How to Spot an Advanced Thinker

In my teaching, I’ve recently been ruminating on how I can challenge my advanced thinkers–so often, I think our default is to just give them more work–have them write longer papers, include more resources in their papers, speak up in discussion more times. Or, our default is to, “have the smart kid teach the other kids”. But, I’m not quite sure that these tactics really challenge the advanced thinker to have better thoughts. Rather, these writing more and saying more and doing more lengths their endurance, but not necessarily their thinking skills. Rather than teaching them more facts, I think we need to teach them how to have deeper thoughts.

But, before I come up with a list of assignments, I first wanted to consider how do we spot an advanced thinker, and then how can I make extensions that push students into these advanced thinking categories?

-Can retain many bits of information at once: I believe that the human brain likes to be stimulated and that when bored, the human brain finds things to latch onto (this is when gossip and comparison and other destructive thoughts is born). When I think about the most advanced thinkers that I know, one commonality is that they are able to hold many pieces of information in their brains at once, I think, in part, because their brains crave this extra surge of stimulation. The most advanced thinkers that I know are those who are overly involved, who dabble their fingers into many projects at once, are always seeking new opportunities, new trainings, finding ways to push their limits, or do things out of the ordinary. They are able to read five books at once (and still be able to discern the plot structure in each individual book). They are able to balance what seems like an impossible schedule (I think this is due to their strategic nature–advanced thinkers are able to see holes in the calendar, calculate time and distance, and create the most efficient schedules to get it all done).

-Spends time processing an idea: Sometimes, we tag slow processing speed as a lapse in the executive functioning of the brain (which certainly happens), but sometimes, I think advanced thinkers appear to have slow processing speeds, only because they spend time ruminating on an idea, over and over. I had a student a few years ago who was always turning in his work late–like, weeks late. He appeared to be working in class, asked great questions, participated in discussions, and then his papers would come in three, four weeks after the deadline–and his papers were magnificent–so detailed, thought provoking, meticulously planned and organized. I realized that, it wasn’t he was intentionally turning in his work late because he was lazy, but rather, he would spend those two or three weeks engaging in his topic, rolling the thesis statement over and over again in his head, selecting just the right words to communicate his thought, and that he was actually working on the paper the whole entire time; for him, it was not going to be enough to just slap down the first idea that came to his head. Instead, as an advanced thinker, he wanted to marinate on the idea, allow the evidence and analysis to mature, to fully invest in the topic and digest it’s philosophical meaning.

-Creatively problem solves: I remember dating a boy in high school who had some ridiculously high IQ score. One day, he decided that he wanted to boil some water, but didn’t want to trek all the way into the kitchen to do so. Luckily, in his room, he found some Duct Tape, wires, and a potato, and rigged up some kind of contraption that ran electricity through the potato in order to boil some water. Now, we might read this story and say, “wouldn’t it have been easier for him to just walk out of his room and use the microwave?” Well, yes. That is easier. But, to an advanced thinker, this way of boiling the water was just AS logical as leaving his room to use the microwave. But, I think advanced thinkers think in these kinds of ways–they think creatively to solve problems that we may otherwise overlook.

-Is meta-cognitively aware of their thinking process: The recent trend in education, paired with Bloom’s taxonomy, is to teach away from mere regurgitation of facts, and to encourage analysis, synthesizing ideas, to evaluate sources, and to create. The idea here is to push students into higher types of thinking. It’s kind of like the ancient fable, “give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime”. If we focus on teaching basic facts to students, they ‘eat for a day’ because they remember those facts. But, if we teach higher order thinking skills, then (hopefully) when they walk into any situation or any problem, they have the structures in order to ‘eat for a lifetime’. Advanced thinkers are meta-cognitively aware of their thinking process, and they use that knowledge in order to support their learning. For example, I was speaking to one runner the other day who mentioned she studies for her anatomy tests while on her run; she knows that her body builds endorphins, her mind is relatively clear, and as she runs, she rolls through her anatomy terminology. Or, I once spoke to another man who mentioned that his brain processes information during his sleep; before a big test, he will run through his notes right before he goes to bed, and in the morning, he magically wakes up, and his brain has stored the material. These advanced thinkers use these meta-cognitive strategies–thinking about their thinking–to their advantage.

-Synthesizes and finds connections among seemingly unrelated concepts: Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who, when you are talking about where your great-grandmother came from, they suddenly start talking about how cheese is made? This certainly could be an indication that they just aren’t listening to you, but I think it could also be the mark of an advanced thinker. In their heads, probably what has happened is, they hear you talk about your grandmother’s origins, which reminds them of a story they read on a restaurant menu ten months ago, which then they did additional research to find out where the cheese was made, and in their head, this seemingly unrelated concept is actually very well connected. In fact, the IB Programme has an entire requirement dedicated to this kind of thinking (Theories of Knowledge). In their final essays, students are asked to respond to a prompt, and they must include a variety of sources from a variety of discourses; they might respond to a prompt about patterns, and have to find connections between patterns in music and patterns in language, or social sciences; they might have to respond to a prompt regarding the purpose of art, and pull from discourses, such as mathematics and language. At first, the thinking is quite messy. There are no right or wrong answers, but definitely answers that are deeper than others. But, (in IB’s philosophy), this kind of thinking is what pushes people to be more advanced.

-Holds and understands opposing viewpoints: This isn’t news to you when I say we live in a rash, tumultuous world in which people are quick to jump to conclusions, often stand behind an issue with more emotional attachment than logical research, and feel the opportunity to state their opinions frequently. However, the most advanced thinkers that I know are those who are able to hold opposing viewpoints, are able to understand the rationale behind those opposing viewpoints, and then are able to still decide upon a stance in which they believe. Let’s take the issue of raising the minimum wage, for example. In order to simplify, this complex issue can relatively have two stances: yes, we should raise the minimum wage and no, we should not raise the minimum wage. An advanced thinker is one who understands (a) the complexity of the issue, (b) the rationales for both sides, and (c) can decide upon a stance that is a ‘best fit’. For this issue, the advanced thinker understands that those who support the minimum wage increase do so because it helps keep people out of social programs.  According to David Cooper from USA Today,  “When workers are paid poverty-level wages, the entire country suffers. Unable to survive on dismal wages, more and more low-wage workers are being forced to rely on public assistance such as the earned income tax credit and food stamps. These programs are vital protections against poverty, but they should not act as a subsidy to profitable corporations that could afford to pay their workers decent wages”. On the other hand, the advanced thinker also understands that, by raising the minimum wage, both corporations and consumers will also be impacted, because companies will have to make up the difference in wage increases somehow. Also according to USA Today, Ira Stoll writes, ” Higher wages don’t just come out of corporate profits. They are passed along to consumers in higher prices. And the higher the minimum wage, the greater the incentive for restaurant management to replace human cashiers with computerized kiosks that will do to fast-food jobs what the ATM did to bank tellers”; so, an advanced thinker is someone who understands both stances on this complicated issue, can sympathize with both sides, and yet still vote on the issue.

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