The development of inventive thinking skills in the upper secondary language classroom
ABSTRACT The given paper presents the results of an empirical study into the efficacy of the Thinking Approach (TA) to language teaching and learning which is aimed at the development of students’ inventive thinking skills in the context of foreign language education, namely learning of English. The study was conducted among upper secondary students of two schools in Latvia and aimed to answer whether students working with the Thinking Approach demonstrate an increase in their inventive thinking skills. An inventive thinking test was employed as the research instrument. The results of the study suggest that students working with the TA demonstrate a significant increase in their inventive thinking skills in comparison with the control group (t = 3.32, p = 0.001). At the same time a number of limiting factors that appeared in the process of the study due to its naturalistic setting call for further research that could increase the reliability of the findings.
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Thinking skills in the language classroom
The development of inventive thinking skills in the upper secondary language classroom
Alexander Sokola,David Oget b, Michel Sonntagb and Nikolai Khomenkob
a TA Group, Latvia;bLGECO, INSA Strasbourg, France
The given paper presents the results of an empirical study into the efficacy of the Thinking
Approach (TA) to language teaching and learning which is aimed at the development of
students’ inventive thinking skills in the context of foreign language education, namely
learning of English. The study was conducted among upper secondary students of two schools
in Latvia and aimed to answer whether students working with the Thinking Approach
demonstrate an increase in their inventive thinking skills. An inventive thinking test was
employed as the research instrument. The results of the study suggest that students working
with the TA demonstrate a significant increase in their inventive thinking skills in comparison
with the control group (t=3.32 , p=0.001). At the same time a number of limiting factors that
appeared in the process of the study due to its naturalistic setting call for further research that
could increase the reliability of the findings.
Keywords: Thinking Approach; inventive thinking skills; EFL; TRIZ; OTSM.
* Alexander Sokol, TA Group, 14 P.Lejina Street, 96, Riga, LV-1029, Latvia.
* Title page with author details
Teaching thinking skills is not a new idea. Numerous programmes have been developed for
teaching thinking as a separate subject: Feuerstein’s (Feuerstein 1990) Instrumental
Enrichment, de Bono’s (Bono 1973-1975) CORT lessons, Lipman’s (Lipman 2003)
Philosophy for Children, Blagg’s (Blagg 1993) Somerset Thinking Skills Course and many
others. Many researchers have dealt with integration of thinking skills training into subject
matter instruction (Swartz 2000), (Zohar & Nemet 2002), (Wiske 1998) and others. At the
same time, in this seeming abundance of research, there are practically no study reports on
attempts to integrate thinking skills instruction with teaching of a foreign language – see, for
example, (Baumfield et al. 2004:33) where the authors point out that studies in the fields of
humanities and art are not represented. The given study undertakes to investigate the effects
of incorporating thinking skills instruction into the programme of teaching a foreign language,
1. Teaching Method
2.1. Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ)
We define inventive thinking proficiency as an ability to effectively solve non-typical
(creative) problems in various domains avoiding a large number of trials and errors. In the
context of this study we adopt the understanding of a non-typical problem as the one for
which no solution exists or is not known to the problem-solver. This understanding comes
from the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) – a theory developed in the former
Soviet Union by Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues in the second part of the last century.
(Altshuller 1979; 1986b; Altshuller & Shapiro 1956). The theory started as a technique for
invention, then grew into an algorithm for solving inventive problems (known as ARIZ) and
* Manuscript without author identifiers
finally developed into a scientific theory for invention, creativity and innovation. The problem
Altshuller tried to solve by developing TRIZ can be summarised as follows: how can one
build an appropriate solution making as few trials and errors as possible (or not making any
whatsoever) and spending as little time as possible on selection of an appropriate idea?
Altshuller’s answer was the development of a theory based on three postulates: the postulate
of objective laws (engineering systems evolve according to specific laws of system evolution
– these laws can be discovered and used for problem solving), the postulate of contradictions
(to move to the next stage of evolution of a system, it is necessary to resolve certain
contradictions that appear as an obstacle and usually referred to as a problem) and the
postulate of a specific situation (each inventive problem appears in a specific situation). Each
postulate is manifested in TRIZ by a system of fundamental models and a set of specific
instruments based on these models (Khomenko & Ashtiani 2007). Lately TRIZ has been
recognised in an English speaking world as a possible framework for the development of
thinking skills (Moseley et al. 2004). A recent publication in Thinking Skills and Creativity
where understanding of inventive thinking goes back to TRIZ (Barak & Mesika 2007) is
another evidence to an increasing acceptance of TRIZ.
