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Living With a Non-Linear Mind, Part 2; Empowered by Structure

At school, I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t a bad student either, but filling in worksheets or doing math problems to demonstrate my ability to get the right answer was not at all motivating for me. I didn’t even care very much about my marks. We had a grammar fill-in-the-blank booklet to fill out in grade 10, and I treated it like ‘MadLibs’ – rather than filling in the right answers (which I knew), I wrote in words that amused me. There was a point when I tried to get kicked out of the library for a different reason every day (not vandalism or anything like that – just creative activities that no one else would have thought of, which would nonetheless be equal parts irritating and amusing so that the librarian would ask me to leave).

But I did enjoy being at school, most of the time. I liked school so much that, after high school was over, I went and did another 3 degrees worth of school, one of my degrees having a double major. It wasn’t even about getting a degree most of the time – I just took courses at college and university that I enjoyed.

What I didn’t realize until recently, was that part of what made school such a comfortable place for me was the structure. Classes began and ended at particular times, and I didn’t have to think about where I was going next. Meanwhile, my mind could roam, picking up information that was interesting and fun to work with and ignoring the stuff that didn’t matter to me. It was, really, a pretty self-centered way to go about life.

So that worked for me for a long time. During College and University I worked at summer camps a lot (a place with a lot of scheduled routine). After University, I had a number of driving jobs (schedules pre-made, routes) and other jobs that were either relatively simple or relatively structured, or both. Again, I often relied on external structures or cues for direction.

When I was working at becoming a teacher, things got more complex. Now, I wasn’t just relying on an external structure in order to have a basic direction myself, but I was trying to provide direction in a meaningful way to other people.

I did really well at the written work and research that were part of my studies as a teacher. However, when it came to lesson planning, I failed. In fact, it was only with the Dean’s permission that I was allowed to continue my studies in Education, and with the proviso that I audit a Graduate level course in Instructional Design (a part of the Bachelor of Education program that had been dropped, mostly due to budgetary constraints). That Instructional Design course made a big difference – but the reason it made a big positive difference for me was that the course allowed me to figure out what sort of Instructional Design would work best for me. Essentially, what I was forced to do was to create a process for myself to follow, which would then allow me to create processes and structures that would work for my students. This process had constant self-reflection and assessment built in, so that I could keep working on making it better.

It was only after I’d had to work hard at developing structure for my own thinking that I was able to really experience success in more complex work environments, and to contribute in a significant way to other people’s lives at a level more in line with my potential.

So my conclusion, out of my experience, is that non-linear thinkers need structure in their lives so that they have the sense of security and comfort necessary to do their most significant thinking, rather than just wander around feeling lost most of the time.

As a teacher, I tried to help my students by providing external cues, like written and electronic visual reminders of due dates, checklists and schedules for what needed to happen in their projects, personal reminders and cues to help them get going on their work, group work with specific roles so that students would cue each other, and of course choices (whenever possible) so that they could work on a kind of project or related area that was most interesting to them. Also, I tried to help them develop their own mental structures or processes, so that they would be able to think through doing particular intellectual tasks in a way that worked for each of them. This is not the same as imposing an ‘essay outline’ – something that never worked for me, since I could not say what I was going to write ahead of time – that only emerged after I had done some research and taken some notes.

Of course, my success in doing this for and with my students was mixed, and changed as my level of experience increased. But, ultimately, I had a nearly decade-long teaching career, and I did serve as a co-learning leader for a year of that time.

Now, as a stay-at-home dad, I work at providing a nurturing and catalytic environment for my own children, and that too is a complex vocation. But my children are a lot like me in some ways, and it’s fun to be part of their lives, to see what they are coming up with, and to be part of the empowering structure that allows them the security and freedom to thrive.

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