The other day I was working with a student—let's call her "Sally." She came across an averages math problem accompanied by a table displaying some data points. The question asked for the average spending over five days.
"I don't just need to find the average of these numbers, do I?" she asked.
Rather than telling her yes or no, I answered with another question: "What do the numbers represent?"
Here's the thing: if I weren't there, and Sally asked herself the question that she asked me, she'd be stuck. How often has that happened to you? You are making a decision on a test or in life, and all you can think to ask yourself is "Should I do this?" or "Is this the correct answer?" It's actually quite defeating, because at the moment you are asking the question you don't know the answer, and asking the question doesn't bring you any closer to knowing it. It's like asking yourself, "What is the meaning of life?" It won't necessarily take you anywhere.
A much better strategy when this sort of an "Am I right?" question comes up is to ask yourself a different question. Another question will give you new information.
Returning back to the discussion with my student: Once I asked her what the numbers in the table represented, she could hardly reply to me before answering the test question. By defining what the information on the table represented—i.e.: that the data points represented daily spending—she naturally understood that not only should she take the average of the numbers, it was the only possible way to solve the problem.
Sally had a "lightbulb moment." Lightbulb moments aren't as mysterious as they seem; they simply come from answering enough other questions that you have a "breakthrough" insight.
My yoga teacher often says this about physical misalignments: "You can't fix an issue from where the issue is— you have to go everywhere else, and the issue will fix itself." It's the same thing.
Albert Einstein phrased it somewhat differently: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." Also the same thing.
This "don't solve a problem from the perspective of the problem" way of thinking is a trope that repeats over and over in our lives. The way to apply it here is to ask more questions:
It also applies to other sections. Last week, we discussed comma splices as they come up in the English/Writing sections. When deciding if a comma alone is the correct punctuation, you don't just ask if a comma is sufficient. Rather, you ask if the clauses on either side of the comma are independent. In a Critical Reading question, you can ask yourself, "Where do they talk about [key word from question] in the passage?" In Science, you can ask yourself what variables are being tested. And so on.
Ask questions. Ask more questions. By answering questions, you glean new information about the problem. New information leads to new insights. New insights lead to inspired actions.
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