Thinking outside the box, in another box

“You think outside the box.”
“Yea, in a different box.”

That’s one of my favourite and more memorable quoted exchanges because it’s got a big sense of truth running through it. Even when we start out with thinking outside the box, we eventually end up thinking inside a different box.

Such is the case with education sometimes. When it seems like traditional classroom methods of feeding are old and tired and the knowledge content is not getting through to the students, we look for different ways to do things. Differentiate! People learn differently! And so we include a variety of activities to make sure we cater to every learning style. When a particular activity proves effective, we are tempted to do it that way for the rest of time.

Such was the case of thinking outside the box when a colourful Hacky Sack ball was introduced to a class that had a lot of perennially talkative and disruptive students one day. They were taught some vocabulary with collocations (words that are commonly used together) and told that they would need it later for a game. (Gamifying the lesson.) The pre-learning part went as usual, with a few students involved and others distracted and distracting as always. As the game was introduced bit by bit, students were split into teams, points were put on the line, and time limits were added, the class got more and more involved. Those who usually couldn’t care less could literally not care less than they did, and were forced, under the pressure of peering peer eyes, to care more. Say a verb, throw the ball to someone on the other team, and they have to give a collocation for that verb within 5 counts, or your team gets a point. Those who usually cared shone. It was a positive experience for the whole class, lasted a good 45 minutes, and helped everyone consolidate their knowledge, this little vocabulary ball game.

Such was the case of thinking in a different box when a decision was cursorily made to use the ball game idea for another class of fun but studious students. While these students liked fun and games too, they were rather studious and supportive of each other, and all knew their target phrasal verbs (verbs consisting of two or three words) quite well after the first exposure and didn’t really want to make each other squirm to remember. As a result, the competitive edge of the game never took off. Back to lecturing.

Thinking outside the box on one, two, or several occasions does not quite give the benefits of flexibility and creative problem solving we need on a rather constant basis. Improvisation is growing on me, despite my having always wanted to play musical scores exactly as they were. That desire to play every note correctly was so super strong and accusing that it usually caused me to play several notes wrong. It was when I reached that sweet spot of familiarity with a song such that I could attempt it with a Live And Let Die sort of open-minded candour, taking risks to express the music and taking hiccups as they came – it was then that I could actually play the song and have it be sublime.

Perhaps a better image of that adventurous innovation would be having the gumption to go off the beaten path whenever it seems like it might be a good idea. Across the log. Hopping the stones across the stream. Back straight and sideways along the rocky ledge. Through the bushes. Sometimes it’ll take a little failure, rejection, or contempt to motivate you via some angry and frustrated determination. A spice of, “Oh yea?” to multiply your energy and risk-taking tendencies. Crashing through the side trails could get you stung by some nettle, scraped by some prickles, or lost for a short while, but it’s pretty much always worth the while.

Extrapolating a little at the end here, I think Christians can tend to think everything is the sign from God they think it is, when more realistically, some things are a sign. The latter view cools the tabloids down a little and gives you room to trust God step by step. Instead of thinking outside the box of self-direction but only in the box of perceived God-directed self-direction, we can go off the beaten trail of doing what the people around you are doing just because they’re doing it. Live out the uniqueness you’ve been created with when it’s that time, and join the multitudes and the throng in the united body of Christ when it’s time for that.

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