My 6-year-old son has show-and-tell at school every Friday. The night before his most recent presetation, I asked him what he wanted to bring to school. He simply said, “Hmmm….I don’t know!” and shrugged his shoulders, waiting for me to give him something he could use.
It was then that my improvement genes went into hyperdrive, not to mention my parenting genes, too.
“Well, let’s just come up with some ideas.” I told him. “You know, just some brainstorming.”
“Umm…geee, I – I really just can’t think of anything.”
“Really??” I said, “you have no thoughts at all??”
“Well, I could bring a book – but that’s not very exciting. Or I could bring my toy gun, but I don’t think they’d want that at school. Maybe I could wear my Halloween costume, but that would take too long.”
So, right then and there I realized I had stumbled upon something that makes change and improvement – organizational or individual, so difficult – our need to get to the answer by appearing smart, and the resulting self-censoring that goes along with it. That mindset is ingrained deeply, and it’s an element of human nature that has to be overcome in order for innovative problem solving to occur.
“Let’s just try and come up with ideas and not say why they won’t work, buddy. Let’s take what you just thought of and see what else it makes us think of.”
He wasn’t sure what I mean, so I demonstrated. I looked around his room, and I said, “How about a stuffed animal, or an action figure, or a book, or a telescope, or the bed, or maybe the spiderman poster, or…..”
He interrupted me. “Dad, I can’t bring the whole wall!”
So, obviously I wasn’t getting through just yet. I told him that I know we can’t bring the wall, but maybe if I mention what’s on the wall, it will elad us to another idea, and then another, and then another. “All we need are some ideas right now, not answers. Once we have a bunch of ideas, maybe we can pick out the best answer?”
I still don’t think he understood, but at least he was willing to go along with it now. “I want it to be something exciting, Dad.”
Now we are getting somewhere. Looking at his collection of stuffed animals I said, “What if we bring an elephant…..or a horse? How about a frog and a snake??!”
“How in the world do we do that??” he said.
And that’s when I knew I had turned him. He stopped saying that something seemingly impossible couldn’t be done – and started asking how it could be done. Unlocking that bit of creativity, and developing that sort of understanding, is what education should be all about. It’s not demonstrating your intelligence by eliminating the possibilities, it’s in determining how to make them a reality.
Ultimately, we returned to his desire to have something exciting. I suggested bringing a book, but he told me that books aren’t very exciting. “Oh, really?” I said, “What if the book was about superheroes, action figures, and had flashing lights in it?”
“Well, yeah – that would be pretty cool!” he said. So, I pointed him to a pop-up book he received last christmas. It was a collection of DC Comics characters, all in a 3-inch thick pop-up book, with a working bat signal.
The whole episode was just another reminder of the importance of teaching people how to develop answers, rather than directing them to the answer, and – as is usually the case – a very good answer to the problem at hand was right in front of us the whole time.