When Do We Learn to Think?

Training initiatives should place more emphasis on problem-solving, innovation, and inquiry than on learning through “sit down and get it” programs. We need to teach people to think about what they aren’t thinking about.

We tell too much. We tell our kids what to do. We tell our employees, our vendors, our customers, and our interns where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Our approach to teaching, training, and educating lacks a focus on arguably the most crucial skill set: the ability to THINK.   

One of our young family members asked if she could use one of our off-road vehicles on the ranch. A typical response might be, “Be careful. Stay on the roads. Don’t get hurt. Drive slowly.” For them, there is no thinking required. They have been told what to do, and now they simply need to do what they were told. 

But there is another way. 

I asked her, “Are you mature enough to drive it? Do you know what to do while driving it? Can I trust you with it?” There is a bigger question that I am always after, “How do I know if you are TRUSTWORTHY?” This is the beauty of using the thinking process. Rather than being told, she must instead be able to think through the questions, come to a conclusion, and ultimately take responsibility for the outcome.

Though this is just one specific example of my approach to teaching my granddaughter, the principle remains true for our corporate training programs, as well.

4 Ideas to Get Started

So how do you transform your training programs and on-the-job teaching processes so your trainees learn to think, use judgment, and make the right decisions? Here are four ideas that will help you approach this differently:

1. Telling is not teaching, and learning is not thinking.

In the early 1900s, education moved toward a teaching/learning model that was the opposite of what was needed or what worked. In a teaching/learning model, students are taught information by the teacher and instructed to LEARN the material. Then they are directed to repeat it back to the teacher and get a grade on whether they “learned” that material. 

It may be more expedient to teach this way, but it’s far less productive in the long run. We may learn some information using this method, but we do not learn how to THINK about that information.

Our training initiatives should place more emphasis on problem-solving, innovation, and inquiry than on learning through “sit down and get it” programs. Being curious is a huge asset, and we need to foster that in our teams. Curiosity leads to questions, and those questions add more information. Then you mentally find yourself playing with the new information, and that gives rise to even more questions. It’s a process that leads to differing thoughts and perspectives. This is beautiful because it allows us to expand our minds into new areas.

2. Critical thinking will not happen unless we ask the right questions.

Very few issues have black-and-white answers. The tough questions are the ones that involve strategy, dreaming up alternatives, thinking through outcomes, and anticipating unintended consequences. How do you navigate through tough issues if you haven’t been taught to think critically?

For example, we have been pondering an issue in our company regarding our marketing. If instead of asking questions, we just told others what to do, how could they even understand how the process works? How could they come to the best solution without thinking about it and talking through it first? It could be the same with sales or closing prospects or delivering services or finishing projects.

Instead of telling someone how to get sales leads, we would ask them to come up with 10 ways to get sales leads. Instead of telling someone how to solve a problem, we would give them a problem and have them work to solve it in groups.

Let me give you a specific problem: The crime rate on school campuses is increasing rapidly. What are five ways we can slow that increase? As you begin to think up five ways to slow the increase, it might be interesting to ask if the statement I just made was even accurate. (It isn’t, by the way.)

Can you see how easily we have been “taught” to learn? I made a statement that you most likely accepted (because that is what we are used to doing), and then you started to think of possible answers without critically thinking about whether the statement was even accurate in the first place. This is what happens when we have been raised in a teaching/learning model. So we not only have to learn how to question things critically, but we also need to be able to do so without becoming critical of people or being disrespectful.

3. Challenge your team (and yourself) to evolve the way they train, teach, learn, and think.

Although I am an avid learner, I don’t want to be taught; I want to be challenged to think. I especially want to be challenged to think differently than how I currently think so I can critically evaluate what I think and why. 

Our society is getting precisely what we have been creating, a nation of people who learn whatever is told to them. Anything that disagrees with that is impossible to consider. “It’s not what we were taught!” Think about this: When was the last time you changed your mind about something? Do you even have the willingness to challenge what you have learned from others?   

I am constantly asking our teams, “How could we think about this differently? What other alternatives are we not even considering? Let’s think about what we aren’t thinking about.” (That always gets a chuckle, but it opens the door for more thinking.)

4. Require thinking when testing for mastery.

Reciting information you have been told or taught is not thinking; it’s regurgitation. No matter how nicely you say the word, it just doesn’t sound appealing.

When it comes time to test for mastery in a certain area, avoid asking for specific answers. Instead, provide situations, challenges, and real-world examples for your students to think through. Ask them to walk you through their thought process and grade them on their approach.

We have codes of conduct manuals that cover every imaginable topic, but never have I seen a
“use your own judgment” manual.

The age of training programs is rapidly coming to an end, even though our company still uses the word in our own work. Our companies need people who think about what we aren’t thinking about; what aren’t we doing; what could be. We won’t have people like this if we don’t produce them. The good news is that we can produce them in abundance. We can produce them if we are willing to learn to think differently.
Flip Flippen is the lead author of The New York Times best-seller, ”The Flip Side: Break Free of the Behaviors That Hold You Back” and ”Your Third Story: Author the Life You Were Meant to Live.” He is founder of
Flippen Group,
one of the fastest-growing educator training, corporate talent, and team development companies in the United States. Recognized as a top leadership thought leader in America, Flippen presents keynote speeches and leadership development events worldwide. He invested the first 16 years of his professional life as a psychotherapist, opening a free outpatient clinic for at-risk youth and building a 500-acre residential treatment facility for boys in Central Texas.

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