Thinking Outside the Box

In my last year of teaching, I set aside the standard curriculum at the start of every week and introduced what I called “Outside-the-Box Thinking.” Monday mornings began with a game or a challenge. I would have my students first work individually, and then after a certain period of time, collaboratively.

One such challenge was Make-a-Box Day. Upon arriving at school, half of the class found a small container of Play-Doh on their desk; while the other half found a small pile of toothpicks. Their goal was to make a box out of either Play-Doh or toothpicks. The classroom had to remain silent and sharing supplies was not allowed. Some of my Play-Doh kids quickly formed a small solid cube, while others patiently rolled their Play-Doh into a long, thin “snake” which they used to form the outline of a box. The students with the toothpicks completed their assignment in just a few seconds, making an outline of one or more boxes. When everyone was finished, we walked around the room silently admiring everybody’s handiwork.

The room erupted into cheers when the kids heard about the next step.

We formed teams: a Play-Doh student and a toothpick student.

The goal: to make a box.

There were no rules.

Talking with partners and borrowing ideas from other teams WAS allowed.

What did we end up with? One team made 10 small, solid boxes, ignoring their toothpicks. Another team used the Play-Doh to bind their toothpicks together in a 3-dimensional cube. A third team made Box Man, a person with a square head, square hands and square, box-like feet.  Some teams walked around to borrow other classmates’ ideas. After we wrote in our journals, we debriefed. Everybody agreed that creativity burst to the forefront when students could share supplies and ideas in an environment where there weren’t any hard-and-fast rules. Given the chance, most students seemed to discard the natural inclination to compete; instead, they took the time to listen, observe and build on each other’s ideas.

When Pamela posed the question, “Maybe we could have a schoolhouse in the backyard?” she started an out-of-the-box conversation about not only Natalie’s schooling, but learning in general. Collaborating with Bill, they paved the way for an unconventional solution to a conventional problem: How Can This Student Fall In Love With Learning?

Read our book The Schoolhouse Experiment: Reimagining School at Home and in the Classroom (available in our website shop) to be inspired by what is possible when thinking and learning are allowed to emerge from a one-size box.