Teaching Thinking Skills (Applied & Design Thinking)

         This section combines both Applied and Design Thinking fields as the Design Thinking process is the best way to teach Applied Thinking. Applied Thinking requires the transfer of concepts into concrete skills and products, and these skills and products ultimately have to meet a human need, else it is just another intellectual exercise. Firstly, since Applied Thinking is a concept I derived from Sternberg’s Practical intelligence, it is necessary to discuss what it means. I defined Applied Thinking as the transposition of concepts, knowledge and ideas to authentic and practical situations. Sternberg (2007) adds that this involves skills used to implement, apply, or put into practice ideas in real-world contexts, and it involves individuals applying their abilities to the kinds of daily problems they confront on the job or at home. The process of transposing conceptual knowledge into applications is the holy grail of education, especially in the context of businesses where being able to turn knowledge and ideas to meet customer needs form the very basis for survival for such corporations, be they profit-oriented or non-profit. Till late into the 20th Century, consumer choices of products were to a large extent limited due to them being subjected to the availability of goods and services in the consumer’s area of habitation. However, with improved transportation links and the ascendency of web-based businesses, modern consumers, especially those living in cities with high purchasing power, are able to select from a large array of possible goods and services to meet an existing need or want. The global marketplace through the internet thus requires businesses to shift a focus from product-centrism, where the focus is on the application of concepts into products of services, to customer-centrism, where the focus is on the application of concepts into products or services NEEDED by the customer. The Design Management Institute (2016) examined the financial performance of design-centric, i.e. Customer needs-driven, companies over a 10-year period and measured them against the Standard’s and Poor’s 500 Index, the most common benchmark used in aggregating stock value. Design-centric companies who were able to apply Creative, Critical and Applied Thinking collectively into Design Thinking philosophy and processes generated a rate of return 211% above the S&P 500 (See graph below), and the perceived value of the companies by investors was almost 3 times higher over a 10-year period, an astronomical growth by any standards. While the selection process of the companies in the “Design-centric” categories may be deemed as cherry-picking and debateable, the notion that transforming knowledge and ideas into practices and products that meet the needs of humans will result in greater satisfaction and higher likelihood of repurchase is an obvious one.

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         Teaching Applied Thinking effectively in schools requires hands-on experiences, peer interaction through cooperative learning, object-mediated learning and embodied experience (Satterthwait, 2010), all of which are fundamental concepts to good teaching in the first place. In my Thinking Programme, we approach the lessons from these principles when designing Applied Thinking lessons and we draw inspiration by “plagiarizing” the pedagogies of subjects like Physical Education and Art that use such teaching practices on a regular basis. Hands-on experiences and object-mediated learning may appear to be synonymous but they differ slightly. Object-mediated learning is often used as the trigger point for examining how the concept is put into practice in reality. For example, in a lesson focusing on applying Scientific concepts to environmental preservation, students were handed a ball of water, of which the process of spherification (from the culinary sciences) was used to create a thin skin to hold the water. The teacher proceeds to burst the ball and drink the liquid held inside it and explains how the ball is environmentally-friendly as it biodegrades after a few weeks. This object-mediated learning immediately shifts into hands-on experience as the focus shifts from the object proper to the process of creating the water bottle based on the concept of the chemical reaction between Sodium Alginate and Calcium Chloride, and the process of spherification. Central to the hands-on experience is the element of cooperative learning where students work in groups to set up and conduct the experiment, and finding the right balance of the chemicals and the correct sequence of steps to create a water ball similar or superior to the teacher’s exemplar. The success or failure of the creation of the water ball is predicated on their ability to use Scientific, Creative and Critical Thinking in order to solve the problem at hand. This allows the students to actually embody the experiences of scientists, who often undergo multiple failed experiments but ultimately succeed due to the fact that Thinking skills were applied in synergy with their deep understanding of scientific concepts. Teaching Applied Thinking thus require a far more complex and immersive embodied experience of acting as bona fide scientists than that of regular science lessons, where students merely replicate the steps and sequence performed by teachers when doing hands-on activities. Even that replicative hands-on scientific exploration activity is notably absent in many schools, with only 10% of elementary students from California public school districts, the home of the world’s top scientific and technological organisations, engaging in hands-on activity regularly during Science lessons (Watanabe, 2011). High-quality science instruction such as inquiry-based learning and hands-on engagement moves students from curiosity to interest to reasoning (Moulding, Bybee, and Paulson, 2015), which is the ultimate goal of Thinking, and the absence of such activities grinds the possibility of developing Applied Thinking to a halt.

Activities to foster Applied Thinking

  1. Hands-on, hands-on and more hand-on! Creation is crucial to see how concepts work in practice and unveils far more than learning through theory alone. Consider how a beginning teacher steps in the classroom for the first time and the realities of the classroom seem completely different from an idealised notion, and pedagogical theory gleamed from textbooks are thrown out the window. Nonetheless, when returning to the theories at a later stage after the period of chaos, theories seem to provide the order needed to understand the dynamism of the classroom and the most appropriate theories for each situation or problem are then selected and enacted iteratively.

