Boxes Aren’t For Thinking

How do you innovate from inside the box?

“Think outside the box” is probably one of the most overused statements. No matter what the situation, or problem, inevitably someone will say, “We need to think outside the box.”

The problem with thinking outside the box is that leadership often wants to create a box to contain the thinking outside the box. In other words, think outside the box, but only insofar as the thinking stays within the organization’s predetermined box.

Today I had a meeting scheduled with a director at the San Diego Zoo to discuss an upcoming zoo-sponsored hackathon, and potential connections with K-12 education. In lieu of the traditional phone call introduction and conversation, we decided to meet at the zoo. And since it was a beautiful day, our meeting was a walk and talk around the zoo instead of inside the administration building.

Without the confines of the box, we found our conversation expanding beyond the original topic of discussion. Discussions of elephant emotions and giraffe spot patterns sparked conversations about augmented reality and wildlife conservation. We were able to dream big about ways to build student advocacy in to zoo fieldtrips while talking UX design and hackathons.

I walked away from the meeting with ideas and energy to pursue those ideas.

This freedom of time and space to connect with others, to engage in meaningful dialogue, and to reflect on possibilities is not often provided for educators. The box confines, and the box dictates, what should be thought about and when. Look at any PLC or meeting agenda and you’ll probably see something like this:

We want teachers to be innovative. We want schools to be transformative. But we don’t provide opportunities for that because we control the interactions. Topics are outlined, times are allotted, and thinking stays inside the box.

It used to be that teachers could go to conferences as a way to think outside the box (although in reality, they were just thinking inside a different box… but it was still outside their own box, so that was cool).

But now I’m seeing more and more districts and schools self-hosting their own professional development “mini-conferences” which are, effectively, keeping people in the box.

One of my favorite design thinking exercises is a premortem experience, in which you write about what could go wrong with a proposed solution.

Looking from a premortem lens, ask yourself, what would happen if we took the box away? What’s the worst that could happen if we asked teachers to go for a walk in the park with a colleague and talk? Or to visit a local business (or zoo) and walk and talk with someone there? If we removed the box, even for an hour, what might come of it?

Honestly, I can’t picture the world ending. But what I can picture are people being exposed to new ideas and information, and considering the implications for their teaching and learning.

If we want classroom learning to be relevant, and we want teachers to provide real-world connections, it can’t be done inside the box.

We need to build opportunities for educators to think freely, to wander open spaces, to connect with people they don’t get to connect with, and to think without agendized topics and time constraints, so that we can truly start to think outside the box about education.

3 Comments on “Boxes Aren’t For Thinking

  1. Exceptional blog and so very true! Thank you for sharing a personal example from your professional day that allowed you an opportunity to step “outside the box” and imagine new possibilities. Hopefully your experience will inspire more leaders of educational organizations to truly embrace new perspectives and ways of doing business.


  2. I believe Steve Jobs was a fan of going for a walk with people to get them outside of their environment and to open their eyes to possibilities that would otherwise be obscured with the days drudgeries.


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