#Take5 #52: The best way to … generate ideas?

Using superheroes for structured problem solving and ideas generation

The week’s #Take5 blog is brought to you from Dr Katharine Jewitt, a Learning Designer at Heriot-Watt University. The Superheroes ideas generation techniques were designed by Grossman and Catlin to provide a playful group atmosphere during idea generation. Students work in groups and assume the identity of different Superhero characters and then use the characters as stimuli for sparking ideas and problem solving. ‘Superheroes’ produces unique ideas because of its use of unrelated stimuli. This activity also works well in a diverse classroom because students can adopt a superhero of their choice and discuss the qualities of superheroes. This offers opportunities for students to share among themselves about culture, origins, backgrounds, values and unique differences. It’s an effective way to demonstrate respect for cultural diversity and makes for rich discussion. (Hopefully the superhero pictures below will appear in the blog – and be reassured – the author has a license to use them.)

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Picture: The Black Panther

Using Superheroes for Ideas Generation Techniques

If students possess a playful attitude, the Superheroes problem solving and ideas generation techniques can work well. It has a built-in mechanism for generating ideas and helps ensure all atmospheres conducive to creative thinking. Discussing the various characters often is sufficient for loosening up the group. As a result, the ideas may flow easily. Superheroes also is likely to produce unique ideas because of its use of unrelated stimuli. In addition to the usual weaknesses of any brainstorming approach, Superheroes has one major disadvantage. The playful attitude required may not exist in all groups and some members may be reluctant to participate. On the other hand, requiring students to assume different roles may be just the thing needed to liven up some groups.

Five Steps to running the activity

The steps are as follows:

1. Descriptions of various Superhero characters are distributed to group members.

2. Group members select one of the characters and assume its identity. If desired, costumes can be used to elaborate upon the characterisation. As a minimum, ask students to wear a sign (a sticky label or post-it note stuck on their forehead is an easy way for students to state the name of the hero they selected. Students can be more creative and create a paper mask or a crown / party hat with their superhero name on.

3. Each group member, in turn, describes his or her character in as much detail as possible. This description should include such things as special powers, strengths, weaknesses, and habits.

4. After each hero is described, group members use the information as stimuli for ideas generation techniques and problem solving.

For example, Spiderman’s web might suggest a network concept for solving some problem.

5. Group members ask the Superhero concerned how they might use their super powers and abilities to help the problem/opportunity owner address their situation. The problem owner needs to record, verbatim, what the superhero might say so that the suggestions can be interpreted later in the session. The point being that the initial response may be intuitive and, initially, have no direct obvious meaning/application if the person playing the superhero has really got into role. It is only after a second analysis of the response in the form “how can this suggestion help me” that a more orthodox interpretation can be extracted.

Any number and type of Superheroes can be used for this technique. If possible, there should be more characters than group members to select from.

Some common heroes and their major characteristics.


Picture: Superman

Superman has X-ray vision, super hearing, can fly, and is the strongest man on earth. When not on duty, he is disguised as mild-mannered newspaper reporter, Clark Kent. He can be weakened only by Kryptonite, a leftover rock from his birth planet, Krypton. Superman is faster than a speeding bullet and is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He can fly, he has heat vision, super breath that can be used to freeze things as well as blow them! He can’t see through lead with his X-ray vision though.

Batman and Robin

Batman and Robin
Picture: Batman and Robin

Batman and his sidekick Robin, The Boy Wonder, are first-rate detectives who always manage to outwit the most sinister criminals. They have at their disposal an assortment of “Bat” paraphernalia, such as a Batmobile, Batplane, Batcycle, Batrollerskates, and Batrope. Barman’s alter ego is millionaire Bruce Wayne. He and Robin live in the Wayne Mansion that is built over the Bat Cave.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

Picture: Wonderwoman

Wonder Woman is a truly liberated woman. With extraordinary strength, agility, and all-around athletic ability, she easily can overpower the most powerful person. With her magic bracelets, she even can deflect bullets shot at her. And, with her magic lasso, she can rope almost anything. When wrapped around someone, her lasso always causes that person to tell the truth. On occasion, she flies her own airplane, which is invisible.

