TEDxWilliamsport – Dr. Derek Cabrera – How Thinking Works



when I first started working teaching in the Ivy League I had very high expectations these are the kids that are the cream of the crop of our educational system they get the highest GPAs the highest SATs the most AP courses these are the smart kids right and so I was very excited to work with them I soon learned and saw some things that I didn't expect I noticed that my students could take any test and get an a any test I could give them they could take it and get an A I noticed that if I gave them instructions for the assignment they could ace the assignment but any time that I gave them an unstructured assignment any time that I get you know didn't tell them exactly what was on the test prior to the test they had great difficulty if I asked them to solve a novel problem of some kind they had really great difficulty and I was surprised by this I wondered to myself what were they doing for those years in their k12 experience and what I came to realize is what they were doing was getting very good at doing school they got very good at school and I was worried that this skill wouldn't transfer to being good at life that those skills might not be transferable um my kids could win at the game show Jeopardy they were full of information they had encyclopedic recall of facts but they didn't have they weren't knowledge able they didn't have an ability with knowledge that they could take information and structure it and do something with it to solve a novel problem in a word they couldn't think so what is thinking what does it mean what do we mean when we say thinking thinking is simply a process of structuring information and doing something with it taking information structuring it organizing it in such a way to do something meaningful with it now there are a number of different types of thinking major types of thinking there's creative thinking critical thinking there's systems-thinking interdisciplinary or scientific thinking and there's also emotional intelligence or pro-social thinking these are all wildly important thinking skills all students need to know them we shouldn't discriminate among them of course our schools don't discriminate among them they're killing all of them equally now this problem that that the problem of students getting to college and not being able to think is an educational problem it's rooted in education but it has global effects these global effects are not just seen by professors in classrooms they're seen by everyone parents worry that their students don't have the common sense skills to make it in life teachers worry that what they're doing in the classroom isn't preparing kids for life and businesses and CEOs when they're interviewed they consistently complain that the applicant pool is not ready for the workforce of course as citizens and voters we can see the 24-hour news cycle polls and even presidential debates lacking in critical analysis and thinking and who among us hasn't wanted to at least once throttle a customer service person for their thoughtless automaticity this problem starts with education but it has global implications how many of you have played with Legos we played with them as a kid I played with them as a kid and when when I got them they were in a bucket right they came in a big bucket there were no instructions you threw them out on the floor and you were able to make whatever you wanted you could make a bridge you could make a house you could make a pterodactyl if you wanted to well that's not how they come today today it's dependent on instructions they come in a box like this a kit like this and it's very dependent on the on the child reading the instructions in order to build the kit if you don't follow the instructions you're not going to end up with an imperial dropship with four stormtroopers and you certainly can't build the pterodactyl with this kit here's my fear it's not that there's not a lot of thinking that goes into these kits there's a tremendous amount of thinking that goes into these kits and it's all happening on a desk in Billund Denmark at Lego headquarters the people who design these kits are making great strides in their thinking but it's not happening on the kids desk where the kid is building it my fear is that this Lego example is a metaphor for what's happening in education today we are as curriculum designers and teachers and educators over engineering the content curriculum and we're surgically removing the thinking so that our kids are simply following instructions painting by the numbers and getting the grade we need to get thinking back on every desk I'm happy to say that the educational conversation the conversation nationally has moved to talking a lot about education that's a great thing lots of people are talking about education everybody's got different solutions for how to fix the education and the best thing is we know that it's broken the system is broken and that's a good thing because knowing it will help us to fix it now the most important thing that we have to remember is that education is not going to be fixed from a top and trickle down approach it's going to be fixed from a bottom and bubble up approach there are over 60 million lessons taught every day in this country 60 million that is where education happens every day in those 60 million lessons where teachers and students and ideas come together in a triad we've got to get thinking back into that equation we've got to get thinking at every desk now I travel around the country in the world talking about the importance of thinking and I'll tell you this I've never really met anyone who seriously looks me in the eye and says I don't think thinking is that important we all know that thinking is critically important and yet either even a billion dollars of research from the Gates Foundation shows us that education in education the way to fix education is to teach thinking skills so what are we doing to teach thinking skills in the classroom in my work with classrooms and schools and districts around the country I see one very common strategy I call it the bandwidth solution the idea is that if we simply put enough information if we increase the size of the pipe and we ask students to learn more stuff that somehow miraculously they will end up being thinkers it reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons we do this stuff and then a miracle occurs and then of course thinking will happen and I think of the the Faculty of this country and myself included as being sort of from the future we get the kids when when they're done with the k-12 system we get