Thinking About “Tools for Thinking”

Now is an amazing time to be alive, but the context of now is clearly that of the past. A case in point – what you think of the uprisings of “the Arab wave” will likely be determined by how you view the world, based on your upbringing, education, and myriad other factors. The United States is behaving in these conflicts like a griffin of sorts – half Cold War beast, half Bush doctrine hawk – and the result is a superpower behaving unpredictably. Why, exactly, does this happen?

David Brooks suggests in a recent column entitled “Tools for Thinking” that such behaviors may be attributable to certain intellectual traps, like the Einstellung effect, which he describes as trying to “solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past instead of looking at each situation on its own terms.” Beyond simply applying solutions that have worked in the past, I would argue that we often view the present as more of the past, past 2.0. Of course, the context has changed over time, wildly differing causes can lead to remarkably similar effects. Knowing this is only a little helpful, however, as it takes a truly divergent thinker to break with deep-seated instincts like the Einstellung effect.

The Einstellung effect is somewhat related to another trap labeled Path Dependance, which “refers to the notion that often ‘something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.'” Brooks gives the example of the QWERTY keyboard, which we use today across the English speaking world. The QWERTY keyboard was designed not for ergonomic ease, but to slow the typist, reducing jamming of typewriter keys, which I think we can all agree will never happen on an iPhone screen. We use the QWERTY keyboard because it’s what we use, not because it’s what we should use. The difference is clear, yet…Path Dependance rules the day.

How does this relate to the classroom? In a number of ways, I’d venture. I have a Smartboard and projector in every classroom I enter, and I use it like a chalkboard from the nineteenth century roughly 80% of the time (that may be low). We want technology in the classroom, so products are designed based on existing, low tech products – like chalkboards/whiteboards – and the problem is solved! Sort of. Not really. Part of this disconnect is the path dependent design of the tool, and part of it is my own experience and sense of classroom context. Can the Smartboard be used to get the teacher out of the front of the classroom, or students away from PowerPoints, acting as teachers in front of the classroom? I don’t see it.  Breaking the model, changing the path – here lie innovative solutions. Here we are, 1 to 1 – why use a Smartboard to share information? We could use Google docs and Dropbox over coffee and conversation in the hallway.

If you, as a student, use your tablet computer as a notebook, a textbook, or even Scott Klososky’s “outboard brain,” how engrained is the path? Can you make your tablet into a sidecar easel, a portable printing press, an onboard media studio and darkroom, a compact global network? As a teacher, what are ways for me to facilitate the path shift? I think, first and foremost, we need to bring an attitude of play into each class, removing the life-and-death, fear of failure paradigm wrapped up in our AP/IB courses and start blazing divergent paths to the top of this mountain we’ve chosen to climb (worth it or not). Creative learning is learning, and if the tests have any validity, they test learning. If they don’t have any validity, we should be smart enough to change the path.

In our brave new world, a successful thinker is a free associater, one who can draw connections between broad sets of information and create new, valuable information for wide or specific audiences. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, has something to say about this, as well, in his “Six Verbs for the New Web.” Check out the last one: Generate! If you want to make a mark, and have an audience, you must generate something new and useful, or at least fun. Can you take a fresh look at the world, de-Einstellung yourself (so, the solution is not on a single Wikipedia page, bout could be in 15 taken together), break with the path dependance of tools (see iPad), and make something new?

Can we? I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this one.

Additional, tangentially-related, and fascinating discussion with Kevin Kelly via the good folks at Radiolab in a roughly 20 minute podcast here.

On Limerence

David Brooks, in his latest piece in The New York Times has covered a fascinating piece outlining the basis of my philosophies of living, learning, and teaching: “The New Humanism.”

Brooks exposes the individualistic, materialistic, uber-rational philosophies of the past and present as single-faceted paradigms which ignore much of what is true about human nature. Brooks notes that this focus “has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below,” to our collective detriment. In particular, Brooks recognizes that “When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say.” The message to students, which often becomes internalized, is that you are the sum of the numbers, or letter grades, and your worth is tangibly related to the outcomes. This message takes years to unwind, and that’s only for the lucky ones. Some people wind up tangled in the web of conflicting messages between innate human desires for social success or pleasing loved ones and their internal feelings of boredom, hatred, or disinterest in what they have been told makes them valuable. Who likes taking the SAT, and what happens when it’s over (answer: the GRE)? Who is motivated endlessly by a score; everyone gives up on Galaga eventually, because the numbers begin to look alike, or be meaningless. In fact, intrinsic motivation is identifiable most often in non-measurable forms.

In particular, Brooks points out that

research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

Equipose and metis are essential “talents,” or, more appropriately, learnable skills for most people. Courses like Advanced Placement Literature & Composition are arguably useful not because they make learners smarter, but because they lead learners to reflect and monitor their own understandings and skills, changing as they individually must: equipose. Or, useful because the course demands higher order thinking skills and integration of complex sets of data in the form of texts for synthesizing new understandings: metis (at least partially, or within a given set). If taught correctly, a course builds a sense of honest, authentic engagement, possibly limerence: loss within the challenge of a task, questing for Phaedrus’s Quality. But, the AP falters badly in May, testing, assigning a number. I love my task, I’m playing the game, and questing for improvement, but I’m not going to score perfectly on the AP test, so how likely am I to give myself to the task? To experience limerence?

If it were me, and it has been, the answer is not bloody likely. So the tests, the measurements, don’t help honest, prolonged engagement, but rather feed into our “rational,” materialistic selves. The symptoms are cramming, learning disposably, and widespread misery. Oh, how I wish for schools in which humans teach humans, explicitly, in which we respect our different strengths, foibles, blind spots, and in which we all seek to become more happy, healthy, and complete humans together through this shared process called school.

Written with limerence.

On “Modern Status”

Living in a time when 20% of all American children live in poverty, David Brooks is on a search for Jane Austen’s America. Seriously. Brooks has his eyes on the ball in “Modern Status” when he notes that there is little difference between the mannerisms and noticeable intelligence of students from Arizona State versus Harvard, but he loses any sense of critical analysis when he notes that “employers aren’t looking for genius as much as energy and clubbability” without a hint of irony. Certainly, the club that Harvard students are game to join is that which “attribute(s) superior intellectual, moral and cultural qualities to people who can get into those places.”


Brooks goes on to observe that “The message, which one does detect on elite campuses, is that the actual academic content to be found in these places is secondary.” I looked around, but can’t find any numbers indicating how many freshmen admitted to Harvard went to test-drilling charter schools or failing schools where all arts, music, and extra curricular activities have been restricted or cut completely, but I bet 100% of those students haven’t spent much time on their sculling stroke. The message is academics first! and they don’t even cover academics. They cover testing, because if they don’t, teachers get fired. The problem, however, goes beyond vilified teachers and students who may not fit in easily to Harvard’s secret clubs.

This argument by Brooks is exactly why money has to be invested in all public schools, and why non “core” classes must be restored with vigor and respect: the culture that these kids lose when they spend all day on math multiple choice strategies goes beyond the critical thinking, beyond even the culture of not hating boring, awful school lessons, and right to class culture. Elites value those who know how to learn and how to live. Those who know pay attention to life beyond the walls of the school, and for the most vulnerable students, that world must be brought into the schools or they’ll miss it. Underpinning Brooks’s argument is a sad reality: modern status is the status quo, reinforced, and girded by taxpayer dollars flowing into banks and out of schools.