And finally, in conclusion….

Write a concluding reflection about what you learned over the course of the semester and what you feel you need more work to understand. Where will you go next? This goes in the Summary reflection blog.

When my children were younger and attended a Montessori day school we would often pick them up after work and instead of asking what they learned that day we would ask “did you ask a good question today.”  We felt then, as we do now, that for most learning endeavors, it is more important to ask a good question and to provide an answer.

This is not to say that answers, and the process by which they are derived, are not important, but rather that with technology today, most answers are two clicks away.  But crafting the right question… that’s another story.  Schools appear to emphasize answers because they are easily measured/tested/graded while it is difficult to similarly quantify the art and skill of asking a good question.

Reading Hollis made my head hurt.  I had lots of questions about the bookalbert-einstein-quote, most of which remain unanswered. Upon reflection, I find that I now have more questions than I started with, so that’s a good thing.

Over the semester break I plan to revisit Hollis and make a list of all the individuals mentioned (Bacon, Weber, Popper, and Hegel, for example) and all of the -isms (empiricism, determinism, feudalism, holism, and pragmatism, for example) and craft a short definition of each.  Then, if I have the energy, I’ll consider re-reading certain chapters in Hollis and perhaps they’ll make more sense as I get more philosophical context.

I really wanted to like Noddings.

It’s a title that should appealalbert-einstein-quote2 to me as a first year doc student, Philosophy of Education.

But, in what may already be a tired refrain, I don’t think I yet have the philosophical foundation to either understand or appreciate her points.  I need to spend more time thinking about the problems.


So where do I go from here?  According to the Plan of Study, next on the hit parade are CECS 6020 – Advanced Instructional Design: Models and Strategies and CECS 6512 – Analysis of Qualitative Research in Learning Technologies.  What has become apparent to me is that program (and it’s a program, not just a random assignment of necessary courses… there’s a plan, an order, and a system to the program) is not about teaching content.  This has come as a surprise to some of my classmates.  Rather, this program is about teaching us a process.  The process, in turn, will lead us to discover the content we seek. I suppose in the long run, this is an appropriate outcome but in the short run, it’s not what I was expecting and I’m still in the process of modifying my expectations.


Is it worth it?  This was not a question on the prompt but I see it as an unavoidable question.

When my wife was doing her PhD (Purdue, Veterinary Physiology) in the late 1980’s, she quit her program every Friday.

Like clockwork.

And then every weekend we would talk about it and she would go back to the lab on Monday.  Then she flunked her prelims.  And we had to get past that (only to find out, later, that every woman in that program flunked her prelims the first time; it was hazing). And we did.

At this level, these sorts of things are rites of passage (which I see as the fancy term for hazing).  If The University is going to brand me as one of their PhD’s, they’re going to be darn sure I don’t embarrass myself (and, by extension, The University).  And this is as it should be.

UNT-LT is going to make darn sure I know my APA style.  UNT-LT is going to make darn sure I can tell my Big “O” Objectivism from my little “o” objectivism.   UNT-LT is going to to great lengths to make sure I can craft a coherent argument, supported by valid and pertinent research, and articulated in a manner that will bring esteem upon The University (and, by extension, me).  And at the end of the day, this is what our tuition dollars are buying.

  • It’s not about the content (I can read the books on my own).
  • It’s not about the degree (I can buy a degree).
  • It’s not about my current job (which doesn’t need either of the degrees I already have, let alone this one)

It’s about setting a goal, finding the internal and external resources to pursue that goal, making the necessary & difficult choices implicit in the decision to take on the task, about learning enough about yourself to discover your own perspective on philosophy, and about setting the priorities and facing the consequences of the undertaking.  It’s a process that will change the individual… it has to, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it.

My plan of study calls for 12 sessions (summer, maymester, and long semesters).  2 will be done when I hit submit on this page.  10 to go.

Bring it on.


Posted in CECS 6010, UNT-LT | Leave a comment

Hail, Hail, Freedonia, land of critical theory!

Week 12: Are there any aspects of critical theory that especially interest you as a budding researcher? Why or why not?

oops… wrong Marx?

