One must still have creative chaos in oneself
to be able to give birth to a dancing star.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher (1844-1900)
Synectics has been described by its creator, William J. J. Gordon, as “the joining together of different and apparently irrelevant elements” (Gordon, 1961, p.5). The term Synectics, from the Greek “syn” and “ektos”, refers to the fusion of diverse ideas (Nolan, 2003, p. 25). The process of Synectics is a “metaphor/analogy-based technique for bringing different elements together in a search for new ideas or solutions” (Starko, 2010, p. 151). This creative connection-making process has been used by businesses and research organisations, and has been the inspiration behind the ideas for Pringles potato chips, magnesium-impregnated bandages, disposable nappies, the space-saver Kleenex box, and a host of other innovations. Working with gifted learners, I found this strategy to be very effective because the students relished the potent power of bringing contraries together to conjure new meanings.
The basic processes of Synectics are “making the strange familiar” and “making the familiar strange” (Prince, 1968, p. 4). Although inventors most often engage in “making the familiar strange”, students benefit more from “making the strange familiar” (Gordon, 1973, p. 11). These two processes are facilitated through the creation of various types of analogies. Here are the steps for using Synectics to foster creative mindsets:
Step 1: Students explore the given situation, task, or problem. They create direct analogies, select one, and explore it in greater depth.
Direct analogies are the simplest types of comparison in which similarities between two ideas are examined. In a direct analogy, individuals look for parallels between one idea, object or situation, and another. Students first learning to make direct analogies start with simple comparisons between similar objects and progress to more abstract processes. The power of the technique comes as students begin to generate their own analogies and see similarities between remote objects (e.g., how a feather is like grass), or encompass abstract ideas (e.g., how happiness is like fire; how erosion is like a thief).
Step 2: Students change the direct analogy to personal analogy.
In personal analogies, students are asked to empathise with the subject matter. There are four levels of involvement for a personal analogy (adapted from Joyce, Weil & Calhoun, 2009):
- First-person description of facts. At this level, the person describes what is known about the object or animal, but shows no empathetic involvement. In describing the porcupine, the student might say, “I feel prickly” or “I feel my tail bump on the ground.”
- First-person identification with emotion. At the second level, the person recites common emotions but does not present new insights. In describing the tortoise, the student might say, “I feel happy walking slowly through the woods” or “I feel protected by my iron shield.”
- Empathetic identification with a living thing. At this level, the student would show more insight into the life, feelings and dilemmas of a porcupine. For example, “It’s confusing. Sometimes I like my quills; sometimes I don’t. I feel safe with quills around me, but no one can come near. Even other porcupines don’t come close because we might hurt each other. I wish I could take them off.”
- Empathetic identification with a nonliving object. At the highest level of personal analogy, students are able to make the same type of empathetic connection with nonliving things. They might express the feeling of exhilaration of a plane reaching the speed of takeoff (“I love the speed with which I take off from the airport”), or the sadness of skis being put away for the summer (“Oh! the drudgery and loneliness of lying idle in summer, with no one lifting me up and going for a ride.”).
Personal analogies can provide the bases for class discussions, writing projects, or creative learning activities:
- Primary students might be asked to be a letter going through the postal service, and write in their journals about their adventures.
- Junior students studying simple machines could be asked to discuss what it might be like to be a lever or a pulley. How would they feel as they were used?
- Senior students might be asked to create a work of art or a written description of life from the perspective of an electron or a sound wave (Starko, 2010, p.153).
Personal analogies can form the basis of problem solving activities:
- If you were a football, what would you do about the fights on the playground?
- If you were the stop sign in front of the school, how would you get more people to come to a complete stop?
- If you were a seat belt, how would you get people to wear you?
- If you were the pencil of a cartoonist, how would you feel during the aftermath of the recent turmoil and tragedy in Paris?
Step 3: Students use the descriptions from steps 1 and 2 to create “compressed conflicts”.
Compressed conflicts deepen students’ conceptual understanding by examining natural paradoxes (Gordon, 1973). Compressed conflicts or symbolic analogies bring together words that express diametrically opposed ideas, and do not ordinarily go together. They force the user to consider two opposite ideas at the same time.
Compressed conflicts involve descriptions that appear to be contradictory but are actually creatively insightful. Sometimes these juxtapositions may be literal antonyms such as happy sadness or cold heat. Other times they may express more complex or oblique but still conflicting relationships such as shameful hero, independent follower, intimate strangers, or sorrowful ecstasy.
Compressed conflicts frequently have broad, abstract applications and can be applied to many varied situations. The level of abstraction they require makes compressed conflicts most appropriate for students in later grades. For example: How is clock like a stopped stream? What in nature is like sad happiness? How is blood clot like a lifesaving killer?
Step 4: Students select one “compressed conflict”, and develop another direct analogy from it.
Once students have developed the “compressed conflicts”, ask them to share their creative constructs with one another. They could then develop one or more analogies by selecting one of the “compressed conflicts”. For example, one of my younger students developed the following analogies after selecting a “compressed conflict”, vulnerable force:
- A vulnerable force is like a bully overwhelmed with problems in life.
- A vulnerable force is like a person on drugs, who turns violent but deep inside is dying.
- A vulnerable force is like a mother bird guarding her nest from a hawk.
Step 5: Students use the last analogy, or the whole Synectics process, to examine the original task or problem.
After the students have undertaken the above four steps, they could then use the last analogy, or the whole process, to reflect upon the original task or problem; and develop their own product, project, experiment, or activity. In my experience, the scaffolded process of Synectics can potentially work wonders with gifted learners, indeed, all learners. Perhaps, its appeal to children lies in its strong resemblance to play!
The process of Synectics works effectively across curriculum areas and real-world problems for both primary and secondary students. The Synectics framework, in my view, vividly reflects the constructivist approaches to learning. Instead of teachers providing knowledge and students merely storing it, the process of Synectics helps learners construct their own versions of reality by forming personal connections between new and existing knowledge. In engaging with this playful learning process, the students can have lots of fun. If you have not done so already, you might consider using Synectics with your students. I would appreciate your reflections about the efficacy of the Synectics process in your classrooms.
Gordon, W. J. J. (1961). Synectics: The development of creative capacity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.
Gordon, W. J. J. (1973). The metaphorical way of learning and knowing. Cambridge, MA: Porpoise Books.
Joyce, B. R., Weil, M., & Calhoun, E. (2009). Models of teaching. Boston: Ally and Bacon.
Nolan, V. (2003). Whatever happened to Synectics? Creativity and Innovation Management, 12(1), 25.
Prince, G. (1968). The operational mechanism of synectics. Journal of Creative Behavior, 2, 1–13.
Starko, A. J. (2010). Creativity in the classroom: Schools of curious delight. London: Routledge.
Cover illustration by Kate Knapp (www.twigseeds.com).