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Assessing and Teaching Creative Problem Solving


“Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity.” (Erik Christopher Zeeman; Japanese-born British mathematician; 1925‑.)

An intact human brain is naturally curious and creative. Our curiosity leads us to posing problems and asking questions. Our creativity leads us to developing ways to solve the problems and answer the questions.

Informal and formal education—along with personal drive and a number of other factors—enter into how well people develop and use their natural curiosity and creativity (Moursund, 12/24/2010). Each of us can help ourselves and the people with whom we interact to become better at creative problem solving.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article Creativity:

Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created (such as an idea, a joke, an artistic or literary work, a painting or musical composition, a solution, an invention etc.).

This is a very broad definition. When I think a thought and express it orally or in writing, this is an act of creativity. It doesn’t have to be new to others or to the whole world. Similarly, when I am faced by a problem that is a challenge to me and I manage to solve the problem, I consider this to be an act of creative problem solving.

Thus, we are all creative problem solvers. Through informal and formal education and practice, we become better at it.

The 2014 PISA Assessment

The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was designed to measure 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading. In addition, it was designed to measure creative problem solving.

Quoting Holly Yettich from the article U.S. Students Score Above Average on First PISA Problem-Solving Exam (4/1/2014):

U.S. 15-year-olds scored above average on a first-of-its-kind international assessment that measured creative problem-solving skills.

The assessment, which was the subject of an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report released Tuesday, defined creative problem-solving as the ability to "understand and resolve problem situations where a method of solution is not immediately obvious."

U.S. performance was especially strong on tasks designed to measure interactive problem solving, which requires students to find some of the information they need on their own. [Bold added for emphasis.]

After reading Yettich’s article, I did a search of my own writings for the term creativity. I was somewhat surprised to see that I have used that term in 27 of my IAE Blog entries. In addition, I have recently added a section on creativity to my Brain Science entry in the IAE-pedia (Moursund, 2014a).

There is considerable literature on teaching creative problem solving. My 9/3/2014 Google search of teaching creative problem solving produced nearly 4 million hits. At every level of education, teachers integrate creative problem solving into the courses they teach. Many schools teach courses on creative problem solving. For example, see the coursea article (2014).

Teaching Creative Problem Solving

Each discipline of study focuses on solving problems and accomplishing tasks within a limited area. The problems and tasks in the fine and performing arts are different from the problems and tasks in the sciences or in the humanities/social sciences.

A student studying in a particular discipline is faced by the challenge of the huge and steadily growing accumulation of knowledge and skills in that discipline. One approach to studying a discipline is to study some of the problems that it has already solved. This approach includes developing some “basic skills” within the discipline. The study of discipline-specific basic skills types of problems can provide students with a beginning level of understanding of how the discipline deals with some of its most important problems and tasks.

Another approach is to learn for understanding and to practice on challenging problems that stretch one’s current knowledge and skills within a discipline. The goal is to move beyond basic skills—to learn to deal with novel, challenging problems within the discipline.

A curriculum driven by high-stakes testing tends to take the former approach, and a curriculum designed to teach understanding and creative problem solving tends to take the latter approach. Both of these approaches are important, and students have varying levels of strengths, weaknesses, and personal preferences in these two general approaches to learning.

Each discipline of study has its own approaches to teaching creative problem solving. (See Thus, for example, suppose that you are interested in teaching math. Both physical and virtual math manipulatives are a powerful aid to teaching and learning math. Within this environment it is possible for teachers to pose problems that challenge a wide range of students and that encourage creative problem solving (Kelly, July, 2006; Katie Lepi, September, 2014).

The steadily increasing capabilities of computer-based information retrieval systems tends to decrease the advantages of becoming very good at rote memorization and to increase the value of creatively attacking and solving novel problems.

Higher-order and Lower-order Skills

Benjamin Bloom (1956) chaired a committee that developed the taxonomy that bears his name and also edited the first volume of the 1956 text, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. (See In the initial publication, the cognitive domain was divided into Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The first three levels are considered to be “lower order” and the second three are considered to be “higher order.” While the definitions have been somewhat modified over time, the basic ideas have held up well. (See

Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues were bothered by the fact that much of the college teaching at their time focused on lower-order skills. Nowadays, there is a strong trend toward placing increasing emphasis on higher-order skills at the precollege level and in higher education.

I am particularly interested in approaches to teaching and learning for creative problem solving that are useful in many different disciplines. The next four sub-sections provide examples I have frequently used in my own teaching.

Assess Your Students’ Insights

Think about a group of students that have varying levels of expertise (varying levels of knowledge and skill) in a area in which you will be teaching them a sequence of lessons (Moursund, 2014b). What problems, tasks, and questions will the student learn to successfully deal with through the unit of study? You are particularly interested in improving their creative problem-solving knowledge and skills. In what follows, I use the term “problem solving” to include solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and answering questions.

