Encouraging Independent Thinking

Students often don’t know why they’re learning something. Asking why is so important to kids and they deserve a better answer than “because it will be on the test.” By the time kids reach middle school, they give up asking and focus on getting a good grade. To in- crease curiosity, it is important to address the “why” questions. Why are we reading Hamlet? Why are we solving quadratic equations? When teachers answer these questions, it prompts kids to think more deeply about the implications of what they’re learning.

Parents can elicit curiosity in their children through similar methods. We don’t need to have the right answers all the time, but we need to encourage kids to ask the right questions. If we don’t know the answer, we can say, “Let’s find out. Do some research on Google, and we can go from there.”  

When we support curiosity, what we’re really developing is a child’s imagination. Which brings me to creativity, a wonderful by-product of independence and curiosity.

Esther Wojcicki, How to Raise Successful People

Embracing Life as it Is

For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry. 

Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt writing in The Atlantic 

An expert on human blind spots gives advice on how to think

A lot of the issues or problems we get into, we get into because we’re doing it all by ourselves. We’re relying on ourselves. We’re making decisions as our own island, if you will. And if we consult, chat, schmooze with other people, often we learn things or get different perspectives that can be quite helpful.

An active social life, active social bonds, in many different ways tends to be something that’s healthy for people. Social bonds can also be informationally healthy as well. So that’s more on a top, more abstract level, if you will. That is, don’t try to do it yourself. Doing it yourself is when you get into trouble.

David Dunning quoted in Vox 

Social Proof

We constantly compare our actions and beliefs to those of our peers, and then alter them to fit in. This means that if our social group believes something, we are more likely to follow the herd.

This effect of social influence on behaviour was nicely demonstrated back in 1961 by the street corner experiment. The experiment was simple (and fun) enough for you to replicate. Just pick a busy street corner and stare at the sky for 60 seconds.

Most likely very few folks will stop and check what you are looking at – in this situation Milgram found that about 4% of the passersby joined in. Now get some friends to join you with your lofty observations. As the group grows, more and more strangers will stop and stare aloft. By the time the group has grown to 15 sky gazers, about 40% of the by-passers will have stopped and craned their necks along with you. You have almost certainly seen the same effect in action at markets where you find yourself drawn to the stand with the crowd around it.

The principle applies just as powerfully to ideas. If more people believe a piece of information, then we are more likely to accept it as true. And so if, via our social group, we are overly exposed to a particular idea then it becomes embedded in our world view. In short social proof is a much more effective persuasion technique than purely evidence-based proof, which is of course why this sort of proof is so popular in advertising (“80% of mums agree”).

Mark Lorch writing in Business Insider

Minding the nurture gap

Upbringing affects opportunity. Upper-middle-class homes are not only richer (with two professional incomes) and more stable; they are also more nurturing. In the 1970s there were practically no class differences in the amount of time that parents spent talking, reading and playing with toddlers. Now the children of college-educated parents receive 50% more of what Robert Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon” time (after a popular book for infants).

(Putnam reports in his book “Our Kids” that) educated parents engage in a non-stop Socratic dialogue with their children, helping them to make up their own minds about right and wrong, true and false, wise and foolish. This is exhausting, so it helps to have a reliable spouse with whom to share the burden, not to mention cleaners, nannies and cash for trips to the theatre.

Working-class parents, who have less spare capacity, are more likely to demand that their kids simply obey them. In the short run this saves time; in the long run it prevents the kids from learning to organise their own lives or think for themselves. Poor parenting is thus a barrier to social mobility, and is becoming more so as the world grows more complex and the rewards for superior cognitive skills increase.

The Economist

Critical thinking is up to you

Critical thinking means being able to evaluate evidence, to tell fact from opinion, to see holes in an argument, to tell whether cause and effect has been established and to spot illogic. “Most research shows you can teach these skills,” notes cognitive psychologist D Alan Bensley of Frostburg State University, Maryland. “But critical-thinking skills are different from critical-thinking dispositions, or a willingness to deploy those skills.” 

In other words, critical-thinking skills are necessary for engaging in critical thinking, but they are not sufficient. You also have to want to think critically. If you have good critical-thinking skills but for some reason are not motivated to deploy them, you will reach conclusions and make decisions no more rationally than someone without those skills.

Sharon Begley, Critical Thinking: Part Skill, Part Mindset and Totally up to You  

The advantages of flexibility

Flexibility is valuable in almost any aspect of life – in school, on the job, in intimate relations with other people, and even in dealing with oneself. Just think of how much more effective teachers could be if they accommodated themselves to the varied styles of thinking in their classrooms, or how easy it would be to work for people who allowed us to be ourselves and to get our work done in ways that are effective for us, or how enjoyable it would be to be in a relationship with someone who fully appreciated us for ourselves – for our own likes and dislikes – rather than for what they would like us to be. The advantages of flexibility are so overwhelming that one wonders why we don’t emphasize it much more than we do in our teaching of our children, our students, and our employees.

