Subject: Thinking and Writing – Montaigne’s Essays

Event:  Montaigne begins writing essays, 1571

The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.  –William H. Gass

On this day in 1571 in Bordeaux, France, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne sat down to write.  It was his 38th birthday, and he had just retired from public life, where he held a seat in the Bordeaux parliament.  What Montaigne wrote that day and what he would write for the next twenty years influenced countless future thinkers and writers.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne (Wikimedia Commons)

Montaigne wrote essays, but he wasn’t just writing essays, he was inventing the genre.  He called his compositions “essais” from the French verb “essayer” meaning “to try.”  An essay, therefore, is an “attempt” or a “trial” where the writer attempts to address a question and figure it out (1).  Unlike the concept we have today of beginning an essay with a thesis – a statement of belief – the original idea of the essay was instead to begin with a question.  The attempt to answer this question in writing then becomes the process by which a writer explores his or her thinking, getting ideas down on paper so that they can be examined.  The act of writing, then, becomes the act of forming ideas and exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks.  In this sense, the essay becomes a form of metacognition, — thinking about your own thinking.  The abstract thoughts of a writer are transformed into visible words on paper.  This allows writers to see what they know and what they don’t know.  By further rumination, examination, and revision of those thoughts, they can crystallize their thoughts, making them more clear to themselves and to an audience.

Montaigne’s essays were intensely personal.  He wrote about sleep, smells, idleness, anger, repentance, and thumbs, but his main subject was always himself.  By expressing and exploring ideas about himself in writing, he discovered that he not only understood himself better but also understood his own thoughts and his own thoughts about the world.

For example, in the following excerpt from his essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” notice how Montaigne explores the idea of inconsistent human behavior by honestly confronting his own character and actions:

For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. (2)

Montaigne reminds us of the power of writing not just as a way of expressing what we know, but also of discovering what we know by getting our thinking down on paper.  When we write, therefore, we aren’t just learning how to write, we are writing to learn.

Read the four quotations below, noting how each of the writers vividly illustrates the connection between thinking and writing:

Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper.  They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable.  -R.D. Walshe

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. -Dennis Sparks

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser

Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.  -Paul Graham

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What kind of essays did Montaigne write, and what can we learn from him about the power of writing?

Challenge – Thinking in Ink:  What is a question that you have about some aspect of universal human experience, such as anger, happiness, love, lying, or marriage?  Select a universal human theme and form a question about that theme that you do not have a definitive answer to.  Explore that question in a personal essay by writing about different ways the question might be answered and by answering it based on your own memory, observations, and experiences. Don’t commit yourself to supporting a single thesis; instead, try to truly explore your own ideas in writing to see what new thinking emerges.


1-”Michel de Montaigne.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2-Montaigne, Michel de. “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.”


Subject:  Metacognition – Copernicus’ Definition of True Knowledge

Event:  Birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473

Today is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who not only changed the world as we know it, but also the universe.  

Nicolaus Copernicus (Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Poland in 1473, Copernicus was both a polyglot and a polymath.  He spoke Latin, German, Polish, Greek, and Italian.  In addition to holding a doctorate in canon law, he was also a physician, mathematician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist.  Today, we know him best as the astronomer who challenged the orthodox belief that Earth was the center of the universe.  Fifteen-hundred years after the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy established his theory that the planets, the sun, and the stars revolved around a stationary Earth, Copernicus presented his revolutionary theory.  He claimed that not only did the Earth rotate on its axis, but also that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun.  Copernicus’ work in astronomy was the quintessential achievement of the Renaissance, totally transforming mankind’s view of the universe and paving the way for future work by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

A true man of science and of learning, Copernicus embodied the Renaissance ideals of searching for knowledge and challenging conventional wisdom. His opus On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was published in 1543, the same year he died (1).

One quotation that typifies Copernicus’ scientific approach is one that uses simple terms to express a profound insight:

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

Today cognitive psychologists sum up Copernicus’ insight using a single term: metacognitionMeta is Greek for “about,” and cognition is Latin for “to know.” Metacognition, therefore, is “thinking about thinking.”  More than just being aware that we think, metacognition is the process of monitoring our own thinking.

As Copernicus reminds us, metacognition is not just what we know, it is also being aware of what we don’t know, as well as being aware of the ways we sometimes delude ourselves.  To understand the ways we think best and the ways we fall short of sound thinking, we should always keep in mind the relationship between both knowledge and ignorance.  

Notice, for example, how the following wise voices from the past express this relationship:

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.  –Confucius

-The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

-The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance. — Socrates

-The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. — Elbert Hubbard

-To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge. — Benjamin Disraeli

-The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. — Frank Herbert

In the book Make It Stick, the authors discuss one specific learning strategy that employs metacognition to help learners be more productive and more efficient in their study.  The strategy is called retrieval practice, and recent studies have documented that this strategy is much more effective than rereading a text, highlighting a text, or even reviewing notes.

