On the bridge of a starship, the captain begins her log entry as her crew checks routine readouts. “Captain’s log, stardate 8130.3…” Little beeps and boops from the computers around the bridge are heard in the background. The helmsman adjusts course to avoid the Klingon neutral zone at his captain’s orders. “Aye, sir.” The captain swings around, and we see… holy crap, is that Kirstie Alley? She’s so young! And she’s a Vulcan?
Yes, Kirstie Alley’s big break was as a Vulcan Starfleet cadet in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” And yes, this post is about Star Trek, but only to show how some 23rd century thinking applies to arts classrooms. Let’s go where no arts educators have gone before! (I had to).
Back to the bridge, which is actually a training simulation at Starfleet Academy, the gentle humming of the starship is interrupted by a distress call from a freighter, the Kobayashi Maru. They have hit a mine and are losing power and life support. “Can you assist, Enterprise?!” The captain of the Kobayashi Maru verifies their coordinates– inside the Klingon neutral zone, AKA not a safe place to go– and the Enterprise’s computer verifies that they have 300 crewmembers aboard.
“Damn…” Kirstie Alley, I mean Captain Saavik, says to herself. She knows she has a responsibility to save this disabled ship, but can she avoid or survive a Klingon attack to protect her own crew? She orders the helmsman to change course to intercept the Kobayashi Maru, even though entering the neutral zone will certainly invite fire from Klingon warships. First officer Spock reminds her: “We are now in violation of treaty, Captain.”
As soon as she orders the transporter room to standby to beam over survivors, three Klingon cruisers appear. They will not accept messages relaying the Enterprise’s rescue mission. They fire on the Enterprise. With each torpedo blast, another beloved member of the Enterprise crew dramatically flings themselves to the floor as their consoles inexplicably explode in front of them– Sulu, Uhura, Dr. McCoy, Spock! Saavik looks around in a panic as her crew appears to die around her. As she calls for all hands to abandon ship amongst alarm bells, a familiar voice calls, “Alright, open her up!” And the false wall of the training simulation opens to reveal… Admiral Kirk.
Saavik has failed the Kobayashi Maru test, as every single Starfleet cadet before her has. Except for Kirk. Way back when Kirk was a cadet at Starfleet Academy, the Kobayashi Maru test was created to assess a cadet’s ability to face a no-win scenario, something that wasn’t unlikely when flying around space faster than lightspeed to unknown corners of various galaxies. Spock said that the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test was to “experience fear; fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear and maintain control of one’s self and one’s crew.” (Star Trek 2009). But Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, he says heroically. So, after failing the test twice, Cadet Kirk came up with his own solution.
In this clip, from Star Trek 2009, an extremely smug Cadet Kirk has reprogrammed the simulation so that the Klingon warships drop their shields, allowing him to take out the attacking ships quickly and rescue everyone on the Kobayashi Maru. All of his instructors and classmates are stunned. Cue the “pew pew” finger guns and he’s sent off for a disciplinary hearing.
Kirk’s solution to this test has been the subject of many debates about problem solving, ethical leadership, and (my subject today) non-linear thinking. There are plenty of similar ways to describe these two ways of thinking: left- or right-brained, “Conscientious/Compliance” vs “Influence”, Ravenclaw vs. Gryffindor. None of these opposing types are inherently better than their counterparts. In fact, the true power of understanding your own way of thinking, and your students’ ways of thinking, is in being able to harness the strengths of both types of thinking.
Before I get into how to care for and challenge your different types of thinkers, a word of warning: categorizing your students into buckets should be done with the utmost care. A person’s style of thinking can be fluid. Some students may think more linearly in one subject, but be fully capable of non-linear thinking when it suits them better, and vice versa. It’s also tempting to assign the “good, smart” kids as linear thinkers and “bad, struggling” kids as non-linear thinkers. Highly linear thinkers may also be messy and careless. Non-linear thinkers can be (and frequently are) exceptionally bright and attentive. It’s not as simple as this or that, and no one benefits from stereotyping.
Also, be mindful and self-critical when considering your students of color. If you try to determine the thinking styles of the students in your learning space, and the groups are divided along racial lines, try a little harder. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself how you can know your students as they are, not as you assume them to be. When you do that work, you might discover new ways to engage students you had previously found confusing. Read on to learn how to spot linear and non-linear thinkers.
Care and Feeding of Linear Thinkers
Linear thinkers may grasp concrete, logical concepts (x, therefore y) quickly, but struggle with free-form or more abstract ideas (improvisational, quick thinking). They can be inflexible once they have come to a decision, and are often risk-averse. They will follow directions to a T. They love a good chart and a set of rules to follow. They thrive in structure.
Linear thinkers feel at home in subjects that have clear-cut answers, like math and science. Being right is important to them, and it is possible that being “smart and good” is a key part of their identity. So that means that subjects where answers are more subjective can be anxiety-inducing. Or, they can latch onto the more concrete aspects of creative subjects, like grammar, music theory, and technology.
Linear thinkers are highly praised in most learning environments because they are typically fastidious, thorough, and easy to control. They succeed in areas that are easy to measure, so it’s easy to point to their achievements. But because linear thinkers think with blinders on, they typically don’t consider questions that aren’t asked (Is this ethical? Who benefits from this?) because that would take them off the linear path that their thinking follows. This isn’t to say that linear thinkers are unethical, but that some linear thinkers must make a conscious effort to see the forest for the trees. Linear thinkers are all about efficiency, and issues of emotion tend to get in the way of that.
