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The power of elastic thinking in education

In the 1960’s the executives at the Balaban & Katz theatre chain were worried about their business. Most of their profits came from concession stand sales, popcorn and Coke. They tried two-for-one deals, matinee specials, but nothing was increasing their profit. Traditional problem solving was not working, but could it be solved in a non-tradition way?

David Wallerstein, an innovative senior executive, wondered why customers would not engage in such a “deal.” Did they not want to look piggish carrying two bags of popcorn? Was it just too much to carry? His answer, create a new size of popcorn called “Jumbo.” Sales immediately increased in popcorn and Coke. Wallerstein found that humans will buy a larger size portions of food well before they would buy two separate portions. McDonalds success with supersizing its meals proved the theory true.

Wallerstein changed age old beliefs that had been held in the food industry about how consumers act. He solved a novel problem by looking beyond the existing order of how things had always been done. This is the basis on elastic thinking.

Elastic thinking requires you to think differently, outside conventional thought. One must get comfortable with ambiguity and the idea that there is no single right answer. You have to question your assumptions and experiment with new ideas, not being afraid to fail. Failure becomes learning what does not work, taking you one step closer to something that does work.

There is a riddle that reads “Two mothers and two daughters were fishing, each caught a fish. They managed to catch one big fish, one small fish, and one fat fish. Since there were only three fish caught, how could it be that each caught their own fish?” Now in most people minds, the first thought is there are four women. An elastic thinker would note that this is only an assumption. So what could the possible solutions be?

What if there were only three women – a girl, her mother, and her mother’s mother? The girl would be a daughter, her mother would be both a mother and a daughter (to her mother), and the last would be a mother. Hence two daughters and two mothers caught three fish.

Traditional education often focuses on structured problem solving. These step by step linear processes read like a formula. This top-down approach uses the brains high-level executive structures commanding the approach. Elastic thinking uses a more bottom up approach, adding the brains emotional processing centers as a resource. This non-linear approach is geared to the increasing speed of change in or world driven by dynamic changes in technology.

With the advances in technology, the way we live our lives is changing rapidly. New knowledge will create new jobs, and life-long learning will be required. One element of life that will stay constant is the value of elastic thinking to business and society.

Dr. Steve Patchin is Superintendent of Hancock Public Schools. Programs he has contributed to creating include Mind Trekkers and CareerFEST, helping students explore their talents and associated careers in STEM. His research has focused on increasing development of self-efficacy in individual students.

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