Learning to Think

Most people take thinking for granted, but there are real skills behind the process – skills that can be developed and taught. Dr Issam T Abu Zaid, HR Consultant – Strategic Talent Management at Saudi-based Ma’aden, explains.

Thinking skills are key to any human endeavour. As someone interacts with nature, community and life, he or she needs to use effective thinking skills to formulate new knowledge, make decisions, or initiate actions. It is therefore imperative that these skills are developed and nurtured at all school levels. Thinking skills can be divided into two key areas: distinguishing skills and perspective.

This is a very basic and essential thinking skill that focusses on clarity. In addressing a new issue, concept, or problem, students need to get to grips with what the issue is and what it is not. Understanding the nature of the issue at hand will help students focus their thinking and segregate the knowledge they have into what is relevant to the issue and what should be discarded. They need to draw sharp lines to separate a new concept from other adjacent domains. As Hungarian mathematician George Pólya puts it in his four-step method for solving problems, the first and crucial step is to define the problem well; you cannot have a good solution to an ill-defined problem.

The distinguishing skill presents itself in many situations, particularly when a new concept or term is introduced. For example, in introducing the concept of ‘efficiency’, it may be defined as a relationship between input and output. Efficiency should not be confused with effectiveness. Understanding the exact connotations of words enhances the accuracy of communication and hence the creation of knowledge. Another vivid example is when introducing the concept of ‘mass’ in a science class. It must be clear in the mind of the student that there is a fundamental difference between the mass of an object and its weight. Clear understanding of the difference between mass and weight will easily lead to the conclusion that while the mass of an object is constant, the weight can vary based on the object’s distance from the earth.

In looking at new concepts or problems, students need to decide on how to position themselves. Considering different alternative positions, or perspectives, will give students more options on how to approach the solution. Quoting George Pólya again, “It is better to solve one problem five different ways, than to solve five problems one way”.

An example of perspective that is often quoted is the glass that is half full. Some see it as half full, others see it as half empty, while engineers may see it as spare capacity not utilised. People usually look at things from their own standpoint. Students need to become aware that people’s perspective often determines understanding of issues and influences decisions and directions. They should recognise these perspectives, analyse them and take them into account when addressing the issue at hand.

Another common example is cultural perspective. People are usually shaped by their community, history, values and surroundings. When people consider an issue or situation, they are usually looking at it from the lens of their own culture. As they grow older, students increasingly become world citizens, not only realising the existence of other cultures, but also open to these cultures and seeking to understand them. This makes them aware of other people’s perspectives, helping them understand where they come from, and hence making them more capable of managing relationships with them. Finally, students need to be trained to alienate their own prejudices in looking at issues; they need to be as objective as possible. This will make them more credible and hence approachable for deep and productive discussions with other people.