As a scenario planner, I have to watch a number of sources for unfolding news around the world, at multiple levels of abstraction. I select things to comment on, others to reference, and some to ignore. Those I ignore I either don’t trust or don’t agree with, but I don’t disagree with them enough to write a rebuttal.
In order to analyze events, track the news and create a synthesis view, I have multiple web browsers open, Microsoft Outlook, Mindjet’s Mind Manager, Microsoft OneNote, Windows Live Writer and TweetDeck. I am moving constantly between them. Copying, sorting, organizing. I never took a class for any of these tools. I never took a class on how to use the sources of the web as inputs. Some of these tools are free, some cost money. All of them require at least a Windows XP machine. Equivalent tools can be found on the Macintosh and on open source platforms.
Why does this matter to students? Because I don’t see a synthesis approach being taught to students. Lucky grad students may occasionally get a glimpse into their mentor’s synthesis process, but we don’t systematically teach integrated thinking. Every day I engage in metacognition in order to improve the way I learn. Metacognition is a choice I made as an adult, post college. It was term I had to discover and to learn to apply. Every student should be taught metacognition from the earliest age—not the term, but the concept, of reflecting on personal learning.
Five Synthesis Tips from Daniel W. Rasmus
Identify key tools that complement your thinking style. It took a long time and a lot of experimentation to arrive at this set of tools. You need to find your own set of tools. And in nod to
Cut and paste important web postings and articles to OneNote. The web isn’t always consistent in how it maintains URLs, nor on maintaining content in general. If you see something important, capture it and keep it. OneNote also indexes well, so finding it is pretty easy.
Find the patterns. When I start to work on a project, be it creating a scenario set or writing an article or developing a position for a client, I use OneNote with Mind Manager to abstract key points and build a map of meaning. I systematically read through the OneNote documents, extract key points, put them on the map, and then arrange them in a meaningful way. Cross links are connected via relationships. Eventually a pattern emerges that, I hope, offers meaningful insight—something new arises from everything I have used as an input.
Develop a Narrative. These mind maps work great for me, but they reflect my approach to learning and synthesis, not my students, not my clients. In order for these to be meaningful I need to create a narrative out of this material that can communicate the key points. Mind maps on non-linear. This step involves prioritization as well as ordering of concepts so the narrative builds in meaning as it unfolds.
Document what it means. A narrative describes something, it doesn’t offer a recommendation or a position. When I was at Giga, we had pins (see Figure 1.) that implied we should never leave someone reading a planning assumption (the core Giga document,) to ask us SO WHAT?). In the end, you must be willing to at least describe the implications. As a scenario planner, far future conclusions are dangerous, but this work isn’t just about the future. If this approach leads to ideas, for instance, on how to reduce a state’s budget deficit, then don’t loose the conclusions in the narrative. Spell them out explicitly so everybody can see where you came down on an issue, even if they don’t necessarily agree, or understand completely how you arrived at those conclusions.
Figure 1. No So Whats
The other reason this matters is that I use a wide variety of tools to complement the messiness of the Web and the Net. They don’t organize anything for me, they just expose overwhelming amounts of content. It is for the analyst, which every engaged citizen or worker should be, to make sense of the information important to him or her. For that, we need tools. More importantly, we need to tools we have mastered so that the tools don’t come between us and the task of organizing our learning, our analysis.
As I paste information into OneNote and map relationships via Mind Manager, I realize how little of this I learned in school. Granted, my school life was decades in the past, but regardless of the tools, the way of organizing information wasn’t presented to me. The idea of reflecting on learning wasn’t presented. And it wasn’t presented to my children either, both of whom are still in college. We want people to learn the lessons, to capture facts and to make connections in narrow windows. Once people leave school, graduate from the academy, success—real success—depends not just on getting things done, but in challenging assumptions, discovering patterns and understanding the complexity of an environment in order to affect change. We need to teach these skills, perhaps even more, we need to model them and demonstrate them in academia. Educators need to learn in front of their students and with their students, and do so openly and honestly. They need to share their techniques and even their learning weaknesses, so that those they teach can learn about all aspects of learning.
Ours is a complex world. We need to embrace its complexity, integrate tools and constantly learn. We need to learn, not just about the world, but about ourselves. You can’t adequately consider alternative futures if you haven’t mastered how to recognize and understand the complexities of the present.