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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 9|June|2001

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Building Good New Ideas

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

The building process begins with elements that may be skillfully combined into a new and different idea.

How do we teach young people to build their own good new ideas instead of simply cutting and pasting the ideas of others?

How do we show them the importance of inventing? of building on the best thinking of others while introducing new insights and possibilities?

How do encourage them to have faith in their creativity, their imagination, their freshness and originality?

At the age of four, children make up songs complete with lyrics and melodies. They rarely stop to doubt their talents.

At the age of four, girls and boys create towers of blocks that reach nearly to the sky. They even enjoy the tumbling down part of building. If their towers fall down, they scream with delight and start over again.

Same with sand castles.

Unconstrained by thoughts of performance, children can even improve upon the sky with wildly imaginative finger paintings.

The sky is their limit? Hardly.

They ask unanswerable questions like "How big is the sky?" and "Why do we have to die?"

If imagination and creativity is hard-wired into children from birth, where does it go? Can it be reawakened?

The May issue of From Now On explored the challenge of finding truth - the "difficult truth" as Michael Leunig refers to it. This article is intended as a companion piece to that article, "Verity: Searching for Truth." The focus here is upon the building of good new ideas . . . the skills needed and the teacher strategies that can encourage the development of such skills.

We may need scaffolding to support the building process. It depends upon the question, the issue, or the challenge at hand.

What is essential?

Most states in Australia and the U.S.A. are making bold statements about the kinds of thinking students must be capable of applying to the important questions, issues and decisions of life.

  1. Futures
  2. Identity
  3. Interdependence
  4. Thinking
  5. Communication
The above categories are drawn from the Essential Learnings statement in South Australia (SACSA). Futures is defined as follows:

"Students will develop capabilities to critically reflect on and shape the present and future through powerful uses of literacy, numeracy and information and communication technologies."

Stating ambitious goals is one thing. The actual attainment of lofty goals is quite another matter.

What does it take to push beyond conventional wisdom and create something new?

Seven Ingredient
Hot Sauce

It takes (at least) seven ingredients to inspire Cajun thinking:

  1. Guidance
  2. Tools
  3. Skills
  4. Strategies
  5. Faith
  6. Playfulness
  7. Resources

1. Guidance

By the middle years of schooling, most students will require the guidance of a mentor to show them just how to construct new ideas. This mentor (or teacher) will know how to suggest without telling, to model without overpowering, to encourage rather than direct. Because there are many paths to understanding, the teacher must not grab the student's mouse, figuratively or literally. Because discovery is essential to this process, teaching must subside, silence must prevail and questioning must be the source of direction and inspiration.

For teachers to be good at guidance, they must first wrestle with the challenge of creating new ideas in their own lives until they feel accomplished, experienced, relaxed and calm enough to support others.

One way to initiate a class to the construction of new ideas is to "walk" through one discovery experience as a group with the teacher leading the field trip, highlighting and modeling the process so that students have a chance to see firsthand how ideas are built.

This guidance role has implications for professional development. If we expect teachers to be guides in the development of ideas, we must provide ongoing, rich experiences for them as adults to do such thinking and exploration with mentors and teachers from the adult world.

Perhaps we team science teachers with a biologist, English teachers with a journalist, social studies teachers with a mayor and art teachers with a painter?

2. Tools

Each student needs a carpenter's belt to hold the mental equivalent of saw, hammer, level, wrench, pliers, and drills. While we might equip students with other technologies such as books, probes, microscopes, pencils and laptops, the most powerful tools of all are mindware - human questions and problem-solving techniques that support innovative thinking.

Once internalized, these systems of thinking are embedded within student minds as frameworks for approaching mental challenges. They may operate for student brains somewhat as software can work for computers, except that they are often more dynamic and organic than most software programs. They interact, mutate, weave together and shift with experience.

Once equipped with great mindware, when it is time for a mental saw, the student knowingly grabs a saw - a crosscut saw if a particular kind of conceptual cutting is required.

