When you engage in metacognition, or, think about thinking, there are many systems that can be encountered.  Of course, cognition is part of a larger system of the learning domains, which is comprised of cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling) and psychomotor (doing) elements.  They’re listed this way because they’re all “brain” related.  However, in some research, psychomotor is referred to as kinesthetic, since it relates to the action of doing.  As for the affective domain, it’s center is really not in the brain.  That’s more intuition that affection.  Feeling is actually centered in one’s “gut.”  That’s why tragic events “feel” like a punch to the stomach, or you get “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re feeling unsure about a particular event about to happen.

If you’ve ever encountered the Enneagram, there are three “centers” – thinking, feeling and instinctive – with each of them broken down into three “profiles” of an individual.  There are also articles which categorize visual thinking: Creative, Critical and Higher Level, and, in similar fashion, those types are further broken down, as well as a revised edition of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Examples of systems are abundant.

While I mentioned that there are three widely accepted learning domains, I was exposed to a fourth when I was studying for my Master of Education degree, which was the “Conative” domain.  It was the described as the “love” of learning.  A better way to look at the model would be to see that the three learning domains intersected, and that point of intersection was the “Conative” domain.

For those of you of the Catholic faith, consider this when you make the sign of the cross.  Touch your forehead (the seat of the cognitive domain); touch your stomach (your “gut”, the seat of the affective domain); touch your shoulders (representing the work you do, and therefore, the seat of the kinesthetic domain). Where do the lines intersect?  At the heart.  Further, consider the motion you make when moving from one shoulder to the other.  More than likely, it’s not a straight line, but your arm drops a bit before being lifted to touch your other shoulder.  You actually make the Greek letter “psi,” which deals with things of the mind, and puts you in a frame of mind for prayer.

For the purposes of this article, though, may I suggest that there are three types of thinking that are at work not just in terms of how we think, nor learning domains that describe how we best learn, but in terms of how we are taught to think, and therefore, learn.  Those kinds of thinking can be described as linear, process, and systems.

Linear Thinking

We are taught to think linearly from our earliest exposure to the classroom, which may be the first problem with our educational process.  From the time we are born to the time we enter school, we are exposed to systems thinking, not linear thinking.  We learn to roll over, crawl, balance ourselves, then walk, at the same time we learn to cry, move the parts of our mouth to create various sounds, shape those sounds to mimic those made by our caregivers, then shape those sounds into words to communicate wants and desires, while at the same time we learn to play, eat, socialize, and do all those other things we do as babies, progress to the toddler stage, and then become a school-age child.

Notice how all those “processes” are happening “linearly,” but simultaneously.  Doing everything at the same time is systems thinking in action.  Realizing that ambulation and locomotion progresses from rolling over to crawling, to pulling up to a standing position, to balancing then to walking is a progression.  But then we get to school, and math class teaches us our numbers, how to count, how script numbers, what those numbers represent, and then, progress to arithmetic manipulations such as addition and subtraction.  So, perhaps we should look at process thinking before looking at linear thinking too.

Now you see why systems thinking is important.

Both process thinking and linear thinking demonstrate progress, but linear thinking is more aligned with “first/then” progression, while process thinking deals with “if/then” progression.

Schools practice linear thinking every day if their class schedule has 45 minutes of English to start the day, then 45 minutes of Spanish, then 45 minutes of Math, followed by 45 minutes of Social Studies before lunch.  It can be likened to what happens in the office workplace during the day – starting at 7:30 am and attending 3 meetings in the morning, then lunch, then two additional meetings in the afternoon before notes from those meetings can be assimilated and emails reviewed and sorted before ending the workday.  Note that the meetings may have no relationship to one another, and may be attended by different teams of workers.  It’s just like the classroom experience – and if businesses with adult employees are having difficulties being productive in such settings, it stands to reason that children will too.

For the business side of schools, linear thinking creates this type of mindset:

“We know we have to enroll more children in the school, but let’s start with development.  When we have some additional dollars, we can then pay for a Web site to market the school to parents, and then we can expect enrollment to increase.”  Linear thinking focuses of getting something done before we progress to the next step…and you move to step 2.  Not step 3.  Moving to step 3 after step 1 would be considered “process” thinking.

