“Reality tunnels” and the need for critical thinking

We are living in a time of sensory overload; with multiple sources of information, news and data, it has become more important than ever for the average citizen to develop sharp critical thinking skills to filter through this content. This is especially relevant when diving into the realm of opinion pieces, social commentary and debates on polarizing issues, where veracity and intent become key to understanding the overarching themes and potential agendas involved.

Reality tunnels are a “subconscious set of mental filters formed from beliefs and experiences” that actively shape our view of the world around us. With recent global political events, it is clear that there are increasingly deepening divides between large populations in society, and an inability to point to a set of objective facts that form a widely-accepted social reality – a phenomenon that some have termed an epistemological crisis.

In the context of higher education, these concepts lead to a multitude of questions:

  • Should universities and colleges play an active role in bridging these divides?
  • How might critical thinking be assessed in the context of this increasingly polarized spectrum of ideas?
  • How might students that stand on opposing ideological grounds respectfully engage with one another in the same classroom environment?

These are complex issues to which I don’t have an immediate solution; my past experience (or ‘reality tunnel’ if you will) gives me the feeling that we need to create more opportunities for exposure to different people/places/ideas/narratives to broaden the tunnel and develop capacities for perspective sharing and consensus. Using the design thinking lens, I believe empathy is the first step to begin these conversations that can hopefully lead us to a common ground.

The role of isomorphism in higher education

How should universities change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century?

I’ve begun to adopt a systems-driven lens to understand universities and the forces that drive or impede change. The concept of isomorphism comes from the field of sociology, and looks at the forces that drive organizations to be similar to one another in process or structure. There are three main types: coercive (external pressure from laws, regulations, social norms or customer expectations), mimetic (imitating best practices of successful organizations, in this case, top-tier universities) and normative (internal pressure from groups ‘within the ivory tower’).

Universities are in the unfortunate position of being susceptible to all three types of isomorphism. When we think about adaptation and change, we need to look at evolving systems in and around universities as well. This could include international ranking systems, quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms, faculty employment and tenure, student (and parent) expectations surrounding higher education and relationships with corporate/industry leaders.

The question remains: how can universities work against these forces to differentiate and offer programming that truly meets student needs, and perhaps more importantly, keeps them engaged? With the rise of alternative education (think MOOCs, interdisciplinary degrees, open universities), figuring this one out becomes more important than ever.

Putting my design hat on, I think the concept of prototyping could perhaps be helpful; small experiments that are documented and evaluated by stakeholders could break through isomorphic patterns and start to bring about changes to programs, curricula and institutional structures.

I like this graph by Alexander Osterwalder that documents the increased complexity of a prototypes as success builds over time:

source: https://www.strategyzer.com/blog/posts/2017/2/16/prototype-learn-iterate

While this is rooted in the business context, something similar could potentially apply to the higher ed environment.