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

by Kate Evans / 23 August, 2018
The St Cuthbert’s College team.

The St Cuthbert’s College team.

RelatedArticlesModule - Students brain training

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.

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.

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.


Top investigator urges police to speak up about wrongful convictions
108539 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Crime

Top investigator urges police to speak up about wr…

by Mike White

Mike White talks to investigator Tim McKinnel, who says police often turn a blind eye to possible corruption out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern to focus on Australia deportations in talks with Scott Morrison
108570 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern to focus on Australia deportations…

by Craig McCulloch

PM Jacinda Ardern has doubled down on her criticism of Australia's deportation policy as "corrosive", ahead of her meeting with Scott Morrison.

Read more
How closed adoption robbed Māori children of their identity
108572 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Social issues

How closed adoption robbed Māori children of their…

by Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

Te Aniwa Hurihanganui looks at the outdated Adoption Act and its impact on Māori who grew up desperate to reconnect.

Read more
The new robotic surgery aiding vaginal mesh removal
108377 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Health

The new robotic surgery aiding vaginal mesh remova…

by Ruth Nichol

Women with complications caused by deeply embedded vaginal mesh are being helped by a pioneering surgical technique.

Read more
A beautiful mind: What people with Alzheimer's can teach us
108544 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Health

A beautiful mind: What people with Alzheimer's can…

by Fergus Riley

North Auckland farmer Fergus Riley has uncovered many important lessons in caring for his father Peter, who has Alzheimer’s.

Read more
Instagram's trial to hide the number of 'likes' could save users' self-esteem
108617 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Psychology

Instagram's trial to hide the number of 'likes' co…

by Joanne Orlando

Instagram is running a social media experiment to see what happens when it hides the number of likes on photos and other posts.

Read more
The Hawke's Bay farm producing meat of uncommon quality
108594 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Food

The Hawke's Bay farm producing meat of uncommon qu…

by Simon Farrell-Green

Duncan Smith and Annabel Tapley-Smith weren’t satisfied with producing meat of uncommon quality. So they bought a butchery.

Read more
When biodegradable plastic is not actually biodegradable
108562 2019-07-19 00:00:00Z Planet

When biodegradable plastic is not actually biodegr…

by Isabel Thomlinson

A study on biodegradable plastic bags found they were still intact after three years spent either at sea or buried underground.

Read more