Robert Sternberg, Thinking Styles

What Growth Requires

Growth requires hard work. The world is a complex place. We all become creatures of habit in the ways we think and act. To learn is to strip away those deeply ingrained habits of the mind. To do so requires that we push ourselves, that we keep building and rebuilding, questioning, struggling, and seeking.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Students Do

Shifting with Needs

Not infrequently, those who started (a) company either decide to leave voluntarily or are forced out of the company that they started. The irony of this kind of event is lost on practicality no one: The person who founded the organization is now found to be irrelevant, or even detrimental to it.

From the standpoint of a theory of styles, such an event is neither surprising nor likely to be unusual. The styles of thinking that are compatible with rugged entrepreneurship are often not the styles that are compatible with management in a more entrenched and possibly bureaucratic firm. Similarly, different styles may be required for different levels of kinds of responsibility in an organization.

The startup entrepreneur has no lack of ability; if he or she had, the company never would have succeeded in the first place. Rather the individual has a revolutionary spirit that is more suitable to the earlier than the later stages of organizational development.  What had worked so well earlier on simply no longer works. If the person cannot be flexible, he or she is likely to find it hard to fit into the organization.

Robert Sternberg, Thinking Styles

Thinking and Unthinking

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of “Like a Rolling Stone” as a “piece of vomit, 20 pages long”. It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.

In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense. A study of shopping behaviour found that the less information people were given about a brand of jam, the better the choice they made. When offered details of ingredients, they got befuddled by their options and ended up choosing a jam they didn’t like.

If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate. Young children adopt the same strategy. When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat or the child. We really can be too clever for our own good.

Ian Leslie, writing in The Economist

Encouraging Critical Thinking in Children

If we want our children or students or employees to express themselves creatively, then we have to give them the opportunity to do so. It doesn’t matter much if we tell them that we value their creative thinking, and then criticize or forestall every idea they propose.

From time to time, I do workshops for teachers, parents, and businesses that are eager to encourage open-ended, exploratory, creative thinking.  One unfavorable sign is when someone asks me exactly what they should do to encourage creativity. They want me to tell them step by step, blow by blow. Their desire is an unfavorable sign because if they want a recipe for creativity, the won’t find it. Moreover, someone who wants to be told exactly what to do is not likely to model a creative style, no matter how much they may wish to do so.

Ultimately, you must encourage creative thinking by modeling it. It is hard to encourage creative thinking if you do not model it.

Robert Sternberg, Thinking Styles

Teaching Critical Thinking

Give (children) many opportunities to use their reasoning abilities as they tackle fascinating problems and receive challenges to their thinking. Ask them to consider the implications of their reasoning, implications for themselves, for the way they view the world, for policy debates, for significant philosophical questions, or even for moral or religious issues. (Help them determine) what intellectual standards (can) test proposed answers and (how) to weigh conflicting claims about the “truth”. Help (them) learn to assess their own work using those standards. Ask them about their assumptions and about the concepts and evidence they employ in their reasoning.

Ken Bain, What the Best Teachers Do

Talking Through a Problem

Can’t figure out a complicated problem? Talk about it out loud or doodle on some paper. Psychologists in Spain say their tests show processing information verbally or visually is more effective than remaining silent and still. They put students in separate rooms and gave them the same problems to solve. The students who talked to themselves or drew pictures to map out solutions finished first and scored higher. Psychologist Jose Luis Villegas Castellanos says he isn’t sure why it works this way but believes verbal and visual problems-solving creates greater opportunities to discover the right answers.

Stephen Goforth

arguments worth having

Parents who browbeat their kids into being obedient and agreeable may not be giving them the best preparation for the real world. A new study shows that encouraging teens to argue calmly and effectively against parental orders makes them much more likely to resist peer pressure.

University of Virginia researchers observed more than 150 13-year-olds as they disputed issues like grades, chores, and friends with their mothers. When researchers checked back in with the teens two and three years later, they found that those who had argued the longest and most convincingly—without yelling, whining, or throwing insults—were also 40 percent less likely to have accepted offers of drugs and alcohol than the teens who had caved quickly.

“We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world,” study author Joseph P. Allen tells NPR.org. The key to having a constructive debate with your kids, experts say, is listening to them attentively and rewarding them when they make a good point—even if you don’t end up reaching a mutual agreement. “Think of those arguments not as a nuisance,” Allen says, “but as a critical training ground” for wise, independent decision-making.

The Week Magazine

arguments worth having

Parents who browbeat their kids into being obedient and agreeable may not be giving them the best preparation for the real world. A new study shows that encouraging teens to argue calmly and effectively against parental orders makes them much more likely to resist peer pressure.

University of Virginia researchers observed more than 150 13-year-olds as they disputed issues like grades, chores, and friends with their mothers. When researchers checked back in with the teens two and three years later, they found that those who had argued the longest and most convincingly—without yelling, whining, or throwing insults—were also 40 percent less likely to have accepted offers of drugs and alcohol than the teens who had caved quickly.

