“The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.”
I used to begin each school year with a drawing on the front board. Three rows of three dots are placed in the shape of a cube. After copying the diagram down, I then tell the students they need to connect all the dots with only four lines. I have only two rules. They can’t lift their pencils from the page nor can they retrace any lines. After five minutes their frustration becomes vocal so I give them a hint: “Think outside the box.”
Thought, not just the parroting of the textbook or the teacher, is most important in my classroom. Responsibility and humor are necessary traits the classroom should foster, yet the ability to think using logic, genuine understanding, and creative connections remains the keystone in my teaching. I teach history, and history more often than not, requires interpretations. This comes as a surprise to many of my students. They are used to having information forced on them only to recite during a test. Creating a classroom where they peer into causes and effects, predict future discourses, and truly think outside the box remain my daily classroom goals.
Usually I foster this through discussion. I tend to begin my classes with civic minded questions. Once, after spending some weeks discussing the need for government as well as its role, I asked the students if they, being around the age of fourteen, should be allowed to vote. The class erupted into a lively debate, some poignantly admitting that they were too foolish to be granted that right. One bright young lady raised her hand and reminded the class that in America the government had the responsibility of punishing criminals. Accordingly, in the past few years more teenagers were tried as adults. If teens could be tried as an adult, she suggested, surely they should have the right to vote. She was thinking beyond the box.
While I’m constantly encouraging higher levels of thinking, I also stress the importance of responsibility. Students frequently discuss pop culture figures as well as historical figures who do not own up to their responsibilities. I carry high expectations and tell students that if their actions result in tumultuous effects, they need to swallow their pride and take responsibility. This applies to me as well. When I make mistakes I make certain to apologize. I also point out that responsibility extends to their civic world. As American citizens, they will have the privilege of voting, serving on juries, and being actively involved with the community.
In addition to responsibility, I feel that humor needs to be emphasized in the classroom. I’m not necessarily a funny man, yet I make certain to joke, tell stories, and recognize gifted classroom clowns. I truly believe that a classroom filled with laughter is a classroom filled with learning. Laugher introduces elements of humility and has the added effect of creating a comfortable environment where students can learn.
Inevitably, laughter is the result of the think outside the box exercise. Students become increasingly creative with their attempted solutions. Finally, after much noise and exclamations, a student will figure the problem out. In order to connect all the dots, they need to have their lines go outside the confines of the rows. In other words, they needed to go outside the box.