The aspect of critical theory that made the strongest impression on me so far is the notion, as described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Critical Theory, that “the logic of social explanation and elides the ‘apparatus of general theories.’”  From my earliest blog posts in this class, for example when I struggled with rationalism and empiricism, I’ve shared my difficulty with applying one theory or framework to explain all (or even much) of what we observe in society.  The overt admission, attributed to Habermas and Dewey both, that there might not be just one singular answer is comforting.

The more I read about critical theory, the more I became convinced that a full and proper understanding of its role in the evolution of philosophy, given its critical nature, requires a more full and complete understanding of the various –isms than I currently possess (and indeed may ever possess).

Owing to what I can only believe can only be a concerted effort on the part of the department, I am now less confident in my ability to complete this program than at any time since I first considered it.  My goal, as originally stated in my personal statement included with my application, is to apply all that I learn here to my real-life job in order to benefit real-live students.  What has thus far been a largely abstract course of study, which I have struggled to apply to my daily work, has been interesting and challenging and I am making progress on  many fronts, it has dawned on me that the program is designed more to teach me a process (of thinking, of questioning, of researching, of writing, and of re-thinking) and I see that as valuable, but I had some expectation of content knowledge that hasn’t yet happened.  This is likely due to a failing on my part as opposed to any failing on the part of my instructors.

In short, the first full semester of this program has served largely to exacerbate the depression I feared experiencing when my two children left for college in August which, ironically, was a prime driver in having me do this program… so I would be busy, with a purpose, instead of wallowing at home, missing my girls.

As I learn more about the aforementioned –isms (pragmatism, positivism, rationalism, feminism, capitalism, constructivism, liberalism, pluralism, skepticism, materialism, naturalism, relativism, fallibilism, fascism, universalism, and authoritarianism to name just a few), I find myself questioning things I thought I was comfortable with and, conversely, also having a number of “ah ha” moments where thoughts I’ve previously had are now given specific terminology and context.

Is this what the next four years will be like?  Is this what the rest of my life will be like? I don’t know if I have the energy for all that.  It’s nearing the end of the 16 week semester and I realize that one of my biggest problems is that in a 16 week semester I have only about 12 weeks of motivation.  That had better change quickly.  But first, I wonder if Duck Soup is on Netflix.


Posted in CECS 6010 | Leave a comment

hee-hee…. He said “mumbo jumbo”

Week 11: Start by answering the following question:

Is there such a thing as a social “science?” Why or why not? What are the goals of a science? What does it mean to know? After reading all this philosophy mumbo jumbo, how do you feel about social research and our ability to understand and know the minds of others?

Based on this, how effective do you believe our systems for designing instruction and assessing learning can be, given the cognitive differences among humans.

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”

— James Marshall Hendrix

Is there such a thing as a social “science?”

I believe there is a scientific lens through which to view society in general and humans in particular.  Does this make it a social science?  I suppose it would be reasonable to use the term but keeping in mind that the goal of hard science is to know but, as we discussed in the last blog post, the goal of social science is more to (try to)  understand or (try to) explain.

Why or why not?

Sure, scientific concepts, like the scientific method and objective observations, are nice, as are statistics, graphs, charts, numbers, and other concepts borrowed from the hard sciences, but that’s all more sizzle than steak.  It allows social science to masquerade as hard science, hoping to ride the coattails and be accepted in much the same manner as, say, chemistry.  But, alas, it is not so simple, because the subjects of chemistry study are atoms, molecules, elements, and compounds, all of which tend to behave in expected ways under controlled systems and the subjects of study in our field are pesky human beings who, in the words of Prof. Michael Spector, are only intermittently rational.  It is in these periods of rationality that social sciences exists but those periods are fleeting and, in the vernacular of the statistician, are not generalizable to the population as a whole.

What are the goals of a science?

Just for fun, I Googled this question.  Here are the top three responses: : Science is a body of knowledge accumulated through the use of the scientific method.  There are multiple possible goals for doing science. For many scientists, the satisfaction of curiosity about nature and the desire to share what they have learned about cause and effect relationships in nature are the primary goals. Other scientists wish to improve the material welfare of humanity, to contribute to the security of their own societies, or to increase their own personal wealth. So long as they make claims for truth based on the scientific method, their goals are irrelevant. categories of goals for science education: scientific knowledge, scientific methods, social issues, personal needs, and career awareness.  science is interested in answering questions and acquiring knowledgeconcerning the observable universe .

