Too often neglected when props need painted or scripts need polished, spontaneous is a crucial element of Odyssey of the Mind. It is important not only because it is scored at the tournament, but because it teaches the team many of the skills they need for problem solving and because it is FUN! Spontaneous is the soul of teamwork, creativity, risk-taking, and divergent thinking.
On competition day, the team enters a room with no audience and no coaches … only the team members and officials. The team is told the type of problem, and given one minute to determine which 5 team members will participate. (On a team of 7, two team members will be observers only, or may choose to leave the room.)
The problem the teams are given will be one they have never seen before (unless the coach has been clairvoyant!) However, strategies for the types of problems are similar and teams should practice all kinds of problems prior to the tournament. Scoring will vary according to the problem, (high score for the day could be 50 or 500), but the maximum scaled score will be 100 points, which accounts for approximately 29% of the total possible points. Separate officials score the spontaneous portion of the tournament.
Types of spontaneous problems
There are three types of problems: verbal, hands-on, and verbal hands-on/combination.
- Verbal: 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, nor may a team member usually skip his or her turn. (“If one member of the team is stuck, the team is stuck.”)
- Hands-on: 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.
- Hands-on verbal/combination: 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.
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).
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
- Ask teams open ended questions instead of telling them what they could improve: What do you think went well? What do you think you could have done better? Why did you solve the problem in that way? What are other ideas you could have used – why didn’t you use those ideas? Do you feel like you listened to each other? What do you think were the most creative responses and why? What’s the biggest thing you’ll take away from this problem for next time?
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!
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 NCOME spontaneous fair problems are also available to download (they are also mixed into the main archive).
Below are websites which also host several hundred spontaneous problems.
Example spontaneous videos
Below are videos of spontaneous problem sessions, along with problem introductions and debriefs.
Heads and Tails (hands-on)Buckets (hands-on)Perpetual Motion (hands-on)Up, Up, and Away (hands-on)
Spontaneous on competition day
- All team members and one adult report to the Spontaneous Holding Room if one is being used.
- When the team is called, ONLY team members may go to the Spontaneous Problem Room.
- Upon entering the Spontaneous Room, a judge will tell the team the type of problem.
- The team members will be given one minute to decide which five team members will participate. If a coach does not choose to send all team members to spontaneous (either to the holding room or to the problem room,) it is perfectly acceptable, so long as at least 5 report (or all report if a team has fewer than 5 members).
- The non-participating team members may stay in special seats set aside for them in the room. If they choose to stay, they must remain quiet and serve as observers only. It is recommended that all team members stay, since they are still part of the team, whether speaking or not.
- All team members should be certain they are not wearing a watch or other item that could beep. Teams may keep track of the time, but not have a stopwatch or timer or a watch with an alarm set.
- The five team members participating will be given two written copies of the problem in order to be able to read along as a judge reads the problem. Any interference from the non-participation team members will be penalized by removal of the nonparticipating team members.
For other procedures relating to logistics and long term, see tournament day.
PRIMARY ONLY: In some regions or associations, primary does NOT participate in spontaneous. In most regions, if primary does participate, all team members may participate. Check with your regional director to find out how this will be handled in your particular region. If spontaneous IS offered to primary, the coach should relax … the problem will be age appropriate, and the officials will be very nurturing and supportive of the team’s efforts!
It is extremely important that teams and coaches understand that on tournament day, a team should not discuss the problem they were given until the end of the competition day, not even to tell the coach the type of problem they had. And after competition, no one may discuss the problems outside their own homes until after all competitions end for that Odyssey year!