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24 Jan

Designing Critical Thinking (Pt. 2)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / January 24, 2019 / 0 Comments

To think - to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference

In the annual Wired number on future trends, UCL research associate Natalia Kucirkova defines 2019 as the year of collectivist pluralisation – societal decisions, interdependent art and crowdsourced knowledge.

Without looking into the future, collaborative practices have already been researched and experimented in education. For example, evaluations of well-designed, school-based peer education show its positive impact, both for individual knowledge and behaviour towards oneself (self-esteem, confidence, resilience) and others (collaboration, tolerance, listening).

Here in Luxembourg, we already have such an example with the Peer-Mediation program, aiming at teaching students how to mediate conflicts between their classmates. But what could happen if a whole school was based on peer learning?

How to learn how to learn

At Birmingham Covington School (US), the “help desk” is a concrete example of peer education. During a lesson, some students walk among the desks; if a classmate has a question, they clip a clothespin to their computer and one of the students will troubleshoot with you. Different grades are often mixed together, so help may actually come from younger or older fellow students.

Space itself, with big, communal tables and movable walls, is designed to foster teamwork and sharing of resources and interest. Moreover, peer-to-peer learning happens between teachers as well. In Teacher Labs, they have special time to discuss their work and get feedback from colleagues and a coach.

Groups projects often cross disciplines as well, engaging students with different interests and knowledge in collaborative research and problem solving. For example, in a project focused on bees protection, students used science, English and the arts to address bee extinction and sensitize the local population.

Everything in the school was born out of a student-centered vision. Teachers want students to be independent learners, ready to look for resources beyond their teacher. They are engaged with their own learning process, choosing projects based on their interests and creating their own goals. In the last two grades they even have an elective class, the Thinkering Studio, where they design a whole project on their own.

Together we know (and do!)

These projects build on a transdisciplinary approach and developing a T-shaped competency (deep knowledge of one subject, plus familiarity with the language of other fields). This will be crucial to address challenges that are too complex for one field alone (like, for example, the extinction of bees.) The Institute for the Future defined this as one of the key competencies for the future and one of the major challenges for higher education.

Birmingham Covington is a testament to the value of this approach: students have ranked at or above 95% in overall performance, compared to other Michigan schools. More and more schools are already experimenting with collaborative learning, integrated studies and cocreation processes, and transdisciplinary programs are on the rise in universities. (For example, think about the boom of biotechnology).

Image of people discussing in front of a bulletin board. The board is covered in written post-its, ordered according to colors.

Critical thinking and collaboration are closely intertwined in design thinking. During the design process, people of various backgrounds and functions are brought together in the same room and actively engaged for the whole duration. It’s not only about giving experts (the customers, or who we are serving with design) the possibility to share their own knowledge; it’s more than maximizing the ability to analyze and synthetize all the data collected by having more heads in your room.

“Cognition in a team situation is not the sum of knowledge or capabilities across the individual team members but rather the result of the interactions between them and how they perform in the task environment.” – ITFT, p. 17

By sharing what we know and co-creating together, we not only practice critical thinking in the sense of careful judgment and evaluation. We also do critical thinking, that is, a kind of thinking that brings our creativity to a turning point. We turn the corner of what we thought it was possible. And behind we find something new, something innovative, visionary, powerful.

From knowing to doing

Let’s go back to the beginning question of these two articles: what if we will produce 20+ trillion gigabytes of data every year?

There’s no way we can know everything that will be produced, much less make sense of it (or even manage it all) by ourselves. Even though the importance of critical thinking is recognized everywhere, there is something missing – that is, individual critical thinking won’t be enough. Unfortunately, most assessment tools in schools want exactly to measure how much a single student can know and do by themselves.

But design thinking can give students the opportunity to feel at ease with not knowing. Even more, they can experience how knowledge can be found, especially with the contribution of others. They learn to be both independent and collaborative in their thinking – independent, because they don’t trust just one source or stop at the first idea; collaborative, because they learn from each other.

This is the meaning of designing thinking – organizing your way of thinking, through a method that makes you always check your thoughts and go beyond. But it’s also an invitation to imagine a thinking that designs, a thinking able to organize chaotic information into useful insight into the world.


P.S. The next article is all about design and creativity. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.


17 Jan

Designing Critical Thinking (Pt. 1)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / January 17, 2019 / 0 Comments

What if we will produce 20+ trillion gigabytes of data every year?

Imagine how handling so much information will be.

First of all, we’ll have to develop the skills to manage and make sense of this huge cognitive load. With so much noise in the background, both in our professional and personal life, being able to extract meaningful and valid information will become crucial. Machines can help us, but only so far. Not all of these data will be in a format a software can analyze, and computers can’t still check the validity of their source as an expert could.

