As a man or a woman thinks (Part 2)

Last week, we spent some time focusing on the kinds of thinking we should avoid. Now let’s see what the Lord admonished us to think about. Two scriptures help us describe the types of thinking in which we have to engage. First, consider the imperative presented in the verb let is often interpreted as being synonymous with allow or permit, but the dictionary suggests that let also means “to cause to: make.” So, the statement “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (The book of Doctrine & Covenant 121:45) is a command directing all to take charge of their thoughts and cause them to be more virtuous.

Second, consider a similar directive given by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

The structure and meaning of this long verse are not as complex as it first appears. To simplify the structure and reveal the meaning, let’s temporarily remove the long series of clauses in the middle of the verse and insert ellipses in their place. Simplified in this manner, the verse reads: “Finally, brethren, . . . think on these things.”

We could simplify the sentence even further by removing all but the subject and the verb. So, in its simplest form this lengthy sentence is an imperative statement encouraging every person to think.

The eight clauses that we temporarily removed specify the kinds of things Paul admonished the Philippians to think about. They include:

1. Whatsoever things are true,
2. Whatsoever things are honest,
3. Whatsoever things are just,
4. Whatsoever things are pure,
5. Whatsoever things are lovely,
6. Whatsoever things are of good report,
7. Any virtue,
8. Anything that is praiseworthy.

All Christian scriptures teach us the need for every person to be born again. The Book of Mosiah describes this spiritual rebirth as a “mighty change” of heart (Mosiah 5:2; Alma 5:14). This process not only includes changes in our innermost feelings and desires, it presupposes big changes also in our thinking habits and dispositions. The Apostle Paul’s directive in Romans 12:1–2 emphasies this need to change the way we habitually think and what we think about. He instructed the Romans, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (verse 2).

Various scholars and curriculum reformers have recommended lists of productive thinking habits and dispositions that students in universities and public schools should be taught to develop. We don’t have time to discuss many of them, but I would like to focus on two thinking habits and dispositions that are particularly relevant to students and faculty at a university.

Two Useful Thinking Habits

Seek Understanding

John Biggs and several other scholars have distinguished between two different approaches to learning that they call the “surface approach” and the “deep approach.” The surface approach occurs when a student tries to complete an assigned learning task with minimum effort while giving the appearance of having properly learned what was expected. Learning to rotely recite the verbatim definition of a concept or principle without any understanding of it is one example of the surface approach. Some forms of factual knowledge need to be memorised, but memoriation becomes a surface approach when a student relies on it instead of striving to understand the ideas to be learned.12

One of the mistakes most people often make is to substitute memorisation in place of understanding. I urge all to develop the habit of striving for understanding whenever you study. Seek to understand the basic ideas, procedures, and criteria that you encounter in whatever subject you are studying. In the language of the scriptures, “with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7).

Understanding cannot be developed without thinking. To understand a new topic, you must thoughtfully process the new ideas you encounter and relate them to your prior knowledge. You must integrate isolated bits and pieces of information into some meaningful structure or framework.

Understanding has three important advantages in comparison to rote knowledge. First, understanding is enabling. The person who possesses understanding is able to use his/her knowledge flexibly and adaptively. Understanding provides new concepts, principles, procedures, and criteria to think with. By thinking with these new ideas, the person who has developed understanding is able to (1) explain relationships, (2) make predictions, and (3) solve problems that he or she could not have done without this new conceptual knowledge. To the extent that the person’s understanding is inaccurate or incomplete, his or her thinking will be misleading or limited. Hence, a person’s understanding shapes his or her thinking.

The second advantage is that understanding is generative. By thinking about the concepts, principles, procedures, and criteria that he or she has come to understand, the understanding person is better able to recognizse relationships, construct meaningful analogies, generate new insights, formulate productive questions, and conduct further inquiry. In contrast to the inert nature of factual knowledge, understanding is productive. In other words, understanding provides a basis for acquiring a new and deeper understanding.

A third advantage of understanding is that it tends to have more staying power. Rote memorisation of factual information may get you past a test, but you likely will not retain this information very long afterwards. Understanding is more likely to result in learning that lasts.

Monitor and Manage Your Own Thinking

Another useful habit to develop is to learn how to more effectively monitor and manage your thinking. Mindful people think about their own thinking. They consciously strive to be aware of the thinking strategies and processes that they use when they try to solve a problem or accomplish a cognitively demanding task. In addition, they evaluate the products of their thinking processes. They question their assumptions, check their inferences, and attempt to validate their interpretations and conclusions. They try to distinguish between paths in their thought processes that seem to be leading them toward a successful solution and any that might seem to be leading them in an unsuccessful direction.

Psychologists use the noun metacognition to refer to this kind of thinking about one’s own thinking. Metacognition is typically conceptualied as including two complementary components. The first is to be aware of your own thinking processes. The second is to monitor, evaluate, and regulate those processes. I encourage you to become proficient in performing both of these aspects of metacognition. You will be a better student and a better lifelong learner if you become proficient at doing both of these.

“With All Thy Mind”

I invite you now to compare two interesting passages from the Bible: one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Deuteronomy 6:5 contains a commandment in which the Israelites were directed to “love the Lord . . . with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” According to the record in Mark 12:30, Jesus quoted this passage from Deuteronomy in response to a scribe who tried to trick Him by asking Him which was the first or greatest commandment in the law.

If you carefully look at this passage, you will discover that the New Testament account includes the extra phrase “and with all thy mind” that Jesus appears to have inserted. Matthew’s account of this incident includes the same insertion (see Matthew 22:35–37). I do not know why the extra stipulation to love God with all your mind is included in the New Testament, but I believe it is a noteworthy addition that we ought to ponder.

What does it mean to love and serve the Lord with all one’s mind? I don’t claim to have any profound answers to this question, but I will share with you three simple ideas that represent my current thinking.

First, Jesus declared Himself to be “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Therefore, to love Him with all your mind is to devote all your intellectual skills and mental capacities to learning and knowing the truth. Second, to love Him with all your mind means to “always remember Him” and to make a habit of thinking about Him and His teachings so that He has an active presence and influence in your mind. Third, to love and serve Him with all your mind is to consciously choose to be His disciple by striving to habitually think the way He would have you think and to do what He would have you do.

In summary, I suggest that you carefully examine the thinking habits and dispositions that function in your life. Become more aware of them. Monitor and evaluate them in terms of the influence they have upon you. Take steps to manage these habits instead of allowing them to manage you.

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