The key aspect of retrieval practice is self-quizzing or testing.  When reading a text or listening to a lecture, therefore, the student should generate questions for self-testing.  Once the student has finished reading or listening, he or she should use the questions to recall and recite out loud the facts, concepts, or events from memory, without using the book or notes for reference.  The basic premise of retrieval practice is that learning that sticks is learning that is effortful.  Furthermore, the effortful act of retrieving knowledge from memory strengthens the memory, increasing the likelihood that knowledge will stay in long-term memory.  Like walking an unfamiliar path through the woods, the more you travel the path, the more confidence you have in remembering your way without getting lost.  Retrieval practice also decreases the likelihood that students will delude themselves into believing they know what they don’t know. Since the strategy requires that students recite answers aloud without notes, they are able to exercise good metacognition by clearly determining what they know and what they don’t quite know yet (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is retrieval practice and how does it relate to metacognition?

Challenge – What Do You Know?

How can you apply retrieval practice to increase your metacognition?  Select an article or short story that you have not read before.  As you read the passage, write down three questions based on the key ideas you’re reading.  When you finish the reading, put the passage away, and attempt to answer each of your questions by reciting the answers out loud.  As you answer each question, rate your level of confidence with your answer on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being you feel highly confident; 1 being you need to look back at the passage to answer).  Once you have finished, take a moment to reflect on the strategy.  How did it feel to answer out loud?  Do you feel like this strategy will work for you in the future? 


1-”Nicolaus Copernicus” – New Mexico Museum of Space History

2-Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.  Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2014.


Subject: Parallel Thinking – Six Thinking Hats 

Event: Edward De Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats published, 1985

You have heard of the Mad Hatter, but have you heard of the Colorful Caps of Cognition?

On January 1, 1985, Edward De Bono published his book Six Thinking Hats.  De Bono is known for coining the term “lateral thinking,” which involves solving problems via indirect, creative approaches.  In Six Thinking Hats, he presents a different type of thinking, a type of thinking that might be even more radical and unorthodox than lateral thinking;  De Bono calls it parallel thinking. 

With parallel thinking, De Bono has the audacity to take on the Greek Gang of Three:  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  De Bono concedes that 2,400 years ago the GG3 established argumentation as an effective method for seeking the truth.  However, De Bono is concerned with the limits of argument because it is too negative, too ego-driven, and too limited for the creative exploration of ideas. Too often argumentative thinking puts us at each other’s throats; De Bono’s vision was to try to put us at each other’s side — thinking together.

Six Thinking Hats.jpg

The antidote to these limits is the Six Thinking Hats which divides thinking into six distinctly different modes.  When working with a group to solve a problem, De Bono’s key rule is that everyone must employ the same mode of thinking at the same time. This is what he means by parallel thinking:  instead of facing off against each other with clashing claims and arguments in the traditional debate format, parallel thinking has everyone facing the same direction.  Everyone in the group puts on the same thinking cap, facing the issue as a team as they generate ideas and possible solutions.  This prevents anyone in the group from slipping into instinctive negative, adversarial thinking that shuts down the generation and exploration of ideas. Each of the six hats represents a different mode or perspective.  By everyone taking the same perspective at the same time, the thinking becomes more systematic and less chaotic.

First is the Blue Hat.  It’s the metacognition hat, the hat where we think about our thinking.  The Blue Hat allows everyone to organize their thinking, deciding the sequence in which they will wear the other five hats.

Here are the thinking modes and colors of the other hats, in no particular order:

White Hat: Focus only on information and facts, not arguments. Identify the information you have, and ask questions about what information is missing and where you might find it. 

Red Hat: Focus on feelings, emotion, and intuition. What feelings and emotions do you have regarding the issue?  Don’t worry about explaining your feelings or about needing to logically justify them.

Black Hat:  Focus on critical thinking and judgment, looking for weaknesses and problems. This is where everyone in the group gets to play Devil’s Advocate.

Yellow Hat: Focus on positive thinking, looking for the benefits and the value of an idea. This is where everyone forgets about the “cons,” focusing ONLY on the “pros.”

Green Hat:  Focus on creative thinking, generating ideas and alternatives without judging them.

The goal of the Six Hats method is to reduce the chaos normally associated with thinking.  Instead of juggling multiple modes at the same time, the parallel thinking approach allows an individual or a group to focus the thinking in one direction at a time.  For De Bono, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, the Six Thinking Hats method is not just theory; he has made practical application of it for years, working with corporations, educators, and government leaders around the world.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is parallel thinking, and what are the six different modes of thinking represented by the six different colors of De Bono’s hats?

Challenge – The Six Pack Thinking App:  Apply the Six Thinking Hats to the following proposition:  “The electoral college should be abolished.”  List ideas by trying on and thinking with one hat at a time.  Once you’ve created a list with ideas for each of the Six Hats, put on the Blue Hat again, and reflect on what ideas you produced that you might not have if you took a traditional approach of arguing for or against the proposition.

Also on this day: The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to learn about the fresh start effect and the work of Katherine Milkman.


Sources:  De Bono, Edward.  Six Thinking Hats.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 1985.