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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What's Wet on One Side and Dry on the Other?

MTSecond-graders at School No. 321 in St. Petersburg thinking outside the box with TRIZ, or Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.
ST. PETERSBURG -- It was the image of a notoriously traffic-clogged St. Petersburg highway on television news that inspired 9-year-old Vadim Turgel to design an overhead railway for the city.

"I thought it could save the city from those terrible traffic jams," Turgel said.

Turgel's elevated railway is a sophisticated design utilizing compressed air that might just work, engineers who have examined the young inventor's proposal say.

Turgel is just one of about 100 children at the city's School No. 321 who say they can solve any problem.

The students' gung-ho, can-do attitude comes from working with TRIZ, pronounced "trees," the Russian acronym for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving.

Soviet creativity guru Genrich Altshuller believed that taking a systematic approach to problem solving would be far more effective than simply waiting for brilliant thoughts to occur.

The system, which Altshuller hoped would boost Soviet innovation and patents, was rejected by the authorities during the Stalin era, but is now being used successfully by international corporations.

Several Russian schools have been teaching Altshuller's TRIZ for the past decade. The teachers who introduced it thought that children trained to be inventive would likely be more effective than teaching adults to think creatively.

The 8-year-olds at Turgel's school were quick to come up with answers to the questions: "What is wet on one side and dry on the other?" "What is soft and firm at the same time?" and "What can substitute for glue?"

Students gave teacher Natalya Gorbunova not just one answer to her questions, but several. "When it rains, a window is wet on one side and dry on the other," one child said. Other answers included umbrellas, water pipes, a bucket, rubber boots and a raincoat.

For "What is soft and firm at the same time?" the children gave answers of "soft toys with firm eyes," "a turtle," "a human, with a firm skeleton while the rest of the body is soft," and "a raincoat with firm buttons."

The glue question was a breeze, as students quickly proposed scotch tape, pins, clay, magnets and paper clips.

"TRIZ is meant to form a person's creative thinking through developing logic, imagination, the ability to systematize and dialectics," said Tatyana Taratenko, a St. Petersburg educationalist who specializes in teaching TRIZ.

Dialectics means systematically weighing contradictory facts or ideas with a view to resolving their real or apparent contradictions.

"Children who study TRIZ learn nonstandard thinking that will help them see things from an unusual viewpoint, or at least from several different sides," Taratenko said.

The second-graders already have this skill and can evidently identify the positive and negative sides of any subject.

"What is good and bad about summer?" Gorbunova asked her class.

The children had no need to hesitate about the bright side of summer: "It's vacation time," "It's warm," "We can swim," "We can ride a bike," and "We can go visit our friends in other cities," they said.

The negative aspects of summer might be expected to escape many a second-grader, but not these children. After a short while, they came up with sunstroke, drought and "being deprived of the opportunity to see our classmates."

It took them just a few minutes to make a word from a random set of letters.

In the 40 minutes of a regular TRIZ class, the students were asked more than 50 such creative questions, and their hands, raised to answer questions, were seldom at their sides for long.

"TRIZ classes develop children's mental abilities, their memory, logic and nonstandard thinking," Gorbunova said.

"But classes do not consist only of interesting development exercises or tasks, they also teach a systematic approach, which helps students find the right or unusual solutions quickly," she said.

The tasks get harder as the lessons progress, and finally students are presented with real problems to solve.

Such as, "How can reindeer herders, whose reindeer graze in the undulating tundra, quickly find their herd if the animals are out of sight behind the high points in the tundra?"

The first answer was not long in coming.

"The herdsmen should climb a hill and look around from there," one child said.

"But that takes too long," the teacher said.

Another try: "They should get their spades and dig lots of snow to make a hill," another child said.

Then one child came up with a quicker solution: "The herders should form a pyramid by standing on each others' shoulders and then look around."

Gorbunova is pleasantly surprised, as she often is when her students come up with particularly inventive solutions.

"You know, the answer given in our book is to take the reindeer skin that forms the walls and roof of their wigwam-like houses, get four herders to hold it by the corners and let the fifth one jump on it like a trampoline so he can look around," she said.

First-grade teacher Olga Peskova said that after teaching TRIZ for several years, she feels it has changed her approach to life.

"Now when I face a problem I think of how I can solve it myself," Peskova said.

"For instance, before, if I came across a water tap that was broken, I'd be desperately waiting for a plumber to come and fix it," she said. "Now I can find a way to fix it myself."

Peskova said the ultimate goal of teaching TRIZ is to make children capable of solving any problem and become inventive.

But the most important benefit of the system is that it gives children confidence, Gorbunova said.

"We also use TRIZ methods in our regular classes, which makes them more interesting," she said.

TRIZ homework usually has to do with either inventing something or finding an answer to a difficult puzzle.

For instance, one homework assignment for Peskova's 6-, 7- and 8-year-old students was to design their own magic wand. The next week, the children brought in their magic wands, and they were all different.

One student had made a wand with a rattle inside. Another had a magnet attached to the end "to pick up my sister's hairpins from the floor." A third could be played like a flute, and a fourth could be turned into a flagpole.

Gorbunova said TRIZ teaches children to invent using the materials they have at hand, and therefore does not involve expensive equipment.

"It's interesting that children themselves get most excited about the simplest inventions," she said. "For instance, Kirill made a hand-warmer from an old woolen sock that his mother wanted to throw away, and got lots of praise from his classmates."

Gorbunova was also impressed by the ways the second-graders proposed to improve their school desks.

Suggestions included making desks for one, rather than for two students, making them height-adjustable "because students grow, too," and adding a pencil box and a lamp.

Gorbunova said TRIZ helps children "to see the world in bright colors."

"The older generation is often tired of all the problems and economic difficulties that it has been through, and has a gloomy outlook," she said. "But we hope these children will continue to be optimistic about life and its problems, because they will know how to solve anything."

Taratenko said the main aim of TRIZ programs in schools is "to raise citizens who are able to cope with life as it really is."

"Many experts say that school doesn't prepare students for the real world," Taratenko said. "The world is often not logical, so children need to be prepared to solve the problems and difficulties they encounter."

Turgel, whose mother is a psychologist and father is a tram driver, said he wants "to become a technical designer."

"TRIZ is my favorite class," he said.

About 50 St. Petersburg primary schools run TRIZ classes, but they stop teaching it in middle school, except at School No. 612, which teaches it all the way up to ninth grade.

Taratenko said TRIZ is also taught in Chelyabinsk, Ulyanovsk and Minsk.

She said the system, initially developed for adults, was adapted for teaching to children in the early 1990s.

"Russian experts who taught TRIZ at university realized that it would be more effective if it was taught at a younger age," she said.

Abroad, TRIZ is taught only to adults, not to children, she said.