them so in a way we come from the future with a message and that message is the miracle didn't happen our college students can't think we don't need a miracle what we need is a method we need the ability to teach thinking through a method in our schools alongside the lessons there are four Universal thinking skills that research shows are happening and that we can use to teach kids how to think if we teach these skills they lead to those six types of thinking I talked about critical thinking creative thinking interdisciplinary and scientific thinking and even pro-social and emotional development the first thing that we can do to get kids thinking again is to teach them to make distinctions between ideas and objects and things what does it mean to make a distinction what we mean is to define our terms but we don't just want to define the terms we want kids to learn to increasingly over time create more sophisticated more nuanced distinctions we want when a student takes something and and makes a distinction they're actually bringing something into existence and in doing that we get a deeper understanding of things we have more clarity of thought and in turn more clarity of communication the second thing we can do to get think kids thinking again is to teach them to look at the parts and the holes that make up systems every part is a hole and every hole is a part that is universal it's often said in science that there are really fundamentally just two kinds of scientists there's splitters and there's lumpers splitters are the scientists who sort of break things down into parts and then break those parts into parts and so on and so on and lumpers take all the parts and they put them back together again what we need to do is create a new generation of young students who are Splunk an split and lump easily they can construct new ideas and they can deconstruct old ideas or existing ideas the third thing we can do to get thinking back into the classroom is to recognize relationships to teach our children to recognize relationships between and among ideas in our schools today we almost teach the lack of relationships or disconnection we teach in departments in courses in subject areas and in disciplines and yet we know that the world is a very interconnected place we need to get our kids seeing more of these connections more of these relationships the fourth thing with it we can do to get our kids thinking again is to take multiple perspectives everything looks different when you take a new perspective and when we teach perspective taking there are there are things that are correlated with teaching perspective taking that we all want increased empathy increased compassion increased pro-social thinking and emotional development even things like increased skills of negotiation and conflict resolution and spatial reasoning perspectives are wildly important these four skills distinctions systems relationships and perspectives what I call DSR P will get kids thinking again and they combine in lots of different ways to create an ecology of thoughts that are very very complex they're actually universal to the process of thinking and they're universal to that process of taking information and structuring it and turning it into some kind of knowledge that we can use our kids are flooded with information we're all flooded with information in this day and age there's information coming at us from all directions the number one thing we can do for our children is give them the tools to structure that information in meaningful ways so that they can do something with it and believe me if we don't teach them to think there are plenty of people who would be will happily think for them I'm happy to report that these four skills des R and P are being taught in preschool to grad school around the country and around the world we're seeing remarkable effects little kids are learning the same thinking skills that the big kids are learning this is my son Carter at ten months old he is empirically cute we've done research what he's doing actually is uh he's organizing his Cheerios his strawberries and his and his blueberries and he lines them up and groups them together then he eats them based on the ones that he likes that particular day and what's remarkable about this photo is that at this time in Carter's life he doesn't actually know the words for blueberry strawberry or Cheerios but he is making distinctions he's taking perspectives and grouping things into little sparked whole systems and making relationships he's doing D SRP in fact he and all of us are hard-wired to do D SRP these are universal processes of structuring information now as Carter goes into our school system he will be encouraged to begin memorizing information and and regurgitating it he will be encouraged to take tests he'll be encouraged to follow instructions and in particular he'll be encouraged not to make any mistakes and look only for the right answers over time he will be discouraged from his natural talent for thinking a talent we all are born with now Carter is my son but someday he'll be somebody student he'll be somebody's employee he'll be somebody's boss somebody's husband somebody's father he'll be a voting citizen in our democracy his ability to think is no more important than any child's ability to think I'm reminded of the global effects of thinking every day when I leave my house and I see this on the on the wall of my barn as I leave the house thinking really lies at the root of democracies in our Declaration of Independence it says that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed I have a question for you what is the meaning of that consent if the governed are not thinking as a solution to the educational problem getting thinking at every desk might seem far-reaching but I am giving hope every time I hear from a parent that says my daughter in learning these thinking skills has completely changed in just six months I'm giving great hope when I hear from teachers who say I'm more engaged and more excited about teaching than ever in 26 years because we're teaching thinking skills which are going to matter for these students I have more hope that we can fix the problems of Education when I see these little headstart kids learning the same for thinking skills that doctoral students in the Ivy League are using that inventors experts and scientists are using every day and they're learning them at a young young age it gives me great hopes that we can fix education we can do this but we need to get started right away we need to get teach think teaching thinking back at every desk thank you very much you

