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Synectics: A Brainstorming Tool Essay

William J.J. Gordon & George Prince developed the synectics approach to problem solving in 1960. They observed that business meetings had inconsistent results. After hours of studying tapes from meetings, they determined the success factor to be free-form brainstorming. This brainstorming process in an open, non-judgmental climate paired with analogies and metaphors led to more creativity and innovation. Gordon later adapted synectics for classroom use.

Orientation of Synectics

Gordon based synectics on the concept that traditional thought should be challenged. His theory is based on four goals and assumptions that revolve around creativity. Creativity is important in the problem solving process, creativity is not mysterious, creative invention is similar in all fields, and individual & group invention are similar. The synectics approach is based on the psychology of this creativity. Creative capabilities can be developed; creativity is an emotional process that aids intellectual processes, and understanding the irrational aids in problem solving success. Synectics incorporates metaphors and analogies to promote creativity. Direct analogies are based on the comparison of seemingly unrelated topics, ideas, objects, etc. Personal analogies enhance understanding when the participant is asked to become the topic, idea, object, etc.

Compress conflict is the comparison of opposing statements or terms. A full synectics approach would include a step-by-step process using each of these analogies in a particular pattern. However, some lesson objectives or time frames do not need or permit full synectics. In these cases, stretching exercises may be used. Stretching exercises use the metaphoric activities individually or in combination. For example, a group involved in athletic shoe design may concentrate on the personal analogy (Imagine yourself as a running shoe.) to generate new design ideas. They may or may not be used in relation to specific problem solving issues. A teacher may wish to simply stimulate student thinking at the start of class.

Aspects of Teaching Synectics

With synectics, the teacher becomes the facilitator. Competency in this process by the teacher is imperative. Students experience intrinsic rewards through satisfaction and pleasure in leading and learning from the activity. Teachers and students must remember that all ideas, regardless of how far-fetched or bizarre they may seem, must be accepted. Non-judgment is key to success in this process. Teachers must guide students away from making premature analysis for the problem being solved. Synectics can be used across the curriculum or as part of interdisciplinary learning. Applications are numerous and include creative writing, exploring social problems, problem solving, creating a design or product, and scientific investigations.

Other academic benefits include broadening concept perspectives and understanding, correcting misconceptions, and generalizing learning. The synectics process is both instructional and nurturing to its participants. Instructional effects include promotion of cohesion and productivity in the classroom, development of tools for metaphoric thinking, and increased problem solving capabilities. Nurturant effects include development of positive self-esteem in students, increased risk-taking by participants, and higher achievement of curricular content.

General Guidelines for Synectics

Regardless of whether the full synectics model, stretching exercises, or a modified version of the model is used, there are general guidelines for the teacher to ensure success of the process. The classroom environment should promote feelings of cooperation, openness to express one’s opinion and explore new ideas, be non-judgmental in nature, and foster class and group discussions. Graphic organizers may be used in conjunction with synectics to promote learning and understanding. Synectics can be assessed through discussion, graphic organizers, projects, writing, etc. To be most advantageous, the process should be implemented daily in some form. Diversity creates an optimal environment for synectics. Teachers need to ensure that student groups include learners with varying backgrounds/experiences, academic abilities, and different knowledge bases. The teacher/facilitator is to monitor the process not the content. Thinking skills developed through teacher monitoring and participation in the process are metaphors, analogies, comparing, contrasting, analysis, and evaluation.

Benefits of Synectics

Synectics can be found woven throughout the learning theories.The process can be linked to multiple intelligences/learning styles, technology in the classroom, creativity in learning, critical thinking and higher order thinking, metacognition and reflection, and brain research and learning. Synectics also overlaps many other effective teaching models and strategies. Synectics shares several of the benefits also exhibited by direct instruction, concept development, casual-effect, and creative problem solving, inductive thinking, memorization, case study, classroom discussion, and group investigation. Benefits include, but are not limited to: *

* increased understanding about a particular topic or issue
* enhances ability to apply knowledge
* adaptable to a variety of teaching/learning situations
* teacher becomes facilitator
* learners discover what they already know
* fosters new ideas
* divergent thinking & problem solving skills increased
* promotes collaborative work, study skills, & camaraderie
* helps to jump start the creative process
* promotes positive youth development
* promotes creativity
* can be used for social-emotional lessons
* redefines writing process
* new insights into otherwise boring or uncomfortable topics
* helps in retention of new information
* explores social & disciplinary problems
* internalizes abstract concepts
* increased language acquisition
* provides a 3-D view of the problem
* promotes empathy
* used to overcome mental blocks
* works best with a diverse group of learners
* promotes free thinking
* new & surprising solutions to problems
* mobilizes both sides of the brain
* furnishes (new) insight into problem solving
* all ideas have some good qualities
* aids learners in finding novel approaches & alternative views to problem solving
* aids in drawing relevant connections between seemingly unrelated concept

Drawbacks of Synectics

Just as all learning theories and teaching models are not without fault, synectics is found to contain some drawbacks as well. Pitfalls to synectics include, but may not be limited to:

* more demanding than brainstorming
* involves multiple steps
* process can be complicated
* process can be cumbersome
* requires more time than other brainstorming processes
* requires more effort than other processes

Synectics Format

Synectics can be used in three ways: to make the strange familiar, to make the familiar strange, and to create something new. Making the strange familiar and creating something new are the most common classroom uses of synectics. All three formats are very similar, containing much overlap. It is the task of the facilitator to determine the desired outcome. Step 1 – Describe the Topic: The facilitator selects a word or topic then asks students to describe the topic. Brainstorming a list of descriptors through class or small group discussion or by individually writing a paragraph are the most common methods. Step 2 – Create Direct Analogies: The facilitator selects another word or topic then asks the students to generate a list that would have the same characteristics as those words or phrases listed in Step 1. Ask them to generate vivid mental images.

Mental images are powerful tools in the process. (How are a tree and a machine the same?) Step 3 – Describe Personal Analogies: Have students select one of the direct analogies and create personal analogies. Students “become” the object they choose and then describe what it feels like to be that object. (What would it feel like to be a bulldozer?) Step 4 – Identify Compressed Conflicts: Ask the students to pair words from the list generated in Step 3 which seem to fight each other. Always have the students explain why they chose the words which conflict.

Then have the students choose one by voting. (How is an Oak Tree both majestic and weak?) Step 5 – Create a New Direct Analogy: With the compressed conflict pair voted upon by the students, ask them to create a different direct analogy by selecting something that is described by the paired words. Ask the students to choose the ‘best’ one. Step 6 – Reexamine the Original Topic: Return to the original idea or problem so that the student may produce a product or description that utilizes the ideas generated in the process. They may concentrate on the final analogy or use analogies created in the other four steps.


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