Head, Hands and Heart…Key Prerequisites for Unstructured, Team–based, Problem Solving

[Published in the Journal of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children [IAGC], March, 2018. This article is reproduced for free use by the educational community.]

by Harry T. Roman
Inventor, Author, Educator, Retired Engineer

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” – Peter Drucker 

The Basics

When you attempt to engage your gifted and talented students in unstructured team-based problem-solving or project based activities, current wisdom says to enable their heads and hands in a STEM-like classroom gestalt. Remember also, you must engage the heart, before you enable the head and hands. You must capture their “intellectual souls” first, so you can totally empower and enable the rest….head, hands, and heart.

As silly as it may seem, your G&T students must be given permission to use their skills, whether acquired or innate. Years of rigid school routine has drilled them repeatedly about what is acceptable in class. As teacher, it is your job to set them into motion, giving them confidence to strike out in teams and practice leadership. Tell them it is OK to create new things, to “disrupt” the old order and experience the joy of proposing something totally new! In the workplace, disruption of an old order is exactly what gives companies a competitive and strategic edge in world markets.

It makes sense to prepare G&T students as early as possible for the world of work. Team‐based problem-solving activities produce learning dividends for gifted pupils on several important levels:

  • Learning about the “give and take” of idea generation and compromise;
  • Patience and respect in listening to other ideas;
  • Working with people who have different views of life;
  • Learning essential concepts of leadership;
  • Organizing and planning projects and activities;
  • Asking tough questions and framing the problem at hand; and,
  • Marshalling viewpoints that support good arguments for your ideas.

“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.” -Herbert Spenser

Often, gifted students have told me how team‐based activities changed their outlook, and their opinions of classmates. Several times I heard gifted middle‐schoolers say they made new friends; and discovered how very creative their fellow classmates were –something they never would have guessed. They made new friends because of this activity.

The Importance of Imagination

Imagination plays an important role in solving problems, but we seldom acknowledge it because it is not something we can conveniently measure and grade; but it all starts with imagination….so strive to unleash a potential mighty flow of it. An example if I may. For almost 50 years I have been a public speaker, and I am told a very good one. Often young speakers who I have mentored ask how I get ready for a speech or talk. I tell them the same thing…..imagine yourself being introduced by a master of ceremonies and walking up to the podium and giving the performance of your life. Imagine the event in a positive light, and then make it come true.

Over the decades I always arrive early to any talk I am to give; and simply walk around the room, seeing the stage from different angles–getting comfortable with the room. I stand at the back of the room, imagine myself being introduced, walk to the stage and run through the talk in my head–my imagination in full power mode. I might do this several times before the guests arrive. When the guests start arriving I greet them and make friends; and by the time I am ready to do my talk, I am speaking to a room full of people I know. How can I not be successful!

So why not encourage students and teams to turn that imagination on as they develop their ideas for a new product, exploring unusual ways to solve a problem. At the famous Walt Disney studios, Walt used to refer to his creative staff as his “imagineers”. Imagine that title on a business card! Empower student imagination, engage their limitless enthusiasm, and let their creativity soar.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Some of my best inventions resulted when I engaged my heart and imagination. Here are some of the techniques I have used to get me and my project team fired-up:

  • Write a short story, poem, or catchy phrase to describe the problem we are trying to solve.
  • Make a joke about the problem [humor is TNT for creativity!]
  • Stretch the problem into unusual perspectives and angles to see what it could look like.
  • Solve the problem in a very disruptive way-stretch it out of shape and see what it looks like.
  • Discuss the problem over comfort food [pizza is best!].
  • Change the physical setting for the team to meet [a new meeting place radically changes the psychology of the team].
  • See the problem and its parts together-the forest and the trees at once.

Let your students and teams explore the things that make them feel imaginative? How might their imagination be related to their creativity? Survey your gifted charges and help them identify those situations in which they feel most creative. Are they most creative in the morning, afternoon or evening? Does their imagination and creativity vary with their location…..like taking a walk, sitting in a quiet room, reading certain kinds of literature, writing poetry….etc.?

Personalizing a problem can unleash all sorts of imaginative tendencies. Three of us inventors were once trying to harvest an anti-cancer drug from a common ornamental plant found in most home gardens and landscape plantings. All of us had lost loved ones to cancer. This was a personal fight for us–a good fight worth getting bloody over and we dug in. Whenever we were stuck we rallied around the “bloody shirt” of personal loss. We imagined “slaying the dragon” of cancer to drive us forward and promote unusual/imaginative possibilities. It was an emotional journey….and we succeeded…..and developed a whole new way of growing plants for medical purposes. The big bonus came 24 months later as we were awarded a United States patent for our hard work!

