John Dewey (1859-1952) is considered to be one of our foremost American philosophers (Dewey, 1991). His little book, How We Think, first written over ninety years ago, examined how we think and was given by Dewey as a series of instructional lectures on the subject of thought processing. Dewey thought that as educators, it is our responsibility to learn how to think ourselves, and then teach children how to think, which in turn would promote their happiness and productivity. He began by identifying just what thought was and separated types of thoughts into four categories.
Dewey’s categories of thought processes The first category is simply everything that is in our heads, all that randomly floats through our minds, without connection to anything in particular. The second category is thinking that does not have a specific goal in mind leading to knowledge, fact, or truth, but may have structure such as plot or climax. This imaginative capacity does not aim at reflective thought though it may precede it and may be used towards emotional congruity. Because of the randomness of this type of thinking it can easily be misused. However, it can also be a source of inspiration and may lead to the discovery of new horizons before unimagined.
The third type of thought processing that Dewey identified was thinking that rested upon belief. He further divided this category into those beliefs which are pre-judgments accepted from their source, however obscure. The other denotes those thoughts that are accepted as true only after and as a result of careful examination. Some of these thoughts come to us from deeply embedded knowledge that was never truly examined.
Reflective thought, Dewey’s fourth category is defined as that thought process by which we consider the basis of our beliefs and their logical conclusions. It includes working out implications of hypotheses and comparison of fact with a theory. It did not preclude mistakes but it did rest on “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey, 1997, orig. 1910)
Dewey pointed out the rather aggravating point that the four categories of thought can and do most certainly go on simultaneously within us, day-by-day. This needs to be carefully observed within ourselves. Dewey went on to the elements of reflective thought which he listed as perplexity, hesitation, doubt, active searching, testing, corroboration and/or nullification. The mind’s demand for a solution is the guiding light in the reflective process.
Human thought processing is a very big subject. One small observation for educators is that all of us move between the four types of thought processing all the time – the students and the teachers. We have to be very clear where we allow our thinking and our conversations to go. Petty issues have a needling way of getting mixed up with major decisions. We have to keep our eyes on our prize!