Let’s Teach Students How to Guess


Here’s a true story, kind of. I changed it slightly for confidentiality.


A lotion manufacturer seeks new technology for dispensing hand lotion in the work place. They are doing well in the home market, but they want to expand their business through stores like Staples and Office Depot. The goal is to develop patented technology associating their brand with commercial use.


After noodling it for some time, a friend and I decided dispensers weren’t the issue. We thought it to be a conceptual problem, not a technological one. So, instead of inventing a dispenser, we designed a unique line of office organizers centered around sanitation with the manufacturer’s lotion as the anchor. We submitted the design. The client loved the idea, and we got paid.

How’d we get our idea? We guessed.

Surprisingly, guessing works pretty well for solving complex problems – especially ones less clearly defined. To the dismay of many, guessing is actually a form of logic; one that isn’t talked about much in school though. But it should be. It goes by the term abductive reasoning. You could say it’s reasoning through inference.

When thinking about reasoning or logic, deduction and induction are the types that pop up most. Deductive reasoning leads to definite conclusions. Inductive reasoning leads to probable conclusions.

Deductive example:

All bachelors are single > Sam is a batchelor > Sam is single

Inductive example:

Atlanta, GA is the city with the most mosquitoes > Sam lives in Atlanta > Sam has been bitten by a mosquito

While Sam is definitely single, there is a chance he’s never been bit by a mosquito, even though Atlanta has a lot of mosquitoes.

How, you might ask does guessing qualify as reasoning. Well, it gets you get started and helps you arrive at a better hypothesis. It also helps you draw conclusions leading you in a direction. I’ll give you an example.

Sherlock Holmes often used it. For instance, in the case of “Silver Blaze,” he figured out who stole the horse.  In this exchange Sherlock, explains to a detective how he solved the mystery of a stolen racehorse which should have been guarded by a dog.

Detective: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

How did that help Holmes?

Holmes: I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog, for one true inference invariably suggests others… A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in, and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.

There are many reason a dog might not bark. By guessing however, Holmes jumped quickly in a direction from which he could draw better conclusions. Without guessing, Holmes wouldn’t have gotten far. And without it, he also couldn’t do that annoying thing where he told a people their life story by judging the smudge on their collar or a torn piece of luggage.
Abductive reasoning is especially good for artists and designers. Their problems are rarely simple. Usually, they are vague. The studio model in which art and design classes are taught promotes this well. Students are regularly give vague problems like, express your feelings. These problems are are actually structured like real-life situations in that figuring out the question is half the problem.

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