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June 1, 2008

Preparing Creative and Critical Thinkers

Teachers can help students become 21st-century problem solvers by introducing them to a broad range of thinking tools.

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If you doubt that we live in a world of accelerating change, just consider the everyday life experiences of millions of children and teenagers today:

  • They can view live images from every corner of the world and talk with or exchange video images with other young people who live many time zones away.

  • They have more technology in their classrooms (and in many cases, in their backpacks) than existed in the workplaces of their parents 20 years ago.

  • They will study subjects that were unknown when their teachers and parents were students, and they may well enter careers that do not exist today.

  • In contrast with most of their parents, more of today's young people will routinely come into contact with other people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. They will grow up to interact, collaborate, and compete with others around the globe.

Once upon a time, educators might have said to their students, "If you'll pay close attention to what I'm going to teach you, you'll learn everything you need to know for a successful life." It's doubtful that this message was ever entirely true, but it's certainly not true today. We don't know all the information that today's students will need or all the answers to the questions they will face. Indeed, increasingly, we don't even know the questions.

These realities mean that we must empower students to become creative thinkers, critical thinkers, and problem solvers—people who are continually learning and who can apply their new knowledge to complex, novel, open-ended challenges; people who will proceed confidently and competently into the new horizons of life and work.

In education, we routinely teach students how to use various sets of cognitive tools to make academic work easier, more efficient, or more productive: for example, research methods, note-taking strategies, or ways to remember and organize information. In teaching thinking, we need to give students cognitive tools and teach them to use these tools systematically to solve real-life problems and to manage change. These tools apply to two essential categories: creative thinking and critical thinking.

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Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking

What is creative thinking? What is critical thinking? We often view these terms as opposites that are poles apart and incompatible. We stereotype the creative thinker as wild and zany, thriving on off-the-wall, impractical ideas; in contrast, we envision the critical thinker as serious, deep, analytical, and impersonal. Consider instead a different view—that these two ways of thinking are complementary and equally important. They need to work together in harmony to address perceived dilemmas, paradoxes, opportunities, challenges, or concerns (Treffinger, Isaksen, & Stead-Dorval, 2006).

Creative thinking involves searching for meaningful new connections by generating many unusual, original, and varied possibilities, as well as details that expand or enrich possibilities. Critical thinking, on the other hand, involves examining possibilities carefully, fairly, and constructively—focusing your thoughts and actions by organizing and analyzing possibilities, refining and developing the most promising possibilities, ranking or prioritizing options, and choosing certain options.

Generating many possibilities is not enough by itself to help you solve a problem. Similarly, if you rely on focusing alone, you may have too few possibilities from which to choose. Effective problem solvers must think both creatively and critically, generating options and focusing their thinking.

Both generating and focusing involve learning and applying certain guidelines (attitudes and habits of mind that support effective thinking) and tools. Let's first look at the guidelines for generating and focusing, and then consider a number of specific tools.

Habits of the Mind for Generating Ideas

Individuals or groups use generating tools to produce many, varied, or unusual possibilities; to develop new and interesting combinations of possibilities; or to add detail to new possibilities. When using these tools, it is important to follow four broad guidelines, or ground rules (Treffinger, Isaksen, & Stead-Dorval, 2006):

  • Defer judgment. When generating options, productive thinkers separate generating from judging. They direct their effort and energy to producing possibilities that can be judged later.

  • Seek quantity. The more options a person or group generates, the greater the likelihood that at least some of those possibilities will be intriguing and potentially useful.

  • Encourage all possibilities. Even possibilities that seem wild or silly might serve as a springboard for someone to make an original and powerful new connection.

  • Look for combinations. It is often possible to increase the quantity and quality of options by building on the thinking of others or by seeing new combinations that may be stronger than any of their parts.

