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by Cynthia T. Richetti and Benjamin B. Tregoe
Table of Contents
Solutions to significant problems facing modern society demand a widespread qualitative improvement in thinking and understanding. . . . We need a breakthrough in the quality of thinking employed by both decision makers and by each of us in our daily affairs. [emphasis in original]
—Ornstein, in Costa, 1991
The assertion that society and individuals can benefit from improving the ways we approach and consider some of life's toughest problems is hard to argue with. The news media are rife with examples of questionable responses or solutions to situations and events. We all, average citizens to world leaders, struggle to develop creative, workable solutions to pressing problems and issues. Statistics abound on studies that have demonstrated students' ability to memorize facts but not apply them. Parents wrestle with helping their children successfully navigate in an increasingly complicated world.
A lack of thought does not characterize most of these scenarios, but rather an incomplete consideration of the situation. Typically, poor decisions or other mistakes are a result of flawed or incomplete thinking, not the absence of thinking.
This book is about rational thinking. The phrase is not a redundancy. Contrary to popular opinion, not all thinking is rational, at least as we would define rational. Rational thinking is the ability to consider the relevant variables of a situation and to access, organize, and analyze relevant information (e.g., facts, opinions, judgments, and data) to arrive at a sound conclusion.
Indeed, several authors have defined intelligence, at least in part, as the ability to solve problems. For example, Sternberg (1996) writes:
Successful intelligence as I view it involves analytical, creative, and practical aspects. The analytic aspect is used to solve problems, the creative aspect to decide what problems to solve, and the practical aspect to make solutions effective. (p. 47)
Although the study of thought and thinking as an end in itself is a worthwhile pursuit, our focus is on the need to apply thought (i.e., use thought as a precursor to action). Rational thinking helps us arrive at a conclusion to be able to do something (i.e., take rational action).
Much of what we do in everyday life involves a process—a series of actionable, repeatable steps that can be performed to accomplish a desired goal. For example, we have a process for baking a cake, writing an expository essay, and changing a tire. A process is a meaningful, repeatable series of steps that produces an outcome. Every process requires inputs to produce some output. Figure 1.1 shows the connection among these three elements.
Let's consider that we are making barbecued ribs. To make delicious barbecued ribs (output), we need fresh meat, a tasty sauce, and other ingredients (inputs). We also need to ensure that the grilling (process) is good. We can have the best-tasting sauce in the world, but if we let the ribs burn, we're not going to have tasty ribs.
Let's now look at the rational-thinking process. In arriving at a conclusion, we must take a series of inputs and do something to them (a process). Figure 1.2 shows how the input-process-output model for rational thinking might look.
The same logic that applies to the ribs applies to the rational-thinking process. A sound conclusion (output) requires high-quality inputs (e.g., accurate information and access to the right people) and a high-quality thinking process. Focusing on the inputs is not enough to ensure success; we need to give equal attention to the process or what we do with the inputs—how we collect, organize, and analyze them.
Let's look at a specific situation where rational thinking applies. A group of student-athletes has been asked to recommend a districtwide substance abuse policy for all student athletes. The output for this situation would be the substance abuse policy. What would the inputs be? They might be statistics on substance abuse by student athletes or opinions from students, coaches, administrators, parents, and board members on what should be done. Maybe the inputs would include examples from other districts' substance abuse policies. As with most complex situations, some ideas and opinions might conflict. How do the students get from juggling all these inputs to developing a sound student-athlete substance abuse policy?
The process of rational thinking is needed. But where did we learn to think rationally? Most people can't cite a specific way they learned. Typically, they learn through osmosis or experience. If you ask most people what steps they go through while thinking, they are unable to articulate them. Consequently, they are unable to critique their own thinking process—and unable to teach others. Myers (1986) uses an analogy to show this difficulty:
When we see a juggler effortlessly tossing oranges in the air, we fail to appreciate the first stumbling efforts and the hours of practice that laid the groundwork for that proficiency. The same holds true for expert critical thinkers. All experts started as novices—struggling with basic concepts, questions, and issues—as they developed the thought processes that would help them make sense of things. The problem is that by the time they have achieved their expertise, many of those thought processes have become so automatic, internalized, and implicit that the experts have difficulty explaining explicitly how they think. (p. 16)
Imagine learning to drive without guidance. What if you didn't know what constituted good driving? What if you had no model for how to drive, how to start a car, how to put the car in gear, and how and when to brake? How many of you would put your 16-year-old behind the wheel without providing any driving instruction, either formally or informally? Yet a similar situation occurs when our children are expected to think rationally. Furthermore, who taught us the basics of rational thinking? Where did we learn to arrive at sound conclusions? How will our children learn?
The main reason that rational thinking is not addressed in the same way as learning to drive, write, or play a sport is that it has been treated primarily as an invisible process. It hasn't been regarded as something that can be broken down into a series of actionable steps. The focus in a thinking situation is typically on gathering the inputs—information, data, and opinions—not on how to organize and analyze them. Consequently, rational thinking has been an invisible process. People arrive at conclusions, but they don't know too much about how they get there. What are the unintended but real consequences of allowing thinking to be an invisible process? Here are a few:
A second obstacle to effective teaching and learning of thinking skills lies in our failure to identify with precision those cognitive operations that constitute the individual skills we choose to teach. . . . If we knew the essential components of these thinking skills, we could devise better ways to teach these skills to students. (p. 487)
Different situations require different types of thinking. Taken at face value, this rationale makes sense. Yet most problem-solving tools tend to treat all problem situations the same. Such tools are some variation on the following approach: Identify the problem, gather information, brainstorm possible solutions, select the best solution, and implement it. Treating all problem situations with the same approach, however, is akin to a doctor treating all complaints with aspirin. If you have a headache, aspirin may help. If you have nausea or difficulty breathing, however, you will probably require a different treatment. Beyer (1984) sees a similar approach in education:
We sometimes use labels with different meanings to stand for a single skill. For instance, many educators equate problem solving with decision making, and many others also equate reflective thinking with either or both of these—despite the fact that each phrase describes a particular set of subskills that are used in a unique order to accomplish a different kind of task. . . . Clearing up the ambiguities regarding which thinking skills to teach and how we define each is an important first step toward improving the thinking skills of students. (p. 487)
Investigating a situation that has already happened to determine why something went wrong requires a different approach from looking into the future to anticipate future problems. Figure 1.3 (p. 12) identifies four types of situations, each requiring a different thinking approach.
One course of action or solution must be selected from among several possible options.
Upcoming plans, changes, and actions will be implemented.
Something has gone wrong or an unknown cause has produced some undesired effect.
There are multifaceted scenarios having multiple variables and elements.
We offer four analytic processes, designed to address the unique requirements of each type of situation and to produce a high-quality conclusion. These processes are presented briefly here and discussed in detail in subsequent chapters. The four processes are decision analysis (see Chapter 3), potential problem analysis (see Chapter 4), problem analysis (see Chapter 5), and situation appraisal (see Chapter 6).
This analytic process addresses the basic question, Which one should we choose? It helps us, as decision makers, establish a clear set of criteria with which to evaluate possible choices or courses of action. Those criteria are then used to identify what choice or course of action best meets the goals for a particular decision. Before we make a choice, however, we must consider the risks associated with an option. Decision analysis helps guard against the tendency to immediately start evaluating options without having a clear idea or consensus on specific goals or objectives. School-related examples of when decision analysis might apply include the following:
This tool examines the question, What lies ahead? (e.g., What could go wrong?). It helps ensure the success of upcoming events, plans, or changes by asking us to identify problems that might arise and actions we might take to prevent them. In addition, we identify actions to take should problems arise anyway. Thus, we can be better prepared for future trouble either by eliminating problems or minimizing their effect. This process helps combat the human tendency to be reactive—by not worrying about something until it happens. School-related examples of when potential problem analysis might apply are these:
This tool examines cause-and-effect relationships in a search for the true cause. Problem analysis helps us answer the question, Why did this happen? as we first collect and organize data relevant to a problem. Then we develop and test possible causes against these data to see if the causes make sense. Testing helps us narrow our search systematically. Often, when something goes wrong, we typically point fingers and fix blame. Problem analysis encourages us to clearly understand a problem before we jump to misinformed conclusions and waste time, money, and energy on solutions that won't work. Here are school-related examples of when problem analysis might be used:
This process addresses the basic question, What's going on? It helps us sort through multiple issues, clarify meaning to ensure common understanding, set priorities, and plan next steps. Complex issues usually involve multiple concerns, viewpoints, and tangents. Emotions are often involved, and stakeholders all seem to have different agendas. When we deal with complicated issues, especially emotional ones, we often lump them into general categories and then label those categories (e.g., student achievement or staff morale).
