In 1910, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey defined the practice of “reflective inquiry” in his classic book, How We Think. Dewey felt that combining the tools that provoke critical thinking with Socratic questioning would prompt a person to, “…turn a subject over in the mind, giving it serious and consecutive consideration.” The person would then be able to distinguish what they know from what they don’t know, to confirm or negate a held belief, and substantiate the value of a fear or doubt. He said that metaphorically, reflective inquiry enables us to climb a tree in our minds. We gain a broader standpoint to see connections and faults in thinking to better assess what to do next.
Dewey was hoping to change classroom instruction to be more interactive and inquisitive. He wanted to stop the of practice dumping information into the brain, and then testing memorization skills instead of practical application. He wasn’t just advocating for teachers to ask more questions. He defined methods of inquiry that prompted students to doubt what they thought they knew in a way that would open them to expansive learning.
Questions vs Inquiry
In addition to questions, inquiry may include statements that hold up a mirror to a person’s thoughts and beliefs. Questions seek answers, inquiry provokes insight. Reflective statements include summarizing, paraphrasing, acknowledging key points and phrases the person said, and sharing what emotions and shifts they expressed. When we use reflective statements, people hear their words, see how their beliefs form their perceptions, and face the emotions they are expressing. Then, when we follow up with a confirming question (is this true for you?) or an exploratory question (starting with who, what, when, or how to help the person dissect their thoughts), we prompt them to stop and examine their thinking.
We use reflective statements to trigger people to reflect on how they think.
Reflective statements hold up the mirror to observe what is going on in the brain. When I share with someone what I heard them say and what sounded like they most want to happen, they naturally stop and look into their words to either validate or correct my observations. As they continue to share their views about a situation, further reflections and questions can lead them to more objectively contemplate the value of their beliefs and what is getting in the way of seeing or acting on solutions to a problem. Reflective statements combined with questions prompt new thinking.
In 1945, in light of Dewey’s work, Vannevar Bush predicted the emergence of a new profession of trailblazers he called Knowledge Sherpas to help people sort through their thoughts. That profession rose up in numbers 50 years later.
Today’s we call them coaches.
Why We Need Knowledge Sherpas
Adults need someone to help them think through dilemmas as much as children, and sometimes more. As we age, we become more rigid in our thinking. We become masters at rationalizing our actions, ignoring our emotions, and finding what confirms our beliefs. We don’t distance ourselves from social pressures. We’re too busy to stop and examine our beliefs and choices.
Dewey said that reflective inquiry would not only open a person to learning, but also bring to light stereotypes and biases inherited without deliberation. By bringing beliefs, assumptions, judgments, fears, needs, and conflicts of values to the surface, a person can better evaluate their decisions and actions.
Dewey said that provoking people to think about their thinking was the “single most powerful antidote to erroneous beliefs and autopilot.”
Dewey also said the most intelligent people need the most help with thinking about their thinking. Smart people are the best rationalizers. They wholeheartedly believe their reasoning and will protect their opinions as solid facts.
Even the best coach can only meet bright people half way. To be open to learning, all people must be willing to accept, or at least tolerate, uncertainty. From this place, they can deliberately contemplate the source of their thoughts and what other possibilities they might consider.
Leadership expert Hal Gregersen says unexpected shifts are always around the corner in life and business. We must go beyond the bounds of what we know. Yet our brains resist this exploration no matter how hard we try to break down why we think the way we do.
In this complex, chaotic, information overloaded world, coaching is a great resource to efficiently navigate daily dilemmas. Coaches who use reflective inquiry as defined by Dewey are Thinking Partners and Knowledge Sherpas. They help people trail blaze their brains.
Are you a Knowledge Sherpa? If so, I applaud you for not only helping people see the best way forward more clearly, you are helping to awaken minds to new worlds of possibility. How awesome!
IF YOU COACH AND LIKED (or didn’t like) THIS POST – please let me know. For the next few months, I will be sharing research and practice tips with you for my new book, THE COACH’S GUIDE TO REFLECTIVE INQUIRY – 7 Essential Practices for Breakthrough Coaching, to be released spring 2020. I welcome your questions as well.
- Dewey, John. How We Think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process, Revised version. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, ©1998. Free downloads on Amazon created by volunteers for the Public Library.
- Maria Popova, “How We Think: John Dewey on the Art of Reflection and Fruitful Curiosity in an Age of Instant Opinions and Information Overload.” Brain Pickings, https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/08/18/how-we-think-john-dewey/ Aug. 2014.
- Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct. 2011
- Gregersen, Hal. “Bursting the CEO Bubble” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2017, pp 76-83