Technology cheerleaders can be a bit quick to push the merits of digital tools without linking them to appropriate mental tools. Without strong mindware, software and computers are unlikely to produce impressive new ideas, better student writing or better student performance.

This point is especially well made by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their powerful book, The Social Life of Information, reviewed in the May, 2000 issue of FNO. Go to review.

 Hammering Information

Caught in the headlights of infologic, it occasionally feels as though we have met the man with the proverbial hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. If you have a problem, define it in terms of information and you have the answer.

(Brown and Duguid) Page 19

Mindware Example One - SCAMPER (Eberle, 1997).

Each letter of SCAMPER stands for an approach to invention. When a student looks for a solution to a social or environmental problem such as acid rain, she or he can take all the elements of past efforts, mix them up with plenty of newer options and then apply each of the techniques below to create a new plan of action.

  • S=Substitute
  • C=Combine
  • A=Adapt
  • M=Magnify, Minify
  • P=Put to other use
  • E=Eliminate
  • R=Reverse

Mindware Example Two - The Questioning Toolkit first published in FNO ( - a collection of different kinds of questions that might be combined to create answers to complicated and demanding questions.

The student learns to switch from one type of question to another depending upon the type of mental operation required to build the next level of understanding.

Mindware Example Three - The scientific method or one of many creative problem-solving models available online or in book form.

Stages of Problem-Solving

Define Problem
Gather Data & Explore Possibilities
Invent Options
Evaluate Options
Create a Plan


Mindware Example Four - The innovative strategies suggested in the books of Roger von Oech such as A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York, Warner Books, 1998. von Oech provides activities to unlock the mental locks that block innovative thinking. He offers strategies to inspire and support dynamic thinking.

Mindware Example Five - deBono’s Thinking Hats

In his Six Thinking Hats book, Edward deBono explains how each of six differently colored hats can stand for a kind of thinking. The blue hat, for example, stands for thinking about which hat (or type of thinking) should prevail at various times. The green hat stands for creative thought. The yellow hat stands for positive thinking - looking at the advantages. White hat thinking is careful and objective collection of data. The red hat requires attention to emotional issues. A sixth hat (I prefer the color purple for this one) stands for skeptical, doubtful and critical thinking. All six types are important, but it is the conscious orchestration of these six types of thinking that makes productive and imaginative thinking possible. The hat metaphor puts such orchestration within the reach of elementary school children.

Mindware Example Six - ThinkerToys

Michalko's book, ThinkerToys, is a well organized collection of dozens of problem solving strategies and tools.

Linear Thinkertoys
False Faces (Reversal)
Slice and Dice (attribute listing)
Cherry Split (fractionization)
Think Bubbles (mind mapping)
SCAMPER (questions)
Tug-of-War (force-field-analysis)
Idea Box (morphological analysis)
Idea Grid (FCB grid)
The Toothache Tree (diagramming)
Phoenix (questions)
The Great Transpacific Airline and Storm Door Company (matrix)
Future Fruit (future scenarios)
Brutethink (random stimulation)
Hall of Fame (forced connection)
Circle of Opportunity (forced connection)
Ideatoons (pattern language)
Clever Trevor (talk to a stranger)
Intuitive Thinkertoys
Chilling Out (relaxation)
Blue Roses (intuition)
The Three Bs (incubation)
Rattlesnakes and Roses (analogies)
Stone Soup (fantasy questions)
Color Bath (creative visualization)
Dreamscape (dreams)
Da Vinci's Technique (drawing)
Dali's Technique (hypnogogic imagery)
Not Kansas (imagery)
The Shadow (psychosynthesis)
The Book of the Dead (hieroglyphics)
Group Thinkertoys
Rice Storm (TKJ)
Worrywillie's Guide to Prioritizing
Murder Board

Mindware Example Seven - Mental Mapping
and Cluster Diagramming

Students can learn to map out complex issues and questions. They grow accustomed to visual representations of ideas and the links between them. Comparing ship captains, they begin by identifying criteria to guide choice and then they develop a clear picture of the prime questions needing exploration.

