Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader

There are a number of people who have changed the way I think but no more than Edward de Bono who died this month aged 88, a great example of a learning leader.

Born in 1933, he graduated as a doctor from the University of Malta before studying physiology and psychology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He represented Oxford in polo, set two canoeing records and later gained a PhD in medicine from Trinity College, Cambridge.

But he is probably best known for two things, firstly as the creator of the term lateral thinking and secondly for his six thinking hats strategy that went on to influence business leaders around the world.

Lateral thinking

To understand lateral thinking, we first need to figure out what thinking is. There are many definitions but my own take is that it’s a reflective process involving the manipulation of knowledge, feelings and experiences as we seek to connect what we know with new information, normally focused on a problem.

There are two or maybe three modes of thinking!

1. Convergent – focuses on coming up with a single, “correct” answer to a question or problem. Examples of convergent thinking would include critical thinking, a logical process that involves challenging underpinning assumptions, questioning accuracy, motivation and purpose in order to make sense of a situation or solve a problem. Its origins can be traced back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or as De Bono disparagingly referred to them, the gang of three.  Also, analytical thinking, where you break down complex information into its component parts, this can and is often used in conjunction with critical thinking. Convergent thinking is logical thinking, meaning its rule based, systematic and linear. If for example we concluded that 2 + 2 = 4 and we decided to add another 2, logically the answer would be 6. 

But logic can still be challenging, there is a logical answer to this question yet 80% of people get it wrong.

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A: Yes
B: No
C: Cannot be determined

The correct answer is A. (click here for the explanation)

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas.

2. Divergent – is the opposite of convergent and involves coming up with many possible solutions, acknowledging that there may be no single correct answer. This type of thinking is often emergent, free flowing, illogical and requires creativity. Convergent and divergent thinking can be used together, divergent to generate ideas and convergent to make sense of those ideas and find a practical application. Click here for a video that explains how these two types of thinking work together.

3. Lateral thinking – is a way of solving problems by taking an indirect and creative approach by looking at the problem from different perspectives. Although there are similarities with divergent thinking it is not the same. Divergent thinking starts with a problem at the centre and random ideas are generated branching outwards in all directions, lateral thinking requires the individual to come up with a solution by generating different ideas that result from changing perspective. De Bono writes that lateral thinking forces the brain to break set patterns, it’s a pattern switching technique.

Let’s consider one of his examples, Granny is sitting knitting and three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests putting Susan into the playpen, a relatively creative (divergent) solution. A logical (convergent) answer might be to tell Susan not to do it, but anyone with a three-year-old will know how effective this will be, but that won’t stop them trying!

The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan, this is lateral thinking, looking at the problem from a different perspective. Its illogical because granny is bigger and surely you don’t need to protect granny from a three-year-old, but it is still a solution and would work.

I am reminded of a question I was once asked whilst visiting Berlin. “Why did the East Germans build the Berlin wall?” ………“To keep people in of course”, it was a prison not a defence. It’s all about perspective.

Lateral thinking is not a substitute for logical thinking and can be used as a way of generating new divergent solutions, they complement each other and are interchangeable. Lateral thinking is generative, logical thinking selective.

In summary lateral thinking is about changing perspective……

Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.

My own personal favourite perspective story

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lateral thinking for learning

But what has this got to do with learning? Well learning is not just about facts and knowing stuff, the reason we go to school is to gain an understanding of a wide range of issues, concepts and ideas that when faced with a problem we can manipulate and cross check in order to form opinion and come up with a solution. Learning is a consequence of thinking.

Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.
Confucius

De Bono believed that thinking was a skill that could be learned and because lateral thinking helps people develop creative ideas, creativity could also be learned. It is not an innate trait, a type of intelligence that you are borne with, it’s something we all possess, we just need the techniques to do it. He did however distinguish between artistic creativity and idea creativity, Michael Angelo and Shakespeare are artistically creative, lateral thinking will only ever make you idea creative.

As to the techniques, maybe they will feature in another blog but if you can’t wait, here is a short video, but beware De Bono was the master of acronym.

We tend to take thinking for granted, believing we are good at it or maybe never even questioning our ability. But what De Bono made popular was the idea that it was a skill and that we can improve. We live in a time when information is more accessible and freely available than ever, so the real value has to be in what we do with it.

