Originally developed by Rotman’s former dean, Roger Martin, integrative thinking is a broad term to describe looking for solutions through the tensions inherent in different viewpoints. Martin noticed that effective CEOs understood that their own world view was limited, so they sought out opposing viewpoints and came to creative solutions by leveraging seemingly opposing positions. For the past seven years, a spin-off group called the I-Think Initiative has been training teachers in the Toronto area on how integrative thinking can build critical thinking in students from a young age.
LADDER OF INFERENCE
One of the tools Jason Watt learned about in his training is called the ladder of inference. It’s a model for decision making behavior developed by Harvard professors Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Essentially, it helps students slow down and realize which data they are taking into account when they make a decision and how the data they choose is informed by their past experiences. Assumptions are often made in a split second decision because the brain is wired to prioritize data that confirms the model a person already holds. The ladder of inference is a way to check those assumptions.
Watt first used the ladder in a very basic way; he showed his grade two students an image of a soccer player lying on the ground, one leg up, holding his head. The image was intentionally a little vague. At first Watt’s students concluded that the man had fallen. But as they worked their way up the ladder of inference they began to notice different aspects of the image and add those to their “data pool.”
“Students started to realize there was a lot more going on in the picture just in terms of data than what they first said,” Watt said. For example, students would say the man was hurt. That’s not a data point, it’s an inference. Watt could tease out from them that they thought the man was hurt because he was on the ground, holding his head and had a pained look on his face. “I started getting much deeper, more thoughtful answers from students,” Watt said.
As students practiced using the ladder of inference in various content areas they also started to use it on their own when dealing with social problems. When there is a disagreement, students now use the ladder of inference to back up and think through the data they chose and the assumptions that stemmed from that data. Watt says now students solve problems on their own or ask a friend to help them make their ladders.
“We’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with questioning, so the kids have become much more willing and accepting of criticism because it’s not really criticism anymore,” Watt said. He feels the integrative thinking tools have naturally encouraged his students to build a growth mindset about all aspects of life because multiple viewpoints or ways to solve a problem are a core part of why integrative thinking works. Difference is the strength of the model.
Another integrative thinking tool called the pro/pro chart offers some good examples of how students are learning to think flexibly. Most people are familiar with pro/con charts, but in a pro/pro chart the group thinks through the positives of two different ideas. Rather than deciding between two choices, this tool helps students identify the positive traits of different viewpoints, and then create a third option by merging the good qualities of both.
Watt asked his students to brainstorm ideas for the worst restaurant of all time. When they had a good list of terrible ideas, Watt then asked groups of students to each take one idea and explain why it was the best restaurant of all time. One group had initially proposed a restaurant with no seating would be the worst; they reframed that to say if everyone was standing up they would move through the restaurant faster and turn more of a profit. A second group had said a restaurant in the woods would be terrible; they reframed that as dining under the stars.
“They were coming up with these really good ideas out of a terrible idea,” Watt said. “It helps kids see that they are capable and switches those mindsets.” Watt built on the activity, asking the groups to pitch their ideas in a Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den style contest. Students came up with hilarious slogans and designs for their restaurants and what started as a silly, fun activity became a rich interdisciplinary project with written and oral communication, presentation skills, media literacy, and of course, the process skills that enable them.
“The students now are no longer afraid to think,” Watt said. “They’re being more creative thinkers.” He even uses integrative thinking in math instruction, asking students to use the ladder of inference to determine information in a word problem, or asking them to do Pro/Pro charts for different multiplication strategies and then letting them come up with their own third way. His students’ math scores started skyrocketing, and even better, they no longer felt they weren’t “math people.”
PROVOKING SELF REFLECTION
Jennifer Warren became curious about integrative thinking through her daughter who kept coming home from her grade six classroom saying things like, “we had the most interesting discussion today.” That piqued Warren’s interest.
“The way she was talking about her own thinking developing, I was kind of thinking I didn’t think my students were saying the same kind of things,” Warren said. She wanted to be sure she was provoking the same response from her high school English students at Dundas Valley Secondary School in Hamilton. So when her board of education decided to fund the I-Think training she signed up.
The integrative thinking tools gave Warren a solution to a problem she and many other teachers have struggled with for a long time: how to deepen student thinking. Until then, Warren had tried to do this by modeling what deep thinking looks like. She was confident she could help any student become a strong writer. But the integrative thinking training forced her to ask some hard questions about her instruction and prompted her realization that her students were recreating her example, not creating in on their own.
