Anne de A’Echevarria looks at two more some practical ‘creative thinking tools’ for classroom usedoc-1836443

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Last issue we looked at three practical ‘creative thinking tools’ that can be used to support the generation of ideas. This issue offers two further idea generation techniques that are specifically designed to help students gain the confidence to think past the first ‘safe’ ideas they come up with and develop personally novel and innovative solutions.

Thinking tool no. 1: Concept Fan

A Concept Fan helps you to move beyond the obvious, ‘safe’ or impracticable solutions, to find new approaches to solving a given problem. Originated by Edward de Bono in his book Serious Creativity, this technique develops the principle of ‘taking one step back’ to get a broader perspective.

Concept Fan: instructions

  1. To start a Concept Fan, draw a circle on a large piece of paper, just right of centre. Write the problem you are trying to solve into it. To the right of it radiate lines representing possible solutions to the problem. This is shown in Figure 1.
  2. It may be that the first ideas generated are impractical, unremarkable, or do not really solve the problem. If this is the case, take a ‘step back’ for a broader view of the problem.
  3. Do this by drawing a circle to the left of the first circle, and write the broader definition into this new circle. Link it with an arrow to show that it comes from the first circle as in Figure 2.
  4. Use this as a starting point to radiate out other ideas as in Figure 3.
  5. If this does not give you enough new ideas, you can take yet another step back (and another, and another…) Keep on expanding and redefining the problem until you are happy that you have found an appropriate solution. See Figure 4 for a developed Concept Fan.

Concept Fan: teaching tips

You could introduce the idea of a Concept Fan by first modelling the technique in front of the class using an everyday problem that students will be familiar with, before moving on to use the technique to explore curriculum content. It is valuable to allow your students to hear you working aloud. If you are feeling brave, ask students to think up example problems on the spot and work ‘live’ with whatever is suggested!

The most challenging aspect of this tool for students is the moment when they have to take a ‘step back’ and try to define the problem in broader terms. You can support this step by prompting students to ask themselves one or more of the following questions:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • What is it that I am trying to achieve here?
  • Is there another way of achieving this?

Thinking tool no. 2: Morphology

Morphology is a technique developed by Fritz Zwicky for exploring all the possible solutions to a multi-dimensional problem. The example below looks at its use in a design context where it is a useful tool for generating ideas for any product that has more than one part; selecting the best or most appropriate ideas for each part; and combining them into a finished solution.

Morphology: instructions

  1. Using a grid (see below), pupils should list the features (or functions) that are essential to the product down the left-hand side. Ideally, there should be no more than 10.
  2. For each feature, they should use the grid row to the right to list a range of different possibilities.
  3. Finally, they should identify possible combinations by selecting one sub-solution from
  4. each row. The total number of combinations may be very large, so they may need to limit their choice to the most feasible or attractive options.

The ideas generated in this way can then be developed, using other development strategies that will be explored in future issues.

Example 1 – Designing a bus shelter:

Shape Round Cuboid Rectangular Spherical
Size 2 person 10 person 50 person 100 person 200 person
Material Plastic Wood Stainless steel Fabric Glass
Seating Individual Bench Folding Height adjustable
Information Timetable Actual time Time to next arrival Maps Advertising

Example 2 – Create a new form of a ball-point pen, building upon the standard model. In this example, the aim is to assemble the different features into entirely new forms of the original subject:

Shape Cylindrical Square Beaded Sculptured
Material Metal Glass Wood Paper
Cap Attached cap No cap Retracts Cleaning cap
Ink source No cartridge Permanent Paper cartridge Cartridge made of ink

Student invention: A Cube Pen with finger grips; one corner writes, leaving six faces for ads, calendars, photos, etc.

Talking about creative thinking

In any creative project, there are always points where students become challenged by particular difficulties and will be faced with the need to generate further ideas and solutions. At times like these, they will need to free up some space to ‘pause for thought’.

‘There is an ancient Zen saying that “if you want to attain something you’ve got to give up wanting it”. Providing we have thought about and struggled with a problem for a while it is often best to forget about it and allow our subconscious to start making the connections for us.’ (T. Shepherd, Education by Design, Thornes Technology, 1990)

Discuss with your students how they can use time out of school to help them with their project. Ask them when their best ideas come to them.

  • Do they find it easier to think when they have music?
  • Or when they surround themselves with materials or images of the situation?
  • Or when they are out walking or playing?
  • Or as they fall asleep or wake up?

While at home, ask your students to try jotting down on a large piece of paper, as fast as they can, all the ideas they have had so far on a particular project, or the ideas they have had for overcoming a particular difficulty or ‘sticking point’.

Suggest that they then carry out an activity away from the project that is unrelated to it, for at least an hour. For example, go for a run, watch a film, have a sleep or read a magazine.
Then ask them to go back to their paper and circle the things that strike them now as:

  • most important
  • the best ideas
  • the things to develop

Has the break given them new ideas or solutions?

Encourage students to reflect on and share any ‘creative leaps’ triggered by this ‘time out’ approach, once they are back in class.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2009

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.