Beyond thinking critically, we must begin thinking strategically

In my former life as a high school teacher, I began each school year by putting my foot down: “I am here not to teach you how to take a test. I am here to teach you how to think.”

It was a challenge for me as much as it was for my students. Whenever I prepared our lessons, designed exams, or gave feedback, I reminded myself of those tough words. It was a simple principle that encapsulated my goal as a teacher and, in hindsight, epitomized how I myself have been shaped by the forces of a more liberal mode of education.

Today, we utter buzzwords like ‘critical-thinking’ (often followed by its cousin ‘problem-solving’) as our way of delineating our teaching practice from what used to be the norm — rote memorization and hefty standardized exams. Traditional modes of teaching relied on actively filling-in and shaping the values and dispositions of students, while the hypothesis behind the liberal mode was to teach a student ‘to question’ in the hopes that her ‘authentic self’ emerges in the process. The latter approach is thus seen as more emancipating — ‘freeing’ — hence it is no surprise that teachers have hopped on the critical-thinking, inquiry-based, student-led bandwagon as the world turned more democratic and scientific. This spirit was captured succintly by Aristotle when he wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

But my basic question now is: Is critical-thinking enough?

Definitely not, according to Tony Wagner who enumerates six other skills besides. But he misses what I think is a critical skill needed in the world today. And particular to the Philippine context, strategic-thinking is sorely needed to help our country move forward. Called by other names, the concept of it is what we allude to when we implore our people ‘to think long-term’.

Strategy finds its roots in warfare — it is the sum of a series of actions required to achieve a superior position, usually victory or at the least ‘not dead’ if the odds are really stacked against you. And today, strategic thinking is captured by the world of business: how companies achieve superior value relative to its competition. For schools, strategic thinking is what can spell the difference between producing graduates who will simply feed into the next level and be ultimately underemployed, and those who can differentiate themselves to become entrepreneurs, innovators, creatives, and change agents.

Strategy need not be a zero-sum affair. A more post-modern reading of strategy suggests that one can be in competition with oneself. If an organization that isn’t in apparent competition with anyone else feels the need to do things better than they did a year ago, then getting from then to tomorrow will require strategic-thinking, too.

So why strategic thinking, and how do we cultivate it?

Strategic-thinking thrives in a world of constraint. Textbook management will tell you that there are two key processes to recognize constraints — the internal and external analyses. Management consultants make a killing using a variety of tools in either sphere to help an entity ‘diagnose’ its position and arrive at a ‘strategic plan’. But the essence of the process is simply asking “Who am I?” and “Where am I?”

In looking at ourselves, it is imperative that we do not make excuses. Whatever strength or whatever weakness, we are what we are. The more honest the reflection, the more effective and powerful the analysis becomes. In looking beyond ourselves, we require incredible honesty, insight, and mindfulness towards the world around us. The fewer the blindspots — though there will always be blindspots — the more effective and useful the analysis becomes.

The Filipino tendency to blame, I think, stems largely from a lack of self-awareness. Others would even push and say that we’re insecure or that as a nation we lack self-esteem, but at the core I think we simply don’t do enough self-reflection. It would be moving to read a critique of our national situation that does not end with allusions to imperialism or foreign domination. At the least, what the war on corruption has done right is to force people to articulate their values, although it is still too easy for the indignation of many to slip into cynicism or apathy.

Strategic thinking turned inwardly means that we work on our weaknesses and acknowledge our strengths. A student poor in math may find the need to consult the teacher or do more exercises; a less sociable person may have to take the extra effort to make friends and build social networks. It is not this simple, of course. Various pre-conceived notions such as ideologies and mindsets are true barriers hence the accusation often hurled towards liberals — they want the world to change but they themselves don’t want to change.

The tough part about being strategic is to choose which battles to fight and what to give up. Achieving victory doesn’t mean fighting every battle, but will at times require pulling back, reorganizing, and living to fight another day.  Being able to think long-term spells the difference between merely thinking that resolving our problems will require voting wisely in the next election (despite the lack of good candidates), and safeguarding and improving our public institutions so we can have better alternatives in the next one.

Strategic thinking turned outwards requires a similar, deliberate approach. Sun Tzu has been very keen about the lay of the land — whether the battlefield is surrounded by mountains, or split by a river, or leaves the opposing army at the higher ground.

The Philippines has at least 10% of its people living and working abroad. Our connections with the world run very deep, though at times our attitude towards it can be very unsure. We celebrate local talents who succeed abroad, yet we can be very skeptical about the solutions other countries have adopted to land above us in rankings, whether in terms of quality education, transparency, or global competitiveness. Our sense of nationalism is schizophrenic: at its best patriotism, at its worst xenophobia.

The developing world — of which we are part — faces the real possibility of leapfrogging decades of development if the solutions and ideas already pioneered and perfected by the developed world can be properly scaled and adapted to our local contexts. We need another ‘Pensionado Moment’ — that last time a Filipino government made big moves to send the country’s best and brightest to other countries to learn and bring answers to the development challenges back home. And with the way the world is wired these days, such a massive public undertaking may not even be necessary as it is so easy for the young and enterprising to be strategic, curious, and take the best of what the world has to offer.

How then do we cultivate strategic thinking?

Just three quick thoughts off the top of my head —

1. Educators must allow for a conversation between the two questions — “Who am I?” and “Where am I?” — to happen. For instance, exercises in reflection must extend to particular contexts. In business school for instance, reflection papers are always framed as ‘what does this mean for you personally, and how does it relate to your work’ type questions. From younger grades, students can be asked to relate lessons to their experiences and vice-versa (a technique flatly called ‘experiential learning’).

2. More than integration, synergy between subjects is critical. The concept of integration has become rather watered down in Philippine education. Initially introduced to encourage the various subjects to work together in order to develop students more holistically, integration has become a weak exercise where teachers split the grading of a project or credit one project in several subjects. There is still the possibility where a lesson in hyrdrology, for example, can result in the development of a water pump for a rural poor community. Or even easier — a week long lesson on liberalism will reflect in the content of history, literature, arts, and ethics classes. Strategic thinking requires synthesis, an ability to form connections and create meaning out of those connections.

3. Schools and educators must be deliberately strategic, too. From how the curriculum is designed to how teachers instruct their classes, schools can promote strategic thinking by having a clarity of purpose in everything they do. In my own teaching practice, I’ve come to see that there is simple power in explaining the rationale of an activity. At the most basic level, it promotes engagement and much later, creativity — with a clarity of purpose, students can then become creative as they find their own way to accomplish the task given the parameters of the activity. Allowing this improvisation around constraints and rules as they move towards certain objectives lies at the heart of nurturing our students’ strategic minds.

These notes are by no means exhaustive, and I’ll definitely be building on these ideas. At this point, I’d be more interested at hearing what strategic thinking could mean for you, and what the challenges and opportunities are in teaching it in the Philippine context.

See also: systems thinking, strategic management


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