Destination: Outside the Box

August 28, 2009


Have you ever been in a brainstorming session when someone exhorts you to think “outside the box?” Don’t you cringe just a little? Or maybe, like me, you imagine putting that someone inside the box, securing it with an entire roll of strapping tape, and shipping it to a pre-industrial country.

Or maybe you’re not like me.

In any case, I now have a new (albeit begrudging) respect for that phrase. A recent study suggests that we just need to reinterpret it. “Outside the box” should refer, not to the location of our ideas, but to the location of us.

Scientists at Indiana University at Bloomington have demonstrated that spatial distance—real or perceived—from a problem can increase our creative ability to solve it. (Just check your latest copy of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology for the nitty-gritty or, if that isn’t handy, consult Scientific American’s Reader’s Digest version here.)

The scientists asked college kids to solve problems requiring creativity and insight. Problems were either open-ended (e.g., List as many modes of transportation as possible) or what I’d call brainteasers which had a single answer. An example of the latter:

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

Here comes the answer if you're ready for it: unravel the rope and tie the separate strands together.

[Personal aside: I’ll fess up that I didn’t get the solution, but when I shared the problem with my wife and 8-year-old daughter, they got it instantly. I simply assumed, Me stupid. But it turns out they had been weaving friendship bracelets most of the day and immediately saw the rope for what it was: a braid that could be unraveled. Now back to the study...]

Some of the college kids were told that the questions originated on campus and other kids were told that the questions originated in a distant location like Greece or a location just a few thousand miles away (and of course there was a control group that was told nothing because, you know, this is science). The upshot is that the group that associated the problems with distance did notably better at finding or enumerating creative solutions.

We think more creatively when we have geographical—or even psychological—distance from a task we’re trying to solve; in other words, when we locate ourselves outside the box, whether it’s a cubicle, conference room, or headspace.

And if that’s true, then it’s true for students and their classroom “box.” So how does a teacher create distance for creativity? I think some teachers do this intuitively when they use new venues to teach (“Math class is in the gym today!”) or wallpaper their rooms with a travelogue of posters. Perhaps it would help to play Hawaiian slack key guitar in the background while students work (I’ve done this for myself—I thought it was just a reminder that I’d rather be on vacation, but it turns out I was stimulating creativity. Mahalo, Science!)

Technology offers even more salient ways. Students’ global awareness is already increasing with the ease of access to media and communication across borders, so it’s not a big step to get them interacting real-time with teachers and students in other states—posing questions, brainstorming, and problem-solving via video or text. Or interacting asynchronously across numerous time zones via collaborative Web applications.

I wonder if students could work an entire lesson remotely via mobile devices?

There is a caution against encouraging this kind of distance, though. The day may come when students are told to think outside the box and they respond the same way I would: by saying, that’s a great idea. And leaving.