I often hear that the ideal purpose of school should be to “teach how to think,” and yet, it’s rare to have a class on thinking. We treat it as an ineffable education dust - maybe you get it and maybe you don’t. One thing that makes a real difference are teachers. It certainly helps to have a good one, but that just moves the goal posts - what is it about a good teacher that teaches you to think? And how do you bottle that up?
There’s a great book by Edward de Bono called “Teach Your Child How to Think” (and note: it’s not just for kids). In the book de Bono lays out dozens of different mental models and questions to then elicit different types of thinking.
The fundamental point of the book is quite simple: the quality of our thinking is shaped by the questions we ask and this is something that can be taught.
Thinking is a combination of what the mind does & what we set it up to do. Learning how to think is learning how to set up the mind, directing attention to channel it towards insights. To quote De Bono:
“Imagine a slope (…) You place a ball at the top of the slope and the ball rolls down the slope. The ball is rolling down the slope on its own - but you have chosen to place the ball at the top of the slope.
Imagine that the slope is quite wide and at the bottom there is a matchbox. Your task is to knock the matchbox over. You cannot just place the ball anywhere at the top of the slope. You choose a position such that the rolling ball will hit the matchbox.
In exactly the same way, thinking is a combination of what the mind does and what we set it up to do. Add up the numbers 5+11+16. That is easy enough. Some people might find it easier if the numbers were arranged one under the other. Some very young people might find it easier if they were put down as dots in a row and then you just count all the dots. In this example we see how we can arrange things so that the mind finds it easier to work.
If you are asked to tell which of two similar square shapes is the bigger you might have a hard job estimating the difference. But if you are able to place one square over the other, you can instantly see which is the bigger. Again we have re-arranged things to make the mind's task easier.
Many of the tools of thinking are simply attention-directing tools. Perception is a matter of directing attention instead of just letting it flow where it will.
Sometimes the tools or structures allow us to do one thing at a time instead of doing everything at once.
Sometimes the structures are there so that we can do things in the most effective sequence. In a way that is the purpose of notation in mathematics.
Our thinking is shaped by where we focus our attention and the way to focus our attention is through questions. Intentionally becoming better at asking directed questions is thus a path to become a better thinker. Spending time learning how to ask better questions thus yields dividends.
One thing to note here is that I’m focused on the term “question” instead of “tool”: in many ways the “tools for thinking” (e.g., frameworks, mathematics) are just a bundled set of questions structured in a way that is more complex than a few words. However, the premise is the same: you set up the “slope” and then let the ball (your attention) go roll downhill. For example, using trigonometry to solve a problem requires framing the problem as one of trigonometry, and then asking a series of trigonometric questions to reach the answer; and so on for business problems, science, and life.
In future posts I will spend more time on various questions & frameworks since this is a concept I want to explore further, but one connection point I want to make is that of directed attention and mindfulness. In a prior post I wrote about how Thich Nhat Hanh presents various questions as the path towards more mindful behavior; for example, asking yourself “what am I doing?” throughout the day is a path towards mindfulness. Similarly Buddha has various “meditations” towards enlightenment, and Zen has “koans” which are profound questions that center you and put your mind in a specific way of thinking. They all do exactly what de Bono mentions above - these questions all narrow your attention, and in this case they focus it on the present moment. These questions are a category unto themselves but they follow the same theory.
Similarly, one of my favorite frameworks for problem solving is just based on asking the most basic questions of anything you find: who, what, when, where, and why? This is based on the book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. The notion of the book is exactly de Bono’s point: ask these simple questions of any particular problem you’re tackling and then represent the answers in a way that helps others properly focus their attention.
Which is all to say, I realize now that I’ve underestimated the power of directed questioning. I see the through-line everywhere I look and I’m excited to explore it further in future posts :)