Thinking “Outside the Box”

In a recent Tweet, a public school educator commented that we need to be able to teach students to “think outside the box.” Although the term, itself, has become cliché to the ears of many, the skill is a powerful tool to have at one’s disposal. The challenge in teaching our students to “think outside the box” is that we must be able to “think outside the box,” ourselves, to teach it and it is not so easy to do.

Whether “thinking outside the box,” “thinking exponentially,” looking “outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom,” or “paradigm shift,” it is an incredibly difficult skill to master. It requires that we be aware of and continually remind ourselves of the fact that the human brain works to organize what we know and learn in a neat and readily accessible order. Having what we know in a well-organized format is essential to our growth, development, and both our intellectual and emotional well-being. Without the human brain’s ability to sort and store information we need in our daily lives, we would be overwhelmed by an infinite and incessant stream of sensory stimuli.

The tradeoff we make, unconsciously for most of us, is that the more comfortable we become within the context of our brain’s unique filing and organizing system (our paradigms), the more difficult it is to be aware of and to utilize information outside of our primary frame of reference.

Some of you may be familiar with a creative-thinking exercise that uses nine dots, configured in three rows of three:

                                                        .              .               .

                                                        .              .               .

                                                        .             .               .


The instructions for the exercise tell the participant to place their pencil point on any one of the nine dots and, without lifting your pencil off the page and without retracing or backtracking, connect all nine dots with four straight lines.

If you are not familiar with the exercise, I would encourage you to try it out before reading any further.

Often, a significant majority of people who attempt to solve the puzzle are unsuccessful because of the phenomenon I described above in which our brain, without our conscious awareness, organizes our sensory data into a familiar order. In the case of the nine dots, our brain organizes them in our mind in one of the most common shapes with which we are all familiar, a square. As a result, the majority or people striving to solve the puzzle are constrained because their brain has identified the nine dots as a square box. Inevitably, these individuals fail, repeatedly, to solve the puzzle because the space outside the square box is invisible to them. What they cannot see does not exist, therefore they seek solutions only within the square. Observing the possibilities outside the box requires a conscious effort to seek them out.

As a consultant, working with clients to help them solve organizational or process issues, striving to get even the most highly-trained and educated individuals to expand their paradigms or frames of reference was almost always challenging. This has been true in my attempt to get public school educators to consider the education model I have developed. When I suggest that they give each student however much time they need to learn, many educators reject the idea, automatically, because there is no time. In the reality in which they strive to teach there is no time and so their minds close. It is not until they are able to challenge their assumptions and step back sufficiently far that they can observe the current education model objectively, as an integral whole, that they will be able to envision an alternate reality outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. An alternate reality in which other possibilities abound.

The unfortunate consequence is that millions of disadvantaged kids fail, repeatedly, fall further behind, and stop trying. They no longer believe they can be successful. Educators see the data in schools serving a high percentage of disadvantaged kids, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black kids and other minorities, but they have become inured to the damage that these children must endure. Educators are constantly introducing innovative approaches, methodologies, curricula and technologies in their schools and classrooms and these work for many students. Rarely do they work in schools with a high percentage of children who are disadvantaged and who have fallen behind.

The only way to reconcile their lack of success and the ongoing failure of their disadvantaged students is to draw one or both of two conclusions. The first is that the problem is societal and systemic and is beyond the ability of public education to fix. The second is that poor kids, black kids, and/or other minority children are incapable of learning. It is sad commentary but the reality is that a disturbing percentage of Americans are content to except the idea that the poor performance of these children is the best that we can expect.

A significant majority of public school policy makers, administrators, and teachers seem unable to contemplate that their might be solutions that can only be found beyond the boundaries of their conventional wisdom (outside the box). That the education process in place in our nation’s schools, both public and private, is nothing more than a logical construct designed to produce certain outcomes seems to be beyond their scope of experience.

The good news is that any process engineered by human beings to produce desirable outcomes can be reinvented to produce better outcomes. The bad news is that discovering and implementing such processes can only happen when decision makers make a conscious effort to challenge all of their assumptions and explore the possibilities that exist “outside the box.”

I do not claim to be any more intelligent or innovative than the leaders of public education, but I have two advantages that they do not have. The first is that my entire career has prepared me to employ the principles of systems thinking that require one to challenge his or her assumptions and to step back sufficiently far that I can observe a process as an integral whole. The second advantage is that my experience, over a period of ten years, of subbing in the classrooms of a public school district was an opportunity to walk in the shoes of public school teachers. This gives me a unique perspective.

As a result, I was able to develop an education model that will enable teachers to give each student the time and attention necessary to meet their unique needs. It is a model that will eliminate the necessity of subjecting our nation’s most vulnerable children to the devastating consequences of repeated failure. The reader is invited to review my education model and an accompanying white paper that provides the logical foundation for the model. All it requires is a willingness, on the part of a reader, to open his or her heart and mind to possibilities that exist beyond their own boundaries of experience.