What is Higher Order Thinking?

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

I was working on my masters thesis today, and I started to think fundamentally about what my brain is doing as I work on an academic project like this. Like many other students undertaking academic writing for the first time, I have found it quite hard at various points. Sitting with a journal article in front of me, or having a blank document on the computer screen can be daunting.

I have found the best solution to be to break everything down in to small pieces. If I don’t know what I’m looking for in a journal article, I begin by just highlighting different bits of key information, such as areas of the brain, or the rationale for the study. Instead of viewing the project as a linear entity that I just need to get on and do, I look only as far as the first step that will open more doors for me.

When I view it this way, I begin to realize that academic work is really just making lots of small decisions. Each decision requires me to take what I know, and decide how it relates to something else. This process is a microcosm of thousands of such decisions that will be made between the start and end of a project. For me, thinking about it this way builds my confidence and makes my work more achievable.

When I tell people I’m doing a masters degree in cognitive neuroscience, I often get replies such as ‘I’d rather you than me…’ or ‘I’m too stupid to do anything like that…’ My message here is that this need not be the case. Achieving in university need not be something just for the ‘smart’. All that I do at university is practice decision making in such a way that I produce scientific research. I suppose somewhere along the way I also memorize some stuff, but that is really just a natural bi-product as I learn this new way of thinking.

The point I want to make about this is that anybody can do it! I’m not saying it will happen at the click of a finger, but I am saying almost anyone can do this with the right mentoring and practice. This, however, is what separates higher education from regular learning and work. There’s lots of very straight forward jobs out there where we know exactly the what, when and how. That’s fine; there are plenty of jobs that need doing, which are highly valuable (or ought to be), but that don’t take much higher order thought. But there’s plenty of complex problems to solve too, which can be addressed by a higher level process of thought. I hope when we view higher education in this way, it can become more graspable. Rather than a scary and mysterious realm of perpetually hard work, a place for the mind to be excercised.

Sharpening the Saw

20 percent doctrineThe idea of taking some time out from the things that you have to do, to do intellectual things you might like to do. Google call it 20% time, Stephen R. Covey called it ‘sharpening the saw’. But whatever title you might give it, it’s a habit seldom practiced these days.

Education now-a-days is often a practice of seeing what is the highest mark one can get from the least amount of work, getting maximum value from what you put in. Scrimping and saving is, in some scenarios a very noble thing to do. But putting in a little more, whether it be in wise purchasing, or the accomplishment of a degree, can go a long way.

Let us pause for a second to read from some anecdotal evidence:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to cut down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

The 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen R. Covey

Now, think about the great discoveries that have been made over the many generations in psychology. Think about Freud, Watson, Ebbinghaus and Titchener. You’ll notice that some of these names studied along side the others, or were tutored by them. And it wasn’t in the completing of essays, or the reading of long documents to satisfy assignments that the new discoveries were made. It was in working in the lab, experimenting, contemplating and trying things out. You could even call it ‘playing’.

Think now about today. Is it a drag, knowing you have these essays to do, or that revision to do before you can rest, party, never think about it again, or what have you? Is that a pleasurable experience? What about the personal statements we all had to produce where we had to show passion and excitement for our subjects? Do you feel that now? Do you think Watson felt that way?

Maybe sometimes, but by and large, I don’t think he did. Next thing to think about. How unexciting is reading research papers and lab reports? Twenty pages of bumf that you need to get through for one little bit that you can use as a reference. It is devastatingly boring. What if I asked you to go on Google Scholar, and find a paper of your choosing to read? For no particular reason, other than just ‘cos? What would you choose? Do you think you’d enjoy reading that? And, how well do you think you would remember it?

I’ll bet you could even describe with detail what you have read, and what it means! Why? Because you are sharpening the saw!

I have greatly enjoyed reading some papers, and blog entries from different academic’s, because they are about matters that genuinely interest me. And I know all about the things I have read. I’m sincerely hoping I’ll be about to do my dissertation on that topic next year. I also enjoy writing my blog, about the things that interest me.

And I believe that this is how best to learn the skills of analysis and novel thought. That is what useful talents are made of. Real cutting edge research, truly spectacular solutions to life’s challenges. That is what education is really about, and when you have hit that nail, you should be able to feel it. You don’t have to have a doctorate or a professorship to do the exciting stuff. Heck, you don’t even need to be enrolled in anything. It’s actually quite devastating that we live in this world where you have to have ‘Dr’ by your name for anyone to listen to you.

Am I studying Psychology or Information

Okay, this is a question that I have: is the practise of trying to intensely internalise lots of information really going to make me into a psychologist?

And let me present another situation too: we’re all told that to pass an exam with a first, it is important to do extra reading, show novel thought and all the rest of it. Then we’re typically given 5x two hour lectures with power-point notes representing 200 pages of book which, if I understand rightly, I am to read and fully understand and be able to recall so as to be able to answer the test questions.

I do not believe that reading large amounts is an effective way to really be the master of this knowledge. I suppose when it comes to learning for exams, I think of what my father, and others have taught me, which is to make many notes from what I read and hear during my study, from which I can revise then through means such as flash cards, testing myself, simply re-reading or hand copying down notes and so forth. That to me makes the difference between studying and mere reading.

When I get down into the process of studying, which I try to do by taking the lecture slides, the course literature and my iPad for note taking, and seek to read, compare the slides with the literature and then write down in my own words what is being taught, it turns the study process into something drastically longer, and given that I have never yet completed this activity in the way I’d have hoped to, the time, and the ability to remain focused in a manor that is generally fruitful for learning doesn’t seem to be there.

I believe that things are best learned when put into practise. As an I.T. enthusiast, I have learnt to program through practise using books and guides, which had lead me to know how to program web pages, fix computers and enjoy research methods (stats). I became a fluent German speaker in the small space of 1 year through the study of a textbook, but then the putting it into practise, living in that country. And for that reason, I aren’t thoroughly convinced this is the best way to actually learn the subject at hand.

Clearly something in it works, because classes are essentially taught the same way all over the world, and have been taught that way even since my parents did their degrees. But I don’t think these modules are making psychologists, they are assessing who is good at regurgitating information under test conditions.

You could say these exams aren’t valid. Do they measure what they claim to measure? What do they claim to measure? Competence in handling matters related to developmental psychology? To some extent I’d say probably, yes.

But I believe if I were to take a more hands on approach, by participating in research straight off, seeing more replications of research, instead of being given a block of text, and immersing myself in it, like I did with German and programming, I would become a psychologist, and not the walking Wikipedia.

I’m sure that’s rich of me, a mere undergrad, to be calling change in the way education is carried out, but I believe there is much capacity for improvement, and I would like to find out how it could be done.

Comments, both positive and negative are gladly welcomed!