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Thinking Programmes in the United States

         Through all my travels, research, field experiences, communication with experts and laypeople, I have not observed a comprehensive Thinking Programme similar in vision or scope to the one I have designed and implemented in my school. This is not to say that there is an absence of Thinking Programmes in the United States when in fact, the converse is true. Thinking Programmes in the United States are specialised rather than comprehensive, and each of them focus on a particular aspect of Thinking, e.g. Creative, Critical or Applied Thinking rather than the integration of all these fields of Thinking. John Muir Elementary School, a public school in Seattle, has an innovative Philosophy for Children programme which focuses on teaching critical thinking and reasoning skills at an advanced level for students of all ages, and the school even has a resident Philosopher-in-Residence who teaches these classes and trains the teachers in philosophical inquiry, supported by close collaboration with the University of Washington’s Department of Philosophy. Brightworks School, a private school in San Francisco, centres the school’s curriculum around creative thinking, in which the entire curriculum is based on a three-phase arc of Exploration, Expression and Exposition, all the key stages in Creative Thinking. The stimulation of curiosity, discovery and insight, again fundamental principles of Creative Thinking, are central to their academic principles, and creative capacity and playfulness are the central tenets of the school. Brightworks develops Creative Thinking through intensive projects which emphasises innovation and creation, equipping students with the tools to express creative thinking, and creating a school climate of fluidity and acceptance which are crucial to the development of Creative Thinking.

         Interestingly, the emerging field of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Education have led to the explosion of such programmes around the United States, with schools, community organisations and institutions such as museums and science centres leading the charge in developing Applied Thinking along with elements of Creative and Critical Thinking. STEAM programmes give students a sense of agency and a sense that their own dreams can become a reality by combining intelligence, imagination, hard work, evidence and a desire to try (Gormley, 2017). South Fayette Township School District, a small public-school district in Western Pennsylvania serving less than 3000 students, designed and implemented an extensive STEAM programme across the schools, with K-2 students learning coding, grades 3-5 learning applied mathematics and engineering principles, while grades 6-8 exploring inventions and creation using Computer Aided Design. The district even runs a highly-popular STEAM Summer Institute to train teachers and administrators across the country on designing STEAM programmes and using Thinking Routines to enhance Thinking in the classrooms. Brashear High School, a public school in Pittsburgh with a high concentration of low-income and English as a Second Language learners, also offers a STEAM programme for some of its students, and the STEAM unit runs autonomously from its general education programme in its own wing using an inter-disciplinary, collaborative, constructivist and solution-seeking approach, unlike the traditional unitary, teacher-directed, didactic and passive reception approach in a traditional academic setting. Several principles of the Pirate Paradigm such as challenging conventions in a large hierarchical organisation, focusing on the user, risk-taking and innovation in increments are obvious in both schools.

         The regard for the importance of STEAM and Thinking for the holistic development of students are not limited to schools, with community organisations and charitable foundations making great effort to supplement the absence of such programmes in many public schools. The Children’s Advisory Commission of Indiana County, serving a population of less than 90000, organised a Family Fun Fest at the local mall centred around STEAM education and activities to engage young learners (see pictures below). Many community organisations in Pittsburgh such as the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh are running STEAM lessons after school hours at low cost or for free to engage students in STEAM learning, and the Carnegie Science Centre and Carnegie Mellon University, both renowned institutions of STEM education, have run multiple low-cost or no-cost STEM and STEAM education programmes for the community in Pittsburgh. Endowments and charitable foundations such as the Grable Foundation provide funding for hundreds of STEAM education programmes for communities and schools, which South Fayette Township School District drew on for the design, pilot, implementation and sustenance of its STEAM initiatives. (See for further details on the STEAM initiatives in schools and community organisations in Pittsburgh.)


Picture 2. Diverse STEAM activities at the Indiana Mall.

Picture 3. The Carnegie Science Centre Stage Show exploring scientific principles through fun and engaging activities.  

