Open Connections

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Precision Thinking, the Complimentary Partner to Flexible Thinking

Precision Thinking, the Complimentary Partner to Flexible Thinking 

It is crucial that young people have opportunities to engage in both Flexible Thinking and Precision Thinking because life takes both. They operate like two sides of the same coin. Flexible Thinking allows us to think big, innovate and dream. Precision Thinking turns big ideas into blueprints, inventions into prototypes, and dreams into reality. At OC, Flexible Thinking1 tends to get the spotlight, so this article seeks to give you a glimpse into how one program, Group Tutorial IV (ages 13 and 14), practices Precision Thinking in the humanities, the sciences, and the maker sphere.


Group Tutorial IV jumped right into Precision Thinking this fall when the text chosen for the annual book group was one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of the play is written in verse, which means that the lines of the play have rhythm, rhyme, imagery, metaphor, and classical and mythical references, just to name a few elements. Each week, the young people read an act at home, and then during program time they performed selected scenes. In order to embody a character, each young person had to understand what they were saying, so there were many discussions about Shakespeare’s words and meter (iambic pentameter), there was imagery that had to be unpacked (“Did he just compare her to a dog?!”) and theatrical conventions like a play within a play and imbedded stage directions, where the words tell you what to do on stage (“Hold me not!”). The young people also had the opportunity to cut scenes for length, a common practice in the theater. In so doing, they had to dig deep into the language to decide how to maintain the plot and how to preserve thought patterns and logic while removing what was repetitive or unnecessary. At the end of our study, the young people collaborated on a short film that retells the story of Midsummer in modern language and context. This required further Precision Thinking as the translation from Shakespeare’s setting, conflicts, and characters did not make sense in the modern version the youth were designing. Every detail had to be reimagined into a modern world. Reading Shakespeare can feel a bit like reading a foreign language. The vocabulary, the verse, the references, and the jokes are not in our everyday vernacular. But with some patience and willingness to unwrap the 400+-year-old words, to unearth them and dust them off, we can see their beauty and feel the draw of a great story, regardless of time and space.


Precision Thinking can often play a critical role in scientific inquiry. This fall, Group Tutorial IV youth were asked to identify a set of unknown minerals as part of a geology unit. At first, they were given flexibility in how they could approach their observations of each mineral, with youth prioritizing looking at color, crystal shape, and other special properties as they narrowed down the samples’ identities. Youth then needed to be more precise with their observations, since some minerals, like quartz, can come in different colors, shapes, and sizes. Ultimately, one property Group Tutorial IV youth found decisive in narrowing down possible matches was calculating the density of each mineral sample. Density is a fixed physical property, unique to every mineral. First, youth used the most precise graduated cylinders available to measure how much water was displaced by the mineral. Next they used a triple-beam balance to determine the mass of each mineral to the nearest 0.5 grams. Then by calculating density (mass divided by the volume of water displaced) they had a precise statistical measurement of the mineral in question to compare to values published in mineral guides. Having this density measurement, combined with their other observations, aided in adding in or ruling out mineral identifications.


Another Precision Thinking opportunity came with constructing cornhole boards for OC’s 40th Anniversary Family Fun Fest. OC youth have multiple experiences creating projects in the woodshops on campus, perhaps first exploring Flexible Thinking woodworking in the Open Program woodshop and then transitioning to more precise work in the main woodshop. Despite previous hands-on experience with many “tools of the trade,” the teens found themselves challenged by the exacting levels of Precision required to construct identical regulation game boards. Working from plans created by the American Cornhole Association, youth needed to apply technical reading skills and to interpret detailed schematics for each step in the building process. Often, they found themselves pondering just how to transition the plan details to the three-dimensional materials in front of them. It turns out that knowing how to read and measure on paper is vastly different than measuring for Precision on wood! The need for Precision Thinking didn’t stop once the materials were measured. Youth needed to thoughtfully consider how to cut, position, and assemble the materials. One example of precision tool use was the need to take kerf into account while cutting the wood on the miter saw for the frame of the boards. (Kerf is the thickness of the material “eaten” by a saw blade while making a cut.) If kerf was not considered, the frame would be slightly too large, too small, or out of square. Building from woodworking plans was a new, fun and extraordinarily demanding precision experience for the Group Tutorial IV youth, and well worth the time.


At Open Connections, the Facilitators are always looking for ways to encourage Flexible Thinking and and Precision Thinking. This fall in Group Tutorial IV, we have sought to develop Precision Thinking through Shakespeare, geology, and woodworking, while we engaged in Flexible Thinking with a collaborative art installation (on display in the Map Room), team building games, and...—but that’s a topic for another day. When we employ these two types of thinking, we deepen our understanding of the complex world around us.