The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B Burger and Michael Starbird, Princeton University Press, Pp168, £13.95
WE all have had experiences with those days where it looks like lady luck decided to flash us her cheekiest grin. Apparently nothing can go wrong. Each suggestion seems to spark a new line of thought. Our most whimsical musings hold a nugget of innovative vision. In The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking Edward B Burger and Michael Starbird show how to make those days the norm.
Berger and Starbird are both professors, who in their careers came across an interesting fact: that the most brilliant students are not born but made. They noted that the dividing line between the mediocre and amazing was not in fact a line at all. It was instead a curve: a learning curve. They immediately challenged the popularly held belief that “brilliant students are born brilliant and that brilliant thinkers magically produce brilliant ideas.” In their view the geniuses we see everyday are just like us except that they have thinking habits that help them think better. “No leaps are involved –a few basic strategies of thought can lead to effective learning, understanding, and innovation.” And those are the very strategies outlined in The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.
The “5 elements” stand as representatives of the five key aspects of critical thinking. The elements themselves are the oh-so- familiar, earth, fire, air, water and the quintessential element. They embody deep understanding, failure, pie – in- the sky questions, flow of thoughts and changing thought patterns respectively.
Deep understanding means that in order to be able to come up with innovative ideas it is essential to have mastery of the basics. A variation of “the best do most with the least.” According to Berger and Starbird, “rock solid understanding is the foundation for success.” Next in line comes fire, or failure. We learn most from our mistakes and therefore, Berger and Starbird recommend that anyone in the quest of a higher sense of learning, should intentionally set out to goof up. In fact they take this principle so seriously that “…we assess and reward it. In our classes, 5 per cent or our students’ course grades are based on their quality of failure.”
Air signifies “creating questions out of thin air” to get to the heart of the solution, we must isolate the problem. And that can be achieved by questioning everything. Water element acts as a parallelism to ideas and by seeing how we got our ideas and following where they lead to, we often find truly surprising answers. The final element is the quintessential element, which the ancient Greeks believed to be the constant, the ethereal, and the eternal. Paradoxically but completely coincidentally, “the unchanging element is change – by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn.”
According to Berger and Starbird the brightest minds use these tools as precisely as a painter uses his palette. A little digging shows that the elements actually complement each other perfectly. Anyone that wants to get to the know-how of how to be genius needs to read 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. Simple, small and packed, Berger and Starbird take teaching, and learning, to new heights.
Edward B Berger is the Francis Oakley Third Century Professor of Mathematics at Williams College, an educational and business consultant. His works as a teacher and scholar have earned him the largest teaching award given in the English-speaking world. Michael Starbird is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an educational and business consultant. His effectiveness as a teacher has earned him acknowledgement in the form of dozens of awards, including the highest national teaching award in his subject.
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