Designing Critical Thinking (Pt. 2)

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.


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