Field of Action as Qualitative System

Middle Way as Mindful Systems Thinking

The Four Sources of Practice and their Mindful Interplay in a Field of Action

Ground : Goal : Direction : Instrument

Thinking about the numeric qualities of systems derives from the work of JG Bennett (1897-1974), a pioneer of systems thinking and systems philosophy. Architectonically, EduSynthesis makes use of the 4-term system or tetrad because of its intrinsic focus on appreciating practice as a field of action. The fourfold logic of the tetrad has been used implicitly to construct the Edusynthesis map of expansive reflective practice with its emphasis on actionable theory.

Identifying Four Sources of Activity in Practice

According to Bennett, at any scale of the map there are four sources that order any given activity leading to change: its Ground, Goal, Direction and Instrument.

Being able to discern the four sources serves to distinguish an activity from mere change based on random meaningless happening.

This quest for balance between four sources of activity is also what lends meaning and coherence to the map as well as providing for its usefulness amidst the complexities of practice.

Motivational Axis

The terms Ground and Goal represent the whence and whither of an activity respectively and hence are basically Motivational. They both concern the motives and causes of an activity.


The Ground of an activity includes the initial situation of an activity but is also analogous to the soil in which a plant grows and also the seed potential that contains the separate urges of all the component elements through which they come together in a concerted activity. All  four of the 4Cs can be applied to thinking about the ground but Caring thinking is the mode which best elicits the mental-affective acts of concern, appreciation, loving, minding, tending, nourishing and obliging which motivate an educational activity.


The Goal indicates the ideal pattern which unites all the components of an activity into a structured whole. It can also signify the end-point and fulfilment of the activity: the central theme or motive that sustains the activity as a whole. So too can all four of the 4Cs be applied to thinking about the goal but Collaborative thinking is the mode which best elicits the mental-affective acts of participation, cooperation, intention, common purpose, mutuality, commitment and mission which motivate educational activity.

Operational Axis

The terms Direction and Instrument represent the what and how of an activity respectively and hence are basically Operational. They both concern the operations and conditions required of an activity.


is the cognitive element whereby an activity is ordered and adjusted to all other activities with which it is connected. It provides critical clarity as the ‘right hand’ leading the concerted action, the guiding intelligence of any activity.  Direction is thus also the way in which the activity is focused and can be conceptually recognised as a whole. All  four of the 4Cs can be applied to thinking about direction but Critical thinking is the mode which best elicits the mental-affective acts of judging, defining, balancing, criteria-observing, criteria-observing and sensitivity to context that guide an educational activity.


The Instrument of an activity comprises the inner working of an activity and the mutual adjustments it calls for. The ‘left hand’ as the field of creative action, the vehicle or receptacle within which it proceeds. Again, all  four of the 4Cs can be applied to thinking about the instrument but Creative thinking is the mode which best elicits the mental-affective acts of imagining, inventing, generating, unifying, innovating and crafting which condition how an educational activity progresses (or deteriorates).

Interplay and Balance of Activity in Practice

For example, at the superordinate scale of the 4 meta-practices,  we care firstly about the personal thriving of teachers (and students) via Coaching development as the ground of collaborative planetary thriving via Sustainable development. Caring for teachers in themselves is thus a given of educational philosophy.

In turn, sustainable development and planetary thriving is the ultimate goal of coaching development and personal thriving to which we orient ourselves motivationally. Teachers teach not for the purposes of individual development primarily but for a better world. However, a better world cannot be achieved without valuing the personal development of teachers.

Likewise teacher development and pedagogical thriving provides critical direction and agency to the profession in interplay with the creative instrument of leadership development and professional thriving. We develop the profession creatively through the leadership, management and administration of institutions, but always consistently with the direction provided by clear values and principles of pedagogy and curriculum.

Teacher development and leadership development are therefore not pursued for their own sake but serve in balance to optimise the realisation of coaching and sustainable development.

Examples of how the tetrad helps harmonise the component modes of composite modalities

Harmonising the four modes of thinking as a micro-practice


Whilst thinking can be stimulated by any of the four sources, the ground of the thinking process in Caring Thinking sustains the focus on what concerns an individual or group.


The goal of thinking is effective Collaborative Thinking process of a community of inquiry with practical influence beyond itself


The direction for an inquiry is decided by Critical Thinking which defines the focus of inquiry and provides criteria for judging the progress of an inquiry


The instrument of an inquiry is the Creative Thinking process of an individual or group generating creative solutions to problems

Interplay and Balance

Thus motivationally (along the motivational axis), Caring thinking grounds Collaborative thinking; and the outcomes of Collaborative thinking fulfil Caring thinking.

