Thought, knowledge, and the systems approach

As I wrote  earlier, I am currently studying two books, one by Jonathan Baron (Thinking and deciding, 2nd edition) and the other by Diane Halpern (Thought and knowledge: an introduction to critical thinking). My need is for a thorough overview of both to better situate the systems approach in the general theory of complex decision making and problem solving, so my posts about both books are not reviews. My last post about Baron can be found here. This post is about Halpern’s. Baron and Halpern serve slightly different audiences, but the subject (critical thinking, deciding) and approach (cognitive psychology) are very similar. Having gone through both volumes showed how books about critical thinking can be a design challenge. Baron solved it neatly by sticking to his search-inference framework throughout the book. I don’t think there are any topics that are dealt with in one book and missing in the other. The differences are mostly a matter of emphasis. Both books are very rich in insights and examples. I summarized both books in concept maps. In this post I describe my concept map of Halpern’s book. 

Critical thinking         .. is about the application of problem-solving and cognitive (thinking and learning) skills to problems in general and ill-defined situations in particular. The problem-solving skills are used in strategies that help resolve these problems. There is no point in applying one skill (say problem-solving) and forget about the others. They all hang together. This even applies to the memory aspect of the learning skills. The scientific basis for critical thinking comes from the learning sciences, cognitive psychology in particular.

Key intellectual skill      Many of the problems in the 21st century (in business, government and our own lives) occur in complex situations that are characterized by ambiguity. The ambiguity is the result of the inherent complexity of the situation, the individual values (or personal goals) of the actors involved and even the emotional aspects of their perception of the situation.

Creativity      … (or innovativeness) can be enhanced by problem-solving strategies. The problems we face are increasingly complex and lack clear-cut solutions, yet we feel a need for desirable outcomes (competitiveness, popular support etc.). Halpern describes creativity as the searching of people’s knowledge nets (i.e. memories) for remote ideas that can be connected to form new ideas or concepts and innovative solutions.

Fallacies and biases     Critical thinking is often associated with learning a large number of fallacies and biases that muddle our reasoning. Good reasoning is as essential in science as it is in real life. Many of our reasoning errors can be avoided by a better understanding of hypothesis testing and the use of statistics. Other forms of reasoning are based on building a correct argumentation. This can be improved by using argument analysis involving the critical assessment of assumptions and counterarguments.

Systems thinking       … also deals with complex situations, yet Halpern’s book contains no mention of it. It does, however, contain a reference to the systems approach in the form of a psychological application to creativity. She writes that some psychologists “believe it [creativity] is the confluence of many different types of variables that make creativity more or less probable. Of course, the creative individual is central to the process, but she or he works in a domain of knowledge (e.g., art, physics, decorating, teaching, horse breeding, and any other domain you can think of). The contributions of an individual to a domain are judged by the people in that field—the art critics, funding agencies for physics  research, editors of decorating magazines, etc. The people in the field act as the gatekeepers for a domain—they decide what is and is not valued.” The systems approach is of course well known to psychologists, see e.g. “A brief history of systems approaches in counselling and psychotherapy” (Bauserman and Rule, 1995).

Churchman’s dialectical systems approach           … seems relevant to critical thinking in a variety of ways: (1) it can handle complex situations; (2) it can handle ambiguity; (3) it encourages creativity and innovativeness; (4) by looking at (and ideally involving) actors playing different roles it improves reasoning in a variety of ways, creating a propitious environment of sensitivity, synergy, and serendipity; (5) its full application requires a boundary critique, during which assumptions and counterarguments are identified and critically examined, thus avoiding a great many biases and fallacies. A straightforward methodological application of Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is described in Wicked Solutions (see also here, here or here).

Book abstract        The 5th Edition of Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking applies theory and research from the learning sciences, including cognitive science, to teach students the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in today’s world. Critical thinking is the use of purposeful, reasoned and open-ended cognitive skills and strategies to increase the probability of a desirable outcome when solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions. The role of memory is elucidated and a broad range of fallacies, biases, and techniques of propaganda is described. Other key topics include deductive reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, statistics, decision-making, problem-solving skills, and the need for creativity. It is emphasized that most of the problems encountered in life are ill-defined. Twelve different strategies for generating and evaluating solutions are presented, including means–ends analysis, working backwards, random search, rules, hints, split-half method, brainstorming, contradiction, and analogies and metaphors. All of the strategies to enhance creativity involve searching an individual’s knowledge net so that remote ideas can be associated, analogies can be applied across domains of knowledge, and information that is stored in memory can become available.

The companion website to the book is available from
The abstracts of the book and the individual chapters can be downloaded here (pdf)


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