“It completely flipped what mattered to me in an English classroom,” Warren said. She used to be mostly concerned with the product. Now, “instead of defending a stance, I’m so much more interested in having students reflect on their stance and shift and explain why they shifted. That metacognitive piece is more interesting to me now.”
Warren starts the first semester by asking students to do a causal model -- another core integrative thinking tool -- of their values. She asks them to pick three to five things they value, anything from profound qualities like independence or kindness, to passions like music or hockey. They then having to dive deeply into why they value those qualities, what caused that? Often this requires them to have conversations with family about values taught to them from a young age.
She then asks them to make visual representations of their causal models and present them to one another. “I like that because they realize people don’t value the same things that they do,” Warren said. Those causal models go up on the wall as a reminder that everyone in the class is different and that the diversity of values, perspectives and opinions makes them better problem solvers.
Warren teaches a course for students who failed the Ontario literacy exam, a graduation requirement. The kids in this class often don’t have a lot of self confidence and are often missing some key literacy skills, like the ability to elaborate on a topic in writing. The ladder of inference has been an incredible tool to help Warren walk students through their thinking, modeling the tool step by step, climbing up or down the ladder as students offer insights from the text.
“It was such a simple and elegant way to allow someone who couldn’t wrap their head around inferring to do it well,” Warren said. She thinks the visual of a ladder helped these struggling students pin their thoughts to different steps and make connections.
She’s also found the tool to be helpful when she has disagreements with students. She’ll use the language of the tools to describe to students what data she’s using to make conclusions about their work ethic, their attendance, their behavior. But she always asks, “What am I missing.”
“It changes the conversation,” Warren said. It gives her a voice to express her disappointment to students in a way that is transparent and uses the shared language of their critical thinking tools. And because integrative thinking is based on the fact that one’s understanding of something is always incomplete, constantly shifting, there is room for students to be participants in the conversation.
“I’m completely and utterly blown away whenever I use one of these tools with my kids,” said Kristen Slinger, a grade two teacher at Norseman Junior Middle School. Before learning about integrative thinking, Slinger would have said she has been doing collaboration in the classroom for the past ten years. But she’s shifted her definition of collaboration and now sees what she was doing before as merely asking kids to write on the same piece of paper.
“When you use these tools [students] realize that they hit a roadblock when not everyone is participating,” Slinger said. The natural need for every students’ voice in order to solve the problem creates genuine collaboration.
Slinger remembers one boy who came from a Montessori background. He was used to a small school and small classes and was overwhelmed when he joined her class of 20 and the broader school of close to 700 students. Slinger said he was selectively mute until Christmas, an issue she raised with his mother. The news came as a surprise to his mom who said he was very chatty at home. Slinger kept the boy in a consistent group so he could develop trust with a few peers and slowly he realized that they really wanted to hear his opinion.
“It would have taken me probably months longer to get him to that point, but it was that idea that his peers valued what he had to say,” Slinger said. He went from never talking in class to volunteering to be the student who went around to other classes polling students on their favorite lemonade for a project.
Slinger said before she learned about integrative thinking she would get interesting responses from students, but she wouldn’t know how they got to their conclusions. The integrative thinking tools help make student thinking visible. “It’s the thinking that’s been put into the responses and the way it’s been broken down,” Slinger said. When she can see the steps of their thinking she has more ways to push them to go even further.
“I haven’t take a course in a very long time that has reshaped my entire program,” she said.
“The safest way in was by using fiction stories,” Slinger said of her own attempts to use integrative thinking. “Find that story that maybe has that emotional clincher that may have different endings and then stop there and use the ladder of inference to come up with what they think might happen at the end.”
Jason Watt suggests starting with an activity that’s part of the curriculum every year. That way a teacher new to the practice can compare the kind of thinking students demonstrate when using an integrative thinking tool with their previous lesson plan.
One important element of success is choosing a topic that’s engaging to kids, that has multiple entry points and solutions, and that has a real stakeholder. “One of the biggest mistakes is when you give the tension without the problem to be solved from a particular perspective,” said Nogah Kornberg, Associate Director of the I-Think Initiative at the Rotman School of Management.
For example, a grade one teacher offered her students a challenge from the school’s janitor. In the summer the trash is stored outside and becomes infested with bees. In the winter the trash is stored inside and smells bad. What might be a better solution? Giving students the challenge from the perspective of the stakeholder helps them solve the problem for him. If it is just presented as an A or a B solution, they don’t know who to solve for.
