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Vol 11|No3|February |2015

Blue Sky Thinking

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


© 2014, Jamie McKenzie

Without hope, there is little hope.

We expect the young to make this a better world - to dream, to aspire and to reach for the stars.

Langston Hughes once spoke of dreams in a manner that has great significance for this generation . . .

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Blue sky thinking is a blend of optimism, hope, skill and wonderment that can lead to invention and positive change.

For those who are familiar with Costa and Kallick's 16 Habits of Mind, blue sky thinking can be seen as a blend of several of their habits. It is both an attitude and a set of skills that can be nurtured by good teaching.

  • Creating, imagining, innovating
  • Thinking flexibly
  • Responding with wonderment and awe
  • Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
  • Taking responsible risks

But those five do not quite capture the optimism, faith and wistful attitude usually involved in blue sky thinking.

Many dictionaries have an almost scornful attitude toward blue sky thinking, dismissing it as impractical (not adapted for use or action; not sensible or realistic). Here are some examples:

blue sky thinking

A management cliché often heard in the UK, referring to open-ended, blue-sky-is-the-limit type of thinking, which allows creative brainstorming unfettered by reality

Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved


Creative ideas that are not limited by current thinking or beliefs
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition


blue-sky thinking (uncountable)

  1. (idiomatic) Thinking that is not grounded or in touch in the realities of the present.
  2. (idiomatic) Open-minded thinking.


Blue Sky Thinking in the Curriculum

Optimistic thinking should be a central goal of schooling.

Analytical and logical thought is well and good, but the culture suffers when problem-solving is constrained by an overly practical or pessimistic view of possibilities. One need only look at the often misguided "reform" efforts that have been imposed on schools globally, often driven by corporate and political interests that seek to implement factory-style learning approaches that rely upon standardization and mechanistic strategies. The curriculum narrows and the classroom focus shifts from learning to testing. The test reigns supreme.

Concrete Examples

Problem-based learning is a promising way to engage students in optimistic planning.

PBL challenges students to come up with satisfying solutions to authentic problems and issues from the environment and the society. Students are charged with doing more than studying these issues. They explore root causes, look at past efforts to address the problem and then propose action plans that might make a real difference.

  • What should we do about acid rain?
  • What should we do about the decline in the stocks of wild salmon? cod?
  • What should we do about hunger?
  • What should we do about homelessness?
  • What should we do about voter apathy?
  • What should we do about domestic violence?
  • What should we do about floods?

These are problems that have baffled and frustrated the adults for decades. Trained by the best universities in logical analysis and management, adult leaders rarely come up with action plans that make much difference. The above list would have served well for a similar article in 1990. Twenty-five years later, the practical efforts of politicians and leaders have hardly dented the problems.

Many citizens of New Orleans suffered the consequences of this failure because the disaster planners responsible for protecting them from Katrina were unable to create effective plans to prevent the collapse of levies and the stranding of poor people. Evacuation required transportation resources like cars not available to the urban poor. The city told them to leave their homes and gather in the football stadium but plans for feeding, housing, policing and treating the medical needs of thousands of refugees were woefully inadequate.

Ironically, disaster planning requires the dark side of blue sky thinking. Anticipating the worst that could happen leads to plans that protect folks. The worst and the best are partners in the planning process.

In 2000 I published an article, "Beyond Information Power" that seems timely fifteen years later, as it stressed the importance of fresh solutions to old problems.

When we raise young people to cut and paste the best thinking of their elders, we shortchange them. New thinkers should amplify and improve upon the insights of their sages, heeding wisdom that has survived the tests of time and the vagaries of fashion.

We remind them that one person's "sage" may be another person's "bureaucrat."

Once they know conventional wisdom, they must ask "What next? How do we push into new territory? How could we make this better? What did they miss? What can we add?"

Blue sky thinking is the key to moving the society and the civilization forward. We sorely need a generation of students with a change ethic.

How do we raise a generation with a change ethic?

  • We make change and surprise constant elements in our classrooms.

  • We attack routine and humdrum with adventure, inquiry and investigation.

  • We ask students to wrestle with essential questions to awaken curiosity and provoke learning.

  • We invite students to make meaning out of chaos and nonsense.

  • We replace the ho hum routines of Industrial Age textbooks, ditto sheets and fill-in-the-blanks learning with problems, challenges and issues drawn from the "real world."

  • We open up schools so that the world is the classroom instead of the classroom being the world.

  • We create a change ethic by offering students a "real time," authentic education in "real time" schools.

For the full article, click here.

Whether you call it problem-based learning, project-based learning, engaged learning or constructivist learning, our students will only come to thrive in this new information landscape if we engage them frequently in challenges calling for fresh thought.

When we involve students in suggesting ways to better their community or tackle a nagging social or environmental problem, we are asking them to perform synthesis at the highest level. It is not sufficient for them to study the problem or describe the problem. It is not enough to cut and paste the thinking of the sages. In many of these cases, the sages and the elders have failed, so it is incumbent upon the students to "do a better job" and add value to the action plans of the past.


If successful, we will raise a generation of students who can find their own way through the labyrinth of modern society, constructing meanings from the complex data that swirl around us during this Age of Information, a generation of "everyday heroes" intent on using their insights to make this a better world.

For the full article, click here.

The Hero as Creator

Catford and Ray draw a close parallel between the stages of the hero's journey and the six stages of the creative process (preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination and verification (pages 24-27).

In order to be successful during these six stages, they maintain that a creative hero needs the following four "magic" tools:

1) Having faith in your creativity

Because the journey will almost necessarily plunge you into darkness at various times, faith becomes essential. During those long time periods answers and solutions prove evasive, the technology wizard must believe that perseverance will pay off, that clarity will come, that some kind of answer will arise out of the confusion and darkness. A lack of faith will translate into a lack of courage and a tendency to play it safe, keeping close to home and sticking with what is familiar and reassuring.

2) Suspending negative judgment

Because negative judgments virtually shut down creative production, the technology wizard drives away doubt and criticism, especially during the exploration and idea generation stages. The goal is to open one's mind to possibilities never before considered. If you find a judge perched upon your shoulder critiquing every new thought, banish the boring gremlin and invite your clown to takes its place. This is a time for playful consideration of intriguing futures.

3) Practicing precise observation

A visit to unfamiliar territory places a premium on careful observation. One cannot rely upon previous experience and knowledge for guidance. The creative hero slows down activity, emphasizes reflection and seeks understanding.

4) Asking penetrating questions

Precise observation relies upon penetrating questions, for good questions are the tools we use to develop insight when encountering new and strange environments or experiences. Questions bring us out of the darkness and into the light. They probe negative space and help us to make meaning.

Adapted from Catford and Ray's The Path of the Everyday Hero

The alternative is unthinkable . . .

Blue Sky Thinking

Returning to the box
The crayons
And cooperative
Line up
Like workers on an elevator
Squeezed together
Shoulder to shoulder
Eyes on the floor
Numbers blinking
On and off
Until all spaces fill
And one crayon remains

Lost without a box
Unable to get off the ground
Drawn apart
Away from the crowd
Coloring the sky

© Jamie McKenzie

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