By Drake Baer
October 10, 2014
Bill Gates isn’t just a smart guy — he’s disposed to critical thinking.
Harvard education scholar Shari Tishman wants to ask you two questions:
• Can you play the piano?
• Do you play the piano?
The queries are less similar than they seem — and they tell you something about how you learn.
“These are different questions,” she writes, “and your answer may well be ‘yes’ to the first and ‘no’ to the second.”
“The first question asks about ability,” she continues in a 1992 paper. “If you sat down in front of a piano, could you play a tune? The second tacitly asks much more ─ it goes beyond ability and asks about inclination: Are you disposed to play the piano? Do you like to play? Do you play regularly?”
This same distinction — between ability and inclination — extends into our mental lives, Tishman says.
For instance, research into reasoning shows that people can make arguments for either side of an issue when they’re led through the process, showing that they have the ability. But people usually don’t evaluate both sides, since they don’t have the disposition.
So if you want to be more inclined to critical thinking, you need to know what’s in your toolbox, just as Warren Buffett would have you do.
“Being a good thinker means having the right thinking disposition,” Tishman says, because otherwise you’ll never make full use of your abilities.
There are seven such thinking dispositions. They are:
1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous: The tendency to be open-minded, to explore alternative views; an alertness to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: The tendency to wonder, probe, find problems, a zest for inquiry; an alertness for anomalies; the ability to observe closely and formulate questions.
3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to unclarity and need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
4. The disposition to be planful and strategic: The drive to set goals, to make and execute plans, to envision outcomes; alertness to lack of direction; the ability to formulate goals and plans.
5. The disposition to be intellectually careful: The urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: The tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
7. The disposition be metacognitive: The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.
Put together — and used in the appropriate situations — these tendencies allow people to fully engage with knotty intellectual problems.
There’s another benefit to having this outlook. The developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that having a growth mindset — where you think your outcomes come through effort rather than innate talent — leads to success for kids and grownups alike.
Thinking about your thinking dispositions — rather than how innately smart you are — helps cultivate that attitude.