Problems and Creativity

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Problems and Creativity

Oon-Seng Tan, Chua-Tee Teo, and Stefanie Chye
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


In a world filled with challenges where evolutionary and revolutionary innovations are increasingly valued, the capacity for creativity and innovation has emerged as all-important. This chapter argues that problems provide opportunities for innovation by acting as a catalyst for creative thought. It draws upon real-world examples of innovations and anecdotes from the lives of prominent creators to illustrate how problems can engage curiosity, inquiry, and thinking in meaningful and powerful ways. To be compatible with the demands exerted on individuals today, education must change such that problems are used as a means of fueling learning and as a vehicle for cultivating creativity. This need provides the basis for problem-based learning, an instructional method that encourages the development of creative thinking and creative problem solving. Recommendations for an education that is future-ready are considered, with emphasis placed on the salient role that must be granted to creativity and problem-based learning if this goal is to be achieved.


In September 2007, the first author was invited by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to give an Education and Human Resource Distinguished Lecture in Washington, D.C. Despite being the presenter, he discovered that he was learning a great deal from the questions posed by members of the distinguished audience. The presence of leading scientists, researchers, educators, and human resources experts turned an hour's presentation into a meeting of minds. Fresh insights arise and intuitive learning happens in interesting ways when multiple perspectives are woven and new synergies are sought. Although problems and challenges have always existed, they are coming with increasing frequency, complexity, and diversity. We face not only more and tougher problems but also newer problems and shorter time frames for problem resolution, as well as more global (larger scale) problems requiring integrated solutions. As such, the search for solutions, and how to do it effectively and expediently, becomes increasingly important. From issues as diverse as dealing with global environmental hazards, finding alternative energy sources, and arresting destructive trends in society to developing new drugs, raising agricultural yields, or simply improving a process, we need to look at problems anew. The purpose of research at NSF is to use scientia for the betterment of humanity, and billions of dollars is poured into research every year in the United States. In many other countries, including Singapore, more and more resources are also being directed at research and education, in the quest to solve the never-ending problems of humanity.

Scientia is the Latin word for "knowledge." The knowledge that both basic and applied research feeds on today is multidisciplinary in nature. In this new millennium, knowledge is increasingly characterized by the creative integration of information and learning from diverse disciplines. Life science research would not be what it is today without the new connections made between chemistry, biology, physics, and computer technology. The advent of supercomputers has catalyzed research in life sciences and accelerated breakthroughs in biotechnology. The miniaturization of digital devices has been made possible by nanotechnology, a branch of material science, which combines engineering with the basic sciences of chemistry and physics. In industry and business, innovations are made often without the benefit of traditional learning paradigms and models. The real world, in fact, thrives on both evolutionary and revolutionary innovations.

Incidentally, that September in 2007, Todd Siler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was having his works displayed at the gallery of NSF. Siler's "artscience" of neurocosmology in many ways epitomizes the way to understand knowledge advancement today. The universe as Siler (1990) sees it imparts its creative processes to us. The creative God of this universe has given us an environment where creativity can be seen everywhere in the universe and in nature all around us. No wonder the observation of nature itself often yields ideas for replication and innovation. For example, by studying the dragonfly, scientists discovered the secret of a water sac that protects the insect's delicate body, which led to a fighter pilot suit designed to prevent life-threatening tunnel vision and blackout during high-speed flights.

Siler's artscience brings home the power of connectivity. Like the power of neurons firing and connecting to produce a "mechanism of meaning" (a term Siler borrowed from the artist Arakawa and writer Madeline Gins), we need to appreciate the power of different perspectives and of different ways of observing and learning. Indeed, as Bronowski (1956) put it succinctly decades ago, "The scientist or the artist takes two facts or experiences which are separate; he finds in them a likeness which had not been seen before; and he creates a unity by showing the likeness" (p. 27).

Problems as Sources of Creativity

Breakthroughs in science and technology are often the result of a fascination with problems. Great learning often begins with preoccupation with a problem, followed by taking ownership of the problem and harnessing multiple dimensions of thinking. The history of science reveals to us that necessity is often the mother of invention. During World War II, research in nuclear technology was accelerated in a desperate search for a powerful weapon that could defeat the invaders and end the atrocities they committed in Europe and Asia. Similarly, the mathematics of operations research was advanced as a result of looking for ways to optimize the combat effectiveness of warships in different locations in the ocean.

Other than high technology, there are countless simple innovations that are designed to make our lives better or easier. After World War II, many parts of the world were threatened by food shortage. A Japanese entrepreneur by the name of Momofuku Ando wanted to lend a hand to help the thousands of starving people in different parts of the globe. But keeping food fresh, hygienic, and safe for consumption over long distances was problematic. Noodle was a common staple, and Ando sought an economical way to bring it to people sometimes living in remote places. The problem led him to the idea of instant noodles that can be easily and quickly cooked. Ando invented the world's first bag-packed "chicken ramen" and in 1948 founded Nissin Food Products. In 1971, he took it one step further and the "cup noodle" was born. Today, Nissin registers annual sales of some 300 billion yen.

