Friday, July 27, 2012

Thinking Backwards

As we talk this morning, Iris walks over to the table and picks up a book she's been reading. She explains that it combines many of the ideas of positive psychology and happiness in general with linguistic theory and the implications of language on how we think. She's gets excited as she tells me how there are some people who think backwards; they get lost when you start from the beginning and build up an explanation, but do just fine when you start with the conclusion and work your way back.

Before she even begins explaining what she means by "think backwards", I think, "Oh, yeah. Just give me the conclusion; I'll figure out how you got it."

After she explains it, I say, "Hmm... I must be one of those people."

I never put it together before this morning; I learn best when someone tells me a conclusion and then asks me to figure out how they arrived at it. Whenever someone presents information in the other direction, starting with the basics and slowly building to a conclusion, I... well, it's kind of torturous. My mind races with each point asking, "OK, so why did she include that bit of information? Where is she going with this?"

However, if someone just says, "Here's the answer. How'd I get it?", then it's all peaches and cream.

Granted many of the torturous aspects of listening to someone explain something have to do with the poor quality of the explanation, e.g., inclusion of erroneous or irrelevant facts, flaws in logic, or poor use of analogy. Still, even when the quality of the explanation is excellent, I would rarely prefer to hear a step-by-step explanation than a conclusion with the opportunity to ask a few questions.

Oftentimes, while trying to win me over to a point, someone will undermine his efforts simply by taking time to explain his conclusion. Had he simply stated his conclusion, I might have said, "Sure! I agree." However, if his explanation is overburdened with irrelevance or bereft of logic, I have a hard time agreeing with him even if what he's saying is something I already believed.

Poor quality aside, I was taken this morning by the thought that there are apparently many people like me (people who think "backwards"), and that many of them struggle with standard explanations the way I do. I got to thinking about how we teach others. A forward thinker will likely have difficulty teaching a backward thinker and vice versa. If the teacher wants to be successful, then she might reverse her approach. If the student wants to be successful, well... I haven't figured out that one yet.

A side effect of teaching backwards is that it allows you to teach people way smarter or skilled than yourself. One of the issues I have with traditional classroom models is that the capacity of the class is often limited by the capacity of the teacher. In some cases, teachers feel threatened by students who are "smarter" or know more than than they do. In others, the teacher simply slows or limits progress. However, when you teach backwards, then your job as teacher is more that of facilitator than professor. In that case, the most important thing is to adeptly pick the next conclusion to pursue and to help ask useful questions.

I found all this kind of fun and exciting.

Happy Friday,

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