There’s another side of the coin, too. We won’t just be the processors of these data – we’ll also be their producers. Institutions and laws can protect our privacy, but we can already see how difficult their job has been, with people freely giving up personal information to use apps and social media without necessarily realizing how much of it they’re giving.

Finally, we should consider its effects on our mental health. It’s been almost fifty years since Alvin Toffler coined the term “information overload” – how the amount of information available can actually hinder our efficiency in using it -, and yet it has never been so relevant as of today. Scientists have already noticed how information overload causes anxiety and feelings of overwhelm and loss of control over the situation.[1] Too much information isn’t just difficult to manage – it makes us feel like there is no way we can manage it at all.

A look into the future

The amount of new data to process isn’t the only problem. Consider, for example, how frustrated and anxious a university student might feel in knowing that about 50% of what they are studying in first grade will be outdated by the time they graduate. Continuous changes and updates in current subjects and technology will require much more flexibility and the ability to learn new stuff quickly, as well as to understand what one should be learning.

Whether we like it or not, more and more countries are moving towards an economy where knowledge – up-to-date, general and yet thorough knowledge – will be its main currency. The fact is, never in history before we have had so much access to knowledge. Our issues lie in moving through it. A future worker (and generally, a future citizen of this planet) will need to analyze and synthetize whatever will pass through their hands, to understand its usefulness and validity. But moreover, a future citizen will have to understand how much of this information, often unconsciously absorbed and never investigated, is influencing the way they think, feel, and act everyday.

Hans Rosling at his TED talk on global data
Since the 70s, science has been aware of how much we rely on unconscious biases when making decisions, especially if information is uncertain or not useful for some reason. Recently, in a few TED talks global health and data experts Hans and Ola Rosling demonstrated how biases affect our view of the world. Even when faced with new, valid information, we may still adhere to our old beliefs and refuse to challenge our own thoughts.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that one of the most sought-after skills is still critical thinking. And this is where design thinking can definitely lend a hand.

Discovering patterns

But what exactly is critical thinking? We can start by saying what it’s not. If we imagine a “critical thinker,” we imagine someone who doesn’t take something at face value. They wouldn’t stop at the first idea or solution coming to their mind. They wouldn’t assume, nor would they choose the same thing just because it worked before.

A critical thinker has an inquisitive, open mind.

Then, we can explain critical thinking as both an action and a disposition. To think critically means to evaluate raw information, based on what’s needed in that moment, gather useful insights, analyze, assess. On a deeper level, though, to think critically is to be wary of your own assumptions; to be inquisitive and open, at ease with uncertainty; to be informed, without feeling to the need to immediately reach a conclusion.

In design thinking, this disposition is essential in the empathizing stage. Our beliefs and prejudices can influence the direction of the research, while consciously putting them aside can open up new paths of inquiry and make space for information or insights that we wouldn’t have found out otherwise. Afterwards, in the second step, we analyze and evaluate what was gathered to make sense of the of the bigger picture, redetermine the challenge we want to solve and plan the next steps. From discovery, we move to definition. After all, a problem well defined is a problem half solved.

The dimensions of critical thinking

Critical thinking is necessary in every field, but its efficacy depends on how much we know of the specific domain we’re working with. In our current age, this will pose even more problems as jobs become more cross-disciplinary, requiring knowledge of sometimes very different subjects. One more aspect of information overload, one more reason of anxiety and sense of no control.

What design thinking brings in, is the dimension of collaboration. During the process, the recipient of knowledge is not the designer but the people we are designing for. Knowledge comes from those who have first-hand experience of the issue we want to solve; the designer acts as a facilitator, helping people discover their own expertise.

The process of design thinking gives students a double opportunity. On one hand, they have something practical to test their own critical thinking over. On the other hand, they can learn to see knowledge as something that is actually achievable if we collaborate. Together, they can map their environment in a more efficient way, gaining empowerment, a deeper knowledge and even novel paths and directions.

[1] D. Bawden and L. Robinson, “The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies”, in Journal of Information Science, XX (X) 2008, pp.1-12

P.S. Here‘s the second part of this article. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

10 Jan

Designing Empathy (Pt. 2)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / January 10, 2019 / 0 Comments

Empathy - the action of understanding the experience of another

It was 2013 when Barack Obama talked about the “empathy deficit.” For many, it was the first time they heard about such a concept, but science had already proved it three years before. In a meta-analysis on empathy levels of American college students, researchers found future graduates 40% less empathetic than those of 30 years ago. It’s not just students, and it’s not just the US. We just have to turn on the tv to see daily demonstrations that empathy has become rarer – or that intolerance has become louder.

Here, I am not interested in the causes. As for the effects, I already wrote how it will be fundamental to cultivate empathetic abilities in the future. What I want to talk about is how some schools are tackling this challenge now, and what insights we can gather from their example.

