Creativity and Group Dynamics in a Problem-based Learning Context

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Creativity and Group Dynamics in a Problem-based Learning Context

Clara E. Gerhardt and Claire Michelle Gerhardt *
Samford University and *Art Center College of Design, USA


The team context, as provided by problem-based learning (PBL), affords opportunities to enhance creative output. Teams involve several participants, implying increased resources, ideas, and energy. Groups have the potential to generate their own synergy, ideally allowing the group to go beyond the capacities of individuals working by themselves. The complexity of some problems requires the input of multiple participants. The dimensions of the combined work output, supported by a multi-professional team, allow high creativity and sophisticated end products. Knowledge of group dynamics can take the creative process to a higher level and minimize elements that are destructive to group functioning. In PBL, the power of group processes is harnessed to facilitate learning through problem solving. Attention to the group structure, group management, and conflict resolution, as well as knowledge of common group-related difficulties, can help the facilitator in making PBL a success.


Problem-based learning (PBL) is a powerful teaching and learning vehicle partly because of the group processes that occur in PBL teaching and learning interactions. Group members have to assume real-life work roles in these collaborative situations and, above all, they learn from one another. In the PBL classroom, healthy group functioning is integral to the teaching and learning process. The facilitator, with knowledge and skills of group dynamics, can anticipate problem areas in group functioning and resolve them in a constructive manner, in the process adding to the impact of the learning situation. Groups tend to go through predictable patterns in order to function as a cohesive and constructive whole. The PBL group can become a classroom model of what group functioning in the workplace can entail.

Part of becoming a better team member is understanding the value gained from being part of a team. Teams involve more people, implying increased resources, ideas, and energy than what an individual could generate. For this reason, successful groups represent more than just the sum of the contributions of their members. Groups have the potential to generate their own synergy, ideally allowing the group to go beyond the capacities of individuals working by themselves. Some Nobel prizes are increasingly awarded to teams, because the complexity of certain problems requires the input of multiple researchers. For example, the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology went to Andrew Fire from Stanford University and Craig Mello from the University of Massachusetts for their joint work on RNA interference and gene silencing (Nobel Foundation, n.d.). The dimensions of their research did not allow the project to be executed by one individual.

The Synergy of a Team

Individual insight is seldom as broad and deep as that of a group. Teams share the credit for victories and the blame for losses. This fosters genuine humility and authentic community. (Avery et al., 1981)

The team context generates multiple perspectives that allow a number of proverbial roads "leading to Rome." Each path can be approached through several alternative possibilities, and this in itself enhances flexibility. As situations and problems are multidimensional, they require more than individual insight to reach the desired goal or to meet the need in question.

Successful teams have leaders who keep the team on target. These leaders are goal directed, keeping their eye on the prize and leading their team members through difficult transitions to get it. Teams can anchor their goals and pool complementary skills, thereby multiplying the individual worth of their members. Ideally, teams maximize a leader's potential while minimizing his or her weaknesses. For team members, the team context can have the effect of exposing their individual strengths and weaknesses. In contrast, individuals working alone can change their goals without accountability. They will also take credit and blame by themselves, which in turn can foster a sense of pride or of failure.

Being a member of a good team is worthwhile, as it can enhance an individual's professionalism in a variety of careers. There are simple rules and guidelines to make teamwork more efficient, problem-free, and enjoyable. These guidelines also allow self-assessment in working toward becoming a better team player.

Laying the Ground Rules

In successful team collaboration, ideally a set of rules is laid down before the team begins a major task. Laying down the rules for group functioning should be the first communal task of the group, leading toward creative team building and smoothing the collaborative process. Ideally, the rules should not impose on group functioning; instead, they should set the group free to perform at its peak. The Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri says her dancing technique "gave me the freedom to be who I am onstage, to move with the music however I wish, because my body is so finely tuned. You have to translate your emotions in your body, that is how you speak onstage. That comes naturally for me, but your body is your speech. Technique is not the ultimate, but the beginning " (as cited in Woods, 2007, p. 39; italics added).

Team formation is the setting up of a framework within which everyone will function. The metaphor of a harmonious chamber orchestra or a jazz band comes to mind. In a creative team of designers, the process should be the same. Everyone on that team needs to agree that they are all there to create something or to solve a problem, as well as who will play what part and what will be the rule set by which the team will be governed. Maxwell (2001) suggests that team members think of the first team-building exercise as "writing the Magna Carta." The Magna Carta was the most significant early document in Great Britain, which influenced and led to the rule of constitutional law. Similarly, everyone needs to come together and decide on major issues, establishing the rules and regulations that will allow successful collaboration and unity in mission. It is essential to lay down the following guidelines to ensure successful teamwork.

