Thinking Differently – developing new ideas

“It’s the things people know … that ain’t so”,
Howard Armstrong, Inventor of FM Radio

What is it that allows people to come up with ideas outside the box?

When I ask teachers what do they see are the skills required for the 21st century some of their answers include
lateral thinking, risk-taking, problem solving, etc. So teachers are also interested in creating thinking that is “outside the box”.

Gregory Berns, in his latest book “Iconoclast”, addresses the world of people who create breakout ideas and distinguishes where they come from, how the brain often works against us and what we can do to seize the day.

Our brain is a physical organ that consumes energy and performs feats of astounding complexity. The brain has a fixed energy budget (around 40 watts) and it can’t demand more power when it needs to do something more powerful thus it has evolved to do what it does as efficiently as possible.

In its essence our brain is designed to:

  • make what is conscious … unconscious
  • take shortcuts

all in order to ensure that its energy usage remains within its budget. Inside of these two principles we discover humanity’s greatness … and its constraint. The greatness comes in the brain’s ability to adapt … its constraint comes in the shortcuts it takes to ensure that it remains within its energy budget.

I have two children and currently my 6 year old, Chiara, is learning to read. She began with looking at the pictures and interpreting what was happening on the page to tell the story. Bit by bit Chiara started to associate the words on the page with the pictures on the page. As she developed her sense of what the meanings behind the squiggles on the page meant I began to notice that she had created a bank of words in her head. Sometimes that bank of words were the actual words on the page and she reproduced them because it seemed right. Sometimes the word on the page … had similar letters to ones that she knew but it was a different word … and my wife and I corrected her. Bit by bit she is training her brain to recognise the words and attribute meaning to them from the context she is reading them in. Bit by bit the brain is making unconscious what is conscious.

Through repetition and correction Chiara is developing her reading skills. It was the same when you and I learnt to walk. It was the same when I learnt how to throw a discus during my years of competing in track and field athletics. It is the same in everything that we learn. We learn a skill or knowledge such that we can refer to it
automatically and unconciously. So that we don’t have to THINK!

But the problem with this is that the brain takes short cuts in developing our concepts of the world. Here is an optical version of this.

Kanizsa Triangle

Kanizsa’s triangle appears to indicate that there are 2 triangles in the centre. One that is “white” and one that is bound by the vertices in 3 corners. But … that is your brain making a shortcut. What is actually on the page is 3 pacman type symbols and 3 angles. Notice how difficult it is to just see those 6 figures without associating the two “triangles” with the figure.

Our brains take shortcuts all the time. It interprets the world and creates feelings, emotions, contexts, and
ideas from its shortcuts.

Paraphrasing Berns … when confronted with information streaming from the eyes the brain will interpret this information in the quickest and most efficient way possible (time is energy). The longer the brain spends performing some calculation, the more energy it consumes. This means it must draw on both past experience and any other source of information (such as what other people say) to make sense of what it is seeing.

This is why having inquiries and having the students question their ideas and contexts is so important. In a world that is changing exponentially (many of your current students will be going into jobs and careers that have not been invented yet) the individual who does not challenge their ideas and beliefs will be left behind.StreetOptical Illusion

If you want to develop new ideas and have students who think “outside the box” it will only occur in an environment that allows for that. Given what I wrote earlier, we must also have explicit teaching and rituals to embed knowledge and processes. However, the challenge I throw down to you today, and for the future, is

How are you creating an environment where your students challenge their own thinking?

If you are interested in joining a group of teachers developing 21st century skills register at

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