Critical Thinking Training Through Storytelling

How many stories did you tell today?  One?  Two?  Twenty?

How many stories did you hear?  Can you remember the image you had in your mind when you heard the story?  Could you envision what the characters looked like even if you’ve never met them?

Have you ever met someone and thought “Oh, that’s not what I thought she’d look like”?

We are natural storytellers.  We also naturally create a mental image to go along with the stories we hear or read.  Those mental images stick with us and help us remember the details of the story long term.

And that is why training through storytelling is so effective.

Tell me 10 facts and I may not remember them.  Tell me 10 stories about how those facts made an impact on your life and I will remember them forever.

A great example of successful storytelling in a training context is the FISH Philosophy.  Tell me it’s important to have fun at work, and I’ll roll my eyes at you.  SHOW me a real story of how working in a stinky fish market can be made fun, entertaining, and improve the customer experience, and I’ll remember it for years (for me it has been 11 years to be exact).

Storytelling can be particularly effective in critical thinking training too.  Some people shy away from critical thinking training because it doesn’t sound fun.  It sounds academic and philosophical.  It doesn’t have to be.

By starting with an engaging story of effective thinking, you can create a mental image of how critical thinking works.  Learners can connect with the characters and envision how they would have handled a similar situation.

That’s what Pearson TalentLens is doing with their new half-day training program THINK Now!  Learners start by reading the Now You’re Thinking! book to connect with a heartwarming, heroic story of phenomenal thinking, problem solving and decision making.  Then they take the My Thinking Styles assessment so they can learn which of the 7 Powerful Thinking Styles is their natural approach to thinking.

Next, the trainer connects the story of how Marines saved the life of a 2-year old girl to the 5 Steps to New Thinking and the Thinking Styles.  To create an even stronger mental connection between the critical thinking model and the real-life story described in the Now You’re Thinking! book, the trainer shows video interviews of the Marines involved in saving Amenah’s life.

Participants walk away from the training with a strong understanding of a critical thinking model AND a real life example of how the use of that model has been successful in the past.  Additionally, when they recall the individual differences of each thinking style, they will remember a character from the story that embodied the characteristics of that style.

It is that meaningful connection and mental image that will reinforce the lessons learned for months and years to come.   Try telling a story with a life lesson today and see how long your employees remember it.  You will be amazed by the results.

How do you train critical thinking in your organization?

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Decisions (The Story of the Oregon Trail Game)

Months ago Heather Ishikawa, a co-author “Now You’re Thinking!” said something that really stuck with me:  “If you can change the way you think, you can change the world.”

The statement still gives me goosebumps.

Since then I have read hundreds of stories about ordinary people who challenge the standard way of thinking, break down barriers, try something new, and make the world a better place.  It’s time to honor those individuals.

This is an example of an ordinary person who made an extraordinary decision that changed the world.

Our first story is about Don Rawitsch, the creator of the Oregon Trail computer and video game.  Don was a student teacher in 1971 struggling to teach his students in a low-income area of Minneapolis about the importance of the Oregon Trail.  He had dressed up as historical figures to tell the students about the adventure, but felt he needed to take the lesson a step further.  On the floor of his apartment, he created a board game that the students could play to understand the day-to-day challenges of the journey.

When Don’s roommates (Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann) came home, they were impressed but thought it could be even better.  They had each only taken a few computer programming courses, but thought it would be a great computer game.  In a matter of days, the first iteration of the Oregon Trail was created and was a huge success.  Despite it’s clunky nature (there wasn’t even a computer monitor back then) and single-player functionality, students lined up to play and learn about the historic event.

As a child of the 80′s myself, I clearly remember the excitement of “computer day” when we got to play Oregon Trail for an hour.  I remember learning to strategize and plan by buying supplies at the store, deciding how long to travel vs. rest, when to hunt (and how much), and whether to caulk my wagon or ford the river.  I remember members of my party dying of measles, dysentery, and exhaustion.  The message was brought home when that individual’s name was scrawled on a tombstone along the trail.  Not only did I learn what an amazing feat that travel was, but I would argue that the Oregon Trail video game was the first game that helped me build decision making skills.

And it all started with a student teacher trying to teach a group of poverty stricken students about an amazing historic event. 

Don Rawitsch was an ordinary person who thought differently, and changed the world.  He didn’t stick to the lesson plan.  He didn’t use the notes and activities handed down by teachers before him.  He didn’t limit himself by the lack of resources and opportunities available to his students.  He challenged the status quo.

He changed the world with the most widely distributed educational game of all time.  Between 1974 and 2011, 65 Million copies have been sold.  This week, the Oregon Trail became available for play on Facebook.

“If you can change the way you think, you can change the world.”  It’s that simple.

Do you remember playing the Oregon Trail video game?

To read the full story of how the Oregon Trail video game was invented, click here.

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Thinking Differently About Teaching People with Dyslexia

For years, educators have struggled with how to help students with dyslexia learn to read at the same pace as their classmates.  Dyslexia is a type of learning disability that affects the way letters are visually perceived.  Letters such as “m” and “n” are easily confused, while other letters are flipped horizontally or vertically by the brain. ZWriting resized 600

As a result, individuals with dyslexia struggle to distinguish letters and words as quickly as individuals without the learning disability.  Dyslexia affects as much as 5-10% of the world population, and educators have learned to modify their teaching style to help their students.