A good starting point is to assess their current level of knowledge and skills. Ask your students to spend a few minutes writing down two types of problems, tasks, and questions about this area of study:

  1. Problems (problems, tasks, questions) that they think they can solve, but ones they consider to be “hard.” For example, you can encourage them to pose problems that they can solve but that they believe some/many of their classmates cannot solve.
  2. Problems (problems, tasks, questions) that they would like to be able to solve by the end of the unit of study.

Have students share some of their examples in small groups. While they are doing this, wander around the classroom and listen to their ideas. Then have a whole class discussion in which you draw on students’ ideas and integrate these into your goals for the unit of study.

Posing Researchable (Possibly Answerable) Questions

In my university-level teaching, I wanted my students to understand and make use of the concept of a researchable (possibly answerable) question. Here are two general, and somewhat overlapping, categories:

  1. A question that is possibly answerable by research and analysis based on the current accumulated and reasonably accessible knowledge of the human race.
  2. A question that is possibly answerable through the design and implementation of a research study designed to add new knowledge to the accumulated human knowledge. Typically such research begins with a literature search.

This type of question posing activity can be carried out with students at any school level. As students progress in school, they can become better at posing and learning how to answer higher-order questions.

Wait Time

When you are about to ask your class a question, first think about how much time you will wait before you take an answer. This is called wait time. The types of questions that lead to an immediate popping up of hands are almost always lower-order.

Substantial research on wait time has been available for many years. Quoting from Mary Budd Rowe (1986):

This paper describes major outcomes of a line of research begun nearly 20 years ago by the author on a variable called wait time. To put it briefly, when teachers ask questions of students, they typically wait 1 second or less for the students to start a reply; after the student stops speaking they [teachers] begin their reaction or proffer the next question in less than 1 second. If teachers can increase the average length of the pauses at both points, namely, after a question (wait time 1) and, even more important, after a student response (wait time 2) to 3 seconds or more, there are pronounced changes (usually regarded as improvements) in student use of language and logic as well as in student and teacher attitudes and expectations.

In my own teaching of teachers, I frequently ask a question and then orally analyze the extent to which it is higher-order before I accept an answer. This wait time and analysis helps my students gain insights into what I call higher-order and it gives them time to think about an answer.

Group Brainstorming 

Brainstorming in groups is an activitity designed to encourage higher-order, "divergent" thinking. Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Brainstorming is a group or individual creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its member(s). The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination. Osborn claimed that brainstorming was more effective than individuals working alone in generating ideas, although more recent research has questioned this conclusion.

Here is iinformation supporting the last sentence quoted above. Quoting from a 1/30/2012 article in The New Yorker titled Groupthink: 

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative. Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

What You Can Do

Develop a personal definition of creative problem solving that fits well into your professional and personal life. As you go through a day, stop occasionally to reflect on the types of problems you are dealing with at that time, and the creativity you are using to deal with these problems. What do you do in an “ordinary” day to improve your own creative problem-solving skills? Then think about what you are doing to help others—such as your students and colleagues—to reflect on and improve their creative problem-solving skills.


Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

coursea (2014). Creative problem solving. University of Minnesota.Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Hébert, T.P., et al. (February, 2002). E. Paul Torrance: His life, accomplishments, and legacy. Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Kelly, C.A. (July, 2006). Using manipulatives in mathematical problem solving: A performance-based analysis. The Montana Math Enthusiast. Retrieved 9/4/2014 from

Lepi, K. (September, 2014). How to teach math with Legos. Edudemic. Retrieved 9/8/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014a). Brain science: Creativity. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014b). Education for increasing expertise. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/4/2014 from

Moursund, D. (12/24/2010). An intact human brain is naturally curious and creative. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Rowe, M.B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education. Retrieved 9/6/2014 from

Torrance, E.P. (1972). Teaching for creativity. Part one: Can we teach students to think creatively? Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Yettick, H. (4/1/2014). U.S. students score above average on first PISA problem-solving exam. Education Week. Retrieved 9/2/2014 from

Readings from IAE Publications

Fusco, E. (May, 2012). Effective questioning strategies that build thinking and learning: A critical need for 21st century education. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 9/6/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Transfer of learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 9/6/2014 from

Moursund, D. (9/9/2013). Thinking and acting globally. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/6/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2/28/2012). Comparing U.S. and Chinese educational systems. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/6/2014 from

Moursund, D. (10/3/2011). Declining level of student creativity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Moursund, D. (3/31/2011). Teaching for increased creativity in science. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/3/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2/5/2011). Flow in games, education, and other areas. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/6/2014 from

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