Reading: Systems Thinking

How To Learn Online



So much of learning both online and offline is about drawing connections. Teachers know their students are progressing when they begin noting connections between what might, at first glance, seem like disparate fields. "Systems thinking" is a phrase often used to refer to this kind of deeper, contextual learning.

Online learning can, by its very nature, be fragmentary and, therefore, resistant to systems thinking. It is easier, online, to compartmentalize learning tasks—and fail to see deeper connections. But this is far from inevitable. An understanding of how systems thinking work can help online learners prioritize these connections and deepen their understanding.

One of the first studies of systems thinking occurred around the same time that Einstein published his theory of relativity. The study took place at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s. As part of the project, psychologist Charles Judd had two groups of subjects fire some darts at a target submerged under water.

The first group of subjects simply practiced the procedure, repeatedly firing darts at the underwater target some four inches away. The second group executed the same procedure. But they also learned about the notion of refraction, or the way that light shifts when it’s under water.

Then Judd moved the underwater target to a spot twelve inches away, and while both groups did equally well at hitting the target at four inches, only the second group could hit the target with any accuracy at twelve inches.

As Judd argued, the students who understood the relationship between light and water were better able to hit the target in a different setting. They could apply their learning to a new context. Because their knowledge was part of a system, their knowledge was more flexibleand they gained a lot more.

How Systems Thinking Helps Online Learning

Systems thinking can also play an important role in helping students better understand the culture and politics around them. Too often the isolated and fragmentary nature of our media landscape encourages superficial absorption of the news and even leads young people to succumb to fake news. But with the tools to see individual events as part of a history, culture, and system, students are better able to evaluate individual news stories. In this way, systems thinking can help in combating fake news and the misinformation effect.

Cognitive scientist Lindsey Richland has written a lot about systems thinking. In a landmark paper, she argues that to build concepts, to solve problems, to engage in any sort of critical thought, people need to grapple with patterns within an area of expertise. Richland developed this idea after spending years hunting through a wide body of different academic fields—from math to history—showing that mastery is ultimately defined by systems thinking, by a sense of how work is structured in an area of mastery.

“The underpinnings of the ability to do higher-order thinking really comes down to reasoning about relationships,” Richland told me when I visited her in her office at the University of Chicago.

"If someone learns more about relationships and systems within math, they have deeper math reasoning skills."

Experts engage in this type of systems thinking a lot. In their fields, dedicated specialists understand how things come together, and so they can look past chaos and complexity and uncover the essence of an idea. Pablo Picasso is famous for once having sketched a bull using just seven lines. Great lawyers have similar skills and can easily find the key argument amid a jumble of legal details. For another illustration, just think of the purified elegance of a pop song by the Beatles: By understanding relationships, the band made the complicated seem uncomplicated.

What's more, Richland showed that if people relate what they know, they develop sharper reasoning skills. So, for instance, if someone learns more about relationships and systems within math, they have deeper math reasoning skills. If someone finds out more about the way that historical details couple to each other, they have a richer historical understanding. "Effective learning comes down to thinking about relationships,” Richland argues.

As an example, take learning about the ocean. To develop reasoning, to create a systems understanding, Richland argues that people shouldn't overly dwell on stand-alone facts. Rather, they should examine questions like: What happens to the ocean if the level of salt goes up? What’s the difference between oceans and lakes? How do reefs impact ocean currents?

Like a type of reasoning pill, these are the sorts of questions that push people to develop their thinking about the fieldand fully understand an idea or topic or skill. “You don’t just want to be memorizing a whole bunch of stuff,” Richland told me. "To learn effectively, people should be finding causes, finding analogues, finding differences.”

Richland developed her theory based on academic fields like physics and math, and after speaking with her, I was intrigued. So I thought I’d see if her argument extended to something a little less scholarly and signed up for a class on, yes, wine. There are, of course, a number of ways for people to hone their viniculture skills. Someone could globetrot though vineyards or attend workshop or even just sample a lot of wine.

But given Richland’s work, I slipped into a class on how to match wines with foods. I wanted to know: Would thinking about relationships give me richer insights, a better way to polish my knowledge?

Wine expert Amanda Weaver-Page taught the class on a rainy Friday night, and dressed in an all-white chef’s outfit, Weaver-Page started the class by detailing some wine basics. She spoke about issues of acidity, detailing the idea of tannins, which give red wines their sharp flavor. Texture was crucial, too. “Think of a light bodied wine as comparable to skim milk,” Weaver-Page said. “And a full body wine is more like whole milk.”

"Would thinking about relationships give me richer insights, a better way to polish my knowledge?"

Weaver-Page argued that the matching of a wine was about compliments. The food, in other words, should support the wine, while the wine supports the food, a type of nourishment ying yang. That's why lighter wines often go so well with lighter meals like fruit, while heavy red wines support something a grilled ribeye: “Take a light bodied wine with something texturally heavy like steak, and it’s going to overwhelm the wine.”

At first, I was generously skeptical of some of Weaver-Page's points. Like people talking about high-end art or fancy cars, there's a hefty dose of exhibitionism that comes with wine talk. But then came the first pairing. A goat cheese salad matched with a Spanish Albarino wine, and the relationships between the two were clear, giving me an insight into the nature of wine that I had never had experienced before. The wine’s essence—soft and lime-like—seemed beyond question.

