What does it mean to "Learn How to Think?

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In the Chronicles of Higher Education, Barry Schwartz posted an article entitled, What 'Learning How to Think" Really Means. In it, he reminds us that "defenders of liberal-arts education suggest that their goal is less to teach the specifics of a particular discipline or profession than to teach students how to think." I have stated these same words myself, but no one has ever asked me what do I mean by that. Barry asks and then answers the question of what does this really mean.

Barry Schwartz takes the bold step of articulating 9 major aspects of what it is to think.

1) Love of Truth. This means that students must want to learn or dig into what it is that is truly known about a subject/topic, not just what is the popular notion of the day. He expresses concern that students will "get things right only because we punish them for getting things wrong." If we extrapolate this further, learning for a grade's sake artificially narrows and skews what the students intellectually seek and ingest.

2) Honesty. This virtue is more about allowing students to take a more objective view of themselves and what they know, rather than the more simplistic notion of "don't plagiarize or cheat." It asks students to question themselves about what they truly know and don't, while being able to face the truth from a perspective of growth.

3) Fair-mindedness. Barry points out that we tend to consider and use information in a way the strengthens our current beliefs and positions, rather than allow us to make more informed judgements and opinions about the world. We also seem to be in a cultural climate that is more inclined to attack and deride information that does not conform to our beliefs and ideas, rather than consider what it might mean within the larger context and decide whether or not we should incorporate this information to develop a more informed position.

4) Humility. As a partner to honesty, humility opens the door for the student to accept shortcomings and ask for help.

5) Perseverance. Based on the idea that anything worth doing or knowing doesn't come easy, perseverance is a necessary requirement. I must admit that I've found myself suggesting to our own editorial staff to shorten activity lengths. It seems that I have been counter productive to helping our students to achieve this.

6) Courage. Students may sometimes need intellectual and personal courage to offer and defend their informed ideas and insights in the face of dissent or even adversity. Courage also is the springboard for taking intellectual risks, which can lead to new discoveries.

7) Good listening. There is a difference between good listening and defended listening. In order to exercise and grow new intellectual ideas and pursuits, students must learn how to listen and really take it what is being said, rather than listen to a statement and immediately build a response while ignoring the continued conversation. This takes humility and courage.

😎 Perspective taking and empathy. This is a most challenging virtue. It requires the student to set aside their own beliefs and experiences to some degree, so they can fairly and genuinely put themselves into the position of another. Perspective taking allows the student to try on other beliefs and ideas for a fair assessment of alternative views and positions. It doesn't require that the student eventually side with others, but more importantly it helps to the student to gain perspective and understanding. One-sided decision making or development of ideas and other intellectual pursuits oftentimes leads to shortcomings and unforeseen consequences.

9) Wisdom. Wisdom that Aristotle championed meant seeking a middle ground between extreme positions. Barry wrote "Wisdom is also what enables us to make difficult decisions when intellectual virtues conflict."

Barry goes on to discuss some of his views of the current situation that higher education faces with trying to help students learn this virtues.

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What do you think about Barry's ideas regarding this topic? What do you think it means to learn how to think?

About the Author
Dr. Yamazaki has been involved in adult education since the mid-1980's. She has developed technology-based education for the Air Force, commercial industry, and for higher education. She is certified in instruction systems design. She has taught courses for the Air Force and at community college, college, and university institutions. She was awarded the teaching excellence award at the US Air Force Academy as an instructor for the behavioral sciences. In her work with Macmillan Higher Education, she works with educators and editorial to consult on the development of educational products, services, and experiences for higher education.