Our purpose in writing this article is to set the stage for a series of activities that you can use personally or with your students to practice the strategies of the skilled thinker. There are many ways to conceptualize the organization of these skills. We have chosen to group them into the categories of gathering, assessing or considering, and applying.
Gathering skills can be thought of as discrete skills that are used to recall or collect bits of data that are thought to be useful in the pursuit of the solution to some sort of problematic situation. As the data begins to accumulate, the skilled thinker considers and assesses what has been gathered and begins to sketch out potential solutions. Often, additional gathering steps are required to fill in gaps. Application skills blend all of the pieces into a strategic attack on the problem at hand.
It is our contention that acquisition of these skills is often left to chance until students reach upper level courses. Individuals who do not take such course work are at a serious disadvantage. We would further argue that these skills can be learned beginning at a young age and should be part of the planned curriculum of every school. Assuming the reader wishes to improve their own thinking or to teach the skills to others, what follows is an outline of some of the critical components with a brief explanation.
The human brain specializes in noticing discrepancies and trying to resolve them. When a problem is perceived and gains our attention, a search through the files of our experiences commences and does not stop until a solution emerges or we give up in frustration. This often turns out to be a rather messy process and is seldom linear if the problem has any significance. It might take minutes to months or years and may never be resolved. The solution of one problem often leads to new questions and, in the brains of the most skilled and artistic among us, can lead to a lifetime quest for knowledge. What follows is not meant to be a sequential list of the skills to be applied, but is rather a map with a partial listing of stops where we can gain sustenance, repack our gear, or check out the vistas . Some may be revisited many times while others may not be touched on a particular journey. There are many additional unnamed stops that can be added to our maps as we progress through life’s journeys. If one were to embark on a major investigation or study, what are some of the skills that would be useful?
Among the most basic of the thinking skills are those that help us gather information. These include recalling what we already have learned, observing, collecting, organizing, and classifying. We shall examine each in turn and provide the reader with examples and some practice exercises to begin the process of making the skill your own. These activities can, of course, be used as teachers of models of the skills that can be taught to others, beginning at very early ages. Additional exercises will be added in a new section of our web site as time allows.
Remembering information involves both putting it in and retrieving it later. When we try to memorize something we can use what is called rehearsal to encode the information by repeating the information over and over using words or mental pictures. Many of us have learned poems or lines to a play in this manner. Mnemonics is an encoding strategy that is useful for information such as the order of colors in the visual light spectrum (Roy G. Biv, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) or items on a grocery list. Both rehearsal and mnemonics are used to encode and then later to retrieve the same information. When we do not initially recall needed information we can sometimes activate the memory by remembering where we were, whom we were with or when it was learned. If material is clearly understood when it is first learned, that is the information is connected to prior knowledge, events, or emotional content, it will most often be easier to retrieve it later. Here is a link to a resource on memory techniques: http://www.mindtools.com/memory.html.
The solution to our problem may have been found by someone else or they may have at least made a good start on it. One of our first steps should be a review of the literature. What have others said about our topic? What research has been done and what were the results. A good library is your best friend at this point. With the advent of computers and the Internet, searches using Google: http://www.google.com/ or other search engines can save us many hours as we collect background information.
Direct observation is a tool used to gather information throughout the problem solving process. We vary greatly in our observation skills but can become more proficient through experience. Observing for details is the basis of all other observation skills. Regular attempts to describe in writing or by drawing a variety of objects in your surroundings will foster greater skill in this area. Size, color, relationship to other things, change, and texture are some of the things to look for. Having observed two or more objects or events, it is usually easy to distinguish differences or similarities but it takes skill to identify those that are relevant to a particular study or investigation. Additional information on the skills of observing can be found at http://valetc.com/tag/thinking/.
