Scaffolding Thinking to Promote Learning

Why writing helps and improves your learning and thinking processes

How can we think better? Our conscious mind is inherently limited. We have to acknowledge its limitations before we can work on improving it.

Let’s define good thinking as the process by which we ponder ideas in a rational way. We consider the ins and the outs, the implications of premises, and where we arrive at a rational conclusion based on a deductive process. Based on that definition are you a good thinker? Would you like to think better?

Today’s jobs require good thinking whether you are a writer, marketer, creator, coder, or any other kind of knowledge worker. You need to have the capacity to arrive at well-reasoned conclusions.

So, how can you think clearly and generate high quality ideas?

An initial approach would be to tackle the inherent limitations of your mind.

The limitations of the human mind

According to Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes, there are the 3 main limitations of our conscious mind:

Working memory: yes, you can only work with approximately 7 bits of information at a time. It sucks.

Attention: you can only pay attention to one thing at a time, not two, not three, one.

Will-power: you have a limited amount of will-power for every task you take on. Use it wisely.

There’s also a brilliant article by Cal Newport where he compares the human brain with a CPU. Newport explains that when we switch our brains to a new task, a whole complicated mess of neural activity begins to activate the proper sub-networks and suppress others. This of course takes time.

If we rapidly switch to another task, that neural activity doesn’t clear instantaneously, but instead lingers, causing a conflict with the new task. If you want to read the complete article, you can do so here.

Given these limitations, writing comes to the rescue, as a means to unencumber yourself from them, especially when it comes to thinking and generating new ideas.

Your thoughts are fleeting; as soon as you have an idea, you have to pin it down. They are like vapour in the air; you have to condense your thoughts into writing so that they can be developed further.

Why writing

Doing the thinking in the writing takes into account the mind inherent limitations.

If you write down your thoughts, you make more space in your working memory to handle and ponder more information to work with.

If you write down your thoughts, the sheer act of writing fixes your attention on your train of thought, helping you keep on track and avoid digressing, distractions and ruminations.

Or even more important it helps you avoid missing important repercussions or connections between what you are thinking in a specific domain and how it may apply in another one.

If you write down your thoughts it will help you focus for longer periods of time by activating parts of the brain that are naturally not involved when you are just thinking in your head. Writing is active.

Final thoughts

The mind is a fragile construct full of limitations. Acknowledge those limitations and build a system to address each and every one.

Writing is the scaffolding of your thoughts, you have to write and rewrite to think better.

Step by step you are building a structure that will lead you places you haven’t thought you’d get to.

Step by step you will start thinking better.