Clarity of Mission

What is the major goal of the team? Ask everyone around the table, "Why are we doing this?" Spend time going through individual answers and considering the various viewpoints. Continue until team members agree on one of the suggestions in order to achieve clarity.

Disclosure of Dedication

What will it take for people to invest 100 percent effort? People are motivated by a range of things: to expand their horizons, monetary rewards, visibility, acknowledgment, or simply a good grade. People need to honestly disclose what it is that they need and want from the group interaction. If they are not truthful, they may hinder the group process. Some individuals handle multiple projects and cannot give priority to any one project. As a team, you can barter with individuals so that they can indeed get what they want. In this exchange, individuals have to contribute what the team needs to be successful while also meeting their own needs. In a genuine exchange, group members should be able to commit to saying "Yes, I'll do that," as this is the foundation for a strong team.

Decision Making

Clarify how decisions will be made. Will they be made by consensus, the leadership, or majority vote? There will come a time in every team when major decisions have to be made, and the team can fall back on their earlier agreement on the decision-making process. This is also a guiding principle in the orderly running of committees.

Communication Practices

Establish how and when team members communicate. Ask for preferences: email, telephone, or in person. Collect contact information and make it available to all group members. One of the most important elements in building personal relationships is communication. This applies to teams as well. Effective and clear communication ensures that a group of people can function on the same plane and work toward the same goal without wasting time. If English is a second language to some team members, allow sufficient time to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to voice their opinions. Be respectful of cultural and individual differences in communication style, and learn from them. If communication threatens to become unclear, go back to the source to clarify and indicate communication preferences that will facilitate clear exchanges.

Team Structure

How will the team be structured, in terms of who does what and when? Determine team members' strengths and, more importantly, interests and how these can be utilized. Just like in an orchestra, not everyone plays the same instrument. There must be opportunities for each member to show their strengths. Teams that have worked together previously know each member's strengths well and can allocate the work efficiently. If it is a newly formed team, try to be as open as possible about what each member is interested in working on. Remember to communicate clearly.

Conflict Resolution

How will the team deal with conflict should it arise? Create a team constitution of how members should behave. This helps convert the team into a community. Besides talking about how conflict is to be resolved, also consider rewarding the team for good performance: "If we do a good job on this presentation, we're all going out to dinner." Occasionally, teams become totally dysfunctional. If after going through a reasonable process of trying to get people in a productive mode but the interventions fail, then it may be necessary to just pull some people out of the team. Alternatively, it can be helpful to break the impasse by bringing in an outside consultant to examine the team's progress to that point and clarify directions.

Process Management

Establish guidelines on who the designated note taker will be, or whether this role should rotate, both of which have advantages of their own. It is important to use consistent file formats and provide access to the group's documentation to ensure continuity and minimize resource waste. Having to reinvent the wheel at the beginning of each work session can be avoided if documentation is central and available. In the classroom situation, a course management system such as Blackboard (incorporating WebCT) ( can serve this function. This Web-based information platform allows continuous communication between all group members and also provides a valuable record of inputs. Such systems can be applied in both educational and work environments. Being able to readily access each other's inputs saves time and prevents frustration with miscommunication. It is good practice to have at least one person, a "scribe," take notes during each meeting session. These notes have to be shared with the rest of the team. When creative ideas flow fast and furious, the designated scribe in the group can capture them on paper for later use and assessment.


Some of these guidelines may sound obvious, but the foremost problem that keeps recurring is of teams falling apart because they have not invested time in laying the ground work. Or they have strayed from the guidelines because they thought they already knew the team rules and could bypass the mundane procedure. Take the time to go through this process in order to build a strong team. If we think of how much effort we put into designing products, systems, and services, or learning and teaching new course material, we owe it to ourselves to set aside some time to designing our team, for after all it is a system that will enable and enhance our creativity.

Methods for Successful Collaboration and Inspiring Creativity

The main requirements for successful collaboration are to define the goal and to set up the structure for achieving that goal. Once the framework is in place, there are other factors that can help make a strong team. Individual team members can become an asset by offering skills and expertise that can help the team get the work done better and faster. In addition, teams can employ techniques and methods such as the following to inspire creativity.

