Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 78, Issue 2 - October, 2018
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedSeptember 25, 2018
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 78, Issue 2 - October 2018

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Designers of all ages and engaged in all disciplines can benefit from divergent thinking exercises and approaches to design. 


Figure 3 (above). As students are introduced to the Design Challenge, teachers often provide examples of solutions or approaches to solving the problem, which can result in design fixation on the provided example solutions.


Suppose you are standing on the side of the road waiting for a bus while dressed professionally for a meeting (e.g., pants, blouse/dress shirt, belt, dress shoes). As a car drives by, an important paper is whisked from your hand onto the busy street about six feet in front of you. This paper is of utmost importance to you and cannot be replaced. You look around and realize there are no other individuals nearby, you have nothing in your pockets but your wallet and keys, and there will be no break in cars for several minutes. Knowing you cannot safely stop traffic or retrieve the paper by entering the road, you must come up with a different solution. How will you get the paper? Go ahead and think it through in your mind—what would you do?

Now that you have an idea in place, think it through more carefully—how exactly will you proceed? What specific steps will you take? What could go wrong? Is there a better way?

Now, instead of standing on the road in professional attire, you are wearing a pair of athletic shorts and a t-shirt, and have a water bottle in your hand. The paper is still incredibly valuable and must be retrieved, but instead of coming from a meeting, you are coming from the gym. Does your solution change? Were your plans frustrated? How did the differences in the scenario change your approach?



Research has shown that once a potential solution to a problem has settled into one’s mind, it can be difficult to break from the original idea and move in a different direction (Cardoso & Badke-Schaub, 2009; Jansson & Smith, 1991). When designers are given examples (whether as models, photographs, sketches, or drawings), they often fixate on those examples and fail to move creatively away (Atilola & Linsey, 2015; Cardoso & Badke-Schaub, 2009). This original-idea fixation can limit a designer’s creativity and ability to generate new ideas (Toh, Miller, & Kremer, 2014), as they may use more energy trying to force their original idea into working than they might in developing new and innovative approaches that might produce a better outcome (Hout, 2013).


Figure 1. Student worksheet for designing.


Fixation is not a problem confined to professional designers or adults; rather, idea fixation manifests itself in students of all ages and in a variety of context areas as well (Nicholl & McLellan, 2007). In fact, many classes with problem-based learning and design-oriented opportunities utilize educational practices that may lead students down procedural paths that encourage fixation (McLellan & Nicholl, 2011). 

Think about the students you teach/know/interact with—have you ever noticed that, as students work either alone or in groups, they are often more willing to fail with their original idea than they are to test a new and potentially better approach? This fixation on original ideas can be almost “natural” and may impact the design process detrimentally, as students can become fixated, automated, and robotic (McLellan & Nicholl, 2011).

Our recent work with Kindergarten students involved in an open-ended design problem revealed that design fixation is a real concern for students as young as Kindergarten (6-7 years old). This piece looks at our experiences as well as several suggestions—both anecdotal and research-based—that may be useful in assisting students to overcome design fixation.


Fixation in Kindergarten Design

Our recent research efforts with Kindergarten students involved the children working on an open-ended engineering design problem around stopping spiders from climbing where they were not wanted (see Yoshikawa & Bartholomew, 2017). An initial step in this process of designing involved the students working in groups, with a worksheet designed to assist them in generating ideas, designing, and finally prototyping a solution to the proposed problem (Figure 1). 


Figure 2. Students revising after a "failed" attempt.


This worksheet was broken down into three portions, with specific areas for students to work through different steps in designing.

  1. Students were asked to provide three possible solutions to the problem. After they had listed initial solutions, they were invited to go look at the materials cart and return to planning.
  2. After looking at the materials, the students were asked to provide three additional solutions based on the materials available.
  3. Students were asked to draw a picture of a potential solution to the problem. This could be based on their initial ideas and/or their ideas derived from the available materials or other sources.

As researchers and observers, the authors noticed an almost immediate trend of design fixation among the students; conscious efforts were made to observe student tendencies and investigate the results on student success. At the conclusion of the project, all student work was collected (portfolios and prototypes) and, using qualitative analysis (Boyatzis, 1998) of the student portfolios, it was determined that, of the 17 students included in this exploratory research project, 11 demonstrated multiple trends of fixation in their designing. These trends—exhibited by Kindergarten students in this study—can be seen in students of all ages and across a wide variety of contexts (McLellan & Nicholl, 2011; Imai, 2000). We separated the findings into three categories, based on idea-fixation research, which align with work done by Purcell & Gero (1996) and Zahner, Nickerson, Tversky, Corter, & Ma (2010).

  1. Original-solution fixation. Students listed several ideas but did not deviate from their originally listed solution in designing or prototyping.
  2. Original-concept fixation. Students offered only one “type” of solution, with all their suggestions appearing as slight variations of the originally listed idea.
  3. Problem fixation. Rather than fixating on a particular solution, some students instead fixated on the problem. Their solutions ended up coming in the form of “Band-Aid” approaches—ideas meant to solve the problem only temporarily instead of a more developed, long-term solution that may have involved materials and ideas not directly connected to the problem at hand. For example, some student solutions revolved around, “catching the spider,” or, “grabbing the spider,” as opposed to a potential long-term idea for keeping the spider out.

While many students were still able to express some form of creativity, the student designs often showed the inhibiting effects of fixation (e.g., lack of broad solution exploration). Additionally, student ideation in this project often stalled quickly due to the inability of students to see beyond an original solution or conceptual approach. With only 6 of the 17 students not displaying fixation traits, the necessity for assisting students in overcoming design fixation should be emphasized by all teachers working in creative and ill-structured design problems. International standards support this idea with an emphasis on assisting students to overcome design fixation—even at an early age (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007).


