How to think, not what to think | Jesse Richardson | TEDxBrisbane

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Translator: Leonardo Silva Reviewer: Cristina Bufi-Pöcksteiner

We can probably all agree that education is important, right?

That's pretty universal.

But I want you to think back to your time in school

and see if you can remember something.

See if you can remember a time

when you were actually taught how to think.

Well, the lesson you were being given

was specifically teaching little you as a kid,

with big, wide eyes and a sponge-like brain,

how to go about the business of thinking.

Now, if your experience was anything like mine,

you'll probably struggle to think of a single instance when that occurred.

And when you think about it, that's completely insane, isn't it?

In at least, what, ten years that we all spend in school,

we get taught all sorts of knowledge like, "This plus this equals that,"

"Such and such happened in nineteen diggity two,"

which is great,

but the actual teaching of how to think,

not so much, right?

So, the idea I'd like to share today

is that we need to teach kids how to think, not what to think.

Now, if you're unfortunate enough to be talking to a conspiracy theorist,

they might tell you that the reason we're not taught how to think

is that the powers that be don't want us sheeple

waking up to their lizard people, GMO, chemtrail, vaccine propaganda.


Or something.

But I suspect the real reason is quite substantially more boring and plausible.

As Sir Ken Robinson identified

in his wonderful TED Talk on how schools kill creativity,

that's just kind of how the school system responded to industrialization,

and now it's a big entrenched bureaucracy and bloody hard to change, right?

And remember we set this whole education system thing up

around the same time that we thought hitting kids with sticks was a good idea,

and if they had a cough, we gave them heroin-based cough syrup,

like, with actual heroin in it,

which, you know, admittedly was pretty effective at calming it down.

But the point is that we weren't exactly sophisticated in our understanding.

But now, as we all know, our world and our economy are changing rapidly,

and how we approach education needs to adapt.

So, what's different about teaching children how to think

is that we're involving them in the process of their own learning.

Instead of just telling them to memorize the right answer,

we're asking them to engage their own minds, their own awareness,

by questioning things,

attaining understanding, not just knowledge.

And that involvement, that engagement, is so important

because it keeps a spark of curiosity alive

that so often dies around the same time

that kids start resenting the kind of only-one-right-answer didactic nature

with so much schoolwork; it's usually around grade 3 or 4.

And when you alight that curiosity,

you no longer have to push knowledge on to kids

because they actually want to understand.

There's no need for carrots and sticks to force learning

because they become self-powered, nerdy, little curiosity machines.

And as result of that, you know,

they are, you know, able to think entirely on their own merits.

But what are actually talking about here when we say "learning how to think"?

Well, I think part of it is creativity.

But creativity isn't just some self-indulgent feely thing.

It largely defines us as a species.

When you think about it,

almost every great innovation,

political theory or scientific breakthrough

has sprung from creative thinking, right?

So, from Plato to Einstein, from agriculture to iPads,

because creative thinking is, in essence, nothing more than making new connections.

But to be clear,

what I'm talking about here isn't creative expression.

Art's great, but what I'm advocating is less like art and more like design.

And the difference between art and design

is that art is an expression, whereas design solves a problem.

So the point of teaching kids how to think creatively

is to teach them how to be adaptive,

how to innovate in order to solve problems.

Not sitting in a loft with red wine, ciggies and a black skivvy,

suffering the burden of no one understanding their artistic genius,

but sitting in a planning meeting, or a startup incubator,

or anywhere else in the real world

that contributes to our real-world economy.

So, our schools need to teach creative thinking.

But I think that's only half of it -

I think that's only half of it because teaching creative thinking is great,

but if you're just open to new connections,

then, you know, that's a little bit of a recipe for disaster as well

because you need to keep your thinking to account.

Never trust a brain,

especially your own,

because we are, every single one of us, prone to cognitive biases,

to prejudices and to the blinding effects of privilege and in-group psychology.

We like to think of ourselves as really quite objective and clever,

but the unfortunate truth is that we are all, to some extent,

flawed, ignorant and deluded,

which, you know, sounds not good.

But happily, we can do something about it by learning critical thinking skills.

What critical thinking teaches us is how to question things rigorously,

how to form sound, well-reasoned, coherent thoughts and arguments

and critically how to identify bullshit.

But perhaps the most important thing it teaches us

is that it's good to be wrong,

that the ideas we hold aren't us

and that we don't need to defend them to the death,

and, in fact, that we can change those ideas

and that it is absolutely liberating to do so.

It's something really fundamental to how we approach the world

to have the vulnerability and the humility

to be receptive to the idea that I might be wrong, you know?

It's profoundly transformative.

And when we're trained as critical thinkers,

something significant shifts

because we become aware of our own thinking.

"Why do I think this? How have I come to this conclusion?"

We become quite literally self-aware.

This is my thesis:

that creative and critical thinking are two sides of the same coin,

two parts of an equation that add up to how to think.

And what's really interesting is that something happens

when our mind is trained to think both creatively and critically

because that equation adds up to more than just a sum of its parts.

There's a seed of genius, there's a fertility of understanding,

that allows our mind to grow to such great heights

when it's able to think creatively

in dynamic interplay with thinking critically.

When those two aspects of our ability work together,

amazing things happen.

A da Vinci moment's born from the cognitive alchemy

of a mind that is free to plan and explore,

yet also disciplined to apply reason and rationality.

And such a mind is also a fortress of understanding.

It's largely impervious to the lies and the nefarious manipulations

of politicians, the media and the advertising industry,

which presents me with something of a segue.

So, for the past 15 years or so,

I've been manipulating people into buying things that they probably don't need,

working as an advertising creative in the ad industry.

And in that time,

I've learned a fair bit about both creativity and bullshit.

