30 March 2018

"Can general critical thinking skills be useful?" Why is this even a question???


Today, the wonderful Lynne Kelly posted an article by Carl Hendrick about why we should not be teaching critical thinking skills in schools. In this article Carl puts forward the idea that specialist knowledge, that is your expertise in one domain, is not transferable to another. 
In fact he claims that people who excel in one domain may not do any better in the new domain than an average newcomer. Measured by standardised tests I presume?  Well I partially agree with his findings and yet disagree with his conclusion; but let me come back to that.   In sharing my thoughts with Lynne about the article I quickly realised it was a prime example of somebody working from an inadequate definition of knowledge and so I turned my response in to this blog post so this example could be shared more widely.

Choosing the right knowledge lens

The problem here is that Carl is using a faulty definition of knowledge. As a knowledge manager I run into this thinking all the time. Based on the computer metaphor, (a prevalent view of the brain in today's schools and universities) knowledge is simply "information" which is transferred and held in the mind like memory on a hard drive. Therefore, it tells us, we should see deep expertise, like that held by air-traffic controller, as a series of remembered skills, techniques and methods. It is a simple concept, easy to explain and rings true to our industrial-age "teacher-student" experiences of learning. Thus its popularity. 
From this model it is a small step to think that knowledge of this sort could be easily transferred to different contexts and even different people. In fact one might be tempted to think more general types of knowledge or skill could be re-applied in many different contexts. Not only that but educators, seeking to have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time and effort, would naturally seek out these general concepts; just as they do in more specific areas such as maths, science and language.
We don't hold tacit knowledge,
we are made up of it.
There is just one small problem with this "Knowledge is an object that is held and transferred" view; neuroscience doesn't back it up. Any first year brain science student can tell you that memories aren't stored in a specific part of the brain. There is no RAM or hard drive. The brain does have the ability to remember facts and figures, but it does so in a funny almost fuzzy way. Just ask any judge or lawyer about the legal mechanisms in place to overcome witnesses inability to clearly recall facts. 
Knowledge managers call this type of memory implicit knowledge. We define it as knowledge that can easily be written down or made explicit, but knowledge goes further than that. Much of our expertise is held as what we call tacit knowledge; so called because of its most familiar form: muscle memory. Even those who are brilliant at remembering and recalling implicit knowledge actually master tacit techniques such as memory pegs, sensory and geographical tags, humour, surprise, emotion and narrative to do the heavy mental lifting. 
This tacit knowledge is not information based as we know it, but is instead the emergent aggregate of the billions of neuronal firings learned through untold numbers of interactions with the world around us. We don't hold tacit knowledge, we are made up of it. It is who we are and learning something new we are becoming someone new. This is the messy and complex truth of what knowledge actually is, and while it is harder to apply in a classroom or training context it also doesn't break down like the simple computer metaphor of the brain does when pressed with evidence.

So what is wrong with the common definitions of knowledge?

Attainment of knowledge now becomes exposed as an individual's ability to process information against previous experience in order to make effective decisions and take actions that build value for the individual or their group. 
The common definitions of knowledge* being "an asset you capture, store, transfer and apply and build value" lead people to terrible conclusions, like:
  • "Just get her to write down what she does",
  • "We need manage our knowledge, what software should we use to do it?", or
  • "It doesn't matter if our development team quits, we can just hire new programmers with the same skills", or worse 
  • "So today is your last day and you've really helped us over the last 5 years. I have 45 minutes before my next meeting, so can you tell me everything you do and I'll make sure somebody keeps an eye on it." (Yes, I really did hear that said to a deep marketing expert who had helped build and maintain most of the operational and sales support systems in the company.)
Think about maths tests. A question asking the student to write down the formula for gravity is testing recall of implicit knowledge. But a question asking the student to solve the time for a rocket to travel to the moon taking gravity in to account is testing for deep tacit knowledge. (Once you understand this you will never cram for a test again!)
If you are still a little confused by the difference, it can be enlightening to consider what happens when they are lacking. Inadequate information tends to degrade how efficiently we get something done. But inadequate knowledge degrades effectiveness. Without knowledge we may drive perfectly obeying all the speed limit signs, but end up on the wrong side of the city. 