Kornberg was a high school teacher herself before becoming part of the I-Think Initiative. She sees the program as offering two things: critical thinking skills and building better citizens.
“We’re seeing quite young students learning how to play the game of school and this is about how to become good thinkers and good questioners of our thinking,” she said. Getting started on this metacognition piece can’t start too young in her opinion. She also sees the tool as a way to empower young people. “Because it’s rooted in problem solving it’s about saying things are the way they are, but we can make them better and I have a responsibility to make them better.”
Rahim Essabhai wholeheartedly agrees with Kornberg; he’s seen the shift in his students. He teaches a class called Business and Cooperative Education for seniors at John Polanyi Collegiate Institute that asks students to work on what big problem for an outside organization over the course of the school year.
“When I have my kids coming back to visit me and they say that this course has gotten them ready for the next stage more than any course they took in high school, I don’t take that lightly,” Essabhai said. And since students are coming up with interesting solutions to problems real businesses and organizations have, they see that their thinking has value.
And he knows students are using the tools beyond his course as well. In a final reflection for his class, one student described how she constantly found herself having to choose between hanging out with her friends and spending time with her little sister. When she did either she felt bad, so she came up with a third option. Once a month she hosted a gathering for all her friends and their little sisters to spend time together.
“They’re not being a passenger in their own life,” Essabhai said. “Nothing is too messy or too tough.” Growing students who feel that way about tough challenges should be an essential function of education.
Here's a challenge for your students to tackle:
Most of us are not what we could be. We are less. We have great capacity. But most of it is dormant; most is undeveloped. Improvement in thinking is like improvement in basketball, in ballet, or in playing the saxophone. It is unlikely to take place in the absence of a conscious commitment to learn. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we don’t do the work required for improvement.
Development in thinking requires a gradual process requiring plateaus of learning and just plain hard work. It is not possible to become an excellent thinker simply because one wills it. Changing one’s habits of thought is a long-range project, happening over years, not weeks or months. The essential traits of a critical thinker require an extended period of development.
How, then, can we develop as critical thinkers? How can we help ourselves and our students to practice better thinking in everyday life?
First, we must understand that there are stages required for development as a critical thinker:
Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking)
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker (we try to improve but without regular practice)
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice)
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice)
Stage Six: The Master Thinker (skilled & insightful thinking become second nature to us)
We develop through these stages if we:
|1) accept the fact that there are serious problems in our thinking (accepting the challenge to our thinking) and|
2) begin regular practice.
In this article, we will explain 9 strategies that any motivated person can use to develop as a thinker. As we explain the strategy, we will describe it as if we were talking directly to such a person. Further details to our descriptions may need to be added for those who know little about critical thinking. Here are the 9:
|1. Use “Wasted” Time.|
2. A Problem A Day.
3. Internalize Intellectual Standards.
4. Keep An Intellectual Journal.
5. Reshape Your Character.
6. Deal with Your Ego.
7. Redefine the Way You See Things.
8. Get in touch with your emotions.
9. Analyze group influences on your life.
There is nothing magical about our ideas. No one of them is essential. Nevertheless, each represents a plausible way to begin to do something concrete to improve thinking in a regular way. Though you probably can’t do all of these at the same time, we recommend an approach in which you experiment with all of these over an extended period of time.
First Strategy:Use “Wasted” Time. All humans waste some time; that is, fail to use all of their time productively or even pleasurably. Sometimes we jump from one diversion to another, without enjoying any of them. Sometimes we become irritated about matters beyond our control. Sometimes we fail to plan well causing us negative consequences we could easily have avoided (for example, we spend time unnecessarily trapped in traffic — though we could have left a half hour earlier and avoided the rush). Sometimes we worry unproductively. Sometimes we spend time regretting what is past. Sometimes we just stare off blankly into space.
The key is that the time is “gone” even though, if we had thought about it and considered our options, we would never have deliberately spent our time in the way we did. So why not take advantage of the time you normally waste by practicing your critical thinking during that otherwise wasted time? For example, instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might ask yourself questions like these:
When did I do my worst thinking today? When did I do my best? What in fact did I think about today? Did I figure anything out? Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily? If I had to repeat today what would I do differently? Why? Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals? Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values? If I spent every day this way for 10 years, would I at the end have accomplished something worthy of that time?