Problems can take various forms, such as failure to perform, situations in need of immediate attention or improvement, a need to find better or new ways to do things, unexplained phenomena or observations, gaps in information and knowledge, decision-making situations, or a need for new designs or innovations. If we adopt a mindset of learning from problems, there will be real improvement and advancement. The Defence Science Organisation in Singapore is known for its military innovations, such as lighter helmets, rifles, and field equipment designed for greater dexterity and effectiveness. Problems, big or small, can be opportunities for innovation. In Sri Lanka, villages used to rely on kerosene lamps that easily toppled over and rolled on the floor. Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura, a surgeon, found that 40 percent of accidental burn injuries were due to such lamps. But poverty did not permit villagers to switch to other, safer types of lighting. Dr. Godakumbura came up with a simple solution: a short and heavy lamp with two flat sides and a screw-on metal lid. This way the lamp would not topple easily and, even if it did, it would not roll and spill kerosene. Today, more than half a million lamps of this design are in use in Sri Lanka, and the International Red Cross has taken the design elsewhere, such as Banda Aceh in Indonesia.

A problem triggers engagement in terms of emotional motivation and deep thinking. When we are solving a problem, we engage in an active search for meaningful information, a proactive immersion in the task, a conscious and subconscious investment of time on the task, and a search for meaning and explanation, along with the adoption of goal and future orientations. In real-world problem solving, the context always appears unstructured in the first instance, and it takes big picture thinking (i.e., a broad overview or a helicopter view of things), analytical thinking, as well as generative and divergent thinking to produce effective solutions.

Education and Creativity

Education today in many ways needs a new science of dealing with knowledge and information, together with a new art of observation and learning. Even in the past, Aristotle, Euclid, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, da Vinci, and Pascal made use of the ways of knowing from both the humanities and the sciences. Contrary to Snow's (1998) "two cultures" viewpoint, the sciences and the humanities as we know them today are complementary ways of knowing: acknowledging the reality of chaos and uncertainty yet employing the power of evidence and objectivity. A future-ready education must change and use "problems" for learning and infuse creative ways of observation to construct, derive, and create knowledge in students.

Kline (1991) articulates most aptly that "the intelligent person is far more easily spotted from his response to new problems not his knowledge of old solutions" (p. 31). Since time immemorial, the intelligence of individuals has been gauged from the questions they ask and the problems they are able to solve. If only schools are able to nurture students who are curious and capable of solving new problems, we would have cultivated more intelligent and creative adults for the future society.

The thrust of education is to help students construct their own knowledge about the world rather than passively receiving information. Educational programs with creative problem-solving orientations appear to also stimulate other creative processes in students (VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006). The ability of problem-based learning to enhance creative thinking in students has been reported in various countries across disciplines. To solve real-world problems, we need not only logical thinking but also "ana-logical" thinking, the ability to creatively and laterally transfer a whole set of ideas across to another situation. In effective problem solving, not only do we need to be able to draw on and integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, but we also have to be highly dexterous and flexible in employing diverse modes of thinking, such as seeing the big picture, generating new and alien ideas and viewpoints, as well as having a good sense of reality in terms of the constraints of circumstances, resources, the human perception, and so on. We must learn to be open to new ideas and approaches, and never box ourselves in with preexisting assumptions and fixed ways of doing things. Problems can trigger curiosity, inquiry, and thinking in meaningful and powerful ways. Education needs a new perspective of searching for problems and looking at problems that will achieve the aim of helping students construct their own knowledge.

In designing educational programs, we can learn much from the legacy of scientific discoveries. The ability to see a problem amidst a mass of information, to make observations and connections, and to take ownership of problems is necessary to problem solving. Sometimes, immersion in a problem leads to accidental discoveries. At a Stanford alumni gathering in Singapore, Professor Douglas Osheroff revealed how his work led to a Nobel Prize discovery. Osheroff was a graduate student of David Lee and Robert Richardson at Cornell University. At that time, they were looking for "a phase transition to a kind of magnetic order in frozen helium-3 ice," but Osheroff's immersion in the problem led him to observe a different phenomenon: the superfluidity of helium-3. The breakthrough in low-temperature physics won the team the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Figure 1.1 illustrates how problems lead to cognition and learning. A problem triggers the context for engagement, curiosity, inquiry, and a quest to address a real-world concern. These psychological events, in turn, set in motion certain mental processes (cognition) and behavioral changes (learning).