Thank you, Edward De Bono 1933 – 2021.

And lastly….the blog would not be complete without one of De Bono’s lateral thinking puzzles.

A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns, he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking so why does he do it?

The man is a dwarf and cant reach the higher buttons.

Case study – Omelettes and Cognitivism

1774_making_summer_sausage_omelette

If you have actually got as far as reading this first paragraph, there must have been something in the title that caught your attention. Perhaps you were simply curious as to how these three words are connected, or maybe one of the words relates to something you are interested in?

Whatever the reason, you have begun to process information and so engage in cognition, put more simply, you have started to think.

Making an omelette

But first a question, take a moment and think about how you make an omelette? ……….Then in your own words, explain how you would do this? ………. As you might imagine this is not about the omelette but the process you went through in order to answer the question.

The process – There was clearly an element of memory and recall as you thought back to the time when you last made an omelette, you would also have needed to direct your attention to the event itself and use strong visualisation skills, to see yourself actually whisking the egg, adding the salt and pepper etc. However so sophisticated is the human mind you can actually create images of making an omelette based on your knowledge of scrambling an egg! The point being, you have the ability to visualise activities of which you have no or little experience. The mental processes outlined above go some way to explaining Cognitivism. Cognitivism in learning is the study of how information is received, directed, organised, stored and perceived in order to facilitate better learning. Cognitivist believe that mental processes should be studied in order to develop better theories as to how people learn.

Case study is higher level

As you progress up the exam ladder the style of examination question changes. It starts with relatively simple activities that require you to recall something already taught e.g. what is the capital of France? It then moves to questions that test understanding, e.g. explain why Paris is the capital of France? At higher levels you will ultimately come across, Application, Analyse and Evaluation, and it is these higher level skills that a case studies often requires you to master.

I have written about case studies before, firstly, Putting the context into case study and secondly Passing case studies by thinking in words. Here I want to explore how by understanding how people think  (Cognitivism) you can develop strategies to help you answer what seem to be impossible questions.

Application of knowledge

Imagine you have been given a case study that has a large amount of information about the company, the people and the financial position. You have been asked to offer advise as to how the company should improve its internal controls within the HR department. Even though you may not think you know the answer, the process outlined above will give a framework to follow.

  • Firstly, focus your attention on the key words – internal controls and HR deportment
  • Secondly, recall any information you have about internal controls and HR departments
  • Thirdly, deploy strong visualisation skills, seeing yourself in that company, bringing in as much detail as possible to give context, and then use common sense
  • Finally write out your answer – Say what you see, talk through how you would do it, mention some of the problems you might experience and outline the possible solutions

These are cognitive strategies developed from learning more as to how people think, why not give them a go?

And here is how to make an omelette from my favourite instructor, Delia – yet another practical tip, remember last month it was how to make toast.

Plastic fantastic – how the brain grows

Stress BallA major new idea was presented to the world in 1991, to many it will mean very little but in terms of improving our understanding of the brain it was a milestone.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) had seen its roots in the earlier MRI, but instead of creating images of organs and tissues, fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity and so show how the brain works in real time.

The implications of this for learning are significant because for the first time we were able to identify which parts of the brain were reacting when different tasks were being performed. For example, we know that the cerebrum which is the largest part of the brain performs higher functions such as interpreting touch, vision, hearing, speech, emotions etc.

Brain plasticity

But it is the next discovery that is far more interesting from a learning perspective. For many years the common belief was that brain functionality (intelligence) was to a certain extent hard wired, largely genetic, with a fixed number of neurons. It probably didn’t help that the computer gave us a simile for how the brain worked which was misleading.

That all changed when it became possible to observe the brain and watch how it responded to what it saw and was asked to do. What this showed was that the brain has the ability to generate new cells, a process called Neurogenesis.

Click here to listen to neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret explain how humans can generate new brain cells i.e. Neurogenesis.

This may make sense for children given the basic brain functionality when a child is born, something must be happening to turn them into caring and thoughtful adults. In fact, by adolescence the brain has produced so many synapse, the connections between cells, they have to be cut back or pruned. Hence the term synaptic pruning.  What was perhaps more of a surprise was that growing new brain cells was not just something children could do, adults were able to do it as well.

