Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Education Series (2/7): Break Free from Categorical Thinking in Education

Categorical Thinking - organising information into Categories
The world we live in is very complex & to process all the information would require much cognitive work. To facilitate this task, we humans make use of Categorical Thinking, i.e. we automatically organise & categorise information in our mind.

For example, our Geo-political world is categorised into continents & countries; People are categorised based on socio-economic parameters, Industries are categorised based on products & service offerings. The list is endless......just think about anything under the sun & you will notice they are organised into specific categories, in our schema (our perceptual system categorises & organises every aspect of our world into a mental category).

In a nutshell, Categorical Thinking is an essential psychological adaptation, to effectively perceive & comprehend the world around us.

Over the years, Research in Psychology has made us aware of the perils of Categorical Thinking: Rigid/Fixate thinking & Bias.Hence, we need to consciously remind ourselves of these downsides, to safeguard ourselves from it's threats.

Categories are made for the ease of organising information. Unfortunately we lose touch with this fundamental concept & our quality of thinking gets restricted within the boundaries of specific category. Thereby resulting in rigid & fixate thinking.
We also tend to develop bias (positive & negative), towards categories based on our affective (liking, dislikes) & cognitive (thinking) attributes.

My son's class -III time table

The phenomenon of Conceptual Thinking, struck me while looking at my son's school time-table. He is class III & his time-table is categorised into Languages (Hindi & English), Art, Science, Maths, Computers, Sports & Music. 

The categorisation of his weekly school routine is needed for planning & execution of the academic session. However, as conscious parent (educator) it is on us, to safeguard our child's mind from falling prey to the perils of Categorical Thinking, due to an administrative arrangement. 

A class is for a particular subject, the next class is for another subject & this cycle repeats through the entire academic session, year on year. This routine & rigor, poses threat to student's thinking ability to connect the dots across subjects (categories), thus restraining them into Only Categorical Thinking. Since the students thinks about subjects in terms of this rigid category, they start adapting 'All or None' approach (Black & White thinking). Eventually, the affective aspects (liking or disliking) becomes a major determinant for a student's outlook & approach, towards a particular subject(s). 

In a nutshell, students are faced with the threats of rigid/fixate thinking within a subject (category) & tend to develop bias (negative & positive) towards subjects (category). 

The preventive measures for safeguarding students from threats of Categorical Thinking is by training them 'how to think'. Over a period of conscious, systematic grooming, the students will eventually grow into independent critical thinkers. They would be able to escape the rigid boundaries of categories & will be able to connect the dots, across the big picture. 

Since I started with a specific timetable, let me elaborate on 'how to think', with another specific example. From the class time table, let us pick up one subject - English Literature. The English Reader is introduced with a has a beautifully written foreword page by Ruskin Bond.

Foreword page - English Literature Reader

At a quick glance, we notice the key words in the foreword page are different genres of literature & names of famous writers. 
If I approach the foreword page, with Categorical Thinking, I will restrict myself only in the realm of English literature. 
However, if I approach the foreword page, without thinking categorically, I would guide my son to Google search Mussorie :- A hill station, in the state of Uttarakhand.........he unknowingly would enter into the realm of Geography from English Literature.
By telling my son about Tagore, Sarojini Naidu,.......he unknowingly would descent into the realm of History, from English Literature. 
By introducing my son to Ruskin Bond's Wikipedia page :- Anglo Indian origin, British India, Movies adaptation of his books (Blue Umbrella, Junoon, 7 Khoon Maaf),........... he would unknowingly wander into the realm of History, Social Studies & Cinema from English Literature. 

Such training on 'how to think' in education can be adopted for all subjects (lessons/books), thus encouraging an integrated outlook in students, instead of remaining in silos. By making this approach a norm, a regular habit, students over a period of time will break free from Categorical Thinking in their approach towards education. This practice will increase their critical thinking, problem solving skills & creativity. In essence they will be better prepared to take on the real world, where things happens in a flux & not in category.