Critical Thinking: Research, Reflections and Free Resources with MosaicLab

In 2016, MosaicLab and Dr. Lyn Carson (of Deliberative Designs and the newDemocracy Foundation) commenced a research project to explore what happens when participants have an opportunity to build and use critical thinking skills during a deliberative engagement process.

As deliberative and high-influence engagement specialists, we believe in enhancing the voice of everyday people in decision making. We also believe in continuous learning and improvement. This project gave us the opportunity to work in partnership with Dr. Carson, an academic in this field, and apply academic thinking to our on-the-ground facilitation. The work aimed to build participant capacity, strengthening their ability to participate in a meaningful way. In 2018, Dr. Carson and MosaicLab won the IAP2 Australasia Core Values Award for Research. We feel very honoured to have had our work recognised in this way.

Critical thinking activities developed in a university context were applied to participants in MosaicLab facilitated deliberative processes. With oversight from Dr. Carson, MosaicLab experimented with various critical thinking exercises, with a particular focus on participants’ ability to understand and evaluate the ‘expert evidence’ presented to them during the process.

One of the key principles of deliberative engagement is the provision of in-depth information from multiple sources. Participants’ ability to assess and interrogate these inputs is, therefore, vital to meaningful participation in a deliberative process.

Participants in these processes are interacting with people in positions of power, or those perceived to be ‘experts’. Our work indicated that critical thinking skills gave participant’s confidence in their ability to ‘interrogate’ experts and assess information more effectively. This meant they could gain clear, relevant and useful information from key speakers and other inputs.

However, we also believe that critical thinking can have broader benefits, including the enhancement of trust and accountability on multiple fronts:

  1. Decision maker trust in the randomly-selected group’s ability to grapple with the dilemma, understand key information and weigh-up trade-offs.
  2. Broad trust in process integrity/independence (because participants that use critical thinking skills are less likely to be unduly influenced by those with an interest in the outcome).
  3. Trust between the participants themselves – belief in their ability to grapple with the problem, come to agreement, and provide a quality, informed output.
  4. Participant trust in elected officials and government more, due to a better understanding of the complexity and difficulties inherent in some of the decisions being made.

These skills have proven to be particularly relevant in processes where the issue is highly technical, or where decision-makers can fear that citizens are unable to grasp the depth of a complex issue.  Participants are able to use critical thinking to confidently test and grapple with complex inputs, empowering them to participate more actively in the discussions.

Our observations on trust are interesting given the continued erosion of public trust in democracy and decision making in Australia and across the globe. In 2018 The Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra released findings from their joint research, Trust and Democracy in Australia, that shows satisfaction with Australian democracy has more than halved over ten years.

While we have promising indications of increased participant perceptions of trust and accountability, these results have been anecdotal to date.  While the initial study is over, we are continuing our work in the field by introducing standard pre and post-surveying of deliberative process participants. This survey will be used across multiple processes. Examples of questions asked include how accountable or trustworthy participants think the sponsoring organisation is and how likely they are to participate in civic activities before – comparing answers before and after their exposure to the deliberative process (including critical thinking exercises).

During this research we learnt that there are ways to tweak these processes to ensure that a group’s use of critical thinking skills is enhanced and provides maximum benefit to participants and the wider experience. The exercises and resources that have been produced via this project have been made available for others to use.

The following resources are particularly useful in a group setting.

Our experiences and findings have changed the way we facilitate processes, and had broader ranging impacts than we could have imagined. Since this research concluded, we have continued liaise with Dr. Carson and build on our work together. This has included trialing the introduction of ‘brain biases’ to our participants, with promising results. Critical thinking helps us to overcome common ‘biases’ that skew our thinking and stop us seeing issues from different perspectives. Dr. Carson (with creative input from the Sortition Foundation’s Brett Hennig and support from MosaicLab) developed this exercise on unconscious biases. This included the development of an ‘unconcious biases’ video and a biases handout that can be provided to participants.

We see critical thinking as an essential skill that’s relevant to everyone – anyone can benefit from enhancing their critical thinking capacity.  Despite this, citizens rarely encounter the practice of critical thinking, or even the term critical thinking. We hope these resources help not only people working in group-decision making contexts, but individuals who want to build their personal skills and apply them to everyday life.