Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Teach your child how to think

I've been meaning to comment about a book I read recently, it's an old book by Edward de Bono, called Teach your child how to think. Mr. de Bono is a fairly known "thinking" teacher, with several famous techniques (like the six hat reasoning system). I was able to get this book second-hand, so I gave it a try. As most books by de Bono, it's thin, and can be a quick read.
My value thinking at the end of the read is very ambiguous. I loved the book and I hated the book. I will try to express the pros and cons of the book in a more detailed fashion, that hopefully will be more helpful for any prospective reader. I will start with the cons.
First, you have to realize that the "kids" part of the title is a partial misnomer. It is not directed to the kids, but to the adult member of the family. He obviously gives a small introduction where he talks about how to use the book more effectively depending on the age of the child, and how to go through the examples with your child, but after this he "forgets" the focus on the child part, concentrating only on the tools and mechanisms of thinking, but in a decidedly adult pedagogical style. His examples on how to use the thinking tools are clear (most of the times), but their are not focused on children experience, so you are given the task to adapt this to your child. I don't think the loss of focus in children is detrimental, and he tells you very early that it's NOT for teaching very young children, instead he wants you to use his book when the child is able to construct abstract thinking processes (around 7 or 8 years or older). The advantage is that probably you as an adult will use and benefit from what he is postulating without feeling that the author is condescending to you, a problem that plagues a lot of the books that are directed to/made for children.
Second, this is a book to read with an open mind. If you have a thought process pattern already, you may get "mad" at the way de Bono exposes his ideas, mainly the organization of the book. He, in what I consider is a very interesting approach, starts describing the "tools" that he considers are necessary for developing your thought process, but does not give you any structure on how to apply each tool (although he gives you plenty of exercises to do with each tool), even suggesting that you can use them separately or in combination. If you are an adult, and you have acquired already a thought process pattern, you may find this shocking (i know I did), and a little bit irritating. But I would recommend you to keep on reading, as he will coalesce these tools in certain types of structure where they are more orderly placed, which permits you to get the "bigger" picture of his methodology.
Third, it is an uneven book. de Bono explains multiple thinking tools, but the detail that he offers for each one is very erratic, to the point that in some tools he actually forgets to give an accurate description of them!(the APC tool comes to mind) Most of his thinking tools are straightforward, but there is a lot of overlap between them. I don't consider redundancy a problem in thinking, as it tends to give you a more solid thought process, but his overlapping tools tend to use the same initial information and process them with almost the same approach, so it's repetitive instead of redundant. It gives you the feeling that certain of this tools were developed before he created others that are significantly more powerful, making the original worthless, but he never took them out of the book. This seems to be the case with his six hat thinking process. Obviously his most developed technique (he actually has written a book only about this), you can see that multiple of his smaller tools are simply partial aspects of this megatool. He explains that you may decide to use whichever tool you like the best, but due to the overlap, several of them have no enticing reason to use them, and gives you more mental clutter that obstruct adequate mental organization of the tools.
Fourth, Mr. de Bono has a very particular style of writing. If you have read other of his books, you may already know this, but he is a very forceful "seller" of the de Bono "concept". He will always mention his qualifications for writing a book on this topic, with all the projects that he has created or helped/counseled in. I understand perfectly why he would do this from the commercial standpoint, as he wants to demonstrate a good reputation, and also from the psychological perspective, as we tend to disagree less and accept more what somebody that is successful tells us. But after a while it gets somewhat heavy to read those detailed descriptions as they don't give you any benefit for your thinking process and they don't advance the concepts in the book
Fifth, there are some thinking errors in some parts of the book, that even if they don't detract from the general point, they invalidate some of his conclusions. His chapter of logic and perception is slightly unfair toward logic, as he is applying what he thinks logic "is" to domains of reality where it should not be applied, at least not in the form he is referring to, something that he does again in his chapter about Truth, logic and critical thinking. He also seems to be unaware that logic as a "thinking" discipline has more than one form or mechanism, and that he doesn't take in account some other subtheories of logic, like paraconsistent logic, that is designed to deal with inconsistencies (a fault that he attributes to "logic" as a whole). This is probable the point where I was disenchanted, as he seems to construct a straw man of logic, and afterwards he proceeds to fight against this misconception of logic. He also tends to correlate his success as a propagator of his ideas to the correctness of them, and this is obviously an erroneous thought pathway, that you can see repeated several times in the text.
Sixth, the book it's mostly expositional, he "tells" you which tools there are, how to use them, but he doesn't go very much on the underlying thought process mechanism that explain why you can/should use the tools that he is suggesting. This doesn't really affect my general appreciation of the book, as he is a very practical type of author, and in this case he may not want the explanations to interfere with the flow of the book.

What about the pros?
First, it's a short book. I don't say it in a derogatory fashion. It's short because he focuses on his main point in a very efficient way. Besides his self promotion tangents, he does not drift from the main topic. So it makes for a very dense book of ideas, a very refreshing change from the 1000+ pages that other thinking experts publish.
Second, it's a practical book. He suggest multiple exercises to use each one of his tools, and even if they may be overlapping, he is able to find examples where you can apply each tool separately. I think this is the strongest feature of the book, and where he demonstrates his genius. Multiple thinking books are better at explaining the origins of the thought processes, but fall flat on their faces when trying to make something directly useful to the reader. de Bono makes sure at all times that his readers will learn something, and gives straightforward directions on how to use his examples (or create new ones from his guidelines)
Third, it's a book that maintains its value. Due to the fact that he gives you the tools and not only rambles around (yes, like I tend to do...I'm thinking about how to fix that!), he is eminently re readable. And for a learning to think book, that is one of the main characteristics, as you can't learn it all at once.

