Monday, December 30, 2013

Inquiry, questioning, designing thinking and problem solving

This is the first in a series of blog posts where I'm looking back at my learning over the past year.  I've decided to start with inquiry which is at the heart of the PYP programme, and at the same time is important when considering how to solve problems using design thinking.  Here are some of the things that I've been thinking about related to the connections and  synergy between inquiry, questioning, design thinking and problem solving.

Last year I was involved in supporting students in Grades 3 - 5 in Independent Studies.  This was a time when students could follow their own interests and inquire into something they were passionate about.  At the same time, this was an innovative approach to education so I started to think about the connections between questioning and innovation.  What I learned was that innovators ask more questions and these questions are also more provocative:
  • They ask "what is?" questions, to find out what is happening in the here and now.
  • They also ask "what caused?" questions - both these types of questions are descriptive questions.
  • Next come the disruptive questions, the ones that move your thinking forward.  These are the "why?" and "why not?" questions.
  • Finally they ask the "what if?" questions, these ones lead to the heart of innovation.
During Independent Studies I worked with our iCommons Coordinator, Ms Heeru, and she introduced me to the "question formulation technique".  This started with the difference between open and closed questions. A closed question is one that can be answered with a simple phrase or one word answer.  Examples include "Where are you from?" or "Do you speak English?"  Closed questions are:
  • quick and easy to answer
  • fact based
  • keep control of the conversation with the person asking the questions
The first word of close questions is often a word like:  do, would, are, will and if.

Open questions are ones that require longer answers because:
  • they are about opinions or feelings
  • they involve the respondent thinking
  • they give control of the conversation to the person replying to the question
The first word of open questions are often words such as: what, why, how and describe.

The question formulation technique was devised by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana as a technique to teach students to ask their own questions.  It is a process that allows them to think more deeply and refine their questions and one that encourages divergent thinking, convergent thinking and metacognition.  As I considered the process of divergent thinking (generating a wide range of ideas, thinking creatively) and convergent thinking (analyzing and synthesizing information while moving towards a solution), it reminded me of the flair and focus stages of Design Thinking, which is something I became really interested in last year as a result of being part of ASB's Design Thinking Team and going to the a DT workshop in the summer at the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

In Design Thinking the first stage is Empathy - this is where there is a flair with ideas coming from all over the place and where you consider both the explicit and implicit needs of others.  This is followed by the focus of the Define phase where some ideas are thrown out in order to come up with a unique, concise reframing of the problem, grounded in the insights developed in the previous stage.  After Design comes Ideate, which is a huge flair.  The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) uses divergent thinking as the flair where students are generating ideas about possible research topics, perhaps using "out of the box" thinking and coming up with inventive new ideas.  It is a process that can be taught to students of all ages to help them handle challenges.

Creativity involves more than simply divergent thinking - it involves synthesizing the ideas and facts.  In the PYP inquiry cycle we talk about tuning in and finding out.  After this comes sorting out which to me matches really well with convergent thinking.  During this stage of the inquiry cycle students look at all the facts they have collected during the finding out and try to make sense of them all.  It is suggested that fostering creativity involves planning for both divergent and convergent thinking and that metacognition, being able to reflect and think about your own thinking, is essential for learning.  The QFT is a process for fostering these skills.

Since the summer Design Thinking institute, I've been thinking about how DT it can be used in education as a way of solving "wicked problems".  There are many definitions of wicked problems:
  • a wicked problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements
  • it's an incomprehensibly complex and messy issue that we have trouble defining as well as attempting to solve
  • it cannot be reduced to a single cause explanation - it's complex because of the interconnectedness of things
  • it's not governed by simple cause-effect relationships
  • it hides below the surface of our immediate perceptions
  • it's a divergent problem - the more it is studied the more people come to different solutions and interpretations
Design Thinking for wicked problems goes through an inquiry cycle.  As previously mentioned, some parts of this cycle can be used by students to formulate questions before they start their inquiries.  Let me elaborate a little more now on the process, which starts with empathy.  It's important to start with this because it allows you to put aside your own wants and needs that will bring you to what could be the ideal solution for you, but not necessarily for the wants and needs of another person. Walking in someone else's shoes is important so that you design a solution for them.  This stage is the intellectual identification of the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of others - it deals with you listening to both their explicit needs and trying to hear the implicit ones too.

The next step in the process is to define or reframe the problem and to make sure you are clear about who the person is who needs the solution.  You need to listen in a focused way so that you can choose your goals.  Whereas empathy allows for a lot of diverse opinions, define narrows the focus and form a clear picture from what could be a lot of chaotic data.  At this point you may end up throwing ideas out.  Defining the problem involves making a problem statement, also called a User-Needs-Insight statement.

The third step of the process involves ideating - brainstorming the many different options available and writing down all ideas no matter how crazy they might seem.  It still includes listening to the ideas of others and possibly deciding on the best combination of ideas.  It's important to bring together a lot of ideas and diverse perspectives.

Prototyping comes next - often this might involve making a model, trying out an idea or bring an idea to reality.  This allows you to see in a practical way what does and doesn't work.  It's a place where you have have failure with low risks, and will allow you to move forward.

The last 3 parts of the process have mostly been about your own ideas, but feedback brings us back to the "client" again and this feedback will allow you to know what will or won't work for him or her.  You can then change or refine the design to make it better and more personal.  At this stage it is important to allow honest feedback.

Reflection is the final stage of the process.  Looking back allows you to move forward as you will only improve if you can reflect on what didn't work - knowing this allows you to work out how to overcome any new challenges.

We have used DT in a number of different ways at school this year, including trying to re-design a local sports club to meet both the needs of the teachers at ASB and the needs of the local Indian community.  If you would like to know more about any of these things that I've been thinking through this year, click on the links below to read my blog posts in full.

Photo Credit: marfis75 via Compfight cc

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