Creativity Breakthroughs With Children Using Higher Level Thinking


by James Kowalick, Ph.D.
Technical Director

The Leonardo da Vinci Institute
(a division of RLI, Inc.)
P.O. Box 659, 9907 Camper Lane
Oregon House, California 95962
Voice: (916) 692-1944
Fax: (916) 692-1946


Revolution in Creativity Raising the creativity capability of young minds has been a national education goal for years. The results have been frustrating. Attempts at teaching creativity have been marginal at best - based on measurements of students’ capabilities. Until recently there has been no breakthrough approach for significantly improving a student’s ability to solve problems and to achieve creative solutions in challenging situations. That is about to change in a big way, with the emergence of the GPS approach (Guided Problem-Solving). GPS is an improved learning system based on the creative problem-solving approach called TRIZ (a Russian acronym for "Theory of the Solution of Inventive-type Problems").

This approach was experimentally launched three years ago in a small, private school in northern California. Both elementary and high school students received the training. The third group of high school students are now receiving GPS on a "two-hours of instruction every second Monday" basis. In spite of limited in-classroom time, results have been impressive. The chief "deliverable" of the course is that students learn a new way of thinking about problems and challenges - a way that is far more rapid, more organized and more effective than any traditional problem-solving approaches.

Several inventions have occurred right in the classroom. A recent "invention" is a better way to keep automobile windshields clean during dry weather, when dirt, grime and insects cover the windshield and contribute to poor driving conditions. Working on this project, the class moved through the steps of GPS. There were several results. Each of them was a next-generation windshield wiper design.

It is no secret that the minds of children are more open to new ideas than are those of adults. If a new creative approach were to appear, adults would question - even actively resist - both the approach and its results. Having had much experience, adults use that experience to determine what is "possible" and what is not possible. Children, on the other hand, have had less experience, and are far more open and accepting to anything new. They are less disturbed by imposed boundaries, whether real or imaginary. In general new approaches to creative thinking are digested by children far more rapidly than by adults. GPS has the potential for raising the creative capabilities of both children and adults by a factor of ten or more - over a relatively short time, measured in months. The GPS approach has a unique way of addressing contradictions.


Ordinary Contradictions Difficult problems and challenges share something in common: they all contain contradictions. The world is full of contradictions: "If I go to this event, then I will miss another important meeting." Or, "If the edge of the razor blade is made very sharp in order to achieve a closer shave, the razor blade also cuts skin." Or, "The temperature of the process has to be raised in order to accelerate the process, but doing so results in decomposing one of the ingredients." Such contradictions are usually resolved by making compromises and tradeoffs, with which nobody is completely satisfied.


Physical Contradictions Unlike ordinary contradictions, "physical" contadictions are expressed in a different, although seemingly outrageous way: "I must go to this event and to the important meeting." "The razor’s edge must be very sharp and very blunt." "The process temperature must be high and low." Expressed in this manner, a physical contradiction serves as both a guidepost, and a verification test, for the solution to the problem. During the solution process, insisting that the solution actually satisfy the physcial contradiction results in very high-level solutions - that would otherwise be thought impossible.


The GPS approach achieves such solutions! GPS is also being taught - painlessly - to both junior and senior high school students. After only a few days of instruction, their minds show evidence that they are capable of operating at a level of creativity that is well above the human norm.


Traditional Methods and Their Disadvantages GPS eliminates the disadvantages of the two traditional problem-solving methods most often used by problem-solvers: brainstorming and "trial and error" (T&E). The drawbacks of the T&E approach are inherent in its name - there are two many trials that end up with no really good solutions (i.e., "errors"). Solutions resulting from the T&E approach are often poor or "low-level" solutions. Besides these disadvantages, T&E is also costly, time-consuming and generally non-productive.

Brainstorming, on the other hand, is the idea-generating approach accepted by the business world. Used by many organizations, it produces many ideas in a relatively short time. It generally lacks problem focus, however, and it is relatively ineffective in generating solutions to problems that have a high degree of technical complexity associated with them.


