Thinking Skills for Success in the 21st Century


It has always been important for success to be aware of the cognitive thinking skills and mental frameworks one uses to understand their environment, solve problems, and to impact change.  Now in the 21st century technology has presented new challenges including primarily the quick availability of incredible amounts of information, the facility of fast communication, the increasing complexity of our systems, and the continuing rise of artificial intelligence.  These forces and changes to our environment reinforce the need for a strong cognitive tool set that is able to respond in an anti-fragile (Taleb, 2012) manner.  This paper explores specific thinking skills that will aide one in their quest for success and meaning within the parameters of our rapidly changing society.  The thinking skills have been organized by their potential impact on one’s cognition and their specificity.  We begin with the most general, but influential especially due to the convergence of eastern and western cultures that has been facilitated by increases in communication, trade, and travel “understanding systems of thought”, and then move onto the far-reaching impact on how we see, and visualize the world and all its possibilities, which is especially important given the rapid acceleration of change and the need to prepare for future events “imaginative thinking”, from there we move more inwards towards regulation of cognition with “metacognitive thinking”, and we end with the most specific and applied of the group Sternberg’s Triarchic based “analytical, creative, and practical thinking”.


Understanding Different Systems of Thought

The ability to identify, accept, embrace, understand, and work effectively with different systems of thought.  More specifically the ability to decipher between holistic and analytic cognition orientations, which can pertain to eastern based societies and western based societies respectively.  A western based analytical system of thought is focused on the “object” or objects in the foreground in a detached manner from it’s environment, while an eastern based holistic system of thought is more focused on the “field” or the relationships and context (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001).

An example of analytical thinking is the belief and the illusion of control (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001) that many westerners have over complex systems such as the financial markets.  Furthermore analytical thinking empowers and encourages westerners to think that understanding of parts of the financial markets (U.S.  technology-sector equities) equals understanding of the markets as a whole, and can lead an individual to have over-confidence in the prediction of future market trends.  Another example of analytical thinking is the inflexibility of contracts and rules.  This explains the foremost prominence of the rule of law in American society, and the infatuation with step-based self-help books.

An example of holistic thinking is the tradition of feng shui in eastern cultures where the placement of objects within their environment must take into account the relationship between all.  This occurs in Hong Kong when they are building and placing a new skyscraper they are sensitive to its relationship with the other buildings (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001).  Another example of holistic thinking is the Japanese corporate practice of rotating high-level executives to various divisions of a company in order to get as many perspectives as possible.

Many people mistakenly believe that their system of cognition and mental models are shared by all.  This occurs when an individual is interacting with another individual and groups are interacting with other groups, and they assume the other individual or group of individuals have the same system of thought.  The assumption of a “like” mind or the projection of one’s psychological systems onto another can be a natural tendency, but can lead to lower levels of communication, and misunderstanding of the values and objectives of the other person or group.

Several studies have been done to note the difference between the holistic and analytical thinking styles, and how they impact cognition.  One study by Abel and Hsu in 1949 (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001) used the well known Rorschach cards to compare Chinese Americans with European Americans and discovered that Chinese Americans were more likely to give responses that showed the study participant was viewing the card as a whole, as opposed to the European American study participants who gave responses based on sections or parts of the cards.

In another study by Masuda and Nisbett in 2001 (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001) they showed Japanese and American study participants realistic animated scenes of fish and other underwater objects, and then asked them to respond with what they had seen.  The American study participants’ first responses were that they saw a trout-like fish in the foreground, while the Japanese study participants responded first that they had seen elements of the environment such as the pond or lake.  The Japanese study participants in fact made 70% more responses about background environmental elements as opposed to the Americans who were focused on the focal fish.  The Japanese participants also made twice as many comments regarding the relationships between the environment and objects.  In another study by Chalfonte and Johnson, 1996 they found a stronger tendency for the Japanese to “bound” objects with their environments as compared to the Americans who were able to separate the two.

