Spontaneous Problems

Spontaneous is that part of the competition that team members really get to shine and share those creative thinking skills that coaches get to see though the long-term problem process. Solving spontaneous problems team members get to “think on their feet” and quickly “think outside of the box.” These problems are “TOP SECRET” and only the team members that enter the room get to know the secret. What’s better for students than knowing something their parents don’t know? Teams participating in the same long-term problem and division will solve the same spontaneous problem, so, to ensure fairness, it is critical that no one discusses the problem outside of the room until all teams have competed.

The nature of the spontaneous problems varies, with each having its own set of specific rules that are read to the team in the competition room. Teams will have to solve only one type of spontaneous problem in a competition. So teams should be prepared for any of the three types of spontaneous problems. Teams should practice for the three common types of spontaneous problems as listed below. However, the team should also be prepared for the unexpected; this is Odyssey of the Mind.

  • Verbal spontaneous problems require verbal responses. They may incorporate improvisation or dramatization. Teams are scored for common and creative responses. This will be a problem read to the team and asking them to think of answers to a question, such as “name things that have a base.” They will brainstorm (usually silently) for one or two minutes and then the team must give responses. Score will be based on whether the answers are common (“A lamp has a base”) or creative (“Rules are the basis of good behavior”). Some method will be given for determining in which order the team members give answers (they might go consecutively around a table, or they might flip cards, for example.) They may not repeat an answer.

  • Hands-on spontaneous problems require teams to physically create a tangible solution. Each hands-on problem has its own specific scoring categories. This will be a problem read to the team, and then, usually, given to them in hard copy to look at while they work on a solution. They will be asked to do something with a set of given materials. They might be given some period of time to plan the solution and then some period of time to work. Or they might just be given one period of time to solve the problem. Hands-on problems might ask them to build something, create a picture of some kind, get objects into a target area, arrange elements in a certain order and so forth. The team may or may not be allowed to talk during any part of the solution time.

  • Verbal/hands-on spontaneous problems require teams to create a tangible solution and include some type of verbal component, for example, creating a story about the solution. Teams are scored for both the tangible solution and the verbal presentation. This will be a problem, usually with two parts, that is read to the team one part at a time. In Part 1, they may be asked to make or build something. In Part 2, they may be asked to give verbal responses about what they have made or use the item(s) in a skit.

In January 2015 this clarification was released detailing a new version of the verbal problem:

  • We have added a new procedure in SOME types of verbal problems. In these problems, team members will be given paper and pencils and are allowed to brainstorm during think time. They are allowed to write down the responses that they will use during response time. They may write as many as they wish and are not limited to those responses when it is their time to respond. During response time they will be able to refer to their own lists, so that they may choose the responses they think are the MOST creative or give a new response. Each team member will also have a set of cards with two values on them (for example one card may say 2/4; another 3/6)…. When they give a response they will decide if their response is creative and will hold up a card. The judges will then score that response using the lower number if they think the response is common, and the higher number if they think it is a creative response. A card may only be used once. As a result, teams can impact their score by predicting the creativity of their responses. The more creative responses should have higher numbers and questionable responses should have lower numbers

For spontaneous, be sure to practice, practice, and practice. Here are some tips from Odyssey of the Mind for practicing spontaneous:

  • Teach team members to listen. They should not “think ahead” and presume what the problem requires; they should listen carefully until the judge finishes reading the entire problem.

  • Brainstorm verbal responses. Ask the students what made them respond the way they did, then develop that skill further.

  • Improvise non-traditional uses for various items.

  • Familiarize team members with various materials and their uses.

  • Practice building structures out of common materials such as toothpicks, paper cups

General spontaneous advice

While each type of problem has its own unique aspects (see verbal, hands on, and hands on verbal), general strategies exist that teams should apply to all types of spontaneous problems.

  • Never argue with the judges. While team members may ask questions, they must always respect the judges' decisions.

  • Assign a team spontaneous captain for each problem or one person for all problems. The spontaneous captain makes sure all team members are heard, delegates responsibility, and makes decisions if the team is stuck. The captain should realize that this position does not entitle him or her to always choose their own idea, but that they must always listen to all the ideas that are heard and act on what is best for the team

  • Assign a problem reader. While the whole team should read and listen to the problem, the reader spends extra time understanding the rules and scoring, especially for a hands-on problem.

  • Assign at least one timekeeper. Judges will keep time and always tell the team how much time is remaining if asked, but the team should keep time independently and should always have an understanding of how much time they have left.

  • “If the problem doesn't say you can't do it, assume you can”. Assume flexibility in interpretations in the rules, and ask judges frequent questions (teams can not be penalized for asking too many questions).

  • Always use thinking time carefully, especially in hands on. Use this time to plan out the solution for part 2.