One day in the life of…

There is a famous quote, variously attributed, that says, “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.”

At Riverside School, India, when teachers decided to sensitize students to the problem of child labour, they took it literally. For two days, the school turned into an incense stick factory; fifth-grade kids had to roll argabattis for six hours in a crowded room, while teachers kept on barking orders and checking on the shape of the sticks. There was no time to rest. Food was given only after producing a definite quota of well-made sticks. On the second day, the kids were joined by their own parents so that both could understand how tolling the labour was.

When the two days ended, the children were aghast. It wasn’t just that they stopped taking for granted things such as rest, playtime, and getting food when they asked for it. They chose to make other people aware of the damage of child labour, for example through street plays and supporting noprofit orgs.

This is one example of how teachers work at Riverside. Students don’t just listen – they see, do, feel. After, they also want to do something more about it. The end goal is not only to engage them on a far more personal level, but also to show them that they can make a change – even if they’re “just kids.”

I feel that I can

Kiran Sethi, designer and founder of Riverside School, thought lessons should follow four steps: Feel, Imagine, Do, Share. Thus, the child would go through a journey of awareness, where they understand a problem, up to empowerment, where they feel they can find solutions to the problem. This same process animates Design for Change, a citizenship challenge and design curriculum devised by Riverside and that has already been adopted by schools in 40+ countries.

To quantitatively measure the results of this method is difficult. Sethi described children tackling difficult issues in their own communities, from child labour to illiteracy to child marriage; the result of their efforts will be visible in the future. However, we do have one interesting piece of data about these students: 71% of them is studying or has graduated from college (in 2012 gross enrolment ratio in India was around 20.4%), and their school has consistently been a top performer since its inception.

We already saw how developing empathy is realted to better academic success and business growth. But the example of Riverside shows that empathy is also connected to developing citizenship and responsibility towards one’s community, and this will become even more important in the future, considering how the Internet, migrations and other factors are expanding our sense of community beyond our neighbourhood or even country.

The feel card from the Design for Change deck

Other two top performers in education, Finland and Singapore, have realized the connection between empathy, citizenship and academic success. For example, in Singapore schools follow a value-centric framework, teaching responsible decision-making, social awareness and civic literacy. Finland made equity a core principle of their educational reform.

From feeling to acting

Let’s go back to the beginning question of these two articles: what if we will end up working together with 5.5 billion people?

Empathy won’t be just a skill – it will be a necessity. As more and more people, and their own stories, start colliding, new challenges will arise. To be a citizen (of your city, your country and your world) will mean to be able to make sense of a growingly complex environment – to observe, to understand, and to collaborate with others to face what this complexity brings.

When I imagine a meeting between design thinking and education, what I see is giving younger generations the possibility to experiment and train their empathy muscle. Designing empathy is an invitation to create this opportunity, but it’s also an invitation to imagine an empathy that designs – an empathy with a purpose, that doesn’t stop at feeling for others but that turns into empathetic action.


P.S. The next article is all about design and critical thinking. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

12 Dec

Designing Empathy (Pt.1)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / December 12, 2018 / 0 Comments

What if we will work together with 5.5 billion people?

What did you feel, looking at those numbers?

It’s easy to say that the world is changing. It might be easy to spot what forces are driving these changes. It’s less easy, however, to imagine how they will concretely impact our life.

Consider words like globalization and demographic change, for example. They sound abstract, but when concretized in one image – joining a workforce of 5.5 billion people –, suddenly the complexity can be understood and transformed.

A look into the future

For example, how will these 5.5 billion people look like? Many will come from India and Nigeria, Congo and Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Indonesia – those countries who have been predicted to have the fastest growing population in the future. The average age of this group will shift as well, as older people will stay in the job market for a longer time. Different cultures and experiences will become common in our lives – especially in online spaces and virtual workplaces, but in our cities as well, given that 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050.

These transformations will change how we think, quite literally. Cultural neuroscience has already demonstrated that one’s cultural environment affects neural processes; our attitudes, values and behaviour are influenced by the regularities in our daily life. On one side, this means that exposure to other people’s stories and background can make our brain more tuned to their cultural nuances. On the other, however, our brain is more activated by what’s familiar, which means that we tend to prefer and empathize more with those who behave like us.

How, then, can we thrive in such a richer and diverse environment? What would we need to tap into the potential hidden in this complexity?

Discovering connections

At its core, design thinking is human-centered. When designing a product or service, the first step is always to listen to the customers and discover what their needs and goals are. You immerse yourself in their lives. You listen with empathy, putting preconceptions aside to learn from their own experiences.