The Creative Process

The creative ability may be understood as a form of cognitive fluidity underpinning the capacity to operate on familiar symbolic representations that allows novel ones to be generated (Gregory, 2004). Piirto (2004), after examining creativity from the psychological, psychoanalytic, philosophic, business, and technological perspectives, defines the creative process in terms of the seven I's: inspiration, imagery, imagination, intuition, insight, incubation, and improvisation. Here, the creative process is viewed as a change in perception, or seeing new idea combinations, new relationships, new meanings, or new applications that have not been perceived before.

The creative act may be regarded either as a mental or intellectual phenomenon, known as creative thinking or divergent thinking, or as a process that generates social and cultural products, such as music as well as works of art, science, and technology, a concept known as divergent production (Guilford, 1950). Treffinger describes the creative process as a sequence of stages through which a problem is solved systematically (Treffinger, 1996; Treffinger et al., 1994). The term creative problem solving was coined by Osborn (1963) and defined as comprising just three stages: (1) fact finding, including identifying a problem and gathering facts; (2) idea finding; and (3) solution finding, including evaluating and implementing ideas.

Martindale (1999) notes the existence of distinct cognitive phases typical in problem solving, discovery, and creative and imagination-rich thinking. The first of these states of mind, the initial phase, is characterized by conscious logical and reality-oriented reasoning, or "secondary process thinking." The next phase is incubation, a "fallow period" in which no apparent progress on the task or problem at hand is made, and a strong sense of frustration and block may be felt. Then, when the mind has not been consciously focused on the problem for a time, there is illumination or solution. Both the incubation and illumination phases are thought to be characterized by free-associative, nonlogical thinking, also called "primary process thinking." In addition, the illumination phase is often noted to be accompanied by emotional euphoria, as epitomized by Archimedes' "Eureka!" as he allegedly jumped from the bath upon realizing the principle of displacement of a liquid by a solid. Many great composers and artists are reported to be most prolific when they are in a sustained form of euphoria.

Better known are the stages of the creative process suggested by Graham Wallas in 1926 in The Art of Thought (cited in Davis & Rimm, 2004). These are preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The preparation stage involves the clarification and definition of the problem, review of relevant material, examination of the requirements for problem solution, collection of data, and understanding of implications, other innuendos, and previous unsuccessful solutions. The incubation stage is a period of "off-conscious" reflection when the person goes about his or her daily routine and is not actively seeking the solution. The third stage of illumination is when the solution suddenly appears to the person, as in the "Eureka!" or "Aha!" experience. This may come only after many hours of hard work or it may not come at all. The last stage is the verification of the solution, during which the feasibility, workability, or acceptability of the proposed solution is checked. These stages are not necessarily sequential; some may be skipped or the person may backtrack to an earlier stage (Davis & Rimm, 2004).

Another way of looking at the creative process is to apply a two-stage model devised by Davis (1998) that involves a "big idea" stage and an "elaboration" stage. The big idea stage is a time of fantasy when one looks for a new, exciting idea or the solution to the problem. Upon stumbling on the "big idea," one then proceeds to develop it such that it can be elaborated, extended, and implemented. For instance, the artist will first sketch preliminary drawings and then make refinements. The novelist must first draft the story and then revise and re-revise it. The researcher or the entrepreneur needs to organize the details of the big idea before carrying out the work required for its implementation.

In whatever way a person understands the creative process or the production of creative outputs, one would invariably look for attributes of fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration, as described by Torrance (1966, 1995) and Guilford (1967). And as teachers, we are all too aware of the positive effects of teaching for creativity in the classroom and cultivating creative traits in students. So how do we go about nurturing creativity?

Problem-based Learning and Creative Problem Solving

The problem-based learning (PBL) process essentially consists of the following stages: (1) meeting the problem; (2) problem analysis and generatio of learning issues; (3) discovery and reporting; (4) solution presentation and reflection; and (5) overview, integration, and evaluation, with self-directed learning bridging one stage and the next (Tan, 2003).

In PBL, the problem is cast in a realistic context that the student might encounter in future. Although creative individuals tend to work alone, students in PBL classes work in groups brainstorming issues pertaining to the understanding of the problem and defining it by group consensus. They then work independently on their own to search for more information related to the problem before generating hypotheses and possible explanations to the problem. While this stage may be similar to some of the stages involved in creative problem solving (CPS), PBL in addition calls for the formulation of learning objectives and the assignment of self-directed learning and peer teaching.

The discovery stage in PBL is limited to researching existing information found in books and on the Internet. It is not intuitive like the "Eureka!" experience at the illumination stage of the creative process. Although the discovery process in PBL may be speedy and time-saving, originality may be compromised. On the other hand, by sharing research work and findings, learning is augmented for students in PBL, as the sum of learning by the group is greater than the learning by the individual students or the teaching given by a single teacher in the routine classroom. However, students must be taught to be critical and not blindly accept and follow the ideas put forth by peers. Otherwise, they may lose their ability to think independently or to discriminate between good and poor ideas. Blind imitation also stifles creativity.