Brainstorming is probably the most widely known generating tool (but often the most misunderstood and misused tool, too). Many people use the term brainstorming as a synonym for a general conversation, discussion, or exchange of views. It is more accurate, however, to view brainstorming as a specific tool in which a person or a group follows the four guidelines described above to search for many possible responses to an open-ended task or question. As illustrated in Figure 1, there are also several other tools for generating options (Treffinger, Nassab, et al., 2006).

Habits of the Mind for Focusing Ideas

Focusing tools help individuals or groups analyze, organize, refine, develop, prioritize, evaluate, or select options from the set of possibilities they have at hand. When using these tools, problem solvers should again follow four broad guidelines or ground rules (Treffinger, Isaksen, & Stead-Dorval, 2006):

  • Use affirmative judgment. When focusing their thinking, productive thinkers examine options carefully but constructively, placing more emphasis on screening, supporting, or selecting options than on criticizing them.

  • Be deliberate. Effective focusing takes into consideration the purpose of focusing. Is it to select a single solution, to rank order or prioritize several options, to examine ideas carefully with very detailed criteria, to refine or strengthen options, or to create a sequence of steps or actions? Each of these purposes might be best served by a specific focusing tool.

  • Consider novelty. If the stated goal is to find a novel or original solution or response, then it is important to focus deliberately on that dimension when evaluating possible solutions, and not simply to fall back on the easiest or most familiar options within a list.

  • Stay on course. When focusing, it is important to keep the goals and purposes of the task clearly in sight and to ensure that you evaluate the options in relation to their relevance and importance for the goal.

The Problem Solver's Basic Toolbox

At the Center for Creative Learning, we have developed a Creative Problem Solver's Basic Toolbox of generating and focusing tools (see fig. 1 for the toolbox and links to examples of each tool).

Figure 1. The Creative Problem Solver's Basic Toolbox

Preparing Creative and Critical Thinkers - table

Tools for Generating Possibilities (Creative Thinking)

Tools for Focusing Possibilities (Critical Thinking)

Brainstorming. Generating many, varied, or unusual options for an open-ended task or question.Hits and Hot Spots. Selecting promising or intriguing possibilities (identifying hits) and clustering, categorizing, organizing, or compressing them in meaningful ways (finding hot spots).
Force-Fitting. Using two objects or words that seem unrelated to the task or problem, or to each other, to create new possibilities or connections.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.
Attribute Listing. Using the core elements or attributes of a task or challenge as a springboard for generating novel directions or improvements.PCA: Paired Comparison Analysis. Setting priorities or ranking options through a systematic analysis of all possible combinations.
SCAMPER. Applying a checklist of action words or phrases (idea-spurring questions) to evoke or trigger new or varied possibilities.Sequencing: SML. Organizing and focusing options by considering short, medium, or long-term actions.
Morphological Matrix. Identifying the key parameters of a task, generating possibilities for each parameter, and investigating possible combinations (mixing and matching).Evaluation Matrix. Using specific criteria to systematically evaluate each of several options or possibilities to guide judgment and selection of options.

Source: Copyright 2008 by the Center for Creative Learning. Used with permission.

Teachers can incorporate instruction in creative and critical thinking into the curriculum in a number of ways, either singly or in combination. I recommend that teachers follow several guidelines.

Introduce the tools directly, using engaging, open-ended questions from everyday life. Be clear that the purpose of such out-of-context work is to gain confidence and skill in using the tool, so everyone will be successful when using it in context.

Next, provide opportunities to apply the tools in lessons or activities related to specific content areas. Any of the generating and focusing tools can be used to help students master a variety of specific content standards in many areas (see Treffinger, 2007; Treffinger et al., 2004a, 2004b, 2004c).

Kopcak (2007), for example, describes using the Brainstorming, Hits and Hot Spots, and Paired Comparison Analysis tools with high school seniors as they worked on the Virginia learning standard "The student will write documented research papers." The students began with a stack of blank sticky notes on which they wrote possible topics (one per sticky note). After covering a chalkboard with sticky notes, the class paused to discuss the characteristics of a good research topic. The students used the Hits and Hot Spots focusing tool to select promising topics and organize them into categories based on theme or overarching topic; they used the Paired Comparison Analysis focusing tool to narrow down the most appealing options.