25 thoughts on “TEDxWilliamsport – Dr. Derek Cabrera – How Thinking Works

  1. The Education System HAS NEVER taught critical thinking or encouraged it, so I dunno why people always the phrase- "schools don't teach critical thinking skills these days" or the word "today" when reminiscing.
    "Surgically removing the thinking… TODAY" is par for the course, BECAUSE critical thinking HAS NEVER been a part of, probably ANY primary or secondary school's curriculum.

    Instead, we should focus on STARTING to do those things! We've never even BEGUN doing that, so I dunno why we have this false collective memory of it ever having been different?
    I've heard people complain now for 30 years about the Education system's lack of encouraging critical thinking, and I've heard it from all over the world and whenever I asked those people if they can ever think of a time when critical thinking was taught- or just whether thinking was encouraged in any Educational system, they would usually so – "To tell you the truth- I can't remember really".

    We need to get serious as a populace(world populace- not country-specific) and really take this FIGHT to our educational system. All parents from all over the world, teachers, influential people etc MOAN ALL THE TIME- GOING BACK more than a 100 years about their education system's lack of encouraging thinking and our kids will do the same. So will their kids. It's just a talking point by now.. Ya know- to start of a conversation or break the silence at a get-together. We're not serious and our parents weren't serious. This guy in the video isn't really serious and our kids won't be serious about it.
    MOAN, MOAN, MOAN.
    Moaning about it for another hundred years, while subconsciously convincing ourselves of the lie that – "It used to be different", is not going to help.

  2. Ive been looking for a Tedtalk about multiple thinking but i havent found any. Ive been searching on articles about it as well but all i could find is multiple intelligence..i am wondering if you can explain to me why my brain is capable of thinking two things at the same time, like i was working on my paper, at the same time my brain is battling either to be rational or emotional over a certain personal matter.. this happens most of the time. And by the way,i am also capable of multi tasking, i dont know if it has something to do with my ability to multi think.

  3. Something I learned from Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder. It is a GREAT description of the process of thinking: "Whenever we think, we think for a purpose, within a point of view, based on assumptions, all of which have implications. We use data, facts, and experiences to make inferences and judgements based on concepts or theories, to answer a question, or to solve a problem." Thinking is a SYSTEM. That's why your kids couldn't think. They had no practice in this process. In order to think you have to first understand that thinking IS a process, and that process has certain common fundamental elements, and that those elements are interrelated to one another in a system. Your kids are treating knowledge as though they were marbles in a bag–each marble separate from one another. But knowledge is a web of concepts. Everything is related to everything else. This web is useful–it's like a catcher's mitt. You can catch new concepts with it, like catching a ball. Try catching a ball with a single marble. No matter how many marbles you have–it's useless when it comes to making sense of new information, or charting a course forward with the information you have now, if you don't recognize it as a system.

  4. It's not clear what you mean by "thinking", and therefore, your point is unclear to me. Your claim is that students don't learn to "think"? What exactly do you mean by that? The broadness of the word makes it very unclear what you are actually talking about.

