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Why Teach Thinking? Why Not ?

By: Dr. Alvin Chan

The word ‘creativity’ has so many diverse meanings and interpretations. I remember telling an audience of teachers that creating a mess is also creative as long as new things and views are being conjured up. This led to much laughter and discussion about the meaning of ‘creativity’ (This notion of ‘creative mess’ was taken from master-thinker, Dr Edward de Bono).

Most people feel that creativity has to garner results or products, and it is not wrong to think so. However, by giving such conscious or subconscious constraints, creativity may be unduly hindered. One must remember that many creative ideas and innovations were once considered impractical and ‘crazy’ but now, they are part of our life. Take for example, the prevalent usage of computers at home. It was once doubted by Thomas Watson Sr. (the founder of IBM) as an impossibility but is now a reality. This demonstrates the point that the once unthinkable could one day be a fact of life in the near future.

Why is creative thinking an important and much talked -about topic these days? Why is the government of Singapore so intent about creating ‘ Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’? Have we just begun to realise that without creativity and innovation, we cannot progress and will lose our competitive edge in the global markets? I just hope we are not too late in realising this obvious fact that creative ideas, products, services, policies are the forces that drive an economy like Singapore which is not endowed with natural resources. It is time we learn to enhance and manage effectively our BRAINWARE (a term taken from the management guru, Tom Peters) and forge our path towards knowledge capital rather than physical capital!

I am much relieved that the far-sighted government of Singapore has taken steps to address this fact by initiating numerous think-tank groups to tackle this lack of innovation and competitive edge in these turbulent times. Let me rephrase my sentence for better resonance. It is for SURVIVAL!!! To survive in this global economy when your neighbours are producing at a comparatively lower cost, we have to seriously consider other ways and means to attract foreign investors in terms of knowledge and innovation to compensate for what we lack. How do we go about doing this as we are nearing the end of this millennium?

The answer is EDUCATION.

It is imperative that we educate all Singaporeans, especially the young, to see the importance of being creative. In early June 1997, PM Goh Chok Thong unveiled his vision of ‘ Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’ and this fuelled a revamp of the education system. This has led to numerous changes in the curriculum and also the training of teachers in the use of thinking tools. Many schools have started their own thinking program to keep in tandem with the vision.

As with any new initiatives and programs, there are obstacles and problems along the way that will be faced by the schools. One of the major obstacles faced by Singaporeans at large is that we suffer from creative paranoia. Creative paranoia is a term I coined to describe the insecurity of most Singaporeans in their ability to be creative and as a result, they cease any attempts to be creative. Such negativity will definitely hamper Singapore in its pursuit to be a hub of creativity and innovation. This is a major problem in the education of the young on creative thinking. The courses on teaching thinking by the ministry are necessary and a great help to many teachers who are meandering in the ‘jungle’ of teaching thinking. In my opinion, the main concern of this paradigm shift towards a thinking culture in school is not the pupil’s lack of ability to absorb thinking skills. On the contrary, perhaps it is the educators who are imparting the thinking skills to the young that deserve our attention. Are educators here psychologically prepared to be vessels of thinking skills to the future pillars of Singapore? Or, are we still victims of self-induced creative paranoia? We have to break the shackles of creative paranoia first, before we, as educators, are able to impart the thinking skills to the young with fervour and passion.

Another problem of implementing a thinking program in school is the resistance to change of the teachers. Teachers who are used to their traditional methods of teaching may find the learning and use of new teaching strategies a chore for them. A word of advice to heads of schools who are planning to implement this program - NURTURE the change. A program will not be successful unless every member involved is ready for the changes ahead and are willing to undertake their tasks with responsibility and passion. Thus, the success of this program is inevitably dependent on the ability of the head of the school to communicate the vision and to garner support from the staff involved.

In short, a credible thinking programme should not just enhance the brainware but also the ‘HEARTWARE’. There is a need to inculcate a creative thinking culture in schools for thinkers (including staffs and students) to challenge them to seek continuous improvements. Slogans such as ‘ DARE to CHANGE,‘DARE to INNOVATE’ and other inspiring messages must be taught and be ingrained in the hearts and minds of our people. It may remind one of the Cultural Revolution in China with the slogans and the brainwashing. Yes, I have to admit that this is a revolution indeed! A ‘Thinking Revolution’ that will ensure Singapore’s progress and prosperity in these turbulent times as we marched into the next millennium.

To reiterate, unless our hearts are in touch with the vision of ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation’, the desired outcomes will not materialise. Total commitment to the vision is critical!

There are also other concerns to ponder upon, namely the choice of which thinking models to adopt. There are a few models for teaching thinking that are currently used in some schools. For example, Robert Schawtz’s Infusion method of teaching thinking. Other models include Spencer Kagan’s Multiple Intelligence and the comprehensive thinking system of the ‘G.O.D is CREATIVE’ program by Brainwerks Research.

With the various models of teaching thinking available, a principal has the difficult task of selecting an appropriate model to be used in the school. It will be advisable that such imported models of teaching thinking should be adapted and integrated into the local curriculum by the heads and the teachers for better results.

To conclude, this article does not seek to explain fully the workings of nurturing a thinking culture /program in Singapore’s education system but to create an awareness of its importance to meet the nation’s future challenges. There will be glitches along the path towards the vision but I am sure we, the educators of Singapore, would THINK SMART and INNOVATE to ensure its success. So, should we teach thinking? The question is rhetorical.

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