Some Things to Explore

Let’s explore some of the “intellectual soul” stuff totally important to this problem solving journey.

Preface assignments of projects and teams with discussions and lesson plans that show how technological advances and applications of technology have contributed significant improvements to quality of life around the world. In our modern world, 70% of the annual economic growth of a mature nation is generally due to technological advances. Study the evolution of technological advances and how they have:

  • Improved life in both developed and developing countries
  • Created new industries and jobs
  • Spurred economic growth
  • Helped bring about peace through prosperity
  • Made great strides in health and safety concerns
  • Improved the quality of the environment.

“The main part of intellectual education is not the acquisition of facts but learning how to make facts live.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes

Capturing the spirit of excitement through the historical perspective of how technology can be man’s best friend will show your gifted students how they can be part of this incredible legacy by participating in team-based design and problem-solving…….harnessing technology in the service of humanity. This can be very appealing and productive for young gifted students who are socially aware of world events and problems facing underdeveloped nations. Fire your students’ passion-help them understand the significance of applying technology for everyone’s benefit. Pronounce them just as important as the great innovators that went before them. Make sure they understand their ideas and investigations can matter.

Show how folks who were not considered inventors/innovators changed the world for the better. Search this information out as case examples. Look at how game companies use young folks to design and invent new games. What young folks in your state invented things that went on to become new products and/or the basis for new companies? Try researching this on U-tube. Convince your G&T students they are each forces for good in the world!

Invite role models into your class to talk to your gifted students. Nothing convinces young minds than someone who has done what they are trying to do. This is high-octane gasoline for your kids. Local inventors can spend time with students to re-live with the inventor what it took to actually develop and implement his invention(s). What was the process she used and how close was it to what the students are doing?

The inventor can discuss the trials and tribulations experienced with trying to do something new. What did she do when she needed help? What resources was he able to tap into? How did she handle failure? What did it feel like when he experienced success? What motivated them to become an inventor in the first place? What did school in their own lives do to promote their inventive capability?

An inventor who can bring actual samples of their invention into the classroom is probably the best way for G&T students to see the relevance of what the inventor was trying to accomplish. Classroom props are absolutely powerful in tying young gifted minds to something physical and real. It is relevancy on steroids.

This also is a terrific opportunity to explore how different professions solve problems. What are the concerns say that engineers look for when solving problems; architects; scientists; lawyers; doctors; researchers….etc.?

Orient your gifted kids to want to solve “relevant” problems-panoramic problems that are timely, broad in scope, and visible in today’s world. The problems can be national or international. No G&T kids can resist a chance to show their concerns for doing good things. Involve the class in selecting problems they feel are important. Identify a list of world-class problems and concerns that teams of students would like to tackle. Here are a few examples of classes of broad-based problems students might like to consider:

  • Helping the handicapped
  • Implementing clean energy alternatives
  • Eradicating health /disease issues
  • Feeding underdeveloped populations
  • Cleaning environmental wastes/recycling discarded products.

Perhaps there are local and community problems that are aching to be solved right there in your localities the students would like to take-on? Maybe even some problems there in your school, perhaps high profile or pressing, that exciting G&T minds can commit to solving?

Let your students select who they would like to team-up with and what problems they as a team will address. Let them choose a team name or tag that captures the essence of who they are and what they represent.

Make this about getting the student teams to own the problem….to summarize in writing:

  • What the problem is
  • Why it should be solved
  • Benefits of the solved problem
  • Their plan for solving the problem

Consider this their compact and commitment with you-a spiritual contract bonding them to the project….a heart and soul commitment.

“To develop a complete mind: study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Stress the importance of quantifying problem ownership. It is not enough to say that the idea will save lives….how many lives will it save? Always bring the math into the personal equation for success. The business world runs on quantification. It is how convincing arguments are made and defended. Money to invest on new ideas is a limited resource in the world of work. That money comes from profits the company makes. I once sold a $5 million new project in my company using five PowerPoint slides and a single sheet of paper containing an economic summary. Push the G&T kids to develop very powerful arguments for their creative and imaginative ideas; and to own the problem by committing to a high level of excellence that will get business people sitting up and taking notice. This is certainly something to discuss in detail with the role models you bring into the classroom.

