From Chapter 1 of “A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative” by Roger von Oech:
“Children enter school as question marks and come out as periods.”–Neil Postman, Educator
Much of our education system is geared toward teaching people to find “the right answer.” By the time the average person finishes college, he or she will have taken over 2,600 tests, quizzes, and exams. The “right answer” approach becomes deeply ingrained in our thinking. This may be fine for some mathematical problems where there is in fact only one right answer. The difficulty is that most of life isn’t this way. Life is ambiguous; there are many right answers–all depending on what you are looking for. But if you think there is only one right answer, then you’ll stop looking as soon as you find one.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher put a small dot on the blackboard. She asked the class what it was. A few seconds passed and then someone said, “A chalk dot on the blackboard.” The rest of the class seemed relieved that the obvious had been stated, and no one else had anything to say. “I’m surprised at you,” the teacher told the class. “I did the same exercise yesterday with a group of kindergartners, and they thought of fifty different things it could be: an owl’s eye, a cigar butt, the top of a telephone pole, a star, a pebble, a squashed bug, a rotten egg, and so on. They had their imaginations in high gear.”
In the ten year period between kindergarten and high school, not only had we learned how to find the right answer, we had also lost the ability to look for more than one right answer. We had learned how to be specific, but we had lost much of our imaginative power.
An elementary school teacher told me the following story about a colleague who had given her first graders a coloring assignment:
The instructions said: “On this sheet of paper, you will find an outline of a house, trees, flowers, clouds, and sky. Please color each with the appropriate colors.” One of the students, Patty, put a lot of work into her drawing. When she got it back, she was surprised to find a big black “X” on it. She asked the teacher for an explanation. “I gave you an ‘X’ because you didn’t follow the instructions. Grass is green not gray. The sky should be blue, not yellow as you have drawn it. Why didn’t you use the normal colors, Patty?”
Patty answered, “Because that’s how it looks to me when I get up early to watch the sunrise.”
The teacher had assumed that there was only one right answer. The practice of looking for the “one right answer” can have serious consequences in the way we think about and deal with problems. Most people don’t like problems, and when they encounter them, they usually react by taking hte first way out they can find–even if they solve the wrong problem. I can’t overstate the danger in this. If you have only one idea, you have only one course of action open to you, and this is quite risky in a world where flexibility is a requirement for survival.
An idea is like a musical note. In the same way that a musical note can only be understood in relation to other notes (either as part of a melody or a chord), an idea is best understood in the context of other ideas. If you have only one idea, you don’t have anything to compare it to. You don’t know its strengths and weaknesses.
For more effective thinking, we need different points of view. Otherwise we’ll get stuck looking at the same things and miss seeing things outside our focus.