Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chapter 2: Part 2. Thinking on your own

Part 2

We need time to think and tools to think with.

Time is precious. Our daily lives are packed with daily chores. Even leisure times are packed. There is no time to think on our own and align our thoughts and actions with our values. The only way we can get time to think is to make the time. There is no other easy way. We JUST have to make time to think as a routine, at least once a week. That should become a sacred time.

Once we have the time, and the needed information, we need to organize the information and our own thoughts. I find it easy to organize my thoughts by writing them down.

There are several modes of thinking – reactive thinking, analytical thinking and critical thinking. Some would add creative thinking to this list and define it differently. But this category includes elements of analytical and critical thinking.

We use reactive thinking in response to everyday situations of life. For example, suppose I wish to replace my used car with a new one. Or, suppose you are invited to a sleep-over in your friend’s house. Your grandmother calls to say that she is staying over in your house that night on her way to Boston or Minneapolis. What do you do? Such everyday situations do need some thinking, but not too much.

Analytical thinking is used in complex situations and particularly in scientific problem solving. Such situations are encountered often in factories and offices and may involve people or things. We use analytical thinking in medical diagnostic problems. For example, if a child has iron deficiency, it may be because the diet is deficient in iron, or the family is too poor to get nutritious food, or because there is some disease interfering with absorption of iron or because there is an increased need for iron. Such analytical breakdown of the problem is essential to get at the root cause. Or take the example of the recent outbreak of salmonella infection. Ultimately this outbreak was traced to jalapeno pepper from Mexico. How did the epidemiologists track down the source of infection? I am sure they broke down the situation into details and considered all angles and options and investigated each possibility starting with the most probable source.

Critical thinking requires separating the useful from the useless information, ability to look at fallacies of arguments (ours and others) and ability to look at faith-based from reason-based arguments. Political, religious, metaphysical, moral and ethical realms require this type of thinking. (Look at my posting in October on Media Awareness 1 for a list of fallacies in arguments)

It will be impossible to tell you how to think in every situation you may face in life. Instead let me share with you what I learnt from reading, thinking and from my experiences as a physician.

First, I have to clarify my question and be more specific? Can I reword the question and look at it from different angles? Can a make a diagram with all the people, places and factors included? Can I apply the 20 question technique originally developed by Arthurs Osborne and modified by Rudolf Flesch in his book on “The Art of Clear Thinking” (Page 118-119).

The questions I need to ask myself are:

What am I trying to accomplish?

Have I done this sort of thing before? How?

Could I do this some other way?

How did other people tackle this?

What kind of person or persons am I dealing with?

How can this situation be changed to fit me?

How can I adapt myself to this situation?

How about using more? Less? All of it? Only a portion? One only? Two? Several?

How about using something else? Something older? Something new? Something more expensive? Something cheaper?

How far? How near? In what direction?

How soon? How often? Since when? For how long?

Can I do this in combination? With whom? With what?

How about doing the opposite?

What would happen if I do nothing?

All these questions make you look at all angles of a problem, as suggested by Edward de Bono more recently. His method of Six Hat Thinking makes this exercise a formal operation and will be discussed later in this essay.

Next, I need to collect information relevant to the question.

I have to ask myself: “Do I have all the relevant information?”

Where can I get the information?

Is the source reliable? Does this person or the website have a commercial interest or bias? If so, the information is likely to be one-sided.

Is this person or the website a front for an issue-based group? If so, this site may not only be biased, but may also use subliminal techniques to appeal to my emotions.

Is the information accurate and practical?

Finally, is this information relevant to my specific question?

Next, how do I sort good information from the bad; useful from the useless; relevant from the irrelevant? At this stage, I may need expert help or at least help from others involved in the matter. I need to read more and speak with others who have faced similar situation in addition to talking with the experts.

Let me give you an example. Recently I was looking for a solution to a problem with a rubber tube used to feed someone with cancer. The rubber tube got stretched and the feeding line kept coming off. The surgeon who performed the procedure and the supplier of Infusion fluid have faced the problem before and suggested one solution. That was to cut the tube! If I start cutting the tube each time it stretches, I may not have any tube left after 3 or 4 months. I therefore asked the nurse to call a center that handles a large number of people with this type of J tube. Sure enough the nurse found out a special type of extension tube which solved the problem. Moral of the story: ask someone who has faced the problem before.

How do I finally synthesize the information so it will be useful for my special needs? Here is where I need to reflect not only on the problem and the available options but also relate them to my needs and my values. The final answer has to be not only logical and relevant, but also congruent with my values. Otherwise I cannot live with the consequences of my decision. That is why reflection is so very important.

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