The fact that a person’s surrounding social environment creates cultural rules and values tends to make it very difficult to switch systems of thought.  This is especially the case if one has been raised for most of their lifetime within a certain system of thought, be it holistic or analytic.  Learning and implementing a non-native system of thought can cause social ripple effect and unintended consequences.  For example, when introducing westerners to cost-benefit rules they are able to integrate this form of logic into their preexisting analytical thinking framework, but when introducing the same concept to easterners the impact may be that they are not as accepted by their communities, and therefore they may reject the rules because they would cause destabilization of the socio-cognitive homeostasis of their environment (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001).   A large-scale example of an introduction of a western analytic system in eastern society is the gradual move towards capitalism in China, and the results of a 130-year-old transition in Japan.  While the impact in China is newer and while there does seem to be some westernization, resistance to change of the current system of thought is strong.  This is most evident in Japan where research indicates that although capitalism and it’s highly individualistic focus was introduced many years ago the country has absorbed the system, an integrated it with their previous social practices and holistic cognitive processes (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001).  One would have thought that the entire culture would have been transformed into a western one.

Researchers believe that getting a person to switch their system of thought or to implement elements from another culture is best enabled through immersion in the other culture (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan, 2001).  Normal pedagogical methods of teaching may inform one culture about the other’s system of thought but is lacking in creating deep-level cognitive change.  Studies show that when an Asian family moves to the Unites States within one generation their systems of thought begin to change.  This indicates that the best way for westerners to learn about holistic thinking would be spending time actually visiting or even better living in eastern cultures, and likewise for an easterner to better understand another system of thought and to potential use it themselves they would have to spend time within a western culture such as Australia or the United States.


Imaginary Thinking

Imaginary thinking skills are the ability to create worlds within our minds that may reflect or mirror reality accurately or inaccurately, in addition to going beyond reality to create fictional worlds, nonsensical environments, potential realities, and alternate histories, and future scenarios.  Within the mind’s stage any show is possible whether it be based on the information and knowledge already within one’s mind or in response to present stimuli.

These are two examples of imaginary thinking inspired by the psychologist John B Black (2007):

1) The ability to imagine potential future events such as natural disasters (hurricane Irene, Sandy, future wars (Iraq and Afghanistan wars), and traumatic events (Newtown shootings), even though before their occurrence the events were fictional eventualities, imaginary foresight in these events would have be an invaluable resource

2) When researchers and scholars especially theorists use imaginary thinking to develop mental movies or 3D arenas in their minds in order to be able to test out ideas and theories through “thought experiments” in their very own brain. This is especially prevalent now that most cutting edge scientific frameworks lie in an extremely complex and abstract world, far removed from what we actually “see” in the physical world.  Physicists are renown for using their imagination skills in order to visualize and work through problems in the vast space of the mind.  A classic example of this is Einstein’s famous beam of light thought experiment.

Black (2007) believes that the failure of contemporary politicians and public officials to use imaginary thinking has lead to poor preparation and prevention of dangerous realities.  Many leaders even go as far a literally saying, “no one could have imagined that this would happen.”  Leaders today seem to be suffering from what might be called a failure of the imagination. We seem to be continually finding ourselves in situations where the leaders say something like “no one could have imagined that this would happen.”  For years many scientists have warned about the threat of flooding in downtown New York due to rising water levels caused by global warming.  (There was even an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art displaying architects, designers, and engineers’ visions for flood prevention in down town New York.)  Many could not actually imagine that these events could take place, but some could.  We need to encourage students and especially powerful decision makers to open their minds to potential futures that have no precedent or may not align with their vision of reality.

