Saturday, February 16, 2013

An Introduction to Integrative Thinking

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management's first I-Think event for educators.  The Rotman School of Management teaches Integrative Thinking , the ability to work with two diametrically opposed ideas and from them generate an idea that is better than either.  Attending the one day event has profoundly deepened my understanding of thinking and made me recognize just how limited my own thinking is. What we were introduced to yesterday were tools for moving beyond those limitations. The techniques we learned are taught in Rotman's renowned MBA program and that Roger Martin recognizes that these thinking tools need to be introduced to much younger learners and has developed an initiative to do so is a credit to the school.

We began the day by examining our mental constructs, how we form ideas and where our beliefs about the world come from. We learned how our brain gathers data and from that data we form pictures of the world and that these pictures are always incomplete representations. Based on those incomplete mental maps, we make assumptions, draw conclusions, form beliefs, make decisions and take action. We tend to ignore the less significant and avoid complexity but it is in examining the less significant and being able to contend with complexity that powerful ideas and superior solutions are found. We were introduced to The Ladder of Inference as a tool for dealing with our own mental constructs but also as a means of understanding how and why others think the way they do.

One of the sessions I attended yesterday was run by Nogah Kornberg. During it we learned how to find solutions to problems by working with two extremely opposite ideas to generate a better idea. The problem we worked with was designing a better school. We began with extremes:

1. The Traditional School
2.  The Online School
... and building a collective understanding of what those terms mean.

During this session I learned how important it is to develop clarity. One person's definition of "traditional" is not the same as another's. Solutions cannot be found unless we understand each other's definitions.  I learned that the two most important prompts to achieve clarity are:

"Tell me more ..."  and "What do you mean by that?"

We then went on to identify how stakeholders benefit from each model.  The stakeholders we worked with were:

1. Parents/Students                        2. Schools                    3. The Community

Once again, as we identified the points of views of the stakeholders, we spent a great deal of time clarifying what we meant. This caused us at times to have to reframe our definitions of Traditional and Online Schools.  Underpinning this entire discussion was the building of empathy -understanding needs of others - something that has been identified as an essential skill in 21st century learners.

We then identified, must haves - elements from each that we were not willing to give up. 

At this point, we ran out of time, but the next step would have been to use the information to invent a new model of school.

Nogah introduced us to the work of Taddy Blecher who used this method to develop and implement a free university model for Africa.

My next session was run by Christopher Federico, who taught us about Wicked Problems, how to think deeply by identifying the components of a problem and then how to use integrative thinking tools to begin finding solutions.  We worked with the problem of gun violence in the USA.  When we started, I honestly thought there were no solutions to this problem given that such extremely opposite points of view exist.  We started with the ladder of inference to try to identify the data that forms each side's point of view, and the benefits each sees in their point of view. Next in our groups we had to break down the problem by identifying links of causality

From this we saw that they way to begin solving a wicked problem is to change the conversation and address elements of the problems. We also saw that it is possible to find solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholders.

The best part of the day, however, was listening to 3 students from John Polanyi CI who had taken a one semester course on integrative thinking. They described the impact the course has had on their thinking and their lives. 

The day ended with a panel discussion and Q and A.

We talk so much in our PLN's about the need for innovation, that the kinds of students we are producing do not meet the needs of the innovation economy that is emerging.  We recognize the need for change; the question for many of us is how do we begin? What I found in Integrative Thinking are the tools to bring about that change. I learned what it looks and sounds like when people are solving complex, real world problems. I can't wait to begin using them with my students and for the opportunity to learn more.


  1. Heidi,
    My head is spinning after reading this, and I'm very excited about you sharing how this goes with your class. As the spouse of an Anglican priest, and knowing how divisive some of the conversations within the global church can be, this idea of learning/problem-solving/thinking together resonates immensely with me. Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree that a better set of thinking and problem-solving skills is incredibly exciting and would allow many, many organizations and political systems to move past deadlocks and find meaningful solutions. I will be posting as we learn.

    2. Late addition, if you are interested in learning more, Roger Martin has published a book on Integrative Thinking

    3. lisamnoble

      You may find of interest my Integrative Thinking Course which is outlined at It contains an easily remembered process for dealing with any problem so the learner ends up with a plan for strategy, tactics, action and review and evaluation.

  2. Sounds like a great experience and opportunity to add more tools to your toolbox. Thank you for sharing and I would love to learn more about it.

    1. Hi Ms Lees,
      Thank you for your comments. It was a unique experience! I will definitely be posting as I learn more about Integrative Thinking.


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