'Why some lateral blue-sky thinking outside of the box will flex your students’ creative and problem-solving muscles'

Paul Woodward
13th March 2018 at 16:10

In the past, creativity was something judged by the quality of paintings, sculptures, etc, or in the thoughts of philosophers. In modern society, creativity is almost an expectation and it is becoming increasingly difficult to come up with truly original ideas. Just take a look at much of the pop music of today – you'll hear sample riffs from old songs, if they've not been remade entirely. We have been very creative with just 12 notes for thousands of years, but there’s only so much you can do and I’m starting to hear familiar tunes in 'original' pop music.

As technology has matured, so have approaches to creative thinking. Academics and theorists have developed new ‘ways’ of thinking – but are they really new or just alternative ways of getting the old creative juices flowing? I certainly don’t think Leonardo DaVinci struggled to ‘think outside of the box’ back in the 1700s, nor the Egyptians or Mayans.

However, this is not an attempt to refute their relevance, it’s quite the opposite. We all have students who certainly struggle to get the ‘creative juices flowing’ so perhaps some of these will prove very useful.

Lateral thinking

I start each GCSE and A-level course with a session on lateral thinking. Not so much as an icebreaker, but to show how easy it is to change perceptions and ways of looking at things as a problem-solving exercise. "Lateral thinking" is a term coined by Edward De Bono in 1967, which you are free to tell your students – just please don’t use my terrible joke: "Not de Bono from de U2." How many blank faces have I seen after telling that one…?

Lateral thinking is simply a way of challenging how we perceive things, be those physical things or problems to be solved by breaking free of current thinking patterns and opening the mind to new possibilities. I can't say for sure that it opened up the minds of young learners but I did notice that those who were responsive to the concept were amongst the more successful students in D&T and those who went on to study at A level. Very much a transferable skill across a range of subjects, too, and, in many ways, it's as complex and deep as it is simple...if that makes any sense at all. 

Thinking outside of the box

A commonly used (and misused) term based on an idea that the 'box' contains limitations and boundaries and not just the walls themselves. By removing such barriers to creative thought and to think unconventionally or from a new perspective, a different approach can be taken towards problem-solving and creativity. It can also be that lateral thinking is used in this approach; they are not mutually exclusive.

Blue sky thinking

This phrase refers to creative ideas not limited by current thinking or beliefs. You can then be free from conventional thought and consider all creative possibilities without constraint hence looking at a clear blue sky with no distractions to interrupt the creative thinking process. An optimistic approach that enthusiastically asks 'can we?' rather than looking for reasons 'we can't'...While industrial design needs to be grounded in reality for the outcome to be commercially viable, it's this kind of thinking, which students have the luxury to explore, that can plant the seeds of true creative innovation.

Escaping vertical logic

This asks you to challenge what you already know of logic processes and question if something can be done differently. At its very essence, it challenges what you know of how things work. If you place a small piece of metal on the surface of water, it will sink. Therefore, anything larger would surely sink, too. Try to make a small piece of metal fly and it doesn’t: so how would several hundred tonnes get off the ground? If concepts had not been questioned, would planes, boats or spaceships ever have been invented? Just be careful with this, as inviting already precocious teenagers to challenge what they are told might result in something less productive than what you were hoping for. However, if you get the time take a look at vertical and horizontal logic tables.

Some of these are best suited to more-able, or older pupils, but it’s still important to challenge conventions in the right context as well as inspiring creativity through alternative ways of tackling a problem or approaching a project. After all, we don’t want to go back to making bird boxes, do we?

Of the top ten skills considered necessary for the workforce of the future, the top three are complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. With the non-exam assessment (NEA) time being shorter than the previous controlled assessment (CA) but with the additional need for iterative design and the expectations of more innovative prototypes, perhaps now is a good time to try expanding the minds of our students with a few of these methods as early as possible in their creative education.



Paul has taught and led Design and Technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator and D&T consultant. Having taken a break from teaching to work in the design industry, he recently returned to education to lead a Creative Arts faculty.