There are two studies that have given more insight into imaginative thinking.  The first is focused on spatial-layout effects in memory and comprehension of noncomplex compound sentences and sentence pairs using contextual phrases to describe spatial movement (Black, 2007).  This study found that the length of time it took a college undergraduate study participant to read a shift in point of view was longer than a consistent point of view with only a word change.  An example used was “John was working in the front yard, then he came inside” took longer than John was working in the front yard then he went inside”.  Also interesting was that the study participants when later questioned incorrectly remembered reading a consistent point of view, when they in fact had read a shift in point of view.  This implies that the reader visualizes and creates a representation of the scene or event in their mind that is dependant on the text, but the story is subject to later rewriting in the mind, when recalled.  Another study by Bower and Morrow (Black, 2007) gave further evidence to the inclination that people have to create imagined worlds in order to understand a scene, movement, or space.  In this study they asked participants to memorize a building floor plan, and found that afterwards the participants would create an imagined building in their minds and that enabled them to place and follow a fictional character through the created space.

According to Black (2007) imaginative thinking is not restricted to the constructs of a narrative format. He believes that imaginative thinking is a cognitive skill that helps people better explore, remember and learn information, especially spatial information even when it is not coming from a story or linear input.  Furthermore researchers believe text input may not be the best way to learn facts and spatial information in comparison with virtual reality and similar 3D displays that allow one to virtually move through an imagined space.  The thinking is that these virtual worlds would allow a learner to better organize the new information for later retrieval, because it allows less room for misinterpretation as compared to text.  In one study (Black, 2007) the researchers compared a range of inputs including text, text and picture, and text/picture/virtual-tour, and found that study participants (college students) were able to construct a similarly accurate imaginative representation of the space from all inputs, as long as text and a floor plan were included.  The researchers continued on with another experiment (Black, 2007), this time though they added text explaining the spatial logic of the space.  This addition to all conditions best helped the virtual reality group who where now able to attach meaning to the imaginative world, which allowed them to more accurately construct and remember the space due to a firmer grasp of its underling logic and relationships between special elements.  So while the mind does not restrict imaginative thinking to the realm of story-worlds it does have a preference for meaning and understanding within mental imagery especially as related to learning spatial information.

In order for students to best learn and benefit from imaginative thinking, they must be encouraged to actively use the thinking skill as a learning tool.  Especially in learning imaginative thinking can be extremely powerful in helping students understand the relationships between entities (Black, 2007).  Imaginative thinking that directs and allows students to manipulate, play, and influence the objects within their mental worlds best assists their learning.  This is especially true when students are trying to learn about conceptual and abstract relationships.

In one study researchers (Black, 2007) tried to teach students physics concepts such as conservation of energy using a graphic interface known as “direct-manipulation-animation” that allowed students the ability to change variables to see how they effect the animation.  They found that when compared to students who were shown just the animation of the concept in action, or static pictures and text, direct-manipulation- animation allows the students to better understand and remember the concept.


Metacognitive Thinking

Metacognition refers to higher order thinking that includes conscious awareness and control over the thinking process.  It is thinking about thinking or thinking about learning.  It is can be viewed figuratively as the control tower, or executive suite of cognition.  Flavell (1979) posits that metacognition can be broken down into four different groups, metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive experiences, goals, and actions.  He though places the most focus on the first two.  First, metacognitive knowledge is the memory bank of knowledge about how you and other people learn and process information.  It is basically your understanding of yours’ and other people’s cognition and its relationship with your own.  Second, metacognitive experiences are the thoughts you are aware of while you are engaged in any thinking activity especially relative to monitoring the cognition taking place.  Metacognitive experience refers more to the active regulation of your thinking experience in real time.

Two examples of metacognitive thinking are:

1) An example of metacognitive knowledge (Flavell, 1979) is when a student has come to the conclusion that he or she has cognitive strengths and weakness that are different from a peer.  This could mean that one of them is great with numbers while the other is better with letters.

2) Flavell (1979) states that an example of metacognitive experience could include the immediate sensation that you are not comprehending the statement that a coworker just made.

Metacognition plays a role in most parts of conscious cognition, and can help us increase our awareness and control over many functions of the mind leading to more effective management over our cognitive abilities and skills.  In many ways metacognition is the master thinking skill, because it can impact all of them.  Researchers have discovered (Flavell, 1979) that metacognition is active and can impact verbal communication of information, verbal persuasion, verbal comprehension, reading comprehension, writing, language acquisition, attention, memory, problem solving, social cognition, in addition to impacting many aspects of self-control and self-instruction.

