How many times have we gone to meetings and heard someone say ‘think outside the box’ or ‘let’s look at unconventional options’? The next step is writing on colorful post-its and creating charts on a glass door or the floor. Out of the box thinking is thinking creatively or unconventionally by breaking previous patterns. 

Through my years in education, I discovered that this can be applied to learning. We have been prescribed a certain formula for learning which stands on the following principles:

  1. I have to begin with theory followed by validation and practice
  2. I have to learn a skill set at the same time as my peers
  3. I have to learn today but I only get to apply the skill later

I believe we can rewrite these principles to look like:

  1. I will learn and immediately practice to help build confidence in the process
  2. I will learn by demand when the skill is relevant for me, not because of peer pressure
  3. I will learn when I can apply and test to make meaningful connections with current knowledge

In this blog, we will dig into the origin of ‘thinking outside the box’ and how we can apply this in our learning process with four reflective questions. 

Origin of ‘thinking outside the box’

‘Thinking outside the box’ has connections to the nine dot puzzle recorded in 1914 in Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of Puzzles.

Let’s do this puzzle together. Come back to this article once you are done. 

Instructions: This puzzle should be solved by connecting all the nine dots with four straight lines or less and without picking up the pen. 


How long did it take to solve this puzzle? It took me four tries. The answer is below at the end of the blog. 

After solving the puzzle, what do you think you did that was ‘out of the box’? I believe its the following:

  1. You started at different points in the puzzle, if the previous attempts failed
  2. You created some space between you and the puzzle after a few tries
  3. You tried the puzzle multiple times, kept going back until you realized that the instruction did not say – you cannot go outside the dots!

If you have tried this puzzle before, I am guessing you went through the same process. 

What does out of the box thinking have to do with learning? 

Our lives are broadly divided into phases. We do common learning activities through these phases. In the first phase after birth, we develop skills by observing and taking cues from our environment. Our parents provide us with support and patience to grow at our own pace. In this phase, we are learning to do basic functions individually, with parents providing tools and a safe environment.

Next, we go to school, most of us in the traditional system where the learning is teacher led and navigated by external influence. Post this phase, we build our individual paths with careers. In this phase, our learning is on demand

Through these phases, does anyone ask us – how do you learn best? 

Today, let’s ask this question and work through the answer together. There are four reflective questions I ask myself before starting a learning journey:

1. Why am I learning this now?

If learning is not relevant, your energy and motivation is lower than if the learning is applicable. For example, I learnt how to code SQL and HTML on the job with a peer and had to code in real time. The connection between learning and relevance was strong

Let’s think of the subjects we learn in school, like history or reading Shakespeare for the english class. If we knew the answer to ‘why now’, the experience would have been engaging and we would retain more information. For example, we read Shakespeare for its exposure to language, diving into human complexity and to build depth in our comprehension. If we knew Shakespeare’s relevance, it would have been engaging.

2. Will I get to apply my learnings?

If we learn for the sake of learning, we forget. If learning does not inspire a change in knowledge and behavior, it has tendencies of fizzing out. Learning by doing or project based learning has a wide audience today because you put on a ‘builder’ hat and experience the learning and not just the content. Learning with context is the most effective

For example, if you want to learn the art of making coffee, find a coffee machine or learn from a barista and practice. Watching videos as a learning tool without application breaks the experience.

3. How should I build my environment to succeed at learning?

We all learn better in certain environments. I learn the best during the first half of the day, with natural light and a space to walk and make notes. If the environment is not conducive to learning, we falter and make excuses like lack of time, structure, work, life events. While learning with other priorities is challenging, it’s not impossible

4. What tools do I need to learn?

Tools are accomplices in our learning journey. These are resources that will make the content easy to follow, retain and apply. For example, when I was learning SQL, I took up a course, downloaded the SQL server and used the W3Schools site for testing. Having an initial idea about resources and planning their use is vital

Out of box learning applies the same concept as out of box thinking. It demands agility and a builder thought process.

Let’s design our learning experiences by building the ideal environment with tools, making them relevant and applicable. 

Unlearning Thought

How do you learn best? 

Puzzle answer: