Saturday, November 24, 2012

# 25 Thinking Inside the Box

    I'm flipping through the channels tonight and I stop at an old episode of the 1960s, Star Trek. I've never been a big fan, but always admired the very resourceful Captain Kirk. In this episode, he is stuck in a room with two crew members and no obvious escape route. His two colleagues look everywhere for a solution to the problem and give up, resigning themselves to certain death. In response to their acceptance of defeat Captain Kirk scans the room and says, "There MUST be a way out of here!" Of course, he does think of a solution to the insurmountable problem, and he succeeds, saving his crew and himself.

   Most people love characters who have the unique ability to confront a problem with confidence and create a solution in spite of terrible odds. James Bond, MacGyver, The A-team, even comedic characters like Inspector Clouseau and Maxwell Smart, all have an ability to solve impossible problems, always with something inventive, and just in the nick of time. It causes me to wonder why we admired these characters so much. 

   It seems to be human nature to be resistant to change. Even when the changes are good for us, just the thought of an altercation with a routine can throw many people into a tail spin. I suppose it's the battle with the unknown that we fear more than the change itself. Even people who are conditioned to cope with constant change will likely have difficulty dealing with thoughts of a less eventful life. I suspect, the constant struggle we have with change starts with toilet training and doesn't stop until we are on death's door; someone is always at the ready, telling us to think in a different direction.

   Educational institutions are similar to most large publicly funded organizations in that there is always a movement going on somewhere to 'save' money. Often policies seem to come down a bureaucratic pipe to the classroom which intuitively appear detached from the realities of the job. Consequently, it is no wonder that teachers often wonder Why?. To add to the confusion a smell test fail sales pitch about improving the educational experience for the children is usually presented, but most of the time it seems to be about saving money.

   I appreciate that it must be a challenge for middle management to get teachers to buy in, jump on board, join the team, learn a paradigm shift or my favourite, the 1970s business cliche 'think outside the box', but often they seem to have missed the lesson on message delivery. Reluctance to swallow the hook is often greeted with you aren't a team player, difficult to get along with, and a few other cliches. Whenever I hear any of these tired devices I think,  pack your bags, we are going on a guilt trip!

   To their credit, they are just doing their jobs, but ironically, they seem to lack a creative knack for motivating people. There seems to be some confusion between thinking outside the box and just submitting to inadequately explained change.  For some reason, middle managers seem love to mimic the corporate world. I guess it's because we live in a world where corporations rule, so to gain credibility, it is always a good idea to at least pretend you are well versed in the ways of  the suits.

   Just to further clarify this idea, when people "think outside the box" they are approaching problems in new and innovative ways. Educational policy is rarely about doing things in new and innovative ways. In the corporate world it means, thinking of new ways to acquire an increased market share and profits on behalf of shareholders. Some examples of well known innovators who are successful at "thinking outside the box" are: Apple, Ikea and Dyson. Regardless of your feeling for their products, the innovative thinking they demonstrate is worthy of respect.

   Keep in mind that their way of thinking is different from just changing the direction of the way you conduct your business. For example, counting the number of olives in a jar and choosing to remove three in an effort to create more profit for less product is not innovative thinking, it's just crass commercialism. Sometimes, I sense there is a similarity between crass business practices and the education policies that seem to focus on increasing graduation rates at the price of product quality, (the student).

   As far as thinking outside of the box in the classroom goes, most good teachers are forced into doing this activity on a regular basis. Often it is the result of a lack of funding for a program, but there have been so many other pressures heaped onto the learning process over the years, from unique learning styles to severe behavioural problems, that thinking up new approaches to old strategies is a matter of survival. For example, you may have been assigned to teach a course where there are not enough books to accommodate all the students in a class, or the books themselves may be missing in action, or so outdated that the month you spend teaching it will be hell without a new approach. I had a professor in teacher's college who told me once to accept the fact that "every problem has a solution and every solution has a problem, the trick is to find the compromise."

   I'll give you a common example of being confronted with the pressure to think outside the box in the classroom. I can't tell you the number of times I have been in situations where I am about to start a class and discover, say, the in-focus bulb is burnt or a cable is missing, the power bar didn't meet inspection and was removed, but not replaced with the appropriate one. You spend time running around trying to find a solution, control your class, think of a replacement activity, the technician isn't in the school for two more days and he can't be found anyway. My brain is working so fast at thinking outside the box I don't even have time to think, Oh shit! Everything was working last time I used it!

    One time I planned to deliver a lesson on imagery to my grade eleven class. I plugged in the overhead, placed the acetate on the screen and started to teach. Suddenly, the overhead projector plug shorted out, popping the breaker, which was behind a locked door in the hall. There was no time to call the building super, so I decided to just read the notes and have the class copy them down. I started to read, they were bored and became restless, so I decided to sing the lesson to them, (I'm not kidding). That was entertaining, but they weren't absorbing much, and I don't know why, but some seemed annoyed with my pitch. So, I launched into my best weatherman voice for metaphors. I got to She floated down the hall.... and someone outside the room pulled the fire alarm. So, off we went to the parking lot. When we returned, I said, "Where were we?" and a student actually told me, not only where we were, but she remembered everything I said about metaphors! I kid you not reader, events like this happen regularly for classroom teachers. Captain Kirk has nothing on us!

    To conclude, recently, I went to visit a friend who has been in the hospital. We visited for a couple of hours and had as many cups of tea. At the end of our visit, I asked her for directions to the washroom. She directed me down the hall, "third door on the left". When I got into this bathroom I was greeted with a room, large enough to maneuver a wheel chair, and an odd looking toilet. There was some kind of apparatus fitted to the bowl. It had handles and what appeared to be a special seat which couldn't be lifted. I examined this thing for a good minute and couldn't figure out how to lift the seat. It reminded me of one of those toilet seats you use to train a child, just bigger. I couldn't couldn't figure it out and couldn't bring myself to submit changing my bladder relief routine. So, I decided to hold it until I got home.  Maybe it was the fact that I was being confronted with possible changes in own future, but I wasn't having any of it. This is one box I am willing to think outside of for now.