I’m reading Nigel Cross’s Design Thinking right now. It’s been on my to-read list for a few months and I was able to get a couple of other books that needed to get finished, finished. I have to say that I’m loving and hating this book. I’m hating the book for all of the wrong reasons. I’m on Goodreads and use their annual Reading Challenge as a way of motivating myself to read in those times of the year when I’m busy and finding the time to read can be hard. I made my goal last year of 40 books and have upped this year’s goal to 45. I look at Cross’s book in that context and think, “It’s only 150 pages. This’ll be a quick read!” Another book checked. The problem is that each page is so rich, that I just want to walk away and think about it for a few days. This is NOT a quick read!
But that’s the reason for this, and likely future posts. I’ve stumbled on something early on in the book that has really got me thinking. Cross talks about the kinds of reasoning that are involved in design thinking. Specifically, he talks about the differences between deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning. He quotes philosopher C.S. Peirce when he says, “Deduction proves that something must be; induction shows that something actually is operative; abduction suggests that something may be.” This differentiation between these forms of reasoning triggered a number of thoughts.
First, it struck me that my issues with action research stem from the kinds of reasoning needed to address a particular problem. The word research, in my mind, made me feel like inductive and maybe deductive reasoning were necessary. I need to be able to say that this is so because this is not or that this falls into a particular category because it has certain properties, and because it has certain properties we can treat it in a certain way. The reality is that in teaching, the problem is not one of we can teach all students the same because of property x. The problem is that we have this group of students that are all different in significant enough ways that we need to find a way of helping them understand. We are dealing with this particular group studying this particular topic. There are many solutions, many of them good, and we need to choose the one that is a good fit for us at that time.
This is a curriculum design problem and like all design problems the issue is not in finding the only solution or even the correct solution. The issue is finding the solution that we prefer at any given time given the parameters that are set out by the problem. The parameters are the students and the topic. When I’ve been involved in action research, I’ve felt that there is some need to draw particular conclusions that can be extrapolated to other situations and be used by other teachers. While there will be truths in my situation that may apply to other situations, there certainly are many that are unique to my particular situation. I’ve needed to think more like a designer than a researcher, even if many of the tools of the researcher will help me to understand the design problem.
The second thought that was triggered by this distinction between types of thinking/reasoning is that we talk a lot about how students learn, but I wonder how much we talk about how they think. I know that at my school, there is discussion of learning styles. I know that my daughter, who goes to a very different school than I teach at, went through a period where there was lots of discussion about identifying one’s own learning style. And there is certainly significant overlap in the ideas of thinking and learning. But the discussion around learning styles is often framed in the context of “this is how I learn best, so how can I leverage my preferred learning style to learn best in all of my courses/subjects.” This discussion works on the idea that we examine our strengths and weaknesses and we leverage our strengths.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea of leveraging our learning style strengths. This is an efficient approach. But when it comes to different kinds of thinking – and we are likely talking more broadly than the ideas of deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning – we can’t simply choose a type of reasoning to apply to a problem simply because that is how we think. A detective can’t charge someone with a crime because he or she fits the profile of someone who might have committed the crime. The solution to this kind of problem cannot be through finding a solution that could work (abductive reasoning), it has to be solved through deductive reasoning to find the one person who actually committed the crime. Likewise, my struggles with action research to look at curriculum design problems required an understanding of abductive reasoning, not an application of deductive or even inductive reasoning.
While we do spend time talking to our students about their learning styles, do we spend as much time being explicit about their thinking approaches? Do we look at a problem and talk about the kinds of reasoning that one might apply and investigate what might happen if one used a different kind of reasoning? I don’t think that we do. Or at least, I don’t hear those discussions if they are happening. I suspect that we send them off to different classes and different disciplines tend to lean towards certain types of reasoning. Math tends to be more deductive. Science relies on deductive and inductive reasoning. Social studies probably leans more toward inductive reasoning. The arts would lean more toward abductive reasoning. Instead of talking about these differences, students go to some classes that they feel they are good at, and some that they feel that they aren’t. But they don’t necessarily get why they are good at some and not at others. I wonder if more overt discussion of types of reasoning would help our students to take the approach of strengthening those types of reasoning that they are weaker at. Unlike learning styles, there are all sorts of real life application for all types of reasoning, and we aren’t able to go through life applying our natural thinking style to every problem. It just won’t work.
I’m thankful to Cross, for his book thus far (even if it’s not going to help making my Goodreads goal any easier.) I suspect that I’ll be coming to this book many times in this blog over the coming weeks!