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Why Kindergartners Are Better Creative Thinkers Than Graduate Students

Unfortunately, we often approach problems with a non-creative mindset.

Key points

  • Problem-solving is not about finding "The Right Answer."
  • We've been educated to think convergently; thus imperiling our problem-solving abilities.
  • The best problem-solvers are not who you might think.

For more than two decades, I used an activity in one of my undergraduate courses to help students (all future teachers) understand the fallacy of focusing their instructional attention on having students get “The Right Answer.” Students in the course were randomly divided into several small teams. Each team was provided with nine miniature marshmallows and fifteen round, wooden toothpicks. The teams were challenged to construct the tallest free-standing structure possible with just those materials. There was no time limit and students were free to solve the challenge in whatever way they chose.

Tumisu/Pixabay
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

Mostly, teams began with a logical concept: “What is a system that will use these materials to create a structure taller than any other structure in the room?” Students came up with a plan, stuck toothpicks into the marshmallows, and watched as their structures took on the semblance of wobbly-footed, and decidedly surrealistic, cell towers. Some of the “marshmallow towers” reached heights of ten inches; a few, fourteen inches.

I wasn’t so much interested in how tall the structures were, but more so in the processes used to construct them. For the most part, these college students chose a single prototype and then followed that prototype to the end. In short, they decided that there was one, and only one, way to solve the challenge. “Let’s do it by creating a series of interlocking triangles,” they said. Or, “Let’s build a small base and then construct a tall line of toothpicks.” What became clear is that students were focused on one, and only one, possible solution. They were looking for the single “right answer.”

How/Best vs. Why/Potential Mindsets

As researcher Jennifer Mueller and her associates explain, in solving problems we often focus on searching for and identifying the one best solution. We place a premium on accuracy and correctness in decision-making. We frequently question how a novel idea will be implemented and what obstacles might prevent successful adoption rather than focusing on why it just might work. The how/best mindset represents linear thinking—one path, and one path only, must lead to an optimal solution.

Unsurprisingly, creativity suffers when people adopt a how/best mindset. In contrast, Mueller et al. posit that creativity flourishes when individuals embrace a why/potential mindset. People with this attitude tend to approach problems with the belief that multiple solutions exist. They do not look for the one perfect path (the one “right answer”) to success. These individuals ask diverse questions about alternatives: “What are some various ways we could solve this?” “Is there another way to approach this?” “Why might this work (or not)?”

I’ve also conducted my marshmallow activity with other groups of students. Each of those teams were also given the identical materials and the same instructions. Interestingly, their structures were more diverse and considerably taller. No, they weren’t mechanical engineers or professional architects. They were groups of first grade students!

Unlike the older adults, these young participants engaged in multiple problem-solving strategies. First, they didn’t discuss and plan a prototype. They simply jumped into the activity, ready to experiment with all sorts of potential solutions. Second, they were not afraid to engage in a trial-and-error approach. Sometimes their structures worked and sometimes they didn’t. It was clear that they were unconcerned about making mistakes. Making mistakes is how we learn how things aren’t done, allowing us move on to approaches that may possibly work. Third, they were open to all sorts of experimentation—they not only tried out ideas, they tried out lots of ideas. Unlike the adults, they were not locked into a “one size fits all” mentality. Anything and everything was possible. In short, their key to success was that they consistently looked for many possible options, rather than for a single right answer.

My “Marshmallow Challenge” has been verified dozens of times by designer Tom Wujec. Using a somewhat different set of materials (strands of spaghetti instead of toothpicks, a single marshmallow instead of several, along with some masking tape and string) he has challenged teams of business school graduates to create tall freestanding towers within an 18-minute time frame. In test after test, the constructions falter and collapse and the average height is considerably below expectations.

He then assigns the same task to teams of Kindergarten students. The results, as you might imagine, are spectacular and much more successful. Wujec speculates that business school students are systematically trained to look for a single right answer through careful analysis and focused deliberation. They eschew mistakes in favor of disciplined preparation. In short, they are trained as linear thinkers rather than as creative problem-solvers. (If interested, you can see this for yourself in a most revealing TED talk.)

How to Enhance Your Personal Creativity

Make It Strange: Rearrange. I’m sure you’re reading this blog right side up. Why? Well, that’s the way you were taught to read. But, what if you turned this text upside down and then read it. Not only would your perspective change, but you would have to use skills you don’t normally employ in order to make sense of the information. You’d be forced to do something a little uncomfortable. In so doing, your mind would make some innovative compensations in order for you to achieve an appropriate level of comprehension. So, when faced with a problem or challenge, try rearranging some of the elements in order to create new thinking opportunities. Put the beginning at the end. Put the middle at the beginning. Put the bottom on the top, or the top on the side. Put the outside on the inside or the inside just to the left of the top. Put the right on the left or the left halfway past the center or on top of the bottom half that is now on the inside. Rearrange. Think differently. Create.

References

Anthony D. Fredericks. From Fizzle to Sizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity and How You Can Overcome Them (Indianapolis, IN: Blue River Press, January 2022). [https://amzn.to/3zteJbm]

Jennifer S. Mueller, Shimul Melwani, and Jack Goncalo, “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas,” Psychological Science, 23(1), 2011, 13-17.

Tom Wujec. “Build a Tower, Build a Team,” TED Talk (February 2010). [https://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_build_a_tower].

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