The classic example is the evidence by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre and colleague Dr Katherine Woollett who followed a group of 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls (non-taxi drivers). Their research showed that London taxi drivers developed a greater volume of grey matter i.e.  cell development, three to four years after passing “the knowledge”  when compared to the control group.

Learning about learning

This may leave you thinking, all very interesting but what does it mean for me as a student?

In the same way that people can develop a growth mindset, bringing it within your control, you can do the same with your academic performance. Just because you don’t understand something or pick it up very quickly doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to. This is not to say that some people are not “brighter” than others, it is estimated that around 50%/60% of your intelligence is genetic, but that’s on the assumption your brain cannot change, and what this proves is it can.

And here is one last interesting observation, knowing how the brain works can actually help rewire it. There is evidence that students who know more about how they learn, (meta cognition) will naturally reflect on what they are doing when they are learning which in turn will help grow new cells, how good is that.

Concentration – the war in the brain

Concentrating

One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.

But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.

The war in the brain

Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention a is a limited resource so how we use it is important.

Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.

The problem is that these maps change based on how “relevant” the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!

The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.

The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And its made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.

The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!

Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.

How to improve concentration  

Some of the methods below will seem obvious and there is of course no magic bullet, however because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.

  1. Reduce distraction –  if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
  2. Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goal and don’t make them too ambitious.
  3. Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include, deep breathing, click this video its very helpful, and of course exercise which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
  4. Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours for example playing video games can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.

And if you would like to find out more watch these:

What to do if you fail the exam? – growth mindset

failure-sucess

Back in 2011 I wrote about what to do if you fail an exam, it’s one of my most read blogs. Last week I delivered an online presentation for the ACCA, (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) on how having a growth mindset can help improve your chances of passing an exam, the very opposite of failing. But that is partly the point, very few successful people have never failed, in fact coping with failure is one of the reasons they ultimately succeed.   Having the “right mindset” can not only help you pass, it can give direction and motivation if you fail.

Mindset

The term “growth mindset” was coined by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She became fascinated as to why some children shrink in the face of problems and give up, while others avidly seek challenges, almost as a form of inspiration. What she discovered was that the type of mindset students held was at the heart of these two differing views. This search for resilience in the face of challenge and adversity has become her life’s work and something that has guided her research for over 40 years.

Fixed – When students have a fixed mindset, they tend to believe abilities are carved in stone, that you have a certain amount of let’s say talent or intelligence and that’s that. They perceive challenges as risky, that they could fail, and their basic abilities called into question. And the fact that they hit obstacles, setbacks, or criticism is just proof their views were correct in the first place.

Growth – In contrast, when students have more of a growth mindset, they believe that talents and abilities can be developed and that challenges were one way of doing this. Learning something new and difficult was in fact the way you get smarter. Setbacks and feedback are not seen as confirmation of frailty but as information that could be used to improve.

This does not mean that people with a growth mindset think talent doesn’t exist or that everyone is the same. To them it’s more a belief that everyone can get better at whatever they do, and improve through hard work and learning from mistakes.

How can you develop a growth mindset?

The good news is that you can develop a growth mindset, but just to be clear, the world is not divided into those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed one, a mindset is not a character trait. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in one area but there can still be a thought or event that acts as a trigger and moves you into a fixed one. The secret is to work on understanding your triggers so that you’re able to stay in a growth mindset more often.

Beliefs – ask, what you believe about yourself and the subject you are studying. Do you believe you are below average, not very clever or that the subject or topic you are studying too hard? If this is the case you have wandered into a fixed mindset. What you believe is neither true nor false. What we can say is that it’s certainly not “helpful” to believe you are not clever, and is not what someone with a growth mindset would do.

Talent and effort – thinking that people are either naturally talented or not, is a classic example of being in a fixed mindset. You may never be top of your class but you can improve, and this is achieved by making more effort and working harder.

