Remember your equations?

Abstract: A measure of worth for a leader lies in simple equations…

There’s a simple test to see if a person in a position of leadership has got what it takes to make effective decisions – ask them to explain the following equation: F=ma. If it’s got you stumped, it’s no use skimming through the myriad business management books collecting dust in your office; you won’t find it there. You’ll have to think back to when you were a lot younger.

During the late 1990s I was part of a company that designed and presented science shows at schools and science centres. I’ve lost count of the number of schools I visited, but suffice to say I became something of an odd fixture in science education, pacing the school halls in my red lab coat crawling with plastic spiders, carrying my black box plastered with images of dancing skeletons, bubbling test tubes and colourful explosions.  Buried in the box was one of the most effective tools I used to unveil the magic of science. It was a crumpled brown envelope with something inside that no one ever saw.

No doubt you’re wondering what it was. Good; that means you haven’t lost what’s critical for developing an understanding of science: curiosity.

I won’t keep you guessing. At the start of each show I would haul out the crumpled brown envelope, hold it aloft and explain to the assembled class that inside it was a one hundred Rand note which I’d give to the first person who could tell me anything in the world that wasn’t examined by science.

It’s a trick, because there isn’t anything in the world that isn’t examined by science. Sure, I’d be bombarded with all sorts of suggestions from sport to dancing to video games, and for each challenge I’d explain how science was involved in understanding it; even the inevitable, “What about God?” After a while, I’d put the crumpled brown envelope back in the box and start blowing things up and making an awful mess; all in the name of science, obviously.

I was reminded of the crumpled brown envelope when I read recently how poorly South African students ranked in the world in terms of maths and science education. According to the World Economic Forum’s annual report on financial development, released at the end of October, South Africa was ranked last out of 62 countries in terms of its maths and science education.

This comes on the back of the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report released earlier in the year, which placed South Africa second-to-last out of 144 countries in terms of its maths and science education.

To summarise: in two of the most important WEF rankings – financial development and global competitiveness – South Africa finds itself, as one newspaper put it, “at the bottom of the class” in terms of one of the most critical components of its economic future: maths and science education.
A question many people may ask at this juncture is why maths and science are so important for the World Economic Forum.

There are two reasons, one of which has everything to do with you.

Firstly, maths and science are the only school subjects that are truly global, and span all cultures, religions and languages; and because they are tied inexorably to technical innovation, the standard of their teaching is a measure of a country’s capacity to adapt to changes and to embrace the technological demands of a rapidly shifting global economy.

Secondly, and here’s where you’re measured, maths and science encourage critical thinking. They force us to challenge our perceptions and assumptions. They also encourage us to ask testing questions about decisions we need to make, such as: what additional information do I need to solve the problem; how, if at all, does the evidence at hand support my conclusions; what else would I need to determine if the solution I am proposing is the correct one; are there alternative solutions to the problem; and, what did I learn from solving this problem?

Worryingly, children who aren’t encouraged to think like this are also more inclined to believe anything anyone tells them; so they become the prey of pseudoscience, persuasive con men and morally corrupt politicians.

The distinguished philosopher Dr Richard Paul summarised critical thinking quite eloquently when he said: “[It] is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”. Maths and science, in a nutshell.

This begs a rhetorical question: should a leader who is expected to provide vision and guidance, and make critical decisions that impact seriously on the welfare of others employ any other type of thinking?

So how did you do in the test? What is F=ma? Here’s a clue: think high school physics, specifically Newton’s Second Law of Motion. The answer: The net force (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of the object multiplied by its acceleration (a). It’s one of the easiest science equations to remember.

Still think you’ve got what it takes to be a critical thinker?

Originally published in the December edition of Leadership magazine