Psychologists have conducted studies in reference to metacognition to try to gain a better grasp on how it functions, and the impact it has on the other areas of cognition.  In one study (Flavell, 1979) young children of preschool and elementary school age were asked to study some material until they concluded that they could remember and recall it without mistakes.  What ended up happening was that the elementary aged students studied for a normal period of time, concluded that they were ready to recall the material perfectly and most of them showed perfect recall.  The preschool children though tended to study for about the same time as the elementary aged children, and also indicated that they had memorized the information, but ended up being incorrect and not ready for the recall.

This study indicates that differences in metacognition exist and can be measured.   Additionally it highlights the fact that lower performing metacognition can have a real negative impact on the learning performance of students, and it can distort their perception of what they really know.

Another research study (Flavell, 1979) conducted to investigate metacognitive also involved elementary school children of various ages, but this time the children were asked to assist the researcher in rating the quality of oral instructions that were given, and to note when omissions, mistakes, and abnormalities occurred.   Despite the fact that the instructions as verbally delivered by the researcher were filled with mistakes, missing words, and many times just unclear, the younger children were less skilled than the older children in detecting them.  The younger children had amazingly thought that they had understood the instructions, and could follow them even though they were incomplete and incomprehensible.  The study reaffirms the previous studies finding that metacognition seems to vary with age, and that the consequences of poor metacognitive thinking can be dramatic and potentially dangerous.

Researchers believe it is possible to increase both the quantity and quality of metacognitive thinking.  They propose this is possible through mental training, and they recommend such training to be integrated into educational curriculums so that students, especially adolescents, can benefit from increased cognitive monitoring that could positively impact academic and learning outcomes, in addition to preparing students to better handle difficult social and emotional situations and decisions.  The goal is to increase general and specific thoughtfulness, leading to wiser problem solving, and decision-making abilities, and therefore more positive and accurate outcomes.  Some ways to improve metacognition are to encourage students to reflect, keep a journal to write down strategies and methods to keep track of what they did when they were successful, or made good decisions, and implement self-test to check the accuracy of their metacognition.

The ability to increase students’ metacognitive thinking skills through training has been tested in a study by Brown, Campione, and Barclay (Flavell, 1979) in which children of the mental age of 8 were educated and coached in self-testing methods to help them check to see how prepared they were to perfectly recall a list of random words.  After one year had passed the study participants were given the same task and ended up remembering without any prompts the self –testing strategies, and were even able to adapt the metacognitive cognitive checking skills to recalling other longer more complex verbal items such as prose passages.


Analytical Thinking

Analytical thinking is used when one has to evaluate, make a judgment, compare and contrast, or analyze information that is fairly familiar, but in an abstract and less familiar manner (Sternberg, 1999).   Much of analytical thinking revolves around defining and finding the right problem, and then breaking that problem down into understandable pieces that can be categorized and organized in order to find the best solution.  Analytical thinking allows one to clarify the current situation at hand.  Many view this kind of thinking as logical or abstract thinking, which can include many verbal and mathematical skills.  Analytical thinking is highly rewarded in the traditional schooling system, and is the thinking skill that is measured on most conventional forms of intelligence testing.

These are three examples of students being asked to use analytical thinking in school:

1) Asking students to analyze the motives of a main character from a novel.

2) Requiring that students note the differences between two famous painters’ masterpieces.

3) Taking students to go see a theatrical performance and then asking them to write a review rating the show.

Analytical thinking skills are important first and foremost because they allow one to make sense of the world.  The senses are our portal to reality, but many times they provide raw data and information that must be scrutinized for truth, proper classification, and relationship with preexisting knowledge.  This requires the filter of analytical thinking.  It is the magnifying glass, the labeler, and the measuring tape of the mind.  Before one can create and shape their world, they must first know the true form of their world so that they can most effectively respond to it.