  2. Deconstruction: Another activity that can be used is to take an existing object relevant to the concept and deconstruct it by revealing its inner workings and linking it back to its conceptual basis, similar to reverse engineering taken to the extreme where every bit of the core concepts is examined. One example used in my Thinking Programme is the deconstruction of a Carbon Dioxide Fire Extinguisher into its core chemical elements and interaction, before the students recreate their own using a paper cup, vinegar and baking soda to put out a fire in a tea light.

  3. Games, be they off-the-shelf ones like Scrabble (applying spelling and vocabulary knowledge to a strategic game scenario) or teacher-created ones are excellent ways to instil a collaborative-competitive environment. Applied Mathematics is a key topic in my Thinking Programme and students learn how to code droids and apply mathematical concepts like speed, angles and distance to their codes. A teacher-created game called “Klash of Klans” divided students into two groups by the colour of their droids. Every member of each group then wrote codes in real-time for their army of robots to attempt to knock their opponents out of the arena.

         Moving back to the earlier thesis that Design Thinking is the best approach to teach Applied Thinking, one just needs to look at the Design Thinking process and how it works with information and concepts to see the almost inseparable links between Applied and Design Thinking. IDEO, a design consultancy founded by a professor from the Stanford University’s Design School which developed the theory of Design Thinking, interprets the Design Thinking process as a series of iterative Thinking processes shifting from Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation, and Divergent and Convergent Thinking processes are at constant interplay guided by key questions (See IDEO’s overview in the image below). Every single key question is focused on finding the application value of all the data generated, be it from customer feedback, technical knowledge, ideas generated from brainstorming, and prototype-testing data.

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         Expanded and operationalised, the entire Design Thinking process can be broken down into five stages: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. These five stages, when used iteratively and always beginning with empathising with the user, create an easy-to-use systematic process where it leads learners to shift the focus away from the myopic gaze of concepts to the macroscopic view of how the concepts can be applied to meet a human need. When teaching Applied Thinking using the Design Thinking model (see IDEO’s process model in the image below), students learn to select the most relevant concepts to put into application rather than brute-forcing a concept into application, which often creates low-quality solutions to complex problems as it simply fails the best-fit principles. In fact, brute-forcing is a failure to apply Critical Thinking as the valuation of the worth or truth of an idea is absent, and there is also a notable absence of considering different perspectives. It also demonstrates an absence of Critical Thinking dispositions which encourages open-mindedness rather than applying simplistic binary oppositions to problems or solutions.

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         Teaching the Design Thinking process always begins with the teaching of empathy. While there are many ways to collect data from the end-user to find out what the problem is, getting the designers to live the life of the user provides the clearest insights on the actual needs of the users before using other methods like surveys and focus-group interviews to gather additional data to triangulate the findings. Where this is not possible, bringing in an actual user to provide candid responses on the issues they are facing or using emotionally-charged media to develop the emotional buy-in of the designer is a good substitute. In one Design Thinking activity on designing Sports for the Disabled, my students were assigned manipulatives to “induce” a temporary simulated disability, such as blindfolds to mimic blindness, a pair of shoes with different sole thickness to mimic limping, and slings to strap one arm to the torso to mimic the loss of use of an arm. The students were then tasked to play a sport in which the disability was an obvious impediment, and students recorded their satisfaction with the modified sporting experience as opposed to their regular sporting experience, focusing on aspects of the sport which prevented a satisfying experience. In the second stage, students were asked to define the problems by listing the difficulties from varied points of the sport ranging from the equipment to the rules and even the conduct of their opponents. In the Ideation stage, the pupils developed a whole series of changes to the sport assigned in order for the disabled to experience maximal participation and the satisfaction or benefit they can attain from the sport. In the next stage, the students underwent the sport again in their “disability kits” with selected rule or gameplay changes. For those proposing equipment changes, rough prototypes were created such as a spring-loaded ball tosser for a one-armed table tennis player. After prototyping, the students evaluated the prototype and based on the quality of the revised experience, ideated even more improvements to the sport before prototyping again. The second prototyping phase replaced the testing stage as there was no real user who were able to take part in the test during the lesson period, and the students used the second prototyping experience to critically examine the problems the users were facing when playing a sport as well as understanding the true difficulty of disabled people who experience a lower quality of life and health due to their inability to play conventional sports using non-disabled friendly rules, gameplay and equipment. Following the whole experience, the students reflected on the entire Design Thinking Process and discussed their understanding on the predicaments of the disabled, and they proposed other groups of users and their problems to be explored for subsequent Design Thinking sessions.