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Virginia Journal of Education

Extra Imagination

Here are some tools to help you teach creatively in a standards-based classroom.

by Laurie Abeel

Wouldn’t it be nice if (WIBNI) we had time to be creative, provide creative activities in class, and allow our students to express their creativity – and learn at the same time? WIBNI we didn’t feel stifled by the high-stakes testing that seems to prevent us from teaching creatively? Thinking creatively and critically are keys to becoming lifelong learners, but teachers are caught between teaching vital 21st-century skills and high-stakes testing based on state standards. So let’s change the question! “How might we utilize new strategies and tools to help teach the standards creatively? How might we use higher-level thinking skills to engage and motivate our students to apply, analyze, evaluate and synthesize learning throughout life?

Creative Problem Solving Tools
You probably have a toolbox of strategies to use in planning and teaching; including Creative Problem Solving (CPS) tools will help you to infuse creativity into daily lessons. Generating tools provide students with unique strategies to be fluent, flexible and original, and to elaborate their ideas. Fluency involves generating many ideas. The more ideas we have, the more varied the ideas become. The more varied they become, the more original they might become, thus leading to more elaborate or detailed ideas.

When students generate ideas, be certain they accept all ideas. Think about what happens when one student in a group says, “That’s a stupid idea!” or “I love that idea!” Typically, idea generation stops. Other students hesitate to contribute, for fear of criticism or rejection. Instead, then, allow all ideas to be accepted as is during idea generation. Later, when focusing, you can rank, analyze, evaluate, compare and categorize them.

CPS tools can be used with students of any age or grade level. The Center for Creative Learning’s “basic toolbox” (presented, with their permission, in Table 1) includes five generating tools and five focusing tools.


Table 1. Creative Problem Solvers Basic Toolbox

Tools for Generating Options                       
a. Brainstorming and its variations. Generating many, varied or unusual options for an open-ended task or question. (Variations include Brainwriting, ABC Brainstorming and Brainstorming with Post-It® Notes.) 
b. Force-Fitting.  Using objects or words that seem unrelated to the task or problem, or to each other, to create new possibilities or connections. 
c. Attribute Listing. Using the core elements or attributes of a task or challenge as a springboard for generating novel directions or improvements. 
d. SCAMPER. Applying a checklist of action words or phrases from the letters in SCAMPER (“idea-spurring questions”) to evoke or “trigger” new or varied possibilities. 
|e. Morphological Matrix. An analytical tool for identifying the key parameters of a task, generating possibilities for each parameter, and then investigating possible combinations (“mixing and matching”). 

Tools for Focusing Options
a. Hits and Hot Spots. Selecting promising or intriguing possibilities (identifying “hits”) and clustering, categorizing, organizing or compressing them in meaningful ways (finding “hot spots”).
b. ALoU: Refining and Developing. Using a deliberate, constructive approach to strengthening or improving options, by considering Advantages, Limitations (and ways to overcome them), and Unique features.
c. PCA: Paired Comparison Analysis. Setting priorities or ranking options through a systematic analysis of all possible combinations.
d. Sequencing: SML. Organizing and focusing options by considering short-, medium- or long-term actions.
e. Evaluation Matrix. Using specific criteria in a systematic manner to evaluate each of several options or possibilities to guide judgment and selection of options.

© 2004, Center for Creative Learning

Generating Tools
Brainstorming is the most common generating tool. However, there are different ways to brainstorm other than students shouting out ideas while someone else scribes. Post-it® Brainstorming allows students to generate one idea per Post-it®. Students place their notes on a wall or board where others students can read their ideas. This helps to avoid “that’s my idea” since all the Post-it® notes are placed randomly. ABC Brainstorming asks students to write the letters of the alphabet down the side of a piece of paper and then generate ideas beginning with each letter. Brainwriting is a good tool for students who are internal processors. Create nine equal boxes on a piece of paper (like a tic-tac-toe box). As the students generate ideas, they write down one idea per box in the top row only. Working in small groups, they can exchange papers with another person in the group and write down three additional ideas in the second row. Ask them to write three ideas not already written. Do this one more time, finding a sheet on which they haven’t already written. Read the six ideas already listed, and generate three more for the bottom row. A four-student group has just generated 36 ideas (4 students x 9 ideas per paper). If you have five groups in your room, you could have up to 180 (36 x 5) ideas!