Give students permission to fail and try again. Abolish the testing paradigm mentality that has infiltrated and so horribly poisoned real learning. All invention, new product development and problem-solving always involves lots of learning on-the-fly ……adapting to changing situations as new information becomes available. Just as the problem being considered morphs and changes in the minds of the solvers as they learn more about its intricacies, so do the techniques being used to resolve it. Problem solving is highly fluid and all G&T teachers must prepare students to cope with and accept it as such. The time-honored nostrum of “given this-find that” is so yesterday. School is supposed to be about exploration-thus the need to break a century old tradition of overly simplified problem-solving.

The greatest inventor of them all, Thomas Edison, always credited his mother for his success. According to Tom, she imbued him with four basic life-long tenets which he followed with a passion:

  • Learn from failure-always try again
  • Never stop learning
  • Read all literature
  • Learn from books as well as from others

All in combination made his life rich and rewarding; and unleashed a technology-driven economy philosophy that is still expanding and providing tremendous good around the world.

Encourage students to be self-actualizing. It is OK for G&T students and team members to go ahead and try new ideas and approaches to solving problems. They do not have to check everything with you first. Their project plans dictate how they should proceed. Give them latitude to express themselves through their designs, prototypes and presentations.

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”  – B. F. Skinner

This is another unfortunate left-over of the traditional academic day, where absolutely everything must be approved by the teacher before it can be executed. You have seen the kids constantly ask “now what”, “is this OK” or “what do I do next”. This kind of stultifying thinking neutralizes the liberated thinking of team-based projects; and is not what will be expected of them on-the-job.

Empower your G&T kids to get up out of their chairs and make something happen. This is often tougher than it seems, for middle-school students have had six years of hand-holding by the time they reach your class-having little experience with being intellectually on their own. It is up to you to break this paradigm and bury it. Help them discover the joy of doing something on their own.

Make Creativity Relevant

Engage your gifted kids about the kinds of creative activities they are already engaging in, but may not believe are creative. Your task is to align their thinking about how creativity is a very common trait. We humans are a naturally creative species; and sometimes we have to remind the young ones that creativity is something we do every day. I like to introduce creativity in my G&T classes by asking students about their life experiences-such inquiries as:

  • Who plays an instrument here? Ever play the same piece of music the same way?

Certainly not….and why….because you try to create a different mood and feeling for the piece. Playing music, and composing it, is a profound act of creativity.

  • How many of you like to cook, make new snacks, and try to mix new flavors together? Cooking is another naturally creative activity.
  • Ever help decorate your room or plan its renovation? Of course you have because you want your room to make a statement about you and your interests; and that requires creative thinking.
  • Do you like helping to plan the family vacation, suggesting ideas for places to visit and organizing an itinerary? Creative activities are important here too.
  • Planning holiday presents for family and friends is obviously creative in thought. Do you try and make presents relevant to loved ones-often laboring to make that special gift fit someone’s traits or characteristics?
  • You sports people here in class….you always try out new strategies, new plays, to defeat your opponents…don’t you? That is creative thought once again!

Ask your gifted students to ponder what our ancestors accomplished. Our world of science and mathematically based engineering is only about 500 years old-having begun to form into a rigid framework around the 1500s. Yet our ancestors built huge structures centuries earlier like the pyramids, the Roman aqueducts, the Coliseum, majestic gothic cathedrals, and many other ancient edifices without a rigorous knowledge of math and engineering. They successfully navigated and sailed the unforgiving oceans of the world. Certainly this required creative endeavors, many times “flying by the seat of one’s pants” so to speak.

For decades, educators have tried unsuccessfully to measure creativity. There are few spaces if any on report cards that give grades for creativity. It is a qualitative thing, perhaps something we can best appreciate through a portfolio of work by students; but it is there, and many times special education kids can outshine high-performing students when the special ed kids are motivated to unleash their natural talents. I witness this all the time. The human spark is very valuable and ready to burn bright in every one of the G&T kids in your class. Fan the flames!

HARRY T. ROMAN is a retired engineer, teacher, inventor, and author. He has published over 550 articles, papers and scientific treatises, along with 75 teacher resource products including books, math card games, and science kits. A recipient of multiple awards for his outstanding service as an educator, as well as his pioneering technological achievements and inventions, Roman is currently an educational advisor for the Edison Innovation Foundation, and often visits local schools to work with teachers and students.