February 03, 2015

Stop thinking out of the box - the box IS the thinking #28daysofwriting

Whitebox

I can't stand it when people say they want to "think out of the box". I try my best to hide the pain on my face, muscles enter involuntary spasm, and I smile back knowing that the mission ahead is going to be a delicate one. It was adman legendaire Gerry Farrell, last Friday, who helped me understand why my buttocks clench in disappointment on hearing this. You see: it's the boxes we live with that force us to be creative in the first place.

As Gerry explained in a talk in Edinburgh, ads people tend to have the same boxes for every creative project:

  • the budget is always going to be $5000, not $50,000; 
  • the timescale will always be next week, not next month;
  • the product is the one the client has to sell, not the one the adman wishes he could sell for them.

Well, most of my work isn't with admen. It's with other creative folk and above all teachers. Educators. The ones who work with kids. They would dream of a budget of $5000 (well, anything, really). That marking is due tomorrow, not next week. The product I have is the class of thirty-three weans in front of me at 9am tomorrow, and the day after, and we only have a few chances, if that, to do our best by them. If this particular 'campaign' falls down, the cost to us all is a heavy one.

But Gerry's point - that the boxes we live by make us creative - still stands. The key is working out what the important boxes are, so that we can work well within them. Here's my non-exhaustive list of creative constraints that teachers can revel in, in order to create invigorating learning experiences for and with their young charges:

  • The Curriculum
    A curriculum is not some burden that we must carry. It can be a creative stimulus. What happens if you take page 6 with page 27, and bash them together to come up with a new project idea? So, until this point in time "we've always taught Introduction to Algebra in the third week of October". Why? What makes people do that? Ask 'why' often enough (at least five times) and most afficionados of ithasalwaysbeendonethiswayitis will be stuck for words, and explanations. Now you can start to innovate with your curriculum. Why? Why not?
  • Assessments
    Teachers and students have no idea how lucky we are. The admen would sell their grannies if they had a success criteria, printed out in advance, and laminated, to tell them what a good campaign should look like. Students can do what admen would do with such criteria - go way beyond them to keep the client happy and get the next gig. The trick is making sure that the students really understand what's meant by all the twaddle that makes up the ridiculous adjectival foreplay of most formal success criteria.
  • The boss says no
    The boss doesn't know any better until you show them, until you sell them the benefits of your idea, not just the endless features of your idea. If the benefit is clearly better learning for your youngsters, any professional outfit would encourage you to get on with it and not bother the boss with silly questions and posturing anyway. If you're in doubt, try Steve Jobs' quote for size:

    "Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use.
    "Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."

  • I don't have the time
    I do believe you have the same time as that person, over there, who's done the cool thing you want to do. And we've already established you're as smart as them. You have different priorities, that's all. Get them straight, and you'll never say "I don't have time for that" again. You will only be left saying "that's a great idea, but it's not for me, right now. I'm busy transforming the world with this idea over here."

    Most of the best ideas come quickly as the result of a well-identified pain point. When the pain's at fever pitch, I've seen teams of six people create 226 ideas in 10 minutes flat. If I'd given them a day, instead of 10 minutes, we'd have come up with six ideas.

What other creative constraints are there? What other boxes should we stop thinking outside of, and start jumping into?

Comments

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" I've seen teams of six people create 226 ideas in 10 minutes flat. If I'd given them a day, instead of 10 minutes, we'd have come up with six ideas."

Love this final sentence. I think the challenge especially in education is to get people who are used to working in a very locked down system to see the opportunities they have. Every version of the curriculum here in the last few years has taken requirements away, and yet most schools are still teaching variations on the same told topics the same old ways.

We're going to have a real chance here in Wales in the next few months once Graham Donaldson's report is published. I need to remember to start box spotting I think!

I really like your point Ewan about constraint providing the means of creativity. Reminds me of something that Jon Andrews wrote about in regards the heutagogy and 'covering' the curriculum in 'Experiences in Self-Determined Learning'. Too often we think we need to 'teach' everything and then wonder why we can't get through anything.
I am also reminded of a pertinent point that Seth Godin made in regards to 'not enough time'. It actually means, "it wasn't important enough." It wasn't a high priority, fun, distracting, profitable or urgent enough to make it to the top of the list. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2014/04/i-didnt-have-time.html

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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