Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

If intentional collaboration is the productive exchange of big ideas, then philosophy is an important foundation. From Socrates to Aristotle to Kant to Kuhn to Senge (and a host of others in between) there is a rich heritage of thought on the pursuit of understanding, with a host of cognitive models to help us work on the hardest problems.

For those willing to do the work – and it truly is work, no silver bullets to be found here – improving how we search for knowledge is central to all manners of collaborative solutions, framed alternatively as innovation (in the commercial context), or emergent outcomes (in the context of complexity). That puts intentional collaboration on the critical path to solving virtually all critical social, commercial and public sector issues.

The stakes are high.

Ultimately it comes down to a decision: are we willing to embrace and foster the hard work of critical thinking?

I’m neither philosopher, nor academic. But if Socrates, arguably the father of critical thought, were to give a guest lecture at a local college, I’d be on the front row with my laptop, taking notes.

At some level, I think I’ve always had a hunger to understand.

But even with a healthy bias for learning, it’s easy to lapse into a mode of passive acceptance. We’re deluged with so much information, it seems increasingly natural to tune much of it out. But where do we draw the line? Are we losing our intellectual edge? What legacy are we leaving for future generations?

Critical thinking may be our last line of defense. We need to unpack it and understand it, and frankly, we need to get better at it.

Let me offer a working definition:

“Critical thinking is the skill set we use to challenge our initial, surface observations of a topic or insight, enabling a rigorous understanding of root causes, relationships and meaning.”

The rigor that goes into critical thinking is among the main reasons we struggle with it so. It’s hard work. And it takes more time. Deep learning requires more than just surface observation or memorization of fact, which has implications in many important areas, ranging from business to education.

Let’s recap some subject domains – past and present – where critical thinking plays a key role. This list will serve as a guide for subsequent posts, as I did in my 2010 culture series. I’ll update this outline and add links as we go in the months ahead.

  1. Philosophy (posted 5/21). How we think. Our rational minds use principals of logic every day to solve problems, but we pay little heed to the dynamics of reason, and the role our mental filters play. Tracing the heritage through Socrates, Aristotle, .. (ok, it’s a long list).
  2. Language (posted 8/16). How we communicate. Language is the essential foundation for framing our inquiries and our proposed solutions. Our words matter greatly, but we give them so little thought. Foundations in Wittgenstein.
  3. Metaphor (posted 8/31). How we find common ground. The power of metaphor in story and discourse has been central to our social learning process since we began to converse with our parents. Are we trained in the art of story telling? Is the intentional use of metaphor a lost art? A look at Lakoff on an important topic.
  4. Knowledge Frameworks (10/31). How we attack ‘the problem of knowledge’. This post will trace two evolutionary threads over the last 2500 years. Both are rooted in antiquity, but their most recognizable branches are empirical science and rationalist philosophy. The two roads diverged some time ago. Can we contemplate the paths coming back together?
  5. 21st Century Kant: Complexity (1/22). How we adapt. We’ve learned some behaviors of complex systems, but how can critical thinkers make sense of what seem to be increasingly unsolvable problems?  Can a new semantic analysis of Kan’t Categorical Framework provide any insight?
  6. Public Education. How we learn. This is doubtless the most fertile ground for this discussion in the modern day. Few argue the importance of teaching critical thinking, but to what degree are teachers able to foster it? What level of command should high school graduates possess?
  7. Business. How we innovate. There’s a raft of challenges in the commercial space, where inertia from our past successes has led to an endemic lack of critical thinking. What skills must executives employ to get ahead of the curve? (I’ve expanded on approaches for workplace at Talent Culture, and found a useful innovation frame started by Pat Lefler at Blogging Innovation).
  8. Thought Leadership. How we inspire. From academia to corporate enterprise to the political realm, our leaders want us to follow them. But do their messages makes sense to us at a cognitive level, or are we simply responding to emotional appeals?
  9. Collaboration. How we engage. We need to unlock new ways to interact in teams, bringing the potential of networked critical thinkers to bear on difficult problems. How do we get there? (see also Design Thinking)

No wonder there’s energy on critical thinking from all sides. There’s enough research in this framing for the balance of 2011. At this point, we will definitely spill over into 2012.

As we explore the depths and the many dimensions of this topic, we’ll need care to navigate the chasm between keeping it simple (aka accessible) versus the demands of academic rigor. Both are important.

Challenge me to strike the right balance.

As always, your comments and tweets will help expand and enrich the conversation. I look forward to them.

