Unleashing Problem Solvers

When was the last time you believed that you could change the world?

I was ten years old. Fifth grade. I remember going out on the field for recess. It was an incredibly windy day that afternoon; the kind of wind where you could almost lean forward into the gusts and you didn’t fall down. Buster Keaton style. I got this crazy idea that I would attempt to stop the wind. I grabbed two sticks from the ground and climbed to the top of a large hill adjacent to the baseball field and playground. I stood at the top of the hill, closed my eyes, and willed the wind to stop blowing. Nothing happened. I raised the sticks high above my head and the wind intensified. What was happening? Instead of stopping the wind, I seemed to be able to make it stronger! I opened my eyes, looked up to the clouds, and began waving the sticks in chaotic, semi-circular motions. The wind matched my movements with subsequent larger and larger gusts. I stood on top of that hill for probably 30 minutes believing, truly believing, that I was controlling the weather. Looking back, I’m sure the teachers on recess duty thought I was a strange kid. My classmates probably thought I was insane; but for those 30 minutes, I felt that I had the power to control the wind.

After recess, I held on to that feeling. If I could control the wind and weather, I could change the world!

How do I know what to unleash?

For years, educators have heard the importance of 21st-century skills, including critical thinking and problem-solving. However, as Wagner (2012) discovered when he interviewed leaders in the for-profit, nonprofit, and military spheres, these 21st-century skills are not enough. His list of skills “doesn’t touch on some of the qualities of innovators that [Wagner] understands as essential — such as perseverance, a willingness to experiment, take calculated risks, and tolerate failure, and the capacity for design thinking, in addition to critical thinking” (p. 12). Having students solve real-world engineering problems is great for helping students learn team dynamics, design thinking, and collaboration. However, how do students find such problems? Do these problems need to be engineering-based? Or how, as Wagner (2012) puts it, “ do I solve a political problem, a social problem, and a technical problem altogether to deliver something” (Wagner, 2012, p. 13). This is where educators need to begin before unleashing their problem-solving students. Students need to find projects and problems that are of interest to them before they can value these hands-on projects while demonstrating mastery and using a trans-disciplinary approach to problem-solving.

Release the Problems!

Finding problems is harder than many educators think. We are constantly surrounded by problems, but many of us do not see them. Instead of using the cliche phrase “thinking outside of the box” teachers need to help students be creative within the box. As Tina Seelig describes, “creativity requires a complex set of skills, attitudes, and actions, intimately related to imagination, innovation, and entrepreneurship” (Seelig, 2015, p. 5). Her Invention Cycle framework: (a) Imagination; (b) Creativity; © Innovation; and (d) Entrepreneurship allows educators to “parse the pathway, describing the actions and attitudes that were required to teach and learn these skills” (Seelig, 2015, p. 12). Ewan McIntosh (2011) discusses how our current “education systems are crazy about problem-based learning, but they’re obsessed with the wrong bit of it. While everyone looks at how we could help young people become better problem-solvers, we’re not thinking how we could create a generation of problem finders” (McIntosh, 2011). He describes a story related to him by Alan November, an educator specializing in educational technology. In it, Alan tells about teaching a Community Problem-Solving course “where, on the first day, he set students the task of finding a problem in the local community that they could then go off and solve using whatever technology they had available. From the front row, a hand shot up. ‘Mr. November?’ began one of the girls in the class. ‘You’re the teacher, we’re the students. It’s your job to come up with the problems and give them to us to solve. This was in 1983” (McIntosh. 2011). How is this possible? The answer is a direct result of years of pedagogical practice where “the academic world sees its mission as creating and transmitting ‘pure’ knowledge, divorced from any kind of application or the development of specific skills” (Wagner, 2012, p. 114).

Public education needs to redefine itself, no longer as a knowledge factory, but as a vibrant, collaborative think tank, where everyone involved is simultaneously searching for interesting and relevant problems to solve and creative solutions. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO a design firm, defines this type of design thinking system as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” (Seelig, 2015, p. 187). This is how public schools should be organized: where teachers enhance creativity, sharing tools, resources, and frameworks that other educators can use in their own professional learning opportunities.


