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    6 ways to encourage lateral thinking in e-learning

    Published on 02 Apr 2019 by Vivek Dodd

    Psychologist Edward de Bono introduced the concept of lateral thinking back in 1973. His main argument was that one could achieve “rightness” through vertical thinking, but “richness” only through lateral thinking. Being able to approach problems from different angles, he thought, was an invaluable skill, especially for creative businesses and organisations.

    Thanks to the importance of thinking outside the box, more and more e-learning courses are looking for ways to incorporate de Bono’s ideas.

     To be able to think laterally and critically, individuals need to be able to hold conflicting ideas in their mind and then resolve them using a rational methodology.

    Vertical thinking is laser-like in its focus, and while it's the type of thinking we do most often, it isn’t always the best way to solve a problem. Some problems require lateral thinking - a kind of thinking that illuminates a whole world of possibilities, like a lantern.

    Getting learners’ creative juices flowing is a challenge since so much creativity is innate. However, there are ways you can modify your e-learning course to help people to think more laterally. Here are some helpful ideas.

    1. Foster a culture of curiosity

    Curiosity is the primary driver of innovation at the world’s most successful companies, including Amazon and Facebook. These tech giants employ people with a passion for what they do and a curiosity about how they can make the world better.

    Curiosity is essential to the learning process. Without curiosity, learners have no incentive to think laterally and approach problems from different angles. Generating the same passion in an e-learning course might sound difficult, but there are ways to make it happen.

    One way to do it is to create an active community of supportive learners, constantly looking to improve their knowledge. Active communities help people to explore the inner workings of a topic and understand how everything fits together. Once this is known, it’s much easier for ideas to cross-fertilise, and for new ideas to arise. The best e-learning cultures are those which develop reasons for learning and give people tools to share their ideas online.

    2. Encourage learners to draw “mind maps”

    Mind maps have been used as a brainstorming tool for decades. The basic idea is to start with a word or a problem in the middle of the page, and then link other ideas and words to it in a logical structure based on whatever pops into the learner’s head. Often mind maps take on a life of their own, allowing the learner to create links between disparate concepts, helping them to see new connections. Mind maps can provide an entirely new perspective on a particular topic and free up a student’s creativity.

    Mind maps aren’t just restricted to writing down words on a page. In more advanced corporate settings, they can take the form of an infographic, pictograph or an online presentation to map out ideas.

    3. Spark debate

    There’s a reason schools and universities all have debating societies: they help young people think more laterally by exposing them to multiple perspectives. E-learning training systems can do the same by sparking conversations online and getting a healthy debate going. Often, there isn’t a single solution to a particular problem, and many learners can benefit from insights from their peers.

    Online discussions can also help to encourage participants to respect the opinions of others and work together to build solutions that are better than they may have worked out by themselves. This helps to encourage teamwork and instil in participants the idea that many brains working together can come up with solutions that are better than one working alone.

    4. Start with the solution and work backwards

    Another way to foster lateral thinking in e-learning is to start with the solution and then work backwards. Here, instructors tell corporate leaders the outcome that they want. They then ask them to go away and use the available resources and tools to them to show how they would have arrived at the solution. Often, there are multiple ways of arriving at the same solution, encouraging participants to think out of the box.

    5. Pose thought-provoking questions

    One of the best ways to get people to challenge their pre-existing beliefs on a particular topic is to ask them pertinent, thought-provoking questions. These questions should be designed to challenge their assumptions in a way that gets them to reconsider what they believe. Fundamental assumptions can often be a stumbling block in the way of more efficient learning. This is why it is so important that they are regularly challenged.

    One of the best ways to get people thinking about their assumptions and beliefs is to ask them for evidence to back up their claims. You can also ask them probing questions, such as why they hold a particular opinion. This will force them to consider their own beliefs which help foster lateral thinking.

    It’s worth noting however that some topics, such as an individual’s personal or cultural beliefs, are unfortunately off limits. Though it might be beneficial to expose many of these ideas to the light of reason, this can result in offence.

    6. Ask corporate learners to find alternative solutions

    Another great way to foster lateral thinking in an e-learning course is to come up with activities that encourage students to find alternative paths to a particular solution. Start off with a solution and then map out how that solution was achieved. Then give learners a bunch of tools and resources and ask them to solve the same problem, but using a different method.

    The idea behind this is to help people ignore the obvious answer and find a solution that is more subtle (and often more elegant). Asking employees to go down the road less travelled is also more interesting and helps increase motivation and engagement in your course.

    Lateral thinking is hard to teach, but as these six ideas prove, it’s not impossible. Once employees are thinking outside of the box, everybody wins.


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