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The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

reviewed by Jonathan Gravells - December 07, 2012

coverTitle: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
Author(s): Edward B. Burger & Michael Starbird
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691156662, Pages: 168, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

 “You can personally choose to become more successful by adopting five learnable habits….”

There are at least two ways readers might respond to a statement like this in the introduction to a self-improvement book: one is to think “Really? Wow! Tell me the secret,” and the other is to reach for their revolver…

I should admit now that, perhaps due to natural scepticism, or perhaps because I’m a Brit, I fall firmly into the ‘reach for your revolver’ camp. (Of course I acknowledge, even as I write this, that apocryphal Goering quotes do not lend themselves to open-minded debate.)

So it came as a bit of a shock to me that I actually liked this book a lot. In fact, and of more importance to Professors Burger and Starbird I suspect, I found it genuinely useful. For whatever one’s personal tastes about how the challenges of personal learning and change are presented, the real test of a book like this, to my mind, is whether the core ideas have substance and constitute something worth saying. In the case of The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, they most certainly do.

Burger and Starbird use the four elements of earth, fire, air and water as symbolic of four ways in which we can improve our thinking, and enlist the idea of the fifth “quintessential element” to argue that all these approaches need to be underpinned by a real commitment to change and learning. Earth represents the theme of understanding deeply, fire is used to characterise the process of making mistakes and learning from them, air reminds us to always raise questions and water embodies the importance of seeing the flow of ideas, or the context of where they come from and where they might lead. Whilst these might not be entirely new insights into effective thinking, the authors have done an excellent job of linking them in a thematic structure that captures the concepts in a memorable way.

There are times when technology and social trends can seem to be engendering a lack of sustained attention. The ever-increasing amount of information that is available to us can so easily result in a superficial appreciation at best. So it is refreshing and instructive to find someone reminding us of the need to thoroughly understand the basics of an idea or theory.

How often is fear of failure behind our reluctance to take action, try new experiences and experiment with new ideas? “Deliberately try something you know is wrong” is probably not advice you want given to your brain surgeon or pilot, but this insistence that learning is iterative, reliant on both successful and unsuccessful action and reflection, is nevertheless pivotal to personal development. In other words, the brain surgeon (or anyone else) who fears failure is unlikely to continue learning or to take the decisive action you need from her.

As an executive coach, and therefore a professional asker of questions, the importance of framing the most productive questions in order to create greater insight strikes me as another fundamental ingredient of learning, and one too often overlooked by students and non-students alike. (Listening, an equally underappreciated and under-used skill in effective thinking, is tagged on as a bit of an afterthought.)

But I reserve my loudest cheer for the emphasis that the authors place on locating our learning and understanding in a proper historical context. This rightly challenges the lazy treatment of knowledge as fad; the common assumption that the latest idea or way of seeing things is genius and all that went before is therefore, by implication, worthless. Instead, it rightly recognises that knowledge is built over time, ideas refined and added to, all contributing to the richness of human thought. Our world, in their words, is continuously “under construction,” and every human idea can be improved further. They illustrate this with various examples from calculus to the applications of the light bulb.

So, the chosen elements are compelling, and the way they are presented is persuasive and authoritative, not least because the authors, as highly experienced teachers themselves, argue their case well and provide helpful examples from their experience to illustrate the points they make. The need for commitment to change as a pre-requisite for effective thinking reinforces the importance of an open mind, which crops up at various points in the book. There are probably more useful and profound things to say about personal change, and personally I did not find this chapter quite as convincing as the others. Clearly, learning and change are part of the same journey, but it is a journey that can often feel difficult and painful.

This is perhaps my problem with the ‘anyone can do it’ approach the book takes to self-improvement. Whilst the authors write in their introduction of “sound-bite sentences” that they promise to unpack further, the book can come across as an ‘easy’ recipe that any of us can apply on our way to becoming “extraordinary.” At times it sounds almost like a fairy godmother. (“…you will think of creative ideas; and you will be successful throughout life…”). Actually, the challenges of personal change can be quite difficult. Understanding deeply takes effort & hard work, the reflection required to learn from mistakes requires considerable self-discipline, coming up with productive questions is a skill that needs honing through practice, and so on. It is possible to under-value these concepts by making them appear too easy. And, in fairness, if you have a go at the frequent practical exercises with which the book is very helpfully dotted, I suspect you will find many of them quite an effort. To my mind this is exactly as it should be, (and not inconsistent with the notion of repeated failure on the way to success!).

The primary audience for this book is probably students looking to improve their learning and thinking skills, and the practical illustrations are often taken from this academic environment, and understandably skewed towards the authors’ knowledge of mathematics and art history. Many of the examples focus on problems with right or wrong answers and this predominantly positivist tone left me wondering what place handling ambiguity and paradox has in effective thinking? Is there any room at all for gut feel or even luck?

Likewise, if one subscribes to the benefit of seeing the flow of ideas, then acknowledging the derivation of some of the ideas presented here might have helped to set some of the authors’ thesis in the context of existing knowledge of how we think and learn. For example, the ways we respond to failure and adverse events have been researched in some detail by experts in positive psychology. Rapid advances in the field of neuroscience are helping us understand better how the brain works. Something like the fire element exercise “Don’t stare at a blank screen” will be recognised by many readers as akin to brainstorming, and so on.

However, that said, I return to my own litmus test: “is the book thought-provoking and helpful?” One could argue that such observations as those above misunderstand the intended audience and positioning of the book. It is, after all, easy to identify what is missing from a book that never sets out to be a comprehensive and in-depth discussion of ideas in the first place. There is undoubtedly much here that would be of practical use to professionals from all walks of life, and indeed other educators, such as management trainers and coaches.

As a practical and helpful guide, particularly for students seeking to improve the quality of their thinking and learning, “The Five Elements of Effective Thinking” is a thought-provoking and useful manual.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 07, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16959, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:09:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Jonathan Gravells
    Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
    E-mail Author
    JONATHAN GRAVELLS M.A. (Cantab.) M.Sc. is an independent consultant and author who advises organisations on mentoring and coaching, and has published widely on mentoring, leadership and personal change. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a member of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council. His latest book, co-authored with Professor Susan Wallace, is titled Dial M for Mentor and uses popular films and television programmes to reflect on the challenges of successful learning relationships.
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