Out of the Box

I have taken a liking to an expression that frequently gets tossed about. I am referring to the one that tells us to "think outside of the box". I often hear this offered as a suggestion when faced with seeking solutions to issues that have been hindering progress and the current practices are no longer effective. Educators in today's American public education systems are often faced with the challenges of trying to solve age-old problems such as high failure rate, high dropout rate, low test scores, poor attendance, educational apathy, as well as a myriad of other issues. It is helpful to think outside the box because we obviously need new ways to look at old problems since some of these old problems just hang on forever and the old strategies and old ways of thinking are not solving them. To me, thinking outside the box means to gain a new vision by stepping away from the issue far enough so you can see as much as possible and from as many different angles as possible. I believe it also means to challenge everything, question everything including your own conclusions, and to look through a bigger straw. We like to deny that we look at life through a straw, but if we are honest, I believe we can admit that some of us view our milieu through very thin straws, meaning we only see a dot of life in front of us, while others view through larger diameter straws and see a wider view, yet still with some peripheral limitations. In this sense, asking one to use a wider straw is less offensive than saying to completely quit looking at life through a straw.

In this same context, I like to encourage my students to think in a larger caliber, or think bigger thoughts. Regrettably, there is not much encouragement or reward for public educators to foster independent thinking in their students. In fact, if the classroom is quiet, and the students are glued to their chairs with their textbooks open and a pen or pencil is moving, "good" education is happening. Those "good" educators receive high marks on their evaluations and are considered the reliable core of solid education. "Good" educators are encouraged to have lesson plans loaded with edubabble on hand to show their administrators that they are organized and that the students are on task. So in true practice, though teachers are told to think outside their boxes in meetings and workshops, boxed-in thinking is fostered in the classroom. I have found that for survival purposes I keep some "good"-looking lesson plans on hand, I keep my students as busy as I can with meaningful learning activities, and I teach or encourage as much out of the box thinking as possible. You can liken this to "coloring outside the lines" thinking as well. I know that the outside the lines business is very controversial so we probably should not visit that issue.

The course I teach is titled Drafting and Design. We use board drafting (pencil and paper) practices as well as computer-assisted drafting (CAD). One issue I face with my architectural design students is they tend to think and design in terms of boxes. Okay, a house can be shaped boxlike and be legitimately considered a well-designed house. I have students, however, who just happen to make their freely designed house the exact scaled size of the paper I give them to draw on. It is not uncommon while critiquing a student's project to ask why two rooms at one end of their house are so small only to hear that they ran out of paper. Sometimes I make the radical move of taking another sheet of paper and taping it to the first sheet. "Can you do that?" I am asked. "Yes, and I just did." My observation is that in the name of efficiency our educational systems have put our children into boxes and have made them afraid or unable to think their way out.

Earlier this past week, I happened to have a copy of the questions the 9-11 Family Steering Committee wants to ask President Bush. This is the committee that had a hard time getting certain people to face them due to alleged national security issues. You may recall that Condoleezza Rice did eventually face the committee and gave her frowny-faced, bad hair day responses. But we are told that George W and Dick Cheney gave their responses in a closed session where we are also told no records were taken. I believe I read that George did not sit on Cheney's lap and that Cheney did not make George's mouth go up and down as he spoke but I can't find that report so I won't say for sure that George spoke unassisted. Too snotty? Okay, back into the box I go.

My copy of the questions was on my desk at the high school where I teach and a student happened to see them. She has been keenly interested in following the Iraq war and the terrorism-related news and we have had a number of conversations on these topics. This student, though taking her fourth year in my design program, sees herself as a journalist one day. I think she has the makings of a successful writer. I know she has excellent vision. I would also like to take partial credit for encouraging her to think outside of the box. She asked if she could read the Steering Committee's questions. I gave them to her confident that I could find an appropriate educational objective that would provide a stamp of approval if I needed to validate this classroom activity in a drafting class.

Every American needs to look at the Steering Committee's questions. In fact, everyone who intends to vote this November needs to read the questions and then re-read them a few dozen times before voting. My student took the questions to her seat to read and returned later with an expression on her face that told me a bright light bulb had flashed. She sat down and said two words that reflect out of the box, outside the lines, and over the edge, maximum caliber thinking: "He knew!" I got goose bumps all over me because I wanted to say that was unthinkable but the conclusion fit so perfectly that I could barely speak. How could an American even imagine that our own president was a party to and possibly involved in the single most devastating attack ever against civilian American citizens? After a momentary brain shutdown I was able to say to her that she had made a profound conclusion — one that I hoped was inaccurate.

After three days to think about my student's conclusion, I find myself standing outside my box, looking through the fattest straw I can find, and ignoring all lines of limitation. I keep going over the questions but I hear that young, innocent voice saying those two words and I am astonished to say that they fit. As you read and re-read the Steering Committee's questions, try applying "he knew" to your conclusions.

(It appears that the list of questions has grown to 39 as of May 30, 2004.)

June 4, 2004