As an educator, there are many different frameworks that one could use in redesigning their personal pedagogy of practice. George Couros (2015) has taken the work of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset (2006) and created an Innovator’s Mindset. In it, he describes the importance of eight characteristics for students to have when being innovative: (a) empathetic; (b) problem finders; © risk-takers; (d) networked; (e) observant; (f) creators; (g) resilient; (h) reflective. Notice here that being a problem finder is an important characteristic of innovation.

Tina Seelig (2011; 2015) has two frameworks that she uses when describing how to enhance creativity as an imperative life skill that is “an endless renewable resource [that anyone] can tap into at any time” (Seelig, 2011, p. 7). Her Innovation Engine takes into consideration the complex nature of creativity and how it is influenced by many factors. For example, knowledge, motivation, and environment are all variables that are interconnected to form creative thinking and problem-solving. Seelig (2011) uses the visual of a continuous ribbon for her Innovation Engine, consisting of six parts. The three parts inside are knowledge, imagination, and attitude. The three parts outside are resources, habitat, and culture (p. 15). Educators need to see how creativity is an active state where students are doing instead of waiting to be inspired.
Seelig’s (2015) Invention Cycle framework takes her definitions of creativity a step further, understanding the importance for students to not only graduate public education with a strong sense of their personal creativity, but they should “emerge from school with agency, feeling empowered to address the opportunities and challenges that await them” (p. 3). Her Invention Cycle captures the fluid and hierarchical process of moving from idea to entrepreneurship. For example, “imagination leads to creativity; creativity leads to innovation; innovation leads to entrepreneurship” (Seelig, 2015, p. 7). Each of these elements requires attitudes and actions. Seelig (2015) explains this way:

Imagination requires engagement and the ability to envision alternatives. Creativity requires motivation and experimentation to address a challenge. Innovation requires focusing and reframing to generate unique solutions. Entrepreneurship requires persistence and the ability to inspire others (pp. 12–13).

This way, students are not only being creative but are using that creativity to actually create something that will change their world. This framework can help educators see how “attitudes and actions are necessary to foster innovation and to bring breakthrough ideas to the world” (Seelig, 2015, p. 18). As educators scaffold students’ understanding of how to bring an idea to reality, their classroom becomes an incubator for innovation. Students begin to understand that the Invention Cycle can be both individual and collective as they begin to truly collaborate to solve problems as a group. This is the heart of design thinking and what Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, describes as a “human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of the people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” (Seelig, 2015, p. 187). A classroom of students should not be a bunch of separate creative ideas, but a collection of innovative problem solvers, and it is up to the teacher to unleash these problem solvers.

John Spencer’s (2016) LAUNCH Cycle is a great framework, centered in design thinking) for guiding both teachers and students to take an idea and seeing it through to a final product in a classroom. His LAUNCH Cycle is not formulaic and does not require teachers to teach one step then another. Instead, it is a cyclical process that makes “creativity an authentic experience” in classrooms (Spencer, 2016, p. 24).

In the end, what is critical is not following a prescribed program or framework, but to allow creativity and the resulting innovation to permeate a public educational classroom. Spencer (2016) believes that “there is no single creative type” (p. 37). George Couros (2015) describes his Innovator’s Mindset as “the belief that the abilities, intelligence, and talents [of students] are developed so that they lead to the creation of new and better ideas” (p. 33). Tina Seelig (2009) understands that “opportunities are abundant; [and] at any place and time you can look around and identify problems that need solving….regardless of the size of the problem, there are usually creative ways to use the resources already at your disposal” (p. 8). Likewise, the frameworks described and briefly outlined above can and should be used differently by different teachers. Unleashing problem solvers is a pedagogical shift, not a prescribed curriculum. Design thinking in a classroom is more than implementing STEM or a new technology; “it’s more a way of solving problems that encourage positive risk-taking and creativity (Spencer, 2016, p. 52). The key to creative collaboration is to understand that we are all makers and innovators and inventors and entrepreneurs. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


In the Cherry Creek School District, our Elementary STEM and Innovation team leads the way by promoting large-scale learning experiences that require deep learning because “learning is optimized when students are involved in activities that require complex thinking and the application of knowledge” (Hess, Carlock, Jones, & Walkup, 2009). For us, STEM is more than an acronym; it is foundational thinking required for our 54,000 students (and their teachers) to be successful in the real world. That means that our main priority with every student and every teacher is to create a learning experience that goes beyond textbook and worksheet learning. Yes, we hit standards, but that is not our focus. We hit standards because our learning experiences are trans-disciplinary and authentic to the real world.

