Creativity – Synectics approach

In 2006, when I was learning about mastery grading and working on bumping up my lessons to encourage/enhance complex and abstract thinking in my students-I had lots of opportunities to explore the idea of creativity.

For me, the basic concept of creativity is actually pretty simple: you have to understand that concept at a thorough level and then look for ways to apply entirely different concepts or different domains to see it from a new perspective. A simple way to do this is to look for a metaphor or process that is familiar to students and then apply that to a concept they have just learned. For example, when I taught about amps, volts, and resistance in a science unit we discussed how electricity flows and can be restricted. From there we took the idea of water, the flow of water, and tried to create models to demonstrate how flow can be increased and decreased based off of factors that are similar to amps, volts, and resistance. You could take the concept of traffic flow, bandwidth, and maybe even soundwaves to get similar cross-over concepts. This is particularly powerful for students who may be high-performing but focus on learning the facts and the reality of something instead of using their creativity to see something from a different perspective. The end result of this kind of process causes students to understand the root concept more deeply and take a playful approach to looking at things through different lenses. Another key ingredient is for the teacher to give students permission to try on different concepts and to encourage students to take risks to discover something new about a concept they already understand.

A formal teaching strategy that builds creativity is called synectics. Here’s a link to a wiki about it.

The basic principle is to take a concept that is familiar, then students use creativity and metaphor to make the concept unfamiliar. Basically, students take an idea like democracy and then try to use different metaphors like baking in an oven to explore democracy further. The process is kind of like trying on different metaphors or symbols from other processes or acts (some stick well and some don’t – but it’s all okay and part of the process). Basic questions that a teacher would need to ask in the example provided would be: in what ways is democracy like baking something in the oven? What provides the heat in a democracy? What are you trying to cook in democracy? Can democracy be burned or overcooked? From there, hopefully, many more questions and “aha” moments will emerge. It is also fun to take the analogy to an extreme: Who is the cook? What are the dials? How would an oven look in a different government system? These questions lead students (and often the teacher) to a deep understanding of a concept that is usually defined in under 20 words in the back of a book! It also lends itself to further research and new discoveries – the analogy might create “blanks/gaps” during the comparison that students will naturally try to fill.

The other angle of synectics is to make the strange become more familiar. In this scenario, the teacher provide students with a concept, process, or metaphor that they already fully understand and then use it to teach something that is unknown to the student. For example middle school students can begin with the idea of roles in a school (handbooks, teachers, principals, even the school board) then make comparisons to the way laws and separation of powers work in government. The familiar analogy gives students access to the unfamiliar concept and immediately strengthens their schema for the concept.

This approach shares similarities to some of the popular “Marzano strategies” – similarities/differences, categorization/classification, generalities, and similes/metaphor. It a “loose activity” that can have great benefits. I often hear my inner thoughts trying on different concepts I find one that will shed light on a new concept. I assume that this is what other people do too. This imaginative/creative process also puts value on taking concepts from different domains/disciplines and mixes their elements together to form a new hybrid perspective. I think that many futuristic jobs and creative industry benefit from “cross over” of disciplines. I tell my students that being an expert in a single field is not where the future will take us – it will be crossing two unrelated fields to discover new ideas!

In many ways, creativity is like playing Jazz. A group of musicians get together and create a pattern of a song then each one takes an opportunity to stretch and skew the basic pattern to make something very different but at the same time the song remains. The fun in this is to get the pattern down and go as far as you can in a strange direction, then bring it all back together. It’s beautiful – like creativity. The same goes for great artists – they can create exact replications of an image and when they have mastered that – they can exaggerate and transform the familiar into something new. Learning and creativity should be like that!

Creativity is by its very nature complex, unique, and novel. Surely there are a number of ways to approach it and processes to encourage it. In my mind, the phrase “making something familiar unfamiliar”, “making the unknown familiar” and “creating jazz” are things that I strive for when I design creativity lessons.

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