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Could Confucius AND Confusion both be good for Learning?

Scientific empiricism helps engineers with risk-based decision-making. Equally, scientists who think like engineers apply useful heuristics like TRIZ principles to meet practical challenges. As industry complexifies, can all STEM professionals’ benefit from borrowing from philosophy? The signs are good and might also surprise us but are supported by the latest neuroscientific findings.

Sufism for solving ‘wicked’ problems

Sufism (‘the mystical expression of the Islamic faith) suggested that to solve ‘wicked’ problems i.e., featuring incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements, we need to look at things anew. The parable of the King who appointed his best team of (blind) advisors to puzzle over a newly discovered elephant illustrates why. Each person identified one key aspect of the beast but characterised it inadequately e.g. as ‘slender’ based on the pointy tusks. The King was left confused & wrote the animal off as ‘imaginary’ based on his advisors’ incompetence and discord. Likewise, multi-disciplinary teams can fail to work together in order to see the ‘big picture’ without good integrative thinking.

‘Confucianism & the benefits of confusion

The King should have persisted in his struggle to decipher the new ‘problem’ he’d encountered. Not only is perseverance a critical thinking disposition but neuroscience confirms our confusion actually supports more durable learning. While it is easier when we feel that we’re making progress quickly, when it comes to acquiring skills, we’re better off when concepts aren’t simplified, and we’re tested not after but before we’re taught new subjects. ‘Confucianism’ promotes this willingness to suffer ‘desirable difficulties’ and goes beyond a ‘Growth Mindset’ to perceive the struggle as inherently good. Sound cruel? Eastern cultures are kinder to learners by encouraging people to see themselves as a ‘work in progress’ rather than get overly hung up on one bad test or a few wrong answers along the away.

Zen & the ‘Beginners’ Mind’

One of the founders of Regeneron expressed a preference for college graduates to retain a ‘Beginners Mind’. His instinct is now supported by the newest research which highlights that when lessons are spaced apart for learners to forget some of the last, they experience greater return on training time. Integrative thinking can also be better supported by making it harder to remember what to do. While intensive and immersive courses in single topics are really popular, short learning sprints and interweaving topics has been found to increase ultimate understanding. Have you noticed how time flew during COVID even with less variety in your day? Our sense of time is highly subjective and without memory markers, it becomes skewed & prevents learning. Shorter and more frustrating learning sessions encourage a ‘beginners’ mind’ at the start of each session & this beds down material better for long-term recall.

An Irish angle

A commitment to life-long learning presents many unique opportunities to ‘begin again’. As our own home-grown philosopher, Brendan Kenneally, suggests - “every beginning is a promise” “born in light “ & invites us to face the confusion of each problem with courage. Any philosophical approach that encourages ‘intellectual humility’ support the thinking mindset we need for ultimate mastery; be it in the East or West.

Think4Purpose features 3-4 ‘brain stretches’ at the start of all training sessions. These exercises help engineers to think more about how they think e.g., in judging risk or interpreting information. We have new programme (suitable for engineers or scientists) starting on the 15 Sept. and we aim to amuse as well as confuse given humour is also a helpful learning tool. Book in via this link


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