Is there one exercise that acts as a super-food for the applied creative thinking regimen?  (Tweet this quote.) Perhaps the power of blueberries and such dietary supplements acting as a super-food has been blown out of proportion, but when it comes to training creative thinkers, one exercise we know demands using the so-called “Nifty Nine” strategies.

For over fifty years I have travelled to a July 4th family reunion with my brothers. Years ago our mom hooked us on crossword puzzles, especially its Holy Grail, The New York Times Sunday puzzle. Up until the online version of the Times appeared, that puzzle posed a problem. Caesar may have been able to divide Gaul into three parts, but the three Solomonic Sweet siblings had a major difficulty with tri-partitioning the Times. Buying three NYTs was out of the question, both because of expense and its limited availability in the foothills of the Berkshires. Casting rugged individualism to the side, we came up with a solution–attack puzzledom’s top prize as a three-headed monster.

In Teaching Applied Creative Thinking (Stillwater, OK:  New Forums, 2013), we [Rusty Carpenter, Hal Blythe, Shawn Apostel, and I]  wrote a chapter on “Crossword Puzzles: A Universal Tool for Teaching Creative Thinking,” calling it “an amazing tool” (132). Now we’d like to amend that singular process to discuss a concept we have come to call collaborative cruciverbalism, the solving of a crossword puzzle by two or more people working together simultaneously.

Adaptable to the classroom, this process involves locating a puzzle that is a suitable challenge (not impossible, not too easy, but like Goldilocks said, just right) and setting groups to work without the aid of a computer (the Internet provides a legion of sites where any clue followed by the word “crossword” can be deciphered). Participants are encouraged to verbalize as they progress, assessing each potential answer with a degree of certainty (e.g., I’m 75% certain John Belushi once played The Incredible Hulk in a Saturday Night Live sketch).

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How to Use Nifty Nine Strategies for Applied Creative Thinking

How does such an approach promote applied creative thinking? In short, it can make use of all of the nifty nine strategies, and how many exercises can make that claim?

  1. Collaborating.  While the term “collaborative cruciverbalism” is partially self-explanatory, what we mean is that instead of solving crossword puzzles, do it with a friend … or two … or three. And since collaborating works only when others know your contribution, try to verbalize.
  2. Perception Shifting.  One of the major problems in creative thinking is the difficulty in shifting one’s point of view from the first solution one selects—the so-called primacy of the first problem—to another possibility. Two people bring two different viewpoints to the same goal of solving the puzzle. Because participants are encouraged to verbalize their thoughts, each hears another perspective.
  3. Piggybacking.  Hearing another person thinking aloud also allows instant piggybacking upon verbalized attempts to solve a puzzle.
  4. Brainstorming.  Here piggybacking and brainstorming can work concurrently, but in terms of  best practices, if each participant solves as much of the puzzle as s/he is able, then brainstorming—thinking aloud—can work.
  5. Glimmer-catching.  Sometimes when a participant verbalizes, s/he is on the verge of providing a solution but can’t quite get it out. Having others pay attention to this glimmer adds to the odds of solving the puzzle.
  6. Playing.  Solving a crossword puzzle falls outside the usual bounds of academic exercises and is generally something people do for fun (or senior citizens to fight against the onslaught of time on their brain). This initiates deep and creative learning.
  7. Recognizing Patterns.  Almost all complex puzzles have a theme.  Check out the Sunday New York Times or the Friday Wall Street Journal for examples.  Figuring out the pattern—e.g., all the theme clues involve 50’s rock groups or brands of soap—is excellent creative practice.
  8. Using Metaphor.  One of the idiosyncrasies of crossword puzzles is the clue followed by a question mark, which indicates a pun is involved.  While some puns appear mere plays on words (e.g., eye=I), some use the qualities of metaphor (e.g., stress manager?=poet).  Metaphors are essentially comparisons, usually between a known thing and an unknown thing, but while puns exist mainly to reveal cleverness (so both sides of a pun must be known), metaphors exist to express things that might not be understood.
  9. Flowing.  Once a group gets going on a puzzle, they can achieve this state—if the puzzle is in the Goldilocks Zone.

Of course, many creative thinkers equate the act of thinking with solving a problem, and so the process of cruciverbalism provides an excellent model for future thinking—i.e., transferring the process is easier. (Tweet this quote.)

And if the instructors using this exercise want even more effective results, they should constantly strive to make the participants metacognitive.  One easy way to do so is to ask each participant after the process is over to describe (orally or on paper) using one example of the nifty nine to solve the puzzle.

I’d love to stay and chat, but this current puzzle’s clue—a six-letter word for “He comes from the land down under”—is giving me fits.

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Author

Author Charlie Sweet EKUCharlie Sweet is currently Co-Director of the Teaching & Learning Center (2007+) at Eastern Kentucky University. Before going over to the dark side of administration, for 37 years he taught American Lit and Creative Writing in EKU’s Department of English & Theatre, where he also served as chair (2003-2006). Collabo-writing with Hal Blythe, he has published well over 1000 items, including 15 books; of his 11 books with New Forums. Meet Charlie.