We can see now how this skill could be fundamental to thrive in the future. Coming back to work issues, today researchers already suggest that empathy is the key for business growth and work satisfaction. Emotional intelligence not only helps understand customers, but can improve cooperation and communication within an organization – even more important now that the current complexity requires previously separated departments to be able to integrate their knowledge and work together.

Of course, emotional intelligence in general is crucial for one’s well-being, and that’s why in 2002 UNESCO began promoting a series of initiatives worldwide to implement SEL (social and emotional learning) into education. A meta-analysis of 213 of these SEL programs shown not only an improvement of academic performance by 13%, but also far less distress and risk of drug and alcohol use not only during the school years, but later in life as well.

Photo of the Empathy Museum and the "A Mile in My Shoes" installation.

The dimensions of empathy

Currently, SEL programs tend to focus more on self-awareness and self-management to improve relationship skills as well. What design thinking adds, though, is the dimension of practicality. Empathy has become a buzzword, often focused on feelings and emotions. But learning to see from others’ points of view leads to innovation. The emotional side isn’t forgotten, but rather becomes an entrance to better understanding. It helps focus on what the challenges are, rather than just the solutions to the challenges we perceive others have.

This is important for students, but for teachers as well. Education is still perceived as a vocation; many enter the field because of a genuine interest in helping children and teenagers learn. However, the administrative context surrounding education can create frustration, disengagement and disillusionement with one’s profession. Using a design thinking approach can connect teachers with their empathetic side once again, as well as with their students and the challenges they will face in the future.

To be a citizen of the world is no more a vision, but a reality, and teaching both the inner and outer dimensions of empathy can prepare the younger generations for this change. It’s not only about understanding this change; more and more, it’s about being able to address the challenges this growingly interconnected world brings with it. This is also the story of a designer-turned-into-teacher in India, and the focus of the next article.


P.S. Here‘s the second part of this article. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

03 Dec

Exploring Design Thinking in Education

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / December 3, 2018 / 0 Comments

Moien! My name’s Bianca, counselor-in-training and writer from Turin, an elegant town tucked near the Alps. One of the words that describes me better is curious, thus I want to start this introduction with a curiosity.

Do you know what’s the most viewed talk on TED? The winner out of more than 2900 videos? It’s a 20-minute talk, recorded in 2006, by Sir Ken Robinson. And it starts with a question.

“Do schools kill creativity?”

We learn, therefore we are

What’s interesting to me is that this video was made in 2006, and yet people still watch it today. Judging from its over 54 million views, it looks like Sir Robinson is right – everybody has an interest in education. Why shouldn’t we? Not only most of us have been at school at a certain point of their life, but the core of education, the act of learning, has been part of human life since its beginnings.

Our oldest myths, for example, are full of mentors. Of people who know the ways of the world and how to guide the young heroes, so that they may learn them as well. But our body too is always learning, with neurons making and reinforcing new connections, setting the old ones aside, observing, categorizing and storing every experience, every detail of our life. School is just one of the many places where we do this, only it is one of the few expressely built to deepend and widen our possibilities.

So we learn, we discover, we innovate. We make the world more complex. And we have to learn agin, and more than before, so to discover and innovate even more.

The potential in uncertainty

Now the world has reached a level of complexity that we could have never imagined. It is fascinating. It is scary. Complexity means uncertainty, and when we are uncertain, we want to understand more because understanding means we have the tools to transform what before was out of our control. All those views suggest one thing, and that is that we’ve already learnt something.

We’ve learnt that the complexity we deal with at school does not correspond to the complexity we deal with in our everyday life. There’s a gap. And now we are trying to understand this gap, explore it a bit more to see how and why it’s there, and then to find the tools to build something out of that gap.

When I sent an email to Art Square asking if I could volunteer with them, I had seen this same process happening again and again with people. When there’s a gap, an empty space in your life, it’s normal to be afraid; but in those gaps lies the potential for change and wellbeing in there. What I saw in design thinking was that same potential.

quote "replace fear of the unknown with curiosity"

Design thinking in schools

What I want to discover is what students need to learn today to tacke our complexity and uncertainty, and understand how design thinking, as a process, a tool, a mindset, can help them make this complexity their own. Specifically, my goal is to understand how design thinking can support the development of so-called “future skills.”

We’ve already heard about them – critical and creative thinking, empathy, problem solving, but also sense making, cross cultural competency, transdisciplinarity, media literacy… Why people should have these skills is widely recognized today. Employers, teachers, young people themselves know that they will be fundamental for the careers of tomorrow. But it’s the how – the learning paths to achieve them – that’s missing right now. Design thinking, with its human-centered approach, its iterative and collaborative process and holistic outlook on the real, concrete world, could be one of them.

What if design thinking became a core element of the students’ life?

How would it positively impact their careers?

How would it change our idea of what education should be?

These are the questions I’m seeking answers for.

Here is a list of my series on Design Thinking in Education: