What’s Not in the Book, and Why Zootopia is about Higher-Order Thinking

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Three chapters and some essays, about 100 pages, were eliminated from the original manuscript. My excellent editor, Danny Miller, recommended this and I (reluctantly) agreed. The content of one of those chapters, about thinking errors and biases, was abbreviated and incorporated into Chapter 6. A chapter about assessing higher-order thinking had some useful and important information, but really needed a complete re-write and we were behind schedule.  I am working on this and hope to publish it as an article or a blog post soon. Stay tuned. The third chapter that was cut focused on thinking styles. It was overly complicated and academic but some parts of it I think are worthy of revising and resurrecting. For example, there are sections about the influence of culture and social class on thinking that teachers should find relevant and helpful. There is also a discussion of the concept of intelligence and how it relates to thinking. Here I came up with a new definition of intelligence that I will share for your feedback in an upcoming blog post.

My editor also performed a radical “snarkectomy,” wisely cutting many sentences and paragraphs that were overtly critical, cynical, negative, and political. I had used a number of current social and political events and statements from politicians as examples of faulty thinking, of the consequences of not using higher-order thinking, and to make the case for the dire need to teach higher-order thinking often and early.  My reference to the “epidemic of stupidity plaguing America” on the “About” page, sums it all up nicely.

The following essay was also cut. But I like it and hope you will too.

Zootopia: A Movie about HOT Skills?

It’s hard to know if the screenwriters were intentional about this, but watching this delightful animated (Oscar-winning) movie is like taking a course on cognitive psychology. Zootopia is a bustling city of human-like animals; a utopia of the future where all animals live peacefully together…for the most part. The protagonist is a fresh-off-the-farm, young adult rabbit, Judy Hopps, who is a newly minted Police Officer. (Being among the smallest of the animals, she is a proxy for the children watching the movie.) Judy uses a full range of HOT skills to outsmart animals much bigger and stronger and to recruit the much-needed assistance of a street-smart fox, Nick Wilde. The drama centers around a number of animals who have gone missing. When Judy finds them, these otherwise peaceful former predators have become savage. This creates trouble in paradise because the animals that were formerly prey now fear and mistrust all former predators, who are a minority group living among the far more numerous former prey.

Although Judy is self-confident, capable, and hailed as a hero for finding the missing animals, she only becomes truly effective and successful when she critically reflects on her actions. When asked by a reporter why some predators have become savage, she repeats what she heard someone else say, “They are reverting back to their ‘natural’ state.” Here she uses lower order thinking–imitating and recalling–which leads to serious negative consequences. Alternatively, she could have used strategic and generative thinking to say, “I don’t know, but I will do everything in my power to find out.” She admits to herself that her attempt to make a better world has actually made things worse, so she leaves Zootopia and goes back to her family’s carrot farm. It is only when she withdraws and becomes reflective and receptive to new information, that she gains the knowledge she needs to solve the problem of the predators going savage.

A key theme of Zootopia is that things are often not as they appear. It requires higher-order thinking to look beyond surface appearances, to avoid making assumptions, to be appropriately skeptical, and to make considered judgments and good decisions. Judgments based on surface appearances and assumptions lead to stereotyping, which is a major barrier to understanding and problem-solving.

By the end of the movie we know that the predators were not turning savage. It was all a deliberate plot by the ruthless, power-hungry mayor of Zootopia. The mayor knew that a state of fear inhibits higher-order thinking and fosters lower order thinking, making it easier to control and manipulate her citizens. Turning a stereotype on its head once again, this evil mayor has the appearance and voice of a meek little sheep! Other examples of appearances and expectations being at odds with reality are: Zootopia is not at all a peaceful utopia, Mr. Big is tiny, the source of an urban problem is in a rural area, and those savage predators are actually victims. Nothing is what is seems! To use critical thinking skills and look beyond surface appearances is an important lesson that our students need to learn and this film conveys it beautifully and effectively with humor and heart.