When you are working with a linear thinker, remind them that different ways of thinking is a skill– something they can work on! Ask plenty of questions. A key component of non-linear thinking is that there are multiple starting points to a problem. Instead of attacking the obvious question first, challenge them to address a variable in the problem. To bring things back to the Kobayashi Maru, the question does not have to be “How do I save everyone and escape safely?” It can be “What can I change about these parameters to achieve the same or similar goal?”
Linear thinkers will respond brilliantly to any methodical process, but how do you make a creative experience methodical? With parameters. Think about a creative process as a dashboard of dials, buttons, and switches, each corresponding to a parameter of the process: color, speed, timbre, texture, height, space, volume, shape, pitch, etc. It helps a linear thinker jump into the fray by giving them a path to stand on: try this, adjust that, make this more, make this less. It requires you, as the educator, to be able to assess, diagnose, and describe quickly and effectively. Being creative can be a source of stress at times, because they aren’t sure how to measure their correctness. Since being smart is likely a large part of their identity, you must tread lightly there. Emphasize that being “correct” isn’t always important, necessary, or applicable, especially in your classroom!
You must also ask the questions that linear thinkers won’t tend to integrate without prompting: What effect will this have on the viewer/listener? What is the civic impact of this work? Does this represent my thoughts and feelings, or am I exploring someone else’s perspective? It all depends on what you are trying to achieve.
Care and Feeding of Non-Linear Thinkers
Non-linear thinkers excel at coming up with new ideas, brainstorming, and witty remarks. Since they see related and tangential ideas easily, they may become distracted or overwhelmed when they attempt something seemingly straightforward. Sometimes, that means they overlook the simplest solution because they are distracted by the endless possibilities outside the parameters of a problem. They may struggle with making decisions and/or following through with a multi-step process. Non-linear thinkers will look at a problem and figure out 45 million ways to solve it, including several ways to change the parameters of the problem to create another 100 million ways to solve the problem.
Improv comics are non-linear thinking masters. The cardinal rule of improv comedy is saying, “yes, and…” when in a scene. Always affirm what was said in your improvised scene (never contradict) and then add to that storyline. You have to be fully in the moment, always be thinking in three different places and times at once, and be funny on top of all that! If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between the skills for stand-up and improv, UCB founder Matt Walsh put it simply: “Great stand-ups are… just waiting to land their next blow… Improv is forgetting your idea and building off your partner’s idea.”
It’s that extreme flexibility and 360-awareness that makes non-linear thinkers creative juggernauts. But it can make them challenging to teach. They can be overwhelmed, unfocused, or disorganized. You can’t fight a non-linear thinker’s natural tendency to be (mentally) in multiple places at once. They just need to learn how to use that to their advantage. It is their superpower, not their fatal flaw.
Non-linear thinkers are going to stand out when you need a free-style rap, a creative solution, or a catchy slogan. But get them to commit to a solution? Well, that’s no fun. Mind mapping or brain dumps are really useful for non-linear thinkers. Students can do these by hand, or use one of the easy-to-use digital mind mapping options: Google Slides, Diagrams.net, and MindMeister are where I’d look first. The great thing about mind mapping or even a simple brain dump is that non-linear thinkers can immediately set their swirling thoughts into the action of writing them down and beginning to organize their thoughts.
The tricky part is the commitment and follow-through. Once they’ve written down their many ideas, they need to organize and assess each idea. Captain Kirk had to assess the risk of changing his test parameters and possibly being reprimanded for cheating. His idea worked, but he had to make that choice and follow through first. Make space and time available for your non-linear thinkers to not only get their ideas flowing, but to test them out against the task at hand as well. They don’t do well in captivity!
Teachers and Non-Linear Thinking
When you read the descriptions of linear and non-linear thinkers, which one resonated with you the most? If you are more of a linear thinker, you will need to improve your non-linear thinking skills to benefit your students. But I bet you’re doing it already! In fact, Dr. Maurice Elias of Rutgers argues that using social-emotional learning in your classroom is using non-linear thinking: “The Captain Kirks of education must stop doubling down on traditional academic instructional time and test preparation and instead devote instructional time to social-emotional and character development and its integration throughout the school day.” As an arts educator, your mere existence is a testament to the importance of different styles of thought and learning. Good on ya!
Also ask yourself: Is your teaching linear? Is your curriculum linear? Do you expect your students to learn in a linear way? Is that the right way, or the convenient way, or both, or neither? To avoid making this post a two-parter, I will just direct you to this article on heutagogy (self-determined learning) that might challenge how you structure your curriculum: https://www.teachthought.com/learning/learning-non-linear-curriculum/
I also feel that non-linear thinking is a crucial aspect of anti-racist thinking and teaching. You must look at your work from a different perspective– in fact, many different perspectives– and that is impossible if you are following one straight line to what you think is “right.” Even if you are more of a non-linear thinker, make sure one of the “non-lines” of thinking that you use is through an anti-rasict lens. Then try out the feminist lens. Don’t forget the LGBTQ lens.
Yeah, that’s a LOT of work. They don’t tell you all this when you’re pre-service, or starting out as a teaching artist. The important thing is to start, and never stop. Knowing your students as the complex people they are is always worth the work.