Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 1, 2010

What to Do with a Philips Screw and a Flat-head Driver? (Lateral Thinking and Language Learning)

What to Do with a Philips Screw and a Flat-head Driver?
(Lateral Thinking and Language Learning)

By Dr. Kenneth Reeds, Department of Foreign Languages

Kenneth ReedsProjects often require creative solutions.  Unpredictable obstacles need circumventing and a lack of obvious answers can create the seemingly insurmountable.  Have you every grabbed a screwdriver with the intention of fixing a loose handle only to discover that the driver’s flat head did not match a Philips screw?  This is frustrating and more so when your box does not contain a tool with the required shape.  Computers have difficulty with this type of problem.  Program machines to do certain tasks and they are effective as long as new variables are not introduced.  If, however, a device confronts a problem that goes outside its programming, such as a Philips screw and a flat-head tool, it will have difficulty and might even fail altogether.  This is where creative thinking is needed and despite the leaps and bounds of technology’s advances, the human brain remains the best tool to come up with something like using a coin or maybe a butter knife to turn a Philips screw when there is no driver in sight.

In 1967 an author named Edward de Bono used the term “lateral thinking” to refer to the mind’s creation of imaginative solutions for stubborn problems.  Any newspaper can provide a long list of problems, the challenge for today’s student is to generate the answers.   Despite expensive educations and years of experience, economists with established reputations failed to foresee today’s woes and everybody has gotten a lesson about the degree to which unpredictability can disrupt even the best laid plans.  Lateral thinking is needed and it is unsurprising to see human adaptability exercised as trained businesspeople find themselves teaching in a classroom and experienced salespeople are suddenly doing anything but selling.  Indeed, mismatched screws and drivers are bending into innovative shapes and finding new homes all over the world.  This stressful reinvention serves as evidence of the need for lateral thinking as those with broader skill sets are proving more successful; many working in jobs they never prepared for nor thought they would have.

So, the enigma today’s student must confront is what skills they should acquire to deal with a world that changes and creates new challenges at an ever-increasing pace.  Perhaps a good place to search for solutions is the annual gathering of the ultra rich in Davos, Switzerland.  BBC reporter Tim Weber visited this place where today’s millionaires and billionaires meet to discuss what is needed to be successful in the future.  He reported in his article “Jobs for the Children of Globlisation” that “the same set of skills was mentioned again and again” (Weber).  According to Weber, the successful workers of the future will:

  • have language skills
  • be good communicators
  • know how to negotiate
  • have people skills
  • be able to understand and appreciate other cultures

It is not necessary to look long at the five items on this list to see the importance given to language acquisition and the cultural context within which such learning takes place.  An adaptable person is one who can communicate with others.  This means far more than words and grammar as it also entails a sensibility to cultural difference.   The fact of the matter is that the jobs today’s students will work might not exist yet.  It is likely that they will change careers and geographic regions multiple times.  Learning how to communicate with the greatest number of people possible, in multiple languages, and within diverse cultural contexts augments one’s chances of success.  In other words, language learning is a path to lateral thinking and a great way to avoid becoming an obsolete driver faced with a modern screw.

Work Cited

Weber, Tim.  “Jobs for the Children of Globalisation.”  29 January 2008.  BBC News.  5 November 2010 <>.

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