Organized Creativity GPS is an organized, step-by-step, focused approach directed at a specific problem. It begins with a description of the problem situation, which is usually quite vague and not well defined. Then it "funnels in" towards the real problem to be solved, and emerges with a specific definition of the exact problem to be solved. After the problem is specified, it offers a toolbox of solution techniques to apply to the specific problem. The results are powerful, high-level solutions. GPS uses its own special language. Students easily learn this language in two ways: (1) they study and discuss case studies where others, skilled in GPS, solved increasingly more difficult problems; and (2) the students are given problem-solving exercises to work on in class, as well as for homework. These creative exercises help them to break out of the box of traditional thinking patterns.


GPS Resources There are several resources available for children, their parents, teachers, and school districts who want to investigate GPS. One is a book distributed by Breakthrough Press in Sacramento, California - a bookstore specializing in creativity subjects (telephone number: 916-974-7755). The book’s title is "And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared." It is written in a highly entertaining manner. Some parts of the book assume a level of understanding in science that many U.S. students do not possess; nevertheless, the book does serve to introduce the reader to TRIZ - a major component of GPS. The book is also a favorite of adults.

The Renaissance Leadership Institute is the center for GPS and TRIZ development in the United States. RLI has been developing course materials for teachers of gifted and talented students. A series of training classes for teachers will soon become available (RLI maintains a list of interested teachers who will be informed as soon as these classes are announced). RLI’s e-mail address is


Class Exercises One class exercise, called "Positive-Negative," leads to the ability to think more objectively about any situation, allowing the problem-solver to see both the "positives" and "negatives" associated with that situation. The instructor begins with a statement like "I went to a shopping mall today," and asks for the students to take turns to alternatively state an advantage (positive) of what was previously said, then a disadvantage (negative) of the previous positive advantage, then an advantage of the previous negative disadvantage, etc.

The first student may reply, "The weather is sunny and beautiful outside." (positive).

Second student: "But the plants won’t receive any water." (negative)

Next: "Therefore the weeds will die." (positive)

Next: "Without weeds, the ground will erode when it rains." (negative)

Next: "Maybe we can direct the water that way into a pond!" (positive)

Next: "Somebody could drown in a pond." (negative)

This exercise can go on and on. It’s a good idea to occasionally begin again with a new statement. The idea is to give the students practice in visualizing situations from different perspectives.

Another class exercise consists in naming an object by using two words - each word aptly describes the object, but the two words used have to be opposite in their meaning. For example, the instructor may say "Telephone pole."

Students first engage in a discussion about telephone poles. Out of this discussion comes several facts: (1) telephones facilitate communication, because they support the wires that connect every telephone user in the nation; (2) if an automobile were to crash into a telephone pole, the pole damages the automobile and injures its occupants. In other words, the presence of the pole is an obstruction to an "out-of-control" automobile. Given this information, the students come up with this definition:


Telephone Pole: "A facilitating obstruction."

Note that the words "facilitate" and "obstruct" have diametrically opposite meanings. The students have defined the object (in this case, the telephone pole) by using words that have opposite meanings. There is much creative value in working with opposites.


Compromise Thinking Versus Opposite Thinking The most commonly obtained solutions to problems involve making compromises. The "solution" is usually a trade-off between one extreme and another. For example, drivers of large trucks practically live in the cabs of the trucks. Unfortunately, truck cabs do not provide the comforts of living at home - there is simply not enough space. This lack of space is dictated by the sizes of bridges and underpasses: the cab roof and sides must not exceed restricted limits dictated by minimum underpass and bridge-section heights. The "solution" to this problem is a design trade-off. Designers choose cab roof height and side to side distances that are under the required limits, but that do not quite please cab operators.

Trade-offs and compromises, unfortunately, are the ways in which most problems are solved. It doesn’t really matter if the "problem" is a technical one, or a problem in human relations. Nobody is completely satisfied with compromises. There is a better way than having to tradeoff and compromise. The better way begins by expressing the problem in terms of opposites - i.e., as a "contradiction."

The truck cab problem centers around space, or volume, which in turn is dictated by dimensions: the dimension of the height of the cab, and the dimension from one side of the cab to the other side. Beginning with the cab height, the problem-solving student is instructed to state the problem as a "physical contradiction." The student begins by choosing the object which most likely has to be changed - the cab roof:


"The roof of the cab must be high and low."

