Posts Tagged ‘inquiry’

In Pursuit of Ignorance

September 11, 2012

Charles Darwin, 1881

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger…and it is more interesting,” says Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein. He claims exploring the unknown is the true engine of science. Ignorance, he says, helps scientists concentrate their research.

Firestein’s book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” argues that what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know. He believes ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions. Rather than big tangles like the “How was the Universe formed?” Firestein favors the more specific. In the social and private sectors, this perspective has enormous merit for both routines and innovation.

Great Questions

Inquiry can catalyze learning and support change. In a recent proposal to an influential funder, we posed work with colleagues as applied research. The primary question: What early childhood learning investment works best with which kids? Why? This raises others:

  • When is the best time to provide intervention and enrichment?
  • How many opportunities are available in each intervention and enrichment opportunity?
  • What gains are made at what cost?
  • What proportion of 4-year olds are most at risk?
  • How are children distributed along a continuum of need? 

Thoughtful Ignorance

According to Firestein, “Thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community’s understanding and seeks to resolve them.” A historic example underscores this opinion. Deeply religious Victorian society in the late 1800s was shocked by Darwin’s suggestion that humans and animals shared common ancestry. His “non-religious biology” asked some vital questions about the origin of the species and revealed  new, big ideas. Apparently, Charles Darwin was a prescient forecaster for Firestein. Long ago Darwin said: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Identify what you don’t know. Be willing to ask great questions; vigorously pursue discovery. These attitudes and practices yield improvements and change.  

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

New: The Logic  Model Guidebook (2013) just published by SAGE.

Sainthood and The Devil’s Advocate

May 8, 2011

 

St. Paul

 

What’s a weighted indicator of great talent? It  is something savvy employers seek and education systems are challenged to teach: critical thinking.

 Observation, Reflection, Reason

When a parent suggests a child consider the kindness of strangers may not be what it first appears – they teach critical thinking. Prompts that help to question assumptions about a nice man who needs “help” to find a lost puppy launches a new way of interpreting cues and context. The disciplined process of actively evaluating information gathered by observation, reflection and reason is critical thinking.

It happens when: 

  • There’s an urgent need to discover why cheese melts on a processing belt,
  • A complex social issue like teen pregnancy  resists intervention, and
  • An educator puzzles over why a student isn’t grasping a new concept. 

People use critical thinking skills to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize and apply alternative remedies to solve problems. An important part of critical thinking is considering the significance of claims. This raises questions like: What explanations are there for this? What else do we need to know? Recognizing unstated values, examining relationships between propositions and pattern detection are also features of critical thinking.

Discard Rote

In a knowledge economy, rote responses are often inadequate. BP Group Chief Executive John Browne, who resigned in the wake of serious criticism about ruthless cost-cutting that may have compromised safety after the Texas City Refinery explosion, said “We need to ask more disagreeable questions.”

“Intellectual disobedience” or critical thinking offers better access to and vital participation in the highly dynamic world we live in now. It is essential to innovation and development. When a person judges, decides, reflects, discerns or assesses conclusions they employ a fluid intelligence.

Don’t confuse critical thinking with criticism. The qualifier of critical as it precedes thinking means importance, central or crucial. Its origin is the ancient Greek, kriterion, which means standards. When understood in the context of a skill or approach, “critical” doesn’t mean disapproval or negative. Critical thinking, in fact, has many very positive and important uses.

Green Light, Red Light

Some cultures promote and foster it far better than others. In a safe work place, critical thinking can happen without penalty. In fact, it is aggressively sought and highly prized in many settings. Critical thinking advances the chance of securing an intended result by taking the initiative to review options.  It’s key to adaptation. 

But, if “pleasing” is de rigeur and “challenge” is not safe, independent thought is often squelched to secure approval. People, organizations, and cultures that focus on a single “right” answer limit knowledge. They also teach a form of obedience that better serves social cohesion (think Stepford Wives).  In contrast, the process of searching can deeply engage the human mind and spirit. 

Quality Assurance

The Catholic Church employs critical thinking. During canonization, the Vatican appoints someone to ensure thorough review of proposed candidates. It was the job of the  Devil’s Advocate to ask hard questions in the process of selecting a new saint. The current reference for the Devil’s Advocate is now Promoter of Justice. Importantly, the questions raised are a quality assurance method!

The capacity to intellectually imagine and explore different ways of thinking and acting is vital to growth. It is essential to manage and lead change.  How can civil society, enterprise, our environment or our world improve without thoughtful reflection or questioning “authority”?

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com


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