However, Christian Boer may have revolutionized the world for people struggling with dyslexia.  He has created a new font that makes small adjustments to each letter that helps illuminate the differences between similar letters.

Watch the video below to learn more about the new font “Dyslexie”:

What problems are you trying to solve today?  

Panera Bread- Feeding the Needy by Thinking Differently

If you’ve visited the Panera Bread location in Clayton, MO, Portland, OR, or Dearborn, MI, you might have noticed something strange about the menu.  There are no prices. 

nonprofitx largeThat’s right, no set prices for menu items.  These 3 locations are actually non-profit community cafes called Panera Cares where customers choose what they would like to pay.

If you have money to spare, you can pay more than the typical price for your meal, but if you have nothing to offer you can still eat.  The cafe is not a “soup kitchen,” though, it is a way for members of the community to help one another when in need.  If someone cannot pay at all, they are not denied a meal, but they are urged to donate their time. They are also using the store as a way provide job/skills training to disadvantaged youth.

The 3 locations were chosen strategically.  They were placed in reasonably affluent neighborhoods with access to public transportation, which has allowed for a diverse clientele.

At these 3 locations, Panera Bread Foundation has found that about 20% of people pay more than the retail price for their meal while 20% pay less.  About 60% of people pay roughly the original retail value.  Within a few months of the first store opening, Panera Cares turned a profit (which they reinvest in skills training).

Who would have thought that removing the price from a menu would result in people paying more than the item is worth?  This is a great example of an organization thinking differently about how to approach a problem like feeding the needy.

Panera already donates between $100-150 Million in products each year by donating their “less fresh” baked goods to charitable organizations.  The Panera Cares cafe is just one more example of how this organization continues to take care of the community through healthy meals, discounted or free items, and skills training.

Kudos to Panera for “thinking differently.

How can you make a difference today?

(image source credit to Tim A. Parker of USA Today)

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Decisions: Khan Academy

Have you ever tried to help a sibling, child, or friend with their homework?  Salman Khanwas asked to help his cousin Nadia with her math problems in 2004, and he turned that simple request into a non-profit organization that has helped 38 million YouTube viewers worldwide.

Salman is a 33 year old from New Orleans who just wanted to help his cousin and other family members learn math.  Before I talk about his “Extraordinary Decision” I should be clear that I don’t consider Salman “ordinary” in any traditional sense of the term.  He received a perfect score on the math section of the SAT’s, holds degrees in mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer science in addition to an MBA from Harvard.  He’s wicked smart! However, he was an average person in the sense that he was holding down a full time job and he just wanted to help his cousin learn how to solve math problems.

Salman began remotely tutoring his cousin online and over time realized it would be more efficient to record his lessons and post them on YouTube.  As the popularity of his videos grew, he realized the need for “free education” provided in a simple, direct, and relaxed approach.  Today, Salman has produced over 2,000 ten-minute videos on YouTube ranging from elementary school mathematics to college level calculus (where was this when I was in undergrad?).  He averages 35,000 hits per day and has big plans for the future of Khan Academy?  Monetization, right?


Khan has received several offers to sell his videos and the Khan Academy and turned each one down.  The organization itself is a non-profit.  Khan could likely retire today based on the offers he has received.  Google has even contributed $2 Million to translate the videos into additional languages.  The possibilities are endless.  Individuals in the most remote areas of the world can receive world-class tutoring with the click of the mouse.  It’s amazing.

As if the story isn’t extraordinary enough already, consider the fact that Salman has been named one of Fortune Magazine’s “Top 40 under 40″ (a prestigious list of rising entrepreneurs) and even Bill Gates said he uses the Khan Academy to teach his kids.

What I find truly extraordinary is his perspective on selling Khan Academy:

“I’ve been approached several times, but it just didn’t feel right. When I’m 80, I want to feel that I helped give access to a world-class education to billions of students around the world.”

As far as his long-term vision, he says:

“I see Khan Academy becoming the world’s first free, world-class virtual school where anyone can learn anything–for free.

The videos are just part of the vision. We hope to build out the adaptive software to cover all the topics that the videos cover. We also intend to develop simulation games to give more nuanced and applied understanding of concepts.”

I am amazed and inspired by Salman Khan’s brilliance, innovation, and philanthropy.

Salman Khan decided to think differently, and he is changing the world.

How did you make a difference in the world today?


Now You’re Thinking Creatively: Creative Thinking in Inventionland

Take a look around your office.  What does it inspire- productivity, social collaboration, positivity, efficiency?  What if instead of looking at the 3 walls of your cubicle every day, you looked out at a lagoon complete with a waterfall?  What would that inspire?

For George Davison and the 250 employees of Davison, the environment is key to their creative thinking.  Davison has created over 900 products seen in stores worldwide.  They have invented everything from The Meatball Baker to a Portable Explosive Detector, and their products can be found at Walmart, Skymall, QVC, Sears, Cabella’s, Lowe’s, Home Depot and many more well-known stores.