2.2. General Theory of Powerful Thinking (OTSM)
It is necessary to note that TRIZ appeared as a science for engineering systems and may not
be fully appropriate for educational research. Therefore, we propose OTSM (the Russian
acronym for the General Theory of Powerful Thinking) as a more appropriate framework for
teaching thinking. OTSM is one of the modern branches of Classical TRIZ that was proposed
by the author of Classical TRIZ Genrich Altshuller (Altshuller 1986a; Altshuller & Filkovsky
1975). OTSM started to appear in the middle of the1980s when more and more TRIZ experts
began to apply TRIZ to non-engineering interdisciplinary problems. Regular success of those
attempts led to the appearance of TRIZ in various educational programmes, even those not
necessarily requiring the engineering background. As a result, Altshuller proposed to develop
TRIZ further as a powerful instrument for solving complex interdisciplinary problems. In
addition, in the middle of the 1980s many TRIZ experts started teaching their own and other
children to solve problems. This process resulted in new requirements to TRIZ and enhanced
the development of OTSM.
Three groups of axioms lie at the heart of OTSM: the main axiom of OTSM or the axiom of
description, axioms for the description of the thinking process and axioms for the description
of the world. Like in TRIZ, axioms are manifested in a system of models and specific tools
for problem solving based on them. It is necessary to note that OTSM offers a domain
independent system of models and tools and, thus, is more universally applicable in
comparison with Classical TRIZ. To illustrate the application of OTSM based instruments we
will describe one case study. Unfortunately, due to space limitations of this paper, a lot of
details will have to be omitted.
OTSM based instruments should be considered as a kind of LEGO set. Depending on a
specific problem situation an appropriate combination of these instruments is used. Below we
provide a short description of instruments that were used for this specific case study.
Initially the problem was posed by the customer – a French company Electricity De France
(EDF) – in the following way: there is a pilot power plant that is efficient in terms of energy
production, however the operational costs are too high. It is necessary to decrease
manufacturing and exploitation costs.
The main technology of the power plant is transformation of biomass (small particles of wood
3-6 sm.) into biogas. During this process the power plant produces heat energy that is used for
heating water and houses in winter. The biogas works as fuel for the engine that rotates the
generator (instead of petrol). The generator produces electricity. The problem appears because
the biogas has a lot of very small solid particles and vapour of tar. Tar and solid particles may
destroy the engine. Therefore it is necessary to clean biogas. The purification system of the
power plant costs a lot and needs special maintenance. Moreover, additional supply materials
are necessary for functioning of the purification system. This system makes the power plant
too expensive. The customer would like to find a way to decrease the cost of the power plant
equipment and exploitation.
In order to deal with the problem situation, a team of professionals was organized. The team
comprised EDF experts in specific knowledge domains relevant to the new technology of
energy production and OTSM-TRIZ experts as professional coaches in solving complex
interdisciplinary problem situations. Following the OTSM based approach, the problem was
treated in the following way. The team developed an OTSM Network of Problems (NoP) in
order to obtain a big picture and better formalize the representation of the problem situation.
The NoP is a kind of semantic network aimed at presenting knowledge about the problem
situation according to certain formal rules. The initial NoP included almost 100 problems
connected with each other, for example: (1) it is necessary to reduce the pollution of the
power plant; (2) in order to eliminate the vapour of tar it is necessary to wash the biogas under
a special shower, however this shower costs a lot and it leads to the appearance of a large
number of various problems that have to be solved (3) in order to filter small solid particles,
the biogas should be cooled down from 10000 C to at least 1500 C, as existing filters cannot
function under such a high temperature: (4) a special radiator is used for cooling the biogas,
however this leads to the condensation of the vapour of tar; as a result, it sticks to the radiator
and eventually blocks the flow of biogas, etc. More information about the problems can be
found in (Khomenko, N. & De Guio, R. 2007).
When the network of problems was developed, special rules were applied for analysing it and
making a conclusion about a set of problems that underlie the problem situation. As we wrote
above, in this specific case the problem network included more than one hundred problems
connected to each other. The OTSM NoP helped us discover a set of problems that had to be
addressed first: (1) A filter for small particles could be eliminated if it was possible to produce
the biogas without thin powder of solid particles; this would dramatically decrease the cost of
the power plant and its exploitation as well; (2) If the biogas could be produced without the
vapour of tar, it would be possible to eliminate a special shower for the biogas in the same
way as the filter; (3) How can one improve the transportation of the heat energy from the
combustion chamber (a chamber where the heat energy is produced) to the gasification
chamber (a chamber where the heat energy is used for the transformation of the biomass into
It is necessary to stress that some of these key problems were not evident before, however the
professionals agreed with the OTSM coach that exactly these problems underlie the whole
problem situation. For the selected problems, a set of contradictions was developed according
to the rules of Classical TRIZ and especially its main instrument – ARIZ-85C. Contradiction
is the next step in the analysis of a problem that brings the problem solver closer to
understanding the root of a problem and, thus, making a step towards building a solution. One
of the formulated contradictions looked as follows: in order to produce clean biogas, heat
should be produced directly in the gasification chamber, however the production of heat
requires oxygen. Unfortunately, oxygen is not good for the gasification process.
