Big-Little Thinking (BLT) is a framework for teaching and learning that encourages thinking about complex problems and contested spaces. The framework has five interdependent frames for thinking:
BLT's frames can be used as general prompts for thinking about problems or as more specific layers and theories that can be used to structure deeper explorations of the basic frames, dimensions and dynamics of problems.
The layers of BLT (i.e. between 0 and ꚙ) can be populated with any locations that represent increasing chronologies, development, complexity or differentiation. Layers or levels represent archetypal or significant positions or periods. The content of layers can often be provided by existing theories.
BLT is an original framework and theory. However, as any theory that values consilience - the jumping together of knowledge and insights from seemingly separate domains - BLT should resonate with and acknowledge other theories. Indeed, whilst acknowledging the originality and value of its own approach, BLT actively encourages 'jumping into' other theoretical frameworks for more detail and insight into the contents that BLT synthesises through its frames, dimensions and dynamics.
BLT encourages exploration of the matter, material or substance (i.e. the ‘what’) of problems and solutions.
Key Terms: Matter, Material, Cosmology, Time, Space, Chronology, Big History, Thresholds, Disciplinarity (Intra, Inter, Cross, Trans)
The layers of the MATTER tend to be chronological to reflect the temporal development of complexity. However, these temporal layers (e.g. epochs or thresholds) also relate to thematic categories such as disciplines that correlate with the chronology (e.g. Psychology and the development of the Brain). It can be useful to think of the layers of MATTER through the lenses of Big History or Deep Time.
Big Little Thinking - Layers of Matter
0. Metaphysical: Layer of origin and ontology pertaining to speculative (secular and religious) hypotheses about the nature of ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’.
1. Cosmological: Layer of matter, energy, particles, elements and physics. Chronologically related to ‘Big Bang Cosmology’, the origins of stars and galaxies, and the differentiation of chemical elements.
2. Geological: Layer of origins of the Solar System and Earth.
3. Biological: Layer of origins and differentiation of life. Botanical and Zoological
4. Psychosocial: Layer of development of humans. Chronologically related to the origins and development of complex neurological systems for information processing through co-development of symbols and tools and socialisation.
5. Technocultural: Layer of convergence of beliefs, ritualisation, technologisation, and globalisation.
6. Futurological: Layer of futures, expectation and speculation in space and time.
∞: Metaphysical: Layer of ends and ontology pertaining to speculative theological (secular and religious) hypotheses about the nature of ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’.
Big History Thresholds
1. The Big Bang
2. The Stars Light Up
3. New Chemical Elements
4. Earth & The Solar System
6. Collective Learning
8. The Modern Revolution
Henriques' Tree of Knowledge System
1. Matter (Physical Sciences)
2. Life (Biological Sciences)
3. Mind (Psychological Sciences
4. Culture (Social Sciences)
The Cosmological Scale
The cosmological scale emphasises the chronological states of matter and energy immediately after the Big Bang.
International Chronostratigraphic Chart
The International Chronostratigraphic Chart provides chronological classifications of time periods based on observable changes in the geological record.
Prehistorical and historical timelines focus on the place of humanity in space and time.
Future timelines offer speculative chronologies into the future based on patterns and principles of past chronologies.
Brofenbrenner's Bioecological Model
This theory is relevant to the matter frame because of it's emphasis on (a) the interconnection and relationality of material systems, (b) its layering of sub-systems (e.g. Macro-Exo-Meso-Micro), and (c) its emphasis on context across space and time (e.g. Chronosystem).
Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Model
Hofstede's cultural dimensions model uses six (6) interacting dimensions of culture to understand the potential for conflict, challenges and coordination: Power Distance, Individualism-Collectivism, Masculinity-Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term - Short Term Orientation, and Indulgence-Restraint.
BLT is a framework for exploring mental representations of problems and solutions.
These pairs or zygos help to show how MEANING and value develop in relation to the MATTER of a problem.
The MIND dimension of BLT encourages clearer and more connected identification of mental constructs that frame problems and solutions. It also helps to identify the ways of knowing that affect these constructs.
Key Terms: Epistemology, Cognition, Intellect, Reason, Development, Ways of Knowing
The layers of the MIND tend to reflect the development of ways of knowing or ‘epistemological developments’ that represent increasingly complex ways of understanding causality and relationality.
Big Little Thinking: Layers of Mind
Reich’s Theory of Relational and Contextual Reasoning
K. Helmut Reich’s Theory of Relational and Contextual Reasoning (RCR), explores key areas of human conflict such as the ideological conflict between nations, the conflict in close relationships and the conflict between science and religion. The theory provides a way of thinking that encourages people to adopt an inclusive rather than an oppositional approach to conflict and problem-solving. Reich describes RCR as:
a specific thought form which implies that two or more heterogeneous descriptions, explanations, models, theories or interpretations of the very same entity, phenomenon, or functionally coherent whole are both “logically” possible and acceptable together under certain conditions, and can be coordinated accordingly (Reich, 2002, pp 12-13).
