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The students who trained their brains to reform the criminal justice system

The St Cuthbert’s College team.

Students are learning to think creatively and confidently, and are using it to compete in future problem-solving.

How would you cope if you had 135 minutes to come up with solutions for a new kind of criminal justice system? Year 11 St Cuthbert’s College students Grace Mora, Arabella Cryer, Amber Waymouth and Zoe Robinson had to do that in June when they travelled to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to put into practice what they had been training their brains to do.

Starting in Year 7, the college selects a small number of girls for extension “Future Problem-Solving” sessions. The concept was the brainchild of US creativity researcher Ellis Paul Torrance in 1974, and many schools now offer versions of it. Students learn to identify problems, research a complex topic, break down key issues and develop solutions. Each year, there’s a national competition; this year’s topics included cloud storage, philanthrocapitalism and infectious diseases.

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With the help of their coach, teacher Angela Bell, the St Cuthbert’s team researched criminal justice and interviewed lawyers and other experts. It turned them into passionate advocates for a more rehabilitative justice system.

Waymouth, 15, says the training has changed the way she thinks. “I apply the techniques to everyday things … If I hear about stuff on the news, I’ll automatically think, ‘What’s causing this, what are the problems, how could this be solved?’ It feels as if it’s helping my brain develop a new way of questioning things.”

For the competition, students are set the broad topics in advance, but are given a specific scenario – set 30 years in the future – on the day of the competition. They then have just over two hours to write a “booklet” with their proposed solution. “You have to be a fast writer, a fast thinker, and there’s a lot of grit and determination involved,” says Bell.

Imagination helps, too. “I like thinking creatively about the future – coming up with things that we don’t have in today’s world, but could possibly have in the future,” says Mora, 16.

The solutions must be moral as well as creative, says St Cuthbert’s principal Justine Mahon. “We want to develop young women who are ethical as well as smart. People don’t just become ethical thinkers at 30 in the workforce. You need to practise that sort of thinking, and have those values instilled from a young age.

“Change is happening at an ever faster pace, and this generation can get hold of so much more information much more quickly, so it’s even more important that they know how to sift it, analyse it and critique it.”

The winning Hukerenui School team.

Teams from 16 New Zealand schools attended this year’s international competition. The most successful was a team of 11- and 12-year-olds from Hukerenui School, a small decile-5 school north of Whangarei. They won their age division in the “Community Problem-Solving” part of the competition. Rather than an imaginary future scenario, students had to identify and solve a problem in their community.

Principal Bastienne Kruger has taken three teams to the international competition, and they’ve won every time. The 2015 team developed vacant land at the school into a farm with maize, lavender, alpacas and beehives.

The 2017 Hukerenui team built on that project. The problem they identified was that they had these great, real-life learning resources, but that there wasn’t enough expertise within the school to make the most of them. Their solution was to develop the whole school’s capability.

They talked to experts and planned lessons, teaching each class to become skilled. Years 3-4 became beekeepers, Years 5-6 experimented with compost and alpaca fibre and Years 7-8 grew lavender and distilled its oil. They built a website to sell the products, wrote a handbook, and negotiated to change the way subjects were taught.

“They ended up lifting the school’s science achievement levels two years above their age level,” says Kruger.

The school roll has doubled since these projects started, she says. “It doesn’t take the place of maths, reading and writing, but we try to provide a time where students get to apply their knowledge to real-life learning and problem-solving.”

Many of the students have started thinking big. “They’re not going to work in McDonald’s, they’ll be leasing 5ha of land and planting maize, because they know how to do it. They know how to secure finance and they know how to draw up a lease. They know all of it.”

More than 2000 young people took part in the international competition. The St Cuthbert’s team came 24th out of 65 in their division. But more importantly, they say the process has given them more confidence in their ability to think and tackle hard subjects.

“There’s a lot pessimism and hopelessness when people talk about the future,” says Robinson, 15, “but future problem-solving helps me to look at the brighter side.”

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.