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The Tyranny of the Practical: Why We Need Third-Third Thinking

People read my blog. Even though I have few followers and even fewer comments posted, I know that people read it because they come up and tell me that they read my latest post. The conversation usually starts like this: "Wow, it must be nice to have time 'think out of the box' and post the results on-line." I am going to continue to consider this a compliment, even though I think that it might be some kind of comment about the work that I do. I seldom respond to the comments, but if I did I might point out my doubts that it is a lack of time that prevents them from "thinking outside the box."

The practical strategies that emerge from school improvement meetings hold an insidious tyranny over us. I have nothing against things that are practical, in fact I have an incredible bias towards the practical. My problem really comes from the belief that we have incorrectly defined practicality. The things that we continue to regard as very practical have proven to do very little in terms of student achievement or school improvement.

Benjamin Franklin, John and Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee probably had better things to do than hang out in taverns, but we can't discount the fact that those conversations led to American independence.

School improvement teams typically come up with their activities by brainstorming. Many consider brainstorming to be a trite practice that has value only in making team members feel included. The fact is that, done right, brainstorming is one of our most powerful tools. In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson describes the typical items that appear as a result of brainstorming.

Hurson divides the lists generated through brainstorming into thirds. The first third of the items will usually be "mundane, tired thoughts, that reside close to the surface of our consciousness." These are not new ideas, but things that we recall having heard (or thought of) before.

Second third thinking is represented by ideas that are more than regurgitation of things we already know, but are still constrained by the things that we already know and have thought of before.

Finally, third third thinking is, according to Hurson, "where the diamonds lie." Here is where you will find true "productive thinking." You will notice unexpected connections, breakthrough ideas, and innovative solutions.

The value of third third thinking lies not only in the product, but the process. Once again, according to Hurson, "the challenge is not to get new ideas, but to get rid of the old ones." By generating long lists, we "flush" ideas from our heads, making room for new ones. The Greeks use the word kenosis, or self-emptying, to describe the process.

The tyranny of the practical prevents us from ever getting to the third third. Time that we have with teachers is so limited, that we tend to only do things that we deem essential. Brainstorming, dialogue, and debate are "luxuries" that we do not have time for. The result is disheartening. In an attempt to do something practical we eliminate the practices that are most likely to result in the improvement we seek.

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