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Lateral thinking – Part 1



This week I begin with some serious stuff (as serious as it gets, because I’m talking about thinking) and then I’m setting a brain-teaser, by way of a little fun. Lateral thinking is a term developed by the Maltese psychologist, philosopher and author Edward de Bono. He has devised many brain-teasers of the kind I’m setting you this week and next, as a way of demonstrating how lateral thinking works (I can’t remember if the two puzzles I’m setting come from one of his books, or if I picked them up elsewhere; in my case, a bit more lateral memory would come in useful). In his books de Bono has argued strongly for the teaching of thinking in schools. Of course every subject taught in school requires thought (I can imagine the children of my adopted Lesotho family scratching their heads at this point), but de Bono would like to see it taught as a subject in itself. This brings two things to mind. First, years ago I attended a conference at the University of Technology in Chemnitz, Germany. Proceedings began with an address by the VC, a very amiable and impressive South African Professor of Engineering. He asked, why does a University of Technology set such store by its Departments of Languages and Linguistics and of Philosophy? Because, he said, that is where critical thinking has its headquarters. Now, of course, every subject from biochemistry to demography engages in critical thinking, but the Departments he mentioned tackle this as a concern in itself (Language and Linguistics Departments do so because we think through the medium of language. Except for Donald Trump, that is, who evidently thinks through the medium of cheeseburgers). Second, I was very happy to read a report a few months ago on a project to teach Aristotle to UK 11-year-olds. Teaching Aristotle is a very strong way of getting kids to learn about thinking (and speaking). One of the teachers commented: “There is a real desire for children to feel clever. Teachers historically have been guilty, on occasion, of thinking children aren’t capable of some of the things they are. We look at an 11-year-old and think they need to be reading books that are aimed at 11-year-olds. Actually, lots of kids don’t want that.” Spot on, I say. When I was eleven, apart from Pooh, my favourite books were by Agatha Christie. I must have been a pretty scary little brat. Now, back to lateral thinking. The puzzles Edward de Bono devised begin with A (the Answerer) briefly recounting a situation. Q (the Questioner) then has to work out how the situation came about by asking questions to which the Answerer can only respond “yes” or “no.” The trick—or skill, rather—is not to get stuck in a groove, concentrating on just one aspect of the situation (asking, for example, in the case below, too many questions about broken glass and ignoring other features). Rather, you should think your way across every aspect of the situation (hence the term “lateral”) until you can build up a complete picture. I’ll give the answer to the puzzle below next week. If any reader can’t stand the suspense but wants me to provide the answer earlier by e-mail, I can do so for a modest fee of M100. Here goes. SITUATION. Mary is standing in the middle of her kitchen, crying her eyes out. On the floor lies Joe, dead. Around Joe there is broken glass and water. Q: Did Mary kill Joe? A: Yes. Q: Was Joe her husband? A: No. Q: Her boyfriend? A: No. Q: A relative? A: No. Q: An intruder? A: No. [Hint: too many questions about Joe’s identity at this point. Be more lateral] Q: You said that Mary killed Joe? A: Yes. Q: Was it deliberate? A: No. Q: Where did the broken glass come from? A: I can only answer “yes” or “no.” Q: Whoops. Was it from a bottle? A: No. Q: A window? A: No. Q: A mirror? A: No. Q: A glass revolver? A: ?? No! [Hint: way too many questions about glass]. Q: What kind of water is it? Er, bottled water? A: No. [At this point when I tried the puzzle on a housemate he asked “Is it Mary’s tears?” That really would be floods of tears.] Q: Tap water? A: Yes. Q [after a great deal of frantic head-scratching]: “I give up.” Answer next week. Oh, for those of you who want the answer earlier, I’ve just put the fee up to M200. Times are hard. To be concluded Chris Dunton

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