Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models
Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models

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Understanding the environment: Thinking styles and models

2 Section readings – Thinking styles and models

Reading 1.1: Introduction to thinking styles

What do you do when you want to examine something closely? There are essentially two courses of action that you can take. You could pull it apart and look at how it works, like a watchmaker diagnosing a watch brought in for repair. You could also look at the context within which the thing was founds and try to understand it in terms of its relationships with its surroundings, like a detective looking at a body at a murder scene.

Most people have the capacity to do both depending on the circumstances, but modern culture encourages us to specialise in specific fields, in which people investigate things in increasing detail while losing a sense of the whole. Take, for example, an investigation into a set of disabling symptoms. You make your way through a series of professionals – a neurologist, an ergonomist, a rheumatologist, an osteopath – and if they still cannot find anything, you end up with a psychiatrist! But there is nobody that pulls everything together and investigates how several factors may combine within a particular environment to result in a debilitating illness.

But neurologists have found that different parts of our brains contribute to different thought processes. Although the idea is disputed, it has been proposed that the left part of the brain focuses on logical thought processes and is most active when one is engaged in sequential/linear thinking such as language. The right part of the brain is usually associated with more holistic thought processes, such as music, spacial thinking and creativity (see Figure 1). Thus, everyone should have the ability to carry out analysis (the process of taking something apart in order to understand it) and synthesis (the process of making a whole out of parts). Of the two, synthesis is perhaps the more difficult because in order to make a whole out of parts, the relationship of the parts to each other must be understood. Because there is no sensible adjectival derivative of the word synthesis, most people use the term 'holistic' thinking. So the words most used to describe these two modes of thinking are analytical and holistic thinking.

Figure 1
Figure 1 The different cognitive functions of the left and right sides of the brain

Brains and thinking processes have often been compared to muscles: some people are born slightly more athletic than others, but it is usually how those muscles are used during the person's lifetime which determines how fit they are. If people are encouraged to only exercise the analytical part of their brains then it is not surprising if they have difficulties in holistic thinking. Some educational experts have strongly criticised mainstream education's focus on analytical thinking, mainly through the strong emphasis on logical and linguistic disciplines such as mathematics and language. In an effort to broaden thinking about thinking away from this single focus Howard Gardner (Gardner, 1983) proposed a theory of multiple intelligences, initially presented in his book, Frames of Mind, but significantly extended since. He states that linguistic and logical capabilities are only two out of eight 'intelligences'. The others comprise spatial, athletic, musical, interpersonal (social), intrapersonal (self-analysis), and naturalistic (affinity towards all that is natural) intelligences. Thus, his assertion is that a balanced individual ought to try and dedicate effort towards developing all eight of their intelligences.

Systems thinking requires a similar balance, but focuses on understanding and engaging with the systems that surround us, such as ecological systems; social systems; technological systems; economic systems; and most realistically, systems that are made up of a combination of all the previous systems. Systems thinking requires analytical thinking to identify all the contributing component parts of a system under examination and to understand the relationship between components. Synthesis is used to identify how such a system comes together with other systems in the surrounding environment/context. Systems thinking uses verbal communication to illustrate the logical sequence of events or describe components in increasing detail, while visual communication (e.g. diagrams) can be used to illustrate the relationship among component parts and how these can influence each other over time. Occasionally, when aspects of a system can be quantified, mathematics is used to precisely describe the attributes of components, and their relationship between each other and their environment. Interpersonal skills are needed to piece together the various different understandings that people have. And especially when dealing with living systems, empathy with our natural surroundings provides the much-needed reality check.

The following set of resources readings carries out a deeper exploration of analysis and synthesis, the multiple intelligences that we need to deal with the complex reality that surrounds us, the models that we create to simplify this complexity, and the different modes of communication that we use to inform ourselves and others.

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