Such mapping can be done on paper or a computer screen or both. The most important aspect of this process is not the implement or physical tool (paper, pencil or laptop). It is the visual and conceptual thinking that matters, and that kind of thinking must be grown over time through modeling and instruction by a savvy mentor or teacher.

Navigation Skill?
  • Did he know how to use all the best instruments of his time?
  • Did he keep a careful log?
  • Did he usually know where they were?
  • Did he ever get lost?
  • Did he seem to know what he was doing?
  • Did his ships have to wander around very much?
  • Did he stay clear of known hazards?
  • Did he know how to make the best of prevailing winds?
  • Did he know how to maneuver during a sea battle?
  • Did he have mates that could help him when he needed it?
  • Did he know when to ask for directions?

The tools role has implications for professional development. If we expect teachers to show students how to wield such powerful thinking models and tools, we should be proving those teachers with 30-45 hours of coursework in several of these models until they become comfortable and proficient.

3. Skills

Closely related to the thinking tools mentioned above are the skills required to apply those models and tools to actual situations. It is not enough to acquire the models in the abstract, apart from actual problem-solving.

Ownership of a powerful drill does not automatically confer upon the owner effective drilling. One must know something about selecting the right length, diameter and composition of drill bits to match the task. Once selected, it takes some skill to load them and apply pressure in a firm, effective manner.

Without these skills, the apprentice uses a bit meant for wood to drill through concrete and finds the drilling difficult and the bit dulled.

When it comes to ideas, the effective use of a cluster diagramming software program like Inspiration™ requires dozens of seemingly minor skills that may have a significant influence upon the generation of ideas. Assigning colors to particular concepts and dragging them to their own section of the diagram can add a level of coherence and intelligibility to the exploration that exceeds one's normal expectations for the impact of coloring. Assigning symbols to match concepts, questions or components can also elevate the impact of the diagram.

The effective use of graphic organizers and other thinking tools takes extensive practice so that the component skills become pretty much automatic. Early efforts can be clumsy and stiff, hindering the thought process rather than enhancing it.

Balance of Skills: To optimize results, students must develop a high level of skill across all of the major categories of tools (mindware, software and hand tools) listed earlier. Training in spreadsheeting does little to enhance student performance without a balanced commitment to showing students how to interpret numbers and communicate visually about numerical relationships. Training in powerpointing does little to enhance student performance without a balanced commitment to showing students how to build ideas and communicate visually with attention to aesthetics. It leads instead to PowerPointlessness. (see "Scoring Powerpoints, the September, 2000 issue of FNO.)

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
ISBN: 096139210X Graphics Press, 1992

4. Strategies

Creating good new ideas requires the strategic use of the tools and the skills mentioned above. There are no recipes, templates or automated procedures that are likely to foster or nurture imaginative production. Strategic use entails reflection and choice. There is often some trial and error, some play and some experimentation.

  • Which tools will work best here?
  • Which skills do I need to apply?
  • In what order should I proceed?
  • Have I asked the right questions?
  • Do I know what I need to know?
  • How can I best combine tools and techniques for this particular challenge?
  • What is missing?
  • What is needed?
  • How can I do this?
  • How would my models/heroes do this? my opponents? my competition?
  • Which approaches that have worked for me in the past might work here?
  • Have I anticipated what might go wrong?
  • Have I planned for surprise?
  • Do I have a flexible plan?
  • What else do I need to consider?
  • Where can I seek inspiration?

5. Faith

A surprisingly strong determinant of creative production is the faith that one can add value by applying one's best thinking to a challenge. Sadly, a relatively small percentage of young people seem to emerge from school with this faith. They pass through too many discouraging experiences that communicate the opposite message.

While there are some models of gifted education like the Renzulli approach that define giftedness broadly and set high expectations for all young people, many students seem to pass through school thinking that the writing of songs, poems, essays and music is the special province of a very small percentage of the population. The same with ideas. The message seems to be that a tiny fraction of the population creates new ideas while the rest are condemned to memorizing the ideas and insights of others.

Catford and Ray identify faith as one of the four most important tools of the hero in their book, The Path of the Everyday Hero.

6. Playfulness

In addition to the confidence mentioned in the previous section, inventors need to approach challenges with humor, laughter, flexibility and fun. They must be able to turn down the voice of the critic within and allow their clowns a chance to play. Great new ideas often seem silly when they first surface. We are pushing out the walls of our previous experiences and dancing with fanciful new possibilities. We must do so with open minds and a spirit of whimsy.

Research on the creative process by Torrance and others has shown that measured creativity often drops beginning at the fourth grade for two main reasons:

  • Right answer teaching
  • Peer pressure

Torrance found that students reduced their divergent responses and productivity as they tried to narrow their focus on figuring out what their teachers expected. He also hypothesized that young people were reluctant to offer publicly ideas, suggestions and insights that might be viewed as weird or dumb by their peers.

It is unlikely that the possession of a laptop or a hammer will do much to break these patterns by themselves. If we hope to see more playful students with more divergent responses and creative production, then we must create schools and classrooms that honor playfulness and imagination.

Reaching such an ambitious goal would require fundamental changes in the culture of most schools, beginning with the way teachers work together. The schedule of most schools is so tight, that there is little room for imaginative play or invention. Michael Fullan questions how much change we can expect when teachers are preoccupied with what he calls "the daily press."

Fullan: The daily press (the need to take care of moment to moment classroom pressures) is a mammoth obstacle to be overcome if an innovation is ever going to take root.

Teachers are often constrained from thinking about new ways of organizing learning in their classrooms by the need to handle day to day issues, surprises, crises and challenges (Fullan's summary of research by both Huberman and Crandall, pp. 33-34). This daily press creates the following impacts:
  • enforces a short term perspective and an emphasis upon coping
  • isolates teachers from dialogue with colleagues
  • exhausts them - leaving little left for special efforts and sprints
  • limits opportunities for reflection
  • makes them dependent upon what they already know and prone to following routines

Fullan, Michael G. (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press.

7. Resources

Ideas thrive, flourish and multiply in richly fertilized and well cultivated environments. Fallow fields produce few sun flowers.

While we often criticize the information available on the Net for its lack of reliability and quality, the new information landscape can provide a stimulating stew of provocative sources capable of stretching our minds and inspiring new ideas. (see "Learning Digitally" in the November, 1998 issue of FNO)

Paris open air market

Fresh perspectives and wide open windows to the seething new electronic bazaar of ideas could promote fresh thinking unlike anything we have witnessed in the past.

Innovation and originality thrive on the free flow of ideas and experiences. At the same time, much of the new information and the electronic media suffer from clip art banality and a template sense of style. Just as much of the world has been GAPped by the mass marketers, the news wires and McDisneySoft empire undermine creativity with their unrelenting drive toward standardization and "ready made" ideas.

The Web allows mavericks, clowns, heretics, poets and fools to publish their work without bowing before the editors, sages, and elders who have so long dominated the flow of ideas. This is a decidedly mixed blessing, of course, because it means the startling insight and bold dash of color may be submerged in a flood of mediocre and disappointing offerings.

As with the other potentials we can ascribe to digital learning, the prospects for a surge of creativity and originality will require some promotion and catering. None of this will happen automatically. While some idea generation will thrive spontaneously like a virulent virus, much of the good will be offset by countervailing viruses spawned by mass marketing and mass media. Clip art, templates, and user friendly short cuts will undermine some of the best prospects.

There is much that schools can do to enrich the learning environment, investing, for example, in the creation of new vertical files - digital collections stored on district file servers to support creative thought and inquiry. (see "The New Vertical File: Delivering Great Images and Data to the Desktop" in the October, 2000 issue of FNO)

The finished product - a new idea, fresh, compelling and possibly even inspiring.

If we build carefully, we can pull down the scaffolding that guided our construction to enjoy the finished product.

(to be continued in the September, 2001 issue of FNO)

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

Copyright Policy: © 2001, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
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