Macaskill and colleagues developed effective altruism, which uses data and some snazzy principles to help people make a huge difference in the world. It’s about asking “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and then using evidence and reasoning to find the answer. It’s not about more money, or volunteering more hours. It’s more about being impartial in analyzing the options to choose what’s best for the world. (Spoiler alert: many of the options that we choose aren’t the best ones!)
I picked up this book because of Design Thinking. Weird, maybe… but as we ask students to prototype solutions to complex problems, I’ve been grappling with what to do with those solutions. Are they solutions that warrant being pushed into the world? Have similar solutions already been tested? Should we tap into the passion students show towards specific subjects and encourage them to do something to make a difference, or redirect their energy to areas in which it is possible to truly make a difference? And hey, are we even tackling the right problems?
According to Macaskill, it’s not enough to do something. It needs to be the best thing, so that the thing done makes the difference it should make. When it comes to helping others, Macaskill says that “being unreflective often means being ineffective.” He shares multiple examples of programs that sound great on paper, like PlayPumps and Fair Trade but in actuality do little good for the people they intend to serve. In fact, some programs not only don’t do good, but they can cause harm, like Scared Straight, and boycotting sweat shops (seriously…!)
So what does this have to do with elementary students and design thinking?
If we are going to present students with opportunities to solve complex problems, and build in them a sense of agency that they can make a difference in the world, then isn’t it also our responsibility to make sure that they do good in a way that actually helps others? Shouldn’t we teach them how to identify work that matters? And how to make smart choices about ways to give back?
Although I’m not sure I agree with all of Macaskill’s premises, I do think this is an area which warrants a deeper dive. If we are going to teach advocacy, global citizenship, and cultural intelligence, then it is important that we also provide students with the tools needed to help them make smart decisions, just like we need to do with media literacy and fake news. We need to make sure that critical thinking stays prominent in this work.
We need to ask ourselves if we are doing good, or if we are doing good better.