Why You Should Stop and Think

I have been thinking a lot about habits of mind lately; patterns of thinking that we all develop over time. Just like physical habits, these habits are engrained in our subconscious and are meant to be automated, to make our lives easier. Generally, we don’t think about them until they are challenged. We go on thinking the way we always have until something forces us to stop and reexamine our assumptions; why we believe something to be true. For example, if we grow up believing that musical ability is innate and cannot be learned, if we try to learn an instrument and it does not come naturally, we will give up, believing “we are just not musical.”

The way we think about something, and in fact, if we think about it at all, is influenced by many cultural factors including what kind of praise we are given when we are successful as children. Research by Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, has shown that if our effort is praised, then we believe our success is as a result of effort.  If we are praised for our ability, ie. “Good job, you are so smart!” then we believe our ability is responsible for our success. In this way, you can see that praise influences the way we learn to think about things and in turn, forms our view of ourselves.

So what if you are going through life believing you are not a musical person and someone comes along and tells you that anyone can learn an instrument, it just takes a little more effort for some people than it does for others. Probably, at first, you would not believe them, and if they give you examples, you might claim that you are the exception to that rule.  Finally, if you are open to change, you might try to learning an instrument to test out this theory. Chances are though, that without constant encouragement, you may give up and fall back into your old belief, or way of thinking. As adults, we are often resistant to changing the way we think about the world.

I think that the more we can stop and think about how we think about things, the better we are able to learn. In a recent talk, Ken Robinson spoke about how our current education system is so focused on taking in information about the world, but we don’t spend much time thinking about ourselves. Reflection is an important process in learning that is often forgotten. We spend so much time taking in information and not enough time processing it.  He identified the arts as being powerful in helping us to self- reflect and learn about ourselves and others.

This affects young people as they grow and look for a career. My time as a camp director has taught me that those who take the time to self-reflect stand out in a job interview. One of the questions that proved to be the best judge of suitability in an interview was, “why do you like working with children?” If the answer was, “I don’t know, I have never thought about it before,” this was not a good candidate. They had never taken the time to think about why they wanted the job, or what it was they were passionate about.

Even though I believe there is not enough weight given to reflection in our school system, I do have hope for the future of our young people. I have been inspired recently by the inclusion of thinking processes in the new Common Core State Standards model in the USA.

For example, in basic math problem solving, children in kindergarten are being asked to share their thinking by drawing a table or a diagram and explaining to the teacher how they came up with the answer they got. By mapping out the ways they thought about the problem, not only are teachers better able to understand how each child processes information, they can also suggest multiple ways of thinking about the same problem. This will allow for the development of creativity in problem solving. If given the time, they will be more able to go deeper into skill development at each level. To see this in action watch the video below:




This is a great step in cultivating healthy learning habits, but I don’t think it goes far enough. The video below shows children in kindergarten practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a tool that helps children slow down observe and reflect. The argument is that if we expect children to take in lots of information we should be giving them healthy habits of mind to help them process it.

Even though this video may seem like a stretch to some of you, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I think we need to go even further. It is important to give children down time, to think about nothing at all. To give their mind a chance to rest, relax and process everything it has been learning. We cannot forget about the Eureka effect; the sudden understanding of a previously incomprehensible concept or problem. This understanding often comes during a break from fixating mentally on a problem.

This effect is named after the Greek scientist Archimedes, who is said to have jumped from a public bath and run home naked shouting “Eureka!” (I found it), when he discovered a new way to measure volume.  He had been working tirelessly for the king on the problem of how to measure whether a goldsmith had used pure gold to make his crown or if he had cheated by adding the same weight of silver.

When Archimedes took a break from working on the problem and got into the bath, he noticed that his body displaced the water. This simple observation led to a sudden discovery of how to measure volume. Although, it does not really explain the running through the streets naked part of the story, but that is beside the point. If he had not stopped working to take a bath, he would never have experienced a Eureka moment and discovered the principle of displacement.

My point is, our brains do need a break to be able to process the world around us. So, in our current society where our children’s time is often scheduled down to the minute, lets leave some down time, time for free thought, time for Eureka!