The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Japan’s Educational Reforms – Paving the Way for Better Problem Solvers

In 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister made education his nation’s top agenda.


Innovation – is the transformation of knowledge and ideas into commercially successful products. Innovation has been the key factor behind the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. We talk of the knowledge society and knowledge worker as a result.

The problem is solved only temporarily - the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The problem is solved only temporarily – the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The driver behind transforming ideas into products is creativity and the process is one of solving a problem – in this case it is one of innovation.

Getting back to Japan. The country has a long history of importing ideas from the rest of the world. It has been good at adapting and transforming ideas – it was essentially an incremental innovator.

Japan improved and tweaked products and processes that had been developed by other countries. This took place in closed networks of organisations, where promotion was seniority-based. There was lifetime employment, internal research and the norm was to have in-house training. The system worked for awhile, however, like any relatively closed system, it cannot adapt to change. The destiny, as Prigogine would say, is for the organization to fail.

After the 90s, Japan started to invest seriously in research and innovation. It spent 3.2% of GDP on R&D. Japan knew that it needed to shift from catching up with the rest of the world towards developing its own fundamental product innovation through creativity. Despite this goal, its leading organisations like Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are struggling.

There are some fundamentals at play here. Japanese culture is conservative. Its educational system has been one of rote learning; its researchers are not the best in the world. The companies remain bureaucratic and hierarchical and lack the dynamism and agility that is required for innovation to flourish.

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

The Japanese Prime Minister identified that the schooling system had to shift from rote learning (maintenance of the status quo) to one where the emphasis was on learning to solve problems. This is a very important and fundamental shift. It recognizes that a healthy reality is an open, dynamic and complex system. The map to guide any enterprise into the future is not cast in stone. It emerges and gets addressed constantly where the attitude is one of solving problems creatively. Knowledge is temporary – projects are the new organizational structure – they are temporary knowledge organisations. This term was coined by me (Rui Martins) and Kim Sbarcea in 2003.

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A Retrospective of Visual Thinking

I thought I would do a retrospective of some ideas on visualization that I have explored during 2013.

Because I thought that people will be more interested in having a good time and catching up with family and friends over the Christmas holiday period, I am posting this in January. I am still in Bhutan by the time this post appears and, when I get back to New Zealand, I am looking forward to sharing some of the different insights gained during my trip.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Vision is one of those things that humans do very well and naturally.
  • The human brain has a very large portion dedicated to vision and visualization – this must say something!
  • We are awake more than asleep. This means that we are ‘doing ‘vision’ the majority of the time in our lives.
  • Through evolution, we are designed to ‘do vision’.  Again, this must say something very obvious about the importance of visualization.
  • Visualization is more than passive seeing.

My question is: does this mean that visualization is a massively important component in the way we make decisions and make sense of the world? Yet, we have not really defined this capacity and fully understood it. Is it too difficult or have we considered it to be one of those nice but not serious topics? I think this is about to change, especially as we are making a social shift towards recognizing the importance of design, innovation and creativity as a powerful component to the future survival of our civilization. The dominant ‘left brain’ (I have used this mostly as a metaphor) is not able to suppress and dominate the centre stage of our thinking anymore. Balanced critical thinking includes creativity.

Creativity is not about rearranging the furniture or choosing the wall colour to match the curtains. It is hard, yet everyone has this capacity in varying degrees and it must be cultivated seriously.

We live in a visual jungle. How do we articulate this skill so that we can use it mindfully rather than simply doing it? A sprinter runs, so do the majority of humans, but not all humans run like a trained athlete – can we, in a similar way, harness and understand our visual skills so that we become fantastic at thinking and, as a consequence, leap into another realm of awareness and understanding?

Visualization is a new language of cognition. With this skill we are able to zero in on the emergent factors, variables and otherwise hidden patterns in front of us and, in so doing, unlock new knowledge.

We need a high Visual IQ (V.I.Q) to deal with nuances and subtleties in the noise of life. As a society, we have progressively been increasing our I.Q in general – this means we are getting smarter as a species. But we need to define our Visual I.Q so that we can survive in the dense, visual jungle, make sense of it and not be afraid of it.

Visualization is a form of knowledge compression, as expressed by David McClandless. This allows us to identify not only the gestalt but make and design new knowledge. Knowledge has become a construct that gets reconstructed within new contexts by individual observers. Individuals are now the curators of knowledge and visualization has become the means to creatively explore and innovate our new futures.

I think we should celebrate this ability and use it to its full potential to enable us to unlock the creative spirit dormant in all humans. Everyone needs to be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. We need to change out thinking from a mindset that can only tolerate the logic of  2 + 2 = 4 to one where we can see the message captured in 2 + 2 = 5.

Tom Fletcher by mywonde - modified by Rui

Tom Fletcher by mywonde – modified by Rui

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Photographs And What They Say

I find this video fascinating and cannot resist sharing the lessons.

Paul Jenkins uses the International Mission Photography Archive to explore and analyse photographs. I particularly like the way he asks questions and visually answers them. The video is 29 minutes long – enjoy.

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Visual Data – The Humble Graph

In my quest to understand why visual thinking is important, and what the benefits are, I decided to explore further questions:

When we are confronted with data, why do we prefer to see it in a visual form rather than the raw data? Does the visual form enable us to produce new knowledge and gain new insights?

In my view, what emerges from the visual form is greater than the sum of the individual data elements.

