Creativity Hack: Doodle To Discover Your Assumptions

We are starting a new blog category called “Creativity Hacks”. Each blog will contain one concrete technique that can be used in the classroom to help bring out student creativity. Our first one is a technique to help students find underlying assumptions they hold. 

About The Hack

A highly effective creativity technique is to reverse a commonly-held assumption which often gives radically new insights. 

When we teach our invention class one of the tasks we give students is to find an assumption they are making about the object of their innovation. As a warm up activity, we play a game called “Opposite Day”, where students work in teams and pick an assumption to reverse and present their solution to the rest of the class in about 5 minutes. For example, if the assumption is “Tables have legs”, then students have to reverse it (“Tables don’t have legs”) and then find a design or a situation where the reversal will make sense. When we gave this prompt to one group, they came up with a table that is held up with wires attached to the ceiling and can be lowered when needed or raised to make more space in the room. 

The nice thing about this technique is that it often gives very original ideas that one would normally not come up with. However, we found that while older students (middle school and up) are reasonably comfortable with coming up with assumptions themselves, elementary students have a harder time. They are able to come up with solutions once an assumption is given to them, but finding an underlying assumption itself is tricky. 

This brings us to a creativity hack we discovered. We found that asking students to first draw their object and then question each part of their drawing makes it easier for them to identify assumptions they can subsequently work with. We all hold mental models of objects that reflect commonly found real world implementations. By doodling we bring to surface the salient features of the object model, which can then be used to generate new ideas. 


Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it with students.

DescriptionDoodling your idea can help surface assumptions you hold about the object or idea. Once surfaced, it’s easier to reverse those assumptions and get new insights.
ExampleIf you ask students to draw a table they will typically draw a rectangular surface with four legs. They then question each part – “Should tables have four or any legs?”, “Does the tabletop have to be one flat surface?”. Examining each question can give students fresh ideas and insights for designing a new kind of table. 
Tips Give students <1min to doodle their object in order to bring out the most common held model.Reiterate to students that the quality of the drawing isn’t important but drawing all parts is. 
ExtensionsWhile we have used this technique on concrete objects (invention, design thinking), it is possible to extend this to abstract concepts like biases. For example, if students are asked to doodle a scientist, do most of them draw a man in a lab coat? If so, it can lead to a good discussion about women as scientists and different kinds of scientific disciplines. 
Hack: Doodle To Discover Your Assumptions

MindAntix Brainteaser: Opposite Day

One of the oldest known examples of cryptography was found on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet that contained a secret formula for pottery glaze. The inventor of the secret recipe jumbled up the figures defining the ingredients to prevent people from stealing the recipe. More than a thousand years later, Julius Caesar started using the shift cipher to encrypt his private messages. For the next two thousand years, people used increasingly more sophisticated systems for encrypting messages. Yet, all of them were based on one fundamental premise – that in order to encrypt and decrypt a message both parties must have the same key.

In the early seventies, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, along with Ralph Merkle, reversed this basic assumption and completely changed the cryptography landscape. Their invention of public key cryptography enabled Internet commerce to take off dramatically by allowing people to encrypt credit card transactions without having to first establish a common key between the seller and the buyer. As Frans Johansson describes in his book, The Medici Effect, “By reversing this assumption, Diffie and Hellman found the intersection between the field of cryptology and a particular, curious brand of mathematics involving so-called one-way functions.

Reversing assumptions is a powerful way to break free from preconceived notions. Michael Michalko, who outlined his assumption reversal technique called “False Faces” in Thinkertoys, explains, “Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and frees information to come together in provocative new ways.” Reversing well-established assumptions is the inspiration behind the “Opposite Day” category of brainteasers on MindAntix. The goal here is to reverse a commonly held assumption and then find ways in which the reversal is meaningful. Let’s take an example.

Suppose, you were to reverse the assumption that “Doors have handles”. If you imagine a door that doesn’t have the typical handle, you might think of a door that is perhaps operated by a foot pedal. In what situation might you need this kind of a door? Perhaps, when it’s inconvenient to use your hands, like when your hands are full from carrying grocery bags. That might trigger the idea of making a garage door that uses a foot latch to open the door allowing you to bring in your shopping bags more conveniently.

Of course, there are many different ideas you can come up with that reverse the assumption in the above example. The point of this exercise is to allow you to gain fresh insights by breaking free from conventional patterns of thinking. It would be much harder to come up with novel ideas if you simply asked yourself to make a better door. But by asking a more specific (and powerful) question, it’s easier to trigger a more novel response.

The next time you are stumped with a challenging problem, try to examine your assumptions and reverse them. You might be surprised by what you discover. As Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction author said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.