The only word that appeared in all three results, other than science and its derivatives, is knowledge.

From this it may be easy to conclude that the primary (or at least the predominant) goal of science has something to do with knowledge.

Is it to acquire knowledge?  Validate that is known? Use existing knowledge to infer things we don’t yet know or can’t yet prove? Is it to give high school sophomores tests about Avogadro’s number? Do we seek to use this knowledge for some sort of benefit or is the acquisition of knowledge an end in itself?

In our field, I believe that the goal is to acquire, validate, and, ultimately, to use knowledge to help facilitate learning.

What does it mean to know?

To believe with a certainty high enough to make useful assumptions about something.

After reading all this philosophy mumbo jumbo, how do you feel about social research and our ability to understand and know the minds of others?

I have my doubts.  As I write this, I happen to be sitting in a first year high school French class, as a last minute substitute teacher, for the high school where I work.  I’m watching the students complete an online research project that I can’t help but think is largely busywork intended to occupy their time while the teacher is away and a non-French-speaking sub (me) is in her place.  Could this be a useful project?

Yes.  The assignment was to pick two cities in France from a list and write about them using structured prompts, such as “Where in France is this city/town? What is this city known or famous for? What makes it stand out from others ? Is this city of any particular historical significance? Did anyone famous live here? Give at least 2 permanent sights that visitors to this city should see or experience (for example, museums, castles, historical homes, gardens, etc.).”

Did the students learn anything?  Anything useful?  I suspect some, those who saw value in the assignment, did.  But I fear that for others, this was just a time wasting exercise with little connection to their class, grade, education, or life.

As a novice educator, I can’t help but wonder what could be done to make this assignment more meaningful (I think that having each student pick one city and then prepare a short presentation about it, answering the prompt questions, and sharing the answers with the class, might have been more interesting (but also a greater classroom management challenge for the sub).  I also wonder if any of these questions will appear on any sort of assessment (formative or otherwise).  Lastly, I wonder if the writing itself, the grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, and word choice, in addition to the content are part of the grade (this is French class but the responses are in English, but I believe that effective written communication isn’t important only in English class and those skills need to permeate the entire curriculum, in all classes, at all levels.

Based on this, how effective do you believe our systems for designing instruction and assessing learning can be, given the cognitive differences among humans.

‘Can be?”  I believe it can be highly effective, for most humans, at most levels, in most circumstances, most of the time.  Not for everyone, not all the time, and not always.  But everyone/always/all the time is not a reasonable standard.  It’s not the standard to which we hold other fields, such as medicine, and even when it is the ideal standard, such as in the flying & landing of airplanes, it’s a standard that is not always met.

Since the variance in students (and their learning) is much higher than the variance in humans and their response to medical challenges or in airplanes and their response to flight, the standard should rightly be lower and “most humans, at most levels, and in most circumstances” is a reasonable standard, in my opinion.  The problems arise when a disproportionate amount of our resources (human and otherwise) are targeted to the few students, with atypical learning needs, and in many cases with barriers that cannot be reasonably overcome, at the expense of keeping the many, the most, and the typical challenged and moving forward.  I’m not saying “don’t help the few,” but I suggest that it should be done not at the expense of the many.






Posted in CECS 6010 | Leave a comment

You can observe a lot by just watching

How much can theory and research explain about what happens in a learning experience?

I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant
— Alan Greenspan

You can observe a lot by just watching.
— Yogi Berra

Is the goal merely to explain? Or is it to understand or, ultimately, to predict?

Hollis expends a great deal of energy on the distinction between understanding and explaining. I haven’t read, or more correctly, understood, enough of prose to ascertain whether or not he’s coming down on the side of understanding or explaining, but I suspect he will take the cop out route and suggest that there is a continuum.

