Call it Rathodics, Rathodology, Rathod-gineering, or Rathodistry; chances are high that you will find lot of useless things on this blog. Nevertheless, I thank you for visiting my blogsite, and hope you spend sometime reading the blogs and commenting on them. Further, you can visit me at http://www.unm.edu/~srathod

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Think "out of the box"

Last week, I attended this first session of a class, and had an interesting experience.

After we got through the routines of the first session of a class, like the introduction, the syllabus, the schedule, etc., the professor asked the 11 of us in the class to form two teams of 4 and a team of 3 students, which we promptly did. He, then, asked us to grab a piece of paper and a pen or a pencil and follow him out of the class, out of the building, into the open. The place was rectangular in shape, with a middle section made up of concrete; the edges of the rectangular area was not covered with concrete, but, had mud with plants growing in it. He asked the teams to choose a leader for the team, and the leaders to follow him. I was the leader of my team of 4 students.

The professor gave each team-leader three sticks (each about a meter long), 4 paper cups (one of them filled with water), a big paper cup (the size of about those handed out with popcorns), and some strings (which we can have as much as we wanted). He also handed out a piece of paper with some stuff printed on it. The team-leaders started reading what was written on it. I don't recall verbatim what was written on it, but here is a gist of what was written on it: the team has found a stash of cookies, which we can use to munch upon during the class. However, the place is infested with ants; so in order to preserve the cookies being attacked from ants, we need to build a tripod, and hang the jar of cookies from it, so that the ants can't get to it. After we are done, the team-members should line-up with the tallest member facing north.

As soon as the team-leaders were confident enough that we got the written matter into our cranium, we rushed to our team-members. Now, since I don't know what transpired between other team-leaders and team-members, I can't say how did they proceed. But, since I remember what I did, here goes my interaction with my team. I approached my team-members, told them what was written on that piece of paper. Now, we tied the three sticks together at one end, and spread the sticks around, with the tied end acting as a pivot, so that we can get a tripod. We poured water in three small-size paper cups, put the paper-cups on the concrete floor, and put the legs of the tripod in these paper cups. Next, we hung the large paper cup from the apex of the tripod using the strings. So, the idea was that the ants, come near the base of the tripod, climb the paper-cups; but, since there was water in the paper-cups, they can't get to the cookies and will drown in the water, and our stash of cookies is safe and sound, and ready to be relished during the class. Now, this is the point where I got of on the wrong foot; instead of lining up the whole team facing north, I asked only the tallest person from our group to face north, which he promptly did so.

Then, the professor asked whether the three teams were done with the task at hand; the three teams said in unison, that, yes, we are done. But, none of the teams had their members lined up with the tallest member facing north. Our team had, at least, the tallest member facing north; the remaining team didn't even do that. The professor, along with other teams, came to us first, saw the contraption which we had made, and approved our construction saying that our solution was correct. Then, we went to the second team's construction, and saw that they moved out from the concretized area and went to the muddy region along the edges, and made their tripod on it, and that they didn't even use the small-size paper-cups, nor did they use the water. They thought that making the tripod in the mud would give the legs of the tripod enough friction so that it won't slide on the floor. Well, there was no way to prevent the ants from climbing the legs of the tripod and reach the cookies; incorrect solution. Finally, we went to the third team; they also moved out to the edges and made the tripod in the muddy region, along the edges. They threw away the water from the cup, used the four small-size cups as a piece of decoration on the tripod, and balanced the large cup on top of the apex; again, incorrect solution.

Then, the professor asked the team leader: what made us think that we can't copy what was written on that printed paper on the piece of paper which we brought with us along with the pen/pencil? He didn't say anything that we can't do it. No answer. If we had done so, then we could have got the last part correct, i.e. lining up with the tallest member facing north. Then, he asked us the second question: why didn't we draw what we wanted to make rather than explain it verbally? No answer. If we had done so, we could have avoided shouting out our ideas at the top of our voice.

The professor, then, said that as we grow older, we approach our problems imposing un-necessary constraints. We take for granted that such a thing can't be done to solve the problem: we can't use the paper and pencil to jot down what we were supposed to do; we falsely assume that we need to make the tripod in a stipulated period of time, even though noe deadline was mentioned; under this false assumption of a time constraints, we assumed that we can't waste time to copy what was written or to draw what we were supposed to make. As adults, we draw the walls of our box nearer and nearer; we make the room of our thinking abilities smaller and smaller, and thereby, leave out many possible answer to the question out of the box, some of which are much simpler than the ones which are present in our minds. On the other hands, for kids, the walls are way too far and the room is way too big. Their box encompasses many possible answers, covering the spectrum of solutions from simple answers to outlandish answers. They do so, since they haven't been told that you can't use such a method, and hence, they don't impose any constraint on their thinking.

The lesson we learnt is that, as adults, we need to think out of the box, simply because, we assume un-necessary constraints on our solutions, those which weren't mentioned. But, kids don't need to think out of the box, because the walls of their box are as far as they can see, encompassing whatever they can dream of.

So, when you are faced with a problem, don't limit your thinking by assuming something as not possible, just because you think so; explore all possibilities.


Blogger Prashant said...

Fantastic story!

6:34 PM  

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