The penultimate chapter in Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is titled “What to Teach Our Children.” He considers the world into which today’s children are born in contrast to the world in which we older adults were born. In that world information was both hard and slow to come by. In contrast, today’s world information is much easier to come by. But although vast amounts of information are easily and quickly accessible, this can make finding the exact information needed difficult. And there is the question of assessing the veracity of the information. I would wager that today the most commonly used encyclopedia is the Wikipedia, but anyone can make an entry to the Wikipedia. The vetting process is that the entry can be corrected or elaborated, but the vetting process can produce errors and the original author can change reintroduce the original error. Nevertheless, the Wikipedia works pretty well and I am a frequent user, although I always try to keep these caveats in mind.
Levitin recommends comprehensive instruction in critical thinking for our children, and I would add also for ourselves for the process of critical learning should not end, but should continue as long as we live. So children should be taught how to think critically about an article. They should also consider sources of possible bias. Some journals and websites do make an effort to identify political sources as being conservative or liberal and might even go on to assess the extremity of the political belief. Of course political leanings are not the only source of bias, there are also religious biases, academic biases, and even strongly held biases within different fields of endeavor. For healthymemory blog posts on critical thinking, enter “critical thinking” into the healthymemory blog search box.
Levitin also recommends understanding orders of magnitude to aid understanding how large or how small an object or quantity is. Being able to understand orders of magnitude estimates is important. Basically these are estimates of how many zeroes are in the answer. So if you were asked how many tablespoons of water are in a cup of water. Here are some “power of ten” estimates: 1,10, 100, 1000,etc etc. There are also fractional powers of ten such as 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, etc. Basically these estimates help us understand the magnitude of size under consideration.
Enrico Fermi was a famous physicist who was famous for making estimates with little or no actual data. This involves sophisticated approximating sometimes called guesstimating. Regardless of its name, it is an important creative thinking skill. Examples of Fermi problems are “How many basketballs will fit into a bus?” “How many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would it take to encircle the globe at the equator?” and “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Here is a four step solution to the last problem.
How often are pianos tuned (How many times per year is a given piano tuned?)
How long does it take to tune a piano?
How many average hours a year does an average piano tuner work?
How many pianos are in Chicago?
One can find the answers to these questions and come up with an approximate answer. Then one can criticize this analysis and propose a different solution. This is a good exercise for developing both creative and critical thinking.
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