What’s outside the box?


Recently I took part in a workshop on professional skills. You know, the one where we are told that we need to equip our students with 21st century skills. When we had to suggest what skills students will need to be successful in their professional career, the statement ‘out of the box thinking’ appeared prominently in the word cloud. It got me thinking.

The first one to suggest we need to think out of the box was psychologist J.P. Guilford in the 1970’s. He used the famous exercise of connecting nine dots with four lines to highlight a mental blockage which does not allow us to look ‘outside the box’. Sure enough this simple question was picked up by many HR officers hoping to filter out the more creative future employees from the rest. The practice of confronting candidates for a job with increasingly complicated and elaborate logical question was born.

Out of the box thinking (OOTBT) seems to have attained a celebrity status among personal traits. Being able to think out of the box puts you on par with Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, but if you scratch the surface a little bit you see that its not so obvious that OOTBT is a desirable personality trait. Even more so for students studying engineering who need to be able to perform highly sophisticated and accurate design assignments where their only frame of reference is the proverbial ‘box’.

What is this box we are talking about? And who determines what should be inside it and what not. Is this box the same for electrical engineers and industrial designers? Should designers spend more time out of the box than engineers and can we even train students to be OOTBT’ers? The more you think about the box the vaguer it becomes…

We may even concern ourselves with the question: Is it useful to ask all our student to think outside the box? What does it imply for those who are very happy being inside the box and may end up doubting their skills since they are always simply doing what is asked of them? And are the future employers of our students waiting for all these OOTBT’ers?

Creativity is a very valuable personal trait. Some of our students are more creative than others. But on average most of them will become successful engineers in the industry without spending even a single day outside of the box. Let’s make sure we teach them how to fully exploit the inside of the box so that they can deploy all the important engineering skills they learned, and not worry them about life outside the box. There is more than enough to do inside the box, trust me, I am writing these lines from outside the box and it looks really full…

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