In order to make effective use of opportunities for developing your thinking, you need to develop a thinking disposition as well as thinking skills.
All students in higher education are encouraged to develop courage and independence in thinking. Starting to study is much like learning in other areas of life. Sometimes, you may feel like an outsider who knows nothing compared with the experts in the field. At this stage, knowledge may be seen as something vast and complicated that comes from books and experts, and learning as being about having some of this knowledge transferred to you.
You may feel that with all these experts and knowledge around there must be an answer to everything - it is just a matter of finding it. At this stage, you may not have views on things, or feel your views are not legitimate or of any value. Sometimes, you can start out with a more confident approach, the views you already have are the right ones and things are straightforwardly right or wrong.
As we move on and become more involved in our subject, we realise that not everything is known, even by experts. We realise that what counts as valid knowledge depends on the context (because knowledge may change with time or culture). We also begin to realise that there are different views, even if we treat them as equally valid because we do not have the confidence or skills to judge them.
Eventually, we may reach a point at which we have engaged sufficiently with our subject and developed the skills and confidence to have our own views based on careful consideration (reasoned judgement, evidence, values). We realise that intellectual development never stops, and that we are part of the process - thus, knowledge is created by us.
Like any change, the journey of intellectual growth can be challenging, risky and painful but it is also extremely rewarding. Reflecting on critical incidents and turning points in our thinking can be a valuable tool for development.
Think of an issue or topic from your everyday life about which your thinking has changed and developed. Perhaps something practical like becoming computer-literate, or your thinking on a topical or ethical issue such as fox-hunting, animal experimentation or euthanasia. How did your views and thinking change? What contributed to the change? What was the experience of change like?
It is common for people to change their thinking and views. Gaining more information or a particular experience, incident or need can sometimes be a triggering factor. For example, having (or being close to someone who has) a serious illness requiring drug therapies that have been tested on animals may trigger more thinking on this issue and perhaps shed a different light on it.
Having our established ideas and activities challenged can be uncomfortable. We may feel angry, threatened and want to resist change; or perhaps shocked and sad. Perhaps we experience guilty feelings about previous uninformed views. But, ultimately we will move on and grow as a result of such changes.
Like other aspects of our lives and learning, it is important to remember that thinking is intimately connected to our feelings, environment, experiences and other factors. To move on and grow, we need challenge, change and new experiences. So, seek out opportunities to develop .
'Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions'
(Oliver Wendell Holmes).
Remember that, like other skills, thinking improves with persistence, tenacity and practice. Evidence shows that people who are high achievers in their field have strong foundations in the basics, they practise a lot and have usually built up extensive experience over a long period of time. Quotes and mottoes can be a useful tool to help you remember this and keep going. Why not start a collection? Here are a few examples to start you off.
• Everything is difficult until it is easy.
• Achievement is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration (based on Winston Churchill).
• You may be a starter, but are you a finisher? (based on Margaret Thatcher).
It can also be useful to recognise that thinking also develops outside study time; it is something you can work on all the time. Ideas often need a while to incubate. Taking a break from study can be a good technique for coping with writers' block or getting the creative juices flowing.
Inspirations and good ideas sometimes come at unexpected times. Many highly successful thinkers from a range of fields (including novelists, scientists and inventors) have kept a notebook on hand all the time to reflect on and capture thoughts before they are forgotten. Leonardo da Vinci is one famous example.
Obtain a handy-sized notebook that you can keep with you to note down ideas, particularly those relevant to your study. You could use your notebook to keep a thinking log or diary over the next week or so. You may find it helpful to note down the particular times or places that are most productive for your thinking.
If you think this could fit in with your style of thinking, make a point of always keeping a notebook with you. Remember that everyday life provides many occasions for development. Applying what you have gained in one setting to others is an excellent way of really testing and developing your abilities.
Although developing thinking requires effort, it can bring rewards in all areas of your life. Recent scientific studies have shown that 'people who keep their minds alert and engaged age far more successfully than those who do not' (Rice, 1991). Good thinking is valuable in every sphere of life.
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