Studies conducted by Sternberg (1999) indicate that analytical thinking develops in a nuanced fashion with age.  His research has shown that while young children may generally increase their information processing speed as they get older, specific areas such as encoding develop differently in that it first shows a decrease in processing time as they age, but then it increases.   Sternberg relays that as the children age and develop they begin to realize that the most effective strategy for success in solving a problem involves allocating more time to encoding the parameters of a problem so that in the future they can shorten the amount of time they have to spend reasoning out the encodings.  Furthermore Sternberg states (1999) that the students who exhibit the best reasoning skills give more time to “global, upfront metacompenential planning,” especially when trying to decipher the hardest of problems.  The lower performing children though, tended to spend more time in “detail planning” as they moved through a problem and worked it out.  It seems as though the higher performing reasoning children discovered that up front analytical thinking saves time and effort in the middle and latter stages of problem solving.

In another study conducted by Sternberg and Kalmar (1997) they tried to study analytical thinking abilities as applied to a more natural and realistic environment.  This study asked participants to make predictions and postdictions about common and conventional events and occurrences such as when milk will spoil.  The researchers found that asking participants to make hypotheses about events in the past where information was unknown was more difficult than making predictions about future events.

Students can be taught to use and develop analytical thinking skills by encouraging them and teaching them in a manner that reinforces the ability to analyze, critique, assess, evaluate, and compare and contrast.  Students should question their environment, and the elements within it.  They should feel free to critique, rate, and scrutinize the world.  They should also hold onto a healthy dose of skepticism, and a continuing curiosity to know.  While those attitudes help one be open to an analytical thinking approach to life, an example of the ability to teach a specific component of analytical thinking is the 1987 study by Sternberg that tested for the effectiveness of teaching participants how to improve their ability to decontextualize the meaning of unknown words when they are presented in context.  In this study participants who were instructed in theory-based formal instructional methods scored better than participants who were not given any formal instruction.


Creative Thinking

Creativity as a specific thinking skill is best defined as the ability to generate new ideas.  Many people have defined creativity, some more broadly than others, but most seem to agree that this thinking skill should involve the ability to first “see” things or problems in a novel way, and then the ability to “create” something that can influence or change the environment from which it came.  Sternberg (1999) defines creativity within his larger framework of successful intelligence, which includes analytical, creative, and practical intelligence.  He views creativity as a necessary processing skill that enables one to devise potentially high quality problems and ideas.  Sternberg (1999) also argues that creativity can be viewed beyond a mere processing or thinking skill, but can impact an individual’s general knowledge, thinking style, personality, motivation, and the environment in which the individual chooses to operate within.

These are three examples of students using creative thinking skills:

1) A student is given a short story to read, and is then asked to create an alternative ending to the one they just read.

2) Have students research the history of a thing such as a chair and then have them create new chairs that differ from previous versions.

3) Have students listen to various musical genres, and then ask them to create a new genre from a combination of the ones they just heard.

The ability to think creatively is necessary as the engine of growth on an individual and societal level.  It allows one to create, invent, discover, and imagine things that one did not previously conceive of.   Sternberg (1999) states creative thinking is the bridge between analytical thinking and practical thinking, with each part being important for success.  Sternberg further explains that (1997) creative thinking’s value can be related to the financial markets in that undervalued stocks and ideas are rejected, unseen, or unappreciated by the public, and therefore the power of creative thinking lies in the ability to buy low (generate unpopular idea) and sell high (convince others of the idea’s worth).  The ability to choose which ideas are worth selling and the ability to convince others of their worth requires the use of analytical and practical thinking skills, which means in order to fully maximize the potential of creative thinking, one must use it in concert with other thinking skills.

