Meta-thinking: A Little Film About A Big Idea


What is Systems Thinking?

Most of the problems we face are caused by the disconnect between how real-world systems work and how we think they work. Systems Thinking is an approach that attempts to remedy this problem by thinking in more systemic ways about whatever problem or phenomena in which you are interested. Systems Thinking reveals four "metacognitive" patterns of thought. This metacognitive awareness is foundational to the most important human-success factors, such as deep understanding, transfer of learning, problem solving, creativity, grit, emotional intelligence, prosocial behavior, intrinsic motivation, and an ethical compass. Research shows there are four basal meta-thinking skills that underlie all forms of Systems Thinking. 


Organizing ideas into systems of parts and wholes

Every  thing or idea is a system because it contains parts. Every book contains paragraphs that contain words with letters and letters are made up of ink strokes which are comprised of pixels made up of atoms. To construct or deconstruct meaning is to organize different ideas into part-whole configurations. A change in the way the ideas are organized leads to a change in the meaning itself. Every system can become a part of some larger system. The process of thinking about things means that we must draw a distinction where we stop zooming in, or zooming out. The act of thinking is defined by splitting things up or lumping ideas together. Nothing exists in isolation, but in systems of context. We can study the parts separated from the whole or the whole generalized from the parts, but in order to gain understanding of any system, we must do both in the end.


Identifying relationships between and among ideas

We cannot understand much about any thing or idea or system of things or ideas without understanding the relationships between or among them. There are many important types of relationships: causal, correlative, feedback, inputs/outputs, influence, direct/indirect, etc. At the most fundamental level though, all types of relationships require that we consider two underlying elements: action and reaction, or the co-relating effects of two or more things. Gaining an awareness of the numerous interrelationships around us forms an ecological ethos that connects us in an infinite network of interactions. Action-reaction relationships are not merely important to understanding physical systems, but are an essential metacognitive trait for understanding human social dynamics and the essential interplay between our thoughts (cognition), feelings (emotion) and motivations (conation).


Distinguishing boundaries between and among ideas

How we draw or define the boundaries of an idea or a system of ideas is an essential aspect of understanding them. Whenever we draw a boundary to define a system's identity, that same boundary defines what is not the system ("other"). Any boundary we make is a distinction between two fundamentally important elements: the identity of the system, and the other stuff that is not the system. When we understand that all thoughts are comprised of distinct boundaries we become aware that we focus on one thing at the expense of other things. Distinction making allows us to simplify our thinking,, yet it also introduces biases that may go unchecked when unaware. It is distinction making that allows us to "retrieve a coffee mug" when asked, but it is also distinction making that creates us/them concepts that lead to close mindedness or worse alienation or even violence. Distinctions are a part of every thought-act or speech-act, as we do not form words without having formed distinctions first.


Looking at ideas from different perspectives

When we draw the boundaries of a system, or distinguish one relationship from another, we are always doing so from a particular perspective. Sometimes these perspectives are so basic and so unconscious we don't even see them, but they are always there. If we think about perspectives in a fundamental way, we can see that they are made up of two related elements: a point from which we are viewing and the thing or systems of things that are in the view. That's why perspectives are synonymous with a "point-of-view." Awareness of the value of taking perspective and being aware of the perspectives one takes (and equally important, does not take) is paramount to deeply understanding oneself and the world around us. There is a saying that, "If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." When we shift perspective, we also transform the distinctions, relationships, and systems that we see and do not see.