The formulated contradictions were organized into the OTSM Network of Contradiction
(NoC). Then this NoC was analyzed following certain rules. As a result, it was discovered
that the whole problem situation is caused by ceramic balls 5 to 8 mm in diameter. These
ceramic balls are used as a carrier for the heat energy transfer from the combustion chamber
to the gasification chamber. Finally, the problem to be solved was formulated according to the
postulate of a specific situation of Classical TRIZ, and the knowledge about this specific
situation was obtained while developing the Network of Problems. In order to eliminate the
roots of all the problems and avoid solving them all, we had to find a way for the power plant
to work without these ceramic balls. Nobody had posed the key problem of the power plant
this way before. As usually, this led to the appearance of many controversial opinions. An
expert described a new set of problems to be faced. A new network of problems was created
and a new iteration was done with the Network of Contradictions. These contradictions were
resolved and a set of partial solutions was obtained.
A partial solution means that a solution has an interesting positive aspect, however it also has
a negative aspect. For example, a filter was introduced to filter small solid particles. The filter
works well but it requires cleaning. For this, it is necessary to stop the power plant and this is
unacceptable. Another type of partial solutions comprises those that solve one group of
problems, however some other problems remain unsolved. For example, if two filters for solid
particles are introduced, then the power plant can work without interruption. While one filter
is cleaned, the second works and vice versa. This helps to have the biogas clean. However,
these filters cannot filter the vapour of tar. The problem of tar vapour still exists even if two
filters for solid particles are introduced.
For these partial solutions another instrument of Classical TRIZ was applied – the mechanism
of system convergence. This enabled us to obtain an appropriate solution. This solution
passed preliminary evaluation and computer simulation. As a result, an additional positive
result for the market was discovered. The proposed solution can find one important niche in
the market that is presently not covered by any other known technology. The patent was filed
with the priority from March 31, 2006 (European Patent 0602840).
Presently the research is focusing on the development of a working prototype of the new
power plant based on the new technology that allows to clean biogas before cooling it. This
technology makes it possible to eliminate solid particles and tar vapour from hot biogas (900o
– 1100o C). The general idea of the solution is to produce a special kind of siphon and let hot
biogas go through this siphon. When the biogas bubbles through the siphon, both tar and solid
particles of wood crack into biogas. It means we do not only clean the biogas but also obtain
an additional amount of it. Thus, a complex and expensive cleaning system is eliminated or
sufficiently simplified. Additional biogas is produced and the manufacturing and exploitation
costs of the power plant dramatically decrease.
As we can see, the OTSM problem solving process model reminds a water flow where
problems move and change in time all the time. This flow permanently changes the set of
appropriate problem networks. That is why this OTSM based instrument was named the
Problem Flow Networks (PFN) Approach. The PFN approach integrates all known
instruments of Classical TRIZ and OTSM into a unified system of problem solving
instruments (Khomenko, N., De Guio, R., Lelait, L., Kaikov I., 2007).
During the last 20 years, many OTSM related experimental educational programmes have
been developed and tested (Khomenko & Sidorchuk 2006; Nesterenko 1996-1999). As a
result, a new branch of pedagogy appeared, namely OTSM-TRIZ pedagogy. This approach
proposes an alternative way that could be integrated into traditional education. The next step
would be construction of the educational process based on OTSM-TRIZ models for
knowledge representation and operation. This meta knowledge could be obtained already at
the pre-school stage and used afterwards for developing new knowledge, mostly by helping
students discover and construct this new knowledge (Khomenko & Sidorchuk 2006;
Murashkovska 1994-2001; Murashkovska & Valums 1995; Nesterenko 1995; Nesterenko &
Golitsina 2003; Sokol 2005b; Sokol et al. 2002a).