Cherry Creek students operate in groups of engineers tailored for the specific question. Our students think systematically about problem-solving using an Engineering Design Process. For example, what would it take to design and build an airplane that flies higher and farther than any other? Who would be involved? In the real world, aircraft, aerospace, aviation, flight, and mechanical engineers all collaborate, design, construct, fly, and monitor an airplane. Aircraft systems are complex and require a deep understanding of physics, mathematics, aerodynamics, and engineering. How about having second graders involved? That is exactly what the Cherry Creek Schools TOPGUN Paper Airplane Academy does with students. We take second graders and teach them the four forces of flight, putting them through labs that teach them aerodynamics, aviation, and set up field experiments with innovations in aerospace technology. This is an example of a learning experience as opposed to solely teaching content. Second graders graduate TOPGUN with more than just knowledge and skills; they have an intrinsic motivation that they can do anything they set their minds to. They are engineers; not second-grade students!


Why can’t even our youngest students work to address global challenges? Why can’t students offer differing perspectives to problems? Why are teachers not harnessing innovation skills through innovative leadership and empathy?

The answers lie in the overused rhetoric of 21st-century skills. It is 2017; not 1999. We are 17 years into this century, not nervously approaching a new century. We need to stop calling skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, curiosity, creativity, resiliency, and being reflective and empathetic as 21st-century skills. This implies that these are never-before-used skills that have been invented for a new century. These are not brand-new inventions. These are survival skills. People don’t consider the ability to light a fire or set up shelter as first century skills. The Egyptians were building pyramids 5,000 years before the first century. Being able to build shelter and stay alive are survival skills, not skills relegated to a particular era. So, how does one stay alive in 2017? You need to be able to be a problem finder and solver. You need to innovate and create. You need to inspire and act entrepreneurially. You need to use your imagination and communicate that to others. You need to adapt. Students can’t continue to solve problems pre-selected by teachers and they can’t solve problems if they don’t care.

Teachers, you need to stop asking the questions and begin creating experiences that inspire engagement. You need to stop inhibiting your students’ natural curiosity and creativity; critical thinking and problem-solving; agility and adaptability. You need to unleash students; let them believe that they can change the world, and then get out of their way.

Unleashing problem solvers is more than just presenting a class of students with a bunch of inauthentic problems. It does not involve listing unconnected story problems on a worksheet. In order to unleash problem solvers, educators need to create a space for creativity and innovation to flourish. Teachers need to begin referring to their students and entrepreneurs, not kids. Unleashing problem solvers does not involve unlocking some fortified gate, blowing off the dust, and knocking off the rusted metal. It involves looking at your classroom of thirty students with fresh eyes; looking at your curriculum through the lens of design thinking, and structuring your lessons so that students are discovering skills and knowledge, not just memorizing facts. Once you do this, there will be nothing to unleash. Instead, you will need to just get out of the way from the flood of creative ideas and innovative thinking that will emanate from each and every one of your students!



ASCD. (2017). What We Do. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.ascd.org

Couros, G. (2015). The innovator’s mindset: empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

McIntosh, E. (2011, November 29). Ewan McIntosh: What’s Next? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JUnhyyw8_kY

Seelig, T. L. (2015). InGenius: a crash course on creativity. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Seelig, T. (2015). Insight out: get ideas out of your head and into the world. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2016). LAUNCH: using design thinking to boost creativity and bring out the maker in every student. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Tim Brown, “Design Thinking,” Harvard Business Review (online), June 2008, https://hbr.org/2008/06/design-thinking.

Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2015). Creating innovators: the making of young people who will change the world. New York, NY: Scribner.