Then came the next wine—an Australian Shiraz. Weaver-Page paired it with grilled lamb with mint pesto, and again: The wine’s flavor was crystalline—rich, almost lewd, like something from a medieval carnival. When I posed Richland’s theory to Weaver-Page, she nodded in agreement. "Pairings give people a good introduction to the way that wine works," she told me.

In fact, Weaver-Page had a similar experience during her early years of culinary school. An instructor had given her a tannin-filled wine, which made her lips pucker like a grade school kiss. Then the instructor gave her a bite of cheddar. “The fat smoothed out the tannins. It tasted totally different,” she said.

When I left the class some two hours later, there were still gaps in my knowledge. Weaver-Page had also put a lot of thought into the pairings, and if I had picked up a bottle of plonk and matched it up with some McDonald’s fries, I would have had a very different experience. But I could also say with certainty that my thinking about wine had changed. I had a glimpse of what it was like to think like a wine expert, to see the world of wine in a more systemic way.

There’s another admittedly less risky way to learn a system within an area of expertise: visually, through what are sometimes called "concept maps."

"One of the main benefits of the graphic organizers is that they make it easier for people to think in a more connected way."

The Power of Concept Maps

Researcher Ken Kiewra has been studying different types of concept maps for years, and he argues that one of the main benefits of the graphic organizers is that they make it easier for people to think in a more connected way, showing deeper associations within an area of knowledge. “Graphics organizers help people put the pieces together,” Kiewra told me.

In his own life, Kiewra uses the learning tools all the time. At work, he uses the graphic organizers for any sort of writing or research project. At home, Kiewra also often relies on them to make important decisions, and he recently hauled out a version of a concept map to help his son sort out some decisions about college. “Things will just pop out,” he told me.  

When it comes to graphical representations like concept maps, technology can a lot. The technical devices that cause information overload can often help us map our way out of that overload.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows provides useful advice on this point. One of the nation’s most well respected journalists, Fallows often reviews information management software, and he has long sworn by a concept mapping software known as TinderBox. The tool helps organize files in a way that draws links across fields and topics, and Fallows describes it simply as a “software-for-thinking” program.

In a similar vein, writer Steven Johnson has long been a proponent of a concept mapping tool called DEVONthink. He argues that the software offers “connective power,” and it helps him spot relationships that he would not have uncovered otherwise. When Johnson uses DEVONthink, “larger idea takes shape in my head, built upon the trail of associations the machine has assembled for me.”

So even though online learning platforms pose certain challenges to systems thinking, they can be useful as well. They can help provide an overview or map of different concepts and tasks. But we have to be willing to do the work to keep the whole system of what we're studying in view, even while we delve into particular learning tasks.

This is all important. But we’re also missing something. More specifically, we’re missing a way to understand how exactly skills and knowledge relate to each other, and it’s that idea that brings us to analogies, or the way that we learn through comparison. Put differently, relational thinking has a driver, and that driver is analogical thought.

Analogies are at the heart of understanding relationships, of grappling with systems of thought, and they can help us solve any sort of new or enduring issue.

Using Analogies To Learn, Or: Uber But for What?

Granted, analogies can often seem like an esoteric thing. They often spark memories of IQ tests (Nest is to bird, as doghouse is to ______) or bizarre turns of phrase like term “the pecking order.” But analogies are at the heart of understanding relationships, of grappling with systems of thought, and they can help us solve any sort of new or enduring issue.

To a degree, analogies can seem like just another type of relational thinking. But when it comes to learning, the approach goes deeper than that, and at the heart of an analogy is a comparison. More exactly, analogies make us find similarities and differences. They help us understand things that are new or different, and thus a very powerful learning tool, as we will see.

To get a better sense of how analogies help people learn, let’s consider this well-studied problem: Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a doctor, and a patient comes in one morning with a deadly tumor in her stomach. There’s no way to operate—the patient will suffer too much blood loss. Luckily, one of your colleagues recently created a tumor-killing ray—let’s call it the Vapor 3000—and with just one, long blast, the tumor will be gone.

There’s a crucial hitch, though. If you fire the tumor-killing rays at full blast everything around the stomach—intestines, liver, colon—will also become vaporized. In other words, you can’t shoot one huge blast to solve the problem. But then again, if you fire a weak blast from the Vapor 3000, nothing happens to the tumor. Just one low-power shot just isn’t enough.

So what do you do?

Over the past forty years, psychologist Keith Holyoak has presented this problem to hundreds of different people. The riddle has come to define his career, in fact, and the answer rests on a concept known as convergence. Specifically, the solution is to fire short blasts of rays from the Vapor 3000 at the tumor from various angles.

There are a number of ways to help people arrive at this solution, and people with a background in engineering have an easier time. Not surprisingly, advice helps a lot, too, and if someone like Holyoak gives someone a tip, they're much likely to find the answer.