Positive self-talk – we all have voice inside our head, it’s called your inner speech. It has a significant impact on what you believe and how you behave. If you find your inner speech is telling you to give up or that you will never understand a particular topic or subject, change your voice, tell it off, and then say something more positive. Dweck says that just by adding NOT YET to the end of your statement can help. For example, I don’t understand portfolio theory – at least NOT YET.

The importance of mindset and failure

If you have failed an exam or just sat one and believe you have failed, I have two pieces of advice.

Firstly, on the whole students are not the best judge of their own performance. They tend to reflect on what they didn’t understand or thought they got wrong rather than what they might have got right. As a result, you may have done better than you think and are worrying about nothing.

Secondly, if you do fail, you have a choice as to what this might mean. On the one hand, it might simply be confirmation of what you already know, that you are not very good at this subject or clever enough to pass. Alternatively, you could move to a growth mindset, recognising that you have slipped into a fixed one.  Find out what areas you need to work harder on, and start again.

Everyone has to deal with failure, it’s what you do when you fail that matters most.

Sensemaking, humility and the humanities

human-being-girl-picture

For a variety of reasons, I have been engaged this month in thinking not so much about examinations but what subjects should be examined.

Whilst the news has been dominated by terrorism, Trump and Brexit, we may be facing a far bigger problem, of which these news stories are a good example, how can we be sure of making the right decisions in a world of mass information, complexity and change.

People voted Brexit for a whole variety of reasons, many “facts” were presented in simple terms, we will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS, immigration will be reduced as we gain control over our borders. Yet these facts are far too simplistic, any level of analysis, critical thinking and challenge would have revealed the difficulty of delivering them, and in many instances they won’t be delivered. If this is the case, did people vote to leave, or stay not on the facts as presented but using other criteria, maybe they were just naive and placed far too much trust in Politicians or perhaps they had never been taught about sensemaking, humility or studied the humanities.

Sensemaking

An interesting article caught my eye earlier in the month, “Silicon Valley needs to get schooled”. it was by Christian Madsbjeg, author of the book Sensemaking and senior partner in ReD, a strategy consulting company based on the human sciences. In the article Madsbjeg argues that the reason for a lack of new and exciting products from Silicon Valley is not because of a shortage of ideas but a complete failure to understand people.

In the book Sensemaking he expands on the problem. In order to cope with complexity, we look to science, logic and the algorithm (a rules based process) for a solution. On the face of it crunching big data so that it spews out the correct answer seems perfect, but, and this is a quote from the book, Madsbjeg makes a very important point, he says we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start to see them as the truth – the only truth”.  We are in fact looking at the numbers without the context of the world from which they came or a sufficiently deep understanding of the behaviours we are measuring.

We rely on science and the scientific method for so much of what we do but where people are involved we need a different approach. To put it another way “When human beings enter the equation, things go non-linear” Neil deGrasse.

Sensemaking is “how we make sense of the world so we can perform better in it”. It recognises that situations are complex and information ambiguous. It requires people to make a continuous effort to understand the connectivity that exists between people, places, and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act accordingly.

Humility

trumpwillwin-notextIntellectual humility as defined by the authors of a recent paper entitled, Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. It is in effect, recognising that you could be wrong. One of the findings from the research was that people who displayed intellectual humility were better than the control group at evaluating the quality of evidence they had been presented with. A very useful skill indeed, given the world of false news in which we currently find ourselves.

Humanities

And what job will you get after studying History for three years……

The humanities (English, History, Philosophy etc) have been given a bad press in recent times. Overshadowed by the drive to develop coding skills and with the constant chanting of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the background, it’s not surprising that less people are studying them. They were at an all-time low in 2014 at 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees, a long way of the 1967 record of 17.2%.

But it is generally recognised that the humanities can teach us a lot. In another reference from Christian Madsbjeg’s book, Sensemaking, he suggests the humanities can teach us, one that other worlds exist, two that they are different and three, we learn how to imagine other worlds that in turn helps us better understand our own.

As with sensemaking and humility, are these not the types of skills we need to learn?

Examinations – what to examine?

What subjects should be examined depends to a large extent on what job you would like to do. But with the claim that 60% of 11 year olds will leave school to do jobs which have not yet been invented it’s hard to know the answer. What we do know is that the world is unlikely to slow down, change not happen, data become less available and complexity give way to simplicity. As a result, we need to teach people and so examine the skills that will help them better navigate this world. Maybe when those primary school children go onto higher education they will be studying sensemaking, humility and the humanities.