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Starting 2010 with a Bias for Action

It’s the New Year, and there’s no time like the present to embrace all the things we spent 2009 talking about. Trouble is, there was lots of talk in 2009. Talk full of buzz words. Some claim that we’ve begun talking in circles. Maybe so. But in the process, we’ve laid an important foundation.

Look at it like this:

Meaningful, sustainable change starts with an informed conversation. Together, it’s easier to frame the future, to find the best path forward.

In 2009, via blogs and chats, we began to frame that future.

In many ways, 2009 had to happen. It’s not entirely clear how, but we survived it. We realigned our cost structures, built our networks, and learned how to interact using social media.

Now, with scarcely time for a breath, the hard work begins anew. Let’s start 2010 with a clear mindset. Here are four key themes, resolutions to guide our collaboration efforts:

  1. Bias for action. The key step in breaking the talk cycle.
  2. Bias for engagement. Moving away from the Web 1.0 broadcast model of communicating, toward a more valuable 1:1 exchange that builds relationships.
  3. Bias for learning and discovery. I’ve posted on the need for a learning culture, not only increased higher priority for education, but renewed focus on critical thinking and semantic clarity. If we succeed, the prize is a knowledge renaissance.
  4. Bias for change. None of the above will matter if we continue to cling to the past. Our risk-averse cultures are often biased to resist change. To move forward, we need to embrace it.

What does action-oriented collaboration look like? Here are some case studies in virtual community that seek to use engagement and discovery to drive new solutions:

  1. Look for some immediate changes at #smchat. Building on insights from 2009, we’re brainstorming how we can drive even more value for members. Thought leadership and emergent insight have been the core of our value stream. How can we leverage that?
  2. We’re at an inflection point for exciting things w/ #ecosys, our pilot project on public engagement to drive social innovation.
  3. Take a look at what’s happening at govloop. Over 20,000 voices from across government are self-organizing. Ideas are everywhere.

Let me know if you know of others.

2010 will be a time of culture change and new paradigms. We don’t have much choice. So strap in and hold on. We’ve got some work to do.

A Landscape for Discovery

Learning and innovation have a common thread.  In simple terms, their mission is to expand what we know. We begin at familiar places, we move to areas of uncertainty, to explore .. then, with luck and a fair wind, we return a little better informed.

Let’s call this mission one of discovery.

Seeking knowledge is a core human aspiration, a measure of what makes our species unique. Unfortunately its a path from which many have drifted. The more rigorous aspects of critical thinking and complex problem solving are now often left to experts, those among the shrinking ranks of science and corporate R&D. As I’ve written about a knowledge renaissance in other posts, I’ve come to the conclusion that  more people need to be able to engage on harder problems. And we need better ways to frame the gaps.

Take a look at this picture:


In the lower left hand corner we start with ‘what we know’.  As we move out, we launch our journey of discovery. Do we have a direction? That depends on our situation and objectives. Perhaps we launch multiple journeys in succession. Or we explore in parallel. Or maybe we just wander around, afraid to venture far from familiar territory.

In every case, the journey back is when we extract value. We apply what we’ve learned. We adapt, adding to our knowledge base, giving each successive journey a head start.

This model was developed by Mary Nations of Nations Alliance here in Raleigh, with input from Holladay and Cheesebrow at HSDI. I find it particularly fascinating because of its potential for broad application. Think of how we might reframe education reform; paradigms for innovation and complex systems; a reinforced foundation for knowledge management (KM); a fresh look at the learning organization.

At a minimum, I think we’ve established some context .. a canvas on which to chart our journeys of discovery. Look across this landscape and into the future. What do you see?

Imagine: A Knowledge Renaissance

Close your eyes, and imagine:

a world where education and learning are priorities, with families planting and nurturing the first critical seeds of curiosity in their children;

a place where businesses of every size and shape focus their talent on innovations that improve the human condition, less obsessed with maximizing dividends and more focused on the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet;

a time when communities are quick to form around the shared values and talents of people around them, when insights are traded as a valuable currency, and information silos are relegated to history books.

It’s one tapestry, really. Can you see the common threads? It’s all about people. In fact, relationships not only matter, they’re at the core. Collaboration is the rule, not the exception. And our cultures embrace knowledge and knowledge sharing at every level.

On Thursday 10/15 in Raleigh, I shared my perspective on a coming Knowledge Renaissance. We discussed how people can tap social processes and technologies, first to find each other, then to collaborate. We also discussed the value of learning, the positive dynamics of human interaction in communities, and the roles we can play to revive learning science.

Let’s face it. Taking on century-old paradigms won’t be easy. We’re gathering up threads for a new tapestry.

I’m pulling together the key takeaways. Meantime, thanks to everyone who came out to participate in the discussion. Stay tuned.