This statement serves as a description of the "Ideal Final Result." The cab roof must be high in order to make more room for the operator to be comfortable. It must also be low in order to fit through standard underpasses.

The advantage of expressing the problem as a physical contradiction is that it serves as a guideline for a high-level solution. No solution which does not satisfy this "ideal final result" is acceptable. Having such a guideline saves the time and effort that would have been invested in a search for "inferior" solutions. This "contradiction statement" guideline releases more time and energy for the problem-solver to focus on higher-level solutions that satisfy the contradiction.


Solution Principles One path to solutions is through "solution principles." A solution principle suggested by the GPS approach is "Use the Nested Doll Principle." Nested dolls are carved-wood dolls of different sizes; the smallest sized doll fits into the next-larger sized doll, which in turn, fits into the next-larger size, etc. To the problem-solver, this principle is a creative prompt that says, "Imagine how you can solve your problem by fitting one part into or inside another part."

The students’ response to this "creative prompt" is to design the truck cab so that the operator can slide the roof section up and down, as the need arises. On the open highway, the roof of the cab is slid down, inside the rest of the cab. When the driver pulls over to rest, he slides the roof of the cab to its highest position, giving him more room. This same principle can be applied to the sides of the truck cab, creating a "truck-cab apartment," with all the comforts of home! The side-to-side distance is small when the operator is driving it, and it expands to a "mini-house" when the operator is parked for a rest or a nap.

It is not surprising that the "Nested Doll" creative prompt alone is behind thousands of inventions in the global patent collection. Such common "inventions" as the radio antenna, the telescope, drawers that slide into cabinets, and the ball-point pen are examples of the inventive use of the nested doll principle.


Other Inventive Principles. Students in the northern Sierra Mountains classroom learn dozens of inventive principles. After using each of these principles just a few times, students find that they become a part of their everyday thinking process. Through exposure to GPS and its creative toolbox, an average student’s creative ability is increased by more than an order of magnitude.

Some of the more popular inventive principles are:

  1. Blessing in Disguise Principle - "Turn a harmful or useless effect into something positive." This is the old idea of turning lemons into lemonade. For example, water is used to cool the engine of a car. This results in the water getting heated - creating a new problem: How to cool this water? There are fans and radiators that are used to do this. They take up space and add cost to the purchase price of the car. Is there a way to take advantage of hot water? The answer is "Yes. Hot water can be used for passenger comfort, to heat the interior of the car during cold winters." There are several other uses for hot water. These uses are examples of the Blessing in Disguise Principle.
  2. Other Way Around Principle - "Reverse the parts. If one object is moving and the other is still, make the "moving object" still, and design the "still object" so it can move; or, reverse the position of the parts; or, turn the parts "upside-down," with the bottom one on top, and the top one on the bottom." For example, newspapers have been full of articles over the last two years about problems with air bags. Air bags that inflate too fast and too forcefully kill young children who are sitting next to them. The "Other Way Around" inventive prompt suggests changing the direction of inflation of the air bag, so that the air bag inflates in a direction that is outwards from the child’s body (current air bags inflate in a dangerous direction, towards the child’s body). One way of accomplishing this change in the design of an airbag, is to "house" the air bag in the child’s seat belt. When an automobile collision occurs, the air bag will be activated from the seat belt, and it will not forcefully strike the child’s body as today’s air bags do.
  3. Merging Principle - "Combine two similar or different objects, parts, or products into one unit. The combined unit will have all of the functions that the parts or individual products previously had." For example, instead of using a separate pencil and a separate rubber eraser, merge the eraser and the lead pencil into a single "unit" that has lead on one end, and an eraser on the other end.

Something akin to a miracle happens when children (and adults) begin to think about, and use, the relatively small number of inventive principles - instead of thinking about thousands of seemingly "different" problems as they occur. With the inventive principles, children are able to solve many problems instantly. This powerful creative capability stays with them for the rest of their lives.


A New Problem-Solving Language: The Symbols of Triads From the beginning of their GPS instruction, students are introduced to a new language that is far more effective as a communications tool. Ordinary words to describe problem situations result in problem descriptions several paragraphs long. With ordinary words, no two persons understand a problem description in the same way. Words are far less effective than charts, graphs and tables. The old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words," is true. That’s why engineers and scientists use charts, graphs, matrices, etc. - to accelerate their understanding of a problem situation.