Situation appraisal guards against the tendency to generalize when we need specifics to reach a common understanding and take effective action. School-related examples of when situation appraisal might be used are these:
Figure 1.4 (p. 14) shows how the four analytic processes match the four types of situations. To address a given situation, a specific type of response or rational action is needed. As the figure shows, each analytic process consists of a series of steps that describe the approach to the situation. The processes help us form sound conclusions and prepare to take rational action. An acronym for each process—SELECT, PLAN, FIND, and SCAN—helps us remember the steps and the overall purpose.
What's Needed as a Basis for Rational Action
Select the best possible option after evaluating options against criteria and then considering risks.
Identify actions needed for successful implementation after identifying potential problems and how to handle them.
Potential Problem Analysis
Analyze relevant data to evaluate possible causes and determine the true cause.
There are multi-faceted scenarios having multiple variables and elements.
Understand relevant variables, their priorities, and possible action plans.
Source: Adapted from Richetti & Sheerin, 1999, p. 60.
If we treat rational thinking as a process—a series of definable, actionable, repeatable steps that produce a meaningful conclusion—we can derive many benefits. Here are some of them:
Framing rational thinking as a process has other benefits. One such benefit becomes evident when people are required to work together in a problem situation. As educators, we are rarely faced with a problem for which we alone have all the necessary information and answers. We must usually work with others, whether we are dealing with a disciplinary issue, addressing a community crisis, or making curricular decisions. Students, too, must work with others on issues and problems, both in and out of class (e.g., completing a team assignment, organizing a bake sale, choosing a theme for the prom, or helping a friend). As students enter the work force, they need to know how to work with others to resolve problems and address issues.
Even if a situation or circumstance does not mandate involving others, we know there are important reasons to include other people. First, effectively involving others typically increases the quality of the output or conclusion that is reached (Perkins, 1981). If we solicit others' input, ideas, and critique, we usually produce an end result that is better than if we work alone. Second, we typically create more commitment to the solution (Vroom & Yetton, 1973). This commitment is especially important when the success of implementation depends on others. In a school environment, a decision is rarely made that does not affect others. When we effectively involve others in solving the problem, we increase their acceptance of the solution and their willingness to implement it.
A visible thinking process provides guidelines to people who must work together on an issue. It functions much the same as the rules of a game. Once you know the rules of soccer, you can play soccer with anyone else who knows the rules. You don't have to focus on what the rules are; you can focus on working with your teammates to win the game. Once group members agree on the process or approach they use to handle a situation, they can focus on what the solution should be. A visible rational process allows people to concentrate on developing the best possible resolution to a problem without getting mired down and arguing with others about how to do it.
Expectations within and outside school often change, and people of different backgrounds and areas of expertise are required to work together. As we discussed earlier, people tend to rely on their content expertise and experience. But this approach is problematic when different areas of expertise or content knowledge are represented. We can use a rational-thinking process to help us accommodate different content and experiences. When a process provides a road map or framework for approaching a problem, different viewpoints can lead to healthy discussion and debate rather than to increasing polarization of group members.
People may acknowledge the value of involving others in decision making and problem solving, but they shy away from that involvement because they are afraid of the potential conflict or emotion. A rational-thinking process helps us channel that emotion and use it more effectively. Using a process prevents discussions from careening off into the stratosphere, never again to return to the point or topic at hand, and allows group members to know exactly where they are—what they have accomplished, what they are working on, and what they should do next. A process accommodates a variety of viewpoints and emotions. Once people know they have been heard, they are more ready to listen to others.
