Note: The following article is adapted from a piece previously published on The Dangerous Child blog
Thinking is a set of skills we learned at a very young age, in an automatic and mostly unconscious manner. We cannot remember how we learned to think the way we do, and so we are stuck with a large number of thinking “tics and foibles” that we might be better off without. This is unfortunate for us, and even the most intelligent of us must often struggle to compensate for our sub-optimal set of thinking skills.
If we started at the beginning, we could provide a better path to deep, powerful, and independent thinking for our children — if we only took the time and trouble to discover how. First, we need to learn to think better for ourselves. Then we can do a better job setting the stage for our Dangerous Children, in their adventures in thought and learning.
How Does One Learn How to Think (Better)?
If you do an internet search query: “How to Think,” the search engine response is likely to contain a large number of links to websites telling you how to think in particular ways. “How to think critically,” “How to think creatively,” “How to think logically,” etc. It can be difficult to find information on “how to think” in general.
Even so, some websites provide bits of interesting advice that may help youth and adults to think more effectively, within conventional boundaries. For example:
Thinking is something that happens naturally in each individual, but there are ways to deepen your thinking abilities. It takes time and practice to become a better thinker, but it’s a process you can hone all your life. Being a better thinker and keeping your mind sharp can help your mental and physical health in the long run!
__ More: How to Think
When I applied for my faculty job at the MIT Media Lab, I had to write a teaching statement. One of the things I proposed was to teach a class called “How to Think,” which would focus on how to be creative, thoughtful, and powerful in a world where problems are extremely complex, targets are continuously moving, and our brains often seem like nodes of enormous networks that constantly reconfigure. In the process of thinking about this, I composed 10 rules, which I sometimes share with students. I’ve listed them here, followed by some practical advice on implementation.
Every magazine trumpets the latest discoveries about how to be more physically fit.
But enhancing your thinking skills? Enriching your mind management skills? Not many articles about that. __ https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/05/29/thinking-about-how-to-think/
The short articles linked above contain some useful tips for improving one’s thinking skills. But even the most unconventional suggestions are still quite conventional. If we are to help to liberate the minds of future generations of Dangerous Children, we will need to unleash our own minds in some radical ways.
Making Radical Improvements in Thinking is Difficult (but not impossible) After a Certain Age
Edward De Bono, who introduced the idea of Lateral Thinking, has devoted his life to helping adults to think in more powerful, profound, and playful ways. He has been largely successful, but with only a surprisingly limited audience.
Full book catalog
De Bono has written a book on teaching children how to think. The slide presentation below provides a quick introduction to the ideas in Teach Your Child How to Think.
We should keep in mind that thinking is a set of interlocking skills and processes, which work behind the scenes in most adults in an almost wholly unconscious manner. These skills were developed from a very early age, beginning in the womb. They were automatically bootstrapped onto the rapidly developing neural substrate of the developing fetus, neonate, and infant. The process of thinking skills acquisition continues in childhood, is knocked off the tracks in puberty, and settles more or less in place by early adulthood.
If you want your Dangerous Child to have the most powerful and independent mind he can have, certain approaches to child nurturing and child raising will work better than others. If a parent or caretaker waits until college age — or even high school age — to provide an environment conducive to developing thinking skills, it will be much too late.
Teaching a Child to Think is Teaching Him to Be
The Dangerous Child Method is based upon the development of creative skills in movement, language, music, art, and pattern. Because the foundations of these skills are built long before the child can walk, talk, and meaningfully converse — even before birth — the approach to guiding Dangerous Child development in skills competency (including thinking skills) must take a primarily nonverbal form.
By developing the latent patterns of space, time, language, music, and motion, the Dangerous Child is prepared for a fuller range of possible skills when his brain moves through the sensitive periods of development in childhood.
For a very young child, there is no difference between thinking and being. It is only later that he learns to deceive, and create a secret inner life. It is crucial to facilitate the development of powerful thinking skills in the formative years, before the child begins to feel the strong tug of popular, nonsense culture.
Children are Born Creative
It is not necessary to teach a child to be creative. Rather, it is necessary to restrain yourself from destroying the child’s innate creativity. Some discipline is always necessary, since the child’s basic needs must be met in spite of the turbulent impulses and inner demands that most children are prey to.
Give the child a wide range of opportunities to experiment and exercise his creativity. Children begin to reveal their aptitudes and inclinations from an early point in their existence. Look for particular strengths which can be utilised for growth, and look for particular weaknesses which will need to be either eliminated or compensated for.
At each state of development, the process of developing new thinking skills will evolve and take different forms — building on older skills and integrating themselves, new into old.
Coaches Must Understand How New Thinking Skills Fit In
Some skills, such as music, art, motion, and language, seem to progress in a logical fashion, with occasional large jumps in skills and comprehension from plateau to plateau. The toddler is not so different from the olympic athlete, for example, in basic neuromuscular function. The development from one to the other is a matter of qualitative refinement and quantitative progression over time — and entirely plausible.
