(Bi)Lateral Thinking

de Bono in actionIn 1967 Edward de Bono introduced the notion of “lateral thinking”.  Classrooms in certain fields (like English literature and psychology, to name two at random) have sucked ever since.

The problem isn’t that lateral thinking is a bad idea.  De Bono was a smart man and lateral thinking is one of his many great ideas in thought.  The problem is that as with almost any great, even brilliant, idea, the founder of the idea is brilliant, his followers may be brilliant too, but usually not as creative and/or flexible, and the following generations of followers are sacks of hammers by comparison, taking subtle, ornate concepts and turning them into bricks-and-mortar dogma.

The result, in this case, is the abomination known as a “lateral thinking puzzle”.

True lateral thinking involves randomness, challenge/provocation, movement, and even disproof as a suite of tools used to break out of simplistic “analytical vs. creative” stereotyping.  It is a toolkit of techniques and ideologies used to break out of cultural and self-inflicted bondage.  “Lateral thinking puzzles” are about someone presenting a situation and demanding you find the one solution that the book they’re reading it from says is The Answer™.  Here’s a typical example (taken from http://g-rico.net/lateralpuzzles/html/puzzle180.html):

A man drove into town and parked at the end of the main street. He got out of his car and went up to the bookstore at the opposite end of the street. He then came back down the street to his car and drove off. There are three banks on the main street, but the man did not walk past any of them. Why not?

The solution, obviously, is “The man was disabled. He got out of his car and onto his wheelchair. He used the wheelchair to go up and down the main street.”  No, that’s it.  That’s the solution.  Anything else is wrong.  No matter what you come up with—he’s on horseback, he’s an eccentric who crawls everywhere, he unhitched a bike and pedalled, he was carried by a passer-by—no matter how plausible it may be is simply wrong.  There’s one correct answer to lateral thinking puzzles.

These puzzles may or may not be an entertaining pastime.  I have no way of evaluating them in this regard.  I’m not a puzzles kind of guy (except for the occasional “logic puzzle” that is my not-well-hidden vice).  I like solving practical “puzzles” like “why the flying fuck is this I2C display not displaying the letter I’m telling it to display!?” when working on embedded software.  Or “how do I go about repairing these damned cheap chairs so people can sit in them again?”  I’m just not a fan of abstraction for the sake of abstraction; of puzzles for the sake of puzzlement.  I understand, however, that my tastes do not rule here; that there are very probably people who find these “lateral puzzles” interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and any number of other positive things.  Vive La Différence! and all that jazz.

What I can say, however, is that they have nothing to do with lateral thinking.  Especially not the way I’ve seen them used in classrooms.  The typical classroom script goes something like this:

Teacher: OK, today we’re going to do a special kind of problem to help you learn about lateral thinking.  Lateral thinking means thinking outside the box.  [Note that the teacher already has this wrong. —ed]  So I’m going to present to you a situation that doesn’t make any sense at first, but that you can figure out the answer to.  <insert random Sloane puzzle here>

Students (gestalt):  Hmmm…  What about this?  <insert plausible solution here>  No?  Maybe <insert another plausible solution here>  Oh, this is tough!  What about this?  <insert a myriad of possible, plausible scenarios that explain all the provided facts in the original puzzle>.

Teacher (smugness levels at Prius driver level):  No!  You’re all wrong!  The correct answer is <insert whatever brain fart Sloane decided was the correct solution here>

This exercise is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the lateral thinking that de Bono was advocating.  If you’ve only got one solution this is not a lateral thinking situation.  Making a puzzle like that may use lateral thinking to come up with the twisted set of circumstances behind some of the weirder variants of the puzzles, but solving it is not a lateral thinking exercise.  It’s an exercise in guessing the “teacher password” only.

Were the teacher in the above scenario even slightly interested in lateral thinking, she would solicit solutions from the class, discuss their strengths, their weaknesses.  She would acknowledge that there could be an infinite number of plausible solutions; that which one is “right” depends, ultimately, on a lot of factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with whatever brain fart came out of the person who wrote the puzzle.  Communication would be bilateral along with the thinking.  The teacher would come out of the exercise learning as much as the students (and perhaps even more).

Sadly, however, that’s not what happens in any of the cases I’ve had the misfortune to be a part of where these damnable idiotic puzzles are broken out.  So here’s my lateral thinking solution to the problem.  Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Find out what book the teacher who’s inflicting this pointless waste of time on you is using.  (There will be a book.  Trust me on this.)
  2. Acquire, by hook or crook, a copy of that book.
  3. Write a few crib notes about likely puzzles to be inflicted upon you.
  4. In class start with solutions that are close to (but not identical with!) the “correct” one and based on the teacher’s Prius-smug feedback alter it step by step to be closer to the “right” answer.

Your teacher will think you’re some kind of creative genius (because your teacher, being an idiot, thinks lateral thinking is the same as creative thinking) and you will curtail the annoyance of these stupid puzzles in your life.

Disclaimer: Of course I’ve never done anything like this in a real classroom because I was always a model student who jumped through whatever pointless hoops the teacher held up for me without cheating or circumventing or otherwise making a mockery of the process ever so you get that thought right out of your head!

About ttmrichter

Michael is a largely auto-didactic polyglot with a confusing family history that branches now across three continents over the past three generations. There was once a point where the bulk of his career was spent twiddling bits in computers to make them dance and sing at his behest, but the utter soul death that programming for a living entailed drove him to instead teach English in China “for a year or two”. (It presumably made some kind of sense at the time.) Fifteen years later Michael finds himself still living in central China and still teaching English. His initial passion for programming (sans “making a living”) remains unabated; he keeps his fingers and brain alive as he learns programming languages or hacks away at embedded systems at his whim. He has also cultivated a good sense of the ridiculous and blended it harshly with a solid sense of outrage that makes him break out into entertaining(-to-some) rants on a variety of topics. One point of interest Michael has is profanity. The topic makes him laugh, and not in the way of his inner twelve-year old sniggering at bad words. (Well, not *ONLY* in that way.) The very nature of the concept of profanity is endlessly amusing to him as it is, to him, the last vestige of “magical thinking” left in a society that prides itself on being rational and pragmatic. What a bunch of utter fucking bollocks!

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