Challenge Assumptions in the Classroom and Launch Creativity

Created via collaboration by P21 (formerly Partnership for 21st Century Skills) and FableVision, Above & Beyond is a story about what is possible when communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity transform learning opportunities for all kids.

How to Challenge Assumptions in the Classroom and Launch Creativity

Students in a high school history class have just completed their final projects and everyone sits down for presentations. About halfway through, just as everyone’s eyes are starting to droop, one student’s presentation blows everyone else’s out of the water - it’s creative; it’s funny; it’s enthralling. At the end, several students remark, “Well, I didn’t know we could do THAT!”

The thing is, there was no reason for them to think they COULDN’T “do that,” but they had each made the obvious choice when crafting their presentations. They had assumed that there was only one way to present the information.

They had not been introduced to the creativity skill of “challenging assumptions.”

Creativity isn’t one monolithic thing; it is a set of skills, and way of thinking that we can learn and develop. A creative mind learns, among other things, to challenge assumptions. This is a really fun creativity skill to master, and one that can make a huge difference in how we approach life. If we teach students to challenge assumptions, they will be more creative in how they demonstrate knowledge. They will be able to make more interesting connections between concepts, and they will better critical thinkers and problem solvers.

Going Places, written by Paul Reynolds and Peter H. Reynolds, is a story about challenging assumptions. It is based on the animated film Above and Beyond, produced by FableVision for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) to introduce the 4Cs - creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration - the skills P21 defines as necessary for students’ future success in the world.

In the story, a boy receives a kit to make a vehicle. At first, he mistakenly assumes that because his kit is just like everyone else’s, his vehicle should look like everyone else’s. Luckily, with a little inspiration and collaboration with his friend Maya, he is able to challenge his assumptions and create something truly amazing and unique.

Try this fun problem-solving activity with your students to help them learn about challenging assumptions:

Break students into groups and provide each group with a kit. The kits should be a box or tray with 4 cups holding the following materials: scissors, markers, tape, glue, puff balls, strips of paper, 3 toothpicks, and four Popsicle sticks.

The instructions: Using only this kit, make a table at least 1.5 inches tall that can hold the weight of a (specific) moderately heavy book.

In this activity, the most successful groups will probably be the ones that can view the box/tray and/or cups as building materials, not just as containers for materials! (Note that there is still not one right answer for this activity. We must not present ONE SOLUTION as the only correct way. There are many ways to build a table that fits the requirements!)

When presented with one purpose for an item, our brains often see that as its only function. This is called “functional fixedness.” If we can practice recognizing and evaluating our assumptions, we can get better at seeing possibilities all around us instead of just seeing things the way we always have.

The world’s most difficult challenges will not have a simple answer. Instead, they will require an ability to change how we look at things and evaluate whether our long-held assumptions are accurate or are holding us back. We also must be able to engage in collaboration, listen to others’ ideas in an affirmative way, and practice resilience when an idea fails. These are necessary skills for creative problem solving, and worth practicing in the classroom.

If you try this activity, let us know! What did you learn about your students’ thought processes? How easy or difficult was it for them to challenge assumptions? How can you use this knowledge to continue to cultivate creative thinking in your classroom?


Sara Smith is an educator, learner, and creativity professional. She holds a Master of Science in creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY College at Buffalo. Sara is compelled by learning and its intersection with creativity, and her vision is to create and support creative communities that help people to grow and to nurture their passions and strengths.


Going Places is published by Simon and Schuster and is available at The Dot Central.

Above and Beyond

Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Functional fixedness