The secret to thinking laterally

From advancements in medicine, to new technological developments and scientific discoveries, lateral thinking is the basis for innovation. Lateral thinking involves solving problems creatively, using methodologies that stray from convention and may not be immediately obvious.

Evidently, lateral thinking plays an integral role in societal advancement and idea creation, but how does it really work? And how can students think laterally? To answer this question, we must first notice that, lateral thinking, just like numeracy, literacy, music or sport, is a skill and so, like any skill, can be developed with proper training.

If you Google ‘lateral thinking exercises’, you will find hundreds of mind bending puzzles and video exercises, which aim to stimulate out-of-the-box thinking. Despite being fun and promoting creativity in the classroom, these exercises lack structure, which often results in a loss of conceptual understanding overtime. For this reason, students are often unable to retain understanding from these exercises to apply to future problems.

After myriad years of research and trial, I have developed a structured lateral thinking model:

First, students are presented with a problem to explore. The question could be something the students are familiar with or a new concept.  Students are given time to consider different methods to solve this problem. The aim of this stage is not to find the correct answer, but rather to understand a student’s thinking process. Quite often, students utilise conventional logical thinking processes to solve these problems.

After this period of exploration, students are inspired by an alternate way of approaching the problem. This could be in the form of a new technique or another logical approach. These unique methods often inspire “Aha” moments, as students are enlightened by lateral thinking approaches.

In the third stage, students learn to apply these creative techniques to conventional problems. The goal of this stage is to develop and solidify a thorough understanding of the logic behind these innovative approaches, rather than force students to memorise techniques. Boosting confidence, this stage encourages students to use creative methods to solve traditional problems.

The last stage is creation. This stage is often ignored in traditional classroom learning. Often, teachers are satisfied by correct answers and high test scores, which are equated with achievement of learning outcomes. In contrast, the goal of learning lateral thinking is not to yield excellent marks, but, in its essence, to incite ingenuity, innovation and creation. In this last stage, students explore lateral thinking at its core, as they create their own complex problems and challenge others to learn. This also ensures a solidification of conceptual understanding for the student.

Lateral thinking is not prescribed in any contemporary school syllabus or conventional elementary textbook. The education system has failed to recognise the importance of this invaluable skill. As a strong believer in the power of lateral thinking, I hope that this model, which is outcome of my many years of research and development, can be used to inspire students to embrace the power of lateral thinking!

In my next article, I will use a case study to illustrate the application of this lateral thinking model.

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