When I was a grad student, a fellow student did an interesting study. In analogical reasoning, what helps is abstracting from the specifics to the more general (and folks are bad at generating good analogies, though okay at using them, according to my PhD and other research). Folks had made efforts at getting abstraction, and failed. What my fellow student did was to control the abstraction, and got useful outputs. It turns out some abstract too far, and of course in general most don’t go far enough.
From that beginning, I’ve been interested in useful mental models, and good analysis from appropriate levels of abstraction. That’s what I have tried to do in my books: abstract to useful levels, and guide application in pragmatic ways. And that’s what I look for in other’s work as well. My PhD advisor has served as an excellent model: Don Norman’s book Design of Everyday Things is still a must-read for anyone designing for humans, and his subsequent books have similarly provided valuable insight.
I like the thinking of a number of folks who do this well. For instance, I’m regularly learning with my Internet Time Alliance colleagues (Jay, Jane, Harold, and Charles). Jane Bozarth, Marc Rosenberg, Allison Rossett, Will Thalheimer, Marcia Conner, and Donald’s Clark & Taylor are just a few of the folks who cut through the hype with incisive thinking. There are of course others I’m forgetting to mention (my apologies). They’re looking for best principles, not best practices.
It’s a similar thinking that helps break down new technologies and finds the key affordances for learning, avoiding other intriguing but ultimately distracting features (Powerpoint presentations in Second Life, anyone?). You need to look a bit deeper than the surface.
Interestingly, to do so really requires taking time for reflection. Which is why it always frustrates me to hear those folks who say “I don’t have time for reflection”. Really? You don’t have time to do the most valuable level of thinking that will impact your effectiveness and ultimately save you time and money?
And can we please put this process into our school curriculum as well? I benefited mightily by having a 12th grade AP English teacher (that’s you, Dick Bergeron) who modeled deeper thinking and used reciprocal teaching (without having that label) to help us develop our own abilities. While I try to do so for my own kids, our society and world needs more folks thinking at useful levels.
So, please, take time and a step back from your day to day problem-solving and abstract across your activities and look for higher level principles, both emergent and external, that can improve what you’re doing.