The articulation of the learning and knowledge acquired in the attempt to solve the given problem helps students clarify their thinking and formulate conceptions accurately and contextually. This stage of PBL encourages students to reflect consciously on their learning, although reflection in the creative process occurs at the incubation stage and is not fully conscious. Finally, the review, evaluation, and integration of learning across disciplines at the last stage of PBL enables the learner to make sense of the new knowledge constructed as a result of problem solving.

In all instances of learning, students need to be involved in active thinking, both creative and critical. Thinking cannot occur in a vacuum; it has to take place within a system (Elder & Paul, 2007), like in the context of a problem. Thinkers mentally create provisional small-scale logical models for figuring out the system to be understood, which may or may not match reality. Whether it is PBL or CPS, students are urged to collect evidence, test hypotheses, draw inferences on possible solutions to the problem, and then evaluate the outcomes.

When thinking something through for the first time, one generates new ideas, new assumptions, and new concepts by asking new questions, making new inferences, and allowing views to form in new directions. This is basically a creative act. Reasoning or critical thinking is inherently creative, and we need to recognize that critical and creative thinking are inseparable and integrated (Elder & Paul, 2007). In both PBL and CPS, students usually remember some parts of what was figured out previously and then work out the rest anew as they strive to connect new understandings and discoveries to their prior knowledge.

However, novel solutions alone are not enough for resolving a problem. Worthless novelty is easy to produce, but whatever synthesized as the solution must meet the intellectual criteria or intrinsic standards known for the intended product or outcome. Creative methods like brainstorming and insight development may be helpful in generating useful ideas or workable solutions and in understanding the problem for both PBL and CPS.

While PBL and CPS are similar in their goals and the use of critical and creative thinking in problem solving, they differ in thrust or emphasis, their practical applications, and the degree of divergence and complexity. The thrust of PBL is to nurture self-directed learners (Tan, 2003), and herethe aim of promoting creativity is to inculcate an independent attitude to problem identification and solution. The understanding built from self-directed learning is augmented through the sharing of learning experiences with one's group. PBL is designed to provide a realistic and practical setting for collaborative learning, with all members of the group contributing to problem solving. It is thus more efficient as work is shared. PBL naturally finds its applications more in group-based learning, while CPS applies more to individual settings. Consequently, the pool of ideas generated by the different group members tends to exhibit a higher degree of divergence and complexity compared with the ideas generated by the individual in CPS.


We recommend that schools begin with PBL and at the same time encourage the development of creativity and the creative attributes of risk taking and divergent and convergent thinking in students. The rationale for employing PBL in developing creativity is that students feel more confident when working in groups.

Creativity is more readily developed in disciplinary areas where the content and process of learning are susceptible to "creative treatment." Students may be exposed to different artistic media and ways of expressing themselves orally, visually, or kinesthetically, in words, dance, or other creative modes. Teachers may ask students open-ended questions and deploy problem-based scenarios to illicit unusual responses.

Reflecting on ideas and considering alternatives constantly is a way to ensure that fresh ideas surface. It appears that creativity evolves from students' deep knowledge of a domain and self-knowledge (VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006). Providing students with opportunities to plan, monitor, and assess their own work is crucial to becoming more creative. Giving alternative forms of assignments and allowing choice encourage students to become flexible and creative as well.

Another way of helping students understand the development of creativity is to read to them biographies or autobiographies of individuals who have achieved creative breakthroughs in various fields, so that students may appreciate the obstacles that creative personalities need to overcome, the many failures that they have gone through, and the immense amount of effort that they have put in. This will create in students a cognitive and affective awareness of the hardship associated with the development of creative abilities (VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006).

The above recommendations form a two-pronged approach in fostering problem-solving abilities and nurturing creativity. With PBL implemented in schools, students will become proficient in the methodology of guided discoverylearning. At the same time, as teachers strive to provide the pedagogy and environment to nurture creativity in various subject areas, including incorporating PBL as part of the curriculum, students will gradually integrate creative attributes into their lives. With the passage of time and with maturity, highly creative students will surpass their peers and may go on to produce original and true scientific discoveries or great artistic innovations.

The progress of humankind is obviously dependent on our ability to create and be creative, not only in problem solving but also in understanding uncharted territories yet to be conquered by the all-powerful human mind or intellect. With PBL as a solid foundation in the training of young students to solve real-life problems through inquiry and independent learning and thinking, we are one step nearer to the goal of education, namely, to bring civilization to greater heights, joyfully.


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