  • Practice a variety of spontaneous problems. Any long term or age division can receive any type of spontaneous problem. If practicing hands-on, don't only solve problems with building towers out of different types of materials - mix in a variety (and usually tournament spontaneous problems are more complex).

Practicing and debriefing spontaneous

Teams should practice at least one spontaneous problem at every meeting. Teams should always debrief each problem and discuss what went well and what could be improved. THERE IS NO OUTSIDE ASSISTANCE IN SPONTANEOUS. Coaches may give direct feedback on the team's performance.

Coaches might find keeping at a stream of spontaneous problem overwhelming. Below are links to databases of spontaneous problems. Coaches might find keeping a “spontaneous supply kit” helpful, as many of the problems use the same types of materials or could have materials that are easy to substitute.

As a coach, here are some basic guidelines for running spontaneous problems:

  • Prepare the problems beforehand. Setup hands-on problems and run through the problem with a coach or parent if needed

  • Prepare learning objectives (some spontaneous problems even have objectives listed).

  • Take advantage of any spontaneous trainings your state or region offers. If possible, observe an experienced coach run and debrief a problem.

  • Record score and explain why you scored a team a certain way. Give honest feedback, especially in response problems (a silly answer isn’t necessarily creative, especially if it doesn’t fit the response structure of the problem)

  • Video record the team and let them watch themselves afterwards. This strategy is especially good to show teams needing to improve teamwork and delegation for hands-on problems

Why is spontaneous debrief important? Often, coaches and teams undervalue debriefing spontaneous problems. Don’t make this mistake! The debrief is as important (if not more important) than running the problem, especially for younger/newer teams. Debriefs should take at least as long as the problem itself (5-10 minutes).

Debriefs build teamwork and give a platform for students to encourage each other. Also, the most successful spontaneous teams win because they have a framework for attacking spontaneous. Rarely will a team encounter a problem in competition exactly the same as something they’ve solved before; they need to learn how to solve problems generally and recognize patterns in the types of problems presented. The least important (and most overdone) aspect of spontaneous debrief focuses on the nitty-gritty of the problem such as specific materials used or better responses available.

What makes a good debrief? Talking through a spontaneous problem effectively is hard, especially if you’re a new coach! Here are some general pointers on what a what a good debrief looks like:

  • The debriefer controls the conversation, but team feels free and safe to express their ideas

  • Discussion is focused on learning goals (planned beforehand)

  • If the debriefer isn’t completely comfortable, they should have a few questions to help guide the conversation (examples below)

  • Clear action steps are developed for future spontaneous problems (timekeeper will call out time every minute, everyone goes home and practices puns with their parents, develop a flexible theme to use in all verbals, etc). Don’t just talk about what could go better, take active steps to improve!

Here is a sample outline of questions to use as a basic guide:

  • Intro: how do you all feel like you did? *

  • What did you do well on?

    • What could you improve?

    • Where do you think you could have scored more points? Why?

    • Do you think you understood the problem well?

  • Specific to problem (examples):

    • Why did you run out of time?

    • How were you doing project management? Was that effective?

    • How do you think of puns?

    • Did you have good teamwork? Why or why not?

    • How could you have used your materials more effectively?

    • Why did you choose to do…XYZ?

  • End: what is one thing you would now do differently in a similar problem?

Note: if a team is older, a great idea is for team members to take turns finding spontaneous problems online and acting as the presenter and judge for their own team, also running the debrief. Great opportunity to understand a problem from a judge’s perspective, be seen as a leader on the team, and get into mindset of continuous improvement when leading debrief.

Here are a few learning objectives for spontaneous problems:

  • Practicing time management: using a personal stopwatch or designating a team member to ask judge for time

  • Utilizing a project manager/team captain: designating a team captain to organize the flow of discussion, testing, building, and scoring, especially when splitting up in smaller groups to solve the problem is necessary

  • Understanding the exact wording of a problem - designate a problem reader/checker. You only get points for what the judge is scoring!

  • Developing a reusable theme for verbals and hands-on verbals

  • Using puns in responses

  • Practicing solutions during thinking time

  • Telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end (talk about what are the components of a good story)

  • Listening to other team members give responses so as to not give repeat responses

  • Using props effectively - what other uses can the team think of for a wig?

Parents are encouraged to help their children practice spontaneous at home. The dinner table is a great time to work on verbal problems!

Spontaneous resources

Practicing spontaneous is the best way to improve. Luckily, thousands of spontaneous problems have already been written and are easily accessible. Here is a database of almost 200 spontaneous problem files organized into problem type. The spontaneous fair problems from North Carolina are also available to download (they are also mixed into the main archive).

Below are websites which also host several hundred spontaneous problems.