Sternberg has tried to isolate creative thinking in some of his studies to measure the ability of test subjects to deal with novel ideas.  In one study he and fellow researcher Tetewsky (1986) showed 80 people new convergent reasoning problems that only had one best answer.  They used out of the ordinary questions and problems that required the study participants to understand new frameworks and vocabulary such as some objects could be green and others could be blue, other objects though could be “grue.” In other words green until the year 2000 and blue in the years after that, or an additional word was “bleen,” which meant blue until the year 2000 and green in the years after that.  The study participants were also informed of four kinds of humanoids occupying this fictional world of Kyron including the “blen” people, who are born young and die young, the “kwefs”, who are born old and die old, the “bait” people, who are born young and die old, and finally the “presses”, who are born old and die young.  Sternberg and Tetewsky than asked the study participants to predict future states from past states, even though they were given incomplete information by which to make a guess. Sternberg also conducted similar studies with Gastel (1989) where 60 participants were given more traditional and common reasoning problems, including analogies, series completions, and classifications, and were instructed to solve them, but the catch was that some problems had conventional premises preceding them (the dancers wear shoes) and others had more nonsensical premises preceding them (the dancers eat shoes), but the participants had to solve all problems as if the preceding information was true.  The researchers discovered in both studies that when novel test items were isolated tests highly correlated with other test of fluid abilities.  They also found that when the response times of the novel problems were analyzed there were some sections that best measured creative thinking skills especially the ability to deal with novel ideas.  These components tended to be ones where the participant was asked to switch from conventional thinking (green-blue) to creative or imaginary thinking (grue-bleen) and then back to conventional thinking (green-blue) again.

In another study this time focusing on divergent reasoning problems that did not have one best answer,Sternberg and Lubart (1996) asked 63 participants to create various kinds of creative outputs (two products in each domain of writing, art, advertising, and science) that had an infinite amount of possible responses.  The study participants were prompted to create in each artistic domain by a title theme (for example “Beyond the Edge” for writing and “The Beginning of Time” for art), a sample product (brand of bow tie or a brand of doorknob for advertising), or an imaginary scenario (How people might detect extraterrestrial aliens among us who are seeking to escape detection? for science).  Sternberg states (1999) the important result from the study was that creative thinking can be very domain specific.  A participant can score high on creative thinking in writing but not as well in science or advertising.  Correlations of ratings of the creative quality were at the .4 level.  In addition Sternberg relays that these creative thinking tests have the most overlap with novel fluid conventional intelligence test, but that these studies reveal that conventional intelligence testing fails to identify and measure many creative thinking skills that his creative tests induced from the study participants.

Creative thinking skills can be taught.  According to Sternberg (1999) the most important way to develop creative thinking skills is to seek out role models, and plan to become a creative role model yourself.  This is the best way to communicate the importance of creative thinking skills in addition to how best to use them to students.  Next it is important to question assumptions and to encourage others to do the same.  Finally in order to use creative thinking one must be ok with making mistakes.  Creative thinking requires numerous and frequent failures, but the short-term risk, leads to long-term gain.

In order to test the ability to teach creative thinking skills Sternberg and Davidson (1984) separated 86 gifted and non-gifted elementary school students into experimental and control groups. Every student was given a pretest on insightful thinking.  After that some of the students were given their normal school instruction while others were taught insight skills using knowledge-acquisition components.   Finally regardless of which instruction they received all students were given a posttest on the insight skills.  Sternberg and Davidson report that the students who were given the insight skill instruction achieved better gains from the pretest to the posttest.


Practical Thinking

Practical abilities tie all other thinking skills together by allowing individuals to apply what they have learned, reasoned, imagined, or created in the appropriate and best setting for themselves.  Sternberg (1999) states that practical thinking is the most applicable to the challenges found in common day-to-day life.  It is the most applied of his triarchic theory of successful intelligence, and can also be viewed as the most action oriented of the three because it is where theory and the abstract are translated or applied to reality.  The result according to Sternberg (1999) is that practical thinking requires the application of analytic thinking and creative thinking to ones environment to either adapt to it, shape it, or select another.  The goal is to adapt, shape, and select one’s self and their surroundings to the environment that best responds to one’s needs, abilities, and desires.  It is possible for some people to be better at adapting; others better at shaping, while others may be very good at selecting.  Sternberg states that much of practical thinking lies within the realm of tacit knowledge.  In other words practical thinking is the unspoken rules of success of everyday situations.