Divergent Thinking

A potential remedy that may assist in overcoming idea fixation is embodied in the research and practice around divergent thinking (McCrae, 1987; Wells, 2016). Divergent thinking is the process of generating creative ideas and potential solutions by exploring a wide array of possible approaches, solutions, and remedies for an open-ended problem (McCrae, 1987). Divergent thinking activities such as brainstorming, play, and storytelling are approaches that can foster innovation, creativity, and success in open-ended situations (Ziv, 1983; Cooper, 1995; Baer, 1993).  Specific approaches and activities to foster divergent thinking in students are highlighted below.

Play. Lieberman (1965), specifically researching young children, found that, “playfulness in kindergarten children provides clues to ease in functioning in a structured-test situation measuring ideational fluency, spontaneous flexibility, and originality” (p. 222). Lieberman argued that play, something that comes naturally for young children, can promote brainstorming and idea stimulation. Think about little kids role playing and devising “adventures”—these scenarios often follow very unscripted and diverse pathways (Gmitrová & Gmitrov, 2003). Allowing and facilitating a more “playful” classroom environment where students are encouraged to have fun, use their imaginations, and build off the ideas of others are all ways divergent thinking can be fostered in students.

Productive Failure. Another approach for fostering divergent thinking in students involves guiding them through productive failure (Kapur, 2008). Productive failure is a process of persisting through multiple design approaches and solutions while learning and adapting from previously unsuccessful attempts (Simpson & Maltese, 2017). Although common jargon and perceptions identify failure negatively as a “bad” outcome, research shows that responding positively to failed attempts, and learning from those attempts, can launch students to greater gains and achievement (Holmes, Day, Park, Bonn, & Roll, 2014; Kapur, 2017; Lorenzet, Salas, & Tannenbaum, 2005). Kapur and Bielaczyc (2012) identified several key traits associated with the design task, student participation, and the social structure that can help facilitate a productive failure environment for students, including building on students’ prior knowledge in new learning scenarios and highlighting critical ideas and concepts for success. Further, students need to be adequately challenged within a safe, collaborative environment that allows them to constructively critique others while also building off of the suggestions of others.


Figure 4. Encourage brainstorming at planning and creating instead of only planning.


In the Classroom

Teachers can, and should, make a conscious effort to provide an environment that facilitates divergent thinking. Several intentional procedures may assist teaching with this approach:

Do not offer solutions. When presenting an open-ended problem to students, teachers should resist providing possible examples or solutions. While it may be easy, when explaining the problem or the criteria and constraints, to suggest an example of a solution, teachers should avoid this practice, as research shows that even if students do not choose to follow an initial provided solution, it can be hard to stray significantly from the originally suggested idea (McLellan & Nicholl, 2011). For example, in our research study, the teacher mentioned that students could build something “like a screen” to stop the spider; this suggestion ended up contributing to idea fixation in many students, as they were unable to move away from the initial idea of a screen-like trap or door.

Allow for playful brainstorming. At the outset of an open-ended design problem, encourage “crazy” ideas that push the limit and move beyond the “obvious” solution to problems. As students are allowed to be open with ideas, new networks for brainstorming may open up, and when students know that any idea is an option for brainstorming, the playful aspects of the process may help them to continue to grow and brainstorm in the future (Russ, 2003). The removal of impractical solutions can be accomplished in future steps of the design process as students move forward.

Encourage brainstorming after research. Traditional design process models (Figure 4) often denote students researching possible solutions as part of the initial efforts towards design (Hynes, Portsmore, Dare, Milto, Rogers, Hammer, & Carberry, 2011; Wells, 2016). In addition to the initial brainstorming process, it can be beneficial to continue brainstorming ideas throughout the design process as students learn from experience, failure, and success during their designing. This subtle change of encouraging brainstorming throughout the design process can help students generate solutions and divergent thinking (Agogué, Kazakçi, Weil, & Cassotti, 2011).

Make failure and success productive. When students come across problems, assist them in thinking through why something may have failed. Was it a consideration of the material or structure of the product, or possibly a weakness inherent in the solution? Encouraging students to learn from and in their failures can turn these roadblocks into building blocks. Teachers should strive for a classroom environment that encourages productive failure and creativity.

Allow and encourage complete redesign. Some limitations on resources (i.e., time or materials) may not allow for a complete redesign in every assignment, but students should not come to expect that designing is finished after the first prototype and testing. Industry designers would never expect to be “finished” after their first attempt at a solution, and it is harmful to teach our students to think this way. An environment that doesn’t allow for redesigning can lead to a fixation on solutions, as students are determined to make one idea work, despite the flaws, for fear they will have no other option/time prior to submission. Allowing students time and flexibility to experiment and prototype with multiple ideas will open the doors for divergent thinking and approaches.


Figure 5. Students working through a complete redesign of their design.



Think about the initial challenge we put forth—how would you retrieve the piece of paper from the middle of the street? Were your ideas fixated on an initial concept, approach, or idea? What if the scenario changed slightly and you had a hat, sunglasses, and a jump rope? What if the paper had a paper clip attached to it? What if it were a game instead of real life, and you weren’t worried about the potentially life-or-death ramifications of your attempts? Would a traffic-pattern analysis change your approach to solving the problem? 

Designers—of all ages and engaged in all disciplines—can benefit from divergent thinking exercises and approaches to design. Teachers should keep these principles and suggestions in mind as they work to engage students in activities that may broaden their creativity and improve their designs.



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Emily Yoshikawa Ruesch is a Project Lead the Way teacher at the Weber Innovation Center. She currently teaches digital electronics, engineering design, and physics with technology. She can be reached at

Scott R. Bartholomew, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Engineering/Technology Teacher Education in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University. He can be reached at


This is a refereed article.