Book Talk

5 Elements of Effective Thinking

April 4, 2014

Quote Art!! It's Elementary!

Thomas Alva Edison’s quote turned into art by young artists

When I first heard Michael Starbird speak on this topic, I knew we had a kindred experience going on. This small yet powerful book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (Edward Burger and Michael Starbird, Princeton University Press, 2012) encapsulates key teachable lessons that make transparent specific aspects of how we unravel and advance knowing.

Thanks to Michael’s generosity, I received the transcript six months before publication, and developed lessons plans so we can teach each of these elements specifically to our students, and then have these be transferable to a range of subjects and learning moments.

Here they are—the five elements and examples.

Understand deeply. We ride the surface all too much even though we aim for depth. The volume of what we are supposed to cover is the driver and yet we must find moments to put on the brakes and aim for diving in to uncover layers that exist in any topic. I have students clarify what they know and don’t know about any given subject. Amazing what emerges. This leads them on a guided trail of discovery. Sounds simple? May be, however this guided probing takes students to new perspectives and queries. Always this leads to understanding more deeply.

Fail to succeed. The challenge of failure is impressive. Consider the Japanese proverb: Fall down seven times, get up eight. Resiliency is only discovered through this bouncing back up. So I provide an impossible challenge to solve and when the expected happens, failure, they go right back to Plan B, then C and along the way the ideas are stellar.

Raising questions. Already you are seeing the linkage—how each of these elements is connected and questioning is a deep part of the process. When we ask for a question from students, we often get one that is the most obvious or quick to surface. However, what is the question under that question, and the one below that? This is discovery! And in the process curiosity is unleashed.

Extend ideas. We are in the middle of the stream of ideas flowing in every direction. By examining where we are, we gain a sense of time and place and develop the generative aspect of thinking.  So let’s take a topic students are somewhat familiar with and plunk them in that spot and ask for a 360 degree view of past, present and future.

The only constant is change. All of these elements add up to change, and having a view of change theory is an eye-opener. Students can take lessons learned in each of the prior four elements and begin to see how these intersect and are part of our learning construct. By applying these principles, lessons become more vibrant. As I teach this, I extend the book into a tangible process for understanding and participating in change theory (this is for another blog), both in a societal and personal construct.

What I recognized when first hearing Michael’s presentation is how I had embedded these lessons in my programs and approach to learning. You may find this as well. What I have discovered since is by teaching these in an explicit manner, I have created points of reference that streamline both my teaching and student learning. So read the book. And if would like to learn more about my particular approach to teaching these 5 elements, send me a note. These 5 elements are all embedded in my Strategies for Success with 21st Century Skills curricula.

Or better yet, join me this July 14-16, 2014 for a Summer Service Learning Institute: Meeting the Needs of 21st Century Learners where this and many other critical lessons and resources will be provided and experienced that translates into enlivened classrooms. For more information and to register, click here. Or email me for a flyer.

Your comments welcome at

Happy thinking.

Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., CBK Associates