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Taboos
April 10, 2013 - 9:03pm

Did anyone think of urine?

Last week, I posed a creativity challenge with A Pipe and a Ping Pong Ball (from Conceptual Blockbusting, by James L. Adams), asking people to list as many ways they could think of – in five minutes – to get the ball out of the pipe without damaging the ball, pipe, or floor.  There were some very creative solutions (see comments section at the bottom of last week’s post).  Kudos to you, Jenny Lee, for a long and very interesting list of solutions! 

I’ve run this exercise with a variety of audiences and the list of potential solutions they come up with is often quite interesting.  The most common tend to be:

  • Vise: Using the Wheaties box to create a smaller tube to fit around the ball and then tightening the cardboard tube to pull the ball up (or some variation)
  • Straw: Using the box to create a big “straw” and then trying to suck the air out of the tube and bring the ball up (or some variation)
  • Tweezers: Unbending the coat hanger into big set of tweezers, then using the file to make the ends flat and trying to use the big tweezers to extract the ball

Then there are some more creative ones, along with many that won’t work for whatever reason – but these “wrong” answers often lead to other, more creative ideas that will work.  And that’s one of the points of this exercise.

After asking people for their ideas on how to get the ping pong ball out of the pipe, I ask whether there were any ideas that people had that they didn’t share with their team.  Invariably, one hand goes up tentatively.  When I ask what the idea was that they didn’t share, it is quite often that the person thought about urinating into the pipe to float the ball to the surface,  Then the rest of the people in the room laugh nervously or say, “Ewwww!”. . . and the speaker looks down sheepishly.   

And this is the other point of the exercise.  Someone had a very viable idea but, because of a cultural taboo, didn’t bring it up.  It would have worked – with certainty and perhaps more quickly and reliably than most of the other solutions proposed.  But it’s “icky” to think about and therefore people don’t bring it up – blocking a whole set of options from being branched off of the unsaid idea (e.g., spitting, sweating, crying, etc.).  But it wasn’t necessarily that the person with the idea of urinating in the pipe was suggesting the team actually do it, but rather it was an idea.  And, as Adams says, “Taboos are usually directed against acts that would cause displeasure to certain members of a society – it is the acts themselves which would offend.  If imagined, rather than carried out, the acts are not harmful.”  So imagine away.

Are there taboos that prevent us from thinking more creatively about the future of higher education?  What if there were no PhDs teaching at a university?  What if there were no degrees?  No classes?  What if students gave each other grades (or gave themselves grades) instead of the instructor?  What if there were no grades?  What if employers, rather than faculty, chose which courses/content would count toward certification?  What if people went directly into the workforce out of high school and returned several years later to pursue their higher education?  What if we did away with college completely?  What if . . . .

What other taboos in higher education (or society) prevent us from generating more creative ideas on how to improve it?

 

 

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