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Reflective Thinking

[This article is by guest author Karen Hannay. Karen is an artist and art teacher who is deeply committed to helping her students and others to explore their hidden capacities for creativity and imagination. - RH]

Never before has the world so desperately needed creative, critical thinking to solve the problems we face today and in the future. At first glance it may seem that of course people know how to think. After all, we live in an advanced society where we reap a multitude of benefits of human thinking. The problem is that the results of thinking do not always have ethical outcomes. Some or many may benefit at the expense of others.

The problem is that generally humans do not think about things in a reflective manner. Problems are often given cursory attention and solutions are arrived at without deep analysis. Humans are often swayed by one side or other of an argument and accept what they are told without critically examining the situation. Decisions are often made on emotional grounds. Creative and less obvious solutions that may have far superior outcomes are often not given consideration. If we are to aim to improve the outcomes of decisions for everyone it requires a new level of thinking, one that moves away from the obvious polarities of thought that humans fall victim to. We need to become reflective thinkers.

Before describing the thinking dispositions that can help us to develop our thinking skills, I think it is worth reflecting on the shortfalls in human thinking. Human cognition is disposed to be hasty, narrow, fuzzy, and sprawling.

  • Hasty - people very often make decisions quickly without taking time to deliberate on the problem/ question at hand.
  • Narrow - people have a tendency to think in familiar categories and well worn tracks. They make the mistake of not looking for creative and new solutions and therefore miss possibilities for superior outcomes.
  • Fuzzy - people often make decisions in a holistic manner without systematically giving thought to sorting out and therefore miss details.
  • Sprawling - people often make decisions in a haphazard manner. They jump around in their thinking and don't analyse the consequences of the different options.

4 Thinking Dispositions that can counteract these common errors in thinking are:

  1. Give thinking time
  2. Make your thinking broad and adventurous
  3. Make your thinking clear and deep
  4. Make your thinking organised.

(For more information about the above shortfall in human thinking and on the Thinking Dispositions read David Perkins 1994 Occassional Paper entitled The Intelligent Eye.)

This type of thinking emphasises the importance of very broad attitudes and commitments rather than following steps.

By giving thinking time we are perhaps more likely to see beyond the obvious and possibly inferior solution. By giving thinking time we are allowing ourselves to follow the other thinking dispositions.

Making thinking broad and adventurous opens up new possibilities. I think this really requires us to separate ourselves and our emotions from an idea and examine its worth in a detached manner.  We are socialised into believing the worth of concepts and beliefs and often don't think beyond these or venture into unknown territory. There is an element of fear that stands in our way. How often do people try to shut down those who do not toe the line in their thinking? Question the accepted story and one risks personal attack. (I can never understand why people feel so threatened that they have to go on the attack rather than use logic to rebut and explain the errors in the thinking they disagree with.)

The strange thing is that we don't seem to learn from history as we are told we should. Over and over again there have been individuals who had the courage to think adventurously and suffered the wrath of their contemporaries and yet with time they and their ideas have become widely accepted and admired. Darwin and Galileo are just two examples. We look back in scorn at the narrow thinking of the people of these times, yet generally we are too ready to believe what we are told and not make our own thinking adventurous and examine alternative viewpoints with detachment. 

Thinking leads to decision making which in turn leads to action. It is therefore essential to human development that we learn to think deeply and clearly. I think this means considering consequences and seeking truth. 

Discipline is also an important element in thinking. By being organised in our thinking we can try  to avoid missing important points or options. 

The Principle of Goodness, the new ethical understanding that asks us to promote the welfare of everyone when we make life choices, requires us to rise above compromises and trade-offs that help some at the expense of others. In order to take that leap we must spend the time to be adventurous in our thinking and consider alternatives while thinking deeply and clearly about the consequences of where our thinking will lead in the realm of action.

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Re: Reflective Thinking

Hi Karen,

Great post. Good thinking takes learning and practice and constantly examining things from uncomfortable angles. This takes time and re-analysing in light on new information, which is the opposite of wanting quick solutions and 'turning off' one mind. People also need a safe zone where they can think through the different ideas without fear of oppression or scandal. Perhaps we need a thinker's club or forum.

Best Regards