You may see this book commentary and say that the book has more bad points than good ones, but in general I would say that the weak points are smaller in breadth and applicable to smaller portions of his general argument, while the good points are sufficient to carry the book to a very good level.
My final thought about the book: Read it...several times. For yourself and for your kids.
And now it's time to think another thought

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Thought blindness

I haven't had as much time as usual to think, due to illness of a family member. Thankfully, that problem seems to have resolved, so I tried to take a thought pathway that I had started a couple of weeks ago but stayed underdeveloped due to the situation previously described.
The baseline where I started this thought pathway is based on the fact that I am partially color blind. The pigments that should absorb the red light wave and send the signal to my brain to interpret it as red color, are defective or in lower than normal amount in my eyes, so this makes me see red objects as brown or green, even though I know from other people descriptions that it's not the case.
So from there I started generalizing this idea to a bigger concept. What if there are people that are simply thought blind? This would not be a reflection of their lack of knowledge of a particular culture or their general grade of intelligence, but simply an effect of an abnormal wiring of their brains when it was formed.
If you look at the medical literature, there are some reports of phenomenon similar to this, the so called "Neglect". This usually happens after a stroke or a traumatic injury to the brain, causing the patient to lose some superior brain functions, and they are not able to notice a certain portion of reality, for example the left side of their bodies, or one of their legs. It is not that they are not able to "see" that part, it is only that the wiring of their brain is affected thus that they simply "ignore" that area. There are also focused defects like in reading (called alexia) or writing (agraphia).
The difference between this phenomena and my "thought blindness" concept is that usually the defects that are noticed are in big areas of functionality, and that they are not congenital, but acquired. I don't see any particular reason why the thought blindness causes should all be congenital, so that is not a problem with our thinking pathway, but the extension of the defect that we are able to detect can be a problem.
Let's think for a moment, what would happen if for example you are not able, by the wiring of your brain, to understand some particular concepts, for example, to be provocative, religion, or even more interesting, the lack of religious feeling. Think about it...how would you explain it to the person that has an structural deficit concerning that concept?
Obviously you may say that brains do not work like that, that there is not a religion center, or a belief center, because our brains are capable to absorb a much bigger amount of concepts that what you would expect from the physical capacity of it. I understand that point and after looking at the medical literature, I am sure that that counterargument has complete validity.
But I can change a little bit my approach, and postulate the hypothesis in a somewhat different fashion that still lets me discuss the same general topic. Let's see...
OK, I concede the point that probably there is not a specific "idea" center that people can "NOT" have, but what if they lack an intrinsic pathway/neuron/whatever you may call it that is necessary (but not sufficient, to avoid the "one place one idea error from before) for you to be able to process that concept? I am sure that a lot of different concepts, due to intrinsic brain plasticity, are able to be processed in multiple ways, but what if some of them (and I am sure that by statistical reasons there must be at least a couple) actually pass through this rate limiting area? An easier way of explaining this would be to say that in the city of my brain, that is comprised of multiple concept-islands linked by bridges, there are no specific "idea" buildings that can be bombarded to make my brain city lacking, but there is the possibility that if I destroy the bridge that helps the people to go from one island to the other, the products that are made in that island are not able to be exchanged with the rest of the islands,even though the rest of the city island is completely able to function . I don't really see a logical reason why this couldn't happen. I understand that the brain has innate redundant systems, but I am also sure that there are points that are immutable. If not, there would be no irreversible damage during strokes, and sadly, in most of them there is.
So if we accept this premise, then we would have a person that is not be able to think a particular concept, while being able to otherwise maintain really complex thought pathways that don't involve this limitation. The interesting thing with this situation is that just as somebody that has post stroke neglect, they CAN'T realize that there is a lack in their thought processes, simply because only with your brain you can realize this, and in this circumstance the brain itself is affected.
Could this be a factor that affects the difficulty that fundamentalists of any kind have in seeing the other "side" point of view? It would be completely unrealistic and reductionist to think that it's the only element of importance here, but it strikes me that it could be one of the important questions to answer, because if this actually happens, then some situations can't actually be discussed with the other "side", simply because they are physically unable to understand your point.
Also knowledge of this could help us to improve our tools for discussion in the cases of lack of conciliation between parties. If we are able to detect that there is some "thought blindness" in play, then with other thinking process' tools we can indicate to the person that there is something lacking, even if they don't perceive it, just as for post-stroke patient you do "imagining" training, where you tell them that even if they don't "have" (in their personal realities) a right side of the body, they should "imagine" that they have it, and behave like this "imaginary" side is real. You can pinpoint to consequences of their neglect that they can notice, like not being able to go through a particular space, to help them imagine that they actually have the "neglected" part. Can we invent thought process' tools for this purpose? I am sure we can, as there are thought pathway verification tools that use extrinsic tools (for example lists of thought process errors that you can check) that exist at the moment.
I estimate that this topic can be applied to multiple other purposes, from educational to business related, but for now I've only reached this portion of the thinking pathway. Probably I will explore in the future some more of the implications, but for now...
It's time to think another thought.