Force-Fitting involves using random objects with no connection to the task or problem and “forcing” them together to stimulate new and unique ideas. Try providing a “grab bag” of small items that the students pull out one by one. For example, think about “analyzing literature” and “a pair of scissors.” What new ideas does that suggest? Scissors cut; connecting that idea with analyzing, we might think, “ways to slice up the analysis into pieces.” Scissors also include two parts that work together to complete the function. Force-fitting that idea could lead to looking at two opposing characters to develop an analysis about point of view. A fifth grade history class used Force-Fitting, focusing on SOL US 1.8c, and generated interesting and unique inventions that would improve people’s lives today. Each group was given newspaper advertisements along with randomly selected objects to combine with these product ideas to generate five new products.

Attribute Listing works by breaking down a challenge, problem or question into several main elements. Once they’ve generated those, the students think about how they might modify or change each of those attributes. For example, think about the attributes of a bicycle, and ask, “How might we modify the different elements?” Perhaps you would change the handlebar to a steering wheel, or change the bike seat to a couch cushion. Students can generate as many ideas as possible for each of the attributes. In Attribute Listing, encourage students to use all five senses in thinking about the object’s attributes. For instructional use, consider “list and modify the attributes of main characters in a novel or play,” or the parts of a science experiment, or aspects of an important event in history.

The SCAMPER tool uses an acronym students can apply to generate new and unusual ideas. The letters represent: S=Substitute, C=Combine, A=Adapt, M=Modify, Magnify or Minify, P=Put to other uses, E=Eliminate, R=Reverse or Rearrange. For example, if you were discussing the story of Cinderella, what could you Substitute in place of an event, object or person? Perhaps Cinderella would wear tennis shoes instead of a glass slipper, or we might put the pumpkin coach to a different use as a Jack-o-Lantern. In a sixth grade science class, students applied SOLs 6.2 c and d, by SCAMPERing various forms of energy available to human use to change or alter it. First-graders SCAMPERed Jack and the Beanstalk while learning about seasonal changes (SOL 1.7) and writing original stories (SOL 1.12). In history, students could SCAMPER a major event and ask many “What if?” questions. They could even SCAMPER parts of a mathematical equation.

Morphological Matrix is an enjoyable way to generate 10,000 ideas in a short amount of time. The example in Figure 1, created by one of my graduate students, shows how to set up and use the tool. First, ask the students to think of attributes of the item or topic (e.g., generating different dinner combinations using Appetizer, Main Dish, Side Dish and Dessert) and list them as the labels of each column. Then generate ideas for each column, one column at a time. Don’t try to connect ideas in one column with the ideas in the other columns. Looking at the sample, if we randomly chose the numbers 4-8-7-0, we would have dinner of French Onion Soup, Spaghetti, white rice and a chocolate chip cookie! (For your four numbers, use the last four digits of a phone number, or place the 0-9 numbers in four cans or jars from which to draw.) Note that with 10 options per 4 columns, there are 10,000 (10x10x10x10) combinations! Instructional uses might include: creating interesting ideas for stories or science fair projects, important aspects in history, parts of a math word problem, or interesting and novel art projects. Middle and high school science classes have used this tool to design science fair projects using the categories Dependent Variable, Independent Variable, Control and Constant. Using this tool for a story, ideas could be generated for the attributes of Protagonist, Antagonist, Conflict and Setting.



Figure 1. Morphological Matrix

    APPETIZER            MAIN DISH        SIDE DISH        DESSERT

0  Wings                        Fried chicken        Broccoli             Choco. chip cookie
1  Vegetable tray           Steak                    Carrots                Cheesecake
2  Calamari                    Pancakes               Salad                  Mousse
3  Shrimp cocktail         Chili                      Onion rings     Strawberry ice crm
4  French onion soup     Scrambled eggs     Green beans       Cotton candy
5  Potato skins               Pizza                      Baked potato       Tart
6  Mozzarella sticks      Turkey                    Fried rice           Apple pie
7  Stuffed mushrooms    Lasagna                 White rice          Cherry pie
8  Spinach artichock dip Spaghetti              French fries       Ice cream
9  Tomato soup               Barbecue ribs        Beans                 Sorbet     