Six Hats Method by Edward de Bono

As a team member figuratively changes hats, the attitude with which a problem is examined changes. This technique can enhance diversity of thought by applying different types of thinking to the subject. It can foster creativity by maintaining a playful (not too critical) attitude as everyone in the group switches from one metaphorical "hat" to another, each representing a different mindset. This allows the team to concentrate on a specific focus at a specific time; for example, criticism can be put on hold while wearing the yellow hat. The group works through one hat or mindset at a time, not all simultaneously. The six hats comprise the following: White hat is cold, neutral, and objective; while wearing it, you can look at the facts and figures. Red hat represents anger (seeing red), and it signals the time to listen to your intuition and emotions. Black is careful and cautious. Yellow is sunny and positive. Green is full of creative new ideas. Blue is the organizer of thoughts (de Bono, 1985).

Changing the Environment

By moving outdoors or to a more or less stimulating environment, team productivity may be enhanced or the focus refreshed. Rearranging the furniture in the team meeting room can give the team a fresh perspective. Change the environment and maybe the idea previously set will change as well. It can be very helpful to be in the environment or setting for which one is designing or about which one is learning. For example, if a new hospital bed is to be designed, take time to see and experience hospital beds (hopefully merely simulating the experience of being a patient). Fung, Lo, and Rao (2005) describe a learning situation in which students were blindfolded so as to better understand the challenges of designing a product for the visually impaired. They asked the students to sensitively observe key characteristics of one environment and then reintroduce these characteristics into a different context. For example, the mobility of a market may contain elements that may be beneficial to the design of an office space. Similarly, to learn about multicultural perspectives, take the team to a multicultural setting where behaviors or products can be observed, such as an art museum or a place of worship, other than those with which the participants are familiar.

Handing around Partial Solutions

Try handing around incomplete concepts to get unexpected ideas. The idea behind this is that even if one team member cannot complete the entire cycle, someone else in the team may be able to. This principle is very powerful in collaborative efforts, such as where teams work on research publications or even where students work on collaborative papers. The work is completed relay style, passing the baton from runner to runner, and in this way optimal effort can be maintained. It should not be confused with the "divide and conquer" method so frequently adopted by students, where an assignment is broken into segments that are then distributed among team members. Handing around partial solutions should have a greater sense of Gestalt, where the whole or sum of the output is greater than its contributing parts or inputs.

IDEO Method Cards

IDEO is a California-based international design consultancy whose aim is to help organizations "innovate through design" ( IDEO's general manager, Thomas Kelley, in his books on innovation (2001, 2005) categorizes innovators as personas, such as the learning, the building, and the organizing persona. In a team context, these different personas bring different skills to the team, which if utilized optimally will promote the innovative process. His concepts form the basis of the IDEO Method Cards, which can be used in a group context to stimulate creativity and innovation ( The cards' visual representations can trigger new associations and highlight different perspectives to a situation.

Forbidding Premature Criticism

Criticism occurring too early in the brainstorming process inhibits idea generation, and kills even the best idea before it is fully fledged. During the brainstorming phase of group work, the goal is to generate as many diverse ideas as possible in a divergent manner, that is, the ideas can and should divert from the known or the established. If critique is offered in this fragile point of conception, ideas may be discarded prematurely. The popular press abounds with examples of products that were predicted to fail dismally yet went on to become hugely successful, to the point of causing paradigm shifts in our thinking and our use of time. One such example is the personal computer, and another is the concept of overnight shipping service. Both were initially criticized as it was not clear how they could meet existing needs. What happened in practice was that the products or services themselves created the needs to the point that they are now taken for granted and life seems unimaginable without them. The critical evaluation of a concept can and should occur later, when the chosen product or idea has taken shape, and appropriate criticism then will help improve and perfect the idea or end product. To an extent, the team players apply convergent thinking during this late phase as they narrow down their options to one that will command their attention and energy.

The Life Cycle of a Group

The "forming, storming, norming, performing" model is attributed to Bruce Tuckman, who published it in 1965. In the 1970s, he added a fifth stage, adjourning. Tuckman's theory explains team development and behavior. The essence of the model is as follows (Avery, 2002):

  • Forming. This is the relatively easy part of the group process, where several people get together to form a group. At this stage, the group members are polite to one another and usually positive as they are full of good intentions.
  • Storming. The group has met interpersonal obstacles. There may be a leadership struggle and also dissonance. This is a difficult stage and has the potential of disintegrating the group. Its key characteristics are blaming, arguing, control struggle, disunity, tension, and jealousy. However, if the group resolves its difficulties and gets past this stage, better teamwork can ensue.
  • Norming. The group finds standards by which it would like to work and focuses on the uniting factors. The stages can alternate; in other words, even a group that performs well can occasionally lapse into storming. Groups can bounce back and forth between storming and norming.
  • Performing. Once the storming is complete, and the group has implemented its rules to contain the elements of storming, it can become productive. Focusing on the collective task and aligning its members' interests, the group functions well enough to produce the work required.
  • Adjourning. The group disbands after it has (hopefully) completed the task at hand. Mostly, and ideally, a well-functioning team should generate good relationships, some of which will continue after the group disbands.

