Thinking Outside the Box



Clichés, I love them.  Take one of our current Canadian educational clichés, for example: “We teach you to think outside the box.” I have met many teachers at various levels of education who tell this to me, and to their students.  Yet most of these teachers cannot themselves ‘think outside the box’. What they usually do, when teaching, is shut off the student’s original box by teach them to build a slightly larger one around it. They must now learn to think inside this new box in the way the teacher wants. Hence the cartoon above: We build bigger boxes and Building bigger boxes.

The central motif is, of course, the original ‘tiny’ box outside which the student must be ‘taught‘ to think. For ‘taught‘ substitute one of the following: persuaded, bullied, pressured, beaten, shamed, starved, embarrassed, … depending on the time and place, all of these words are sadly suitable and yes, in my learning career, I suffered at one time or another at the hands of teachers who used each of these methods, and others equally (or more) brutal, sometimes more than one at once.

What was inside that original box? Of course the contents vary with each individual, but creativity is in there, challenging authority is in there, self-belief is in there, a desire to ask endless questions, a childish wisdom to see the world as it is, not as the grown-ups say it is. I ask you, have they really ever grown up, have they ever escaped from their own hand-built boxes? Education: locking down the walls of that original box. Do away with creativity [not that way, this way!], free thinking [you mustn’t say things like that!], challenging  authority [cheeky, disobedient child!], asking questions [little children should be seen and not heard …. silence! … silence in class!] and finally, do away with self-belief and make the child dependent on the teacher [please, Sister Mary … please, Mother Theresa … please Father Maguire …] …

As the walls of the bigger boxes grow thicker and stronger, so it becomes more difficult to once again think as a child. Questions are answered by authority figures or on the internet with answers to FAQs and pre-packaged concepts. How do we regain our creativity? I assure you, we have never lost it. Where is it? Where is it hidden? In this world of folly and rush, of hustle, muscle, and busy bustle, so few of us have the time or can afford to take the time to sit and think, to undo those false walls that surround us, to find again the child-loving pleasure of thinking for ourselves, of discovering for ourselves, of being creative in the ways that we were so very, very long ago. Remember what Picasso said of his later paintings: ‘it took me a long time to relearn how to see the world as a child.’

Creativity: it is always with us. We must rediscover it. We must unwrap it from the tarpaulins that the system placed around it. We must dig it out from under the walls, the ruinous walls, with which the system surrounded us. It is still there, waiting for us to rediscover it. Believe. Roll up your sleeves. Dig deep inside yourself. And think for yourself. Then, when you have found that original box, open it, find exactly what is in it (the universal gifts to the new born), and become creative yet again. Only then will you have taught yourself (yourself, because others won’t teach you) to truly think outside the box, the multiple boxes, that the system and society designed to trap your creative spirit. Open the cage door: , release your creative spirit and let it soar to the skies.

20 thoughts on “Thinking Outside the Box

  1. What box? Seriously though, great post! As it happens, I am doing a series on “thinking tools” and I’d be interested in your take. The last thing I want to do is persuade people to throw out their current toolbox and replace it with mine. LOL. Yet, I do think it’s worth taking some time to *consider* these ideas.


    • I just clicked on your site and started to read. I like what you are doing and how you are presenting and arguing it. Much more formal than me. I love administrivia, nice word, and your anecdote about the River Bronx. I’ll write more later. Best wishes and thanks for visiting and commenting.


  2. I watched a Hallmark Christmas special the other day where a teacher explained to a student why she should never start a sentence with ‘and’. Obviously the script-writer believed this. One thing I have learned from creating my Gel-speak dictionary in my sci-fi series … words can have bizarre associations … my creativity is not all dead!

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  3. This essay posits a challenging issue: how to nurture the inner child’s innovation and originality, while working within an existing educational system. As you describe it, something has to give (within the dynamic), and it’s always been the child. 《Sigh》It seems an insoluble problem. So glad I was able to remain a child, with my dreams and schemes (and circus crowds). Cheers, Chuck

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    • Thank you for responding, Chuck. I’d love to see your response to the exchange between Allan and me. Clearly it is always a difficult dynamic. My cousin, an air line pilot, says that the template is dominant. And in his case I agree. But what happens in an emergency, when the template has to be broken, and the pilot must react and respond and innovate, perhaps creatively? As creative artists we have less responsibility than surgeons, oncologists, cardiologists … but who steps beyond the boundaries? Who advances the frontiers? Who walks beyond? Who says that the template we have is no longer adequate?


  4. This is interesting Roger. According to publishers, seasoned authors, the writing establishment, other than a different story I think we are meant to stay in the box. Am I wrong?

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    • Of course you are right, Allan. However, every “great” author created ‘outside the traditional, standardized box’. That’s why they are great. First learn the rules, then break them might well apply to writing. It’s the same with thought: if we always accepted ‘authority’ we would never need to invent anything.


      • Hi again, Allan. I think the problem with writing, in part, is a modern writer wanting to get published in a commercial world that has templates for best sellers. Follow the template [rules] and write the best seller. That is what people want to read: more of the same. Just watch television for a week between 8 and 11 … more of the same with different characters acting out the same or similar situations again and again and again. However, artistic invention and creativity come from a different model that doesn’t use the accepted template except to twist and pervert it and to turn itself into something else. The outstanding, really memorable novels [paintings, works of art] are truly unique They then create ‘new templates’ for other writers to follow. It’s the same with cinema, poetry, plays, short stories … individual genius will usually out in the long term, but it can be a very, very long term for some people. The classic rule is innovate > perfect > caricature > innovate. At the present time, we are mixing so many styles, all at once, that we are doing all three of these more or less at the same moment. I hope this makes sense.


  5. Amen to this Roger! I was recently reviewing an Audiobook Great Ideas in Philosophy and the instructor began with this statement “the beginning of philosophy is when the child asks ‘why’” I thought that was pretty cool.

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    • And the end of philosophy is when the parent / teacher etc replies: “Because I say so!” Other famous answers include “Y is a crooked letter,” and “Wye is a river,” and “will you just shut up!” This latter answer is often accompanied by a slap or a kick or some other form of abuse. “Why don’t you just go over there and stand in the corner with your face to the wall?” Every time a child asks “why?” we get a teachable moment. However, I think it’s fair to ask ‘what are we teaching?’

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