But even charts, diagrams and tables lack the ability to deliver uniform and rapid understanding to all the problem-solvers involved. An even "higher language" is the language of symbols. GPS uses symbols made up of the objects and actions in the "system," to represent the "essence" of the problem. These symbols are called "triads." Triads represent what actually happens in a problem situation. Triads are composed only of the objects - and their interactions - required for an "event" to occur. The "problem" event may be a desirable event, an undesirable event, or both. Undesirable problems mean that something is wrong, and needs to be corrected. Desirable "problems" mean that an improvement or enhancement is required.

In teaching triads, the instructor asks students to consider what happens during "sitting." After a brief discussion about sitting, the students conclude that there are two important "objects" involved: a person, and a chair. Asked how these objects interact to result in "sitting," one student replies, "chair supports person." Another student adds, "What really happens is that the chair pushes against the person."

The class agrees upon the following "functional statement:"

When the class is asked which of the two objects - person and chair - is the "active" object, and which is the "passive" object, a young lady remarks, "The chair is active, because it does the pushing, and the person is the passive object because he gets pushed by the chair:"

The instructor points out that the active object and the passive object are two elements of a "triad." He further states that the action "pushes on" won’t happen without a third object. The third object enables the action ("pushing") to occur. The third object is appropriately called the "enabling" object.

The instructor poses a question: "What is the enabling object?"

No one in the class is able to reply, so the instructor gives a hint: "Without this third object, the chair would not push on the person to make ‘sitting’ happen."

One of the students in the room calls out, "Gravity! Gravity is required for the person and the chair to come together."

"Fine," says the instructor, "Gravity will bring the chair and the person together, but gravity is not an object. Gravity is a phenomenon. I’m asking you to identify the object that enables sitting to occur. Think a bit more about this, please. If a certain object were not acting, the chair and the person wouldn’t come together, and sitting just won’t happen. What is this ‘large’ enabling object that brings the chair and person together?"

"Oh! I know," shouts one of the female students. "The earth! The enabling object is the earth." The instructor draws the following diagram on the flip chart.

He explains that there are still some completion steps required.

"The chair and person interact in a way that we call ‘pushes on;’ what about actions between the other objects? What action occurs between the earth and the chair?’’

"Earth pushes chair, and earth pulls chair!" a student answers. The earth’s surface pushes upward on the chair, but the whole body of the earth attracts the chair by gravitation.

"Excellent! Now what about actions between the person and the earth?"

A young lady responds, "Earth, by its gravitational attraction, pulls the person."

The triad is now complete. It has three objects. The interactions between these objects are shown below.

The class understands how triads are used to describe phenomena - in this case, the phenomenon called "sitting." The instructor goes on to say that not all triads are this easy to formulate, and that it is important to practice, practice and practice.

Other triads are completed by the class during that same class period. These include the triad of an air bag protecting an car’s occupant from the results of a collision with a telephone pole. The objects are: air bag (active), occupant (passive) and telephone pole (enabling).

Another triad: Person A verbally communicates with Person B. Person A is the "donor," and is therefore the active object; Person B is the passive object. The intervening medium, air, is the enabling object.

Yet another triad: a house burns to the ground. The three objects are "fire" in the form of an incandescent gas mixture; "house" representing the fuel; and "oxygen" - the oxidizing agent - as the enabling object. Fire is active, and house passive.

The symbol used for the active, passive and enabling objects is the letter S (standing for "substance"). S2 is always the active object, S1 always the passive object, and S3 is always the enabling object. Actions are shown by straight lines. The triad symbol appears as shown below.

A triad is composed of three objects and their interactions. Each interaction can be examined separately. An interaction may represent a problem to be solved. Or, it may represent an action that needs to be improved in some way. Or, it may point to the need for an entirely new way to create a desired outcome.