“We found that what a teen learned in handling these kinds of disagreements with their parents was exactly what they took into their peer world,” study author Joseph P. Allen tells NPR.org. The key to having a constructive debate with your kids, experts say, is listening to them attentively and rewarding them when they make a good point—even if you don’t end up reaching a mutual agreement. “Think of those arguments not as a nuisance,” Allen says, “but as a critical training ground” for wise, independent decision-making.

The Week Magazine

what exactly IS "critical thinking"?

Critical thinking entails at least ten reasoning abilities and habits of thought:

1. Consciously raising the questions “What do we know. . . ? How do we know . . . ? Why do we accept or believe. . . ? What is the evidence for. . . ?” when studying some body of material or approaching a problem.

2. Being clearly and explicitly aware of gaps in available information. Recognizing when a conclusion is reached or a decision made in absence of complete information and being able to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty. Recognizing when one is taking something on faith without having examined the “How do we know. . . ? Why do we believe. . . ?” questions.

3. Discriminating between observation and inference, between established fact and subsequent conjecture.

4. Recognizing that words are symbols for ideas and not the ideas themselves. Recognizing the necessity of using only words of prior definition, rooted in shared experience, in forming a new definition and in avoiding being misled by technical jargon.

5. Probing for assumption (particularly the implicit, unarticulated assumptions) behind a line of reasoning.

6. Drawing inferences from data, observations, or other evidence and recognizing when firm inferences cannot be drawn. This subsumes a number of processes such as elementary syllogistic reasoning (e.g., dealing with basic prepositional "if. . .then" statements), correlational reasoning, recognizing when relevant variables have or have not been controlled.

7. Performing hypothetico-deductive reasoning; that is, given a particular situation, applying relevant knowledge of principles and constraints and visualizing, in the abstract, the plausible outcomes that might result from various changes one can imagine to be imposed on the system.

8. Discriminating between inductive and deductive reasoning; that is, being aware when an argument is being made from the particular to the general or from the general to the particular.

9. Testing one's own line of reasoning and conclusions for internal consistency and thus developing intellectual self-reliance.

10. Developing self-consciousness concerning one's own thinking and reasoning processes.

Physicist Arnold Arons, Teaching Introductory Physics 

Drinking bacon grease for breakfast

If you seek advice from a very old person about how to become very old, the only person who can provide you an answer is a person who is not dead. The people who made the poor health choices you should avoid are now resting in the earth and can’t tell you about those bad choices anymore. That’s why it’s difficult not to furrow your brow and wonder why you keep paying for a gym membership when Willard Scott showcases the birthday of a 110-year-old woman who claims the source of her longevity is a daily regimen of cigarillos, cheese sticks, and Wild Turkey cut with maple syrup and Robitussin. You miss that people like her represent a very small number of the living. They are on the thin end of a bell curve. There is a much larger pool of people who basically drank bacon grease for breakfast and didn’t live long enough to appear on television. Most people can’t chug bourbon and gravy for a lifetime and expect to become an octogenarian, but the unusually lucky handful who can tend to stand out precisely because they are alive and talking.

David McRaney, read more here

Self-awareness and critical thinking

At the root of our effectiveness is our ability to grasp the world around us and to take the measure of our own performance. We are constantly making judgments about what we know and don't know whether we're capable of handling a task or solving a problem. As we work at something, we keep an eye on ourselves, adjusting our thinking or actions as we progress.

Monitoring your own thinking is what psychologists call metacognition (meta is Greek for "about".) Learning to be accurate self-observers helps us stay out of blind alleys, make good decisions, and reflect on how we might do better next time. An important part of this skill is being sensitive to the ways we can delude ourselves. One problem with poor judgment is that we usually don't know when we've got it. Another problem is the sheer scope of the ways our judgment can be led astray.

To become more competent, or even expert, we must learn to recognize competence when we see it in others, become more accurate judges of what we ourselves know and don't know, adopt learning strategies that get results, and find objective ways to track our progress.

Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Fixed habits of thinking

(Alexander Bell)’s primary investor (Gardiner Hubbard) was initially skeptical of Bell’s work on the telephone. It “could never be more than a scientific toy,” Hubbard told him. The initial inability of Hubbard, and everyone else to recognize the promise of the telephone represents a patter that recurs with a frequency embarrassing to the human race. “All knowledge and habit once acquired,” wrote Joseph Schumpeter, the great innovation theorist, “becomes as firmly rooted in ourselves as a railway embankment in the earth.” Schumpeter believed that our minds were, essentially, too lazy to seek out new lines of thought when old ones could serve. “The very nature of fixed habits of thinking, their energy-saving function, is founded upon the fact that they have become subconscious, that they yield their results automatically and are proof against criticism and even against contraction by individual facts.”

Tim Wu, The Master Switch