Backwards Thinking: A Highway to Change

by Doreen Nelson
Professor, School of Education and Integrative Studies,
Adjunct Professor College of Environmental Design
California Polytechnic University, Pomona

Climbing the Learning Ladder

Much thought in education theory and learning theory has been devoted to how to produce original thinkers. Teaching students how to be creative thinkers does not exist. Education is primarily about learning what has been done, simply accumulating and replicating information. Students are not taught to become dexterous at transforming, changing and handling information. That is thought to be the unattainable domain of a rare breed of humans.

How do we reawaken our students to the possibilities of creative thinking? How do we educate them to make decisions and to understand the impact that their decisions will have on present and future generations? Education has been deadening for so many students who see no function for the past and for whom inventing the future seems impossible. How does one begin to change that?

For the past 20 years I have been educating students to think like designers; to hypothesize, envision and invent the future instead of imitating the past. I call the method that I use Backwards ThinkingTM. It is the natural way that humans resolve dilemmas and change things which begins with the urge to design. It is how we mortals continuously arrange and rearrange our reality to control time and space. Everyone everyday is faced with situations that are thought through backwards. It begins with thinking of an invention, what to eat for dinner, what to do to keep dry, what to wear or how to carry things.

Early humans must have learned how to carry food, water and fire by observing that babies were born in a kind of carrying bag, that kangaroos had pouches and that nuts came in shells. They made up the solution. Making bags, bowls or a wheelbarrow for carrying things was a natural evolution. The designers had a need; they used their eyes and experiences and, most importantly, they worked together to invent whatever was needed.

Getting students into the mode of creative thinking can be viewed through a "learning ladder" with the making of original things or ideas being at the top of the ladder. Traditional learning starts on the ground floor with giving the learner facts and information. At the next rung up the learner is asked to observe the information. For example, to teach about the concept of 'house' a good teacher would first present different kinds of houses such as igloos, tents, teepees, skyscrapers and other dwellings, then ask the students to observe the characteristics of each abode. As the students move up this learning ladder, they would be asked to compare and contrast different examples of the information that they have gained and to ask such questions as, "When would it be appropriate to use an igloo?" "What kinds of conditions predispose builders to create what kinds of housing?" and so on and so forth. At every rung on this ladder the learner would be required to do more complex thinking. Usually, though, the learner is snagged into regurgitating the past instead of creating original designs. Asking students to invent a house of the future, if it is done at all, just isn't taken seriously. The area of greatest concern to our future is to take the final step - to make change - and that has been relegated to the back burner.

Backwards Thinking and City Building Education

Backwards Thinking poses a challenge to come up with something unique while at the same time backing into information. The best activities require that students actually make their idea. In the late 1960's I began developing the methods known as City Building Education using the construction of a city of the future as the showcase for inventions that students create. The classroom itself is operated like a city and the miniature city in the classroom is then used as a context for all learning. Throughout the years of successful practice the principles that operate in the City Building Education methodology have been made explicit so that they can easily be applied to all subjects without the aid of a model city.

In the City Building Education model the learning ladder is turned upside down. The learner is asked to start with invention - regardless of the subject or the task. If they are designing a school, a monument or even if they are studying the sun the first thing they do is to invent a school, a classroom, a monument or even a sun of the future. They then look at what exists.

In the 1960's when Jerome Bruner's The Process of Education first came across my desk I was taken by the words that Bruner used to describe intuition and leaps of insight, claiming that "courage of taste" was at the heart of the creative process and that if we could discover what transpired during such bursts of thought that we would have a greater understanding of the learning process. Our task as educators, as I interpreted it, was to unlock this "courage" and to lead students to learn that intuition and leaps of insight are the domain of all people not just 'famous' ones.

City Building Education makes explicit to students a series of changes that transform one thing into another. A classroom teacher using Backwards Thinking doesn't need to find a whole new series of lessons or a new curriculum. All that is needed is to rethink the presentation and to ask their students to name their own way of thinking. A science lesson on erosion might begin by asking students to invent a way to make a change to a pile of earth or a rock and to name all the changes that took place with each material. Starting with the end result of erosion instead of the beginning, the forms change and disappear as different types of changes are applied to them. Lessons on wind, water or glacial erosion found in the textbook jump off the page.

