Creative Problem-Solving in Schools

Creative Problem-Solving in Schools

As a doctoral student with the University of the Virgin Islands, I had the opportunity to choose between three tracks that would lay the foundation for my studies and research path. The choice of track would essentially define my work. Organizational Development and Leadership sounded interesting but still felt very management and bottom-line oriented. Educational Leadership for Change definitely spoke to my passion for transforming urban education but I feared it would feel redundant alongside the work I already completed towards an educational leadership master’s degree. I wanted the Ph.D. pursuit to bring new and unique value to my lived experience. I was seeking a way to look at education through a nontraditional lens and the Creativity track presented an opportunity to do just that. At this point in my second year of the program, coursework is geared towards creativity and developing innovations. I can revisit my foundation in education and apply what I am learning about principles of creativity to rethink educational challenges. I have long felt that addressing the problems of inner-city schools that primarily serve students of color would require a radical shift in pedagogy, mindset, and design. After decades of unsuccessful reform initiatives and opposing interests, this shift seemed like it would never occur.

Enter 2020.

The year 2020 is the definition of a radical shift. Every facet of life has been altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the very traditional and unwavering business of education. School closures implemented in the name of mitigating the spread of the virus have forced the entire ecosystem of education to hit pause on in-person teaching and learning. Although many sectors of society wanted to get back to “normal”, families and educators in marginalized communities question whether getting “back to normal” is really what’s needed.  For those plagued by inequities in education, however, “normal” is not a desired state. “Normal” represents the status quo, which produces lifelong opportunity and achievement gaps (Alexander et al., 2020). The public education system we know of today took shape about 100 years ago during a time of exponential population increases due to industrialization, the need to prepare students for the rote efficiencies and behaviors of factory work, as well as within a social context steeped in racial prejudice (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020). While this abrupt pause is highly disruptive, a radically disruptive force is exactly what’s needed to upend the deep roots of inequality and sub-standard education students in urban areas are subjected to. COVID-19, as ravaging and destructive as it has been, has also presented society with a rare opportunity to reimagine and redesign schooling at scale (Zhao, 2020).

Re-envisioning schools, however, will require creative leadership with an understanding of the creative problem-solving process. According to Puccio et al. (2011), leaders who are successful in managing difficult situations that require complex change are able to see the opportunity amongst the challenge. They can use their imaginations to challenge the status quo and take risks in the name of change. Creative leaders are adaptable, comfortable with ambiguity, they employ flexible thinking, they are non-conforming, and they are divergent thinkers (Miller et al., 2001). Creative people are able to overcome traditional thinking in order to see the world through a different lens (DuBrin, 2015), which is exactly what is needed if we are to harness this poignant moment.

I believe very strongly and propose that the Creative Problem-Solving process should be used by stakeholders to tackle this living problem. The CPS process consists of a series of deliberate actions that sparks creative thinking and results in creative solutions. It is designed to support the generation of ideas that serve a novel purpose in addressing ill-defined, ambiguous problems (Puccio et al., 2010). The CPS process consists of three major stages: 1.) Assessing the Situation - Identifying a problem that is a good match for creative thinking, 2.) Clarification - Identifying the true nature of the problem, 3.) Transformation - Exploring novel ideas and generating relevant and useful solutions, and 4.) Implementation - Evaluating solutions and formulating a plan (Puccio et al., 2012). While many reputable entities have published lists of priorities for schools and education policymakers, there is no collective vision as to what the outcome should be for this new level of reform. Whether the CPS process is applied at the system level or at the local and school-site levels, it can be used to build cohesion between stakeholders for managing the challenges ahead and providing a structured approach to problem solving. It is my belief, then, that Creative Problem-Solving has the power to connect us and guide our efforts for creative school reform in the same direction.

In my research I hoped to encounter examples of how CPS is being applied within K-12 settings but what I found were loose applications of various segments of the process. While the process is non-sequential and iterative, it is important to honor each stage as they work together to produce solutions that address an unmet need. I discovered a lack of literature with regard to how schools utilized the CPS process during “normal” times, so the scarcity of research specific to using CPS to address school reform in the COVID-19 and racial justice era was no surprise. These pandemics present “wicked problems” as they are complex problems with seemingly competing interests, such as experiencing social isolation and economic hardship for the sake of quarantining for safety. These types of problems are ripe for creativity and innovation (Cohen & Cromwell, 2020). Although the literature does not speak directly to the application of the CPS process at the K-12 level during the pandemic, there is evidence of it being used by researchers and practitioners at all levels. I will attempt to align this evidence with the CPS process to demonstrate that it is, in fact, being applied to this problem and that it's more deliberate, strategic, and systemic use would produce meaningful and creative solutions.

The Creative Solving Process in Action

The Assessing the Situation Stage

The first stage of the CPS process, Assessing the Situation, is where identifying a problem suitable for creative thinking and where gathering and selecting key data occur. This situation not only presents a state of urgency, but it is a broad, open-ended, and worthy endeavor for those who feel ownership and passion towards the work (Puccio et al., 2012). While data relevant to the situation has been collected many times over, it would be important for collaborative teams of stakeholders at the local and system levels to gather, select, and analyze data specific to how both pandemics impact each environment uniquely. For example, although it is clear that many students across the country are missing out on school lunch, schools in underserved communities will likely have more students who rely on this provision and would therefore need to include this data as they define the problem space. Global organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF have been gathering data on COVID-19’s impact on education to define the problem globally just as schools and districts analyze and select key data locally.

