The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Problem Solving – Learning and Sense Making

Explaining how something works is important, not only for the sake of knowledge itself, but because explanations can lead to solutions and improvements of our understanding of how something works or behaves.  You cannot fix something if you do not understand what has gone wrong.  You can’t prevent cancer cells from growing if you do not know how and why they started to multiply in the first place.  To interfere in the process, you must understand the process in all its enormous complexity. You need to start somewhere and a theory is the beginning.

This post is a hybrid; it uses observations and years of teaching and solving problems as the source to attempt to explain problem solving.

A large component of problem solving is learning. When we solve problems of relative complexity, we have to go through a stage of learning. I will explore this within the context of problem solving in a future post. For now, let us accept that a good chunk of what we do, when we solve problems, involves learning. The link between learning and sense making is also made.

Learning is a natural process that originates from us and enables us to interact with the environment. Learning is something we ‘do’ – we do not acquire ‘learning’. Like breathing, learning is a normal function of living. The activity of learning originates from our desire or need to make sense of our experiences; to manage the unknown and uncertain aspects of life; and to take action in the best possible way to ensure our survival and security.

Humans are constantly making meaning. As William Perry said: we are wired to organise meaning. We make sense of our experiences and give them meaning.

We learn to make sense of the chaos and confusion of the raw uninterpreted ‘data’ surrounding us and we learn to develop ways (methods, heuristics etc.) to best respond to and interact with the environment (external and internal). We also learn to define who we are and our personal view of the world. This filters and conditions how we interact with the ‘world’ and how we choose to ‘see’ and make sense of it.

We do this thing called learning instinctively. Current research proposes that our brain is intensely aggressive and is designed to learn throughout life – learning is an inbuilt survival strategy of our species. We create meaningful patterns from the environment that we then use as constructs that make sense to enable our survival.

unknown image source

unknown image source

Sense making (as explained by Karl Weick) refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sense making involves coming up with a plausible understanding of our perceived reality of the ever-changing world around us. It is a mapping process that attempts to give structure to the unknown.

This process enables us to “to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict”. It is a cyclical process that we go through, as we obtain more information. We refine our understanding through the patterns and associated meaning we have created and which we constantly test, verify and refine. Eventually, the complex unknown situation becomes ‘tamed’ and we reach a higher level of understanding at this point. We have learned and created new knowledge that we can call on to solve our problems. Learning from a constructivist point of view is essentially a sense making process.

From what we have seen, there are three conditions required for learning:

  • Enough raw data or experiences must be available with enough repetition and variations on themes to allow for the differences in patterns to emerge;
  • Enough time for the patterns to emerge naturally; and
  • Sufficient, prior meaningful perspectives to be able to handle new experiences productively. If these do not exist, then a longer learning process is required or this can be acquired from other people we trust (we do this with caution).

Learning is dialectical. It is a process that involves interaction through discussion and reasoning by dialogue, whether carried out internally with oneself or eternally with others. This dialectical process explores alternative viewpoints in order to develop an integrated point of view, resulting from the best aspects of all the alternatives we have been exposed to up to that point. The process goes on as new alternatives emerge and it is interactive because we generate meaning by exchanging information with the environment and integrate the meaning into a constructed whole. We construct our knowledge.

unknown image source

unknown image source

There are many aspects that affect our learning, such as past experiences (these can act as a barrier or can enhance our learning). We also have preferred learning styles (a fascinating topic on its own, which I will try and explore in a future post); cognitive styles (a term referred to more by psychologists); preferred learning strategies (visual, auditory and Kinesthetic) and our mental models, to name a few.

Learning is central to problem solving. Our ability to solve problems is affected by some of the aspects listed below:

  • Independent learners – the degree to which we are able to communicate and learn from the meaning created by others – we create meaning for ourselves without reference to others. Some people need to learn things for themselves, whilst others are quite happy to develop a shared meaning through interaction with others;
  • Ability to communicate – learning is dialectical –our ability and how rich our vocabulary is and other non-verbal expressions such as drawing gestures etc. Our ability to understand what needs to be stated and how best to communicate that.
  • Mental flexibility – how prepared we are to adjust our own learning and theories of the world around us. Some people can be quite stubborn (or mentally lazy) and are not flexible or open to adjust their opinion about their worldview. Good problem solvers are highly flexible but critical and keen to reassess their mental models. They are agile and curious. They know that the world is in constant change and, the best strategy to survive, is to make sure they adjust their knowledge to meet the new changes. Their mental models are constantly being renewed and tested against new data and information;
  • Ability to actively re-examine personal constructed theories – we place our ‘self’ at the centre of our reality. The meanings we assign to reality, together with our constructed theories about life and reality, enables us to operate in the environment – without these we are lost and paralyzed. However, at the same time, a good learner and problem solver is very mindful of the fact that these maps of reality are only temporary and approximate reality. The good problem solver will not objectify these maps but, instead, will re-evaluate them eagerly when presented with new information and patterns that emerge and will adjust reality to match the new meanings.
  • Critical thinking – the rigour in critical thinking allows us to evaluate the data, make sense of it and assess its usefulness within the context of the problem to be solved.