Many schemes have been devised to keep track of the many details and bits of information that one collects in the course of an investigation. One of the simplest is to use note cards to jot down the information (being careful to note the source). The cards can be easily rearranged to identify relationships, hierarchies, etc. Computer software is also available to do the same thing and may be more convenient for people with access to the equipment. An organizational skill of great value is the ability to classify or categorize the individual items in the large pool of data. Practicing this skill consists of finding similarities between various items in a list, then giving each grouping an appropriate name. This seemingly simple activity requires careful thought if one is to develop mutually exclusive categories based on relevant criteria.
CONSIDERING AND ASSESSING INFORMATION
As information begins to pile up and is organized, the mind can begin to consider, manipulate, and assess it. What are the parts, how do they fit together and what does it all mean? Do patterns emerge, how is this like other things I know, and can I use this to predict how things might work in the future? The answers to many of these questions may direct us back to the need for additional information from the gathering stage or trigger a thought that leads to a creative insight.
When we search for the main idea of a paragraph, try to identify personality characteristics of a character in a play, or search for the structure of a protein we use a skill called analysis. Whether trying to develop an understanding of an historical event or learn a new game, taking information apart to look at the pieces and determine what is relevant, analysis comes into play.
One aspect of analysis is to identify essential properties of a concept. For example, when we picture the concept “chair” in our brain we must have an idea of the essential properties of a thing before it can be called a chair. Before you call something a chair it must have a surface to sit on and have some sort of backrest. You may think of other essential attributes of “chairness.” Practicing this skill consists of identifying concepts and attempting to list the essential properties. For example, what are the essential properties of “mind”? What about “government” or “protozoan”?
Each person brings their own point of view to every situation they encounter, but most are not aware that their perspective influences decisions they make, how they attack problems or how they approach various tasks. A powerful form of thinking is analysis of your own perspectives – to consider the principles you believe in and the basis for these principles or to do the same for another person with whom you are having a discussion or argument. Debate is a formalized activity that relies heavily on this skill. Here is a link to some graphic organizers to help with analysis: http://www.writedesignonline.com/organizers/analyze.html#fishbone
Once the pieces of a concept have been revealed, we can begin to compare and contrast it with other things we know. How does the new idea fit into the scheme of things as perceived by our own brain? Tables, charts, and Venn diagrams have all been used to show where ideas contrast or overlap. Learning to use graphic organizers can be a big help in developing these skills.
Interpretation is another of the skills we use when considering input. It is easy to read too much into information, especially when it seems to confirm a previously held belief. Headlines and “sound bites” can easily lead to misinterpretation. For example, a headline that reads, “Local Teachers’ Pay Raises Triple the State Average,” might tempt the reader to believe that the raises were unreasonable. Without knowing what both local teachers made and the state average before and after the increases it is impossible to interpret the information fairly. It could be that even after the raises, local teachers were still well below the state average. If we interpret the information received and simultaneously think about other data we might need to avoid misinterpretation, our skill level is growing. Graphic organizers for compare/contrast can be found here: http://www.writedesignonline.com/organizers/comparecontrast.html#ccmatrix
Hypothesizing may be used either in an attempt to generate potential causes for an event or to predict the outcome based on a given set of circumstances. One way to develop your skills of hypothesizing is to play the game of hypothesizing. To play the game, one person merely asks a question beginning with “Why” or “What if” and other participants offer as many hypotheses as they can to answer the question. As in brainstorming, all answers are accepted, no matter how far fetched or “off-the-wall.” A recorder should keep track of all of the answers. For a more detailed explanation of hypothesizing and some sample exercises, see: http://www.newfoundations.com/Hypothesizing/Hypothesize.html.
Many activities in school and in life require us to examine a large amount of information and try to make sense of it. Pattern recognition is a valuable skill that helps us identify relationships among the mass of data, thus helping us keep chunks of information in mind as we attempt to deal with the situation. For example, if we observe the following sequence of numbers: 5, 10, 20, 40, ___, 160, we see that each successive number in the sequence is double the previous number. We can surmise that the missing number is 80 with a great deal of confidence because we recognize the pattern of doubling. Patterns occur in speech, literature, mathematics, history, science, and virtually everything one can think of. Acquiring the habit of looking for patterns in everything we do helps us integrate the vast quantities of data we are subjected to in our daily lives.