  5. I thought i was super smart and “gifted” in high school because the assignments were set up to be that way and it wasn’t until my first semester in college that I realized I was never really as smart as I thought I was, I was just good at memorizing the answers on a test review and regurgitating information

  6. As a teacher I agree with most of this but I fear that the problem goes even deeper than he believes. It's all well and good to teach critical thinking–but if they don't even have the actual facts to do the critical thinking with then it won't matter what they conclude through the process. He makes a comment that to "get kids to think we need to teach them to think about the parts and the wholes that make up the system." But if kids don't even understand the concept of parts and wholes and fractions it's not going to matter. He's makes it clear at the onset that he's thinking about the best students but even here there is such a lack of basic building block skills that I'm not sure it's going to matter. They still need to know the basic facts of WW II to critically discuss the war and come to any truly meaningful conclusion. And most don't know those facts. In my school teaching "upper level" thinking skills is everything–teachers have a large part of their assessment based on this. But if you're debating something in a room you can be using these thinking skills but if you have no foundational facts the output is still junk.

    I'm a foreign language teacher who has discovered that knowing what a vowel, or adjective, or adverb is is no longer a part of English class apparently because they no longer want to have their kids just "memorizing facts." But if I could just simply say "in the language you're now learning adjectives generally come after the noun whereas in English they tend to come before the noun they reference we would be able to instantly move forward.

    The actual reason we have a president like we do at the moment is because people can't even agree on what reality is so that they can have a meaningful critically driven debate–although they're convinced that's what they did.

  7. what if "thinking" has always been, and will always be, done by just a small portion of the human species. if so, he hasn't discovered a problem. he's discovered a phenomenon. the system of education may simply filter out most of the naturally skilled "thinkers". hence, his observation in ivy league schools.

  8. I like Dr. Cabrera's ideas about breaking apart and reconstructing. And taking multiple perspectives–perspective thinking.

  9. The International Baccalaureate Diploma is getting it right — all curricula should be following their example

  10. I completely agree – a massive part of teaching should be about getting pupils to understand the process behind their learning rather than always focussing on the final outcome. For example students can often solve a problem if they are given the 'structure' or 'ladder' of instructions on how to do so – but as Carbrera mentioned it is often when students are not given the EXACT thinking process needed in order to solve a problem that is when they struggle. They lack creativity. The thinking process should demonstrate intuition and they should be taught how to think differently rather than how to follow a sequence of instructions. Much of what we see in education today is 'teaching to the test'. We often teach children the knowledge but do not actually show them what they can do with it. In the way he says the 'system is broken' I completely agree. We need to teach our children to be unique.

  11. Sounds like the Trivium Method. 😊

    Been studying it recently and it's precisely what he seems to be promoting.

  12. Most of the democratic so called governments and systems, do the thinking for us all over the world.

  13. I think Dr. Cabrera shows much insight on Non-linear thinking. However, I don't believe empathy is a thinking skill. Empathy is a vicarious experience on feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others….? We shouldn't be sucked in by other's emotion thinking which is not critical thought… What do you think?

  14. Uhm.. agree with the criticism of the current system… But you didn't propose quite anything concrete or specifical nor new different exercises, instead just vague nice phrases or skills I agree are desirable, but how do you actually implement them? You teach all those wonderful skills to kids, but you don't show evidence that that is happening, looks empty words to me :/

  15. So he posed the problem that schools aren't teaching kids to think but then five minutes later says the educational system is already teaching his DSRP..

  16. Humanist Manifesto-Dewey. It was his idea to get people to be non-thinkers. He has almost succeeded. Enter Dr. Cabrera, and thank you sir. I am a 61 year old non-traditional student, seeking a second career, studying with young students who stun me by their lack of thinking ability. God help us put Humpty back on the wall again.

  17. I dont think people are smart based on their degree. I think it shows a lot of hard work, and a level of thinking for people to get there, but I don't believe they are thinkers just for getting a degree or recognition for a level of education. It bugs me when people put those with degrees above thinkers who do not display a degree. Well, it's a balance.

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