Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 4|January|2002

Off Road Thinking:

Looking for Great Surprises

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

© 2001, J. McKenzie.

Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.

Poet, Ovid

"Looking for truth in all the wrong places?"

This article explores the important role surprise can play in the discovery and invention of new ideas - a student capacity now being emphasized by most state curriculum standards and a workforce capability much desired by employers.

The Growing Importance of Synthesis

Curriculum standards usually place a premium on four action verbs:

  • Analyzing - understanding information
  • Interpreting - translating information into meaning
  • Inferring - reading between the lines and figuring out what might be the meaning
  • Synthesizing - creating new meaning by rearranging, combining and modifying ideas and information

For students to perform well on the new state tests, they must go beyond the mere gathering of information to the creation of new ideas, new solutions and new possibilities. They must learn to build good new answers rather than rely upon shop worn truths and conventional wisdom. That is what is meant by synthesis.

Cut-and-paste thinking (or the mere harvesting of information) will not equip students to face either the state tests or the tests of Life.

In order to develop skill with the four action verbs listed above, students need more frequent experience with research questions that require original thought and problem solving.

  • "What should we do with our oil reserves?"
  • "How can we protect the salmon?"

Such essential questions can emerge from any curriculum. They are questions requiring original thought on important issues and problems. For additional resources on essential questions, visit

Off Road Thinking

Maintaining open-mindedness is a critical factor in the successful search for new ideas. Surprise can be one of the best sources of good ideas, and schools can take advantage of the Internet as an especially good source of surprise.

Ironically, one of the Internet's major weaknesses - its vast array of unqualified and sometimes dubious information - might sometimes prove advantageous when looking for unusual ideas, possibilities and potentials.

Some of our best thinkers about creativity such as Edward deBono, call this kind of mental work "lateral thinking." Instead of forging ahead in a strictly logical, sequential and analytical manner, the thinker strives for divergence.

In teaching business leaders to think innovatively, Roger von Oech invokes their playful spirits to help unlock their rigid patterns of thought.

We teach students to do "off road" thinking, avoiding the obvious, conventional truths. Exploration is paramount. Foraging. Browsing. Grazing. Roaming far and wide. We show them how to broaden and enrich understanding by pulling down the walls of pre-conception and allowing new ideas to enter and inspire.

Avoiding Road Kill

A strong cautionary note: wandering around the Internet is not always a safe activity for young folks. Witness the millions of dollars spent to filter the Net.

It would be irresponsible for educators to set very young children free to wander through this vast information landfill. This article is not suggesting that we engage elementary or even middle school students in sifting through electronic heaps of garbage, refuse and vermin.

While many high school and college students may eventually develop the maturity, the judgment and the skills to wander quite boldly across the Internet, side-stepping and avoiding the dangerous and the obscene, we should offer younger students more carefully limited adventures. Their exploration should be well scaffolded (structured) so that there are no falls, no accidents and no road kill.

Scaffolding Surprise

Scaffolding strategies can provide our younger students with safe yet invigorating learning adventures offering a great deal of surprise. The secret is to structure inquiries so they are looking at pre-selected sites that are both safe and richly diverse.

For more on scaffolding read the article at

If we assign students to invent new and more effective ways to protect a particular endangered species (salmon or wolves) we may provide them with a diverse array of Web sites that offer unusual examples of protection they never would have considered.

We take them farther afield, beginning with the thesaurus to make lists of terms associated with "protection" such as "restoration" and "protection" and "conservation" that might widen the search. Armed with this list of words, we type key into a search engine like Google ( ).

"Restoration" turns up sites devoted to restoring antiques, wetlands, landfills, strip mines, waist lines and faces to former glory and health.

What can we learn about protecting wolves and eagles and salmon by reading about restoring antiques, wetlands, landfills, strip mines, waist lines and faces?

Among other things, the student comes to grips with the whole notion of healthy habitats as a precondition to encouraging survival. The focus changes from protection to support and encouragement.

Looking at a fine arts restoration site, perhaps the student learns the importance of figuring out what existed back during a time when things were healthy by looking below the surface and examining the underlying elements.

Try it yourself by going to to explore a list of resources. Next time you need a fresh solution, try some off road thinking!


Designing Life -

Lateral Thinking : Creativity Step-By-Step. Edward De Bono, Reissue edition, HarperCollins, March 1990)

A Whack on the Side of the Head : How You Can Be More Creative. Roger Von Oech, Revised edition, Warner Books, December 1998.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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