But what Holyoak has shown over the decades is that analogies provide one of the best ways to help people learn. They dramatically improve people's ability to crack the riddle, helping us recognize patterns. Holyoak first demonstrated this fact some four decades ago using the tumor problem—and evidence for his argument has grown far more robust over time.

Most recently, Holyoak showed some subjects an animation that depicts an analogous solution to the tumor problem. Think of multiple cannons in a circle firing on a castle, and after seeing the video, people were far more likely to provide the right solution. “The continuous representation forced people to think more in terms of the analog,” Holyoak told me when I reached him in his office at UCLA

As a learning tool for distance learning, analogies require some attention, to be sure. Holyoak recommends, for instance, that people rely on a source analogy that they know well. The idiom—“it cuts like a knife,” for instance, works as an idiom because people are pretty familiar with knives.

When using analogies to learn, people should outline the exact similarities between the two things or ideas. In the tumor problem, for example, people solve the problem more easily if the analogs are presented next to each other, if not side by side, according to Holyoak. To give a similar but different example, consider that canons are to castles like a Vapor 3000 is to a tumor.

But perhaps the most important thing about analogies is that they help us understand new concepts and ideas. They give people a way to understand something that they're not particularly familiar with, and people should use analogies to get their heads around something new in the same way that we can use Latin to understand Italian or Spanish to grapple with Portuguese.

The phrase "Like Uber but for…"  is a great example, and people will often reference the car sharing company to describe start ups. The company Blue Apron has presented itself as the Uber for high-end cooking. The dry-cleaning company DRYV has been described as Uber but for dry cleaning. There’s also now an Uber for haircuts—and an Uber to shuttle kids around.

"Analogies can also serve a bridge between two ideas or concepts."

You can think of analogy, then, as the rightful mother of invention. It's a way for us to develop new ideas, to create unexpected links, and it turns out that the history of creativity is littered with analogical twists. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press after seeing a wine press. The Wright brothers studied birds in order to build the world’s first airplane. Twitter is half SMS, half social media.

Analogies can also serve a bridge between two ideas or concepts. Most people are familiar with Romeo and Juliet, for instance, and so an analogy makes it easier to explain the musical West Side Story: Just think of a 1950s version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City.

The bottom line is that analogies help us understand. As a learning tool, they give us a more complex sense of a body of knowledge, and if you want to get better at anything, look for an analogy. For an example, take social media. Let’s imagine that we want to improve how we use Twitter and Facebook.

So an analog to social media is face-to-face interaction, and it’s pretty clear what works in offline engagement. First, no one likes someone who dominates the conversation. Second, we generally like people who are good listeners. Third, if someone is giving us money-saving advice, we tend to pay attention.

So apply these same three principles to social media. First, don’t post too much on social media: People don’t enjoy hearing about where you parked your car. Second, make sure to comment on other people’s posts, and generally speaking, people will reciprocate. Third, share things that will help out others.

As a learning tool, analogies work because they make us ask a specific set of questions: How are these things similar? What makes them different? How are they comparable?

In other words, analogies help us understand categories. They make us think about groups and what constitutes a group. When people say that apples and oranges are both fruits, for instance, they’re relying on a type of analogical thinking. They’re matching up the attributes of apples and oranges—both have seeds, come from trees, have a type of flesh—to declare them to be fruits.

Another example is dogs. While a furry malamute and a five-pound pug look almost nothing alike, we have no problem calling them both dogs because we understand the analog that connects them. We understand that both animals have certain things in common—social mammals with noses, tails, legs, and sharp teeth.

"Analogies help to sharpen the distinction between different ideas or things."

Another way to understand this idea is that analogies help to sharpen the distinction between different ideas or things. They provide a compare and contrast approach to learning.  

Still doubtful? Take a study that occurred some years ago at a business training sessions when a group of managers and aspiring managers all piled into a room. Like so many business training seminars, there was a training packet with some sample cases provided to the group, and they were supposed to read the cases, which revolved around the notion of contingent contracts.

As an approach, contingent contracts are generally pretty helpful. When the contract is conditional on certain actions or outcomes, both parties typically have more flexibility. But for all sorts of reasons, people tend not to use contingent contracts in actual negotiations. People are not aware of themor they just don’t understand them. This training aimed to address that issue, and all of the individuals had to read the training packet before they began to role-play their negotiation.

"The use of the more analogical prompt had a dramatic effect."

A few psychologists oversaw the training, and they slipped one small tweak into the session. One half of the consultants would just “describe” the case studies. The other half had to “think about the similarities” of the cases.

It wasn’t much of a difference, only a few words, really. But the use of the more analogical prompt had a dramatic effect. It pushed a compare-and-contrast approach, and the second group was almost twice as likely to use contingent contracts. They also understood the underlying idea a lot more.

Dedre Gentner was one of the psychologists who worked on the negotiation training study, and I met up with her recently. It was in the hallway of a drab conference hotel. We were both getting coffee.

When I indicated an interest in analogies, Gentner pointed at me excitedly. "If we see the same thing over and over, that's a good way to get started. But if you don't see more dissimilar things, basically, you'd better stay in same village your whole life."

"But analogies are hard,” I countered.

Gentner nodded. "But analogies are what allow you to take knowledge on the road."