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Challenging Assumptions for More Creative Insights

Students can practice breaking free of conventional patterns of thinking

by Dr. Pronita Mehrotra

One of the oldest known examples of cryptography was found on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet that contained a secret formula for pottery glaze. The inventor of the secret recipe jumbled up the figures defining the ingredients to prevent people from stealing the recipe. More than a thousand years later, Julius Caesar started using the shift cipher to encrypt his private messages. For the next two thousand years, people used increasingly more sophisticated systems for encrypting messages. Yet, all of them were based on one fundamental premise – that in order to encrypt and decrypt a message both parties must have the same key.

In the early seventies, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, along with Ralph Merkle, reversed this basic assumption and completely changed the cryptography landscape. Their invention of public key cryptography enabled Internet commerce to take off dramatically by allowing people to encrypt credit card transactions without having to first establish a common key between the seller and the buyer. As Frans Johansson describes in his book, The Medici Effect, “By reversing this assumption, Diffie and Hellman found the intersection between the field of cryptology and a particular, curious brand of mathematics involving so-called one-way functions.

Reversing assumptions is a powerful way to break free from preconceived notions. Michael Michalko, who outlined his assumption reversal technique called “False Faces” in Thinkertoys, explains, “Reversals destabilize your conventional thinking patterns and frees information to come together in provocative new ways.

Finding and reversing assumptions can provide fresh insights and lead to original ideas. For example, here is one way the technique could be used in designing a new kind of table. When people think of a table, they typically assume a flat surface with legs attached to it. Now, suppose that you were to reverse that assumption and try to design a table without legs. You could then imagine a table that hangs from the ceiling through wires that can be pulled down when needed or raised back to make more space, an idea that is both novel and useful.

Of course, there are other different ideas you can come up with that reverse the assumption in the above example. The point of this exercise is to allow you to gain fresh insights by breaking free of conventional patterns of thinking. By asking a more specific (and powerful) question that challenges assumptions, it is easier to come up with more creative responses.

Questioning assumptions has been the catalyst to many scientific advancements, or the kind of advancements that change existing paradigms and lead to a scientific revolution. Despite the importance of challenging assumptions, schools’ focus on learning and standardized testing, make it undesirable to nurture this skill. Students need to learn how to differentiate between good and not-so-good questions – a skill that can be learned by practice.

The best way to build the skill for questioning assumptions is to make it part of the routine. Teachers could set aside some time during the week where students get a chance to question concepts or even class rules. Paired with peer discussions and feedback, students quickly learn what kinds of questions and assumptions make for good analyses.

As Professor Robert Sternberg, professor and creativity expert, suggests, “Teachers and parents can help children develop this talent by making questioning a part of the daily exchange. It is more important for children to learn what questions to ask—and how to ask them—than to learn the answers.

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