But perhaps the most important thing I learned

is that if you want an ad to be effective, you need to create genuine engagement,

and you need to do so using the power of simplicity.

If you can get that right,

then your ad doesn't feel like an ad anymore.

Instead, it feels like something that someone might actually not hate

and possibly even want to read, watch or interact with.

So, but what if we applied that same truth to education instead of advertising?

Now, we all know that making learning fun and engaging is a good idea,

it's sort of obvious,

but to be blunt, there really isn't much evidence of it in practice.

And I think the reason for that

is that the people who design school syllabuses

usually aren't talented entertainers:

no trained designers, directors or other creative professionals.

And the unfortunate truth is that using Comic Sans

and putting an illustration of a zany scientist up in the corner of the page

doesn't actually make learning all that much fun, right?


A great example of how to do it right is Horrible Histories.

As the name suggests, it takes all the most awful aspects of history

and puts it into a narrative form.

And of course kids absolutely love it because it's disgusting and fascinating.

Another wonderful example of how education should be engaging

happened when a scientist also happened to be a poet,

because Carl Sagan didn't just teach us about the cosmos;

he helped us to progress as a society, he changed how people think.

Now, education is the most important cornerstone of civilization, isn't it?

Shouldn't we be making it as engaging and effective as possible?

Shouldn't we be applying the same rigor,

the same innovation that we do to marketing,

to education?

So, a couple of years ago,

I was teaching my own boys about logical fallacies,

which is an area of critical thinking,

and it occurred to me

that maybe I could use my advertising powers for good instead of evil, right?


Now, fallacies are essentially like flaws in reasoning,

and I wanted my boys to be aware of some of the more common ones

like the appeal to nature fallacy.

But all the explanations I'd read online

were these just impenetrably dense academic walls of text, you know.

And so I did what I do at work when I'm given a 12-page communication strategy

that I somehow have to fit onto a billboard someone can read

as they're drive past in their car.

I simplified.

I tried to come up with some clear explanations and examples

we could about in the car on the way to school in the morning,

which was actually a really fun exercise.

And I ended up putting together a poster

with 24 of the most common logical fallacies,

each with a single simple sentence that clearly explained the concept, right?

And then, it occurred to me

that perhaps the same idea could work well online, you know,

and I could share it with other parents, teachers and the world at large.

And so, with the help of some programmer friends,

we came up with a creative commons website at .

The idea was that if you saw someone committing a fallacy online someway,

you just linked them to it.

If someone was misrepresenting an argument,

you just linked them to, right?

So probably the best way to explain it is to show you an example from the site.

So, this one is false cause,

in which we presume that a relationship between things

means that one is the cause of the other.

So for example,

"Pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising

over the past few centuries,

whilst at the same time,

the number of pirates have been decreasing.

Thus, pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax."

So -


You get the idea.

We also made the poster available as a PDF

that anyone could download and print out for free.

So, we launched in 2012, and blew up.

It was tweeted by the likes of the lovely Mr. Stephen Fry, PZ Meyers,

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, our own Dr. Karl, among thousands of others.

It was featured on sites like Boing Boing and Upworthy,

melted our servers, front-paged on Reddit, attracted over 3,5 million unique visitors

and is currently the top logical fallacies site online.


It's getting around 10,000 unique visits a day,

and most awesomely the poster is currently being featured

in may thousands of classrooms and other kids' bedrooms

all around the world.

So, you know -




So that went quite well.


It was surprising.

It would seem that making educational resources simple, fun and free

is a good idea, right?

So, what now?

Well, what if we did the same kind of thing but on a much bigger scale?

What if we created a platform

that allowed teachers to teach critical thinking,

that allowed any student to be able to learn

about philosophy and creative thinking?

What if we created a platform where anyone could get -

sorry -

where anyone could have access to resources on thinking?

So just recently, we launched the School of Thought International,

at .

The purpose of the School of Thought

is to help us question all schools of thought.

What it is is a not-for-profit online school

where anyone can learn creative and critical thinking skills for free.

The content, courses, tools, apps, games and resources that we create

will be available for everyone to use under a creative commons license,

from primary school teachers through to university philosophy departments

and any student of any age anywhere in the world

with an Internet connection.


And what if instead of flat images and walls of text

we took the liberty that an online school can take

and created a fully immersive 3D campus

designed to be a living vision of an enlightened learning utopia

writ large in the virtual space?

And what if we could actually help change our school system?

I mean, why are we teaching kids what's on the periodic table of the elements,

but we're not really teaching them why science is important,

about philosophy of science

or how to read journalism with a critical mind,

about how taking evidence-based approaches helped take us from the Dark Ages

into this golden age of progress and technological wonder?

I mean, how many lectures does the average student receive at school

about following the rules?

And yet we don't teach them ethics.

We don't teach kids how to understand and internalize

the difference between right and wrong.

We just tell them, "Don't do that, that's wrong,"

and then we yell at them if they transgress.

We teach kids how to make extremely ugly shorts in Home Ec.


But perhaps teaching them about logic and reason

might be at least as important life skills in this information age, you know.

What if schools incorporated thinking as its own subject into their curricula?

Is that such a crazy thought?

I mean, what if we spent as much time teaching kids how to think for themselves

as we do on English, Math or any other subject?

Not only would this be great for kids in all aspects of their learning in life

and the future of our species,

it would also mean that people with degrees in philosophy

will finally be able to get a job.



So -

We're approaching perhaps the most important and volatile period

in all of human history.

Now more than ever, we need to teach kids how to think, not what to think.

And you know,

if we can do things in collaboration with people like Peter Elton

from the University of Queensland's Critical Thinking Project

and cutting-edge who helped us put together these visualizations,

I think that can be a possibility.

I hope you find this to be an idea worth spreading.

Thank you.