Tag Archives: systems thinking

Flat Learning, Vertical Learning, and Leadership Development

17 Dec

I want to contrast a couple of ways to think about learning; one that informs much of what we do, and another that I think ought to inform more of what we’re doing. The first way is to think of learning as flat, linear, time-limited, and cognitive. The second is another way to think of learning as vertical, longitudinal, all-encompassing, and continuous.

In the “flat” model, learning is essentially a two-step process: ingest information, and then, sort of magically, learn. The emphasis in the learning design and assessment is on the definition, provision, organization, and repetition of the information. Less emphasis is placed on what the learner does with that information, or on the larger contexts in which the learning happens. Learning is seen as happening in discrete, isolated bursts: a course, a workshop, a webinar. Little thought is given to how these bursts connect with the person living through them. This learning is, as it were, shallow, or almost extrinsic: it’s not really expected to penetrate to the core of the individual and change the way they understand themselves or the world, for example.

In the “vertical” model, the bursts of flat learning are still there: but they are understood to be playing out against the backdrop of a deeper, more meaningful, longitudinal change in the individual, one that encompasses all their faculties: cognition, yes, but also emotion, motivation, behavior, self-understanding, mindset, and so on. In this model growth isn’t measured in terms of external content, but rather in deep, intrinsic, qualitative changes, increased ability to handle complexity, new ways to make meaning: and these changes percolate through and connect all the aspects of the person, ultimately appearing as long term behavior change. This learning is at a deeper level: learning here registers specifically as changes in understanding the self and the world.

The flat model has advantages: it is discrete, convenient, seems measurable, feels professional, fits into systems. And it works for a lot of things. But it is also imperative to understand the deeper learning that is going on. Some challenges cannot be solved by anyone without a particular level of vertical development; no amount of “flat” learning alone will address them. Among them are the particular challenges of leadership.

As you move up the hierarchical ladder of leadership roles, you are increasingly called on to display sophisticated understandings of the complexity of the world. Content or particular technical skills in discrete processes are helpful, of course, but what becomes more and more necessary is the ability to marshal your own and others’ full faculties–including motivation, emotion, cognition, behaviors–build systems of meaning across disciplines, and construct ways to understand and make decisions in emergent, ambiguous, and diverse contexts.

This vertical development often slowly happens in the background in life; we sense it happening, especially as we look back over where we’ve been and think about the ways we used to understand things. It explains a lot of tension between people in the workplace: that between workers expecting direction, and managers expecting initiative, for instance. Just working in leadership roles and making your way through the succession of problems you face there is a kind of support of this longitudinal, qualitative development. But that’s an inefficient and unpredictable support. As with any process, it can be improved with reflection, self-awareness, consistency, and by looking for ways to “see into” what is going on. You can manage and track vertical growth in people and teams as you already manage any other workplace system. And the overhead is minimal.

So how do you “see into” and more efficiently support this necessary growth in your leaders? That I’ll talk about in my next post! But here’s the short answer: a very special kind of formative assessment paired with a more-than-lip-service culture of learning or reflective practice. And a coach.

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Alan Kay, Systems, and Textbooks

17 Apr

Alan Kay give a talk called “Is Computing a Liberal Art?” yesterday at the 2012 NITLE Summit. Here I discuss his key idea: that systemic thinking is a liberal art, and I explain a corollary idea, that textbooks suck.

Kay is attuned to how ideas evolve and are instantiated in the culture and the mind. For him a key piece in this process is the relationship between ideas and the categories we have for them; the relationship is this: if you don’t have a category for an idea, it’s very difficult to receive that idea.

Kay says we’re born with 300 or so preexisting categories that the species has evolved to know it needs to think about to survive, and we’re wired to be looking around for thoughts in those categories (food, shelter, pleasure, etc.). But the story of the last few hundred years is that we’ve quickly developed important ideas, which society needs to have to improve and perhaps even to continue to exist, and for which there are no pre-existing, genetically created categories. So there’s an idea-receiving capacity gap.

Education’s job should be, says Kay, to bridge this gap. To help, that is, people form these necessary new idea-receiving categories–teaching them the capacity for ideas–early on in their lives, so that as they grow they are ready to embrace the things we need them to know. Let me say that in a better way: so that as they grow they are ready to know in the ways we need them to know.

