When teaching creative problem solving, it is important that students develop flexible thinking, the ability to come up with a variety of categories for potential answer
In creative problem solving, a student who demonstrates flexible thinking is one who can group ideas into different categories. If a student can generate ideas that fit into many groups, that student is a flexible thinker. After learning fluency which is the ability to generate ideas, students should be able to categorize those ideas.
Flexible thinking is an important part of creative problem solving, because problems are often solved by looking at a variety of sources. Solutions come from unexpected directions, and students should be encouraged to think flexibly -- in a variety of categories -- when solving problems.
Teaching Flexible Thinking in Elementary Gifted Classrooms
Before learning flexibility, students should have a good understanding of fluency. Teachers should either have students generate lists of ideas, or have lists of ideas available to students. At the elementary level, it is important that teachers introduce students to flexible thinking using concrete ideas.
Abstract concepts are hard to categorize, even for gifted students. Because abstract reasoning develops at different rates in children, handing a gifted child a mixed list of concrete and abstract ideas may prove to be more frustrating than productive.
A Flexible Thinking Activity for Elementary Students
Instruct students to bring pictures of pets or magazine cut-outs of animals. The teachers should also have an assortment of animal pictures available. As a class, generate a list of types of animals based on the pictures. Then, have the students individually categorize the list.
Some students might be limited to listing animals such as dogs, cats, and fish. Other students might have more categories, and some animals might fit into multiple categories. A student might have mammals, large animals, pets, and animals with tails as categories. A horse would fit into all of those groups. That student would be using flexible thinking.
Teaching Flexible Thinking in Middle School Gifted Classrooms
Middle school gifted students are ready to tackle abstract concepts as they learn creative problem solving. Although flexibility should be introduced using concrete examples, middle school students will be able to incorporate additional layers with abstractions. In the animal example, teachers might want to include mythical creatures, which would bring in a layer of imaginative thinking.
A Flexible Thinking Activity for Middle School Students
Even though middle schoolers have outgrown many childhood toys, most middle school students have a childhood toy that they will enjoy bringing to class and sharing. It is important that they bring a toy that they do not mind letting other people touch. Teachers should have additional toys on hand in case some students do not bring them.
Students should describe the toy to the class, and the class can make a master list on the board. The list should include features of each person's toy. Some features might include the number of parts, functionality (example: it is an indoor or outdoor toy), if it makes noise, and the materials the toys are made of. After the students have generated a list (fluency), they should individually group different toys into different categories.
Grading Flexible Thinking
Students should be able to put a large list of ideas into a variety of groups. If a student has trouble categorizing ideas, the teacher first needs to make sure that the original list had obvious groupings. If the list did not lend itself to flexible thinking, a low number of groups would be acceptable. If the list had a variety of different options, teachers should expect a higher number of groupings. Flexible thinking takes time and practice to develop. Grades should reflect growth in ability, rather than meeting a set number of groups.
Once students master fluency and flexibility, they are able to generate lists of potential solutions for given problems. These are foundational steps for creative problem solving, and they give students the luxury of having many options to choose from when determining the best answer.
Originally posted on Suite101 on October 8th, 2008
Ally Sharp is a teacher, writer and editor, and technology trainer.