Different Modes of Thinking and How They Impact Learning

Classrooms Team

Nov 16, 2020

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Metacognition is awareness and understanding of how you think. When it comes to academics, knowledge of this process helps you accelerate your learning and power past stumbling blocks. 

What are the different modes of thinking? It depends on whom you ask. Let’s examine two separate theories and how you can use them to supercharge your classroom performance. 

The Three-Mode Method

Psychologists recognize two primary ways of thinking — convergent and divergent. These methods are like opposite sides of the same coin. They both get your brain working but in different ways. 

Convergent thinking is linear and straightforward. It focuses on finding the most effective answer to a problem as quickly and accurately as possible and can be measured by tools like multiple-choice tests. It applies mostly to situations with one correct answer. 

Divergent thinking, conversely, sees multiple routes to reach the same destination — or to explore uncharted territory. It is creative and non-linear but can nevertheless identify more efficient ways to improve existing processes. It tackles questions like, “How can a person be sick in some ways yet healthy in others” and sees multiple potential answers. 

The third mode — lateral thinking — combines the first two. It’s not that this method is superior. Rather, it enables you to form new connections and to choose which one is best. As the physician and psychologist Edward de Bono describes it, “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.” 

Sometimes, you need to take a deeper dive into the same hole when studying. At other times, going in an entirely different direction makes more sense. Synthesizing divergent and convergent thinking can improve your problem-solving ability. 

For example, imagine you’re a physician treating a patient for back pain. You take an X-ray, but don’t see anything that could cause the problem. Convergent thinking might lead you to order additional tests such as a CT scan to get a closer look. Divergent thinking makes you ask if the patient recently started a new exercise program or slept in a strange bed. 

Lateral thinking leads you to try both approaches. By considering all options, you arrive at the most accurate diagnosis so that you can prescribe the best treatment regimen. 

The Four-Mode Method

The human brain never fully powers down, but nor do you sit there like Rodin’s “Thinker” all day. Sometimes, you function on auto-pilot, but at others, worry clouds your judgment. At still other times, you might feel incredibly creative or as if you can take on the world. 

Robert Tucker identified four modes of thinking, including sustainer, dreamer, opportunity, and defeatist. Let’s take a look at how each one influences how you learn. 

  • Sustainer Mode: Have you ever driven to work, then realized you had no idea how you got there? You know how to drive so well, you do so on autopilot. You need this type of thinking to perform repetitive tasks well, but too much of it can hamper your creativity. 
  • Dreamer Mode: This mode typically kicks in when you relax — it’s one reason taking a walk in nature can stimulate your creativity. You come up with a flood of ideas with little more effort than it takes to say, “I wonder if…”
  • Opportunity Mode: In this mode of thinking, you feel on top of the world. You begin taking positive action toward the ideas you had in dreamer mode and consider obstacles mere challenges to overcome. 
  • Defeatist Mode: Everyone falls prey to worry, frustration and fear sometimes — it’s part of being human. Dwelling on what could go wrong served an evolutionary advantage — it helps to protect you from danger. However, when you become stuck in this mode of thinking, you listen to doom and gloom while excluding the possibilities of what could go well. 

Awareness of these four different modes of thinking empowers you to identify where you stand and determine how to get where you want to be. For example, if you have a weighty exam approaching, dwelling on how you’re sure to fail can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if you recognize you’re in a defeatist mode, you can take small yet relentless steps forward — like hitting the books — that helps you reach your goal. 

Putting It All Together 

Once you understand the different modes of thinking, you can shift your focus to improve your academic performance. If you are working on a multiple-choice assignment, divergent thinking won’t help you arrive at the right answer — convergent will. However, if you have to write an essay, free-writing whatever comes to mind can stimulate your ideas. 

Likewise, if inspiration strikes when you take a 10-minute walk break, you might recognize that you are in dreamer mode. That should tell you that you need to write your ideas down when you return to your desk so that you can act upon them. 

How Do Your Different Modes of Thinking Impact Your Learning?

Now that you know about the different modes of thinking, reflect for a bit. How do they impact your learning? How can your new awareness help you excel in academics? 

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