A wonderful chat I’ve recently come across is the No Box Thinking chat (#NBTchat – Sundays 7pm central). The central theme suggests that “thinking outside the box” isn’t enough to ensure the vitality of education.
During any meeting, education or otherwise, tossing out the phrase “think outside the box” to brain storm for a solution to a problem may sound innovative. You’re leaving a safe place, right? Jumping outside the box will lead you to a wonderful new pasture where the grass is greener.
The box, though, is still there. Thinking outside the box means you’ve taken a step in the right direction…but only a step. The gravity of the box still acts as an anchor to weigh down any thoughts that might take flight. Even outside the box, a large enough box still blocks your view of some things.
The Box: depth where there is none
Let’s take a quick, but related, philosophical side trip. Jean-Jaques Rousseau (18th century “French” philosopher) touched on the idea of our “box” when he said that people in Western society (any democratic or timocratic society for that matter) tend to be empty mirrors that reflect off each other.
What he meant was that people who don’t have ideas of their own look to reflect, intentionally or not, the ideas of others. They are mirrors that simply regurgitate “the other” (much like standardized testing is a regurgitation of the learning students receive in class). If you reflect or chase after other’s approval or praise (the box) you can never escape its influence. It still frames your thoughts even as you claim to be “outside” it.
If you have an entire society of mirrors reflecting off each other there is an illusion of depth, where there is none.
Think of your typical standardized test driven classroom where the teacher ONLY teaches to the test. The most successful students in that class tend to be the ones who can replicate what their teacher has said. Information thrown out the day or the week before that moment is either jotted down in notes or memorized by the students and thrown back at the teacher in a slightly different form. The teacher validates the student simply for projecting a reflection back at them. Meanwhile, the rest of the class writes down the “correct” answer. They are swayed into thinking an intellectual depth was demonstrated when, in fact, there was none. The “smart” kid was likely not challenged. They simply repeated what the teacher had previously said & was rewarded for it! Where is the real depth?
An example, look at the image below. A girl positions herself between several mirrors. The light bouncing the same image from different angles to and fro. A simpleton might assume that the room is bigger than it really is or that there are more people in attendance than there really are. Depth is perceived, where there is none.
That depth seems to exist because the other students aren’t replicating the teacher’s thoughts the “right” way. A few “get it” and many don’t quite understand. The many have failed at some task so a perceived need for work is noted. The class moves in the direction of this pointless goal. Bam! Educational depth has been produced out of a very flat classroom.
The Box Cycle
There is a tendency for calls of “outside the box” thinking to happen in aging social/political groups.
A force or event draws people of a like mind together. Before the box forms, there’s a flurry of ideas, plans, hopes and so on that energize the new group/movement. Through trial & error the ideas best adapted for the conditions that created the group are accepted, normalized, and become the foundation of the “box”. Over time, extensions and adaptations of the original “box rules” stack one on top of another. As long as there isn’t too much tumult in the system, the box works so effectively that it seems invisible.
The problem becomes evident when something disrupts the status-quo. A disruption forces participants to initially use old ideas and resources to patch the new problem. When this fails, they begin looking for ideas “outside the box”. Outside of the box, though, is often a reflection or regurgitation of what was in the box (I’m thinking of one standardized test replacing another one). One must put “the box” in the rear view mirror and watch it disappear to get good enough vantage point to start all over.
“No box thinking” or, as Nietzsche put it, “no horizon” thinking requires a leaving behind of old ways to start all over. This is difficult but necessary, especially as it relates to today’s approach to education.
If you’ve read my previous post on how every student is now a port city, you’ll know that handheld devices and 24-7 access to any information any where had DESTROYED any illusion that the teacher should be the absolute expert in the classroom. Students can now see inside boxes that we didn’t even know existed. They have access to the best and worst humanity can offer. Handing out packets of papers to get them ready for a really tough series of multiple choice tests does nothing to prepare them for a future where the iPhone5 will be a relic and a joke.
How do we attain goals without relying on old systems?
The focus should be on student choice activities as they are fleshed out by the skills developed in and out of the classroom. This is not to say that students should never memorize facts. We all operate on memorized facts (from driving our cars, to following certain people on Twitter, to using facts as common ground for new relationships). Facts, though, should not be emphasized over general concepts and skills. This emphasis betrays the weaknesses of the old way.
To avoid our “new thinking” from eventually becoming the “new box” it is helpful to place the goal beyond reach. We can find this act with the Declaration of Independence’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and Plato’s many writings that the Truth exists but is beyond immediate perception.
No Box Thinking requires a commitment to accept the truth from any direction. NBT requires the participant to see nearly any resource as useful in the classroom to meet the need of the goal. Above all else, NBT, for it to be faithful to the great potential it offers, requires participants to let students project “who they are meant to be” as opposed to reflect what the teacher thinks they are.