It would be important of course to take a little time with each question. It would also be useful to record your observations so that you are forced to spell out details and be explicit in what you recognize and see. As time passes, you will notice patterns in your thinking.
Second Strategy: A Problem A Day. At the beginning of each day (perhaps driving to work or going to school) choose a problem to work on when you have free moments. Figure out the logic of the problem by identifying its elements. In other words, systematically think through the questions: What exactly is the problem? How can I put it into the form of a question. How does it relate to my goals, purposes, and needs?
|1) Wherever possible take problems one by one. State the problem as clearly and precisely as you can.|
2) Study the problem to make clear the “kind” of problem you are dealing with. Figure out, for example, what sorts of things you are going to have to do to solve it. Distinguish Problems over which you have some control from problems over which you have no control. Set aside the problems over which you have no control, concentrating your efforts on those problems you can potentially solve.
3) Figure out the information you need and actively seek that information.
4) Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.
5) Figure out your options for action. What can you do in the short term? In the long term? Distinguish problems under your control from problems beyond your control. Recognize explicitly your limitations as far as money, time, and power.
6) Evaluate your options, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages in the situation you are in.
7) Adopt a strategic approach to the problem and follow through on that strategy. This may involve direct action or a carefully thought-through wait-and-see strategy.
8) When you act, monitor the implications of your action as they begin to emerge. Be ready at a moment’s notice to revise your strategy if the situation requires it. Be prepared to shift your strategy or your analysis or statement of the problem, or all three, as more information about the problem becomes available to you.
Third Strategy:Internalize Intellectual Standards. Each week, develop a heightened awareness of one of the universal intellectual standards (clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logicalness, significance). Focus one week on clarity, the next on accuracy, etc. For example, if you are focusing on clarity for the week, try to notice when you are being unclear in communicating with others. Notice when others are unclear in what they are saying.
When you are reading, notice whether you are clear about what you are reading. When you orally express or write out your views (for whatever reason), ask yourself whether you are clear about what you are trying to say. In doing this, of course, focus on four techniques of clarification : 1) Stating what you are saying explicitly and precisely (with careful consideration given to your choice of words), 2)Elaborating on your meaning in other words, 3)Giving examples of what you mean from experiences you have had, and 4)Using analogies, metaphors, pictures, or diagrams to illustrate what you mean. In other words, you will frequently STATE, ELABORATE, ILLUSTRATE, AND EXEMPLIFY your points. You will regularly ask others to do the same.
Fourth Strategy: Keep An Intellectual Journal. Each week, write out a certain number of journal entries. Use the following format (keeping each numbered stage separate):
1. Situation. Describe a situation that is, or was, emotionally significant to you (that is, that you deeply care about). Focus on one situation at a time.
2. Your Response. Describe what you did in response to that situation. Be specific and exact.
3. Analysis. Then analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation. Dig beneath the surface.
4. Assessment. Assess the implications of your analysis. What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could re-live the situation?
Strategy Five: Reshape Your Character. Choose one intellectual trait---intellectual perseverance, autonomy, empathy, courage, humility, etc.--- to strive for each month, focusing on how you can develop that trait in yourself. For example, concentrating on intellectual humility, begin to notice when you admit you are wrong. Notice when you refuse to admit you are wrong, even in the face of glaring evidence that you are in fact wrong. Notice when you become defensive when another person tries to point out a deficiency in your work, or your thinking. Notice when your intellectual arrogance keeps you from learning, for example, when you say to yourself “I already know everything I need to know about this subject.” Or, “I know as much as he does. Who does he think he is forcing his opinions on me?” By owning your “ignorance,” you can begin to deal with it.
Strategy Six: Deal with Your Egocentrism. Egocentric thinking is found in the disposition in human nature to think with an automatic subconscious bias in favor of oneself. On a daily basis, you can begin to observe your egocentric thinking in action by contemplating questions like these: Under what circumstances do I think with a bias in favor of myself? Did I ever become irritable over small things? Did I do or say anything “irrational” to get my way? Did I try to impose my will upon others? Did I ever fail to speak my mind when I felt strongly about something, and then later feel resentment? Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can then work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection, thinking along the lines of: What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what I want to do? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved you are probably engaging in self-deception.)