While on a family trip to Disney World, George Davison realized that during the trip many of the problems he’d been struggling with in the office seemed to have new solutions when he was inspired by the world around him.  He believed that the change in atmosphere made a big difference in his creative process.  So, he headed back to the office and invented Inventionland!

Inventionland is the Willy Wonka of design factories.  The staff don’t work in cubicles or corner offices.  They work in the hull of a ship, a race car track, a castle, or a tree house. Check out these pictures from DailyMail and see more pictures from the office here.


In the book “Now You’re Thinking” the authors suggest that when presented with a difficult problem or situation “If you can, get some space or take a walk. A change in the scenery can have a tremendous impact on your ability to think through a situation.”

Just imagine if that walk/change of scenery included a “house made of a shoe” or candy inspired bungalo! Kudos to George Davison and the Inventionland creators for reminding us that sometimes to change your thinking, you must change your scenery.

Where do you go to think creatively?

Watch a timelapse video showing the building of Inventionland below.


Thinking Differently About Disabilities

Heather Ishikawa, co-author of Now You’re Thinking!, once told me a great story about finding creative solutions.

She told me about a company that was having trouble with their Packaging Department.  The company started using old newspapers to wrap their delicate items before shipping.  Using old newspapers helped them save money (because the newspapers were donated) and helped lessen the impact on the environment.

However, they realized that their employees’ productivity slowed once they transitioned from using plain brown wrapping paper to the old newspapers.  It turned out the employees were reading the newspaper as they used it for wrapping.

So, they brainstormed ways to keep the newspapers, but remove the problem of reduced productivity.  They exercised a brainstorming technique called “suspension of judgement” which meant that every idea was worth considering, no matter how silly it may sound.  The question became “how do we stop employees from reading the newspapers while they wrap the products?”  Ideas included dying the newspapers, hiring non-English speakers, and dimming the lights in the warehouse.836231 do you trust me resized 600

In the end, the idea that seemed the most surprising became the perfect solution.  Someone suggested that they blindfold employees.  While blindfolding probably wouldn’t go over well with the employees, the idea made them realize that they hadn’t considered hiring individuals who were visually impaired.  The company ended up hiring individuals who were blind and productivity instantly skyrocketed.

This is such a great example of creative and critical thinking.  This company was able to “think differently” by considering every possible solution to the problem.

I was reminded of this story when I watched the following video on this evening.  Some people might think it is impossible for blind people to drive, but this company is choosing to think differently about how to put visually-impaired individuals behind the wheel.

How can you think differently about a challenge you’re working on today?

Now You’re Thinking! Introduces the RED Model of Critical Thinking

In the first half of Now You’re Thinking! we explain how one example of effective and collaborative thinking helped save the life of a 2 year-old Iraqi girl named Amenah.  The story of how the Marines and dozens of volunteers helped pull together to solve this complex problem is truly inspiring and worthy of admiration.

But the ability to think critically isn’t reserved only for heart surgeons, decorated soldiers, and executives.  We can all improve our thinking ability with a few easy to remember steps.  That’s why the authors of Now You’re Thinking! want you to STOP and THINK.

In the second half of Now You’re Thinking! the RED Model of Critical Thinking is explained as one way you can remember to STOP and THINK to ensure better thinking.  In the short video clip below, author Heather Ishikawa explains how to apply the RED Model of Critical Thinking to every day decisions and problems:

Research Shows Better Decision-Making = More Money!

Harvard Business Review conducted research with Bain & Company where they surveyed executives worldwide from 760 companies, most with revenues exceeding 1 billion to understand how effective those companies were at making and executing their critical decisions. This 2010 research showed that decision effectiveness and financial results correlated 95% or higher for every country, industry, and company size in the sample. The companies that were most effective at decision making and execution generated total shareholder returns nearly 6 percentage points higher than those of other firms.

The research found that, “a companies value is no more (and no less) than the sum of the decisions it makes and executes. Its assets, capabilities, and structure are useless unless executives and managers throughout the organization make the essential decisions and get those decisions right more often than not.”

Based on their research, the article suggests that it is important to sync an organizational structure and the organization’s decision making approach.

The article outlined 6 steps to focus on when aligning an organization with decision making.

1.      Be clear about which decisions are most important (Recognize and confirm assumptions)

2.      Figure out where in the organization those decisions need to be made (Evaluate the information)

3.      Organize your structure around sources of value

4.      Figure out the level of authority your decision makers need and give it to them

5.      Adjust other parts of your organizational system to support decision making and execution

6.      Equip your managers to make decisions quickly (Make sure that your decision allows your managers to be empowered)


How do you ensure decision-making alignment within your organization?


Editor’s Note:  Heather Ishikawa is a co-author of Now You’re Thinking! and the National Sales Director for Pearson TalentLens.  She is a career human resources professional with extensive experience in training, selection, organizational development, executive coaching, leadership development, team-building, and critical thinking skills training.  She holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Management and can be contacted at

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