Think Outside the Box

“Think outside the box” has become a way of asking people to be creative. The idiom is based on a psychological concept, functional fixedness:  Very simply, when we learn about something, the meaning and its first associations get stuck in our memories and prevent us from thinking about it differently. The experiment that proved this included observing whether participants would use an actual box in a new way.

Recently, Nicholas Kristof described great examples of thinking outside the box in his NY Times column on HeroRats: Three-foot long rats are being taught to sniff out mines in minefields resulting in detection that is twenty times faster and safer than humans. And, the same type of rats are being used to diagnose tuberculosis about one hundred times faster than humans.

While I’m amazed at what the rats can do, I’m more amazed that someone actually thought of doing this. Bart Weetjens, founder of Apopo, the non-profit that trains and disperses the rats, got the idea by connecting his experience with rats as pets to what he learned about gerbils used for detecting smells. Incredible, right?

For most of us, functional fixedness would have gotten in the way of creating HeroRats. If you learned that rats are harmful rodents, you probably wouldn’t think that they could be used to do good. Similarly, if you learned that detecting disease is done through lab tests, you wouldn’t think that using a non-technological solution is a better way to recognize it.

While functional fixedness can get in the way of new ideas, fear of risk-taking or just inexperience can keep us from acting on them. So if we want to encourage better ways of doing things, we need strategies to teach students that it’s okay to present something unconventional, to be creative.

In Finding a Place for Creative Assignments, Maryellen Weiner gives examples of three strategies in higher education courses: learner-centering the course; requiring a poem describing what students want to get out of a course; and having students present their reflections on the process of learning in the class.

I would like to add another strategy: freestyling. Freestyling is associated with rappers who build rhymes off of random words from the audience or in competition with each other. This is all done in real time; it’s instant free association and creativity. And it’s fun!

In class, the students are the audience. Suppose each student is asked to write a random word or phrase that seems to have nothing to do with the subject of the class on a piece of paper. The suggestions are put into a receptacle. Then groups or individuals each pick one out. They are given a specific amount of time to prepare a brief presentation (not in rhyme) connecting the chosen words to a general class study topic such as the Depression in US History or depression in Psychology or the Renaissance in Art History.

My hypothesis: This type of exchange will grease students’ inner wheels of creativity and lead to a lively, productive discussion. If you try it, let me know how it works out.