There was a time when the ability to faithfully recall information was a strong determinant of success. Now we have highly-sophisticated search engines and revolutionary chatbots that speak answers to your spoken questions. What you know and think is no longer the definitive measure of being smart. What matters now and in the future is how you make use of the vast knowledge that is readily available. The modern measure of being smart is in how you think.
Leverage and Extend Existing Knowledge
When it comes to knowledge, success today is more about whether you can combine and extend what is already known in order to address novel situations. For example, competitive business environments shift more rapidly than in the past. What worked yesterday no longer works today. As a result, companies have less need for employees to retrieve information or repeat past processes. Instead they have a growing need for people who can reconfigure knowledge to solve problems in real time. Being an encyclopedia of knowledge might make you a Jeopardy! champion, but in the information economy, if that is all you have to offer, it makes you obsolete.
Of course, you need to have some existing knowledge before you can extend it. But talented, young learners can often master the “what” quickly and thus need earlier and more frequent opportunities to explore deeply the “how” and “why”. Parents and teachers can support these children by minimizing repetitive work and shifting learning toward activities that ask students to use what they know rather than show what they know.
There is still a meaningful way that existing knowledge by itself can help to develop thinking skills — by understanding how the knowledge came to be. In most educational settings knowledge is delivered as fully formed and tidy, which bears no resemblance to the reality of the non-linear struggles and strides that define the paths to new discoveries. Research shows that understanding the challenges that famous scientists faced motivates students to put forth greater effort on hard problems than merely knowing about the scientists’ accomplishments. Another study focusing on teachers’ knowledge of math history suggests that teachers who understand that mathematics is an active and creative field can help their students see math as a place for inventive problem-solving where questioning and investigating are highly valued.
Solve Problems but also Learn to Spot Them
Many education-focused organizations emphasize problem-solving skills. Such skills can be thought of on three broad levels. The entry level is to solve problems that are given to you with conventional approaches that are taught to you. At this basic level, success is a matter of how well you reproduce the steps that you have memorized. But as with knowledge, being smart today is about more than this simple kind of problem-solving.
The next level is to solve problems that are given to you with approaches that you try to construct yourself. This level requires a more sophisticated way of thinking because you will need to build on what you already know to come up with approaches that are new to you. To develop these kinds of problem-solving skills, you need more than your existing knowledge; you need analytical tools to make use of that knowledge. For example, you need to be able to see inside the larger problem to its component parts, match up what you know to these smaller problems, and then glue the solution together. Developing problem-solving skills at this level is an extended process best started when children are young. But doing so is well worth the investment because without this foundation, children cannot move on to the next level.
At the most sophisticated level, problem-solving starts with being able to identify problems and ask questions that are less apparent to others. Problem-spotting pushes thinking to the next level because it requires a critical eye toward the conventional and a forward-thinking mind about what the future will bring. This is the kind of thinking that is highly valued in university life and in a fast-paced, global economy because it is the engine for innovative ideas that move humanity forwards. Parents and teachers can plant the seeds for this highest level of problem-solving by creating an intellectual environment in which young people feel safe in both challenging conventional thinking and in having their thinking challenged.
Bright, young learners want more than to merely know what is known and do what has already been done. Satisfying their intellectual curiosity must include opportunities to do more than demonstrate mastery of existing knowledge and procedures. Talented students want to be smart by today’s standards. Parents and teachers can support them by providing educational opportunities that leverage their knowledge and stretch their problem-solving skills.