Recent research on group functioning makes it clear that the context within which the group collaborates is crucial as well (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006, 2007). This context will define many facets of the group as it links to the system within which it functions, be it business, education, management, or others. For that reason, we feel that the final stage in the group process could be contextualizing, when the group is placed against the backdrop of a larger system or organization, in an ecosystemic manner. This concept would also reflect the current trend of systemic thinking in organizational psychology.

Creating Powerful Partnerships

Team collaboration with creative output in mind requires more than just an abundance of "creativity." In practice, creativity can be a somewhat loosely defined term, and West (2002) adds a valuable nuance to it by distinguishing between creativity and team innovation. According to West, team innovation is intentional, a conscious attempt by group members to initiate the changes that would bring about benefits. Among the factors that may contribute to this intentionality, he places high on the list the group's ability to form an emotionally secure work environment, one in which trust and mutual respect will create the sense of safety that is required for this type of mental synergy. West also discusses the ability of the group to collectively reflect on the process in which it is engaged. To an extent, these are principles that we recognize from a therapeutic context, where clients reflect in a safe environment of established rapport, warmth, and congruence. To these principles West adds yet another original concept, the "fourth element." This refers to the extent to which the group can manage the demands and threats that may affect its creativity and innovation. Just as in normal human development, where the child has to learn to tolerate some frustration in adapting to the realities of life, which inevitably involves delayed gratification or fulfillment of needs, similarly the group needs to be able to see the bigger picture and its end goal without getting caught up in minor discomforts.

The interrelatedness between emotion and performance in the group context has been a focus in recent years (Ashkenasy, 2004), as the range of emotions that arise within an individual, between team members, and from the group as a whole can play varying roles in supporting the creative process. Additionally, cognitive and skill-based outcomes can be positively influenced by team training. Teams that acquire additional knowledge and competencies through team management can perform at a higher level, and skills such as planning and coordination, collaborative problem solving, and communication can be enhanced through training (Ellis et al., 2005). A number of factors interact in influencing team performance, of which context is crucial, as described by Kozlowski and Ilgen (2006) in their groundbreaking work that sums up and integrates the research from the past 50 years.

Certain key words often come up when the constructive functioning of groups is discussed, such as generosity, helpfulness, respect, acknowledgment, appreciation, fairness, and ritual. These are the same elements that ensure healthy family functioning, and the lesson to be learned is that groups function as temporary mini-families and thus it is a good principle to apply the same rules as with families. The principles of good group functioning, loosely based on Avery (2002), are as follows, which are recognizable as characteristics that promote healthy and constructive interpersonal relationships:

  • Work with others to determine what is in it for them. Be generous, as united strengths lead to enhanced outcomes.
  • Be helpful to others (it is in your best interest). Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.
  • Protect others' interests. Play fair, communicate openly.
  • Give "efficient gifts" (favors that cost little or nothing but mean a lot to the recipient). Give them often and ask for favors with the same principle in mind; in other words, do your part in the group.
  • Celebrate others' successes. Give compliments where they are due and remember the fun part of being a team member. The celebratory ritual is a just reward and a powerful incentive.
  • Appreciate conflict. Disagreements within the team can be a learning opportunity.
  • Distinguish criticism from feedback. "Constructive" criticism can still be regarded as criticism, so go easy on it; rather, use a toned down version of feedback that is more respectful.
  • Practice "tit-for-tat." Be aware that certain actions lead to reactions from your teammates—cause and effect.
  • End with the beginning in mind. Find a way toward closure that does not close doors but allows for future collaboration.
  • Achieve closure. Design an emotionally meaningful way to end the group that will also celebrate success and leave the group emotionally satisfied.

In building a strong team, the characteristics that form the bricks and mortar of the team-building process are (1) mutual respect and agreement, (2) desire and motivation to work together, (3) support from one another, (4) maintaining a sense of humor, (5) capitalizing on each team member's strengths, (6) staying focused and pooling strengths and skills, (7) keeping the goals in sight, and finally (8) celebrating success!

Notwithstanding the best efforts at applying them, good teaming practices cannot replace the skills or techniques required to perform a specific task optimally. For instance, a poor musician will not enhance a chamber orchestra's performance, even if its members work well as a group. However, poor teaming strategies can turn potential success into failure, and it can rob participants of the emotional reward of being a member of a well-functioning team.