While operationally (along the operational axis), it is the interplay of Critical and Creative thinking which facilitates Caring and Collaborative thinking.

Harmonising the four curriculum ideologies as a micro-practice


The ground of P4T’s curriculum theory according to the synthesis is the Scholar Academic ideology which forms the historic basis of the curriculum in terms of the school’s purpose, role of teacher and theory of learning, conception of childhood and approach to assessment.


The goal of P4T’s curriculum theory, as determined by the synthesis, is the Learner-centred ideology which prioritises the personal development of pupils via a personalised curriculum


The direction of P4T’s curriculum theory is provided by the Social Efficiency ideology which seeks to prioritise the needs and enhance the functionality of current society


The instrument of P4T’s curriculum theory is the Social Reconstruction ideology which seeks to prefiguratively and creatively educate for the emerging ideal society of the future

Interplay and Balance

Thus motivationally (along the motivational axis), the Scholar Academic philosophy grounds the Learner-centred position; and the Learner-centred philosophy fulfils the Scholar Academic position;  two approaches that are often opposed rather than combined.

While operationally (along the operational axis), it is the interplay of the Social Efficiency and Social Reconstruction positions, which are also often dysfunctionally opposed to each other, that facilitates the Scholar Academic/Learner-centred dynamic

Harmonising the four worldviews  as a micro-practice


The ground of P4T’s worldview theory as mapped in the synthesis is the Traditional worldview which forms the historic basis of the other worldviews, caring about what matters universally and conserved in particular traditions (though a strong argument could also be made for the traditional being grounded itself in a pre-traditional/indigenous worldview).


The goal of P4T’s worldview theory is the Integrative worldview which by definition seeks to integrate the best of all the other worldviews, getting them to work together collaboratively and reconciling their multi-perspectival complexity


The direction of P4T’s worldview theory is provided by the Postmodern worldview which seeks by default to continuously critique and deconstruct the modern worldview


The instrument of P4T’s worldview theory is the Modern worldview which is primarily concerned with creatively developing the capacities for unlimited progress in any field

Interplay and Balance

Thus motivationally (along the motivational axis), the Traditional worldview helps grounds the Integrative worldview in particular traditions; and the Integrative worldview fulfils the Traditional worldview beyond particular traditions;  neither are permitted to be reductive but rather the traditional can be better appreciated as generative and the integrative as regenerative.

While operationally (along the operational axis), it is the interplay of the critical Postmodern and creative Modern worldviews that facilitates the motivational Traditional/Integrative dynamic. When polarised and totalised these worldviews are destructive of tradition and ecological integration but when brought into play constructively and deconstructively oscillating between one another they critically and creatively enable their generative and regenerative intentionality.

More about Qualitative Systems Thinking

Utilising Anthony M. Hodgson’s summary of Bennett’s General Systematics, educational practice can be theorised in terms of ones (monads), twos (dyads), threes (triads),  fours (tetrads), fives (pentads), sixes (hexads) and more. The first six systems are summarised in the table below.

SYSTEMNameAppreciative QualityCoherence AttributeApplications
1-termMONADTotality without distinction of parts - unity in diversityUniversalityWhat's the one thing we are talking about that enables us to appreciate diversity in unity? What's the whole (big) picture which transcends and includes everything else?
2-termDYADDifference without degreesComplementarityWhat is the dilemma here? How do these opposites complement one another? What are the essential differences that we need to recognise?
3-termTRIADRelatedness without relativityDynamismHow can polarisation be made less dysfunctional? How to we balance the opposing forces so that they interact more effectively? How can the positive and negative be reconciled by a neutral force? How can this relationship be repaired? How can the dynamic interaction of these three forces create a fourth at a higher level of practice?
4-termTETRADStructured activity with relatedness and orderField of ActionWhat is the ground, goal, direction and instrument that structures our practice best? How can we harmonise the four key components of activity so that they are generative rather than destructive? How can we create one framework comprised of these four competing values? How can we optimise opposing but interdependent tendencies?
5-termPENTADInternal and external potentialitySignificanceWhat significance does this person or entity have within their own inner limits and potential for growth, in the context of what the outer world provides and could fulfil?
6-termHEXADMultiple event manifestation around an identityCoalescenceWhat are the six steps that enable this to be realised? What are the six laws that determine regeneration? What are the six recurrent phases of action which enable transformation?

Recommended reading and resources on systematics and qualitative systems thinking



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Centre for Mindful Educational Leadership

Tim Saunders PhD


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