VUCA unpacked (4) — Contextual thinking

Theo Dawson
6 min readDec 26, 2020


Contextual thinking skills leverage and extend collaborative capacity and perspective coordination skills. They are essential for constructing knowledge, resolving conflicts, solving problems, and making decisions—especially in complex situations. Like collaborative capacity and perspective coordination skills, they are required throughout our lives, but the development of contextual thinking skills is even more immediately and explicitly connected to Lectical Level (mental complexity). This is because contexts themselves are more or less complex, and an individual’s understanding of a particular context always hinges on how well its inherent complexity is understood.

This article builds on earlier articles in the series: VUCA unpacked (1) — Introduction, VUCA unpacked (2) — Collaborative capacity, and VUCA unpacked (3)—Perspective coordination.

What is contextual thinking?

Contextual thinking involves a set of interrelated skills that increase the scope, depth, and accuracy of our understanding of issues, problems, or conflicts. Whereas collaborative capacity and perspective coordination skills function as the engines of development, robust contextual thinking skills are more emergent. In other words, their development hinges on the consistent exercise of collaborative capacity and perspective coordination skills. Contextual thinking is also heavily reliant on the use of collaborative capacity and perspective coordination skills. Just about every micro-skill in the contextual thinking map involves the exercise of collaborative capacity and perspective-coordination skills. Wheels within wheels—again!

As shown in the skill map below, we divide the contextual thinking mega-skill into three macro-skills — accounting for (1) the situation, (2) the larger context, and (3) constraints & affordances. Each macro-skill is further broken down into mini-skills (in bold type), then micro-skills.

The situation: The need for contextual thinking skills generally arises in a particular situation. The primary mini-skills in the “situation group include: defining the current state and filling knowledge gaps. A solid understanding of the immediate situation helps to place it more accurately into the larger context.

The larger context: All situations arise in a context. Contexts can be historical, hierarchical, broad, narrow, near, or distant. They can involve individuals, groups, or entities and can be intentional or emergent. They can play causal or mediating roles, and can both influence and be influenced by the choices we make. Mini-skills required for “considering the context include determining their relevance, exploring historical drivers, identifying and leveraging historical exemplars, and identifying and accounting for hierarchical contexts and broader contexts.

Constraints & affordances: All contexts are accompanied by constraints and affordances. We make better decisions when we identify these and take into account their potential effects. Mini-skills for “constraints & affordances” include identifying and accounting for constraints and affordances imposed by values, objectives, conventions, rules, and resources.

As you explore the contextual thinking skill-map, take a few minutes to consider how the micro-skills in this map:

  1. Differ from the skills in the collaborative capacity and perspective coordination maps, and
  2. Relate to the skills in the collaborative capacity and perspective coordination maps.
This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Skills and Lectical Levels

The second article in this series, which focused on collaborative capacity skills, included an exploration of the “messiness” of skill-mapping. The third article, on perspective-coordination skills, laid out several considerations around building micro-skills and choosing micro-skills for practice. In this article, I take a look at the complex relationship between micro-skills and Lectical Levels.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, contextual thinking skills are more immediately and explicitly connected to Lectical Level than collaborative capacity and perspective coordination. Here is an argument for this claim:

  1. Practicing collaborative capacity and perspective coordination micro-skills increases mental complexity by bringing in high-quality information that creates, reinforces, or prunes connections in the brain.
  2. The result is a dynamic and constantly developing mental network.
  3. Our current mental networks determine how we see and interpret the world around us.
  4. This means that when we’re looking at a particular situation, we see it through the lens of our mental network. The more complex this network is, the more we can see.
  5. Situations are embedded in larger contexts. As our mental networks increase in complexity we not only can see more of these contexts, we can also see them more comprehensively.
  6. An individual’s ability to see or understand a particular context is dependent on the match between their mental complexity and the complexity of the context.

If you are not yet convinced that contextual thinking is exceptionally dependent on mental complexity, we also have empirical evidence. The statistical correlation between Lectical Scores and contextual thinking scores is stronger than the correlation between Lectical Scores and any other VUCA skill.

I’m tempted to stop here. However, like everything else related to mental development, the full story isn’t so straightforward. In fact, you may be coming up with contradictory arguments. You may be thinking that our ability to coordinate perspectives is also dependent on mental complexity. Or you could be thinking that increased virtuosity in any skill is a consequence of building more complex mental network. You may even be tempted to question my entire argument, citing evidence that your 5-year-old specifically mentions making the world better when insisting upon recycling. And isn’t the “world” a larger context?

Well, yes. All of these things are true, and that is why I wrote that contextual thinking skills are “more immediately and explicitly connected to Lectical Levels,” than collaborative capacity and perspective coordination skills. It is also true that:

  1. Practicing any micro-skill increases mental complexity.
  2. Mental complexity imposes constraints on the performance of all micro-skills. We automatically practice them at our own current growth edge.
  3. All micro-skills can be practiced at multiple Lectical Levels.
  4. Our understanding of the skill we are practicing and what we learn from practicing the skill are both affected by mental complexity.
  5. Many skills don’t have a clear point of mastery. They continue to develop over our lifetimes.
  6. A young child can (and should) practice skills that take many years to develop. For example, children should be encouraged to consider the perspectives of friends, their communities, and the world. Although, their understanding of these perspectives and their ability to see and work with them as contexts will be limited by their current mental complexity, what they do learn will form an essential foundation for future development.

These six points add up to good news for learners and educators. Because each individual automatically practices micro-skills in a way that fits their current growth edge, we can often assign the same micro-skill to groups composed of individuals performing in a fairly wide Lectical range. This is good because most groups of learners are not homogeneous when it comes to mental complexity. Curricula built around skills do a better job supporting optimal learning than those that are built around content precisely because they allow diverse learners to develop in their own “Goldilocks zones,” rather than insisting that everyone learns exactly the same content at the same age or moment in time.

If you’d like to play with the contextual thinking map, you can download a copy of the original Simple Mind file.

Up next

VUCA unpacked (5)—Decision-making process.

Citation for this article

Dawson, T. L. (2020). VUCA unpacked (4) — Contextual thinking.

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Theo Dawson

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.