The levels of RCR are:
Perry's Theory of Epistemological Development
Perry’s theory traces the development of intellectual and ethical thinking over time and in context. Perry’s levels represent ways of knowing in relation to the framing and coordination of different perspectives or truth claims. It deals with the structure of these claims rather the substance of specific claims.
BLT encourages exploration of the affective, sensory and emotional (i.e. the ‘feeling’) of problems and solutions.
Examples of Mood include: Pleasure-Pain, Happy-Sad, Love-Hate, Delight-Disgust, Embraced-AbandonedGentle-Rough, Sweet-Bitter, Engaged-Bored, Clear-Confused, Joyful-Depressed, Calm-Agitated
Key Terms: Mood, Emotion, Feelings, Affect, Personality
The layers of MOOD tend to reflect the differentiation of ways of feeling or ‘affective developments’ that represent increasingly complex emotional experiences and integrations of pleasure and pain.
BLT's default arrangement involves positive and negative moods arranged in dyads (e.g. pleasure-pain; happy-sad) and developed through primary, secondary and tertiary differentiations:
In BLT, moods can be understood as the experience of positive or negative meanings.
Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions identifies primary, secondary and tertiary emotions arranged into dyads (i.e. pairs) that interact to produce increasingly differentiated emotions, analogous to the differentiation of colour. The broader theory explores the evolutionary differentiation of emotions in light of the contexts and functions of their development.
Russell's Circumplex Model of Affect identifies emotions loosely arranged into dyads according to their broader classification on intersecting spectrums as Intense-Mild and Pleasant-Unpleasant.
Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1161–1178.
BLT is a framework for exploring value or meaning. All problems and solutions imply values, judgements and meanings.
The meaning dimension of BLT encourages clearer and more connected identification of values. It helps to show that meanings (i.e. values) are the integration of problems and solutions, mind and matter.
BLT's frame for Meaning is a synthesis of Matter, Mind and Mood. It integrates the positive-negative dimension of mood with the left-right dimension of mind to explore how we make meaning of matter.
BLT's default arrangement involves meanings that emerge through primary, secondary and tertiary differentiations. More primary layers of meaning reveal more basic and generalisable motivations. More tertiary layers of meaning reveal more differentiated and contextualised motivations.
Brainard's concept of the fugue reconciles seemingly discordant perspectives in science, religion, and philosophy - categories of thought that frame the quest for meaning.
Fowler's Stages of Faith
Fowler's Stages of Faith offers a developmental approach to human faith or ultimate concern. Fowler proposes six archetypal stages that describe sequential and incremental orientations to the ways we perceive the world, including authority, morality, social identity, worldview, and symbolic function:
Adam's Theory of Birelational Development (BirD)
Adam’s theory of bi-relational development (BirD) proposes that the recognition and reconciliation of 'opposites' lies at the heart of our most personal and global problems and is arguably one of the most neglected developmental tasks of Western education. The theory suggests that these problems are 'wicked' in the sense that they involve real-life decisions that have to be made in rapidly changing contexts involving irreducible tensions and paradoxes. Adam proposes that our everyday ways of knowing and being can be powerfully located and understood in terms of developments in the way we recognise and relate the constituents of dyads (i.e. pairs) through levels of:
Ultimately, BLT is a framework for realising the source and relationality of problems and solutions. The Meta Frame represents the relational source of all other frames. This realisation of the source is characterised by an appreciation of its paradoxical ubiquity and ambiguity. There are many forms and names used to approach the source and 'meta' is one of them. Key questions are:
The meta frame can be a difficult concept to communicate at an introductory level, so it may be introduced but left until later stages for more explicit exploration.
All theories, models and frameworks are situated in philosophical assumptions. BLT is no exception, except that it (a) seeks to make its assumptions and principles transparent for critique, and (b) claims to be able to accommodate seemingly conflicting philosophical positions. The more deeply a framework is understood, the more clearly its assumptions are revealed, which is why BLT dedicates a level of theory to BLT as philosophy.
Philosophical assumptions are essentially claims about:
The BLT framework makes tentative claims about each of these categories, while leaving some questions completely and necessarily open.
BLT's most basic cosmological assumptions are:
BLT's most basic epistemological assumptions are:
BLT's most basic ontological assumptions are:
BLT's most basic axiological assumptions are:
BLT's most basic teleological assumptions are:
Like most grand and encompassing concepts, science can be difficult to define because its very expansiveness accommodates a range of implicit tensions (i.e., zygos) such as:
In one sense, BLT is completely consistent with science as an approach to knowledge. That is, BLT encourages the systematic study of behaviours through observation and experimentation. Depending on the definition of terms like systematic, observation and experiment, BLT could defend science as 'the only way of knowing' anything. In one sense, there is simply, better or worse science and the measure changes in relation to the nature of the problem being studied. However, BLT acknowledges that terms like science and thinking are 'wicked words' - very necessary - but needing careful relational and contextual understandings.