So can knowledge actually be transferred?

So returning to our air-traffic controllers, their deep knowledge is very much of the tacit variety. Sure there are plenty of lists: aircraft types, runway numbers and landing priority procedures that they must remember. There may even be critical thinking processes that they call upon to resolve the various conflicts that occur in their role. But when pressed to recall these, in study after study, deep expert's struggle to do so. Yet by placing them in fully simulated situations, they can recall immense detail in order to solve the highly contextual problem at hand. But context is the key and expecting this type of knowledge to somehow assist in another domain is non-trivial, just as Carl suggests.
However, because Carl is speaking from the computer metaphor of the brain, he wrongly goes on to conclude that all knowledge is specific and there are no general cognitive skills that can assist.  Even worse, he seems to suggest that they use up valuable storage space which will be needed for domain specific knowledge later in their lives. If we accept his assumption that all General rules are "implicit" knowledge, then we might be tempted to agree with him. However we have all experienced people that have walked into a brand new situation and yet very quickly achieved a level of apparent mastery with no prior experience in that domain. So what is going on here?
That's where the neural model of the brain assists us. At its core, the human mind is an amazing pattern matching machine. It's ability to seemingly scan and compare incoming information with petabytes of stored experiences, images, smells, sounds, facts, situations and contexts seems superhuman, especially in light of the fact that that same brain has trouble remembering to buy milk on the way home from work!  But as things are practiced over time, refined, connected with other experiences, they become part of us, who we are, what we value and how we think. You see it isn't the "stuff" we remember that makes us good at something else - Carl is right there - but the very process of learning how to understand and master these new skills do. Not the amount we hold, but the process of learning to hold it. That is one of the reasons I called my business DeltaKnowledge. 

Not so alien after all

But it turns out that we have an innate understanding of knowledge in this form.
People have been aware of this for centuries. From the use of stories, myths and cavern paintings then later monuments like walking circles and Stonehenge to store and transfer knowledge socially, through to ancient Masters of the game of Go helping Shoguns to plan abstract military strategies and even the nursery rhymes that we use to teach our children complex ideas, values and social constructs. It is all much less about remembering "stuff" and far more about becoming knowledgeable, even wise. And that of course is what we call these people who seem to be able to successfully transfer their knowledge across domains. They are people whose wisdom we covet. We talk about sports people who when asked about making a critical play, they respond "It just felt right". We talk about the General who was asked how he made such an amazing decision in such a novel and complex situation, to which he answered, "lots and lots of good decisions." And when asked how he made lots of good decisions he answered, "lots and lots of bad decisions."

So then, should we be teaching our children general critical thinking skills?

My answer is an emphatic "YES!".
But not with the expectation that they will go and directly apply them like a maths formula, or recount them in a test of memorisation. But rather as a series of stories and examples that they can call on to build their own novel solutions to the problems they will face that possibly don't even exist yet. That is building deep, broadly reusable, tacit knowledge.
Oh, and the next time you find yourself wondering how you or your company will build the knowledge to solve some problem or other, may I suggest you start by first asking yourself "Am I trying to solve this by simply acquiring information? Or am I truly increasing our intellectual capital by building deep experiential knowledge?"
= - + - =

* Just as a footnote, one other, interesting model which blends these two is called KAM (Knowledge Asset Management). The idea here is to include Tacit, Implicit and Explicit knowledge under the knowledge banner but to stop the damaging assumptions by placing the focus on the "assets" that generate, transfer, store and apply it, rather than the knowledge "asset" itself.  Still prone to some misunderstandings, but has the advantage being easy to grasp for non-knowledge practitioners, and does keep the information tools in the supporting role where they belong. Quite powerful in large or highly structured contexts like air, rail, nuclear or mining industries. I am a fan of the way Ron Young brings this understanding to managers and executives. You can learn more about the approach in this short video here.