The development of a world class mathematician or theoretical physicist from a babbling infant is a little more difficult to conceive, but the basic ingredients are all there. Most infants who have the latent potential to be productive mathematicians or theoretical physicists will never develop into those professions, for many reasons.
One of the reasons for such a failure to evolve is that the necessary early forms of pattern experimentation and exploration were never attempted. Another reason for failure of latent physicists and mathematicians to develop is lack of interest or motivation. And so the tools for personal evolution (thinking skills and executive functions) were not provided at the needed time — usually long before parents even have an inkling that any useful skills of such a nature exist.
Children must be nurtured, but allowed to experiment and fail. They must be supported, but also taught to develop natural skills of hard work and independence. They must be valued, but not be led to see themselves as the centre of the universe.
Eventually the child will teach himself to bootstrap his own thinking skill sets. The real world will provide plenty of challenges against which to test himself and his unique approach to thinking.
Afterword: From birth, Dangerous Children are provided strong foundations in music, art, movement, language, and pattern, according to the child’s age and stages of development. This is in preparation for “the great divergence” in learning which occurs as children take up more and more of the responsibility for their own learning.
Thinking skills are both conscious and unconscious, and underlie the basic foundational skills above. Whatever the child’s level of intelligence, whatever his inclinations and strengths, he will benefit from thinking skills training in conjunction with executive function training.
Note: Thinking skills evolve over time, in layers which interact. Providing ample clear and clean experiences in a loving and playful context over a wide range of categories — from language to music to movement to textures, colours, and patterns — will give newborns, infants, and toddlers plenty of grain and grist for the mill. If you follow the techniques used to teach children to teach themselves, soon they will take on more and more of their training — including thinking skills training.
For adults who want to learn to think better, consider these tips:
1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you’re reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.
2. Learn how to learn (rapidly). One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent. Be able to rapidly prototype ideas. Know how your brain works. (I often need a 20-minute power nap after loading a lot into my brain, followed by half a cup of coffee. Knowing how my brain operates enables me to use it well.)
3. Work backward from your goal. Or else you may never get there. If you work forward, you may invent something profound–or you might not. If you work backward, then you have at least directed your efforts at something important to you.
4. Always have a long-term plan. Even if you change it every day. The act of making the plan alone is worth it. And even if you revise it often, you’re guaranteed to be learning something.
5. Make contingency maps. Draw all the things you need to do on a big piece of paper, and find out which things depend on other things. Then, find the things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
7. Make your mistakes quickly. You may mess things up on the first try, but do it fast, and then move on. Document what led to the error so that you learn what to recognize, and then move on. Get the mistakes out of the way. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
8. As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols. That way, when you return to something you’ve done, you can make it routine. Instinctualize conscious control.
9. Document everything obsessively. If you don’t record it, it may never have an impact on the world. Much of creativity is learning how to see things properly. Most profound scientific discoveries are surprises. But if you don’t document and digest every observation and learn to trust your eyes, then you will not know when you have seen a surprise.
10. Keep it simple. If it looks like something hard to engineer, it probably is. If you can spend two days thinking of ways to make it 10 times simpler, do it. It will work better, be more reliable, and have a bigger impact on the world. And learn, if only to know what has failed before. Remember the old saying, “Six months in the lab can save an afternoon in the library.” __ https://www.technologyreview.com/s/409043/how-to-think/
The better one learns to think, the more obvious are the modern attempts to bamboozle by media, academics, government bureaucrats, attorneys, advertising, and the hordes of academically lobotomised psychological neotenates roaming the landscape.
Be wary about your use of and appeal to authority. Don’t rely on other people’s opinions, even if they seem to know what they are talking about. Check facts, look at alternate viewpoints. If you see holes in their arguments or reasoning, look into it. Don’t ever just stop looking into something just because an authority figure (like the news, or your professor, or your senator). Now, if a variety of independent sources are making the same argument or claim, it’s more likely that it is true.
Practice a healthy skepticism about what you uncover. Make sure that you find information that is corroborated by more than one source (it’s best to look for independent sources). Look into who is making the claims (are they subsidized by big oil companies, do they have a stake in propagating misinformation, do they simply have no idea what they’re talking about?).
Try new things and get outside your comfort zone. The more you do this, the easier it will be to look at opinions and ideas that don’t immediately conform to your worldview. It will also introduce you to ideas that you would never have encountered. So try out a cooking class, or learn to knit, or get interested in amateur astronomy.
Always continue to sharpen your skills at detecting scams and con jobs by persons high and low.
How to Lie With Statistics A classic sourcebook on common statistical fallacies used to deceive, free for reading or download at archive.org.
Useful for learning math concepts: A Mind for Numbers
The more skillful and knowledgeable about thinking the adult, the better for guiding their Dangerous Child in his thinking evolution. The weakminded will never make the transition to The Next Level. But that is no reason for the rest of us to lag behind.