Other examples of applications of the tools in content areas include

  • Attribute Listing. Understanding the important elements or parts of a topic being studied (for example, the major attributes of a country or civilization in social studies, the major elements of a story, or the characteristics of the main characters in a novel).

  • Brainstorming. Identifying varied or unusual ways to make people aware of the importance of voting. Generating many possible math problems that could be constructed from a given set of data, events, or circumstances. Listing many ways to promote recycling or conservation.

  • Evaluation Matrix. Evaluating choices or possible courses of action faced by people or groups in literature or social studies units (for example, in a film the students have viewed or a story they have read). Judging and choosing one of several possible themes, plots, or endings for a story or dramatic scene.

  • Sequencing: SML. Investigating career preparation (for instance, "If you want to become a ____, the steps or stages in your preparation should include … "). Understanding and ordering the stages or chronology in an event or process (for example, the steps in an experiment or the sequence of certain measurements to be taken on a set of data).

Be deliberate about applying the basic tools in several different content areas, to help students learn how to transfer their learning about the tools across contexts. As you work with the tools, be explicit about metacognitive skills. Ask, "What is the tool? How did you use it? When and why would you use it in other situations?"

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Beware of presenting too much newness at once. When you are working with new content, start with familiar tools. When you are introducing new tools, start with familiar content. Don't try to teach all the tools at once.

When students are comfortable with the basic generating and focusing tools, teachers may guide them in applying these tools through the Creative Problem Solving framework, a model for attaining clarity about tasks, defining problems in a constructive way, generating possible solutions, preparing for action and successful implementation of solutions, and dealing with change. For more information about the Creative Problem Solving framework, see the resources at the Center for Creative Learning.

It is also important to engage students in finding and solving real-life problems or challenges within the classroom, the school, or the community. Two widely known <XREF TARGET="enrichment">enrichment programs</XREF> can provide engaging opportunities for students to apply creative problem solving.

Preparing Students for a Changing World

By helping students learn and apply the attitudes and practical tools of effective problem solvers, teachers can enhance student learning in powerful ways that extend beyond memorization and recall. Even when teachers are compelled to place great emphasis on basic learning and doing well on standardized tests—indeed, particularly at such times—it remains important to balance the emphasis between process and content in teaching and learning. Students who are competent in not only the basics of content areas but also the basics of productive and creative thinking will be lifelong learners, knowledge creators, and problem solvers who can live and work effectively in a world of constant change.


Kopcak, T. (2007). Applying thinking tools to high school seniors' research papers. Creative Learning Today, 15(3), 3.

Treffinger, D. J. (2007). Applying CPS tools in school: Thinking in action. Creative Learning Today, 15(3), 2.

Treffinger, D. J., Isaksen, S. G., & Stead-Dorval, K. B. (2006). Creative problem solving: An introduction(4th ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Treffinger, D. J., & Nassab, C. A. (2005). Thinking tool guides (Rev. ed.). Sarasota, FL: Center for Creative Learning.

Treffinger, D. J., Nassab, C. A., Schoonover, P. F., Selby, E. C., Shepardson, C. A., Wittig, C. V., & Young, G. C. (2004a). Thinking with standards: Preparing for the future (Elementary ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Treffinger, D. J., Nassab, C. A., Schoonover, P. F., Selby, E. C., Shepardson, C. A., Wittig, C. V., & Young, G. C. (2004b). Thinking with standards: Preparing for the future (Middle ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Treffinger, D. J., Nassab, C. A., Schoonover, P. F., Selby, E. C., Shepardson, C. A., Wittig, C. V., & Young, G. C. (2004c). Thinking with standards: Preparing for the future (Secondary ed.). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Treffinger, D. J., Nassab, C. A., Schoonover, P. F., Selby, E. C., Shepardson, C. A., Wittig, C. V., & Young, G. C. (2006). The CPS Kit. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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