BLT is particularly useful at the level of hypothesis formation. Hypotheses are propositions or proposed explanations that focus further investigation and exploration. Forming hypotheses can be challenging because, by definition, it admits to limited information and requires a degree of intuition, 'educated guessing', and 'acting on a hunch'. We don't know what we don't know! Furthermore, it's easy to confirm a hypothesis without really understanding its relationality with a seemingly competing hypothesis.
There is a sense in which BLT deliberately expands hypothetical possibilities to create the space or conditions for more accurate observations and experiments that reveal probabilities and realities in a given context. The more-less dimension of BLT encourages attention to the degree and accuracy of propositions and hypotheses.
"All models are wrong. But some are useful" (George Box).
BLT is subject to the same analysis and critique that it purports to facilitate. What decisions position BLT on design spectrums (i.e. zygos) such as:
A central premise of BLT is that a part can never be completely transposed as a whole. While the recognition and reconciliation of many parts is a key goal of BLT, it is important to reflect on the reality of BLT's partialness. It is a situated and self-aware model.
The final level of theory is reflexive. It aims to 'expose' BLT's situatedness and encourage new models that are better situated for different contexts. However, the paradox of this awareness is that it simultaneously strengthens the model. The BLT is situated and therefore 'wrong' in many ways. However, the self-awareness of this situatedness and the encouragement of new expressions, applications and adaptations of 'the' model affirms its central premises.
Why is BLT's dominant shape a square or circle, hypercube or box? Shouldn't we be 'thinking outside the square or circle'?
BLT's models use the metaphors of a circle. The framework can be mapped to other models such as a square or other shapes such as a pyramid. The realisation of this translatability and the selectiveness of BLT's core models is a part of understanding BLT.
However, BLT had many shape iterations before the choice of the circle and tesseract (hypercube). Most of its early iterations were pyramidal and then spherical. The choice of a circle as the primary shape was made for three key reasons: relatability, practicability and mapability.
The metaphor of a circle in relation to thinking is relatable. So, the ZYGO is an ironic shape. It encourages thinking 'outside the circle' with the use of an ambiguous space at the centre ZYGO.
It is also practical because the circular shapes is relatively easier to make and hold as a material artefact - it has tactile appeal. A significant appeal of the BLT is the ability to make the ZYGO from a simple printed template.
Why is BLT's dominant geometry so linear, Cartesian, and symmetrical? Isn't thinking entangled, asymmetrical and messy?
BLT argues that there a significant, common and predictable misconception that arises when we 'grow out of black and white thinking' or 'binary oppositional thinking'. The misconception is that shades of grey don't still require a conceptualisation of blacker and whiter and shorthand of black and white. Similarly, it's impossible to negate a dyad (e.g. dyads don't exist) without creating a new relational dyad (e.g. nothing-something).
A central assumption of BLT is that ordered symmetry and chaotic entanglements can coexist. Indeed, symmetry helps to reveal chaotic entanglement and the observation of chaotic entanglements can help define symmetry. So, BLT uses symmetry, not just to 'tame' the chaos and entanglement of reality but to recognise it, to play with it and even to generate it to disrupt the conforming power of symmetry.
Why are BLT's dominant colours black, white, grey and red? Shouldn't BLT be colourless or more colourful? BLT's graphic design went through many iterations including full colour and grey-scale schemes. The colour schemes mapped well onto many of the frameworks geometries. However, several problems kept arising. Mapping colours to the framework meant attaching the symbolism of the colours to the framework. Should mood be red and mind be blue? What are the ethical implications of reproducing the symbolism that black is negative and white is positive? What are the symbolic and aesthetic implications of not including colour at all?
A 'solution' having worked through the dyads was to use black and white and red and blue. The colours red and blue have demonstrably diverse and even contradictory symbolism. They can be used reciprocally or inverted to open up the conversation about BLT's reconciliation of opposing symbols, and symbolise the 'hot topics' and issues that BLT engages.
Why is BLT's theory framed in levels? Shouldn't BLT be less stage-like?
BLT's framework is presented in ordered and sequential ways that generally reflect simple-to-complex content and logical steps. However, the order and complexity is recursive and iterative. What seemed simple at first glance will appear complex upon later return. What seemed complex at first glance may seem simple at a later stage. Furthermore, the more deeply the framework is understood - the more readily it can be accessed at any point.
Why is BLT's model so abstract and artificial instead of concrete and organic? Isn't it very 'western' compared to more fluid, dynamic and circular symbols of 'Indigenous' knowledges?
Symbolic thought is a characteristic of culture. No symbols, model or metaphor is culturally neutral. Symbols across cultures use symmetry to express abstractions across diverse organic and natural forms. Indigenous symbols are no different in this regard. Dyadic interactions may be expressed as the confluence of river and sea, the dance of Brolgas, the wax and wane of the Moon, or the ebb and flow of tides.
The ZYGO takes a cultural form - as any model must - however, the process of Big Little Thinking (BLT) invites transformations, conversions and innovations of the form that share its deeper structures. Some of BLT's core activities encourage representations of its underlying frames, dimensions and dynamics that deliberately disrupt, invert and challenge its situated forms.