Could you think better?

”What did you learn at school today?” A relevant question, 40 years ago. Today, you can drop ’school’, as we live in a world in which everyone can and has to learn something new every day. That’s why developing skills that improve your learning pays off. Start with the basics: learn how to think well.

”It is hugely important to include cognitive skills in the curriculum from the first years of school”, says Päivi Nilivaara, an expert on learning and cognition. Cognitive skills form the basis for all learning. ”Life is a continuous problem-solving process. When you are little, it can be a math problem at school and for adults, climate change. You will be better equipped to solve problems if you actively practise your cognitive skills.”

Cognitive skills include the ability to look at things from different perspectives, identify and utilise different levels of thinking, and improve your performance through self-assessment. And the cherry on the cake: you can develop your cognitive abilities like any other skill.

Adopt new thought routines

When thinking and learning, we often let ourselves off too easily and are satisfied with the first solution that springs to mind. On the contrary, we should challenge our ways of thinking by looking at the subject from different angles. One way of doing that is by asking more questions. That way, you can develop your thought routines or ways of reacting to different situations.

Nilivaara shares an everyday example: ”When you see a painting, the first level of cognition could be observation: it is an oil painting of a woman dressed in red. The next level could be interpretation: the colours allude to powerful emotions. Then, you could begin to ponder what you would like to know more about: Who is this person in the painting? Was the artist a man or a woman? When was it painted? Is there some cultural symbolism involved in the use of colour?”

Good cognitive routines help you learn. ”It is hard to learn something you know nothing about. That’s why, when trying to learn new things, you have to activate prior knowledge that you can link to what you are learning.” Nilivaara advises learners to stimulate their own thinking before digging into the textbook. ”Even before you first open the book, you can think about what you already know on the subject, what it links to in your world, and what questions would you like to find answers to. In this way, the new information is connected to prior context and transformed to knowledge assimilated by the reader. That is a functional skill of learning and cognition that everyone should include in their thought routines, instead of learning disconnected facts by rote.”

Another efficient way of expanding your thought routines is to collide your thinking with others by thinking together. ”Do you own the space inside your pocket? Will the room get bigger when you open the window?” In her training sessions, Nilivaara presents questions such as these, for which there is no right answer. In pondering complex problems, people become aware of how many ways there are to approach the same issue. Thinking about and extrapolating on other people’s problems helps you develop your own thought routines.

The power of metathinking

Employing metathinking, i.e. actively thinking about and analysing your own cognitions, is essential to learning. Metathinking is an irreplaceable skill for self-assessment and self-direction. Nilivaara explains: ”It is a commonplace that you learn from your mistakes. But you don’t, not if you don’t analyse the situation and think about what you could have done differently. Instead of asking yourself whether you did good or bad, you should be asking what modes of thinking you used to resolve situation and what alternative methods you could have employed.”

dules, each taking from thirty minutes to an hour to complete. In the spirit of storytelling, the course includes many interactive exercises that are shared and compared within the group. The participants of the course have the opportunity to create their personal or company stories with support from the course teachers.

Anyone who completes the course should be able to apply the principles of storytelling to their own work. Those who pass the course receive a Mozilla Open Badge token of achievement, along with a printable certificate. The participants’ organisations also get access to analytics on the activities of those who took the course.

It is very hard to assess your own performance if you have not set targets and criteria for success. That turns succeeding at a task into progress towards a goal. In Nilivaara’s opinion, this is a common problem in schools: pupils should practise their self-direction skills and assess their own success, but that’s not possible if you have not determined the criteria for success together with them first.

Enthusiasm for learning is key

To avoid merely repeating what you have memorised, you need to take responsibility for and commit to learning. Nilivaara describes a scientific model that explains what kinds of emotions generate the greatest commitment to learning. Top of the list are interest and joy. Satisfaction, for example, is not at all as important, as it easily breeds passivity: why make an effort when all is well?

This is something every one of us has experienced. When you are interested in something new, learning is fun and you keep at it without keeping track of the time. Indeed, Nilivaara considers the ability to engender interest in learning to be one of the most important skills of a good teacher. ”Learning skills and cognitive skills can be taught. You can make use of practical methods to steer yourself and others towards cognitive routines that create interest in learning new things.”