The above aspects are important for us to be aware of when we solve problems, especially if we want to be good at solving problems. The objective of this post was to provide background and I will be referring to some aspects covered in future posts. It was also important to make the link to sense making, as I often use the term and will be using it frequently, especially as I start to elaborate on a problem solving method we have been developing.

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Essential Skills for 2025 – A Case for Liberal Arts Education – Part 2

In this post, I look at some key drivers that will change the nature of work. New core skills will be required for individuals to fully engage and be involved in delivering the needs to sustain the new economic environment.

None of the drivers should be a surprise to us. If we have been paying attention to recent developments, we should recognise them. Here are the key drivers:

  1. Emergence of smart machines;
  2. Longevity of the population;
  3. New media;
  4. Imbedded technology;
  5. Global connectedness; and
  6. New Organisational structures.


Emergence of smart machines.

In Gartner’s 2013 CEO survey, it is predicted that smart machines will have widespread and deep business impact within seven years (i.e. by 2020).

“Job destruction will happen at a faster pace with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.” (Kenneth Brant). Machines are changing from automating basic tasks to becoming advanced self-learning systems, mimicking the human brain and becoming as capable as humans in many highly specialized occupations. We are about to experience the biggest technological shift in recent times according to Brant.

We should not be surprised. Just look at the rapid advances in 3-D printing (see previous post here). It is predicted that in the next few years, we will see smart machines being used in the home; offices (that is if they still exist); supermarkets; and factories. Basically, they will be integrated into all human activities (teaching, production, military, security, medicine etc).

In some areas of our lives, smart machines will replace humans (as discussed in the previous post) particularly in middle-skilled occupations. In other areas, machines will assist humans by becoming our ‘collaborators’ and enhancing our own skills – there will be increasing co-dependence between humans and machine.

The question we need to consider is what distinguishes humans from machines? What are humans uniquely able to do that machines cannot?

The way we work will change even more.


Globally, the average life expectancy at birth in 1955 was just 48 years; in 1995, it was 65 years; in 2025, it will reach 73 years. By the year 2025, it is expected that no country will have a life expectancy of less than 50 years. In the US, for instance, it is estimated that by 2025, the number of Americans over 60 will increase by 70%.

The infographic below highlights the problem of changing demographics -people living longer with a falling birth rate, as is the current situation in Germany.

Image by siddharthdasari, gppai, silvia.recalcati (hyperlink), cropped by Rui Martins.

Image by siddharthdasari, gppai, silvia.recalcati (hyperlink), cropped by Rui Martins.

We will need to re-conceptualize what old age means, as well as what one does with all these years of life.

Individuals need to rethink their careers and people will work longer so as to have adequate resources for their longer retirement. People will need to consider further education to accommodate the changing work environment. In fact, lifelong learning will be a must and most probably people will have multiple careers. Occupational change will be a huge industry.

The shift towards a healthy lifestyle started quite a while ago. It will increase to the point that it will dominate our thinking and decision-making – the global economy will be viewed through this lens. People will demand a more holistic work-play balance.

New media

Various new media technologies are emerging and, as a result, we will see transformations in how we communicate. As technologies such as video, media editing, gaming and augmented reality become more sophisticated, we will see new ecosystems emerge around these areas.

The early Internet was text-based but this is rapidly changing and becoming more visual. This trend is just the beginning. We will see a massive shift towards the acceptance and recognition of visuality as a powerful way to communicate, think and make sense of our world.

In parallel, virtual networks are merging with our lives and bringing the new media into our daily experiences. Together with vast amounts of user generated content, this will have an impact on our culture, cognition and how we perceive reality.

The networks will enable individuals to work virtually and allow for collaboration with people we might never meet in person.

