21 Jun 2021
Though not aimed at schools, this book could be transformative for senior leaders, teachers and their pupils, finds Amir Arezoo
Tom Chatfield is a very clever guy. He has a PhD, has taught at St John’s College, Oxford, and is a philosopher of technology. He is clearly someone who has been able to think and make sense of the world around him. In his new book, How To Think, he sets out on a mission to help the reader “become a more confident thinker and learner” with “techniques for dealing constructively with doubt and uncertainty”. In my mind, he does a pretty decent job.
I take from Chatfield that the essence of thinking well is to hold an inherent scepticism about what we’re presented with on a daily basis; how to parse the melange of information, misinformation and disinformation that we take, receive or are burdened with on a daily basis in these modern times. This is rooted in reflecting on how we communicate ideas, reason, debate and explain, using a Socratic model of questioning the assumptions on which we base our thinking. In fact, Chatfield asks the reader not to “take anything for granted”, including anything he offers in the book.
Contrary to the simple design of its cover, How To Think is a densely packed, aphorism-laden tract. However, it is a very cleverly structured document that never feels like it over-burdens you. Its chapters are interspersed with activities to engage with the reflective process, and I was instantly drawn to taking part, annotating the book as I went along and actively pausing to consider the ideas presented. In other words, How To Think is not just a book that explains effective cognitive processes; it actually models these processes and trains you in them.
Many teachers have engaged with cognitive theories in the past decade, and those versed in them may feel there’s nothing new in the ideas Chatfield puts forward. However, Chatfield is not looking to push new boundaries in the field of cognitive science with this book.
The book doesn’t just explain cognitive processes; it models and trains you in them
Instead, he offers a multi-layered approach to providing rigour to the cognitive process. The combinations of case studies, examples of the steps to be taken in the different models of thinking and the reflective exercises make great illustrations of metacognition in action.
There are some downsides. In the attempt to provide concrete examples of modes of thinking, Chatfield relies a great deal on our experiences of the coronavirus pandemic. In a sense, this seems justified. It’s timely and relevant, and it has provided the internet with a great source for a raft of conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ amid a constantly evolving understanding of what the global populace is facing.
For me, though, it felt like it actually distracted from some of the salient points the author was making. I appreciate the intention to make the chapters engaging, but I question whether most of us are really in a position to be dispassionate enough about present circumstances to truly focus on the messages shared.
Likewise, the dichotomy of quoting Ken Robinson’s thoughts on creativity while describing the importance of structure for creative thinking felt like a misstep. To put the thoughts of the champion of unharnessed divergent thinking in support of what is otherwise such an organised and procedural book is odd, to say the least. At worst, it undermines the book’s credibility.
That aside, How To Think is definitely worthy of teachers’ attention. It would make an excellent tool to inform planning, how to formulate proper arguments and explain ideas. Likewise, it would be a helpful resource to explicitly impart these skills to students, not just to model them.
School leaders will find plenty to support them too: how to effectively collaborate on new projects, how to tackle others’ and one’s own assumptions, and how to overcome crystallised and polarised views.
As Chatfield states, “All learning entails the admission and exploration of ignorance”. In our antithetical culture, any path to synthesis and enlightenment seems worth exploring, not least when it comes to the world of education.
So edu-Twitterati, take note.