Process Thinking

As was just mentioned, process thinking is also linear, but is pertinent to truth tables or flowcharting, and is a very important consideration when writing code.  While linear in flow, the flow can go in one particular way only if allowed to flow that way.  If a gate is closed in the path of the flow, the flow is redirected to another juncture, where a logic test can be applied and the flow continues in one direction if answered in a particular manner, but in a different direction if the logic test is answered differently.

From circuit board design and electronics to electrical wiring and plumbing, the examples of the need to think “processively” abound.

In the school, process thinking would be occurring in those schools which have 2.5 hour blocks of time for work to be done.  The teacher can say, “If we can  review our work from yesterday, and successfully point out where the difficulties happened, then those that had more difficultly with the first part of the assignment can work collaboratively at the workspace in the back of the room to learn together, while those that had more difficulty with the second part of the assignment can work collaboratively at the front of the room to achieve the same goal.”

Relative to the business side of the school, an example would be the enrollment “process,” where marketing stirs interest in a parent or their student, then a call is made to set up an interview and a tour, and then the application is completed and the process to acceptance continues.  Or, the parent and student skips the tour and simply completes the application.  The point is that with a process, there are sometimes several paths which can be taken to achieve the goal within the “process.”  However, there needs to be a process in place…even if it isn’t followed all the time.  A child doesn’t just “show up” on the first day of school with the expectation that they’ll be admitted to the school (at least we would hope not).  If that happens, it’s clear that the child’s parents may require a bit of an educational process themselves.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is the collection of all the processes, all at the same time.  It’s the equivalent of mental juggling.  Recent brain-research has determined that cognitive multitasking is not good for our mental health, as the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.  However, we’re really good at shifting from one focus to another and maintaining that focus for as long as we require the focus to be there.  In cases of ADD and ADHD, it’s the mental maintenance and management of that focus that breaks down.

Therefore, an awareness of all systems are necessary, the processes involved in each, and the potential unintended consequences that can occur from processes interacting with one another.  For instance, according to the IRS, the status of “child” as a dependent is no longer a valid one after the child turns 25 and they are a full-time student living in the parent’s home with less than $3,500 of income.  They become a qualifying relative.  Yet, under the Affordable Care Act, a 25- or 26-year old son or daughter can still receive medical benefits as a “dependent child.”  When you file your taxes, however, if a 26-year old is categorized as a “child,” “son,” or “daughter,” even though they may be dependent on parental support and living at home while furthering their education, that could raise a red flag…an unintended consequence of processes not working systemically.

In the school, think of the processes that occur.  There are the aspects that make a school “a school,” and deal with the school’s faith identity or founder’s heritage, its activities, curriculum, technology and surroundings.  There are processes that deal with the business side of the school, such as asset management, retention, marketing, enrollment and development.  Those processes impact one another, just as the systems within the system impact one another.  For instance, I’ve heard schools say that they’re going to focus on development this year, and then, when things are in place, then we can start to look at systems to manage tuition.  Interestingly, nothing is mentioned about enrollment, and continue to expect enrollment to simply “happen.”  Let’s compare that to a conversation where the school wants to initiate a “Bring Your Own Device” program.  Certainly the technology is evident and available, but what type of curriculum will be developed or repurposed for the initiative, and what effect will this have on the environment of the school.  Will there be enough infrastructure vis-a-vis bandwidth and connectivity to effectively support it?  If the school building has a steel roof and cinder block walls, don’t expect wireless to function well until a significant investment is made in wireless nodes throughout the building.  Then, of course, acceptable use policies and password protection guidelines are of vital importance.  Using technology in the classroom conversations certainly resonate with educators, yet many fail to see the connections to development (who will pay for or sponsor the initiative or its necessary infrastructe enhancements), enrollment (how many students are going to bring what kind of device to the school – and what happens when a new child is enrolled after the school year starts) and asset management (what happens when a device breaks).

If you’d like to learn more about systems thinking, may I recommend “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” by Peter M. Senge as a great summertime read.  A fair warning, though.  It can be a transformational experience.