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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thinking skills? Aren't all skills thinking skills?

One person, a former teacher, read the first rule of learn to be; learn to do; learn to know and suggested I add a fourth -- "learn to think." This got me mad, but it took a bit of deconstruction to figure out why. After all, it sounds like a perfect goal. Who doesn't want to learn to think?

My first problem with it, though, is that every skill requires thinking. This is true of project management, running a great soccer play, or doing combinatorics. There are no skills that don't require thinking. (Linguists may argue language acquisition is more reflexive, but even then only up to a point.)

My second problem is that thinking skills is, I realized, a code phrase for very small subset of self-referential thinking that conforms with the current school curricula. The kind of "thinking" that was meant by her "thinking skills" was framed by the workbook, classroom, and homework model - reading a short story and writing a paper about it, applying geometry theorems in a workbook, or reading a text book on U.S. History.

Ultimately, "thinking skills" has been used to justify nearly any legacy academic activity, and thereby school's inability to change. Defenders of the industrial school complex, in response to such questions as "Why is this class spending a semester on Colonial America," have infinitely stated variations of, "While the subject is not important nor the teacher qualified nor the media authentic nor the activities have any value beyond the classroom, we do it because we are teaching the students to think."

The ol' bait and switch is the most classic sales technique in the book. Or this variation: describe a huge, real problem and present your little solution as the answer. (I used to be amused that IBM would describe in great detail the problem of controlling knowledge in a giant corporation, and then present the answer as a Lotus Notes server.)

I am all for thinking skills. (See my post here on human universals vs. non-universals.) Leadership, innovation, and security require them. But if I am sold on thinking skills, I will be pretty mad if all I get is the assignment to memorize a lot of facts for short periods of time and apply rote processes.


  1. Well then I can't wait to engage your thinking about what thought-leadership means...

  2. Good to hear from you again! What's the question....? Or topic....?

  3. Over the years I've been deconstructing something similar but hadn't thought previously about the connection to your point. Just as "thinking" in school all-too-often means memorizing rather than engagement itself, thought-leadership in business often refers to those who know (as if that were possible), not those who are inquisitive, adaptive, learning, and making connections, in order to be at the forefront of a vibrant changing world. How do you see the shallow ideas about thinking in society (specifically school but it's a wider problem than that) contributing to something similar in the ways adults approach leadership? Leadership is thought-leadership, not code for someone who can now stop thinking.

    [Hadn't intended on engaging you here in this conversation but would welcome perhaps a future post.]