I am a huge fan of the counterintuitive. You just have to love the counterintuitive. One moment your thoughts are travelling along happily and seemingly appropriately in one direction, then things take a 180 degree turn and you realise the opposite is true. I assume that the pleasure the counterintuitive creates comes from the blending of surprise with cognisance. Revelation and esoteric understanding is always rewarding to the sensibilities. In combination with the unexpected, it is sublime.
I was a school principal at a small school of about 100 students in a small rural town in the Central West region of New South Wales, Australia. We had a problem with students littering the playground during recess and lunchtimes. They left the place looking like a pigsty at the end of every day, with food scraps, paper wrappings, plastic containers, soft drink cans and other litter all over the place. We tried lecturing them at school assemblies about the evils of littering. How it was unsightly, unhygienic and against the law outside of school. We had numerous bins ubiquitously distributed within the playground to make it convenient for students to dispose of their litter correctly. We punished students we caught littering, although they were difficult to catch and I suspect enjoyed the contest so much that it probably created more mess. The staff were angry at the state of the playground and the cleaners were not happy. We were stumped. The suggestion at staff meetings was to do more of the same: more lectures, more bins, more punishments.
One day, while watching from my office window, I noticed a group of students sitting on the benches having lunch. After one student finished eating most of an apple, he threw the remainder from where he was sitting towards one of the many bins dotted around the playground. He missed the bin and the apple core fell to the ground. The student remained sitting and chatting with friends while the litter stayed on the ground. It gave me a counterintuitive thought.
The staff did not think it would work. The cleaners were dead-set against it and were certain that my idea would make things worse.
I instructed the general assistant to take away almost all of the bins and leave only two, one at each end of the quadrangle. Now the students had to make the physical effort to get up and out of their seats to put refuse in the bins. The bins were now too far away to throw rubbish at. Also, with all attention now focused on just two bins, they had a good chance of being caught by the teacher on playground duty if they did try to throw rubbish at the solitary bins.
The effect was immediate. The playground cleanliness improved dramatically. The students got into the habit of walking to the bins after they had finished eating and drinking to dispose of their litter. We had eliminated our unacceptable litter problem by taking away the bins.
You just have to love the counterintuitive.


2 thoughts on “Counterintuitive


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