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Drive a Different Way and Count Past Ten – The Creative Problem Solving MOOC

Brad Hokanson is a professor in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches creative problem solving. His free MOOC, Creative Problem Solving starts Sep 3, 2014, and lasts 7 weeks. Charlie Chung from Class Central had a webchat with Professor Hokanson to get his thoughts on creativity and the upcoming … Continued

Brad Hokanson is a professor in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches creative problem solving. His free MOOC, Creative Problem Solving starts Sep 3, 2014, and lasts 7 weeks. Charlie Chung from Class Central had a webchat with Professor Hokanson to get his thoughts on creativity and the upcoming MOOC.


Nowadays, creativity is a highly admired trait, not only among those in artistic fields, but among scientists, technologists, and businesspeople. A 2010 survey of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries ranked creativity to be the most important leadership skill for the future. On the academic research front, results from the landmark Torrance longitudinal study (tracked over 50 years) showed that a child’s creativity was 3x better than their general intelligence as a predictor of creative achievements over a lifetime.

Measured creativity has been declining after 1990, even though general intelligence has been increasing 

Surprisingly, despite this high regard for creativity, most people don’t take many intentional steps to cultivate their own personal creativity, and organizations usually do little more than hold traditional ‘brainstorming’ sessions and encourage each other to “think outside the box”. There is also a troubling trend: one prominent creativity researcher has found that measured creativity has been declining after 1990, even though general intelligence has been increasing. It’s not clear what is driving this trend, though everybody can probably point a favorite suspect: video games, the internet, instant messaging, standardized testing, slashed arts funding, etc.

How much can creativity be improved?

How do we define creativity? According to Professor Hokanson, there is a core definition of creativity that is generally well-agreed upon: coming up with novel ideas that are applicable to a particular situation. Then there are more complex aspects that can be debated: whether the answers have to be good, whether ideas are well-elaborated, or whether they synthesize other ideas. For our purposes, we can stick to the core definition, which is basically the ability to generate new ideas.

 “Although genetics plays a role, creativity can certainly be improved to a large extent.” 

The next obvious question is: to what extent can creativity be learned? Professor Hokanson says that although genetics plays a role, creativity can certainly be improved to a large extent. Through commonly used tests of creativity, he sees a 50% improvement in students as a result of his class. This is a larger improvement than seen from going through design school! Even more promising, a small survey of students 18 months after the course found that they retained 90% of their creativity increase, even though they did not report “feeling” more creative or nor could they recall the class concepts very well. But how do we know the increase is not simply from familiarity with the test? Well, for one thing, improvements aren’t uniform. Prof. Hokanson finds that students who did not eat breakfast perform 15% worse on a morning test than those who ate something. Also, ironically, the students who struggle the most initially in his class are the high-achievers. He explains:

“They learned how to survive in a tough academic background, they are really great students, straight-A students. But they are trying to get one answer. They don’t have the opportunity to try to reach out and do different things. But they [then start to accept the idea of creativity and] do extremely well after that.”

How can we be boost our creativity?

Prof. Hokanson points out that the traditional model of brainstorming that is widely used (generate ideas together, focus on quantity over quality, no criticism allowed), is not ideal. He explains:

“Classic brainstorming technique could be made better. There are things that don’t get said in those meetings and things that get missed, and letting people develop their ideas ahead of time really helps. Particularly with the introverted people, they don’t speak up right away, and they have to get ready to talk in that bigger group.”

Thus, it sometimes better for participants to prepare ahead of time, and to encourage some level of challenge and debate to help refine ideas.

So what is it that Prof. Hokanson does in his class that results in the 50% increase in creativity? It turns out that it is very straightforward: getting exposed to new stimuli and practicing. He has his students conduct exercises that challenge them to stretch their imaginations and see things in new ways. Then they give feedback to each other (another form of diverse stimuli). He explains a typical exercise in more detail:

Creativity Rule of 10

“After people go through about ten ideas for something, generally they get to unusual ideas or things that are completely different, ones that are a lot more creative.” 

