The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

“You can understand anything better than you currently do. Setting a higher standard for yourself for what you mean by understanding can revolutionize how you perceive the world”

- The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, page 15

The origin of all our actions is based on our thinking. So it goes without saying that to improve our lives, whether in relationships, careers, or as students, better thinking will bring better results. Thinking is the root for all successful actions.

Burger and Starbird are award-winning professors who have written numerous books as well as develop consulting practices to teach their advice provided in the book. In 2006, Burger was selected as America’s Best Math Teacher by Reader’s Digest. Starbird conducts workshops nationwide on effective thinking. Their latest book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, provides specific action steps anyone can do to improve their thinking. Effective thinking begins with deep understanding.

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Understand Deeply

"Being honest and accurate about what you actually know and don’t know forces you to identify and fill gaps in your understanding."
- The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, page 35

Mastering the basics of a topic is the key to understanding something deeply. Do you know the basics of the subject you’re trying to master? Can you write a detailed description of the foundations of a topic from the top of your head? The authors posit that many professionals who have reached the top of their field are true masters of the fundamentals in their particular area of specialty. As Burger and Starbird proclaim “Rock solid understanding is the foundation for success.”

Burger and Starbird believe that you can improve the basics by listing the specific components of the skill or subject you’re trying to learn and spending some time improving your mastery of one of the items. Identifying gaps in your knowledge can also increase your awareness and improve understanding. Being honest about what you don’t know can lead you to act on closing the knowledge gap.

A useful strategy recommended by Burger and Starbird is to understand a small piece of a problem or issue. Understanding the sub-issue deeply can help solve the bigger problem. When faced with a problem, focus on something you know and can solve.

The authors also believe that knowing the sources of your opinions on a topic are instrumental to enhancing your comprehension. Ask yourself, “How do I know?” What evidence is your opinion based on?  Don’t take things for granted. Look deep inside and find the source of your opinion or belief and question its authenticity and validity.

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

To Improve Your Odds of Success, Fail

"Understanding what doesn’t work and why is valuable knowledge."
- The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, page 62

Although it sounds counterintuitive, research and history suggests that failure is a valuable stepping stone to success. The authors provide many examples of successful individuals who’ve failed many times before achieving success. Asking ourselves, “Why something is wrong” can pinpoint gaps in the solution. It is not the errors themselves that prove beneficial but the process of correcting mistakes  that improve the odds of finding a solution.

When writing out a solution, the authors encourage us to focus on two factors; what’s right and what’s wrong. They provide an example of a math student in one of their classes and how they guide her from her wrong answers to the correct ones. They describe the process as making an attempt at a solution, finding the flaw, fixing it and starting the process over again. As the authors note, “Mistakes present a great opportunity to learn and improve, but action is required. “Once you’ve learned from your mistakes, it’s time to start asking better questions.

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Question Everything

"The right questions clarify your understanding and focus your attention on features that matter."
- The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, page 88

Asking good questions can lead to deeper understanding by exposing gaps in our knowledge and can focus our attention on the right issues. The authors believe that questions help you “explore the limits of your understanding” and help to clarify what needs to be done, which increases effective action.

One way to use questioning as an aid to understanding is to teach the topic (the authors refer to it as “teach to learn”). You don’t have to physically teach the material but prepare for it as if you were teaching it. Teaching a subject makes you focus on what the key concepts are and highlights the knowledge gaps and what you need to work on. It also compels you to come up with questions and examples.

They also suggest that we look for ways to improve the question. Asking the right questions helps you focus on the correct issues, which can help reveal hidden assumptions and expose weaknesses. They provide an example of a student trying to improve their grades and the importance of asking the relative question. Rather than asking “How to get better grades,” the correct question should be “How can I learn to think better and understand more deeply?”

Asking questions before an assignment or project can also enhance understanding. This is helpful because it focuses your attention on the core issues. Keep asking yourself “What is the goal of this task” or “What is the benefit?”

Following the advice in this valuable book will improve your thinking. The skill sets and exercises highlighted by the authors form the foundation to master anything anyone wants to learn and should be taught to all students in school.

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John Petrone

ABOUT John Petrone

I was born and raised in Montreal, Canada and moved to Chicagoland at twenty-six. As an auditor, I travelled the world and lived in Europe for six months, applying my Italian and French speaking proficiencies...
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