Out-of-the-box thinking has a catch

Theo Dawson
2 min readAug 28, 2022

You know that you’re probably thinking out of the box when your rejection letters say things like this…

NSF grant proposal

We proposed studying how a new kind of assessment could be used to support learning. We were told…

You can submit a grant to fund assessment development or a grant to fund learning. We do not fund hybrid research.

Dept of Education proposal

We proposed developing a scalable open-response developmental assessment of reflective judgment skills. We were told…

We suggest that you work with (one of these multiple-choice assessments) instead of creating a new one.

Chapter for a book on innovative approaches to assessment

We proposed a chapter describing a new approach to assessment development that makes it possible to measure the development of real-world skills at scale. We were told…

We don’t have a category for assessments of real-world skills, so we won’t be able to include your chapter.

Academic article submission

We submitted an academic article about the relation between testing and learning. We were told…

We think your article would be stronger if you excluded the material about learning.

The insight underneath the whining

Yes, I am whining—at least partly. And—full disclosure—I’ve received well over $1,000,000 in government or institutional funding for my own work and work undertaken at Lectica. Also, most of the above-mentioned articles were eventually published. So, I really shouldn’t complain.

On the other hand, there is a bit of an insight buried in the wallowing. And that is…

Novel things are difficult to see for what they are, precisely because they are novel.

As Jean Piaget pointed out almost 100 years ago, novel things are hard to see. In fact, even if we see them, the first thing we’ll try to do is fit them into an existing category. Nobody is immune.

That said, the human mind is quite capable of eventually recognizing that something new is new, but only when the observer:

  • has seen the new thing enough times,
  • has a mind that is equipped with enough preexisting knowledge and experience to be able to see the new thing as different,
  • does not feel threatened by the difference, and
  • is curious enough to try to figure it out.

The moral of the story: If you decide to create something truly novel, especially if it superficially looks like other more familiar things, don’t expect it to be instantly visible.



Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.