Pick an item: a light bulb, a bottle of water, a set of keys. Now imagine you are that item. How do you feel? What do you like about being the item? What are its advantages?
This forced analogy is one of the warm-ups I use to stimulate creativity and critical thinking. Mental exercise gets our brains going just as physical exercise tones our bodies. Forced analogy is particularly useful for generating new insights that can be applied to the challenges of everyday life, whether at home, at work or in social situations.
We used to think that both creativity and "the smarts" were fixed at birth. But recent research has changed all that. Today we marvel at the brain's flexibility and its life-long ability to learn. We realize that intelligence is not a set quantity, but acquired through application, experience and motivation. That's the operational tenet of The Thinking Center, the Hartford-based nonprofit organization that I founded in 1989, to make instruction in thinking readily available and provide reliable materials for study and research in the field. The Thinking Center is a home-based business where several rooms function as resource, office and meeting areas for staff, members, friends and colleagues.
Our raison d'Ítre is especially relevant today, as we face a strange paradox: Workplaces demand more independent thinking on the job, while popular culture in America works against developing thinking skills. Consumer products promise quick solutions to problems, and sit-coms model the same. We make rapid modem connections, cook microwave dinners in minutes, use one-hour photo developing services and so on. We are used to speed in our lives, yet good thinking and planning take time and concentration. The very products and services that speed us up required hours of painstaking critical and creative thinking to develop. However, it appears they may be "dumbing us down."
Speed and change alert the part of the brain that responds to danger. Energy is diverted from the thinking parts of the brain and goes to the "immediate response" system. After a while the brain becomes accustomed to loud, rapid, pounding beats in music and constant changes in images on the TV, and the three Rs seem dull and boring by comparison. The good news is that we can override this negative sensory stimulation by being aware of what's happening. Through thinking about our thinking, we can tap into our critical and creative thinking talents and overcome the downshift to the immediate response system.
While this understanding of the brain didn't exist in the 1970s, at that time my teammates and I in a ninth-grade program at a school in Hartford were regularly discussing the intellectual apathy of our students. "Our students aren't thinking," we'd say. "They just want us to give them the answers. They don't want to do homework. They love the immediacy and tension of a fight. What can we do?" Luckily a course on thinking skills was offered at a nearby teacher center. For me, that course proved to be a life-changer and my first step towards the brain business.
I started teaching my students about divergent and convergent thinking. Convergent thinking seeks one correct answer whereas divergent thinking seeks many possible answers. Life requires lots of divergent thinking, yet most schools at that time stressed convergence. So when I asked my students questions such as, What would happen if the ice at the poles melted? What if everybody lived to be 150?, they typically came up with only one answer. They were surprised at my dissatisfaction, and I was amazed at their sense of completion.
Another exercise I used was to present challenging statements such as, What I eat is related to the economics of the world. The initial response was that this was a strange and odd statement. But as students unpacked this idea, they saw that the foods they ate were part of a complex and global food industry.
When I used these thinking skill activities, I was delighted by the changes that occurred. Interest increased, performance improved, and I was frequently charmed and intrigued by my students' responses. Furthermore, students who had not here-tofore shown much promise were getting involved.
I was hooked. I continued to teach, combining my quest for knowledge about thinking with practical classroom applications. And I continued to be fascinated by all the different ways my students responded to the thinking curriculum.
Guidelines for critical thinkingHere are some guidelines for critical thinking adapted from Loomis's lectures.
1. Be open-minded about new ideas.
The Thinking Center arranges and runs programs for teachers, youths and college students and also works with all levels of employees in both profit and nonprofit companies. Joy at discovering they are smart is a common response of participants in our programs. They usually gain the insight that a "hurry up" work environment does not allow them the time to fully exercise their problem solving abilities.
We run long and short programs and offer three courses that can be taken for college credit. We have Saturday morning "warm-up" classes and a monthly Think Tank Lunch, where Center members practice thinking tactics as they relate them to current issues that they care about. Members also have the privilege of using our extensive library of books, periodicals, articles and tapes.
A popular annual event, The Meeting of the Minds, is a weekend conference offering speakers, activities, seminars and workshops. Past MOM conferences have included sessions such as Scribbles, Doodles and Noodles (how doodling can increase intellectual flexibility); How to Live Well with Your Brain (understanding how your brain works can reduce stress); Elegant Brainstorming (do it correctly for effective problem solving) and Analogies Rule (structural analysis of analogies and metaphors adds power to language and thought).
Always with us is an on-going struggle for operating funds. However our understanding of the human capacity for excellence in thinking creatively and solving problems is also with us as inspiration and guide. We see this daily in our work, and the enthusiasm of our clients continues to provide us with energy and motivation.
Personally, I am wondrously happy to find myself in my golden years with an all-absorbing and exciting career in a field that interests me profoundly, that takes me to many interesting places and introduces me to all sorts of intriguing and frequently inspiring people. My goals are to continue with my teaching and increase the self-sufficiency and outreach of The Thinking Center.
Return to Summer 2000 highlights