Designing Critical Thinking (Pt. 1)

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and anxious a university student might feel in knowing that about 50% of what they are studying in first grade will be outdated by the time they graduate.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.

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