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Conceptual Blending for Creative Thinking

Conceptual blending is a strategy that businesses use to inspire creative thinking, but it can also help your students think about and engage any topic.

What is conceptual blending?

Conceptual blending is combining two dissimilar concepts and using creative thinking to work out the dissonances. Here’s an example:

“How can we make our workplace more like a playground?”

Workplace like a playground

At first, you might ask—why would anyone want the workplace to be more like a playground? Work is work. Play is play. The two concepts don’t blend. But let’s think about what playgrounds do well:

  • bring people together
  • get them to collaborate
  • offer equipment that inspires creativity
  • encourage users to return repeatedly
  • create multisensory engagement
  • make people happy and healthy

Aren’t these desirable attributes for a workplace?

How did Google answer this question?

When designing its corporate headquarters (the Googleplex), Google created many spaces and services that function like playgrounds:

  • Google clusters creative teams into groups of three or four, with tentlike awnings overhead that cut down on ambient noise and create a quirky sense of clubhouses.
  • Google offers free chef-prepared breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in fanciful cafes. These meals inspire employees to stay and talk with each other—most often about the work they are doing. By paying for a $10 lunch, Google gets a $50-an-hour employee to collaborate with others as they eat.
  • The walls in the Googleplex are whiteboards so that when workers are discussing ideas, they can stop and write on the walls. Other workers then may stop by and add to the ideas there.
  • Employees have access to free fitness centers, video games, pool tables, massages, haircuts, child care, and even on-site physicians. Employees want to be at work.
  • Google invites employees to pursue 20-percent projects—developing their own passions for up to 20 percent of their paid time. This invitation to “play” in areas of personal interest causes the employees to bring their excitement and learning back to their regular work.

Google’s decision to make their workplaces more like playgrounds has led to very high employee satisfaction, retention, morale, collaboration, and creativity.

How can I use conceptual blending in my classroom?

Conceptual blending can get students to engage a concept and think more deeply about it. To do so, take whatever topic you are teaching and apply an unfamiliar concept to it. The best way is to ask a provocative question, such as those that follow. (Note the natural dissonance between the words in bold.)

  • How could we make the U.S. Constitution more portable?
  • What parts of cellular structure should we use in city design?
  • How could we use regular polygons to model a human face?
  • How would an engineer design a pop song?
  • What would Huckleberry Finn do in the Hunger Games?
  • How could we make novels more interactive?
  • What modern actors should play the main figures in the Civil War?
  • What mathematical formulas are present in the Mona Lisa?
  • How could we mathematically model a G-major triad?

Simply by posing such a question, you inspire students to think in new and creative ways about your topic. You create engagement, excitement, and a sense of play.

I’ve asked the question—now what?

Often posing a conceptual-blending question will, at first, bring a few negative responses. That’s fine. It shows that students recognize the cognitive dissonance: How could we make the U.S. Constitution more portable?

  • Why does it need to be portable?
  • What do we mean by portable? Can’t people carry a copy?
  • Who would want to carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution?

These questions get at a deeper problem—the lack of connection between people and the U.S. Constitution. Making the Constitution portable also means making it meaningful to individuals. Push students to solve this part of the problem.

  • What about making Bill-of-Rights T-shirts?
  • What about making a Rights Watch—displaying which of your rights are currently being challenged and by what?
  • How about linking online news stories to the parts of the Constitution that are relevant?
  • How about translating the U.S. Constitution into modern, everyday English?
  • What about composing a U.S. Constitution rap song so that people can listen to the Constitution as they jog, drive, or just hang out?
  • What if we follow the Constitution to sort our daily actions into executive duties, legislative duties, or judicial duties? For example, deciding when to do homework is an executive duty, but actually writing the essay is legislative, while checking it for errors is judicial.

The cognitive dissonance in the question requires students to think in new ways about the topic and gain new perspectives. It feels fun and playful, but that’s because discovery is fun and playful.

How can the ha ha become the ah ha?

Business people aren’t the only ones who use conceptual blending to inspire creative thinking. Comedians do as well. Here, for example, is a great line from Steven Wright:

“I’m an optimist, but I don’t think it helps.”

This is funny because not thinking that optimism helps is not optimistic. The two concepts don’t blend, so we have to think creatively to jump from one concept to the other. We laugh—ha ha—because of that dissonance. Here’s another great Steven Wright joke:

“If everything is coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.”

Here, we interpret “everything is coming your way” in its usual positive sense of receiving many benefits. In the second part of the sentence, however, we realize Wright is talking about possible head-on collisions. As our minds make the creative leap from one concept to another, we laugh.

The ha ha is very closely linked to the ah ha. Both are about “getting it”—whether the “it” is a joke or a new concept. Both make the learner smile and inspire the person to learn more. Once students are engaged, they can’t help learning.

So conceptual blending not only gets your students to think in new and creative ways about the topic you are teaching, but it also gets them to play with the topic, engage it, and learn about it.

We want to hear from you! Have you used conceptual blending in your classroom? If you were to use it today, what provocative question would you ask? Please enter your comments below.

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