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Home » Jesse Richardson: How To Think, Not What To Think at TEDxBrisbane (Transcript)

Jesse Richardson: How To Think, Not What To Think at TEDxBrisbane (Transcript)

Jesse Richardson

Here is the full transcript of entrepreneur and author Jesse Richardson’s TEDx Talk presentation: How To Think, Not What To Think at TEDxBrisbane conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: How to think, not what to think by Jesse Richardson at TEDxBrisbane


We can probably all agree that education is important, right? That’s pretty universal.

But I want you to think back to your time in school, and see if we can remember something. See, if you can remember a time when you were actually taught how to think. But the lesson you were being given was specifically teaching little you as a kid with big wide eyes in a sponge-like brain: how to go about the business of thinking.

Now, if your experience was anything like mine, you’d probably struggle to think of a single instance that occurred. And when you think about it, that’s completely insane; isn’t it? And at least, what, 10 years that we all spent in school, we get taught all sorts of knowledge, like and this plus this equals that, such-and-such happened in 19-dickety-two, which is great. But the actual teaching of how to think, not so much, right?

So the idea I’d like to share today is that we need to teach kids how to think, not what to think. Now, if you’re unfortunate enough to be talking to a conspiracy theorist, they might tell you that the reason we’re not taught how to think, is that the powers that be — don’t want a sheeple waking up to their lizard people, GMO, chemtrail vaccine propaganda, or something. But I suspect the real reason is quite substantially more boring and plausible. As Sir Ken Robinson identified in his wonderful TED talk on How Schools Kill Creativity, it’s just kind of how the school system responded to industrialization. And now it’s a big entrenched bureaucracy and bloody hard to change, right?

And remember we set this whole education system thing up around the same time that we thought hitting kids with sticks was a good idea. And if they had a cough, we gave them heroin-based cough syrup, like with actual heroin in it, which admittedly was pretty effective at calming them down. But the point is that we weren’t exactly sophisticated in our understanding, you know.

But now as we all know, our world and our economy are changing rapidly and how we approach education needs to adapt. So what’s different about teaching children how to think is that we’re involving them in the process of their own learning. Instead of just telling to memorize the right answer, we’re asking them to engage their own minds, their own awareness by questioning things, attaining understanding, not just knowledge. And that involvement, that engagement is so important, because it keeps the spark of curiosity alive, it often dies around the same time that kids start resenting the kind of only one right answer didactic nature, or so much schoolwork, it’s usually on grade 3 or 4.

And when you’re like that curiosity, you no longer have to push knowledge onto kids, because they actually want to understand. There’s no need for carrots and sticks to force learning because they become self-powered nerdy little curiosity machines. And they — and as a result of that, they are able to think entirely of their own merits.

But what are we actually talking about here like when we say learning how to think? Well, I think part of it is creativity. But creativity isn’t just some self-indulgent feely thing; it largely defines us as a species. I mean, when you think about it, almost every great innovation, political theory or scientific breakthrough has sprung from creative thinking, right? So from Plato to Einstein, from agriculture to iPads, because creative thinking is in essence nothing more than making new connections.

But to be clear, what I’m talking about here isn’t creative expression. Art is great, but what I’m advocating is less like art and more like design. And the difference between art and design is that art is an expression, whereas design solves a problem. So the point of teaching kids how to think creatively is to teach them how to be adaptive, how to innovate in order to solve problems, not sitting in a loft with red wine ciggies and a black skivvy suffering the burden of no one understanding their artistic genius, but sitting in a planning meeting or a startup incubator or anywhere else in the real world that contributes to our real world economy.

So our schools need to teach creative thinking. But I think that’s only half of it, because if you – I think that’s only half of it, because teaching creative thinking is great. But if you’re just open to new connections, then that’s a little bit of a recipe for disaster as well, because you need to keep your thinking to account.

Never trust a brain, especially your own, because we are, every single one of us, prone to cognitive biases, to prejudices and to the blinding effects of privilege and in-group psychology. We’d like to think of ourselves as, you know, really quite objective and clever but the unfortunate truth is that we are all, to some extent, flawed, ignorant, and deluded, which sounds no good but happily we can do something about it by learning critical thinking skills.

What critical thinking teaches us is how to question things rigorously, how to form sound, well-reasoned, coherent thoughts and arguments and critically how to identify bullshit. But perhaps the most important thing it teaches us is that it’s good to be wrong, that the ideas we hold aren’t us, and that we don’t need to defend them to the death. And in fact, that we can change those ideas in that it is absolutely liberating to do so. It’s something really fundamental to how we approach the world to have the vulnerability and the humility to be receptive to the idea that I might be wrong. It’s profoundly transformative.

And when we’re trained as critical thinkers, something significant shifts, because we become aware of our own thinking: why do I think this? How have I come to this conclusion? We become quite literally self-aware.

This is my thesis that creative and critical thinking are two sides of the same coin, two parts of an equation that add up to how to think. And what’s really interesting is that something happens when a mind is trying to think both creatively and critically, because that equation adds up to more than just the sum of its parts. There is a seed of genius, there is a fertility of understanding that allows one to grow to such great heights when it’s able to think creatively and dynamic interplay with thinking critically.

When those two aspects of our ability work together, amazing things happen. da Vinci moments born from the cognitive alchemy of a mind that is free to plan, explore, yet also disciplined to apply reason and rationality. And such a mind is also a fortress of understanding, it’s largely impervious to the lies and the nefarious manipulations of politicians, media and the advertising industry, which presents me with something of a segue.