Strategy Seven:Redefine the Way You See Things. We live in a world, both personal and social, in which every situation is “defined,” that is, given a meaning. How a situation is defined determines not only how we feel about it, but also how we act in it, and what implications it has for us. However, virtually every situation can be defined in more than one way. This fact carries with it tremendous opportunities. In principle, it lies within your power and mine to make our lives more happy and fulfilling than they are. Many of the negative definitions that we give to situations in our lives could in principle be transformed into positive ones. We can be happy when otherwise we would have been sad.
We can be fulfilled when otherwise we would have been frustrated. In this strategy, we practice redefining the way we see things, turning negatives into positives, dead-ends into new beginnings, mistakes into opportunities to learn. To make this strategy practical, we should create some specific guidelines for ourselves. For example, we might make ourselves a list of five to ten recurrent negative contexts in which we feel frustrated, angry, unhappy, or worried. We could then identify the definition in each case that is at the root of the negative emotion. We would then choose a plausible alternative definition for each and then plan for our new responses as well as new emotions. For example, if you tend to worry about all problems, both the ones you can do something about and those that you can’t; you can review the thinking in this nursery rhyme:
“For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one, think til you find it. If there be none, then never mind it.”
Let’s look at another example. You do not have to define your initial approach to a member of the opposite sex in terms of the definition “his/her response will determine whether or not I am an attractive person.” Alternatively, you could define it in terms of the definition “let me test to see if this person is initially drawn to me—given the way they perceive me.” With the first definition in mind, you feel personally put down if the person is not “interested” in you; with the second definition you explicitly recognize that people respond not to the way a stranger is, but the way they look to them subjectively. You therefore do not take a failure to show interest in you (on the part of another) as a “defect” in you.
Strategy Eight: Get in touch with your emotions: Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What, exactly, is the thinking leading to this emotion? For example, if you are angry, ask yourself, what is the thinking that is making me angry? What other ways could I think about this situation? For example, can you think about the situation so as to see the humor in it and what is pitiable in it? If you can, concentrate on that thinking and your emotions will (eventually) shift to match it.
Strategy Nine:Analyze group influences on your life: Closely analyze the behavior that is encouraged, and discouraged, in the groups to which you belong. For any given group, what are you "required" to believe? What are you "forbidden" to do? Every group enforces some level of conformity. Most people live much too much within the view of themselves projected by others. Discover what pressure you are bowing to and think explicitly about whether or not to reject that pressure.
Conclusion: The key point to keep in mind when devising strategies is that you are engaged in a personal experiment. You are testing ideas in your everyday life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in the light of your actual experience. For example, suppose you find the strategy “Redefine the Way You See Things” to be intuitive to you. So you use it to begin. Pretty soon you find yourself noticing the social definitions that rule many situations in your life. You recognize how your behavior is shaped and controlled by the definitions in use:
- “I’m giving a party,” (Everyone therefore knows to act in a “partying” way)
- “The funeral is Tuesday,” (There are specific social behaviors expected at a funeral)
- “Jack is an acquaintance, not really a friend.” (We behave very differently in the two cases)
You begin to see how important and pervasive social definitions are. You begin to redefine situations in ways that run contrary to some commonly accepted definitions. You notice then how redefining situations (and relationships) enables you to “Get in Touch With Your Emotions.” You recognize that the way you think (that is, define things) generates the emotions you experience. When you think you are threatened (i.e., define a situation as “threatening”), you feel fear. If you define a situation as a “failure,” you may feel depressed. On the other hand, if you define that same situation as a “lesson or opportunity to learn” you feel empowered to learn. When you recognize this control that you are capable of exercising, the two strategies begin to work together and reinforce each other.
Next consider how you could integrate strategy #9 (“Analyze group influences on your life”) into your practice. One of the main things that groups do is control us by controlling the definitions we are allowed to operate with. When a group defines some things as “cool” and some as “dumb, ” the members of the group try to appear “cool” and not appear “dumb.” When the boss of a business says, “That makes a lot of sense,” his subordinates know they are not to say, “No, it is ridiculous.” And they know this because defining someone as the “boss” gives him/her special privileges to define situations and relationships.
You now have three interwoven strategies: you “Redefine the Way You See Things,” “Get in touch with your emotions,” and “Analyze group influences on your life.” The three strategies are integrated into one. You can now experiment with any of the other strategies, looking for opportunities to integrate them into your thinking and your life. If you follow through on some plan analogous to what we have described, you are developing as a thinker. More precisely, you are becoming a “Practicing” Thinker. Your practice will bring advancement. And with advancement, skilled and insightful thinking may becomes more and more natural to you.
Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Modified from the book by Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life.
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