It is fitting that for this first ‘proper’ post on my new blog, I’m writing about tools for thinking. I’ve been thinking about tools for thinking more and more, and for some time now, although I haven’t always used the term ‘tools for thinking’.
For instance, I wrote a whole book about tools for thinking, called Creative Explorations, published by Routledge in 2007. A quick text search in the manuscript shows that the phrase ‘tools for thinking’ does appear in it, but only once, and sort of by accident.
So what do I mean by tools for thinking? Well, that’s what this blog post is about.
Because I’ve been thinking about tools for thinking, and wondering if perhaps I’ll write my next book about this subject, I searched on Amazon to see if there were actually hundreds of books already with ‘tools for thinking’ in the title.
Now, as an author, I obviously hope to be saying something distinctive. I don’t know where the phrase ‘tools for thinking’ came from. Did I invent it? That would be nice. Or did I just hear it somewhere? I have no idea. In self-serving terms, I hope that the number of books with ‘tools for thinking’ in the title is zero. But that’s not very likely, is it? In rational terms, ‘tools for thinking’ sound like a very obvious kind of thing that most people have a real need for, and so you’d expect that Amazon would offer a few hundred ‘tools for thinking’ books, at the very least.
In fact: there are very few. There’s a new book by Daniel Dennett, called Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking (2013), of which more in a moment.
And then there’s a book on modelling in management science, called Tools for Thinking: Modelling in Management Science (by Michael Pidd, third edition 2009), but thankfully, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not really the same as what I’m talking about, because it’s about modelling in management science.
Then, on the Amazon list, after those two, that’s the end of the books with ‘tools for thinking’ in the title, and we’re on to other items such as Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, then other de Bono books. Soon after that, we’re onto items like the ‘Gerber Suspension Multitool’, which looks like this:
That’s not really what I meant. But I’m quite impressed that Amazon was able to identify Six Thinking Hats as a book about tools for thinking, because that’s what it is, even though it doesn’t say so in an obvious place like the title, or even in the blurb. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats was first published in 1985, and was preceded by De Bono’s Thinking Course: Powerful Tools to Transform Your Thinking, first published in 1982.
That book, published more than 30 years ago, talks about ‘tools’ for thinking a lot. You can see that from the Amazon page previews. I’ve looked at that book before, probably, and there’s certainly a copy of Six Thinking Hats in the house somewhere. Edward de Bono always seemed like a bit of a hack, parcelling up his ideas into several rather-too-similar books and videos and courses, turning them into a big money machine. But maybe that’s just the sound of my brain being jealous. And did I invent the phrase ‘tools for thinking’? That’s a no.
So I’m going to have to order that De Bono’s Thinking Course, just to be comprehensive. And meanwhile, I’ve already ordered, and received, the Daniel Dennett book which is #1 in Amazon’s ‘tools for thinking’ list. Here it is, photographed for this blog post next to my own Creative Explorations:
Now, by coincidence (but it can’t exactly be a coincidence), I’ve encountered Daniel Dennett before. In fact, he’s discussed in Creative Explorations – not because of anything to do with ‘tools for thinking’, but in his role as a philosopher and cognitive scientist who made an argument for consciousness being a kind of illusion (to simplify greatly). Since then, Dennett has also become notable as a fundamentalist atheist in the Richard Dawkins mould, which I find unattractive (simply because dealing with religion by telling religious people that they are idiots doesn’t seem to be a very compassionate way of going about your ‘humanism’). But we can put all that aside for now.
So what’s Daniel Dennett up to in his ‘tools for thinking’ book?
Well the good news for me is that it’s definitely not the ‘tools for thinking’ book that I might want to write. It’s basically about the kinds of thought experiment and thinking tricks that you can do in order to test arguments. Dennett has collected some old ones and some fresh ones, but a classic example to give here, so you can see the kind of thing we’re talking about, is the Reductio Ad Absurdum: taking an argument to the extreme to see if it still makes sense. Another well-known ‘tool for thinking’ of this kind is Occam’s Razor, which is the idea that you shouldn’t use a complex explanation if you’ve got a simpler one which works just as well.
So the ‘tools’ here are words and ideas and ways of thinking, and it would be a useful book for students of philosophy, or critical thinking, or indeed anyone who wants to get better at exploring and testing arguments. Both religious and scientific ideas could be tested with these tools.
But when I’m talking about tools for thinking – and you’ll have to forgive me for being so literal-minded – I’m talking about actual tools. Things you can hold in your hand. Tangible things you can shift and manipulate, which help you to think about things. (And also, their digital equivalents, and physical/digital hybrids, but that’s for a future blogpost).
My own best example of that is the things I’ve done with LEGO. In 2005 I became involved with LEGO Serious Play, a consultancy process developed by the LEGO Group – an activity for groups of adults, guided by a facilitator, in which participants would build metaphorical models using LEGO bricks. The models would typically represent their experiences of activities, structures and communications within their organisations, and then – having externalised this, by having built it in LEGO – they would go on to develop ideas for initiatives or strategies, in response to what they had built.
I worked with the LEGO Group on researching some aspects of this process, and I developed it as a social-science research tool. Specifically, I worked out how to use it as an alternative to the traditional social-science qualitative methods of interviews or focus groups. That’s what Creative Explorations is about. Later I worked with the LEGO Group on the open source release of LEGO Serious Play, and co-wrote the documentation.
It’s all about getting people to physically build stuff, representing their ideas, experiences and feelings, so that then you can look at it, reflect on it, respond to it, move things around, change it, and make new plans. That’s what I call a real tool for thinking.
Now, my use of LEGO Serious Play as a social-science research tool was intended to be a good thing for participants – giving them a stimulating, creative experience which is more interesting to do than traditional research methods. Ultimately, though, I now reflect that basically it was done for the purposes of the researcher rather than anything else – it was meant to be a good research tool, which is fair enough, but that’s not actually about helping people to solve their own problems, which is what I’m interested in now. I’ll say more about that in a future post.
It’s surprising, I think, that you don’t find more physical, hands-on tools for thinking. I was recently delighted to be contacted by Fanny Bissa, a final year Design student at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She was working on a whole set of hands-on tools for working through different kinds of problems and relationships (see her excellent Tumblr blog and online booklet). We met up a couple of times to talk about it. One of the tools can be seen in the image at the top of this blogpost. I’ll write more about that, as well, in a future post. For now, here’s a short video she made about her tools (3 minutes):
Image at the top by Fanny Bissa, reproduced by kind permission.