One teacher wanting to teach line, form and color in paintings by arranging beautiful flowers from her garden ended up having a classroom full of look alike paintings. Using the backward method her students collected their own flowers and were prodded to invent a never before seen arrangement. Then they were given the same lessons of line, form and color, and they produced an enormous variety of original paintings. Because they knew how to change things they were able to develop a whole series of original works.

Architecture Students and Kids Design the School of the Future

For ten years beginning in 1986 the Vivarium Project led by Apple Fellow Alan Kay at the Los Angeles Open Charter School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, has been conducting research to better understand how people learn and how computers might help. Many of the projects had little or no direct involvement with computers, concentrating instead on understanding how people learn. City Building Education has been studied in order to make explicit the principles that operate in the methodology so that those principles could be easily applied to all subjects without the aid of a model city.

My involvement began with matching graduate architecture students with grade school children (ages 6 through 12) in the design of a "School of the Future" for Apple Computer. The children were asked to build models of their 'idealized' school in order to act as clients and co-designers enabling the graduate students to imagine such a place from a child's perspective. The children's initial designs were not at all creative. They stated the obvious based on what they knew before - schools that looked exactly like what we have today except with a few more swimming pools and basketball courts. Only one response was a variation from the norm - a classroom without teachers.

Guessing that such feeble proposals might stem from their limited ability and practice in expressing three-dimensional ideas, the children were asked to bring in their favorite animals and think of using the animal as a school.

Things got better because this immediately changed the convention of the classroom as a box. The young designers started to stretch their imaginations to invent new functions and spaces in response to critiques furnished by the university students. The future schools took form as trees sprouted from the belly of a teddy bear, dogs subdivided organically into zones for learning and play, and limber tails transported learners to various places. It was actually pretty simple once the children were asked for something never before seen. With questions about the function and use of the classroom, the new designs had little resemblance to anything existing.

The university architecture students took the lead from the young students by adapting these animal models and immediately produced highly creative schematic designs. They made descriptive models to share with the children: a school that was like a sea anemone, a school that was like a space station, a school with moving parts. The models were made out of found material and could be changed easily so that, even in the design process, the classroom became a study tool about transformation. Spurred by provocative new visions, the architecture students went back to the drawing board to develop their final designs and the children proceeded to redesign their existing classrooms. This exchange between the architecture students and the children produced a remarkably fanciful collection of study models, but in the end everything went back to what it was before.

Breaking the convention or the norm never went past the drawing-board or, in this case, the study model. The 'big' students reverted to academic formalism and turned in uninspired projects that had little resemblance to their first designs. When it came to doing the working drawings, students stayed with the conventional rectangular or square floor plans which did not begin to suggest the malleable spaces of the study model.

Faced with deadlines and architecture instructors who preferred understandable and polished presentations, the architecture students went with what was easier to conceive and execute. The young students moved around a few pieces of furniture but the teacher and the school curriculum, which have little time for such activities, quickly put the enterprise to rest. Although it seemed like a natural inclination for both young and old designers to want space capable of adapting to creative uses, putting their ideas into action was not natural or easy. The goal of having both younger and older learners treat the classroom as an environment that can continually transformed itself had failed.

The important question is why? Why were the university students more inventive than the children at first? Then why, with a bit of directed coaching, were the children able to excel? And why did the adults ultimately fall back on stable paradigms? Do the rigorous guidelines of architectural training sap original thinking?

School is thought of as the place to practice fantasizing, but it isn't true. Children, teachers and architecture students are constrained by what they already know and can do and the role models that they see before them. So, it turns out that everybody is a replicator. If we do not want to have a culture that is about replication, school is where the change has to take place. If a designer really wants to help alter the culture, teaching Backwards Thinking to children and clients is the place to start.