Said he, “If you have a new idea come in and education won’t teach people it from birth, you get a pop culture.” Pop culture! A harsh but fair critique of our society. More on that pop culture below.

For now, what are the ideas or categories, or what capacity for ideas should we now be teaching? Kay has one major thought in mind. He wants us to cultivate the ability to conceive of, work with, create, understand, manipulate, tinker with, disrupt, and, generally, appreciate the beauty of systems. This he hails as perhaps the most important of all the liberal arts.

It is the zeitgeist of the last 100 years that everything now appears as a system that was but a piece of a system before–or everything is now multi-dimensional that was linear before—thinking of the body as a system, the environment as a system, economics as systems, computers as systems. It’s why we talk about gamification so much–because a game, or a simulation, thought of as a thing we might create (rather than a thing we only act within), is a visceral example of systems thinking. (If this sounds familiar to readers of this blog, it’s because I’ve written about seeing systems before, in The Age of the Gums, or in Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning, or in Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning, or even in The Conduit Metaphor, for instance. It might be all I write about.)

Seeing systems is an epistemology, a way of knowing, a mindset. As Kay said, “the important stuff I’m talking about is epistemological . . . about looking at systems.” It’s the Flatland story–that we need to train our 2D minds to see in a kind of 3D–and Kay’s genius is that he recognizes we have to bake this ability into the species, through education, as close to birth as possible.

One main point implied here is that we’re not talking about learning to see systems as an end point. Systems thinking is to be conceived of as a platform skill or an increased capacity on top of which we will be able to construct new sorts of ideas and ways of knowing, of more complex natures still. The step beyond seeing a single system is of course the ability to see interacting systems – a kind of meta-systemic thinking – and this is what I think Kay is really interested in, because it’s what he does. At one point he showed a slide of multiple systems–the human body, the environment, the internet, and he said in a kind of aside, “they’re all one system . . .” Compare that to the advanced stages in Bob Kegan’s constructive developmental psychology: “At Kegan’s sixth and final stage . . . there is a dawning awareness of an underlying unity that transcends human and environmental complexity.” (That from Philip Lewis’ work on Kegan, The Discerning Heart: Just happened to read that on the Metro on the way back to the hotel, as I was passing through Arlington National Cemetery).

Kay’s complaint is that higher education does not cultivate the particular epistemology of systemic thinking. We don’t teach integrative ways of knowing; we instead dwell within our disciplines, which dwelling you can see as being trapped within an arbitrarily chosen system. The point is to be able to see connections between the silos. Says Kay, the liberal arts have done a bad job at “adding in epistemology” among the “smokestacks” (i.e. disciplines).

Ok, so we’re not teaching systemic thinking. So what? What happens if you don’t teach people systemic thinking?

Then, Kay says, you’re allowing them to be stuck in whatever system they happen to be in, without thinking of it as a system. What happens when you’re stuck in a system? You don’t understand the world and yourself and others as existing in constant development, as being in process; you think you are a fixed essence or part within a system (instead of a system influencing systems) and you inadvertently trap yourself in a kind of tautological loop where you can only think about things you’re thinking about and do the things you do and you thus limit yourself to a kind of non-nutritive regurgitation of factoids, or the robotic meaningless actions of an automaton, or what Kay calls living in a pop culture. He sees this problem in higher education, where even faculty, experts in their own fields, are uneducated, in the sense that they can make no meta-connections among the fields, such that (as he said) hardly anyone exists who can understand the breadth of thought in a magnum cross-functional opus like the Principia Mathematica. And yet our future will be built on such integrative meta-connections as Newton’s.

By way of conclusion, I’ll now tell you why textbooks suck, according to Kay. A downside of being epistemologically limited to thinking within a system is that you overemphasize the importance of the content and facts as that system orders them. If you’re a teacher, you limit your students to processing bits according to a pre-ordained structure, to being a program, if you will, instead of learning to write a program. It would be better to use the system itself as the information students act upon when they construct their knowledge, and to find a way to get students to build new systems and even systems of systems. We teach students vocabulary within one set of grammatical rules, with the rules as the endpoint, say, but if we were disciples of Kay we would allow students to make grammars of grammars and languages of languages, with spirals of increasing complexity of thought looping into infinity and no endpoint in sight. That’s the order of consciousness Kay is after. Most textbooks, however, are on the stuck-within-the-system and vocab-and-grammar level. Which is why they draw Kay’s ire.