In order to teach OTSM to various groups of learners, a non-linear approach has been
developed. It means that topics and skills are learned and developed not one by one or in a
cyclic manner as in the traditional educational approaches, but simultaneously in their
interconnections. Students learn fundamental models for knowledge representation and
operation as a system, where all the elements are linked to each other. Learning by doing is a
second educational principle in addition to the non-linear educational approach. In OTSM
lessons, learners deal not only with educational problems but also with real world problems.
2.3. The Thinking Approach to Language Teaching and Learning
The given paper does not aim at giving a detailed description of the Thinking Approach (TA).
In short, we can define the TA as a methodology for an integrated development of language
and inventive thinking skills of learners in the framework of the OTSM-TRIZ pedagogy
described above. The teacher’s role is that of a coach who scaffolds learners in the process of
building models in response to certain tasks (problems). The teacher does not provide any
answer him/herself. The form of the models students are expected to develop can be pre-
defined while the content comes from learners. For example, when working with grammar,
learners are expected to build their grammar models on the basis of the Element – Name of
Feature – Value of Feature (ENV) model of OTSM-TRIZ. It means that learners are expected
to describe the difference between grammar structures on the basis of a set of parameters
(names of features) and their values. For example, working with verbs in English as a foreign
language, learners look for various parameters that can describe Action (Element), such as
Time, Vision, Factuality, etc. The latter in their turn can have different values, e.g. such a
parameter as time can have values past, pre-past, pre-present, etc.
The TA is based on the idea of a non-linear nature of learning and thus non-linear
organization of the learning / teaching process. Instead of a linear or cyclic curriculum model
the TA offers a modular course based on a number of learning technologies. Technologies
serve as bases for the four vectors of the TA: (1) language as the object of study, students
learning to see language as a system (the Creative Grammar Technology); (2) communication
as the object of study – language used as one of the means for solving problems
(interpretation) and using language as one of the means for solving problems (the Text
Technology); (3) problem solving as the object of study – students learning to see how
various problem solving models work in a system (the Yes-No Technology); and (4) learning
as the object of study - providing learners with possibilities for transfer of knowledge and
skills to new contexts and educate a learner who wishes and is ready to accept full
responsibility for his/her learning and knows how to make learning a success (the Self-Study
and the Research Technologies).
The TA technologies listed above are interconnected and make a system. Work with one
technology always includes elements of the other. For example, when working with the Text
Technology, learners also do language tasks and are involved in the types of work we
described in the Creative Grammar Technology, i.e. facing a problem, development of a
model of a solution and a collection of examples beyond the scope of the model. Besides this,
there are elements characteristic of all TA technologies. These are mainly tasks dealing with
various elements of the Self-Study Technology, such as formulation of learning goals and
evaluation of processes and products of work. This is easy to explain as the Self-Study
Technology underlies the work with all other technologies. Possible relationships between
various technologies are presented in Figure 1 below.
INSERT FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE
As shown in Figure 1, at each particular moment of time a focus in the TA classroom is either
on language as such (language as the object of study), communication (understood as a
purposeful exchange of various kinds of texts) or thinking (understood as the process of
solving non-typical problems). As oval shapes cross, in a particular moment the focus can be
on two objects (e.g. language and problem solving when learners are involved into developing
a model of how a particular structure is used in the Creative Grammar Technology) or even
three of them (e.g. when learners are involved into doing a point of view task in Text
Technology and construct the language of a new narrator). At the same time, the focus of a
particular task may be transfer of either language or problem-solving skills (or both) to other
fields (e.g. preparation of a presentation of project results in the Research Technology). And,
finally, all of the above tasks are seen as elements of learning to learn and thus are a part of
the Self Study Technology1.
2. Context of the study
3.1. Background and methodology
The study on the efficacy of the use of teaching inventive thinking in a foreign language
classroom was started in 1999 by one of the authors working as a teacher of English in a
secondary school in Latvia. The main purpose of the study was to assist in the development of
an approach to teaching inventive thinking within a foreign language instruction. As the
teacher was the primary instrument of data collection and the purpose was mainly discovery
and exploration, the study was qualitative in nature (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2004:18). This
is also supported by the fact that the main tools used by the researcher were observation and
content analysis of students’ works. By 2003 the main features of the teaching methods
became clear and it was decided to extend the methods used in the study. The authors agree
with the opinion that quantitative methods can be helpful in a qualitative study (Westerman
2006; Yanchar 2006), therefore an experimental test and a questionnaire collecting
quantitative data were added to the repertoire of tools in 2003. From that year on, we also
started collecting data on control groups. However, our research still remains enriching rather
than theory building (Stiles 2006:258). Since 2003 up to date, we have been using a large
repertoire of both qualitative and quantitative tools to both develop the teaching method and
study its efficacy. Thus, we believe that our research can be defined as the one of a mixed
methods design (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie 2004:17).
