It can no longer be denied that education needs to be rethought and reformed. The viral TED talk by Ken Robinson says it all really. On a more nuanced level, we need to consider how the education system can teach us to think in ways that are useful for the rest of our lives, not just get us into college, or graduate, or find a job.
I came across this little gem of an article by the BBC that addresses in detail this issue. It quotes an American academic, Robert Sternberg who had a low IQ at school and his teachers thought he wouldn’t amount to much, but thanks to a mentor who taught him new ways of thinking beyond abstract concepts, he’s now a professor at Cornell University. According to Sternberg, “The tests we use – the SATs or A-levels in England – are very modest predictors of anything besides school grades…You see people who get very good grades, and then they suck at leadership. They are good technicians with no common sense, and no ethics. They get to be the president or vice-president of corporations and societies and they are massively incompetent.”
It sounds obvious that we should be taught from a young age how to think more effectively, but it’s not so easy to consider how exactly this should be done. Sternberg and others on his bandwagon are advocating for tweaking our thinking based on five insights:
1. Recognise your blind spots
As noted in the article, everybody suffers from some subconscious biases which distort our views and decision making. In fact, there are dozens of biases that we fall prey to. Luckily, the field of psychology is showing more and more evidence that we can be trained to spot them.
2. Be ready to eat humble pie
Sounds obvious, but we can become more effective thinkers if we can learn to deal with uncertainty and are open to changing our minds quickly based on new information and evidence. For this to occur, we have to be open to admitting we were wrong. Essentially, we should cultivate our ability to question the limits of our knowledge. As stated in the article, “On what assumptions are you basing your decision? How verifiable are they? What additional information should you hunt out to make a more balanced viewpoint?”
3. Argue with yourself – and don’t pull the punches
This strategy involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing things from another perspective. Take the opposite view and argue against your convictions.
4. Imagine “what if…”
Sternberg would love it if the education system placed more emphasis on teaching how to think more practically and creatively. As stated in the article, “Even if we aren’t schooled through rote memorisation any more, many teachers still don’t necessarily train the kind of flexibility needed in most of real life.” One solution could be to re-imagine key events in history, framing it with ‘what if’. The purpose is to consider different outcomes and form hypotheses.
5. Don’t underestimate the checklist
It has been pointed out and backed up with solid evidence that a simple checklist can save lives in fields as diverse as medicine and aviation. Technology and skill just aren’t enough – consider the fallout of a surgeon neglecting to wash their hands before surgery, or a nurse forgetting to change a bandage.
As Sternberg concludes, “Intelligence isn’t a score on an IQ test – it’s the ability to figure what you want in life and finding ways to achieve that.” One day I hope that education can broaden its notion of intelligence. Imagine what a better place the world would be if people could be more self-aware and think effectively.