Pictures courtesy of The Children’s Advisory Commission of Indiana County



         The role of community organisations and institutions such as museums and science centres in public education cannot be understated. There is strong evidence from multiple studies that involvement with outside agencies, including the local business community, the wider sporting and Arts community, and other community organisations can significantly contribute to a creative learning environment (Burgess & Addison, 2007; Cumming, 2007; Gkolia et al., 2009; Grainger et al., 2005; Halsey et al., 2006; Jeffrey, 2006; Robson & Jaaniste, 2010). Field trips to museums and science centres significantly improved students’ critical thinking skills solely by observing, interpreting, evaluating the artifacts they have seen, and it is especially advantageous for students from high-poverty and rural schools. (Greene, Kisida, & Bowen, 2014). Every science centre and museum in the United States I have visited in the United States, both large and small, has moved beyond static displays of exhibits and have incorporated many hands-on programmes for school students, with many even designing roving education programmes for the community and schools in the districts they serve. Liberty Science Centre in Jersey City built a 20000-square-foot centre dedicated to science education, the Jennifer Chalsty Center for Science Learning and Teaching, following a US$109 million renewal project, and many of their resident science educators design and conduct inquiry-based, hands-on, high-engagement science lessons linked to the school curriculum for schools in New Jersey. Similarly, the Carnegie Science Centre in Pittsburgh has an extensive school outreach STEM programmes and offers an astounding 83 unique STEM Programmes just for Summer 2019 alone. Interestingly, these two museums featured major interactive exhibits exploring the thinking processes and products of two great Thinkers, Sherlock Holmes (at Liberty Science Centre) and Leonardo Da Vinci (at Carnegie Science Centre), who are also featured in my Thinking Programme’s Great Thinkers series in 2018 and 2019 (Sherlock at grade 6 and Da Vinci at Grade 5). While the difference in the museums’ production value and size were obviously different from mine, the principles of exploring Thinking through problem-solving and high-engagement activity were extremely similar.


Sherlock Holmes Challenge task at Liberty Science Centre and a ballistic analysis station for visitors to explore the Thinking behind ballistics.


Sherlock Holmes Challenge task in my school and a ballistic analysis puzzle for students to explore the Thinking behind ballistics.

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Da Vinci Challenge Puzzle at Carnegie Science Centre

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Da Vinci Challenge Puzzle in my school

         Smaller science centres like Da Vinci Science Centre in Allentown, an 18.02 square mile (46.69 km2) city with about 110000 residents in Eastern Pennsylvania, also offer a range of in-school and out-of-school STEM education activities that rival that of any museum around the world (See picture below of the categories of activities).

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         Beyond static displays and interactive exhibits, the Da Vinci Science Centre has a Creative and Applied Thinking lab, known as Leo’s Creative Studio, where visitors can create artifacts based on scientific concepts and principles and apply those processes into innovative thinking. Furthermore, these activities and creative stations are regularly changed, with museum staff and volunteers working with children and even adults on these projects and artifacts, and are accessible to all visitors. During my visit, two stations especially caught the eye in terms of the incorporation of principles of good lesson design to stimulate Creative and Applied Thinking. The first station, Stomp Rockets, provides key questions to the learner to solve the problem of flight, and then provides materials with instructions and scientific principles for them to create and test their prototype of a space rocket in a launch pad. A museum volunteer was on hand to help to provide assistance and suggestions based on scientific principles for the learners to then improve their invention.

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         Another notable station in the studio was a Space Exploration Marble Maze, where learners can attempt to use common materials on a peg board to move a marble from one end of the board to another. The key to success in both activities is the fact that the innovation process is stressed and the focus is on the application of scientific concepts and principles. These activities are based on a simple premise: There is a problem to be solved, and how does Science help to find the solution? The use of common materials like newspapers, cardboard, piping tubes, bottles and funnels makes Science accessible, and removes the false perception that Science is obscure, elitist, and is only possible through high-tech equipment. Knowledgeable staff and volunteers who are well-informed of scientific principles and concepts help to bridge the gap between theory and application.

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         One extremely interesting point of note about Thinking Programmes run by these community organisations, museums, science centres and even zoos is the use of knowledgeable, trained and committed volunteers in many of the programmes. At the Carnegie Science Centre, volunteers need to commit at least four hours a week, and most of those I have spoken to commit much more than that, with even professors and researchers from nearby universities performing such pro bono work at the Centre. At the Pittsburgh Zoo, a quiet unassuming zoo, more than 30 docents, specially trained volunteer educators, were running education booths on an extremely cold Saturday morning. Bonnie, a full-time adult educator at another community organisation, explains why she underwent the rigorous three-month long training and commits every Saturday: “I have a skill and there is a need to educate these children in conservation and appreciation of nature, so that to me is making a difference and improving society. I think there is a strong spirit of volunteerism here, and whatever the state cannot provide, people from the community will step in to help others. It’s part of our culture, and we feel it as our responsibility. My husband is an accountant, and he also goes around helping others with their taxes if they don’t understand how to do so as few people can afford a tax service. To me, this is what a society should be: sharing our skills to help make the community better. If you can do it, why not?”

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