The rational process approach also applies to cooperative learning. Many teachers tell us they are reluctant to use cooperative learning techniques because such techniques make it difficult to keep students on task and to know where students stand. Using a process approach in group problem-solving situations helps teachers—and students—quickly assess where they are and where they need to go.
We have talked primarily about how these tools (decision analysis, potential problem analysis, problem analysis, and situation analysis) may be used to handle issues that schools and districts face. The tools are equally applicable to situations that students face. The content of the situations may differ, but a student who needs to choose what elective to take or how to help a friend in trouble can benefit from approaching the situation thoughtfully and logically.
Applying these analytic tools in the curriculum helps students not only learn the tools, but also better understand the material. If we use decision analysis to examine a decision that has already been made, we can better understand the considerations of the decision makers and the issues they had to weigh. For example, if we use decision analysis to explore Thomas Jefferson's decision to support the Louisiana Purchase, we understand more clearly the factors he had to weigh, the oppositions he faced, and the risks he took. Several studies demonstrate that deeper understanding of curriculum material (e.g., comprehension beyond recall) increases retention (Langer, 1997). The more heavily students rely on recall of material, the more quickly they forget the material, and the less able they are to apply it or extrapolate from it.
Richard Paul (1990) relates a story about John Dewey that illustrates the difference between recall and understanding. Dewey visits a class and asks the students what they would find if they dug a hole in the earth and kept on digging. Getting no response, he repeats the question; again, he faces nothing but silence.
The teacher chides Dr. Dewey, “You're asking the wrong question.”
Turning to the class, she asks, “What is the state of the center of the earth?”
The class replies in unison, “Igneous fusion.”
This example shows that the students were able to recall the answer as long as the question was asked in a specific way. If the students had understood the concept, they would have been able to apply that knowledge by answering Dr. Dewey's question.
We know that involvement increases retention and builds meaning for students (Goodlad, 1984). For the Louisiana Purchase example, when students think through the variables and reach a conclusion using the four analytic tools, they experience the dilemmas of a situation more actively and deeply than when they simply remember the reasons Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase.
Other studies show that understanding and retention increase when people consider information or issues from multiple perspectives. The tools provide a framework to help them examine issues from more than one viewpoint.
Several researchers and educators have pointed out that most real issues needing resolution have multiple components and several possible solutions, not one correct answer. These ill-structured problems vary considerably from the well-defined and well-structured problems students often face in class (King & Kitchener, 1994; Paul, 1990). The four analytic processes provide an approach to addressing ill-structured problems.
Finally, we need to consider the applicability of what students learn in class to life outside class. Students are not always clear about how they will apply the content they've learned. How they learn to think about that content—the process they develop—is a skill they can transfer to any content and apply to life. The aim of rational thinking is to teach them to think so they can arrive at meaningful conclusions. Wales, Nardi, and Stager (1986) believe that decision making is a key component in the process:
Decision making gives thinking a purpose. Through our decisions, which are based on what we have learned both in and out of school, we determine the course of our lives. We make decisions that affect both our success as workers and our success as people. Since this is the promise of education, it seems clear that the new paradigm should be: schooling focused on decision making, the thinking skills that serve it, and the knowledge base that supports it. (p. 38)
Students can use these strategies not only to analyze decisions and issues from curriculum material, but also to address other types of issues they face outside class:
The four analytic tools—decision analysis, potential problem analysis, problem analysis, and situation appraisal—can help students in a number of ways:
Once we see rational thinking as a process, we can see how to improve our own or others' thinking. We can also more easily envision how rational thinking can be taught and applied meaningfully. When we identify the four different types of situations, each of which requires a different thinking strategy, we ensure that we use the best tool for the job.
As we have seen, each analytic process is designed to help answer a different overarching question. Each process consists of a series of questions organized to achieve the desired end result. The ability to form and ask good questions is fundamental to our analytic processes. Because of the connection between rational thinking and effective questioning, we examine the need for questioning in the next chapter.
Copyright © 2001 by Kepner-Tregoe, Inc., and Tregoe Education Forum, Inc.. All rights reserved.
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