Tools for thinking

Friday, May 1, 2015

In my last two posts I discussed 'platforms for creativity', the topic of a collaborative talk I gave with David Gauntlett in Dundee in January. This time, I'll focus on the theme of the workshop we ran that afternoon: tools for thinking.

(I'm only just getting round to this now because I've been busy writing a book - very exciting! - and being pregnant - even more exciting!)

Anyway: tools for thinking. Before the workshop, we said: Each participant is asked to bring along one object – or set of objects! – which you think might be fruitful ‘tools for thinking’. This could be anything really. Don’t worry about it, but bring something. David and I also brought a pile of stuff for people to play with.

During the workshop we asked the participants to fill in a Top Trumps-style card to evaluate the 'affordances' of their tools: what they could do with them.

This got me thinking about different types of tools for thinking, that can be used in different ways. I'm interested in tools that can be used either for a group discussion, or for individuals making individual responses to a question or prompt, that they can then share. 

Tools for fiddling

Lots of the tools that worked well were things that you could fiddle with, keeping your hands occupied while a conversation unfolds. This is quite a basic type of tool for thinking, but a very valuable one, I think. When we're engaged in a practical activity we talk more openly, partly because we're saved from having to keep eye contact, and also because there's less pressure to keep the conversation going - there's time to think, and reflect, and just contribute when we're ready. When people are undertaking the same activity together, it creates a sense of connection, and that supports open discussion, too.

There are loads of objects that you can fiddle with - though stuff that you can transform, connect or build with in some way is probably the most satisfying. In general I prefer everyone to be fiddling with one type of stuff, rather than - as I've found is often the case - being presented with a random pile of craft materials. And I think it's nice if the material you're fiddling with bears some relation to the topic at hand - or at least, doesn't actively distract from it.

When choosing your tool, you might consider: Is this stuff good for fiddling with? Are any skills needed? Do the group have those skills? Is any instruction required?

Also: Is the stuff familiar to the group? Will it appeal to them? Does it complement or clash with the topic we want to discuss?

Tools for creating metaphors

Tools for thinking can be used in another way: to create metaphors that represent ideas, people and emotions, which you can combine to build up models. This is the basis of David's great work using Lego in social research and, recently, other academic contexts. In order to do this, you need things with metaphorical affordances - they might be objects, like Lego, or you could also draw pictures, or even (boringly but straightforwardly) write down keywords using the seemingly omnipresent post-it note.

It's worthwhile thinking about how easy it is to use the tool for representing things; if it's too vague, you're likely to get confused or spend too much energy trying to work out how to use it. And with some tools (plasticine, for example) it's easy to get bogged down in trying to make a perfect representation - rather than thinking about the thing you're representing.

It's good for the elements to be repositionable: that way, you can think and reflect as you build, and change your mind. This is why I think drawing a diagram - which seems like such an obvious means of building a metaphorical model - isn't great; once you've put something down on paper, you're stuck with it. I also have a preference for 3-d objects over 2-d representations, partly because I find them more engaging, but also because 3-d things tend to also be good tools for fiddling. Double-good tools for thinking!

Tools for making connections

Finally, there are tools that are good for making connections. I can think of three versions of this:

  • You could use something long and thin (or things that you can join together to make something long and thin) to connect some of your metaphorical tools in significant ways; this might add complexity and space to your model.
  • If your 'tools for fiddling' allow, you could work together using the same lot of stuff; this would create physical connections between the people in the group which visualise the shared activity and conversation.
  • Alternatively, you might come up with a shared hare-brained scheme, that breaks out of the expected discussion format; one of the groups in Dundee thought tea was a good tool for thinking, and took off to find a kettle together! I like to think that this created a sense of connection, and that they had a fruitful discussion while the kettle boiled.

Happy thinking, everybody!