In this particular paper we would like to report on the part of the research conducted during
the academic year 2004-2005. In that period our study had a more quantitative focus as, after
several years of dealing with primarily qualitative data, the researchers felt the need to
1 Unfortunately, due to space limits of this paper we cannot provide more detailed information about the teaching
method. An interested reader is advised to refer to the Thinking Approach Project website for additional
information on the approach (www.thinking-approach.org).
compliment it with quantitative data, especially since this was the time when the second
research site appeared (see section 3.2 below). Although there were many issues interfering
with the quasi-experimental design we adopted (these will be described in detail further on in
this paper), the data collected during that year helped us a lot in understanding the process of
teaching inventive thinking within a foreign language instruction. Moreover, one could treat
the data we obtained as an example of what Yanchar refers to as an alternative measurement,
as a student’s questionnaire or test score has always been “an interpretive account of his or
her action and experience at a given time rather than an invariant index of a static ability”
(Yanchar 2006:222). We find this point very important from the ethical point of view as well.
From the very beginning, students participating in the intervention are told that the
programme is aimed to help them develop inventive thinking skills along with language skills
and the tests administered in the course of study should be primarily seen as tools to help
them understand if and to what extent they make progress. The results of the tests are always
discussed with learners and feedback is provided.
One of the aims of the given study is to find out to what extent the use of the Thinking
Approach (TA) to language teaching and learning (Sokol et al. 2002b) (Sokol 2002-2003)
(Sokol 2005a; 2006) contributes to the development of the students’ language and inventive
thinking skills. As the study has been going on since 2003, it may be considered to belong to
the group of longitudinal ones and as Wilson (Wilson 2000:37) points out “longitudinal
studies of the efficacy of teaching thinking are significantly absent”.
In the present paper, however, we will focus only on the question of inventive thinking skills
and consider the data collected during the academic year of 2004-2005. Our research
question can be formulated as follows: do students working with the TA demonstrate an
increase in their inventive thinking skills? Elsewhere we have also considered the question of
students’ beliefs on their progress in thinking during this period (Sokol et al. submitted). At
present, we are also preparing a publication summarising the qualitative data collected in the
study to provide a broader perspective on the subject of the investigation.
The method used in the study is a comparison between an experimental group and a control
group. The study is conducted in two secondary schools in Latvia. The schools were chosen
as at present these are the only two schools in the country where groups of upper-secondary
school students study English with the Thinking Approach (TA) programme. In both schools,
students start working with the TA in form 10, thus having had certain experience with more
traditional programmes before (see below).
The TA was first introduced in School No.1 in 2003 by the head English teacher after
finishing a TA training conducted by one of the authors. Starting from September 2003, the
first two groups of 10 formers (15-16 years old) started working with the TA programme (the
same teacher, 72 hours of training completed by the beginning of intervention). Since then,
continuous support for the teacher has been provided both electronically and in the course of
regular monthly one day workshops for TA teachers.
Elements of the TA started being introduced by one of the authors in School No.2 in 1997 and
students began working with the TA programme starting from year 2000. We distinguish
between the time when the TA became the basis of the English curriculum (a full programme)
and the time when it was used as an addition to a more traditional curriculum (elements).
School No. 1.
The first school is a prestigious Russian medium school located in the second largest town of
the country. Students come from different socio-economic backgrounds ranging from low to
high. In terms of academic achievement, students’ performance in upper-secondary level is
above average in the country. There is one form for each year at the upper-secondary level.
All students from forms 10 and 11 (16-18 years old) took part in the study (n=54). Practically
all students have studied English as the first foreign language2 since the first form (7 years
Both forms have English lessons five times a week. They are divided into two groups (n=14,
n=14 in form 10 and n=14 and n=12 in form 11). Groups are not homogeneous in terms of
language proficiency but students’ levels are comparable (SD=6.8; SD=8.6; SD=8.0; SD=6.4
at the maximum number of points equalling 75)4.
The groups in form 11 started working with the TA in September 2003, thus they had already
done a year’s work with the programme by the time when the data for the given report started
to be collected. The groups from form 10 started working with the programme in September
2As the study was conducted in the Russian medium school, English is a second foreign language per se. The
first foreign language students are exposed to is Latvian which is the official state language and thus can be
called a second rather than a foreign language.
3 A few students joined the school at a later stage and thus may have started learning English later than the first
4 Data comes from the language progress test administered in September 2004