The Stages of Training to Think

Learning systems thinking (and not only systems) goes through the following stages:

0. Interest: understanding that you need the systems approach for something. This is the transition from unconscious incompetence (“I have no idea that I don’t use system thinking”) to conscious incompetence (“I know that I don’t use system thinking”). This is the hardest step on the road to thinking fluency. No motivation—no investment of time, no hard fun, no metanoia. People come to commercial courses already interested, and they get on with it. Students usually come in uninterested, and not all of them become interested even by the end of the course. But they often come back for a second time and become interested after they have completed the course: most often this happens after accidental use of the systems thinking material and after an unexpectedly good result. At this point a desire to consolidate success emerges. This interest in systems thinking must be maintained throughout the training (here we can point out that in pedagogy the leading discipline is leadership, the ability to keep a person in the role of a student [1]. And if you are a teacher for yourself, that is, if you are engaged in self-education, then the ability to control yourself together and “convince yourself into learning” is your leading skill).

1. Erudition: familiarity with some fragment of a set of concepts of the systems approach. The material of the handbook (or even several of them) is mastered at this stage in terms of knowledge of word meanings, the ability to retell some fragments of the handbook, to reproduce some reasoning, to support a conversation about the handbook content. For example, you are already well-read: you know that systems thinking deals with parts and whole, built up in many levels. You don’t yet know what to do with it and how to apply it to your projects, but this knowledge is pure truth, you already have it!

It is correct to think of the “well-read” stage as reading a bike cycling handbook. A well-read but never ridden person can tell you a lot about balance, about the need to pedal. But he will not be able to demonstrate the ride.

Reading is necessary for thinking, but it is not sufficient for confident fluency in thinking. In order to ensure “the right kind of fluency for further training in fluency”, our course was written to structure systems thinking. However, well-read is not yet a transition to conscious competence, when one can independently and consciously conduct some reasoning from a handbook on some problem in his current project. We take the form from the handbook, and the content from the task or project.

2. Understanding: understanding what the terms of the systems approach mean in their many variations of different schools, understanding how to use the concepts of systems thinking when discussing a wide variety of situations.

In addition to memory, some thought intuitions emerge. And this is done by numerous solving simple and similar problems, which the authors of the course formulate for training, not for knowledge control [2].

An example of such a problem: “Peter argues that we should already start purchasing functional parts of the system, and Elena says that it is not functional parts that are being purchased, but structural parts. Who is right? A) Peter B) Elena”. You can answer such a problem only if you know the difference between functional and structural parts of the system — to answer it, you have to somehow compare the situation in the problem with the place from the handbook where this difference is mentioned. After several such problems, the answer will be self-evident, and no reference to the handbook will be necessary. Solving such problems is just the way to form “rails in the head”, on which conceptual thinking will follow.

It is important that in these tasks we tain counterintuitiveness, the difference between the proposed way of thinking and the use of folk/household intuitions/ common sense, this is done through the use of the practice of conceptual inventory [3]. The essence of this practice is to offer trap answers in problems that correspond to "folk thinking. This has been proposed in physics to test the understanding of Newtonian physics vs. the “people’s” Aristotelian physics. In Aristotelian physics, the finger pushes the table (it is alive!) and the table does not push the finger (it is not alive!). In Newtonian physics, they push each other with equal force, which is counterintuitive, not consistent with “common sense” (but consistent with Newtonian physics). The problems, composed according to the principles of the conceptual inventory, check—what on this topic after passing the physics course the graduate thinks. And if it turns out that he/she solves problems on Newton’s third law with correct application of formulas, but thinks that the table does not press on the finger, then something has gone wrong in learning, and it is necessary to learn more. The problems in the systems thinking course are designed the same way; they test system thinking, the correctness of reasoning with counterintuitive systems thinking concepts, and a rejection of everyday and habitual “common sense” thinking. Again, “understanding” in some domain does not yet give a general ability to think [4].

3. Applicability (to work projects): the ability to apply system thinking in the wild, that is, in real projects. This is a completely separate quality: the ability to solve already set tasks (even of an Olympic level of difficulty) from the problem book versus the ability to set problems. To set tasks is to isolate correct objects from the confusing, noisy, rapidly changing world with a huge number of insignificant and attractive details, comparing them with the objects described in the handbook. After that, you can solve a problem that is already formulated in terms of the domain being studied, in our case, solve a problem formulated in terms of systems thinking. In life there are no problems from a handbook, there are not even words from a handbook, they need to be identified, discovered, i.e. set a task, “apply” book knowledge to life. In a variety of different objects of the surrounding world one has to find the "System-of-Interest’', for example. But there are thousands and thousands of objects! And then, after “redefining” it is possible to solve the problem in the usual terms from the handbook. If you want to know how many apples are in two piles, you have to guess that apples are exactly the counting objects from the arithmetic handbook, not “what you usually eat”. If you want to know about the needs for the super-duper-product you are developing, you need to identify which objects in the world are a supra system for it, and which roles people are interested in that system, what people in those roles want from that supra system (not from your super-duper-product!). Needs are about the supra system, requirements are about your product! Real projects in the training course appear only here, at the stage of learning to think “applicability”. It is only at this stage that the main skill of systems thinking is trained: find the main thing in working projects and ignore the non-essential. This highlighting of the main thing and rejection of the unimportant is necessary to combat the complexity of the real world, to save thinking. You need to be able to find the needle in the haystack: to select with your educated/trained/attuned attention from the world around you those important objects which you need to think further about. This is usually practiced with a teacher; it is difficult on your own. The teacher corrects mistakes at first, it is very difficult without this.

Problems created by author has perfect conditions, because nothing distracts from the application of the handbook material: neither the abundance of insignificant details, nor the lack of important information that still needs to be found, nor the emotional involvement in the situation (try to figure out which role the boss is yelling at you! And you have to figure it out, right in the middle of a very nervous conversation! Is he yelling as an operations manager, or as a requirements engineer? You have to respond to these roles in different ways!) And these simple problems always have a solution, while in life the existence of an acceptable solution is not a fact, and not the fact that you are even solving the right problem.

This is where “project learning” takes place; the result of the applying system thinking on real projects is the metanoia we are looking for: the neural network of the learner’s brain learns to use system thinking; systems thinking then no longer requires conscious effort in reasoning, including no effort to tie its concepts to the objects of the world around it. This is the transition to unconscious competence; we might also call the end of the “applicability” stage in the learning system thinking a systems metanoia. After systems metanoia you look at the world from some project roles you are aware of, and you see the world, consisting of interconnected different systems, see the world on many systems levels.

*Excerpt from the Systems Thinking course

[1] Десятый круглый стол по фундаментальным основаниям педагогики и образования: ailev — LiveJournal
[2] Our online course has about 200 problems with an automated check solution. For deeper understanding of Systems Thinking you can also enroll on offline seminars in Systems Management School
[4] The Problem of Revealing How Students Think: Concept Inventories and Beyond - PMC Beyond concept inventories towards measuring how students think concerns about measuring student thinking as opposed to student knowledge, but all these attempts are poorly technologized compared to concept inventories. For more on this topic, see “Notes on “Notes for a Modeling Theory” by David Hestenes” – Заметки к "Заметкам по теории моделирования" Давида Хестенеса: ailev — LiveJournal