The Importance of Out-of-the-Box Thinking | exSTEMsions

The Importance of Out-of-the-Box Thinking

An ordinary problem…

I have an electric weed whacker, and it’s annoying, because to whack the front of our house, I need a really long cord, and I don’t have one.  I do, however, have two cords that I can connect together into one long cord, which is incredibly useful.  Useful, but only until I accidentally yank one cord out of the other because one of the wires got stuck somewhere.  After reconnecting the cords several times, I was annoyed enough to begin actually thinking about how to solve this problem.  The problem is not the cord length, but the cord connectivity: it’s too easy to disconnect them with an accidental tug.  

But how do I solve this problem?  I had some rope, and could attempt to tie them together somehow, but that’s really unwieldy.  I didn’t particularly want to tape them together, as I don’t always need them together, and I don’t want a sticky mess.  Can you think of a simple way to keep those two cords together? See if you can figure out something before you read on!

...with an extraordinary solution

As it turns out, this is something that comes up all the time in electrical work, and there is a lovely, out-of-the-box fix.  Tie a knot in the cords!

Huh?  Let’s be a bit more specific: tie a basic overhand knot, where the main loop of the knot is where the cords are connected, like so:

This is very cool.  So now, when I tug one of the cords, the knot as a whole is tugged, and not the connection between the cords!  Now I can yank all I want and be safe in the knowledge that I can keep whacking.

Out-of-the-box thinking is productive thinking

So, in trying to keep two cords together, I learned a really cool thing about knots, which is something that came totally out of left field.  And now... I’m really interested in knots, and how I can use them around the house and garden! I’m glad this obstacle came up during my garden chores; it led me down a totally unexpected path, and has enriched my thinking.  This little story typifies what we do here at exSTEMsions.

Our math problems often involve totally unexpected and fabulous ideas, ideas that are not only fun, but useful, and not only for the solution we’re interested in currently, but for others to come.  Like a problem...

  1. ...about simple arrangements of apples that leads to deep thinking about parity
  2. ...in coordinate geometry that ends up talking about… pigeons!
  3. ...about adding numbers that naturally finds its way to proof by contradiction (and if you’re not sure what that is, see our blog here!)

Our problems are all about surprises: ideas that surprise you when you least expect it, where the ideas are surprising all on their own!  And when you’re confronted with something that you didn’t expect, it’s not the end of the world; in fact, it’s the beginning of a new world, where your horizons are broadened in ways you didn’t see coming.

Surprises are opportunities for learning

So, why are we talking about this? Well, for a really important reason. Sometimes when your child is presented with a real-life problem or challenge, they may be required to use a new skill out of the blue, a skill they haven’t yet developed. They might be asked to try something that’s a little out of their typical reach, or work in a way that isn’t their natural style.  Our kids may not start with everything they need to know to solve a problem. And this is not only okay, it’s great!

Why? Because new and surprising challenges are opportunities. They offer our children a chance to learn something new in a way that connects to what they already know, AND lets them use their knowledge for a purpose. This way of learning is different from just providing information we hope they’ll hold onto, or teaching them a new strategy out of nowhere, and then asking them to apply it. Retention is more likely to occur when things are discovered in context, and when you need to use them.  Taking advantage of these opportunities is a great way to learn, and retain what you learn.

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Our problems are all about surprises: ideas that surprise you when you least expect it, where the ideas are surprising all on their own!  And when you’re confronted with something that you didn’t expect, it’s not the end of the world; in fact, it’s the beginning of a new world, where your horizons are broadened in ways you didn’t see coming.

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