By John Almarode, Ph.D., James Madison University College of Education

Whether the story about Isaac Newton and the apple is an urban legend or an actual account of what happened on that afternoon in the late 1600s, the idea behind the story fits very well into the purpose of this article. While sitting under a tree, an apple fell from the tree, struck the scientist on the head, and prompted him to discover gravity. Apparently, that is all it took, a quick shot to the head, for Isaac Newton to have the aha moment necessary for identifying one of the most foundational, and necessary, forces in our universe: gravity.

Stories like this are common in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For example, Art Fry, around 1970, was in search of a bookmark that would help him quickly locate the next song in his church hymnal, stay in the hymnal when placed back in the pew, but would not damage the pages when moved from one song to the next. He engineered a piece of paper with an adhesive developed at his place of work to invent the sticky note. Consider the story of Wilson Greatbatch who, in the late 1960s, placed the wrong re-sistor into a circuit that resulted in pulses of electrical energy rather than a continuous flowing current. You now know this apparent aha moment as the original prototype for the pacemaker. Similarly, in 1955, George de Mestral, while picking burrs off of his dog, noticed that they hooked onto his dog’s fur. Using this observa-tion and the experience of picking burrs out of his dog’s furr, George de Mestral invented Velcro.

These inventors would easily be characterized as great thinkers. After all, their cognitive prowess resulted in the engineering of ideas or products that have a significant impact on our daily lives. Acknowledging that these individuals are great thinkers does not, in and of itself, require our own cognitive prowess. A harder, more thought-provoking question is how they did it. Most of us have had objects fall near us, put batteries into an electronic device the wrong way, needed a reliable bookmark, or have had to clean up an animal after an outdoor adventure. My point is that these experiences are not out-of-the-ordinary to the human experience. So why then are we not patent holders of products that are instantly recognizable in today’s world? What makes these individuals great thinkers? Are great thinkers simply lucky and have aha moments that the rest of us don’t have? Do these individuals do something that the rest of us could do, making the title of a great think-er attainable to all of us? What about our students; do they have what it takes to be great thinkers?

Cognitive scientists have devoted significant time and attention to this question, uncovering some interesting findings that have implications for our classrooms and the nature of the tasks we ask of our students. An earlier study found that creativity could be taught (Goldenberg, Mazursky, & Solomon, 1999a; 1999b). When individuals with no background knowledge were provided instruction on templates for creative thinking, they produced products that were scored as more creative than other individuals in the study that did not have the same instruction. Chan and Schunn (2014) found that great thinking was the result of a cognitive progression and not cognitive leaps. This study ruled out the existence of aha moments suggesting that great thinking was the result of a gradual progression, often not visible to out- siders. The takeaway from these studies, along with others in the field, is that great thinking is the result of a gradual progression and can be taught; making it attainable for our students.

Problem-solving teaching or the use of design briefs is a logical option for creating an educational environment that fosters and nurtures great thinkers. However, sim- ply finding a task for your future innovative thinkers and placing it into the school day does not automatical- ly set your learners up to be the next Art Fry, Wilson Greatbatch, or George de Mestral. After all, standing in my garage does not make me a Cadillac. So how do we do this in our own classrooms so that we achieve our desired outcome: innovative thinking?

Art Markman (2012), a cognitive scientist from the University of Texas at Austin, identified three common characteristics of smart or great thinkers: (1) smart thinkers develop and use smart habits, (2) smart thinkers acquire high-quality information and a lot of it, and (3) smart thinkers practice applying what they know to new situations. Specific to the classroom, what Markman (2012) and others have uncovered in their research is that smart of great thinkers make use of habits or strategies that are both efficient and effective for learning. These thinkers acquire a high volume of high-quality information. And finally, these thinkers are engaged in learning experiences that require them to apply what they know to new situations.

Translating this body of research into classroom practice yields three big ideas that should guide our instructional decisions, particularly in the STEM classroom.

  1. Whether engaging students in a problem-solving task or design brief, we         should select and implement evidence-based strategies with consistency and precision (i.e., smart habits).
  2. As students engage in problem-solving tasks or design briefs, we should create a learning environment that promotes the acquisition of background knowledge and a robust body of knowledge around each topic (i.e., acquisition of high-quality information).
  3. Each problem-solving task or design brief should be set up to take students’ background knowledge and the newly acquired robust body of knowledge and use it in different contexts and on several occasions (i.e., applying knowledge to new situations).

Creating and implementing educational experiences that aim to develop our students into great thinkers should be purposeful, intentional, and incorporate these three big ideas. When we fall victim to activities that are simply fun, do not require the acquisition of high quality information, and/or do not provide different and authentic contexts in which to apply the information, our goal of developing great thinkers is like fishing without bait; the chances of success are slim to none.

— References —

Chan, J., & Schunn, C. (2014). The impact of analogies on creative concept generation: lessons from an in vivo study in engineering design. Cognitive Science.

Goldenberg, J., Mazursky, D., & Solomon, S. (1999). Creative sparks. Science, 285(5433), 1495-1496.

Goldenberg, J., Mazursky, D., & Solomon, S. (1999).

Toward identifying the inventive templates of new products: A channeled ideation approach. Journal of Market-ing Research, 36(2), 200-210.

Markman, A. B. (2012). Smart thinking: Three essential keys to solve problems, innovate, and get things done.

Penguin Group, Inc.: New York, NY.



Previous articleSee our board members!