Instructional Designers: Should Improving Thinking Skills Be Your Topmost Priority?

Thinking Skills And Instructional Design 

I believe thinking is driven by questions. I also believe thinking skills matter!

Let me explain. As a very young man I joined IBM after spending five years as a teacher, and I vividly remember being given two gifts by my first-ever manager.

One was a desk ornament with just one word on it – think.

The other gift was a framed cartoon which, since I cannot draw, I will have to describe. It is World War One, a lone British soldier is taking cover behind a broken horse-cart. He is aiming his pistol at a large band of marauding Germans advancing menacingly on him with bayonets affixed to their rifles. A man in a bowler hat taps him on the shoulder. Without looking around the soldier says, “Not now I’m busy.” The unacknowledged man in the bowler hat behind him is selling machine guns.

A grisly metaphor for an attitude that has not only resonated with me down the years but been confirmed on many occasions amongst prospective clients. So, imagine the cartoon and instead of the machine gun salesman it is a 3D printing salesman tapping on the shoulder of a traditional manufacturer and being told without a second look, “Not now I’m busy.”

Or, perhaps it’s someone like me tapping you on the shoulder and offering a free program that will in twenty minutes help you get your teams thinking critically. Are you too busy to invest the time?

I got the message back then at IBM, I get it now. I hope you will also. The capability being demanded by the single word on the plaque –think– is the only antidote to the attitude being lampooned in the cartoon.

In 1758 Carl Linnaeus the founder of the science of identifying and organizing species (taxonomy) named us Homo Sapiens – wise man. Since then we have defined ourselves as the only species that thinks, and since wisdom cannot happen without rational judgement, that at least strongly implies thought. And we have been neglecting thinking skills for decades; and it shows up in the lamentable statistics put forth by the National Center for Education Statistics.

What Is Thinking? 

It is our capacity to manipulate symbols, ideas and hypotheses, which we can then express in verbal, artistic or mathematical forms. More broadly it is our way of making meaning. Mostly, however, thinking is about questioning. Thinking in questions is another way of defining Critical Thinking.

Do We Teach Thinking Skills? 

No. And as a result in our society answers enjoy a privileged position above questions. By doing this we are devaluing curiosity and encouraging people to accept what they are told. And that must change.

Our schools are so focused on answers that questioning has been reduced to obscurity. Do you want employees –graduates of our K-20 system– who know the answers to a prescribed curriculum? Or do you want employees who know those answers, but in addition are intellectually curious and want to know how to find the right answers to the right problem through critical thinking skills?

The Critical Thinking Community compares feeding answers to learners as a way to learn is like driving a car by repeatedly hitting the brakes of a car that is not moving.

As a teacher, coach or instructor do you continue the methods of teaching favored by our K-20 system by feeding endless content in the form of declarative statements and then setting a multiple choice test, or do you teach by having those you are training learn by asking questions?

Ask yourself this – are all the manuals you use full of declarative and definitive answers to questions? If so you are merely reinforcing the only skills that our schools teach – memorization and test taking. Certainly there must be some value in turning these answers into questions and allowing and encouraging the people taking the course the opportunity to think.

Try this. Spend some time turning statements into questions. First understand that all declarative statements, such as "water boils at 100 degrees centigrade" is actually an answer to a question – in this case at what temperature does water boil? Try taking your course material and turning it into questions: Shift the burden of thinking from the instructor and the manuals to the students. And especially make sure that when an answer is given it should also generate another question. The key is the use of these five words: Who, What, Why Where, When, and How? 

An answer is a stop sign. A question is an open road. 

  • Questions help define a task.
  • Questions help express a problem.
  • Questions help delineate an issue.
  • Questions help solve the problem.
  • Questions make us think.
  • Questions are the basis for Socratic Inquiry.
  • Only when an answer generates further questions does thought and learning continue.

Questioning switches the intellect on. Questioning drives the questioner deep below the surface into the subject matter, encouraging engagement with complex matters. How to do this? That is the question.

An understanding of questioning is a good place to start. Superficial questions will get superficial responses. So, purposeful questioning matters.

  • Questions of purpose force us to define our task.
  • Questions of information force us to look at and check sources.
  • Questions of interpretation force us to give raw facts meaning.
  • Questions of assumption force us to not take things for granted.
  • Questions of implication force us to follow the facts.
  • Questions of opinion force us to see both sides of any issue.
  • Questions of relevance forces us to keep on point.
  • Questions of accuracy force us to check the truth of our facts.
  • Questions of precision force us into the details and specifics.
  • Questions of consistency force us to look for contradictions.
  • Questions of logic force us to make sense.

Isn’t that better than the usual single question – “Is in on the test?

My philosophy: If people convince themselves of the need to learn, the fire comes from within. Having their feet held to the fire has the opposite effect.

I am now tapping you on the shoulder and offering a solution. If you wish to see how teaching people remedial thinking works in practice, click and take a free twenty minute tutorial.

If you like what you learned, then please share.

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