’s not enough divergent thinking, idea generation may be stifled. If there’s not enough convergent thinking, decisions may not be fully thought out.

The CPS model has been used a lot in classrooms (and boardrooms) over the decades. As a result, researchers have extensively studied its effectiveness in fostering creativity to arrive at a solution. As Scott Isaksen and Donald Treffinger combed through the research on practical use of CPS over fifty years, they concluded that CPS made contributions to complex creative tasks and challenges across a variety of situations and contexts. People exposed to CPS used parts of the overall process based on their assessment of how the ideas or stages might help them deal with a particular task or challenge. People also used CPS to clarify their understanding of problems, generate ideas, and create action plans (Isaksen and Treffinger 2004).

In 2011 the Creative Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses CPS to empower people to develop new ideas and address problems, presented a modified CPS model. This model has four stages: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement. Together with TOVO’s three Cs (cognition, competition, and character), these ideas form a Talent Development Zone for fostering creativity.

Talent Development Zone 6 To-Do List

To create a Talent Development Zone that develops and inspires creativity in kids, adults need to take these steps with the kids:

  • clarify the problem
  • brainstorm
  • develop solutions
  • implement a plan of action
  • build cognition
  • build competence
  • build character

Creative Problem-Solving Thinking

Clarify the Problem

  • Identify the goal or the challenge. Kids need to identify what their problem actually is in order to look for solutions. In the context of talent development, perhaps a child is falling short in some areas and the goal is to get better at those areas. Be patient so as to identify the correct problem.
  • Gather information. Take notes on relevant information in order to get a clear understanding of the problem. This could include observations of what is happening as well as feelings about what is going on (yours, the child’s, those of other adults involved).
  • Ask questions that will help generate solutions. Ask the child, “What are you doing to reach your goal? What could you be doing?”


  • Discuss and jot down creative ideas for how to approach the problem.
  • Keep brainstorming until you can’t think of any more ideas.
  • Don’t judge the ideas; just collect them. No idea is out of bounds.

Develop Solutions

  • Evaluate all the options you and the child came up with through brainstorming.
  • Take your time analyzing potential solutions. Do they meet the needs of the child? Can the child implement these changes?

Implement a Plan of Action

  • Choose a solution.
  • Together with the child, identify what resources and actions will allow them to implement the chosen solution.
  • Write down the plan. Make sure it includes clear, achievable steps.

TOVO Thinking

Build Cognition

  • Help kids perceive and make sense of new information. You can do this by setting up your environment to give kids choices and allowing them to work through those choices on their own—getting some of them right and some wrong. Along the way, they may ask you questions. As they do, empower them and gently guide them to a solution that makes sense in that context.
  • Help kids conceive of ways to solve problems. Ask questions and use their answers to gently steer them toward discovery of solutions.
  • Provide opportunities to decide and deceive and execute the skill. Avoid being judgmental or overly critical, so kids can build their motivation and confidence. Over time, this will help them develop the courage and the ability to think creatively.
  • Give kids a chance to assess this process. Accurate assessment is a matter of self-awareness. Kids have varying degrees of self-awareness and may need to develop it. Once kids can honestly and kindly assess their efforts (neither inflating their performance nor beating themselves up), this will free their minds to make the necessary adjustments for next time.

Build Competence

  • Provide opportunities for kids to understand that they have progressed in the skill they are trying to improve. Often, skill-building progress is gradual and isn’t noticed by the child. As kids learn to read better, play a note more smoothly, or throw a baseball more accurately, make a point of letting them know that they are progressing. Provide some information about where they were and where they are now and how their work got them there.
  • Take notes or show kids video of themselves. Sometimes when adults try to help kids understand that they are getting more proficient or competent, the feedback is too ambiguous. Make it concrete, using details from your notes. Perhaps show them a video of their skill before they started practicing and after. Or show them actual growth in their musical skill or comfort in reading via video or audio.

Build Character

  • Building character in kids requires a deliberate, everyday approach to implementing your core values. Core values may be things like respect, hard work, honesty, and so on. If you haven’t already, you need to name and define your core values, talk about them with your colleagues and the kids, model them, and hold people accountable to them. Doing these things takes them from just words to core values that build character.

Adapted from Talent Zones by Lee Hancock, Ph.D., copyright © 2022. Free Spirit Publishing, Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; All rights reserved.

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