Friday, April 08, 2022

The Worst Way To Solve A Problem

When I'm confronted with a hard problem, the kind that requires deep thought, I take a long walk or jump into the shower or call my mom. I do anything, in fact, other than actually think about it. If school taught me anything it's that the worst way to solve a problem is to sit down and think about it, yet that's what our teachers expected us to do. 

The stereotype of a good student is of a person hunkered over their desk in a quiet classroom or library, brow furrowed, pondering over a challenge, theorem, or thesis. And indeed, students are often found hunkered over desks, but I would assert that any thinking that happens is of a lower order, the kind required for memorization, which is to say to repeat an action or thought over and over until it has become a habit, which isn't what I call thinking. Indeed, things we do by habit, by definition, don't require any thinking at all, which means that the desired result of this sort of process is to achieve a point of not thinking. 

This is how most of us drive our cars: once we're beyond the habit development stage, we are, often literally, on auto-pilot.

When we recited the multiplication table in third grade the highest praised was reserved for those of us who could do it the fastest without sacrificing accuracy, which was the same standard that was applied to my high school typing class.

Thinking, for me, is much more closely linked to understanding and creating, and for that I've found these school-ish stereotypes about thinking to be counter-productive. Actual thinking, in reality, tends to be largely an unconscious process, which is why the first step after identifying the parameters of my hard problem, is to clear my mind, to get up and move, to release the hard problem into my unconsciousness.

Every psychologist, from Freud right up to today, knows that it is impossible for us to truly know our own minds. Indeed, the theory of dynamic unconscious rejects the possibility of this knowledge because it is so dynamic, which is to say ever-changing. It is impossible to fix by observation which sets it beyond our ability to understand through science. Yet this is where we do most of our thinking and conscious thought often just gets in the way.

A child at play, which is to say not sitting at a desk appearing to ponder, is in the natural state of a human in deep thought. Play is a place where conscious thought is applied to the present moment, freeing the unconscious to go deep and wide, to make connections, to solve, and invent. This is where Eureka! happens. It is where true understanding comes from. It frustrates us because it eludes our ability to pin it down with the logic of science or turn it into data with measurement because it is so dynamic and because we all live within it.

Our responsibility is not to make children ponder at their desks, but rather to free them to think, which is to say, to provide them with a safe-enough "garden" full of people, things, and ideas that they are free to manipulate and explore, to respond to them when they need us or ask us questions, but to otherwise get out of their way so they can actually think.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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