The Clarification Stage

The Clarification Stage of the CPS process involves exploring the vision to identify desired outcomes and determine barriers to formulate challenges to that vision (Puccio et al., 2012). Stakeholder groups need to ensure, before they jump into developing solutions, that they identify the desired state and clarify the current situation. Many organizations are at this point of divergence where they are asking questions that lead to a “wishlist” and a vision of the future of education. If we know we do not wish to go back to “normal” then the desired result must be imagined. What does education reform mean in 2020? What is the goal of revamping education in the midst of a global pandemic and the fight for racial justice? What should schools look like, feel like, and produce in the new system of education? What should the curriculum now include or exclude? An example of exploring the vision is the following question posed by Dr. Kirkland at The NYU Steinhardt Metropolitan Center for on Equity and the Transformation of Schools (2020), “What is the desired system or set of environments for students based in a radical reimagining of how we do schools?” (p. 4). This question would allow stakeholders to diverge, creating a wishlist of what education should entail in the new desired state. The Center also formulated challenge statements to consider gaps in attaining the vision such as, “How might we decide, determine, reimagine, and recreate through an equity lens?” and “How might we prepare to stand strong in our commitments to centering students, promoting equity, and advancing opportunities to learn regardless of the geopolitical or social circumstances?” (p. 4).

Researchers with the Learning Policy Institute have also developed a shared vision for the desired outcome in the Clarification stage. We are not able to see their divergent activities, but we can see that the Institute converged to identifying two major outcomes of post-COVID school reform: transforming education quality and closing opportunity/achievement gaps (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020). For this vision to be realized, stakeholders would need to face challenges to the vision head on. The Institute used divergence and convergence to generate and select a list of barriers to the vision that must be addressed by policymakers and educators.

Although the Institute has not formally turned these priorities into challenge statements, it should be noted that the CPS process can be used to transform these priorities into challenge statements that push further creative thinking. “In what ways might we design school for stronger relationships,” for example, can create some rich thought and divergence around how a school environment where stronger relationships are formed may look. “How might we leverage more adequate and equitable school funding,” could shed novel and abundant light on untapped funding sources.

The Transformation Stage

OpenIDEO’s COVID-19 Reimagine Learning Challenge (2020) provides a great example of how narrowing down to a robust challenge statement in the problem clarification stage flows directly into the 3rd stage of CPS, Transformation, in which you identify viable solutions. This organization engaged a wide variety of stakeholders around the world in divergent vision exploration and solution ideation by asking people to consider the challenge statement, “How might we help educators, parents, and students adapt to remote learning while also using this moment to radically reimagine what we need our education systems to be?” The project generated over 400 divergent ideas from students, teachers, and parents worldwide. OpenIDEO organized and categorized contributions to get a sense of what stakeholders believe education should become in this pivotal moment. A few of these collected insights include self-directed learning, new definitions of mastery, including joy and play in the curriculum, and expanding the learning environment to include outdoor spaces (Reimagine Learning, 2020). The convergence and selection of solutions was placed in the hands of the most impacted group of stakeholders: students. Through OpenIDEO’s partnership with XQ Schools, an organization whose mission is to rethink high schools (XQ Institute, 2020), students were able to identify 20 project ideas that will receive funding and coaching to support implementation as well as a platform to share their solution. OpenIDEO essentially used CPS divergent and convergent tasks to clarify the problem and to then transform the problem into meaningful solutions. Their formulation (divergence) and selection (convergence) of an open-ended challenge statement in the Clarification stage led to the generation of hundreds of ideas (divergence) and the selection of a subset of ideas to be implemented (convergence). Although they have not explicitly stated it, the CPS process is clearly at play.


The lack of pre-COVID literature regarding the use of the CPS at the K-12 level is telling and speaks to a gap in how schools, districts, states, and policy entities addressed challenges before there was a global pandemic infringing upon education. The CPS process provides a strategy for tackling complex problems and serious consideration should be given to it as a method for identifying meaningful solutions.

Educators and policymakers alike agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing educational issues, particularly those around education quality and equity. Stripping stakeholders from schools in the name of social distancing and safety has exposed problems we have continuously covered with Band-Aids. There is no escaping the blatant disparities in lower income communities. In some ways, the COVID-19 crisis has forced us to face the reality of the current educational system. The pandemic has forcefully ushered in a new age of educational reform. Whether we want to or not, stakeholders are forced to reimagine the components of learning. We must seize this moment as an opportunity to collectively regroup and assert a renewed vision for educational outcomes for our children and for the future of schooling. We can either harness this moment and diverge deeply to reinvent education or we can squander it by returning to business as usual.


Written for: SUNY Buffalo State College, CRS 559: Principles of Creative Problem Solving

Pursuant to: Creative-Problem Solving Graduate Certificate in conjunction with The University of the Virgin Islands Ph.D. program in Creativity for Innovation and Change



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