Focusing Tools
Hits and Hot Spots allows students to focus their many ideas into categories or Hot Spots. For example, if the students used Post-it® Brainstorming to generate a large pool of ideas, they might next review them all and decide which of those ideas really “Hit” them (i.e., seemed very positive or appealing). Allow each student three “hits” as they walk around the room, reading each idea. Identify the hits with a marker to make a dot on the Post-It®, or round label stickers, or check-marks on the paper. Add a hit on a Post-It® even if it has already been “hit” 10 times. Once all students have marked their “hits,” ask some students to take off all the Post-Its® that have been “hit” and group these ideas according to categories or Hot Spots. For example, fifth grade history students analyzed how the cotton gin, reaper, steamboat and steam locomotive affected the lives of Americans in the 1800s (SOL US 1.8c). They used Post-It® Brainstorming to generate ideas about what makes a product successful, and then used Hits and Hot Spots to focus ideas into categories such as price, appearance and usefulness, utilizing analysis and evaluation, higher-order thinking skills.

Use the ALoU tool to evaluate a small set of promising ideas (often 1-3 options). Ask students to think critically about the ideas, considering Advantages, Limitations, how to overcome those limitations and Unique features. After completing this for each idea, they can make a fair and balanced decision. This is also an excellent tool for evaluating a lesson, unit or class. The fifth grade history class previously mentioned used ALoU to determine what invention among the five choices they generated in the Force-Fitting activity would be the best option. Students used criteria that would make the invention marketable and created a poster advertisement for their product.

Paired Comparison Analysis (PCA) works by comparing several promising ideas (often 4-6) with each other to rank or prioritize them. Compare all possible pairings, one pair at a time (e.g., Option A versus Option B, then with C, D and E. Then, Option B with C, D, and E, and so on). For each pair, ask “By how much do I value one option over the other?” A sixth grade class that used SCAMPER to alter forms of energy then used PCA to compare each idea with each other while thinking about availability, cost, impact on human life and impact on nature.

SML (Short, Medium, Long) – Sequencing Tool can be used for time management and organizing options. For example, if you assigned a two-week project, tell the students that within 24 hours (Short), they need to bring in a research topic, materials they need, a resource they found, etc. For Medium, perhaps they need to decide what they need to have completed by the end of the week. Long would include all the pieces they need to complete by the end of the two weeks. If they are working in groups, they would also need to decide who was responsible for each of these pieces to ensure the project is completed on time, and that each group member completed his or her task.

Evaluation Matrix allows the students to develop criteria to evaluate a larger set of ideas. Create a chart listing the promising ideas listed down the side (as rows), and the criteria across the top (as column headers). The acronym CARTS (for Cost, Acceptance, Resources, Time and Space) can help in identifying general criteria. Next, rate each idea, using one criterion at a time; completing the chart one column at a time. Rate the ideas on a scale (e.g., 1-5 or 1-3, or with “smiley” and “frowny faces” for younger students) to evaluate their ideas. A high school history class generated ideas about what could have happened if certain aspects of Pearl Harbor were changed using SCAMPER (SOL VUS.10). By using an Evaluation Matrix, they evaluated their new “event” and explained which alternative would have been “best.”

These CPS tools all involve higher levels of thinking. The generating tools allow for synthesis or creation of new ideas, the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy. The focusing tools also allow the students to apply, analyze, evaluate and create.

President Obama has said, “Our success as a nation depends on strengthening America's role as the world's engine of discovery and innovation.” It is difficult to argue with this notion. If we emphasize only “passing the test,” instead of fostering higher-level thinking and creative problem solving, we will be unlikely to attain this worthy goal. My graduate students implemented these tools in their classrooms, and their students’ feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Their students not only learned the content and did well on the SOL tests, they actually enjoyed learning! Thus, considering again the questions posed at the beginning of this article, “Yes! We can teach creatively, students can learn the standards, and we can again enjoy teaching!”

For more information
The Center for Creative Learning ( offers many resources to help teachers implement Creative Problem Solving. Destination ImagiNation® ( is a creative problem solving program that uses these tools to help teams find creative solutions to research-based challenges.

Abeel is an associate professor of Foundations, Leadership and Special Populations at the University of Mary Washington.


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