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Do we give enough attention in class to HOW our learners think?

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

HOW DO YOU THINK? Yes, you read that right: Not ‘what do you think?’, but how?

Do we give enough attention in class to how our learners think? Do we give any guidance, so that (stay with me) we help learners to think about their thinking?

In my view, most of our interpretive frame is formed from three factors:

  1. How we feel
  2. How we think, and
  3. What we believe.

These create the emotions, motivators, values and attitudes we have, and the assumptions we make.

Most of us are ‘in touch’ with our feelings: at any given moment, if asked, we could say how we feel. And equally, we could probably discuss and identify our beliefs (at least our conscious ones). But that’s probably not the case about how we think.

Do you know how you think? Not what (that’s easy), but how…

It’s important, because how we think will often determine the opinions we have, the options we generate, and the decisions we make. What we do, and how we do it, is often the result of our thinking. And if that thinking varies, so too do the outcomes that depend on it.

So what are the variety of ways people might think?

Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman has raised this very issue in his seminal book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. It’s a great book, well worth the read, and cannot be adequately summarised here, except in one respect.

He draws a critical distinction between our two dominant thinking modes, which he calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, intuitive and reflexive, and System 2 is slow, thoughtful, analytical, and rational. And I suspect most of us will recognise these two thinking patterns, and identify times we have used each.

The challenge is – which is best, and when? Which also implies choice. We can choose to think fast or slow. Which also means that we don’t have to trust our instincts, which although they can help us survive under pressure, when we need a quick, instinctive response (such as swerving to avoid a child running into the road), such thinking might let us down, or get us into trouble when’ thinking it through’ and being more rational or analytical would have been more effective.

So what are the situations our learners face, in and outside of college, that might be helpfully managed by choosing which ‘thinking strategy’ to use?

To consciously make this choice, of course, requires the learner to think more slowly, more rationally, using System 2 thinking, and particularly when System 1 thinking is likely to take over, as the learner reacts emotionally, instinctively. So the time when System 2 thinking is most necessary is often when System 1 is likely to dominate.

Emotional thoughts tend to be stronger and more compelling that rational ones – they have a stronger valency. So often emotion hijacks reason.

If we regard System 1 as essentially emotion-led, and System 2 as reason-led, then I think it worth helping our learners switch thinking systems to be more effective in their options and decision making – especially when starting to become emotionally driven, which might lead to unwanted and unintended consequences.

Two skills seem to be essential in this process: self-awareness, and self-control: being able to recognise that emotion is starting to take over, and that it is likely to be unhelpful; then having the self-control necessary to switch, from System 1 to System 2.

This is a difficult process, but not impossible, especially if we start early enough, and persist with the key techniques that over time, will make it easier.

So how can the learner do this?

The following three step process might help:

Step 1: Discuss with learners how to recognise ‘early warning signals’ each of them has, that indicate emotion is on the rise. These are generally physiological signals such as stomach churn or knot; starting to sweat or feel hot; part of the body aching – such as neck, shoulder or head; feeling sick…. Recognising these signals is the first and essential step to intervening, to taking control

Step 2: Associate such an early warning signal with a ‘programme interrupt’ device. This should be identified and personalised by each learner, so that it is easy for them to recall. Mine is visual: I visualise a large red neon sign, spelling ‘STOP!’, which flashes – initially quickly, then more and more slowly, until it stops flashing. Others might choose different ‘interrupt signs’: a noise, such as a bang or piece of music; a feeling, such as excitement or relaxation; a strong and positive smell, such as flowers or fresh-cut grass; or a particular favourite taste, such as chocolate or a piece of fruit. The skill here, that needs practice, is to associate this ‘interruption’ stimulus with the physiological indicator in Step 1. For example, as soon as I feel my stomach churn (Step 1), I immediately see the neon ‘stop’ sign (Step 2). This Step works, because it replaces one strong trigger (stomach churn) with another (neon sign); it becomes a useful distraction, and a helpful reminder, starting us down the System 2 path (“why am I looking at a neon sign?”). So we spend time thinking about, and concentrating on, the neon sign, rather than the stomach churn.

Step 3: Immediately replace the ‘programme interrupt’ stimulus with this 5-point ‘problem solving’ process, which is:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why is it a problem?
  3. What are my options?
  4. Which of those do I prefer?
  5. Do it!

If followed, this locks the learner into System 2 thinking. It is logical, analytical, and takes some time – ie is relatively slow. It moves the learner away from a quick and emotionally driven reaction, to one that is thoughtful, thought through and solution centred.

It is impossible to think simultaneously about two separate things: the more you tune in to one, the more you tune away from the other.

This three-step approach helps the learner do just that: move from being hijacked by System 1 thinking to a more reflective, thoughtful and effective System 2 thinking.

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

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