Time to Think
Chris Ivey / Insights
In an era of instant gratification and incessant distraction, the notion of sticking at something, problem-solving, trying a few different ideas over an extended period of time is becoming a dying art.
18 November 2022
This week as we celebrated our Secondary Presentation Evening, my address to the College was a challenge around the importance of deep and reflective thinking:
"One of my favourite movies is an 80’s classic called The Princess Bride. It’s a fabulous story full of adventure and comedy, it tells of the farmhand Westley, and accompanied by companions befriended along the way, he must rescue his true love Princess Buttercup from the odious Prince Humperdink. There is a scene toward the end where the three men need to storm the castle past 60 guards, kill the Prince and rescue the Princess. And all they have is one person’s brain, one person’s fighting skills and one person’s strength.
The clip shows them processing the problem, ascertaining the challenges and it all seems a little too hard. But as we know, like most good stories, they keep going, save the Princess and everyone lives happily ever after. The whole movie is full of little bits of wisdom; however I love this clip because it prompts reflection on the concept of problem solving, of thinking something through and creatively coming up with a solution.
In an era of instant gratification and incessant distraction, the notion of sticking at something, problem-solving, trying a few different ideas over an extended period of time is becoming a dying art. Back when I went to school we certainly had to stick at things for a long time! Lots of my projects involved relaying information by hand from the World book Encyclopedia onto a poster, along with carefully crafted, hand drawn headings. Thankfully times have changed.
However, when I sat in the back of my parents’ car on a road trip, or walked to and from school, mowed the lawns, washed the dishes each evening (by hand!), my mind was often in a situation when it could ruminate, think deeply, reflect, communicate with those around me and problem solve. Nowadays, a screen of some sort is an easy reach whenever my brain gets a little bit ‘bored’, and we no longer need to keep busy completing so many physical tasks with no other company than the musings of our thoughts or conversations with each other.
We definitely have much less down time for our brains these days, and that’s both for adults and for children. Screen time in the form of social media and binge watching is impacting attentiveness and worse, impacting creativity, problem solving. We’re not allowing ourselves time to think. Time to ponder, question, and sit with the idea of not having all the answers straight away. We now live in an environment where all information is available to us with a few clicks.
It’s hard to know exactly what has happened but we reached a point where we have so much information at our fingertips that we inadvertently began to ignore the art of completely thinking for ourselves. And because of this, it’s so easy to accept the first and often most simple solution without pushing ourselves ruminating on a problem asking broader questions, discussing back and forth and gaining a deeper understanding of an issue.
I recently had the chance to hear the co-founder of Netflix, Marc Randolph. He was such an interesting guy and he shared with us the story of how he and Reed Hastings would drive 45 minutes to their workplace, well before Netflix and brainstorm wild ideas. They would test the ideas on the drive, potentially do mock ups etc. One idea Marc thought would work was people cutting off a lock of hair, posting it in and their company would develop best shampoo and conditioner for your hair. Personalised hair care. Marc thought this was an awesome idea, but Reed kept pushing back, posing all the problems, thinking about the proposal from every angle and as we know, the idea never took shape.
Another idea was to post movies home, in the shape of the old VHS tape. They wanted to make it quick and easy for people to access movies at home. However, the size and bulk of the parcel was never really going to work. At the same time, a good friend showed them a new technology, the disk! They decided to test this idea, so they went to the post office, bought a standard envelope, put in a blank cd, posted it home and it arrived 24 hours later: and so the idea began to take off. This model gradually morphed into Netflix as we know it today.
It was Reed’s job to constantly challenge Marc’s out of the box ideas, which is why they were a great team. And like our characters in the Princess Bride, they thought for a long time, creatively and critically and didn’t give up! When Marc Randolph spoke, he commented that the danger we have (as I referred to earlier), is that too often we don’t continue to challenge our own thinking long enough, to ask good questions, to pose different solutions, to not fall in love with the first idea or opinion, but rather to push at the edges and think again.
He challenged us as educators to move beyond ‘getting kids to write essays just to tick a box: to writing essays that challenge and show diverse and reflective thinking.’ His point was that so often education comes around to say what needs to be said to pass a test or get the best mark. However, the very obvious flip side of this is that a student cannot possibly write at all or even begin to learn deeper thinking, creative thinking, or critical thinking, if they don’t have strong educational foundations, excellent basics in both literacy and numeracy.
When a student has excellent foundational learning in literacy and numeracy they can use these skills to appreciate and mull over all areas of learning and deeper thinking. These fundamental skills impact all subjects and indeed all aspects of future learning and life. As we know, you can’t have one without the other, it has to be both, and intertwined together right from the beginning of the educational journey.
At St Andrew’s we want every student to be well grounded in the basics but placed in a culture that is engaging, that encourages curiosity and inquiry and to have the opportunity to become a powerful thinker. And not just for the selected few or the ones who are a little further along the track in their learning. There are many paths up a mountain and there are many areas in which a student can focus, thus creating learning through deep, creative and critical thinking opportunities.
As a College, we have been on a journey over a number of years to clearly articulate and implement our plan of what creative and critical thinking looks like. We are always thinking and reflecting ourselves. It’s often too easy for schools to assign or to shift all responsibility for an area of education to some individual who operates in a silo. We have a strong and continuous program of teaching and learning for all staff, with ongoing coaching and support for teachers in the classroom.
What we want is for all these practices and skills to permeate each and every classroom, every day, from Prep through to Year 12. However, this is something for which we all need to take responsibility. We have slowly removed the space for thinking to take place and we’ve filled it with things and devices, so not only is this something that is transforming education, it needs to transform our homes. Parents also need to be proactive in this space.
We need to cultivate this culture of deep and reflective thinking if we are to break out of the cycle of quick fix solutions and populist thinking. We need young people to challenge problems, to think differently, to reflect wisely. It won’t be easy but it must begin to once again become central to what we do both within and outside education as we support our students to walk confidently into their futures."
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