Shoes made from recycled plastic, apps that crowd-source live traffic updates, adhesive hooks that don’t damage walls… These are just a few examples of innovations that have improved the way we live. Many of these solutions are the result of creative thinking or ‘out-of-the-box thinking’, as we like to call it. It’s the kind of thinking that helps us reimagine our world and build the future we want, today.
The potential that comes with exercising out-of-the-box thinking applies across industries, and education is no exception.
Secondary school students often find it challenging to concentrate and learn the concepts behind complex subjects such as physics, add-maths, chemistry, and biology. Many of them would rather be doing fun activities such as gaming, active sports, or delving into the world of fantasy through movies and books.
To tackle this, college students from The One Academy (TOA) showcased their capacity to think out of the box at Leaps of Knowledge 2022. They designed a way for secondary school students to learn science and maths through physical movement and gamification. A biology lesson on the stages of cell division could be better understood when students have to physically move their limbs to trigger a match for chromosomes on a screen. A lesson on quadratic functions comes to life when players roleplay as mages, tasked to restore balance in the universe using parabolic magic spells that influence the shape of a parabola. By thinking out of the box, TOA students combined fun and learning into a unified experience.
As you can see, anyone can innovate and make an impact when they think out of the box.
As educators who are already making an impact everyday, just imagine how much more we can do for our students when we exercise out-of-the-box thinking and include them in the process.
This starts with practice.
There are many thinking methods that we can use to train ourselves and our students to think differently. Thinking out of the box uses a combination of a few. Here are three that we’ll focus on and explore how they might be applied in the context of reimagining education. As you read, think about how you might apply these methods to create new learning experiences with your students.
What it is: Systems thinking is a way of recognising how things are interconnected by understanding how events or things influence each other and work as a combination of relationships that make up a whole, rather than seeing them as separate parts.
How it helps: Systems thinking helps students understand that we are all interconnected and interdependent on natural systems. This can develop their sense of agency - knowing they have power to affect change on themselves and the world around them.
Reimagining education: How can students develop better habits with trash? To help students understand how small habits affect the whole, you could get them to create a systems diagram that maps out how a piece of misplaced trash can affect collective habits, the school environment, and various people in it. Get them to try replacing different parts of the diagram with other actions and see how the scenario may change and then discuss how they would feel about experiencing these changes as a student in the school.
Practice: Here is a great resource and a few classroom activities that you and your students can do together to practise systems thinking.
What it is: Divergent thinking is a method that uses flexibility and originality to explore as many solutions as possible for a specific problem or issue. It allows you to branch out from one idea to the next.
How it helps: Divergent thinking can help students become more open-minded, which is a useful social-emotional skill for processing new information, managing conflict, and maintaining healthy relationships.
Reimagining education: How can inclusivity in the classroom be improved? Practise divergent thinking as a class through a collaborative storytelling activity. You can give your students the task of thinking how their classroom culture can allow every classmate to feel seen, heard, and enjoy school life. Start the story with a fictional student (Joe) who comes to school on his first day. Each student gets to add to the story, one line at a time, as they verbalise how Joe might go through the events of a typical school day. This method of divergent thinking as a group allows every student to contribute a different idea of Joe’s ideal day, which collectively shows the group how different perspectives can lead to more creative solutions.
Practice: Try these other fun games and activities that foster divergent thinking.
What it is: Coined by the great psychologist Edward De Bono, lateral thinking is a method of problem-solving that uses an indirect approach. Unlike linear thinking, lateral thinking does not solely rely on logic. Instead it intentionally chooses the unexpected as solutions to problems.
Take this scenario for example: There are six eggs in a basket. Six people take one egg each. Yet one egg is still left in the basket. How is this possible? Lateral thinking will suggest that one person out of the six, took the last egg with the basket - leaving the egg in the basket.
How it helps: Lateral thinking helps students come up with creative solutions to seemingly impossible problems like the one above. It helps them exercise their imagination and channel it towards something that matters.
Reimagining education: How can difficult subjects be learned in a more effective and enjoyable way? Now that’s a puzzle that might be a good real-world exercise in lateral thinking. What if maths equations didn’t need to be learned through sheer memorisation? How else could you get yourself from the point of not knowing, to knowing them by heart?
This is similar to how the TOA students came up with their ideas. Knowing that secondary school students would easily choose “play” over difficult lessons, a lateral-thinking question they might have asked is: What if “play” becomes the lesson and not the distraction?
Practice: Here are some tools that support group lateral thinking: Figure storming, Six Thinking Hats, and these puzzles.
We hope these creative thinking methods have inspired some classroom activity ideas for you. If learning to think out of the box is something completely new for your students, you can start slowly by incorporating some of these activities into your lessons as ice-breakers or games. Once your students are familiar with these go-to thinking patterns, you can encourage them to practise them to improve real-life school problems together as a class. Save this article as a resource for easy reference and share it with other teachers too.
Meanwhile, as we encourage thinking out of the box to build the future, it's important that we also take time to understand how teachers currently feel in the present, about embracing new ways of teaching.