Maybe it’s not fair to call that a cop out. It is, after all, what I believe. As I wrote when the topic was rationalism versus empiricism, I find both arguments compelling to a point but neither ultimately fully satisfies.

Hollis also spends a lot of words on the difficulty of researching social beings such as ourselves. There are so many factors that influence our decisions and behavior and each set of factors has its own influences and modifiers.

If you’re forcing me into a yes or no question I have no choice but to say “no” we cannot know anything specific or universal about what happens to individuals in learning environments.  At least not so far as any of that knowledge would be transferable to other populations or settings. I think that the learning experience is just too individualized.  What works for me may not necessarily work for you. Works for you may not work for the next person. What worked for me previously may fail me in the future and what failed before must just do the trick this time.

There are ideas to be gleaned, of course. There are strategies that may be applicable in multiple settings or for multiple people, and those have value. But it would aberration of the research construct a curriculum for a broad set of strategies base of the experiences of just a few.

The example of MOOCs is illustrative. These are essentially large, social, shared, communal experiences with a goal of individualized learning.  The community aspect is important, but the learning is, ultimately, individual. It works for some, perhaps even many, but I wouldn’t want to construct a curriculum based solely on MOOCs. Similarly, I have personal experience with students who have been very successful in the Montessori environment but would not have been as successful, I speculate, in a traditional elementary school setting.

In some respects perhaps it boils down to what expects out of formal education. In my evolving opinion, one goes to school to learn how to behave and get a job. Note that I limit this observation to going to school, not to learning per se. I believe in lifelong learning. I wouldn’t be embarking on this journey with you at this stage of my life & career if I didn’t. But as far as formal schooling K through 12 or 16, I believe goal of that endeavor is to learn how to behave and get a job.  And with that in mind, from a practical perspective, I’m not sure if any explanation or understanding is warranted.  In the short term, we cannot change the aspects of society that dictate how to behave and what skills are needed to get certain jobs.  So my goal for education, for myself and my children, is to try as many different methods as necessary to accomplish the goal of learning how to behave and to get (keep?) that job.  I research myself, and my children, when trying to find the right learning experience to teach each necessary task/skill/concept.  I don’t hearken for explanation or understanding, but rather for proficiency (not mastery) and then moving on to the next topic.  Put rather bluntly (hopefully still respectfully), I seek a B+ experience.  Above average, but perhaps not by much.  I have neither time nor energy for myself (nor standing to expect from my children) an A level performance (that’s their mother).

You know what they call the guy who finishes last in his medical school class?



Posted in CECS 6010 | Leave a comment

“She’s my sweet little baby, I’m her little lover boy.”

“Who are you?”

— Pete Townshend, The Who  “Who are you?”

“She’s my sweet little baby, I’m her little lover boy.”

— Stevie Ray Vaughan  “Pride and Joy”

Week 8 assignment:  Where do you think one’s identity really comes from? How much of an impact does it have on teaching and learning? Why? What examples can you give? Explain.

Would you be surprised to learn that you (Prof. Warren) are not the first person to ask me some of these questions?

If you find me online, you’ll probably see that I describe myself as quote “Dad, Husband, Techie, Boilermaker.” That’s pretty much it. When I first joined Toastmasters couple of years ago, the first speech I had to give was called the icebreaker. It’s basically an introduction. It also gets the new Toastmaster used to speaking in front of people.  Those four words were the title of my speech and the outline of it.

It’s surprising how often we need to do that. I don’t mean speaking in front of people, I mean telling them new person or a group of people who we are, succinctly, concisely, perhaps even accurately.


I wonder how differently I would describe myself to that Toastmasters group before I had children. Or before I was married. Or before I became involved with technology. Or, perish the thought, before I went to Purdue.


As a child of Holocaust survivors, reared in a true three generation household with a heavy European influence,  my early years were probably different than those of any of the people reading these words now.


My grandmother raised me while both of my parents worked full-time. I learned Hungarian before I learned English. I have one sibling, a brother seven years younger than me. And that’s it. No cousins or aunts or uncles or anything like that. The only semblance of an extended family I had was the close network of Hungarian immigrants in the Chicago area who befriended and mentored my parents.  I think I have a somewhat romanticized memory of that part of my childhood. But the person I am now, though undoubtedly formed by those early years, really began to form but I went to Purdue. I left high school after three years, running away legally, to Purdue University at age 17.

I had what could generously be called a disastrous start to my college career. A first year biology major in the school of science, I flunked one class, Chemistry, dropped another, Calculus, and had all sorts of issues academically, and health wise. I got sick and ended up missing the second semester. I returned to Purdue the following fall and promptly flunked Chemistry again.

I did not rise to the challenge. I did not find a way to overcome. I found… an escape. I changed my major and moved on. In the last of my five years as an undergrad, I met a girl. Not just any girl. The girl. She was a first-year grad student and we just clicked. I had become a Boilermaker, not yet really a techie, but I was on my way to being a husband.


The prompt asks us about our identity. I’ve given you some background and some facts. But is that really my identity? My view of the term identity is something along lines of how do we see ourselves. I see myself first as a father and husband, then as a techie, which really means an employee, and the Purdue experience served as an enabler of all of that.


I started out disastrously but I ended up pretty strong. My GPA went up every semester. I got in to graduate school, twice now, and finished a two year master’s degree program in 18 months. My wife (ta da!) and I then moved overseas so she could do a postdoc and I put my technical skills, as a travel agent, to good use. Wherever her career took us, overseas or in the United States, I was always able to sit at the keyboard and get a job at a travel agency. At some point it made sense for my career to take precedence and she then got a job in the city I needed to move to. We complemented each other and a great deal of my current identity is wrapped up in her.


Then along came the kids. My identity changed again, to reflect my new priorities.  Flash forward about 20 years, to where we are now, and the kids are gone. They are now Boilermakers (taking the same Chemistry and Calculus classes that kicked my ass). And I am against a student. My wife supporting my efforts to reach a new level of understanding about myself and my identity.


I’m still a father first. And husband second. When I was interviewing for a promotion a few years ago, I put a picture of my wife and two daughters on the table and looked at the hiring manager square in the eye and said “You will be, at best, the fourth most important person in my life. If that’s not good enough, don’t hire me.” He hired me.


I had the good fortune over my career to have some very strong mentors. Three times in my career I have had the opportunity to work for the same person twice, meaning I worked for them, then circumstances had either them or me leave for a different role, and then our paths cross again. Each of those three opportunities resulted in my old boss hiring me back. I’m very proud of that.


I’m not a perfect employee, or perfect father, or perfect husband. But I am devoted to my wife and children, and I’m very loyal to my bosses. The kids didn’t really have a choice about keeping me around. I suppose the wife does. But those three bosses each had a very easy opportunity to not take me back, and all three of them, including my current boss, did take be back, warts and all.


Is this what was meant by identity? Still not 100% sure.


What I am sure about, though, is that I’m quite comfortable with the priorities I have set and the outlook on life that those priorities give me. My wife and I took a very reasoned approach to parenting. We thought about how we were going to raise our children for several years before we decided to have children. My wife is an educator, one who puts a great deal of thought into how she presents material to her students. It is my goal to also be an educator. It is my plan to put as much thought into how I will teach students as I did into how I became a valued employee, a decent father, and a good husband.  And, eventually, hopefully, a good teacher.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Could you unplug the connector, blow into it to get the dust out, then plug it back in?

Joel Spolsky, currently the CEO of Stack Exchange is one of my heroes.  For a lot of reasons….

  • He went to Yale. I’ve only known two people who went to Yale but they’ve been among the smartest, most intelligent, and nicest people I’ve ever known, so even though I don’t personally know Joel Spolsky, he gets the benefit of my positive association with Yale graduates (yes, n=2, so don’t tell Professor Tyler-Wood).
  • When he worked for Microsoft, he worked on Excel, which is one of my favorite programs and I use it every day.
  • After leaving Microsoft he went on to start Fog Creek Software, a truly innovative and interesting company that has produced, among others, FogBugz and Trello.
  • In 2008 he and Jeff Atwood (another hero of mine) started Stack Overflow, a platform so simple in concept, yet so powerful in reality.
  • But the most important reasons Joel Spolsky is hero of mine is because he shared his knowledge and his experiences with the rest of us. While I only hope to be able to contribute as much to my communities as Spolsky has to his, his blog “Joel on Software,” which had an effective run of ten years, ending in 2010, but with occasional updates since then.

