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The "Hierachrical Solution Generation" Method

The "Hierarchical Solution Generation" Method


As a follow-on to brainstorming, this method focuses on making connections between initial solutions generated during brainstorming to produce even more solutions.

The activity

After brainstorming a range of many solutions, look for commonalities among solutions, or a higher-order category that encompasses a set of solutions, in order to provide structure for continued solution generation. Once you have identified this more abstract category that many of your solutions fall into, you and your students can ask yourselves "What additional solutions we have not yet thought of might also fall into this category?"


Problem: A student has received a notice from their landlord that they will need to come up with $500 to pay for damages in their apartment that were noticed during a surprise visit by the landlord. The landlord has stated the student has one month to pay the bill.

  1. Give the students several minutes to think of as many ways as they can to come up with the money.
  2. Next, have the students group their solutions into categories and provide a descriptor for each category. For example, " "Have a bake sale"and "Call my parents"could generate the higher-order categories of selling something, and borrowing.
  3. Finally, give the students 5 more minutes to generate more solutions that fit into each category: What else could you sell? From where else might you borrow?

From: Butler, D.L., & Kline, M.A. (1998). Good versus creative solutions: A comparison of brainstorming, hierarchical, and perspective-changing heuristics. Creativity Research Journal, 11(4), 325-331.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.