Creative Problem Solving

cpsCreative Problem Solving (CPS) is a model for addressing problems and challenges in a creative way. It originated with Alex Orborn and Sid Parnes, and has continued to be developed for more than 50 years by several theorists.  The most recent model of Creative Problem Solving divides the creative problem solving process into three general areas: Exploring the Challenge, Generating Ideas, and Preparing for Action. Two of the stages of the model have multiple components. Creative Problem Solving appears complicated, but it is intended to be very flexible. It is not necessary to use every component, or to use the stages in a particular order. In some ways, the components of the process are more like a menu. Rather than thinking of CPS as a six-step process, when faced with a situation in which creative problem solving could be helpful, just choose the components most applicable to the situation and use them in ways that make sense. This means that helping young people use Creative Problem Solving includes helping them understand when to use—or ignore—particular components.

Because CPS is complex, teachers of young children may wish to teach and use single parts of the process separately or to use them in a simplified fashion. Students of any age will need many varied experiences with CPS to master the stages and be able to apply them to varied situations. But the time and trouble required to teach CPS can be worth the effort. With CPS, students have a powerful process for attacking school, social, and personal problems from elementary grades into adulthood. Although early practice activities may focus on fantasy situations or fairy tales, CPS is most potent when used to interact with the real world.

Remember, the following brief overview of the components of CPS is not intended to suggest they should all be used, or that they should be used in order, but to present the tools available.

Exploring the Challenge involves selecting a broad goal, opportunity, or challenge and setting the principal direction for work. It has three sub-components, with names that vary slightly depending on whose version of the process you are using. See the Creative Education Foundation for another popular option.

Exploring the Challenge

Objective Finding (also called Constructing Opportunities). In this stage, students identify a problem or opportunity to address. One of my favorite CPS experiences started with a student who discovered, on reading a historical marker, that we were approaching the town’s 250th anniversary. It was not a “problem” in the sense that there was any difficulty, but it was an opportunity. One of the benefits of teaching CPS is that students can be taught to look for problems and opportunities that will allow them to take action.

Fact Finding (Exploring Data) In Fact Finding, students learn as much about the situation as possible. For the 250th anniversary group, the curious students read town history, talked to local officials about planned celebrations (there were none), and spoke to community members about town activities during the 1976 national bicentennial.

Problem Finding (Framing Problems) Problem finding in CPS has a very particular definition, as opposed to the more global use of the same term. In CPS, problem finding is a stage in which problem solvers identify potential sub- problems in their challenge. Problems usually start with IWWMW (“In what ways might we?”). Students should list as many problem statements as possible before choosing the one (or a combination) that best expresses the dilemma they choose to address. The anniversary group’s problem was something like “In what ways might we celebrate the town’s 250th anniversary so that it will be remembered?”

Generating Ideas

In the Generating Ideas stage, problem solvers generate as many varied and unusual ideas as possible for solving the problem. At this stage of the CPS process, many other tools for divergent thinking can be useful. Attribute listing, SCAMPER, morphological synthesis, metaphorical thinking, and others all can be used to increase the number and diversity of solutions put forth. After the group has produced as many ideas as needed, a smaller number of ideas usually is selected to continue the CPS process. The 250th anniversary group suggested numerous ideas for a community celebration: a town festival, articles in the paper, commemorative souvenirs, a new time capsule, and a variety of school projects.

Preparing for Action

Solution Finding (Developing Solutions) In Solution Finding, the short list of ideas is evaluated using criteria determined by the group. The number of criteria and the sophistication of the evaluation will vary with grade level. If students use CPS in real-world contexts, they probably will soon determine that the point totals may not always identify the best idea. Sometimes an idea may rank high but be impossible to carry out. For example, if the 250th anniversary group had an idea that was ranked high on every criterion except “Will the principal let us do it?” the high rankings probably will not be sufficient to make it a viable idea.

In other cases, students may realize that they omitted an important criterion (e.g., money or time available), or that some criteria simply are more important than others. In the actual 250th anniversary group, building a time capsule did not outrank all other ideas, especially those concern- ing community involvement, but the group really wanted to build a time capsule. The enthusiasm of many class members was much greater for that project idea than for any other. They determined that for this project, class interest was particularly important, so they gave it additional weight.

Ideas do not have to be mutually exclusive. The 250th anniversary group demonstrated this diversity. They divided in half, with one half planning to build and bury the time capsule while the other half, who had been studying the stock market, decided to create a business to produce and market commemorative souvenirs. They planned to market company stock to finance their venture and, rather than plan a town celebration, to incorporate sale of their souvenirs into the town’s annual spring festival.

Acceptance Finding (Building Acceptance)  The final stage of the CPS process asks problem solvers to create a plan of action. They are to determine what needs to be done, decide who will be responsible for each task, and plan reasonable time frame. In addition, those involved in planning attempt to identify in advance what the major stumbling blocks might be. These barriers could be difficult parts of the plan or they could be individuals or groups who oppose the plan. If planners can identify the problem are as in advance and develop strategies for avoiding or minimizing them, their chances of success are increased.

In real-world applications of CPS, Building Acceptance becomes particularly important. The 250th anniversary group needed detailed plans to realize their ideas. This stage of the process, in which they thought about the details of cost, timing, and responsibilities for each project, allowed them to plan ahead, thus avoiding many difficulties later on.

If you’d like to pursue CPS with students, one good place to start is with Prufrock Press.

4 thoughts on “Creative Problem Solving

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