Captain America

Captain America
Picture: Captain America

Captain America represents the ultimate in All-American ideals (truth, justice, apple pie, and mom). With his winning personality he usually has no trouble persuading others to see his viewpoint. The captain also is known for his positive outlook on life and his great strength and athletic skills. If all of these attributes are not enough protection, he also has a Captain America shield that can protect him from any harm.

Dr Strange

Dr Strange
Picture: Dr Strange

Dr. Strange tries to live up to his name. As a skilled magician and sorcerer, he can create numerous illusions. He also is able to cure sicknesses, control people and situations, and change one thing into something else. Another strange thing about Dr. Strange is that he is afflicted with temporary lapses of concentration.


E.Man, whose most distinctive feature is his unlimited supply of energy, can take on any form he wishes. However, once he assumes a form, he is affected by its weaknesses. His favourite sleeping place is a toaster.

Nova Kane

Nova Kane is the female counterpart to E-Man. She previously worked as an exotic dancer.


Picture: Spiderman

Spiderman, or “Spidey” as he is affectionately known by his fans, can walk on ceilings and walls. With his ever-present web, he can swing through the air as well as capture bad guys. Spiderman also has a unique ability to detect any dangerous situation before it affects him.

Mr Fantastic

Mr. Fantastic is the smartest man in the world and, although no logical correlation is involved, he can stretch his body to any length. He is a very flexible person.

Invisible Girl

Invisible Girl, as her name implies, can make herself and other people and things invisible. She also can make people and things reappear. When in danger, she creates an invisible shield which protects her from all harm.

The Human Torch

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Picture: The Human Torch

The Human Torch is said to be a short-tempered hothead. He has the power to emit and control fire. Heat never bothers him. He also can fly whenever the mood strikes.

(The problem solving and ideas generation techniques have been adapted and expanded upon from the book Techniques of structured problem solving by Arthur B. VanGundy ISBN-13 : 978-0442288471)

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Picture: Avengers Assemble

Six Lessons to learn from superheroes

There are many lessons we can learn from superheroes and they can be used as discussion prompts when supporting students in their learning and skills development.

Lesson 1. Embrace who you are

We are all different. Be a superhero and embrace who you are and be proud of it. If you’ve made mistakes, forgive yourself. Treat yourself kindly. Acknowledge your successes and how far you’ve come. Be grateful for what is happening in your own world. Don’t criticise yourself and practice self-compassion. Research shows people who associate themselves with positive traits, have a healthier outlook and are more successful.

Lesson 2. Be different, Be powerful

Just like a superhero, being different is powerful. Encourage students to think about what makes them stand out from the crowd and what they excel at. Ask them to consider their key strengths and celebrate their talents from specific technical and personal skills to knowledge about their subject field. Ask them to think about what they have achieved and their behaviours to handle problems and manage stressful situations. We all have something we are good at.

Lesson 3. Overcome adversity

It may not seem it at the time, when experiencing adverse events, but there is purpose behind each one. Adversity can be overcome. Superheroes surround themselves with positive people who will be supportive and encouraging. Encourage students to practice a daily journal and write down their thoughts. It’s important to invest time, just for themselves, doing something they enjoy.

Lesson 4. Help others to be their best

We become stronger by helping others to be strong and find their strengths. Students might want to consider mentoring someone who could benefit from their skills and knowledge or offering peer-to-peer support.

Lesson 5. Superheroes’ superpowers are not required

Students can be a hero without any superpowers. Everyone has something to offer.

Lesson 6. Change starts with you

Superheroes make the change. Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If you want change, start with yourself.

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Photo: Dr Katharine Jewitt, Learning Designer at Heriot-Watt University

About Katharine:

Dr Katharine Jewitt (@KatharineJewitt) is a Learning Designer at Heriot-Watt University, where she works in partnership with academics and colleagues from across the University to facilitate the design and subsequent evaluation of Heriot-Watt Online qualifications and modules. She has worked in HE since 2003 and is a Lecturer and Research Fellow at The Open University. Katharine’s research interests are in the fields of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), technology enhanced learning (TEL) and learning in three-dimensional and mobile environments. Her PhD research was in the use of virtual reality for work-based learning.


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