Opposable and innovative thinking to revolutionize education

An open mind is the key to integration and successful leadership.

This was the basic message delivered to about 200 people last Tuesday morning by CACUSS keynote speaker Roger Martin.

Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, spoke on the importance of opposable thinking in today’s society.

Opposable thinking, according to Martin, is the ability to have conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time and still be able to function.

Typically, one would find such a situation hopeless; however, an opposable thinker is determined to make it otherwise. The opposable mind works to create tension.

Martin explained his theory using the example of the difference between Barack Obama and George Bush.

Bush, in a speech on September 20, 2001, told the world that they had to choose a side: one was either with the Americans or with the terrorists.

President Obama, however, preached in a recent speech that it was false to say you have to make a choice, but instead that a collaboration of both safety and ideals are possible.

This is the difference between opposable thinkers and the “common folk.”

“Everyone was born with [the capacity of opposable thinking] but it is our choice whether we use it or not,” said Martin. “So why don’t people use it all the time?”

Martin went on to explain that it is because the fundamental way the average human makes sense of the world is to create a model in our minds of what we see.

It is only a question of which model we will perceive and, in a world of clashing models, one assumes that his or her perception is correct over someone else’s.

“What are the chances that your model is the same as mine?” asked Martin. The answer: slim to none.

How do we respond to these conflicting models?

Martin described the two basic ways that people deal with this conflict. The first is fear and avoidance. This type of person assumes anyone who contradicts their perception is peculiar and therefore their solution is to simply avoid contact with them.

The second type of reaction, choose and move on, includes the George Bush’s in the world. People believe they must choose the better of the two options presented.

Both of these reactions suggest a person not exercising his or her opposable mind.

Martin suggests that, instead of falling into the molded minds of the average thinker, one should seek out clashes and leverage them.

“Do this instead of choosing one model over another, at the expense of the other,” said Martin.

“The nature of the world is that existing models do not equal reality … opposing models are there to be leveraged.”

According to Martin, this is one of the current problems with the education system.

Students are not encouraged by professionals to use opposable thinking; instead they are shown what is perceived to be the correct model, asked to remember it and recite it back on an exam.

“We are doing students a huge disservice trying to teach them the right answer,” said Martin. “We need to allow students the freedom to explore and integrate – and then you will see them become more successful.”

Martin encourages students to challenge their professors. “Insist that they tell you what’s behind the model, what the limitations of the model are and when it will break down.”

He asks students to wade into the complexity and mess it up – disrupt the world in order to find the peace.

“Everybody can do ‘or’, but you won’t get anywhere with it,” Martin concluded.