Critical Doing

Paul Heidebrecht

Director of Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement Paul Heidebrecht also teaches courses in Peace and Conflict Studies at Grebel.


Universities and colleges are increasingly confronted with new kinds of expectations. Governments and other funders expect that teaching and research will make a demonstrable economic, environmental, and social impact. Communities expect that hosting scholars and students will help them be more enlightened, culturally vibrant, and relevant. And students themselves expect opportunities to apply their passions and skills to make a difference in the world.

For some, these rising expectations have provided the impetus to reimagine the way that education is carried out. For example, Ashoka, a global organization that envisions a world in which everyone is a changemaker, urges schools to embrace social innovation as their core mission. More than transferring knowledge and skills, they should be empowering students to create positive changes that transform society.

As Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University in Virginia, one of Ashoka’s accredited Changemaker Campuses, put it several years ago in a contribution to Presidential Perspectives, universities and colleges need not only to turn out critical thinkers, but to develop critical doers. Our graduates need to have the capacity to generate new solutions to complex problems, either transforming or creating organizations along the way.

I have become quite taken with this way of putting it. Whether we call them social innovators, changemakers, or simply problem solvers, the shared assumption is that students are in a prime position to both think and act. To both reflect and practice. To be critical doers.

I also think it is important to emphasize the first word in that phrase: students are in a prime position to be critical doers. In addition to expecting that students will be thoughtful and informed, we should expect that the things they do will be crucial and decisive. As my University of Waterloo colleague Ilona Dougherty, an Ashoka Fellow and the Managing Director of the Youth and Innovation Project argues, our society desperately needs the unique perspectives and talents of young people if we are going to overcome the problems that the current generation of leaders, institutions, and systems are clearly incapable of addressing.

Embracing this ambitious vision for education has all kinds of implications. Cabrera focuses on the importance of providing students with experiential learning opportunities that are multidisciplinary and collaborative. I agree with his emphasis on the learning that happens outside of classrooms, and also agree that we must go beyond traditional options such as field trips, internships, co-op jobs, study abroad programs, and service learning initiatives.

One new category of extracurricular activities that has emerged in recent years are “pitch competitions”—opportunities for students to make a brief and compelling presentation or “pitch” of a new idea to a panel of judges. While typically focused on rewarding entrepreneurial ventures being developed by students, these competitions have increasingly become a vehicle for exploring problems, communicating research findings, and testing solutions that will make a positive social impact. In my role directing the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement and teaching courses at Grebel, I have been privileged to work with more and more students interested in these opportunities, and I am increasingly impressed by the learning they demonstrate.

Over the 2018-2019 academic year, twenty-two resident and associate students at Grebel competed in ten different pitch competitions. Ten students entered more than one competition; one student entered four! This is a striking level of participation for a community of a little more than three hundred students. Not only did Grebel students compete often, their teams stood out. They were winners at five of the ten competitions entered, and they represented the University of Waterloo on the stage of national and international-level competitions in Toronto and London, Ontario, as well as Indianapolis, Indiana. 

To be sure, Grebel is part of a larger university widely regarded as playing a crucial role in one of Canada’s most dynamic innovation ecosystems. And so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, given how many students with an entrepreneurial bent are attracted to Waterloo, that some of them are also finding their way to Grebel. However, in my view, there are some larger lessons to be drawn for those teaching in other contexts.

One reason the Grebel community has engaged so well in this new context is that it is composed of students enrolled in all six of Waterloo’s faculties. Thus an appreciation for multidisciplinary perspectives—marked by traits like curiosity and humility—is nurtured through everything from roommate pairings to shared meals in the dining room. So I was not surprised that the winners of the digital products award at a national hackathon sponsored by CBC and Radio-Canada would be a team of students from Computer Science, Global Business and Digital Arts, Nanotechnology Engineering, and Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS). Their efforts to counter the echo-chamber phenomenon fostered by social media inevitably required contributions from many disciplines.

Another case in point is the pair of students from Applied Health Sciences and PACS who explored the complexities of food insecurity in Northern Ontario, and went on to represent Waterloo at the Canadian finals of Oxford University’s Map the System competition.

A second driver of learning that Grebel accelerates is collaboration. While other residences at Waterloo are reserved for first year students, Grebel continues to set aside space for upper-year students. Not only does this deepen community because it is built and rebuilt by students on a timescale of years rather than semesters, it deepens connections between individual students whose paths may have never otherwise crossed. Indeed, Grebel is a veritable petri dish for team building!

For example, in recent years Grebel students have competed in a social venture pitch competition at the annual convention of MEDA, an international development organization pursuing business solutions to poverty. Grebel’s interdisciplinary team has been led by a student who participated in the previous year’s competition, which helps to jump-start the learning of newcomers.

Collaboration between students in different years as well as disciplines also fosters persistence and an awareness of pathways to continue exploring ways to make a social impact that transcend a single pitch competition. Last year’s MEDA team continued to refine their idea for an antimicrobial reusable sanitary pad that could be locally sourced and distributed in Uganda through subsequent competition opportunities. “SheCycle” went on to represent Waterloo on a bigger stage, this time at the global finals of the World’s Challenge Challenge at Western University, where they came home with the top prize of $30,000.

My point in providing these glimpses into the abundance of new extracurricular opportunities that students are presented with at places like Grebel and Waterloo is not to celebrate success as much as to celebrate learning. In coaching many of these teams, I have been struck by the pace of learning I have observed as they harnessed their passions and skills to do something about a problem that really matters. I have seen what critical doing looks like in practice, and, let me tell you, there is nothing more amazing for an educator to be part of.

I am more convinced than ever that the most profound kind of learning in any setting ultimately depends on the intrinsic motivation of the learner. The key question this raises for me, particularly if the future of higher education depends on creating changemakers, is where does this motivation come from? How do we identify students who have too often kept it bottled up inside? How do we nurture it in students who are more focused on superficial ends? How do we empower students who have been denied a sense of agency?

New extracurricular opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration are crucial, but they are not enough. Critical doers may be focused on making a positive change, but they need more than the right tools and techniques. They need the right kind of motivation, and I think this comes from a learning community that provides inspiration and fosters their imagination to discern what constitutes a good change, not to mention a good society. In short, learning through participating in pitch competitions, as with learning in life more generally, is done best when it is propelled by a vision for a particular kind of impact or change.

It really does take a community to make change—at least constructive change—happen, and universities and colleges, Grebel included, have a vital role to play.

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