So for the past 15 years or so, I’ve been manipulating people into buying things that they probably don’t need, working as an advertising creative in the ad industry. And in that time I’ve learned a fair bit about both creativity and bullshit. But perhaps the most important thing I learned is that if you want an ad to be effective, you need to create genuine engagement. And you need to do so using the power of simplicity. If you can get that right, then your ad doesn’t feel like an ad anymore, instead it feels like something that someone might actually not hate and possibly even want to read, watch or interact with.

So, but what if we applied that same truth to education instead of advertising? Now we all know that making learning fun and engaging is a good idea, like seems sort of obvious but to be blunt, there really isn’t much evidence of it in practice. And I think the reason for that is that the people who design school syllabuses usually aren’t talented entertainers, nor trained designers, directors or other creative professionals. And the unfortunate truth is that using Comic Sans and putting an illustration of a Zany scientist up in the corner of the page doesn’t actually make learning all that much fun, right?

A great example of how to do it right is horrible histories. As the name suggests, it takes all the most awful aspects of history and puts it into a narrative form. And of course, kids absolutely love it, because it’s disgusting and fascinating.

Another wonderful example of how education should be engaging happened when a scientist also happened to be a poet, because Carl Sagan didn’t just teach us about the cosmos, he helped us to progress as a society. He changed how people think.

Now education is the most important cornerstone of civilization; isn’t it? Shouldn’t we be making it as engaging and effective as possible? Shouldn’t we be applying the same rigor, the same innovation that we do to marketing, to education?

So a couple of years ago, I was teaching my own boys about logical fallacies, which is an area of critical thinking. And it occurred to me that maybe I could use my advertising powers for good, instead of evil. Now fallacies are essentially like flaws in reasoning. And I wanted my boys to be aware of some of the more common ones, like the appeal to nature fallacy but all the explanations I’d rent online were these just impenetrably dense academic walls of texts, you know. And so I did what I do at work when I’m given a 12-page communication strategy that I somehow have to fit onto a billboard, that someone can read as they drive past in the car. I simplified, I tried to come up with some clear explanations and examples and we could talk about in the current way to school, which was actually a really fun exercise, and I ended up putting together a poster with 24 of the most common logical fallacies, each with a single simple sentence that clearly explained the concept, right?

And then it occurred to me that perhaps the same idea could work well online, I could share it with other parents, teachers, and the world at large. And so with the help of some programmer friends we came up with a Creative Commons website at The idea was that if you saw someone committing a fallacy online somewhere, you just link them to it. So if someone was misrepresenting an argument, you just link them to yourlogical, right?

So probably the best way to explain is to show you an example from the site. So this one is false cause in which we presume that a relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other. So for example, pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the number of pirates have been decreasing. Thus pirates cooled the world and global warming is a hoax. So you get the idea.

We also made the PDF available as a poster — the poster available as a PDF that anyone could download and print out for free. So we launched in 2012 and blew up. It was tweeted by the likes of the lovely Mr. Stephen Fry, PZ Myers, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, our own Dr. Karl amongst thousands of others. It was featured on sites like Boing Boing and Upworthy melted our servers, front paged on reddit, attracted over 3.5 million unique visitors and is currently the top logical fallacy site online. It’s getting around 10,000 unique visits a day and most awesomely the poster is currently being featured in many thousands of classrooms and other kids bedrooms all around the world. So – thanks –

So that went quite well. It would seem — it was surprising, it would seem that making educational resources simple, fun and free is a good idea, right?

So what now? Well, what if we did the same kind of thing but on a much bigger scale? And what if we created a platform that allowed teachers to teach creative – to teach critical thinking that allowed any student to be able to learn about philosophy and creative thinking? What if we created a platform where anyone could get – sorry, where anyone would have access to resources on thinking?

So just recently we launched the School of Thought International at The purpose of the School of Thought is to help us question all schools of thought. What it is is a not-for-profit online school where anyone can learn creative and critical thinking skills for free. The content courses, tools, apps, games and resources that we create will be available for everyone to use under a Creative Commons license, from primary school teachers through the university philosophy departments and any student of any age anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

And what if instead of flat images and walls of texts, we took the liberty that an online school can take and created a fully immersive 3D campus designed to be a living vision of an enlightened learning utopia, writ large in the virtual space. And what if we could actually help change our school system? I mean why are we teaching kids what’s on the periodic table of the elements but we’re not really teaching them why science is important, about philosophy of science, how to read journalism with a critical mind, about how taking evidence-based approaches helped take us from the dark ages into this golden age of progress and technological wonder.

I mean, how many lectures does the average student receive at school about following the rules and yet we don’t teach them ethics. We don’t teach kids how to understand and internalize the difference between right and wrong; we just tell them, to do that, that’s wrong, then we yell at them if they transgress.

We teach kids how to make extremely ugly shorts in home egg but perhaps — perhaps teaching them about logic and reason might be at least as important life skills in this information age. What if schools incorporated thinking as its own subject into their curriculum? Is that such a crazy thought? I mean, what if we spent as much time teaching kids how to think for themselves as we do on English, math or any other subject, not only would this be great for kids in all aspects of their learning and life, and the future of our species, it will also mean that people with degrees in philosophy will finally be able to get a job.

So we’re approaching perhaps the most important and volatile period in all of human history. Now more than ever we need to teach kids how to think, not what to think. And if we can do things like, in collaboration with people like Peter Elton from the University of Queensland’s critical thinking project and cutting-edge who helped us put together these visualizations, I think that can be a possibility. I hope you find this to be an idea worth spreading. Thank you.

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