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Beyond the box

We’ve all heard about thinking outside the box. How about thinking outside the bucket? What about thinking outside…

Outside the discipline?

Outside the medium?

How about opening your mind beyond the box?

In couple of recent classes I asked my students to show me music. I did’t want an essay – did’t want to have words. I want them to experience music in another way, and then to be able to recognise and communicate this to others.


Because we are all unique. I will never really know you, I cannot be a spectator inside your experience, your mind. For me that means that as a teacher I will never really know my students or as a performer, my audience, but if I can learn to communicate and experience in different ways, then perhaps I will have more of a chance of connecting. –or at least of gaining and giving a window into that communication.

I suppose it stems from a constructivist approach to learning, that we do and the more different ways you do something, the more likely it is to stick and sink in:

Write it. Read it. Speak it. Hear it. Feel it. Touch it. Taste it

(ok that is going too far for most academic subjects. We would all prefer not to eat our words… unless written on rice paper and then that is a totally fun exercise).

The idea of doing those things gives a holistic experience and often opens our minds to seeing whatever ‘it’ is in a new light.

2260493084_bbf9d4916a_zWe see the glint of a new side to the disco ball. As a child I was allowed to choose to buy something in a shop on a family holiday. I have no idea where we were, but I chose a crystal – it might have cost $3 – and it was the kind of thing that people would hang from the rear view mirror in the late 70s/early 80s. It looked like it could be a 40 Karat diamond to me, about an inch across at its widest, and had a hole at the top with a bit of fishing line strung through to hang it. Not as nice as the one in this photo (shared by Robert Wallace CC BY-NC-ND). Mine wasn’t very pretty, had a chip or two, and the fishing line was a bit ratty, but when I held that up to the sunlight it made the most amazing rainbows. I kept that thing until after I graduated from college. I used to dream looking at it and I promise that my mind was outside – there was no box, no idea of a box, no limit at all.

In education, often there are boxes.

  • 3351771579_e6e490ac28_zTick boxes.
  • A line for your name.
  • Don’t forget to box your answer.
  • Submit your essay in the correct submission box.
  • The dropbox.
  • The box file.

Time to get our heads out of the boxes. (Photo by Holger Ejleby CC BY-NC-ND)

The best use for a box is often to build a fort, a house, or to use it as a sled when going down a staircase, and certainly in most cases not as a box.

These stories are relevant to higher education and teaching and learning. In my classes we do things that get you out of the box. (I encourage recycling of all boxes)

As a teaching mechanism we learn to express music in different forms. How would you physically represent your learning?

I’ve had students come up with everything from maps, to lego models, to a bucket filled with things from a banana to a cactus, to a quilt in progress, to a cake (and that was a completely delicious class).

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 09.24.36 Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 09.25.06 Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 09.26.08

This year my model (yes, I do the homework too) contained things like a peanut butter clif bar – for those times when you need a power boost, a stick and a candy bar (should have had a carrot to be traditional and healthy!), a leaf – because there is always some random distraction in there, and plenty of other things, but

you will never see these things.

My learning model was sealed in a giant brown envelope, because most of the time we don’t show our learning. –that’s a conversation for another post. The point is that in that exercise everyone was able to see a part of the rainbow that is inside that crystal. What was once clear, obvious, and easily describable, turned out to be far more elaborate and complex. Learning is complex. It is individual, and all that experimenting, learning, failing, and doing again takes courage, stamina, and conviction.

IMG_4902We also draw melodies. I love that. It is amazing though how timid a musician can become when asked to draw what they hear. What could be intimidating about that? A blank sheet of paper, a pencil, and no rules – whatever you do is correct and valid simply because it is your experience? (I took away that box again…) We aren’t used to thinking that way, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be. These two drawings are what I came up with – in response to music on the viola and on the guitar.

IMG_4903Give it a go. Challenge yourself to express something that you do in a different way, through a different medium. It is liberating, and it feels good in your brain too. I hope it helps us both to look at ourselves and to respect and sympathise with others as they learn, express, and assimilate different skills and knowledge into whatever they are doing or creating.

Featured image shared by id-iom CC BY-NC

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