Let’s use a very basic example. Firstly, what does raw data look like? I found this small set for the total population of the City of Lethbridge, Canada.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada - Raw data.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada – Raw data.

How easy is it to make sense of the data? We can see that the population has increased but do we get any more out of the figures without having to consult a calculator? Can we easily see what the trends are and what the rate of growth has been in the different areas (North, South, West) and years?

Below is the same data represented in Graph form.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada - graph.

Population for Lethbridge, Canada – graph.

The graph is a visual/pictorial means of representing relationships between various quantities, parameters and measurable variables. A graph summarises how one quantity changes if another quantity, that is related to it, also changes.

Graphs summarise substantial information into one visual. In some cases, graphs are the only way to represent data and make sense of the results. Often one does not know the exact relationships and interdependence between the various quantities that are being measured. By using a visual like a graph, one is able to comprehend how the variables change relative to each other. It provides a vivid image to “hang onto” in order to have some intuitive picture of the information and the dynamics between the data.

Hubbard explains … “There is a magic in graphs. The profile of a curve reveals in a flash a whole situation — the life history of an epidemic, a panic, or an era of prosperity. The curve informs the mind, awakens the imagination, convinces.”

The magic is the synergy of information where meaning emerges and the observer can see and know the whole. Not only because it is immediate but because the attention is released from having to linearly digest the data to being able to postulate questions; explore explanations; and frame a story of meaning about the information. You are not caught up in the manipulation of the data.

In not a dissimilar way, I would suggest that this is what happens between text and an image that represents the content of a text. The raw data (to a degree) is the text and the graph is the visual. I will explore this further in the next post.

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What is visual thinking? Part 1

The previous posts on thinking – here and here – deal with an explanation of thinking. It is not a simple topic to define or even explain. It is a topic in evolution and this evolutionary notion fits well into a poststructuralist perspective. From this perspective, theories do not provide final true knowledge; they simply provide a way to make sense of that reality for the time and context. Knowledge is contextual, constricted and constructed. It emerges through a dynamic process of interactions of a variety of stimuli. This is the view I will take.

The notion of perception, as the act of gaining information through our senses from the outside world, has been and still is a preoccupation for philosophers.

Cover image to book: Techniques of the Observer by Jonathan Crary.

Cover image to book: Techniques of the Observer by Jonathan Crary.

That means not only is the sense of sight used in perceiving, we also use our sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste. However, the sense of sight remains the most important sense, estimated at giving humans 80% of information about our outside world. Levin goes even further and points out in his book, Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, that Western thought has been dominated by a vision-centered paradigm. I agree with this but with a qualification – it has been dominated by the Newtonian/modernist paradigm.

Thinking and sensory perception emerges from a dynamic interactive process of our five senses with the world. John Heron describes how sensory interaction between the individual and the world informs our cognitions. It intuitively seems to be a direct and immediate access to reality.

Langer is particularly important for explaining what visual thinking is. She proposed that thinking is a continuous process of meaning-making through vision and central to thinking is the need to symbolize. Her contribution was the distinction between discursive versus presentational symbols. Discursive symbolization arranges elements (including words) that have stable and common meanings into a new meaning. Presentation symbolization on the other hand, functions independently of elements with fixed and stable meanings. The important aspect to highlight is that presentation cannot be comprehended by progressively building up an understanding of its parts in isolation. It must be understood as a whole.

Heron describes discursive forms as being a one-to-one relationship between a set of signifiers and the signified. While presentational symbolic elements are characterized by a whole that is not divisible into its component parts.

This aspect is the important and key element  in explaining visual thinking. It is not only an integral part of thinking but a very special dimension to thinking – augmenting and enriching thought – the whole that is not divisible into its component parts. To explain this, one needs to turn to complexity theory. I will explore this in Part 2.

Arnheim establishes the notion that the visually thinking mind is not simply mechanically recording images and regurgitating them repetitively. He insists that perception is intelligent. Vision and perception are not passive processes that simply register reality. Instead they are active. To him, vision orders reality and it is a dynamic between the elements and the observer that reality emerges. Our access to reality is through sensory experience, not only thought, seeing and touching, but also including mental images and knowledge-based experience. All this constitutes our worldview.

Perception structures reality that allows us to gain knowledge. That knowledge, however, is based on objective reality. And perception is an objective fact. I do not believe that objective truth is or will ever be possible. It is contextual, constructed, temporary and evolving.

For Arnheim (and I agree) visual thinking is mainly about the development of forms and thereby fulfilling the conditions of the intellectual formation of concepts. It has the ability, by means of these forms, to give a valid interpretation of experience. Vision and perception are the active, creative, interactive processes through which meaning emerges.

Lift The Veil - Rui Martins

Lift The Veil – Rui Martins

The image has the essential ability to transmit meaning through sensory experience. On the other hand, signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the thin layer of actual meaning. It is important to point out that perception arranges the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form, an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. It is therefore the structured form(s) that delivers the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs such as language.

There is a strongly held belief that language is the main mechanism through which thinking takes place. So much so that some hold that the more eloquent, the better the quality of thinking. To this Arnheim explains, language is in itself without form. One does not think in words because words do not contain objects. Language is instructed by sensory perception. It codifies the given knowledge through sensory experience. This does not mean that language isn’t very important and significant to thinking. The point to be made is that language is the vehicle through which we have acquired the act of perception and, in so doing, it establishes and preserves the concepts it forms.

In the following post, I will be exploring perception and Gestalt philosophy as well as complexity science. Until then!