The Creative Problem Solving MOOC will be run much like his class. There will be a series of ‘Different’ exercises, where students will be tasked to perform some everyday activities in a different way, note the results, and then submit them for peer comment. This fosters some interaction within the MOOC, though less than is possible in a face-to-face class. We asked Prof. Hokanson whether he had any doubts about being able to teach something like creativity using a MOOC format. He acknowledged that it will be a challenge, with a greater reliance on individual assignments. But he’s confident that through the ‘Different’ exercises the most important interactions will still take place: those between the participant and their environment, in new and stimulating ways, whether it be brushing one’s teeth in a different way, or experiencing a new cuisine.

“We need to expose ourselves to new stimuli” 

Beyond the MOOC, how can we cultivate more creativity in our lives? Prof. Hokanson says that the we need to expose ourselves to new stimuli. He advocates taking a different route home when you can, because just being exposed to different visual stimuli can trigger new creative thoughts. He also suggests having paper and pencil by the bed, as many of our most creative thoughts may occur on the edge of sleeping and waking. Probably many better ideas than Whatsapp have been lost between rolling out of bed and turning on the shower. The key to developing a source of ongoing creativity is to build habits that make you creative. Prof. Hokanson makes this case:

Building Creativity Habits

“We all have habits and assumptions we build up as we go along…can you change that? How will that change your outlook? I try to get people to question their habits and to build new creative habits. What will you do to give you more creative opportunity in your life?” 


In addition to offering the public MOOC, Prof. Hokanson is also planning a variant course called the SMOOCH (Semi-Massive Open Online Course, Here), which will be a for-credit course offered to the 40,000 students at the University of Minnesota. Improving creativity is an important skill that would improve the university community and SMOOCH allows easy access to everyone in the university. It will be similar to the free MOOC, but run over the whole summer, have  more assignments and readings, and have additional instructors. There was an initial problem when planning the SMOOCH, however. The course was designed for the summer (to avoid adding to student workload), but most students don’t like to register or pay separately for a summer term. To resolve this, Prof. Hokanson arranged to have it listed as a fall course (when budgeting and financial aid are already in place), but have students sign-up the prior spring, and complete most of the work over the summer, before finally wrapping up in the fall. This method of addressing a tough behavioral challenge by separating the credits and the work was itself very creative!

A variant of the course will be offered as for-credit to the 40,000 students at the University of Minnesota. 

Skeptics may suspect that university administrations are eager to try such programs in order to reduce the cost per credit, but there is a big gulf between a general topic like creativity that can be taken learned over the summer, and getting 40,000 students who are in close proximity to forego in-person classes. Perhaps this could even be a great model to make free MOOCs sustainable for the university: the free MOOC is offered as a public service, running it shows what learning objectives work well in that format, then a campus MOOC is modeled on this, which enables further resources and development via the paid for-credit process. As the course improves, these improvements can be fed back into the free public MOOC. This certainly seems like one possible model in for universities and MOOCs.

Teaching creativity an important calling

Planning and running either the public or campus MOOC is plenty enough extra work, why is Prof. Hokanson doing both? It goes back to his belief in the need for more creativity in our society, and the hope that through it, we will find solutions to our pressing problems (and he has received some great support along the way within the university community). As he says,

“This is a really important calling for people to make other people be more creative. How do you change the university and how do you change society? I’d rather have people having more good ideas, and doing more interesting things, than keep working to make ourselves a little bit more efficient. Let’s make the big leap and make something else happen.”

Well, on behalf of the students who will take these MOOCs, and as part of the public that will undoubtedly benefit, we want to thank Prof. Hokanson for bringing the passion and creativity to develop these MOOCs. You can boost your creativity by taking the free Creative Problem Solving MOOC, which starts soon on Sep. 3, 2014.

(To watch the full interview, you can view it here on the Class Central YouTube channel.)

Image Source:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  puroticorico

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