If there is no phenomenon occurring, but it is desired to make the phenomenon occur, the problem-solver has to consider "ways to complete the triad." For example, suppose that it is necessary to find a way to measure the distance between two trees. The trees are the "passive" object(s) S1, because something has to be done to them - they need to be measured in some way. If an ordinary measuring tape is available, this is certainly one (of many) solutions. The measuring tape is the active object S2. It appears as if the problem is solved! But it is not. The tape will not, by itself, start walking towards the trees and take a measurement. A third (enabling) object is required. The enabling object, S3, is a person. The triad is completed, and the function of measuring is now possible. The problem can be stated as simple S1 (see below).

The solution is the completed triad,

and the process of problem-solving can be symbolically described as

where the symbol => is the "transformation symbol," indicating that the problem has been transformed from a problem only, to a full solution.

All of the above information can be mastered by a high school class after the first year of training in GPS.


Systems Thinking One emphasis in these northern California "Sierra Classes" is on systems thinking. Ordinary thinking works with the idea that "everything is looked at on the same level." But systems thinking works with "hierarchies." For example, a hand is a system that belongs to a larger system called a "person." A person, in turn, belongs to the super-system of "all living things." The human hand also is a higher system to the parts of the human hand: fingers and palm.

It is important in problem-solving to know at what level to begin. The problem-solver has to use "the principle of relativity" to do this. The use of relativity includes the realization that not all objects are of the same importance. In addition, the use of "the principle of scale" by a problem-solver places objects in their proper place on the hierarchical tree, according to their importance, and according to their relationship to the problem at hand.

Grade-school students can be taught systems thinking through rather simple exercises: The "Belongs to" exercise, the "Category" exercise, the "Same as" exercise, and the "Comes from" exercise.

In the "Belongs to" exercise, the teacher mentions an object such as a trout. The students respond to this with "Fish," its higher system. Similarly, "Car" becomes "Wheeled Vehicles," "chip" becomes "circuit," and "mother" becomes "family members."

In the "Category" exercise, the teacher mentions several objects, and the class has to determine the class that the objects belong to. For example the teacher may say "smoking, meditating, drinking chamomile tea, and resting." The class might respond with "Ways to relax - whether good or bad for the health."

In the "Same as" exercise, the teacher mentions an object such as a pencil. The students respond to this with several words: "pen;" "typewriter;" "chalk;" etc. Each of these objects belongs to the same class or category as the pencil does - the category of objects used to document and display information in some way. These objects all belong to the same higher system.

In the "Comes from" exercise, the teacher mentions a system and the class members have to think about, and then mention, the members of that system. Teacher: "Transportation Systems." Class: "Trains." Teacher: "Children." Class: "Boys."

After exercises like these, the class is ready to develop tree diagrams of systems like the following one, which is an example of a tree diagram.

The bicycle as the system is divided into five sub-systems (chain; pedals; handlebars; seat and wheels). Each of these sub-systems in turn are divided into parts. For example, the wheels are divided into the wheel frames, the spokes and the tires.

Diagrams such as this one present an "overview" of the entire system and its parts. For problem situation, breaking the problem situation down into its parts or objects in this way, often clarifies the initial problem situation, allowing the problem-solver to select and define a specific problem to work with (e.g., a specific part of the overall system to focus on).


Other Creative Tools and Exercises Dozens of other tools and exercises are used in the creative classroom, including some very powerful solution-tools. The tools and exercises mentioned above serve to illustrate these.


Results There was no attempt to measure individual creative characteristics of class members, before and after exposure to GPS. This may be done sometime in the future, but the results to date - although subjective - are enough to pronounce the classes a resounding success. When faced with a problem, students exposed to GPS are able to think about the problem in new ways. The problem analysis and problem definition stages are more defined. Problems selected are more specific and pertinent to the intended goal. The time involved in problem-solving is significantly decreased and the levels of the solutions obtained are very high. The GPS approach enhances innate creative ability that already exists. The author’s opinion is that GPS is an important ingredient that school systems need to increase the national "Creativity Quotient" (CQ) - making future citizens ready for the challenges that lie ahead throughout the next century.

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Editor’s note: Dr. Kowalick is the leading American expert in the TRIZ approach. Besides teaching TRIZ and the GPS approach in elementary and high schools, he works with corporate professional teams whose goal it is to create next-generation, breakthrough products. He is the founder of the Renaissance Leadership Institute, a technical consulting firm located in northern California: telephone - (916) 692-1944.