Engaging the reflective mind

The image of a good problem solver is one of an intelligent person. But years of teaching Physics to intelligent young people has convinced me that intelligence isn’t the only criterion for a successful problem solver. Common sense is perhaps more critical than many have recognized. Without it, an intelligent individual may have a lot of knowledge  and the capacity to make complex connections, but may simply lack the practical wisdom to apply it appropriately. Unfortunately, recognition of the fact that common sense is critical to effective problem solving is where most people stop. Possibly this resistance to dig deeper is due to an underlying belief that if you don’t have a whole lot of common sense to begin with, you are never going to get more.

Daniel Willingham, in a recent article, raises the question of whether common sense can indeed be taught. Willingham debates this question from a psychological perspective and eloquently references psychologist Keith Stanovich who, in his new book What Intelligence Tests Miss, offers a way to understand the difference between intelligence and common sense.   Stanovich sticks to a more traditional definition of intelligence that focuses on the ability to solve problems and make effective decisions. Stanovich suggests that there are three components to the cognitive system that handles these functions: the autonomous mind (which engages in quick thinking based on simple associations and past experiences), the algorithmic mind (which processes information by making comparisons and combining concepts), and the reflective mind (which interprets goals and beliefs and determines appropriate actions to achieve those goals). What most people don’t realize is that typical intelligence tests measure the efficiency of the algorithmic mind, but fail to consider the moderating effect of the reflective mind.

To problem solve effectively, you don’t only need to decide which facts should be combined to generate a solution. You have to test and adapt that selection (made by the algorithmic mind) to the situation at hand. In other words, the solution needs to fit into the environment of the problem, or the solution will never be practical. And this is the job of the reflective mind. According to Willingham, “You need to see your environment for what it is, you need to set realistic goals, and you need to select actions that move you towards those goals.” Intelligent people (categorized this way by typical intelligence tests) don’t always successful engage their reflective minds (the source of common sense) to determine the appropriateness of their solution. The result? Intelligent people are not always naturally good problem solvers. But could they become good problem solvers? To the critical question, “can common sense be taught?” Willingham’s response is “To some extent, yes. With sufficient practice, people can come to recognize the types of errors the reflective mind makes, and learn to avoid them.”