5 Elements of Effective Thinking: SAIR Conference Recap

By Stephen Whitten, M.U.P.P, M.Div., Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness

CTU Business Degree - Starfish ImageIn late September, I led a concurrent workshop at the annual SAIR conference in Orlando, Florida. My presentation was entitled, “Demonstrating Student Learning Using Embedded Common Assessments.” The conference was attended by more than 400 higher education professionals, including faculty, academic administrators, institutional effectiveness and assessment colleagues, and institutional researchers.

In addition to leading a workshop, I participated in a number of sessions with peers from a variety of institutions. I attended workshops on advanced research techniques using Excel, engaging faculty in the student learning assessment process, reporting program-level retention and graduation data, and streamlining the use of external surveys. It was interesting to see the perspective and approaches of other institutions, primarily private not-for-profit and public universities. One key takeaway for me was the idea of creating a master question database that includes all the internal and external surveys we conduct. This process would enable us to track more effectively what we are learning over time and provide validation for similar question topic results.
The highlight of the conference, however, was Professor Edward Burger’s keynote address entitled, “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.” A captivating speaker, Dr. Burger creatively outlined these five elements of effective—or innovative—thinking, which he linked to the four basic earthly elements which predate Socrates: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. To these, Professor Burger added “The Quintessential Element: Change.” Using humor, storytelling, and compelling examples, Burger illustrated the five elements:
Understand Deeply: Grounding Your Thinking
To think effectively, we must be willing to know what we don’t know (and be brutally honest with ourselves)! It is important to “clear the clutter” and first understand deeply the simple building blocks that comprise more complex ideas and issues.

Fail to Succeed: Igniting Insights Through Mistakes
Failure is a great teacher. We shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes; rather, we can “intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right." With the right perspective, failures can “ignite your imagination.” Helpful hint: Don’t stare at a blank screen. If you’re stuck on a project, just begin writing any ideas, however good, bad, incoherent, or disorganized. Next, sort through these ideas and begin to separate the good from the bad, right from wrong, workable from impractical: “You may not know how to do it right, but you can certainly do it wrong.” From this insight, you can generate “useful errors,” which are the beginning of good ideas and real solutions – as long as you give yourself enough time!

Be Your Own Socrates: Creating Questions out of Thin Air
Always ask questions! Questions lead to understanding and new breakthroughs in thinking. Also, it’s important to learn the “real question.” As Dr. Burger says, “Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime.”

Look Back, Look Forward: Seeing the Flow of Ideas
Where do ideas come from? It’s helpful to see the process that led to an idea or insight. And realize that a new idea is a beginning, not an end. Think creatively to look ahead and see the implications of ideas going forward.

The Quintessential Element
Transform Yourself: Engaging Change
The four “elements” above are the building blocks for the fifth element: change. Being willing to change the way you think and learn, to improve and grow, is the constant that will lead to lifelong transformation.

Dr. Burger’s presentation was engaging, funny, and moving, one of the best I’ve experienced in many years of conference-going! I believe these lessons are universally applicable whether you are a student furthering your education, a working professional looking to improve your performance or a government official advocating for change.  Further information on his ideas, along with co-author Michael Starbird, may be found in their new book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.

Image credit: Flickr/Macca 

CTU Staff - Stephen WhittenStephen Whitten, M.U.P.P, M.Div., is the Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness at Colorado Technical University. With over 10 years of executive experience in higher education he brings a unique passion for institutional effectiveness.  He earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy from The University of Illinois at Chicago. He also holds a Master’s of Divinity from Southern Seminary.  Connect with Stephen Whitten on LinkedIn.