Babar, the elephant character created by de Brunhoff for children's literature, was such a good learner that the only thing he forgot was that he was an animal that walked on all fours. Babar ran away from the jungle after the death of his mother and was "saved" by an old lady who taught him to mimic middle class society. He learned to be a person, to wear a suit and a hat, to eat with perfect table manners, to write and to drive a car. When he went home to visit his elephant relatives he stood upright and was named the king. We all think we are saved by being "well educated" replicators of what we see around us. At the same time we all know that change is inevitable and that to continue replicating the past simply won't work. To conquer the future requires practice with designing the future and learning to respond to each situation as an opportunity for change.

Change and Creativity

It's simple. You just take something and do something to it. Then you do something else to it. Pretty soon, you've got something.

Jasper Johns

City Building Education was used to study change at the Los Angeles Open Charter School, funded by Apple Computer. Third and fourth graders built a city of the future based on their own existing community. It was discovered that the students needed to go through a series of exercises.

The teacher had to push them quite a bit and put hard questions to them: How is your design going to be different for the future, as opposed to replicating what has been done in the past? Where will the offices go? Where will the neighborhoods be? Where will all of these things be in relation to one another, and why? And most important - what did you do to make your idea?

The first invented cities quickly came to look like real cities. The one with the monorail looked a bit like Disneyland. The crowded one looked a bit like Los Angeles. They have supermarkets and freeways -- at eye level these Lilliputian cities are quite convincing yet were replications rather than inventions.

Then the students moved on to the next level of design and to consider how what they have produced will affect human interaction. What sorts of rules are required to have a freeway? Where should there to be another street to make getting about easier? This pathway is fraught with danger -- how can we make it safer? How will having a door here affect people who are walking along there?

This is my apartment building, and on the top is a swimming pool. It, it's a cold day, raining or something, you could have an indoor swimming pool and if it's hot, you open it up and people can lie here. Down here is the doors. Here... well, it's a vet, an animal doctor. In here is where there's like an x-ray line, check up line, and broken heart line, and this is my shopping mall. You also can live here.

Here are my cars, and this is my apartments, and this is my electricity building. This is my post office, and if I was making it real nice, if I was designing in 100 years, there would be a helicopter under here which delivers anything in two minutes to any place in the world.

Here in the weightless restaurant you get a glove with velcro on it, and the fork has Velcro, so you can hold it, and there's a plate with Velcro on the table, so it stays on, and they... and they put a weight on the bottom of the food, so it stays onto the plate.

If I make special stairs, then the handicapped could come and walk up. They build it up in space, so there's no gravity, and they build it air tight, so no gravity gets in so nobody falls down.

Once a personal vocabulary is established students practiced using their Menu of Changes by making change physical. They tried out things that can and cannot be done. They selected a favorite object and figured out how to make it bigger and what to do with it once it becomes a "changed" object. A bigger tube of tooth paste or book can become a costume or a building. They identified things in the environment that are difficult to change because they are too big. The school or the city is hard to rearrange. A floor plan, a model with small furniture or buildings can lead to an improved use of space.

The Menu of Changes as a learning tool turns change itself from a method into a topic that supports and strengthens the whole curriculum. By calling attention to change students observe the effects of making changes and talk about what was observed. Naming the change helps to focus on the skills associated with creative thinking. Using the menu made up of their own words, students apply what they learned in one area to a completely different area. They change stories, drawings, experiments, equations, wall displays, the classroom or the layout of the city.

As a result of this research the classrooms that use the techniques described become creative places because creativity is asked for. A high school science teacher used the Menu of Changes as a way to get students to think-up a variation on experiments that they were performing. They were, without realizing it, able to invent hypotheses.

At the university I head up a master's degree program in Design and Creativity for practicing teachers of all subjects and grade levels. I also teach designers interested in teaching and general education students from such diverse fields as accounting, math, science, physical education and elementary education. All of them seem to be able to relate easily to the notion of building a city, whether it is for designing bookkeeping systems of the future, redesigning physical education activities or designing physical structures. Teachers are very good designers. I find that once they identify their skill as a designer they find many ways to instigate the design process, to turn a lesson backward and to get students to find uses for their own Menu of Changes. Reconnecting learners with their innate ability to create, to design alone or in groups, is a powerful tool for preparing students for the future.