21st Century Competencies – A Good Way to Read the Leaves

Isn’t it interesting that the most famous detectives are notably grumpy?

– Emotional Agility

… two thinkers investigating the same phenomenon but approaching it with two different mental models may arrive at different conclusions.

– A Complete Set of Systems Thinking Skills

Newcomer is a work of Japanese crime fiction by Keigo Higashino. It follows Kyoichiro Kaga, a detective at the Nihonbashi Precinct in Tokyo as he tries to crack a murder case which occurred at the Kodenmacho neighbourhood. The reader, in following Detective Kaga’s reasoning process, learns how to engage in systems thinking to avoid misleading confirmation biases.

Educationists are advocating that students be taught systems thinking for a number of reasons. We can look at three.

The world is getting increasingly VUCA. Systems thinking is a tool designed to deal with complex phenomena.  For example, Kordova, Frank and Miller (2018) suggest that, “Formal education in systems thinking has become essential” because “linear thinking models … underplay or ignore the multifaceted nature of complex problems”.

Secondly, without training in systems thinking, life and its vagaries can appear to be the machinations of a mysterious black box. This is the same reason why students now are taught about emotions and how they can mislead if we let them. Without emotional intelligence or agility which Susan David expounds on, the events in our life can take on a hue of inevitability.

Thirdly, some experts are of the view that artificial intelligence would not be able to demonstrate systems thinking for the foreseeable future. Training in systems thinking increases employability.

Systems thinking, it may be argued, is the science of life. According to Arnold and Wade (2017), “skillful use of systems thinking skills could have prevented such disasters as World War II, the Great Depression, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster” and improve various aspects of our lives like, “health care (sic) … interpersonal relationships … schools … and so much more”.

Systems thinking is about relationships, in particular about causes and effects. A lady was found strangled in her apartment in Kodenmacho. The detectives of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, being experienced, stuck to their usual ways of solving cases. Their methods did not surface any direct and obvious cause and effect chain which culminated in the murder. Detective Kaga, a precinct detective tasked to assist the Metropolitan Police, on the other hand, kept an open mind and engaged in conversations with every shopkeeper in the Amazake Alley.

Detective Kaga wanted to know why a sweet pastry had wasabi in it, how a prism-shaped clock with three faces worked, why a mother-in-law wanted to hide a Hello Kitty brochure from her family and why a lady fixed an attachable with an image of peach blossoms to her handphone. These details were deemed insignificant or obviously irrelevant to the case by the Metropolitan detectives. When Detective Kaga asked these questions, the daughter of one shopkeeper joked with him that he was loafing around and he should consider taking his job more seriously. Of course, as these stories go, these ex-facie irrelevant details were what led Detective Kaga to eventually understanding what had happened.

Arnold and Wade (2017) explain that someone who is mature in systems thinking would be “able to recognise the vast majority of relevant relationships, even obscure, meta-physical, non-obvious or complex ones”. They add that the mature systems thinker “Actively explores multiple, non-obvious perspectives, some of which might conflict with the thinker’s view”.  So then, this is a sure way to protect ourselves from confirmation biases – Person A must have done action X because of reason Y.

Actively seeking to reduce the effect of confirmation biases which we are hard-wired with, would be very beneficial for exam performance. Many a student must have stared wide-eyed and wondered how they could have made such an error when the answer was right there. This phenomenon has to do with confirmation bias. When students look for evidence that what they believe to be true is correct, more often than not, they would find it. A more sure way of getting answers right would be to look for evidence that what they believe to be true is wrong. It may be counter-intuitive but it would be worth the effort during exams.

Arnold and Wade (2017) aimed to explicate exactly what skills a thinker must develop to become versed in systems thinking. They say that thinkers must know (1) How to approach systemic problems – assuming they have identified something correctly as a systemic problem. (2) They need to recognise the different elements in a system. (3) They need to know how the elements interact. (4) They need to know what might happen in a system, given its elements and how they interact.

They suggest that thinkers can train to become more systemic in their thinking and gain maturity as system thinkers.

In a VUCA world, we deal with uncertainty and we need to strike a balance between being analytical to the point of paralysis and being overconfident in our initial assumptions. Idioms seek to instruct us on how to live well and students are tested on them in Vocabulary MCQ. Consider the following two. Haste makes waste and A stitch in time saves nine. They appear to be offering diametrically opposing advice. When should we pause and when should we act? The space between these two idioms is where much of life takes place.

According to Arnold and Wade (2017), “Considering issues appropriately is a key part of the systems thinking mindset.” This part of systems thinking certainly sounds like what wisdom is. Arnold and Wade (2017) explain that maturity in systems thinking would mean allowing time for the complexity of a situation to sink in, rarely if ever jumping to conclusions and almost always considering issues appropriately. They contrast this with more reactionary approaches.

In sum, students could be taught from young that simple cause-effect relationships could be simplistic and that more often than not, like what the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department lead detective on the case said to Detective Kaga, “so many other things” would usually be “going on in the background”.

In Newcomer, one of the shopkeepers, Genichi, owned a clock shop. Part of his job was to look at “gear wheels in the complex interlocking mass of machinery” in time pieces. Unlike Genichi, we are seldom able to have a clock maker’s view of how one event leads to another which leads to another which leads to another.

Even so, we can always learn to read the leaves, scientifically, systemically.

The Brain Dojo

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