There are many gems in his writing, both on the blog and for Inc Magazine, and I can’t claim to have read them all.  But I get multiple good ideas from everything that he’s written and I’ve read.  There aren’t too many writers I can say that about.

One of the subtle things about Spolsky’s writing is that he has a passion for customer service that you don’t usually find in a technical person.  Many, if not most, technical people are smarter than their customers and often exhibit impatience, if not outright disdain, for the people they’re supposed to be helping.  Spolsky is smarter than most technical people and yet finds a way to weave compassion for the end-user into his writing.  Here’s an example (one that was life-changing for me)…. I first saw it in a posting titled “Seven steps to remarkable customer service,”

Microsoft’s Raymond Chen tells the story of a customer who complains that the keyboard isn’t working. Of course, it’s unplugged. If you try asking them if it’s plugged in, “they will get all insulted and say indignantly, ‘Of course it is! Do I look like an idiot?’ without actually checking.”

“Instead,” Chen suggests, “say ‘Okay, sometimes the connection gets a little dusty and the connection gets weak. Could you unplug the connector, blow into it to get the dust out, then plug it back in?’

“They will then crawl under the desk, find that they forgot to plug it in (or plugged it into the wrong port), blow out the dust, plug it in, and reply, ‘Um, yeah, that fixed it, thanks.’”

Many requests for a customer to check something can be phrased this way. Instead of telling them to check a setting, tell them to change the setting and then change it back “just to make sure that the software writes out its settings.”

How simple is that?  How simple indeed… instead of being condescending or rude, the tech gave the customer a way to save face, fix their problem, retain their dignity, and express appreciation, instead of contempt, for the tech who helped me out.

My challenge, in previous careers as a manager, and now as an educator, is to find a way to inculcate this way of thinking, this approach to customer service, in my employees, peers, and students.

The assignment this week, “Create a 20 minute learning activity that you believe would spur logical and critical thinking” was an opportunity for me to try and do this.  You’ll need to let me know if I succeeded.

The blog post is supposed to reflect on what I learned during the development of this short project.  The most immediate lesson is that it’s sometimes difficulty to articulate what we “just know.” During the course of my career I have had the pleasure of working with some really good technical troubleshooters (some, like Mike Madero, may not even know I think this about them).  And I’ve been complemented on my own troubleshooting skills.  But how do you TEACH troubleshooting skills?  I hope that my little 20 minute PBL exercise is one example of one possible way.

It really got me thinking, though, as I found myself knowing what to do but not always clear on how to explain why or even answer the question “how did you know to do that?”  I guess I’ll keep working at this until I can answer that question.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Systems Thinking and the Irrational (read: human) Being

How can systems thinking help us with learning systems and technology systems today? Can it? Explain.
Systems Thinking can be beneficial in the context of learning & technology environments but solely as a conceptual framework, not as a matter of practical application.

It seems to me that species other than humans tend to operate on what Dr. Melissa Steiner refers to as a “singularity of purpose.” They seek to survive and thrive and reproduce with survival and growth of their species (gene pool) as their overriding goal.

They don’t, at least not by my observation, subscribe to a theology or an external morality or anything else that would get in the way of those singular, narrow, well-defined goals. And to describe those sorts of systems, I believe systems thinking is entirely appropriate. I feel the breakdown comes when we make the jump and attempt to explain human systems using the logic and structure of systems thinking. As Professor Michael Spector has said, “humans are only intermittently rational.”

It is clear to me that this is the root of the problem with attempting to apply systems thinking to any system where humans are present. This would include technical systems designed by humans.

Humans do not operate with a singularity of purpose, to the extent that they let their theology, morality, or other irrationality guide their behavior and decision making, and thus the applicability of systems thinking breaks down.

