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The Five Elements of Effective Thinking - Book Review

1 October 2020
Dr. Moria Levy

"The Five Elements of Effective Thinking" is a book authored by educators Edward Burger and Michael Starbird, both with extensive experience teaching mathematics at the university level. Currently, Burger holds the position of president at the University of Southwestern. Published in 2012, the book introduces their developed method to promote practical thinking, which has successfully nurtured students with a solid grasp of mathematics, and in some cases, even fostered a genuine love for the subject.

 The fundamental premise is that thinking is the bedrock of success across various domains, encompassing business and personal relationships. As a result, cultivating effective thinking becomes imperative to enhance one's potential for success.


Burger and Starbird draw parallels between the components of thinking and the elemental forces of nature:

  1. In-depth understanding (soil): Involves delving deeply into a subject to acquire comprehensive knowledge.

  2. Failures as a tool for success (fire): Encourages embracing failures and using them as stepping stones toward eventual success.

  3. Asking Questions (Air): Advocates nurturing curiosity and posing thoughtful questions to gain valuable insights.

  4. Looking Back and Forward (Water): This entails reflecting on past experiences while planning for the future.

  5. Connect to change (completeness): Emphasizes making connections between concepts and embracing change as an integral part of the learning process.

 While these ideas may seem familiar at first glance, the book delves into the intricacies of each element, offering fresh and compelling insights. Reading the complete text is highly recommended for a more comprehensive understanding and specific examples.


In-depth understanding

In-depth understanding serves as the cornerstone of effective thinking. It is not a straightforward yes-or-no matter but rather a gradual process. The recommended approach is to strive for a profound grasp of the subject matter. Even simple concepts should be thoroughly understood, including their origins, basis, and underlying reasoning. This can be accomplished through two stages: a) brainstorming to break down the subject into its components and b) comprehending each component individually. Guided by common sense, it is crucial to avoid entertaining conspiracy theories.

To attain a deep understanding, revisiting the fundamentals and mastering them with a high level of proficiency is essential. Surprisingly, a strong command of fundamental concepts is a stepping stone for comprehending more complex ideas. When confronted with an overwhelming problem, considering a related, more straightforward issue can unlock the solution to the overall challenge.

 Encountering vague or challenging topics requires identifying and filtering irrelevant information or noise. Focusing solely on understanding the essence helps gain clarity.

 In making difficult decisions, it is vital to recognize and account for human biases. Honesty and precision in assessing knowledge without embellishing reality allow for acknowledging and addressing gaps. Actively seeking out these gaps in the available information is imperative.

 Merely relying on statements supported by authority or group consensus ("everyone says") does not guarantee accuracy. Exploring alternative options beyond obvious or proposed ones can lead to pleasant surprises.

 Engaging in self-exploration of our opinions, beliefs, and acquired knowledge propels us to pursue effective thinking. The analogy of "soil" represents excavating and establishing a stable foundation for our understanding.


Failures as a tool for success

Failures often trigger fear, leading to a distorted perception of reality that impedes our progress. Nevertheless, adopting a healthier perspective towards failure recognizes it as a chance for growth and learning. The authors of the book stress that failure can serve as a valuable teacher and a means to break free from stagnation.

 To embrace failure as a pathway to success, the authors provide several complementary methods:

  1. Plan for success, but be prepared to encounter failures. When faced with setbacks, analyzing the reasons behind them and learning from the experiences become crucial.

  2. Experiment with approaches that may yield little success. This process aids in pinpointing specific points of failure and offers insights to avoid them in the future.

  3. Encourage the search for solutions, even if the initial attempts prove incorrect. Through iterative exploration, better solutions can be discovered.

 An effective teacher understands the significance of motivating students to learn from their mistakes, recognizing them as opportunities for growth. Fearlessness in the face of failure empowers individuals to explore unconventional solutions without constraints. Although some alternative approaches may fail due to inherent limitations, they can still provide valuable guidance toward finding viable solutions.

 Learning from others' mistakes is equally advantageous, offering insights without the need to endure the pain of failure firsthand. An illustrative example of success born from failure is the invention of the sticky adhesive by 3M.

The analogy of "fire" symbolizes the readiness to take risks and embrace failure, igniting new insights and opportunities for growth.


Asking Questions

Asking questions is a valuable habit that enhances people's connections with the world and its occurrences. It adds a unique dimension to one's natural development. Embrace the practice of questioning by exploring possibilities like "What if?" Don't hesitate to ask seemingly basic or "silly" questions. Challenge yourself with inquiries such as, "Do I genuinely know?" Seeking different perspectives can lead to profound questions.

 To nurture the skill of questioning, prepare a set of test questions in advance and revisit them later to find answers. Understanding is cultivated by generating numerous questions, both for oneself and others. As educators, encourage students to take turns assuming the role of questioners, fostering a culture of inquiry. Emphasize active listening, not only to your questions but also to others, paying attention to the queries they raise.

 Prioritize asking effective questions rather than unnecessary ones. Inquire about goals and explore the nature of the questions themselves. The analogy of "air" illustrates the abundant and ever-blossoming nature of questions surrounding us.


Looking Back and Forward

Ideas and thinking often manifest spontaneously, flowing in various directions and contexts. This flow can be influenced by:

  • Iterating ideas

  • Developing complex ideas from simpler ones (building upon the work of others)

  • Creating innovative solutions by merging related ideas

  • Tracing back to understand the fundamental concepts that led to the current state, thereby deepening understanding of the present

  • Making educated guesses and evaluating potential next steps or developments

  • Exploring extensions and potential applications of new concepts

  • Analyzing the gaps between the desired and the current (past) situation to gain a fresh perspective (future)

  • Considering the improvement of existing solutions as better answers to known problems

  • Identifying biases, overcoming them, and moving forward

  • Engaging in continuous questioning: "What's next?" or "What if...?"

 Understanding reality and identifying opportunities for growth and improvement are vital aspects. The analogy of "water" symbolizes the fluidity of knowledge and the constant flow of thinking between looking back and looking forward.


Connect to change

The fifth force proposed by Burger & Starbird is both the simplest and most challenging. It centers on the power to change and apply the four preceding ideas to their core components and details. In essence, the four main concepts of effective thinking must be put into practice to derive genuine benefits from this force. To embrace the power of change, consider the following:

  1. Imagine how an expert would approach the task you are facing. This perspective can prompt you to start altering your methods.

  2. Avoid merely wishing to do more; instead, affirm that you want to change and do things differently.

  3. When faced with difficulties during the change process, don't dismiss doubts; confront them and persist.

  4. Embrace the concept of continuous learning, recognizing it as a lifelong journey where progress is made at every stage.

 Ultimately, the goal is to attain perfection by connecting to change. This sense of completeness can be achieved only by fully implementing all the components.

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