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Design a Perfect...

Design a Perfect...


Programs and facilities like schools, airports, hospitals, museums, police departments and nursing homes exist in our society because they serve a need we value. They are, in fact, expressions of those values, which makes them an ideal topic for the expressive act of synthesis. Because the focus of this project is a program or facility, it can give students experience grappling with the concrete ways that your course material impacts the lives of others.

The activity

In this activity, design the perfect model of a given program or facility and then report in detail how that facility works, who it serves, where it is located, and so on. The more detailed the better. For an engineering class, the facility could be an airport or even a part of something larger like a certain mechanism on a bridge or in a building. For a sociology class, the facility could be a school or social service program.

This can be an individual assignment as a term paper or an in-class discussion in which students first must brainstorm on their own and then come together to flesh out a combined design for their perfect facility. Importantly, this exercise is about brainstorming and creativity, but it is crucial for students to understand the criteria that their "perfect" creation must meet. In designing those criteria, you design the constrains of the problems the students are being asked to solve. Specifics are important, because they connect the assignment with reality. So, for example, ask your students to design a perfect 'whatever' for the town you are teaching in and ask students to locate it specifically on a map.


Design your own drug abuse prevention program. Do NOT reinvent the wheel (there is SO much research relate to what works that it is irresponsible and unethical to disregard the research!) Review the literature on prevention interventions and choose a technique, population, and model program that you feel strongly about. Adapt the program to a local setting (e.g., school, treatment center, community center, shelter, etc.) and explain the rationale for your recommendations. Make sure that you do at least one creative thing which you feel would enhance the program such as a video to accompany the curriculum, a public service announcement (PSA), a list of current songs that capture the messages of the prevention program, etc.. Do NOT waste time in your paper describing the details of your program (instead, attach the research article which describes the program).

From: UT Professor of Social Work Lori Holleran-Steiker.


Having all the groups in a class assigned to design the same kind of institution creates two opportunities. First, it enables students to have a thoughtful conversation ahead of time about the criteria upon which their institutional designs are to be judged. Second, it generates a great deal of well-informed interest in what other students came up with in their final design, which can lead to fertile conversations about across groups about how other groups handled certain problems or made certain decisions.

Adapted from Nelson, J. (2005). If I had my way (creating a model). In Cultivating judgement: A sourcebook for teaching critical thinking across the curriculum (195-197). Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.