Individuals will have online personas and issues of personal reputation and identity management will have to be carefully considered. Our sensibility toward reality and what truth is will change due to new media.

We will need to develop acute critical thinking skills in relation to content and recorded events, particularly in deciphering how to interpret and make sense of events seen from multiple points of view.

Imbedded technology

Image bu Alexis Martin.

Image bu Alexis Martin.

The diffusion of technology such as sensors into everyday objects and environments will create an avalanche of data. Google has just purchased Nest Labs, which specialise in home automation, sensors and data collection. Without a doubt, they will be moving into an ever-widening array of devices aimed at delivering security, convenience and entertainment; smartphone-enabled security cameras, smart appliances, wearable monitors for children or elderly relatives etc. This is just tapping the potential for an “internet of things” that links every device imaginable in the home.

People will require different skills and an ability to make sense of their new environments. Machines will take over the mundane repetitive jobs, whilst humans will still be required to do the thinking.

It will be the dawn of an era of “everything is programmable”—an era of thinking about the world in computational, programmable, designable terms. Creativity will be a skill that all of us must possess.

The enormous amount of data will allow us to model systems to extreme scales. We will be able to operate at macro and micro levels as well as uncover and surface patterns and relationships that are currently invisible.

We will be able to plan our route to a destination and avoid traffic jams based on real-time data. We will be able to visualize levels of complexity by meshing the micro and macro scale models. As a result, whatever activity we might be involved with, our work and personal lives will demand us to have the skills to interact with data, see patterns in data, make data-based decisions, and use data to design for desired outcomes. This requires some serious sophistication in thinking and the ability to articulate questions that drive problem solving.

A recent article from FastCompany lists “15 Tech Trends That Will Define 2014” (I list a few):

  • Drones. Everywhere
  • Mind Control
  • Augmented Reality
  • Self-Driving Cars
  • Data, Rich And Full Of Value
  • The Consumer Will Own Data
A TV drone flies beside Canada's Erick Guay during the second practice of the men's Alpine skiing World Cup downhill race at the Lauberhorn in Wengen, January 12, 2012. Reuters

A TV drone flies beside Canada’s Erick Guay during the second practice of the men’s Alpine skiing World Cup downhill race at the Lauberhorn in Wengen, January 12, 2012. Reuters

Global connectedness

In many ways, “globalisation” is a trend that we feared but has now entered into our vocabulary and we are simply making sense of it. It is a long-term trend aimed at facilitating exchanges between countries around the globe. Today, in our highly interdependent world, no-one holds a monopoly on innovation. We see amazing activities taking place in the developing world and innovations aimed at markets other than the US and Europe.

This has shifted the notion of one-size fits all. Diversity, adaptability, research and development have now become the steady focus of business.

New Organisational structures

The question of how to create value is always an important concern for any organisation. Traditionally, this happened in large organisations but, with the rise of social media platforms and tapping into resources embedded in social connections, we can do things outside of organisational boundaries and possibly produce greater value by tapping into a new level of greater ‘intelligence’.

We are able to connect, collaborate and play at extreme scales – from the micro to the global. It is imperative that one learns to use these new social tools to work, to invent and manage – operating at these unfamiliar scales is what the next few decades will require from individuals.

Ramón Rivera says that new organizational concepts and work skills is emerging not from traditional management theories, but from fields such as game design, neuroscience and psychology. These fields will drive the creation of new training paradigms and tools of the future. Universities for instance, will have to rethink their offerings and reconsider their century-old organizational structures.

Skills for the future

Image source unknown.

Image source unknown.

The fundamental skill is the ability to think. In reality, this is not so easy to do. Nor is it easy to think particularly well, systematically and with rigor. I will explore this in the next post. Apart from thinking, which is the ‘umbrella’ skill, there are other aspects of thinking skills that people need to develop and become very good at, as these will be essential for taking advantage of the future work landscape:

  • Novel and adaptive thinking – expertise at thinking and coming up with solutions beyond that which is repetitive or rule-based;
  • Sensemaking – the ability to establish the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed (see Wikipedia – particularly Weick);
  • Social intelligence – ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way and to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments;
  • Cross -cultural competency – ability to operate in different cultural settings;
  • Visual thinking – ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning;
  • Media literacy – ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms and to leverage these media for persuasive communication;
  • Transdisciplinarity – literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines ; and
  • Design mindset or Design Thinking – the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context (see previous post).

In my next post, I will outline why a liberal Arts approach to education is essential for the future.