Hollis (1994, chapter 6) drones on in a vain attempt to apply game theory and systems thinking to what he calls “rational agents.”  And the hypothetical Jacks and Jills even in their presumed rational states may in fact play the games well.  Well enough at least.  But even Hollis paints himself into a corner (p 137) “Again something more is wanted than has yet been offered to determine which hypothetical is to guide action.” This is in a theoretical, sanitized, artificial, purpose-built scenario.  Imagine the chaos if we tried to apply it to the real world.  Chaos indeed.

Dan Gilbert in his 2005 Ted Talk, (33:28) explains the mathematics of Daniel Bernoulli as it relates to how people make decisions (spoiler alert:  badly).  The theater ticket example at the 11 minute mark is particularly instructive.


Gilbert asserts that in the two factors relevant to making decisions, estimating the value of the outcome and estimating the probability of a given outcome, humans are good at neither.  This, coupled with our intermittent rationality, seems to go a long way towards explaining why systems thinking cannot be an effective tool to predict the behavior of systems which involve humans.

In their seminal 1982 publication, “In Search of Excellence,” Peters and Waterman presented “research” about several dozen companies and sought to draw themes and conclusions about what made them “excellent.” I put the words research and excellent in quotes because what they did, interesting as it was, was not research.  And some of the organizations they called excellent ended up being anything but.  Is this a failure of systems thinking?  I would say it’s more a misapplication of the concept.  The manner in which the firms studied were selected was not scientific (though Professor Tyler-Woods might call them a selection of convenience) and though lots of fancy numbers were used, resulting in impressive charts and tables, the work, resulting in platitudes such as get “close to the customer” is more common sense than groundbreaking  management theory.

Roughly a generation later James Collins’ book, “From Good to Great” took another, far more quantitative, look at management success.  Published in 2001, his goal was to explore “how companies transition from being average companies to great companies and how companies can fail to make the transition.”  His model was infinitely more rigorous that the Peters/Waterman effort and I believe his conclusions to be more soundly supported.  He too codifies his ideas into pithy chapter titles such as “Culture of Discipline” and “Hedgehog Concept” but the big difference is the methodology.  Instead of a convenient sampling of companies, Collins used a systematic approach to find both superior performers as well as comparison companies (those of similar size and market position at the beginning of the study)  He and his team then went on to research, to the extent possible, when, why, and how these companies (systems, if you will) succeeded or didn’t.  Their mathematical models controlled for factors that the Peters/Waterman work did not account for and they were careful (both during the time period covered by the book and afterwards) to assert that their findings had specific time bounds… Collins never said these companies would always be great, just that they once were.  His metric for great was a company who, for the time period covered, generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times in fifteen years.  As with In Search of Excellence, From Good to Great is descriptive and reflective, not explanatory or predictive.  There are things to be learned, surely, but I doubt it would be possible to deliberately construct a company based on these principles.  These ideas tend to evolve organically and are subsequently noticed more than they are deliberately or assertively crafted and inculcated into the corporate culture.

Perhaps a better (or at least more interesting) attempt to describe and explain systems is the 2005 work by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics.  The economist and the journalist seek to observe and explain questions about the systems in which we live, from “Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?” to “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”  They do so effectively and far more interestingly than Hollis. Theirs are wholly anecdotal efforts, support by numbers but it’s not research.  Nonetheless, their work asks, and sometimes answers, interesting questions such as those mentioned above and brings to light similar work by others, such as “identify vacations by merging corporate jet flight histories with real estate records of CEOs’ property owned near leisure destinations.  Companies disclose favorable news just before CEOs leave for vacation and delay subsequent announcements until CEOs return, releasing news at an unusually high rate on the CEO’s first day back.  When CEOs are away, companies announce less news than usual and stock prices exhibit sharply lower volatility.  Volatility increases immediately when CEOs return to work.”


I began by asserting that Systems Thinking can be beneficial in the context of learning & technology environments but solely as a conceptual framework, not as a matter of practical application and in the realm of business, my vocation for 20+ years, as evidenced by books ranging from In Search of Excellence, to Freakonomics, I remain convinced that Systems Thinking is interesting and valuable, just not as widely applicable as proponents would like.

Posted in CECS 6010 | Leave a comment