Tips on Teaching

Oblique strategies for teaching

oblique_20120526_by Chris Grabau, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Some teachers may find themselves feeling like they are in a bit of a rut in their teaching.  It’s an all too common feeling in which something feels out of step.  Perhaps, we feel bored or feel that our efforts don’t produce the same results as before. We may also find ourselves falling into familiar teaching habits, or even feeling overwhelmed by not knowing what to change. It is a similar feeling found in other creative professions; however, the “rut” can go by different names.   Some artists call it having  writers block or simply hitting a creative wall.

In 1975, composer and producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards called the “Oblique Strategies” – a series of cards designed to tackle creative log jams.  Each card includes an aphorism intended to help artists break free of a creative dilemma in order to promote “lateral thinking – a form of metacognition designed to address problem solving by using reasoning that is not immediately obvious” (De Bono, 2010).

Although some of the phrases on the cards are specific to music creation, some are open-ended enough to be thought-provoking for any situation.  Some of their questions include (Taylor, 1995):

  • What to increase? What to reduce?

  • Work at a different speed.

  • Use an old idea.

  • Use your own ideas.

  • Don’t avoid what is easy.

  • What is it for? Who is it for?

  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.

I often think of the Oblique Strategies when I find myself in a teaching rut.  Using a set of aphorisms tailored specifically for academics could help us break free from our own ruts.

Consider the following questions:

  • When am I at my most productive?

  • What part of the course am I taking for granted?

  • Who am I teaching?  What do they already know?

  • What do I find most interesting?  How do I let my students know?

  • If I were a student in my class, what would I change?

  • WWXD:  What would (colleague X) do?

  • What is essential for my students to learn?

  • Have I planned enough time?

  • How will I know students have accomplished the objectives for the course?

  • What if I showed students the blueprints?

  • What would I do differently if I were teaching a colleague?

No matter what questions you may ask, the practice of reflecting on teaching in strategic ways can help lead to a new place outside of your rut.

De Bono, E., & Zimbalist, E. (2010). Lateral thinking. Viking.

Jones, S. (2014). Ambient Genius. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Taylor, G. (1995). History of the Oblique Strategies. Retrieved 24 February 2015, from

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