Sparks of Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Sparks of GeniusSparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools
Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein
Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company (1999)

A brilliant examination of “the whole point of gourmet thinking and education”

I agree with Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein: “By half-understanding the nature of thinking, teachers only half-understand how to teach and students only half-understand how to learn.” If true and I am convinced that it is, the knowledge exchanges to which the Root-Bernsteins refer include both formal and informal education. Whatever the nature and extent of the given teaching-learning situation, “it is imperative that we learn to use the feelings, emotions, and intuitions that are the bases of creative imagination. That is the whole point of gourmet thinking and education.”

Since this book was published more than a decade ago, there has been significant research conducted on metacognition – especially creative thinking — that adds to the support of several of the Root-Bernsteins’ key points. For example, as they explain, “Creative thinking in all fields occurs preverbally, before logic and linguistics comes into play, manifesting itself through emotions, intuitions, images, and bodily feelings.” Only by formulating a new conception of knowledge can we formulate a new form of both formal and informal education. The Root-Bernsteins wrote this book to explain how to do that. More specifically, they studied some of the world’s most creative thinkers in the arts and sciences, then share in this book what they learned from them.

Consider these two quotations, first from Paul Horgan: “Illusion is first of all needed to find the powers of which the self is capable”; then from Albert Einstein: “In creative work, imagination is more important than knowledge.” However, as the Root-Bernsteins affirm, they are both important, in fact they are interdependent. “Fantasy and imagination suggest how the world might be; knowledge and experience limit the possibilities; melding the two begets understanding. Without the illusions of the mind, a clear grasp of reality is impossible, and vice versa.”

I am greatly indebted to Howard Gardner and his research in the field of multiple intelligences. The Root-Bernsteins may have had that concept in mind as they conducted their own research for this book. They may also agree with a paraphrasing of Walt Whitman’s affirmation in “Song of Myself,” that human beings are “large,” they contain “multitudes.”

When I first read the book and then re-read it recently, these are three of the subjects of greatest interest and value to me:

o There is a common set of thinking tools at the heart of creative understanding that need to be mastered: observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patterns, forming patterns, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming, and synthesizing (what Roger Martin describes as integrative thinking). The Root-Bernsteins thoroughly discuss each, citing various creative thinkers and including their own thoughts about how they use one or more of them.

o The Root-Bernsteins stress “six important points about these thirteen tools” (Pages 27-29), noting that most people can at least try to “unite Illusions and Reality into Understanding through the medium of Tools for Thinking.”

o In Chapter 16, after having “teased apart the threads of creative thinking and rewoven them into a synthetic understanding of innovation,” they shift their attention to explaining “a new kind of transdiciplinary, synthetic education.” First they note, “we need not change what we teach. At synthetic education requires only that we change how we teach, bearing eight goals in mind.” (Pages 316-319)

Those who read this book with appropriate care will be generously rewarded by the substance and quality of the content, brilliantly presented by the Root-Bernsteins in their lively and eloquent narrative. After reading and then re-reading Sparks of Genius, I have concluded that “the whole point of gourmet thinking and education” involves a never-ending process of exploration and discovery rather than any one head-snapping insight, a process best viewed as a journey. Think of Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein as your travel agents, then as you expert guides. Bon voyage!

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