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March Issue

Vol 30|No 4|March 2020

Stepping out!

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

We hope to see students stepping out -- approaching their thinking with a rich palette, embracing complexity while understanding that truth is usually multi-hued. If they have nothing but primary colors with which to create ideas, the results may be simple-minded and disappointing. Simple-minded thinking is dangerous as leaders propose bad ideas and citizens prove susceptible to propaganda.

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Lateral thinking leads to a robust, complex palette.

If we expect our students to shrug off the obvious and the banal, the clichéd and iconic, while seeking the truth about a city, a person or an event from history, we must equip them with lateral thinking skills and attitudes.

If we do this well, we will see our students stepping out and approaching these tasks with fresh and original thinking, but if we fail, there are forces at work such as Google that may steer them to the unoriginal, formulaic, predictable, stock, unadventurous, unremarkable, humdrum and run-of-the-mill.

Lateral thinking was originally defined and promoted by Edward deBono - https://www.edwddebono.com/lateral-thinking

Lateral Thinking is a set of processes that provides a deliberate, systematic way of thinking creatively that results in innovative thinking in a repeatable manner.

© iStock.com

How might such lateral thinking be nurtured and enabled by new technologies?

It is now possible to explore far, wide and deeply, thanks to the rich information resources available, thereby avoiding oversimplified versions of reality and the past. Sadly, access to these resources is hindered to some extent by search engines like Google that seek to tailor your results to your preferences while speeding you to the most pertinent sources. While this sounds pleasant enough on the surface, such guidance can actually point you toward conventional wisdom or iconic views of events and people.

This challenge is thoroughly discussed in my articles, "Escaping the Filter Bubble," "Unmasking Iconic Figures," and "Escaping Google's Stranglehold."

Image courtesy of Fighting-Wolf-Fist on Deviant Art

Google traffics in the ordinary, actually oversimplifying complex realities and lifetimes. Historical figures become icons -- stick figures rather than the complex individuals they were in actuality. There is a tendency toward whitewashing that is oddly combined at times with a fascination with scandals. We end up with a tabloid version of a person's life.


The success of one's search is directly related to the diversity and far-reaching nature of the questioning done before the search begins, as the inquiry will thrive once powered by telling questions. Once generated, these questions are best pursued using Google's "Advanced Search" -- which is now hidden from view at https://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en. Ten years ago, this page was proudly displayed and offered on Google's main page, but perhaps because it interferes with ad revenue, it is not easily discovered.

Why is this important?

Whether studying a person, a city or an action proposal, understanding comes from exploring characteristics Google might not offer when using the simple version of the search engine. This is dramatically illustrated in my article, "Other worldly research," some of which is repeated below:

What’s Missing?

If students do a good job of creating subsidiary questions to match each of the categories in the diagram above, the nature of research is changed radically.

Under “Weather,” the student might ask a dozen questions such as:

1. What is the average annual rainfall?
2. How many sunny days annually?
3. How cold does it get during winter?
4. Are there frequent dangerous storms?

The advanced version of Google allows the researcher to combine terms in order to find this information. In the top box, he or she types "Hong Kong" and then adds "average annual rainfall" in the second box - "this exact word or phrase."

The same results could be found in simple Google if the researcher knows how to put quotation marks around "aeverage annual rainfall," but the advanced version makes it easy and offers a half dozen other features.

The Veracity Model

We equip students with six or more questions to help them measure the level of veracity they have attained through their research efforts.

1. Did I make a list of qualities and issues the city fathers and mothers might want to keep in the shadows?
2. Did I deconstruct messages and ads to identify classic distortion strategies?
3. Did I locate critics, unusual sources, and critical comments?
4. Did I challenge claims by checking facts?
5. Did I look for evidence to the contrary?
6. Are my findings and conclusions anchored in facts?

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