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What box?

I love it when seemingly disconnected ideas converge.  When this happens, I walk away with new clarity and new purpose.

A casual conversation in the airport this week sparked my latest convergence of ideas about boxes.

Here’s what happened:

I discovered a new and very different place to get a bite in Philly International–a little wine and snack spot that served both food and flights (three tastes of somehow connected wines).  This was a real change from the food court between B and C Terminals.

The host seated me next to another woman who appeared as engaged with her laptop as I was about to be.  She broke the ice.  We began to chat.

Before long, we began to talk as good girlfriends do.  Quin is fascinating a powerful businesswoman in the beverage industry whose first clear memory was being placed in a helicoptor during the 1975 Vietnam airlift.

As we got to know each other better and I heard about her plans for new markets,  I said to her, "It seems that we both like to think outside of the box."

Her response continues to resonate with me. 

"What box?"

What box indeed!  Truly creative thinking has no bounds.

As the week passed, I was able to connect the idea of freer thinking, and less-than-free thinking, with nearly everything happening around me.  For instance . . .

Incident #1:
These days, I am doing a series of keynotes using the story of Pandora as a theme.  In short, the presentation advocates thinking about learning as taking risks and opening boxes.  Keeping boxes closed is antithetical to real learning. Those 2.0 tools I find uses for nearly every day require risk-taking and, of course, a little hope. 

Everytime I present, no matter how effective I think I am, a portion of the audience is convinced that the boxes that are closed in their schools and districts will remain closed no matter what. Often these folk sit together in groups waiting for me to finish.  Instead of asking how, they say, yeah but

If you believe that access to the new tools for information and communication are both equity and intellectual freedom issues, you cannot say yeah but.  You need to invent solutions.  You need to see opportunities, not obstacles. You need to find ways to get to yes. You need to figure out a way, any way, to open boxes that will enhance communication, knowledge building, learning.

Incident #2:
That day-long database training I endured this week (and blogged about Thursday) was a clear example of boxed thinking.  The folks presenting the workshop were not thinking about their audience.

I’ve been ranting about our databases’ low profile for practically forever.  How do we promote the magic of these resources to people who always begin in Google? 

In my chats with teachers and administrators and parents and everyday citizens, I am shocked by how few of know about their state-purchased databases.  So what struck me as particularly odd during the training session was the choice of postcards as the strategy to promote our subscription databases.  Postcards to stick in teachers’ and administrators’ mailboxes. 

Postcards won’t get the message across. We need something far sexier.  We need a whole different channel. A new box entirely. This sparked me into thinking about how I might help to get the message out to a far wider audience.  I am inspired and I promise to keep you posted on this front!

Incident #3:
An English class was working on their presentations in the library yesterday.  I cringed.  I saw templated thought on each and every screen I passed.  This group of seniors had so far escaped our PowerPoint reform efforts of last year.  When I spoke to their teacher (new this year to our program) she encouraged me and my colleague, tech coach Ken, to talk to the group, to help stop the insanity

Because the students were reading Candide, they were exploring the writings and philosophies of Voltaire, Leibniz, and Pope.  But each group’s looked exactly alike. This typical slide displayed the name of the writer as the title, a picture of the subject in a box on the left, and three or four bullet points offering biographical facts. 

In the middle of the library floor, we stopped everything. We told them they were to start from scratch.

When we asked the students who their slides were for, they responded honestly that the slides were for them.  We asked them who the slides should be for.  That prompt alone began to open some of their boxes.

We discussed effective slide design and told them we were now banning bullet points, templates, and clipart.  We discussed the benefits of finding and using powerful, evocative images and selecting words with impact.

We also discussed effective speaking.  When I asked them what they knew about rhetorical devices, they looked confused. After some prompting, they came up with humor and questions and anecdotes.

I walked over to the Voltaire presentation group and proposed what I thought might be a box-freeing question. 

I asked the students how they might fill in the blank: Voltaire was the ________ of his time

Blank stares.  Even after the recommended pedagogical two-minute wait. 

My suggestion of Bill Maher was greeted with more blank stares–they’d never heard of him.  But Jon Stewart seemed to evoke some ahas.

I asked them what it was I was doing.  They said it was an analogy, a comparison, a simile.  I said yes and that you could absolutely use this strategy in presentations to help an audience develop context.

It seemed as if our students needed permission to use such devices outside of analyzing them in some great author’s writing or puzzling over them for a multiple choice exam. 

Had we taught the life out of literary and rhetorical devices? 

We’re hoping the revised presentations show no evidence of templates or boxes.

Incident #4:
I had breakfast with my buddy Sue this morning.  She teaches in a nearby district, focusing on helping learners begin on career paths.  Sue has been discussing the current economic crisis with her students who seem worried and confused. Sue told her students that this is the perfect opportunity to rethink their own futures, to learn whatever they could to invent the type of career solution that is likely to be valued five years down the road. Sue always inspires me.

Incident #5:
I shared all these incidents with my husband a little later in the morning.

He brought me back to Voltaire, perhaps the Enlightenment’s ultimate out-of-the-box guy. (BTW, Bernstein’s Candide on Broadway was one of our early official dates.)  Voltaire’s power, according to Dennis, was that he could actually see a bigger picture of his world and its restrictive social institutions.  His talent–that he could show us what the box looks like.

You can’t understand thinking outside the box, or what box thinking is, until you begin to recognize the box

Do you have to see the box to be able to ask, What box?

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza



    OMG I couldn’t agree me…wish I had the answer. Im still trying to work on a few adults in leadership roles that I know need to TOTB (think outside the box). I had a friend today who was attending a Saturday workshop, and because I knew the presenter, I encouraged her to carry a lot to do–or the KMN ppts would do her in very early in the day(KMN ppt = “kill me now” with bullet ridden ppts.) She txt’d me around 10 with the TY for advice b/c the KMN was definitely going to be nonstop all day. Sigh.

  2. Diane Cordell says:

    O.K. we want to be outside of boxes. Is there anything we want to be inside or part of: a chain, a clan, a movement, a wave? How and to whom would we like to be connected? When, and in what manner, do we need to be solitary?

  3. Hi – Check out the work literacy Ning that is hosting an online course on Web 2.0 tools: Something you may like to share with your readers.

  4. I would love, love, love to hear more and read more from you about this Joyce. I don’t say “yeah but” but I need more “hows”. Thanks for your work.

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