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.

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