Systems paradigms and adult thinking research

Systems paradigms have their roots in the natural sciences, and thus reflect the changes occurring in the academic realm as a whole, including theories of adult thinking. The dominating worldview and connected paradigms can be seen in different sciences, say in psychology and physics, despite the fact

TABLE 12.1 Systems theory paradigms with originators and some key dimensions (Stahle, 1998, p. 63). Printed with permission. Copyright Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland



Type of system

Research interest

Operative interest


Closed systems









von BERT-




Open systems











Understanding and

Dynamic systems




equilibrium Uncontrollable



cooperating with natural evolvement

that they have no direct interdependence. Scientific advances take place in a different historical period and are influenced by the overall tone and intellectual patterns of that period.

In the field of adult thinking research, Kallio (2015) says that almost all psychological theorisation can be traced to two theorists, Piaget and Perry. The first waves of model creation were based on Piaget’s theory of formal thinking, while Perry’s model of cognitive development paved the way to various new post-Piagetian models (in this book e.g., Chapters by 2, 3, 4, 11, and for the impact on moral reasoning theorisation, see Chapters 5, 6). For Piaget, formal operations represent the highest level of thinking that cannot be extended, while Perry and other neo-Piagetian scholars claimed that adult development is more complex phenomenon than assumed.

According to Kallio (2015), Perry redefined the study of adult cognition. The new line of research inquiry was first and foremost concerned with conceptual change (changing understandings of concepts and their meaning) as opposed to the Piagetian focus on operational-logical cognition. Perry was concerned with the development of epistemological assumptions in young adulthood, identity formation, and moral development. Neo-Piagetian research called into question the basic assumption of linearity and the endpoint of development, and prioritised logical thinking as the highest level of intellectual operations. This led to the introduction of a new, postjormal stage of thought2-. a type of complex logical thinking that develops in adulthood through interaction and co-creation with other people who have contradicting ideas. Other features of postformai thinking include contextualism, value relativism, recognition and management of uncertainty, complex problem solving, tolerance of ambiguity, and dialectics. Several new models of the development of adult thinking emerged, most notably by Mascolo and Fischer (2015), Commons, Gane-McCalla, Barker and Li (2014), Basseches (1984), Labouvie-Vief (2015), Kegan (1982, 1994), Sinnott (2011, 2013), and Kallio (2015).

Kallio (2015) offers some interesting reflections on Piaget’s paradigmatic choices. First, she points out that the theory of developmental stages specifically concerns cause-and-effect reasoning regarding physical reality, and thus cannot be a universal theory of all cognitive development. In devising a theory of development for causal thinking, Piaget has used methodology applicable to the natural sciences, which indicates the points of departure of his studies and therefore also has implications for the results. Second, Piaget only uses so-called well-defined problems in his research settings, with no intermediate social or human variables in the testing situation that could enhance confusion in the reasoning process. Third, Piaget has a teleological assumption that the development of causal thinking has a final endpoint, and that this line of development does not allow any exceptions, different developmental routes, or other deterministic changes. One premise of Piaget’s theory is that there is a telos towards which causal thinking inevitably proceeds. Fourth, Kallio points out that Piaget fails to address many crucial dimensions of adult thinking; for instance, he excludes from consideration problems with foggy premises or complex interdependencies that do not get solved by means of logical reasoning.

Kallio’s critique against Piaget’s theory clearly rises from the context of the dynamic systems paradigm. Despite the complexity of the phenomena he addressed, Piaget’s choices are grounded in the closed mechanistic view of the first systems paradigm, such as the assumption that the development of causal thinking has a final endpoint. Perry’s approach, then, incorporates dimensions from both the second systems paradigm with its more self-regulatory and open-ended emphases, and the third paradigm with its focus on complexity, selftransformability, contradictions, meanings, multifaceted reality, and interaction between people. Perry’s work represents a clear paradigm shift from Piaget.

The third systems paradigm warrants closer scrutiny here, not only because it can help us understand the functional dynamics of the current world, but also because it is the most complex and chronologically the latest and therefore less well known. Furthermore, this is the most interesting paradigm from the point of view of adult thinking, since the theory of postformal thought, especially as presented by Sinnott (1998), is explicitly grounded in the dynamic systems paradigm. The next section describes the key theories behind the third systems paradigm and then looks at how the paradigm ties in with Sinnott’s theory of postformal thought.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >