Special Report by David H Cropley, Professor of Engineering Innovation (UniSA STEM).

Change is everywhere and is constant. Whether that change is to the climate, to the economy, or to our health, change has one very important effect: it defines fresh problems. As the proportion of carbon in the atmosphere grew, an additional problem emerged: how to generate electricity without emissions. As a new virus emerged in early 2020, we suddenly had to address many ambiguous problems. How do we treat those infected with it? How do we cure it?

This problem-solving process defines the STEM disciplines—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. When the problems are new and unprecedented, then the solutions must also be new. The solution to climate change is not to build more coal-fired power stations! Producing new and effective solutions to the problems that surround us also has another name: creativity. Without this vital ingredient, STEM professionals could not design and develop the new technologies, the new drugs, and the new algorithms that we depend on as we respond to the changing world. Creativity, and creative problem solving, is an essential competency for STEM disciplines. Lacking creativity, our ancestors would not have designed the wheel, the steam engine, the Smallpox vaccine, the lightbulb, and the computer. Without STEM creativity, we would still live in caves.

Given the importance of creativity to STEM and problem solving, the absence of its deliberate development in our education systems is therefore somewhat surprising, perhaps until now. Anchored in education, the science of creativity began in the 1950s, and yet, even now, schools and universities often tackle it haphazardly. Not that authorities have ignored creativity, only that they have failed to resolve the question of how to develop it fully. One reason for this may be due to the fact that creativity, as a competency, is both general and nature, and subject specific. Also, our understanding of it is often poor.

How can the curriculum integrate creativity? This question is less about defining the curriculum itself (what we teach, how we assess it), but a matter of defining how to implement that curriculum. How to develop the underpinning cognitive skills, and the attitudes and dispositions, of creativity in primary school? How can these be maintained as students progress to more a subject-specific environment in high school? How to shape a general ability in creativity by particular disciplines such as STEM, as students move from high school to further education? National curricula that tackle creativity are a start, but what we need is a system-wide implementation strategy to embed creativity across all levels of education. Part of that implementation strategy should recognise that it is not the sole responsibility of schools to educate our children.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that learning goes beyond the classroom. Robert Sternberg, a leading creativity researcher, has described creativity as a habit, and the home environment presents parents with many opportunities to develop it, encourage it, and reward it. However, it is not enough for experts to tell parents that creativity is a matter of “thinking divergently”, “being open to new experiences”, or “taking risks”. These state what they need to do, but for most parents the key question remains how: how do I give my child an opportunity to think divergently, how do I encourage openness, how do I recognise risk-taking so I can reward it?

Girl with father building robot at home as a school science project. Photo © Kerkez / iStock

Creative Parenting: Solving a Problem with Science

How to Encourage Creative Problem-Solving

A simple approach, with a strong STEM flavour, is to consider any everyday object in the home. A screwdriver, for example. Ask your child what this object does: what problem does it solve? However, expressing this problem must be in the form “How to verb noun”, and the verb/noun must be as general as possible. “How to screw in a screw” is a reasonable answer, but even better, and more general, might be “How to rotate objects”, or for older children “How to apply rotational force”. Remind them that there is no single, perfect answer to this task.

Once you have defined the problem in this form, the next step is to solve the problem all over again, but avoiding “screwdriver” as the answer. A good way to do this is to create a scenario. Perhaps you say that your child’s bicycle has broken. You can fix it if you can just tighten a screw on it, but there is a problem. You have lost your screwdriver! So, the task is to find a way to “apply rotational force” without using a screwdriver.

Together, you may decide that a coin could be a solution. Or perhaps a credit card? Maybe a piece of string wound around the screw, or even just your fingers. Encourage lots of ideas and don’t worry about whether they might work. Any suggestion is an excellent suggestion at this stage.

Inspire Curiosity through Experimentation

Let your child try a coin and see if it works. Perhaps it does, but it’s very difficult to turn. Wind some string around the screw and see if that works. Perhaps the string slips too easily. Look at each of these solutions, not in black and white terms: either it works, or it doesn’t. Instead, look at each in terms of how well does it work? Ask what you could do to make any solution work better.

Through a simple exercise like this, we give our children an opportunity to experience the creative problem-solving process. We show them that not every problem has a single, correct answer, and that genuine problems are often ambiguous. We give them an opportunity to generate ideas, to deal with the uncertainty, and to take simple, safe, intellectual risks. We encourage them to draw on things they have learned at school, and to apply this to a real problem. In testing the solutions, we ask them to persist and keep trying, understanding and overcoming the obstacles a problem presents. We give them a chance to build their confidence and skill when they find a solution that works. Finally, if we do this in a supportive, encouraging and enthusiastic way, we help them enjoy the challenge of creative problem solving.

About the Author

David Cropley is an internationally recognised expert on creativity and innovation. His teaching interests focus on systems engineering and related concepts, and his research examines a range of aspects of creativity and innovation, both in engineering, and more broadly. David has appeared on “Redesign My Brain” (ABC TV, 2013, 2015) and “Life at 9” (ABC TV, 2014) discussing various aspects of creativity, cognitive flexibility and problem solving.