Even though the ink is barely dry on the letter sent by Theresa May bringing about our formal negotiations to exit Europe, the interesting thing is we will never know if this was a good or bad decision. Because post Brexit people will behave differently, some will work hard to make the impossible possible whilst others will continue to frustrate the process, and none of that could have been foreseen at the time.

So, let’s hope the basis for the original decision to leave was not because of the headline – We will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS!

Passing case studies by thinking in words

thinkingA case study is a relatively high level form of assessment used to test a student’s ability to apply knowledge from a whole range of different subjects set against the backdrop of a real-world situation, a case study is a simulation.

Thinking process

On the face of it the challenges set by a case study seem daunting, how can you remember everything you have learned in the past and be able to solve a problem in an environment you have potentially never seen before. The good news is that our brains are better suited to solving these types of problems than you might think. In fact, in some ways learning individual subjects can be more difficult due to their apparent theoretical nature and little use outside the classroom.

However, the process you have to go through in order to produce a good case study style answer is worth exploring in more detail, especially if you’re not getting the mark you want or in fact need. Here are six stages that set out what you have to do from the point when you open the exam paper to finally putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard.

  1. Read and absorb the narrative given in the context of the case
  2. Make the case real, visualise yourself in that context, play your role
  3. Search for knowledge that might help, thinking across a whole range of subjects
  4. Begin to formulate an answer in your head or at least a direction of travel by manipulating information
  5. Organise your thoughts in such a way that when communicating to others it will appear both logical and persuasive
  6. Write out your thoughts using clear heading’s and plain English

Individually nothing is difficult but if you don’t perform particularly well at any one of these stages, the chain will be broken and as a result the quality of the answer suffer.

Using words to think – start with general and go to specific

From my experience students begin to struggle at around stage 5 and certainly 6. The cognitive energy required to not simply know what to do but be able to turn those thoughts into something that can be understood by others is possibly the most difficult part. One technique that can help with this is to use key words and linguistic structuring.

Imagine the question asks you to offer advice to company A as to how it might improve its profitability. One solution that might come to mind is, increase sales. What you need to do next is drill deeper, ask how do we increase sales? Maybe, you think, selling more of product X is a good idea. Next ask, how do we sell more of product X, answer, by approaching company Z and asking them to advertise it along with their best selling product.

Okay, get the idea, firstly there is a degree of analysis and questioning, this is stage 4. You now need to organise your thoughts and put them on the page so that others will understand the point you are making, stage 5 and 6.

This is where the words come in, start with general and go to specific. General words or statement sit high up, by definition they apply to many situations and are vague but act as an umbrella under which the answer can be honed and defined, for example, you might make the following statement.

One way of improving profitability is to increase sales.

This is a very general statement and could apply to many companies. Next be more specific.

One possible solution to increasing sales for company A is to sell more of its product by approaching company Z to see if we could come to an arrangement where they would be willing to promote their bestselling product and ours at the same time.

This in some ways is the reverse of the thinking process, but by creating a general statement first it gives a real structure to the answer. Like any technique it will require practice, so don’t be surprised if it takes time to become really good at it. When answering case study style questions, you will be thinking and reorganising thoughts a lot, and this initially at least is just another aspect of the case you need to take into account. But with repetition comes the shifting of knowledge into behaviour, and the ability to do it without thinking at all.

In summary, e.g.

  • What I hope you have found from reading this blog is that you can improve your chances of passing any exam with some simple techniques. (very general)
  • On the face of it a case study may seem different, and exam techniques less applicable. (Case study specific but still general)
  • However, if the process of thinking can be set out into a series of stages, this can help identify an area that needs to be improved. (Getting more specific)
  • The most common point where students fall down is towards the end of the six stages, specifically stage 5 and 6. (Nearly there, but talking about any student)
  • But by drilling into the problem and continually asking questions you can drive out a solution, then if you write out that solution using the general to specific technique, the words and so your answer should appear on the page in a logical and easy to understand format. (Finally we get to the point, talking specifically to you the student)