Living in a Linear World

I took an IQ test a couple of days ago. I think I passed. I’m not completely sure, because every definition of “intelligence quotient” (IQ) that I’ve found so far is so convoluted and complex that it’s not understandable. This has led me to believe that either I don’t have a high enough IQ to understand exactly what “IQ” means, or that I have a high enough IQ to understand that it doesn’t really matter how high your IQ is if you don’t use it for something more productive than deciphering convoluted definitions. I’ve decided to go with the latter option.

This isn’t the first time I’ve taken an IQ test. The first time that I can remember was when I was in fourth or fifth grade. They never did tell me what my IQ was—it seems that they were afraid that telling me might affect my ability to achieve scholastic goals. Rather than disclose my score the nice counselor lady just smiled her plastic counselor smile and said “You can do a lot better than you have been doing, if you’ll only buckle down and try harder.”

That lecture was a total waste, as was the test itself. As a child with undiagnosed ADD, I couldn’t just “buckle down and try harder.” The harder I tried, the more behind I got, as long as I was using the linear learning methods that were forced upon me. Trying to get a non-linear child to think and learn in a linear fashion is like trying to teach a left-handed child not to be left-handed. It’s not a learned behavior that can be “unlearned,” it’s an instinctive, intrinsic part of that child’s basic wiring.

Now, some of you are wondering, “what does he mean by ‘linear’ thinking and ‘nonlinear’ thinking?” In all honesty, it’s not all that easy to describe in universally understandable terms. It’s a lot like the famous definition of pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Linear thinkers look at traveling from point A to point B, and see a straight line between the two points. They will deviate from that line only if it is absolutely unavoidable. Non-linear thinkers look at traveling from point A to point B, and see a great adventure, with lots of new sights and sounds along the way. They may not get there as rapidly, but they sure do enjoy the ride.

If you draw a line 10 inches long, and tell a linear person to divide it into five parts, they will divide it into 5 little two-inch pieces, each lined up in proper order like little soldiers. Give the same project to a non-linear thinker, and no two pieces of the line will be the same length, and they may be arranged in any conceivable fashion, creating a myriad of creative choices and options.

Give a linear thinker a technical project—say a task that a particular item of equipment needs to perform on a minimal budget. They will analyze the equipment and task, eliminate methods that they know won’t succeed, and find the most reasonable and direct method of accomplishing the task. On the other hand, a non-linear thinker will start with the question “Why won’t it work if we do it like this?” They will set aside the assumptions about what will and won’t work, and look for new ways to meet the goal at hand. Often, this will lead to new, brilliant, creative methods that revolutionize the industry. The rest of the time, people just think you’re nuts.

When you stop to consider the differences between these two subsets of humanity, it’s easy to understand that forcing either to process things like the other is a formula for trouble. If we were all strictly one or the other, the world would be a never-ending battleground. In reality, this isn’t a black-and-white issue, but is more like a grayscale, with each of us uniquely positioned somewhere in between, and leaning toward our dominant pole.

The stresses of this natural conflict of styles is never higher than it is in the lives of our children. The harder you try to force a non-linear child to think in linear fashion, the harder it is for them to function. The result is generally a frustrated, angry child with low self-esteem who is a chronic underachiever. The very same child, in an environment that is sensitive to his or her non-linear thinking processes and learning styles, usually becomes one of those brilliant “gifted and talented” students that everyone looks to with a sense of awe and wonder. The difference isn’t the child working harder, but an environment that allows the child to work better, using his or her brain chemistry to their advantage.

Proverbs 22:6 says “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This is a verse often used to encourage parents to maintain discipline and training in Godliness and moral values when raising their children. That is a valid interpretation, but I see a deeper application for parents and teachers responsible for the molding and shaping of young lives. The verse says “Train up a child in the way he should go,” not “in the way YOU should go.” It is important to consider each and every child on an individual basis, and to find the learning styles and techniques that work best for that individual, even if they are radically different from your own. Its important to help our children discover their unique gifts and talents, and allow them the space to explore and understand their own unique mode of mind wiring. Only with that environment and understanding can they become everything that God meant them to be.

Deep in the heart of every child, there lies a talented, capable, brilliant young person that’s trying to get out. You can hold the door shut, and keep them captive—or you can hold the door open, and set them free.

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