My younger daughter has an instinctive grasp of math, an aptitude I marvel at as I’m rather arithmetically challenged (just ask my wife about the time I attempted to handle the family finances). Lexie isn’t just good at the more basic rote memorization of addition and subtraction math facts and multiplication tables, she has an uncanny grasp of the logic and fundamentals of abstract mathematical reasoning.
So I was a bit surprised a few years ago when her 3rd grade teacher, in the course of our parent-teacher conference, raised a red flag about her math skills. Mrs. E acknowledged that Lexie almost always got the correct answers to even the most difficult problems, but then noted that she was unable to clearly articulate how she arrived at her solutions. This skill, Mrs. E explained – the ability to think about how one thinks – was called metacognition. Like most parents, I sat mutely not wanting to challenge Lexie’s teacher, but I was concerned that this requirement might kill my daughter’s instinctive love of mathematics. I was also angry, not just because of what Lexie was facing and would continue to face in her academic career, but because the conversation triggered in me memories of my encounters with this expectation often expressed by past clients and managers.
I can recall many times, upon concluding a killer presentation to a group of stakeholders, waiting for the room to erupt in applause, only to be confronted with the dreaded query, “Hmmm, (pursed lips) well just HOW did you arrive at this solution?” What did THAT question have to do with whether the design addressed the marketing objective or not? Nevertheless, I would dutifully recount the process, filling in any gaps with copious and convincing nonsense.
It’s important to understand that when we, as designers, or Lexie, as a math whiz, tackle design or math problems, we engage in a specific type of thinking that taps into our nonverbal intelligence. The idea, that the metacognition theory forwards, that having someone describe this type of process in words increases or proves their understanding of how they solved the problem, is flawed. If said designer or student didn’t understand the problem on a deeper and different level, they wouldn’t be able to consistently come up with appropriate solutions. Metacognition, therefore, is more about asking an individual to use their verbal intelligence to describe, or more accurately, translate their design or mathematical intelligence. What metacognition isn’t about is a person understanding anything any better than they did when they slipped into a different cognitive realm to solve a problem.
The problem for Lexie, and any designer who is asked to metacognate, is that they may begin to believe they really don’t understand and aren’t good at what they actually are gifted at. They’ll second-guess themselves and impede the process they’re engaged in by trying to verbalize what they’re doing as they’re doing it. Imagine Michael Jordan trying to verbally go over in his head exactly how he makes a layup as he’s making the shot. His kinesthetic intelligence would be short-circuited and I don’t believe this tact would improve his game a whole heck of a lot.
How to handle the “Just how did you do that?” challenge from clients and managers? Redirect the conversation to the creative brief you hopefully were given, and if no CB exists, address the success of the design in terms of the objectives of the assignment as you believe them to be. You can actually appease your client or manager, and appear to answer the process question, by framing the answer in a way that allows you to discuss your choice of imagery, color, fonts etc. by saying, “Well I chose this font because it has a feminine feel to it and that was the demographic noted on the creative brief that we’re targeting in this promotion…”
The bottom-line is that when we think about thinking about how we think, we expose the absurdity of the whole metacognition mess and free ourselves to think the way we think best.