Synthesis is the opposite of analysis. Instead of taking something apart and looking at the pieces as we do in analysis, synthesis involves looking at the pieces and generating a bigger idea. For example, after determining the speed of sound in air, water, and steel and knowing the molecular components and spatial relationships of each medium, one might synthesize a theory of sound propagation.
In the broadest possible sense, creative thinking is coming up with something new. To a young child, creativity is used to solve virtually every problem encountered because cultural patterns and common solutions have not yet been learned. As we grow older and our experience broadens, it becomes easier to use tried-and-true methods and we are, in fact, encouraged to do so by parents and school programs that reward such behavior. Still, we prize the alternative view, the unexpected revelation that cuts through to a new insight. As with the other thinking skills discussed above, creative thinking can be learned (and taught) through practice and experience. Developing the habit of generating off-beat solutions, looking at problems from multiple perspectives, or using tools like “Synectics” http://www.writedesignonline.com/organizers/synectics.html or “Lateral Thinking” http://tip.psychology.org/debono.html enhances the chance of coming up with something new.
What is described here as an end point of higher-level thinking, the combined use of the many skills to solve a problem or make a decision, is actually the starting point as well. Before we can strategically martial the discrete skills, we must perceive that we have a problem to address, a decision to be made, or an issue to be resolved. The nature of our difficulty helps determine our plan of attack.
Turning first to problem solving, we find that experts have discussed a variety of approaches, but most involve a stepwise approach. Polya in his little book, How to Solve It, suggests a 4-step model. First we have to clearly understand the problem and what is required. Second we must attempt to see how the pieces are connected in order to make a plan. Third, we carry out the plan, and fourth, we look back at the plan and process to see how it might be improved. This seems rather straightforward, but the devil is in the details. Complex problems may require breaking up into smaller chunks, for example, in order to even understand what is going on.
Other authors have suggested that when solving a problem identifying the goal you are trying to accomplish should be the first step followed by identification of limiting conditions or constraints. The third step would be to find different ways of overcoming the constraints that can then be tried out and evaluated for effectiveness.
Decision-making models have also appeared in various formats. A couple will be presented here, but the reader is advised to adapt these and other models to your own needs. What is comfortable for one is not necessarily so for all. A six-step model has been proposed which includes the following steps: Specify the parts of what is at issue and define any unclear terms; determine appropriate areas of concern; predict both good and bad consequences for each concern listed in step 2; select the 3 or 4 most important good and the 3 or 4 most important bad consequences; assess the sources of each of the good and bad consequences identified by rating the confidence you have in the sources; make a decision by weighing the good side against the bad side.
A simpler model consists of merely making a matrix with the possible decisions at the top of the page with the factors we wish to consider listed down the left side. In the intersections on the matrix, a plus or minus can be used to indicate good or bad and a number from 1 to 5 to indicate importance or impact of the factor. Top-rated decisions will be those with a high positive score across a number of factors. It is sometimes necessary to weight the factors as well since some might be deal killers.
Experimental inquiry, sometimes called the scientific method, is a strategy used in a wide variety of instances but is especially suited to the sciences. It uses both hypotheses (see above) and experiments to reach conclusions regarding puzzling or problematic circumstances. Core elements of the strategy include observation of a discrepant or puzzling event, thinking about and explaining why it happened, developing a prediction (hypothesis), designing and carrying out an experiment to test the prediction, and explaining the results of the experiment in light of the experimental results. Inquiry from the student’s viewpoint might look like this:
What is it? How does it work?
Could this explain?
How can I prove it?
Perform the experiment
What is my conclusion? New Question?
We have attempted to pull into one article some of the thinking skills that could form the foundation of a repertoire of a powerful thinker with links to exercises and examples for further practice. As is often the case on this website, we will try to add to these links as time allows.