Inductive Reasoning

Real Life Inductive Reasoning

I have written numerous articles about abstract cognitive enablers. I have highlighted the demand by organizations for abstract cognitive enablers. I have written about the future of learning and the future of learning and how cognitive enablers are the skills that will lead to prosperity. I have written about how abstract cognitive enablers set us apart from machines. However, I think that I have failed to tell you how abstract cognitive enablers are expressed and seen in real-world settings. I’m going to write about inductive reasoning as an abstract cognitive enabler in real-world settings so that you can ascertain the value for yourself.

As I have written before, inductive reasoning is pulling together various observations to simplify our perception of the world. As a simple example that I have used before, telling a toddler that a surface is hot doesn’t mean much, to begin with. However, as they build up their direct observations (experiences) like the front of the oven door, an over warm dinner, the slightly too warm bathtub, and a few more real-world observations, they are able to put together the concept of hot as a method of understanding the world around them. Once that concept is in place, when you tell them not to touch something because it is hot, they get it.

Simple stuff. If a toddler can do it, how is this a difficult thinking skill? Toddlers do get it, it is abstract, and we use inductive reasoning every day of our lives. It becomes a true abstract cognitive enabler when we are able to pull together seemingly unrelated observations, without any apparent effort on our part, in order to draw a valid conclusion.

Sherlock Holmes used complex inductive reasoning all of the time as he carried out his detective work. As an example, from A Study in Scarlet, Holmes brags about his brilliance, that was an expression of his complex inductive reasoning skill when he explained to Watson how he knew that he had come from Afghanistan:

“Observation with me is second nature. You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on our first meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan.”

“…I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

This illustrates the automatic use of complex inductive reasoning. Taking a series of unrelated observations and drawing a valid conclusion.

This skill is central to the development of expertise. An expert is someone who has the ability to reduce the number of steps in an observation to a bare minimum by using abstract cognitive enablers. We know that expertise can be learned. We also know that gaining expertise is a long, drawn-out process. However, can a foundation of expertise be learned by gaining a generalized abstract cognitive enabler that allows someone to bring together apparently unrelated observations into superordinate explanations? Of course it can.

So, why can’t experts from any field use their abstract cognitive enabler of complex inductive reasoning across a wide variety of problems? The problem of transference. This problem seems to raise its ugly head every time I write about learning to think. Transference is a plague in learning and education and is the problem of not being able to use something that is learned in one context in a different context. We know how to overcome the problem of transference in learning, we just don’t spend the time doing it.

The best example of an almost universally transferable skill (once it is learned) is reading. It is a skill taught in a specific context but is then used in almost every academic (and many non-academic) contexts after that. By using a skill across numerous contexts, the skill becomes transferable. The same applies to abstract cognitive enablers. If complex inductive reasoning is used in a variety of contexts, it becomes a thinking tool that is available in any context that requires it.

This is not rocket science – although it can be used in rocket science. This is the Science of Learning. We know how to teach abstract cognitive enablers. We also know how to make them available in any situation that they might be useful. However, in a world of hyper-specialization and information overload – which education still focuses on making students memorize – generalizing abstract cognitive enablers simply doesn’t happen.

Concrete cognitive enablers (reading, writing, numeracy, and basic problem solving) are pretty well all learned and generalized by the end of primary school. If we weren’t still mired in a curriculum a hundred years out of date (at least I can measure the height of a tree using triangles), we could use the secondary school as a place to polish our concrete cognitive enablers and begin to lay the foundation for our abstract cognitive enablers. We could also ensure that anyone who fell behind because of the variation in the time that brains develop could master these concrete cognitive enablers.

What do I mean by brain development variation? Anyone familiar with the early development of children knows that not all children learn to walk at nine months, seventeen days, and six hours. That doesn’t mean that children don’t usually learn to walk, nor does it mean that if a child doesn’t learn to walk until they are 11 months old that they are unable to walk as well as the child who learns to walk at nine months. However, when it comes to cognitive development and school, if you do not learn multiplication when you are eight years, four months, and thirteen hours old, well – too bad. You don’t get it and the support for you to be able to learn it dwindles until you begin the ever-increasing difficulty that leads to you becoming a slow learner. Is a child who doesn’t learn to walk until they are 14 months a slow learner? Are they forever behind their peers in walking? No, they just learned the skill later.

So what about learning abstract cognitive enablers later? You can. You can become as brilliant as Holmes. You can learn complex inductive reasoning. You can learn it across a variety of contexts and have the skill available to you as a part of your thinking toolbox. From this foundation, you can quickly build expertise in differing contexts.

Why is this important? Because the future of work will require you to do different things throughout your life. The future of learning will entail developing working skills in a variety of domains as the skill you learn today becomes redundant as the future unfolds. Being able to gain some level of expertise quickly makes you more valuable than other members of your organization.

Does anyone really think that Holmes wouldn’t be able to quickly adapt to his surroundings in a modern workspace and still come out looking brilliant? I think he could – if he were able to make his superior complex inductive reasoning skills generalizable.

You can both learn complex inductive reasoning and you can learn to make it generalizable. Visit to learn how.

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