Enhancing Team Productivity

Ideally, a team has to hold a number of meetings following its formation, the first of which is designed to organize the team and to establish its expectations and norms. In this first meeting, the following team-building and meeting-management techniques can be employed:

  1. Introductions to help team members know each other
  2. Establishment of the agenda, to which all team members can contribute
  3. Check in/check out, an exercise held at the beginning and end of the meeting in which team members assess how they feel about the progress of the team and about their own expectations
  4. Establishment of team norms, a discussion of important guidelines and team rules including
    1. the obligation to dissent, which is the obligation of team members to voice their opinions and concerns even when it means disagreeing with other team members
    2. use of a peer leadership model, where different "emerging" leaders take turns to lead different phases of the project at hand
    3. use of the standard agenda creation process to ensure that team members know what will be discussed during the team meeting
    4. use of the check-in/check-out process at each meeting to keep the team apprised of individual concerns
  5. Establishment of team meeting schedule for regular meetings, for example, each week during the lunch hour on Tuesday and Thursday.

Certain characteristics can be identified in desirable team players. Learning what others' strengths are, and allowing them to shine, is a generous way of collaboration that facilitates and acknowledges ideas from other team members. This will make the team function more efficiently. Even "minor" capabilities can change the climate, such as organizational abilities. If a team member has good organizational skills and applies them in the team context, the person can be tasked to track references and act as "accuracy coach," who has the responsibility of reminding the rest of the team where they last left off and what tasks still need attention, as well as looking out for the team's best interests, such as staying on target and not straying off the topic in unconstructive ways. This skill immediately makes the person a valuable team member. So even if a team member is only good at something that may seem mundane, like being excellent at note taking, this skill may prove to be a valuable asset that will contribute to a better team. However, remember that it is equally important to try and fulfill members' interests besides the team's by allowing people to grow.

At the same time, bear in mind commonly occurring problems that could disrupt the creative team-building cycle (DeShon et al., 2004):

  • Absence of a team constitution, with no rules, no structure, and no decisions on how to bridge the rocky patches. Productivity does not miraculously flow from teams; it takes effort.
  • Allowing excessive perfectionism or pessimism to take over. Be realistic in the goals; if you overshoot the deadline, then you will miss the target completely.
  • Out of touch with the pulse of the team. A team can in its unison create its own cognitive domain. Be sensitive to the feedback of group members as their views reflect the climate of the group.

To overcome these problem areas, the team would do well to adopt a team decision-making process and a team conflict resolution process, as well as time management techniques to ensure that time together is used most effectively. In a troupe of dancers, although each member has a unique interpretative style, all dance in a loose unison as demanded by the choreography; they are part of a greater whole sharing a common goal. Similarly, in a sports team, each player is part of the larger team context, contributing to team success (or failure). The same applies to the workplace: there needs to be cohesion in the larger group context. The following team survival guidelines may prove to be valuable:

  • Know the expectations and roles of all team members.
  • Focus on strengths, as opposed to weaknesses.
  • Build team resources with brainstorming methodologies.
  • Read the team's feelings and be sensitive to the team climate.
  • Beware of the dreaded team killers: the pessimist and the perfectionist.
  • Build the right team: design it like you would anything else.
  • Resolve conflict: a stitch in time saves nine.
  • Deliver the product, gracefully and timely.

Finally, briefly reconsider the key characteristics of good team players, as individual strengths contribute to the overall strength of the team: intuitive, communicative, passionate, talented, creative, having initiative, responsible, generous, and influential (Avery et al., 1981).


The classic advice in an economic context is to use resources prudently for their maximum impact. These resources represent time, labor, money, and the many related derivatives from these three. Constructive teamwork pools energy, resources, and skills for mutually beneficial outcomes. The literature tells us repeatedly that in the majority of instances good teams do not form spontaneously and easily; rather, it demands expertise, and this expertise can be developed and nurtured. Individuals entering and participating in groups with the intent of being constructive collaborators have the ability to move along the group process swiftly and successfully to the envisaged goal. At the same time, they benefit as individuals. This applies to PBL groups as well. It is a win-win situation where the sum is indeed more than the parts. The "centrality and importance of teamwork across a wide landscape of modern life" (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006, p. 115), as highlighted by the authors who have contributed so much to the understanding of teamwork, requires that we learn to work as teams, harmoniously and productively, be it in the PBL classroom or in the workplace.


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Creativity and Group Dynamics in a Problem-based Learning Context

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