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Deep thinking - The habit that we did not learn in schools

Have you heard some people say these phrases a lot: I am right, I am sure, I fully understand?

Then chances are that these people do not understand the topic fully. Usually, the people who are most confident of their opinion have the poorest understanding of a topic.

This is a serious problem. Not just with some people, with most of us. We understand everything superficially. Whether you read a news, a blog like this one, a YouTube video, chances are that: We do not fully understand it.

Can we learn to think deeply? Yes, but let's first understand the problem.

Why is this a problem?

Shallow thinkers are lazy thinkers. They accept everything at face value and are generally poor decision makers. On the other hand, deep thinkers evaluate information carefully and then take the best possible decision. This does not guarantee their success but gives them a significant advantage over shallow thinkers.

Swimming vs Scuba Diving

Let us say you want to learn a concept.

Think of the concept as an infinitely big ocean. To understand the concept, we will have to scuba dive into the ocean. Schools should teach children to scuba dive into learning. Instead, most children are busy swimming at the surface. Just like the swimmer does not get to the colourful fishes, turtles and reefs, the children never get to see the beautiful world of learning!

How we are currently learning

Why do we understand everything superficially?

We come around a lot of information on a daily basis: news, blogs, YouTube videos, etc. Are we just looking at the screen or do we fully understand?

Let's take an example of this paragraph:

Millions of children read this paragraph every year (in different languages) in their Science book. Ask them if they understand it, and many will say 'Yes'. Do they even wonder:

How can food become energy?

How do we use the energy to perform different activities?

How can this elaborate process occur without us knowing about it?

Without even thinking about these questions, children cannot understand Respiration.

Can we learn to think deeply?

We have never learned to think deeply. It is skill that we are just expected to know.

Can you scuba dive into an ocean without having learned to scuba dive? It is almost impossible. Similarly, thinking deep can be learned in school.

Instead, the school system has only taught us to swim at the surface. In fact, the schools always encourages superficial learning! Let us try to understand this problem more 'deeply'

Problem no. 1: The hurry in schools!

Thinking deeply requires time. But, schools are in a crazy hurry all the time.

Have you heard of the rhyme 'Water, water everywhere not a drop to drink'? The analogy of this in schools is: Time, time all the time, still not a topic understood deeply.

A: 'Finishing' the syllabus

Teachers are in a hurry to complete the syllabus. They move from one topic to another even if children have barely understood the topic. This mindless practice has been going on for decades. It has played a significant role in creating a generation of shallow learners.

B: Timed tests

Each test taken in the school is timed. Students answer the test keeping one eye on the ticking clock. And, examiners are ready to snatch your paper if you don't finish a test in time.

C: Very little wait time

Teachers ask questions to children and that is a good thing. But, when teachers ask a question, they give away the answer. According to research, teachers give only 1 second to think to children after asking a question. Just when children start to think deeply, teachers either reveal the answer or accept the answer of the first child who raises the hand.

Problem number 2: The reward for superficial learning

Thinking deeply requires effort. And what do schools do? They ask questions in exams that can be answered by memorisation or practice. Then, they reward children with scores and grades if they think in a shallow manner.

Why would children apply effort if schools reward them for not putting effort?

After every exam, schools tell us: Learn something superficially. Don't put any mental effort. And we will give a higher score. This score will make you boast about yourself.

What are the advantages of thinking deeply?

- Better understanding: People who learn to think deeply are able to learn better.

- Better decision making: Deep thinkers do not jump at a decision. They evaluate all possibilities before taking a decision. They do not take a decision based on what others say or what feels right, they think critically. This leads to decisions with more successful outcomes.

Ultimately, increasing your chances of success and happiness. Shallow thinking leads to shallow life. Deep thinking leads to a meaningful life.

How to learn deeply?

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about two types of Thinking:

System 1 Thinking: Intuitive, Shallow and emotional

System 2 Thinking: Deep and Reflective

Here are some tips to develop System 2 thinking:

- Learn anything till you master it. Go through the difficult process of understanding. Once you learn the process, you will learn to learn deeper. You can apply the same process to whatever you learn: drawing, music, playing tennis or learning economics.

- Think beyond the first idea. Generate more ideas, read more and then compare all options before deciding.

-Ask yourself: Does the information support the evidence? Does the information agree with my past experience? If not, then think again.

This process will include challenging your own assumptions, scratching of head but it will lead to ' deep learning'.

And, the point of 'learning' is not learning but learning how to learn.

Educational Resource that helps children think deeply

There are very few resources that help children think deeply. Unbox Physics is a deep thinking course for children in grades 6-9. This course breaks the boundaries of 'definitions' and 'formulae' and probes children with a lot of mind-boggling questions. After each question, children get time to think. And only when they have answered a question, an answer is revealed.


Aneesh Bangia

Aneesh Bangia is the co-founder of Open Door. He writes about the past, present and future of education.

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