These are four examples of students using practical thinking skills:

1) In math class the teacher can explain and show students how to figure out interest rates for a unit of deposit.  Then the students can be asked to work out the interest for three or four years, or potentially until they are 18 years old and can access the funds.

2) Students can be given building materials and asked to construct a shelter in an outside setting, and then the students can test the shelter by actually using it on a camping trip.

3) High school students are asked to search for careers that align with their talents and skills, motivation and drive, and lifestyle needs.

4) A high school student is asked to attain a leadership position in an extracurricular activity, sports team or club.

Practical thinking is crucial to life success because it is rooted in understanding the relationship between ourselves and our environment.  Practical thinking is based on interacting with our environment, and therefore it is the most essential skill for survival.  Some call it “street smarts” or “common sense.” Most successful people have high practical intelligence gained through learned experience that is used as their edge or advantage.  It is their tendency to learn from mistakes and previous situations that gives them such a highly refined and well-tuned practical thinking ability.

Sternberg (1999) measures and studies practical knowledge in the specific form of tacit knowledge, which means what one needs to know, that is often not verbalized in any concrete manner, in order to have success within an environment (usually it is a work-related environment).  Sternberg has studied tacit knowledge through the Center for Creative Leadership.  In one study (1999) he found that scores on his tests of tacit knowledge in the area of management were the most accurate predicator on a future managerial simulation as compared to scores on conventional intelligence and personality tests.

In another study this time with military leadership (Hedlund et al., 1998), Sternberg discovered that the scores of the 562 study participants on exams measuring tacit knowledge specific to the domain of military leadership ended up being very accurate in predicting the eventual results of the more holistic leadership effectiveness rating.  This indicates that tacit knowledge is best measured when staying within the same work-realm or environment.

In another research study looking to gain insight about the ability to measure practical thinking skills, this time through the sphere of social intelligence, 40 study participants (Barnes & Steinberg, 1989; Sternberg & Smith, 1985) were questioned on their opinions about photographs that they were shown.  In the first set of photos the participants had to decide if a couple in the photo was really a couple or just pretending to be.  In the second set of photos the study participants had to decide which of the two people was the other’s boss.  This study also revealed the domain specificity of practical thinking skills because first scores did not correlate with scores on conventional intelligence tests and second because scores did not correlate with each other.  It is also interesting to note that women performed superior to men on both of these tasks.

In order to develop practical thinking skills for students Sternberg has created a curriculum entitled “Practical Intelligence for Success in School”.  In order to be effective as was noted in the previous studies practical thinking skills must be very domain specific.  For this reason Sternberg has designed a program that teaches students all the unspoken skills that are necessary to become a successful student.  Some of the areas covered include taking notes, getting organized, finding the main idea, taking tests, and accepting responsibility (1990).  Through this program Sternberg brings to light all the “tricks of the trade” so that students can become better informed and aware of the actual tools and thinking skills that enable them to find concrete successes in the school building.  The program was evaluated by Sternberg and other researchers (Gardner, Krechevsky, Sternberg, & Okagaki, 1994; Sternberg, Okagaki, & Jackson, 1990) who found that students who participated in the practical school thinking skills instruction outperformed students who did not receive the instruction.

From a more general perspective students can be taught to increase their practical thinking skills by recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and to be honest with themselves, so that they can then strengthen the areas that are weak, and monopolize on their natural gifts.  Finally it is important according to Sternberg (1999) to persist in order to persevere.  That is probably the most important aspect of practical thinking.


Works Cited

Black, J.B. (2007)  Imaginary Worlds.  In. M.A. Gluck, J.R. Anderson and S.M. Kosslyn (Eds.) Memory and mind.  Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Flavell, J.H. (1979) Metacognition and cognitivemonitoring.  American Psychologist34, 906-911.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic vs. analytic cognition. Psychological Review, Vol. 108, 291-310

Sternberg, R.J. (1999) The theory of successful intelligence. Review of General Psychology, 3, 292,316.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.