Developing my thinking about the development of thinking

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Just recently I’ve read a couple of articles.  They are both about the development of thinking in an educational context.  One is about developing critical thinking (Moon, 2005) and the other is about the teaching of systems concepts  and therefore of interest to the development of systems thinking (Salner 1986).

Both of the articles use theories of adult cognitive development or epistemological development as the foundation for their arguments.  In short, they argue that critical thinking (Moon article) and understanding of systems concepts (Salner article) are not possible until the adult has reached a certain stage of development and have integrated particular epistemological assumptions into their world views.  Both articles are written from a ‘pedagogical’ perspective so go onto discuss what educators can do to create the conditions where post-18 students can progress the development of their thinking – even if they are not consciously aware of it.

The first theory is by Kitchener (1983) and is explained in the Salner article – although I have come across it before in Bawden’s work on critical social learning systems.  Kitchener’s theory is about levels of cognitive processing.  There are three levels – level one is the cognitive task of thinking itself.  Level two is referred to as metacognition – the types of tasks used to think about and monitor the quality of thinking whilst you are doing it.  The third level is referred to as ‘epistemic cognition’ – it is about thinking epistemically – thinking about the foundations of thought.

If I think about my own experience of epistemic cognition, it isn’t something that came naturally to me.  First of all of course you don’t know you don’t know… then I came across a language to help me reflect I could understand it more.  One of the key points I remember is learning about the difference between positivist, post-positivist and post-modernist research and their different epistemological stances – so getting the language from the ‘philosophy of science’ helped me to think about and have conversations about my views and in the process develop them.

Moving onto epistemological development – the changes that occur at Kitchener’s level three whether you are conscious of it or not – the Moon article draws predominantly on the work of Magolda which identifies four domains of ‘knowing’.

  • absolute knowing – the stance that knowledge is absolute and certain.
  • transitional knowing – doubts creep in about the certainty of knowledge
  • independent knowing – recognise that knowledge is uncertain but cope with this by believing everyone has a right to their own opinions
  • contextual knowing – knowledge is no longer absolute, it is constructed and is understood according to what best fits the context

The Salner article on the other hand, predominantly draws on the work of Perry.  Perry identified nine positions through which a student moves developmentally but these can be reduced to three main stages.

  • dualism – makes a clear distinction between self and the external world where ‘knowledge’ lies.  Differences in points of view accommodated by seeing right or wrong.
  • multiplicity – the plural nature of the social context creates pressure to recognise many ‘truths’.  Differences in points of view accommodated by ‘you have your way, I have mine’
  • contextual relativism – realisation that context important in defining ‘truth’.  Knowledge is part of your relationship with the world.

There are clearly synergies between the work of Magolda and the work of Perry.  And I also found Moon’s argument about critical thinking and Salner’s argument about understanding systems concepts very similiar – that these are not possible until a student has reached contextual knowing/contextual relativism.  If a student has not developed their epistemology to recognise pluralism and relativism then it is simply not possible to appreciate and appraise multiple partial perspectives to reach a judgement or conclusion (critical thinking) or to practice epistemological and methodological pluralism and be conscious of your choices in messy situations (key competence of systems practitioner).

As I’ve been writing, I’ve realised I’ve come across another perspective related to this issue of developing thinking but this one comes under the heading of ‘wisdom’.  In TU811 People stream, we were introduced to the work of Baltes and Staudinger (2000) who have developed five criteria for wisdom.

The first two criteria are relevant to any kind of expertise – factual knowledge (know about) and procedural knowledge (know how).  The other three are more relevant to wisdom.  They are:

  • lifespan contextualism – awareness of an event’s unique context and history
  • relativism of values and life priorities – recognising and respecting different views held on this
  • recognition of and management of uncertainty – realising how little you know – but still coping!

Looking at these criteria for wisdom in the light of Magolda’s and Perry’s theories, makes me think that ‘wisdom’ too would not be possible if an adult has not developed contextual knowing/contextual relativism.

So what?

When you get a group of systems thinkers into a real or virtual room (what would be the collective known for a group of systems thinkers – an emergence, perhaps?) it isn’t long before the talk turns to “how do we get others (in our workplaces, in society) to ‘get it’?”  We talk of using systems approaches, we talk of more formal introduction of systems ideas, we talk of ‘modelling’ through what we ourselves do or say.

But what if, those who don’t ‘get it’, haven’t had the necessary experiences (in education or elsewhere) to develop contextual knowing/contextual relativism?  Salner’s observations of students operating in dualistic or multiplistic stage (symptoms include getting more stuck in systemic thinking and falling back on the non-systemic; being more likely to reduce complexity to familiar categories; and, being more likely to regard their perspective as the way it is) seem rather too familiar.  So these theories of epistemological development are important beyond the educational setting – to managers as well as educators; to all staff (including managers) as well as students; to organisational development as well as educational culture; to personal development as well as curricula development.

It all seems a bit overwhelming!


Moon, Jenny (2005) ‘We seek it here… a new perspective on the elusive activity of critical thinking: a theoretical and practical approach’, [online] Available from:

Salner, Marcia (1986) ‘Adult cognitive and epistemological development in systems education’, Systems Research, 3(4), pp. 225–232.

Baltes, P.B. and Staudinger, U.M. (2000) ‘Wisdom: a metaheuristic (pragmatic) to orchestrate mind and virtue toward excellence’, American Psychologist, 55(1), pp 122-126

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