Developmental Thinking Shout-out to CFAR

by MarkL5 min read3rd May 20136 comments


Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR)
Personal Blog


Before I make my main point, I want to acknowledge that curriculum development is hard. It's even harder when you're trying to teach the unteachable. And it's even harder when you're in the process of bootstrapping. I am aware of the Kahneman inside/outside curriculum design story. And, I myself have taught 200+ hours of my own computer science curricula to middle-school students. So this "open letter," is not some sort of criticism of CFAR's curriculum; It's a "Hey, check out this cool stuff eventually when you have time," letter. I just wanted to put all this out there, to possibly influence the next five years of CFAR.

Curriculum development is hard.

So, anyway, I don't personally know any of the people involved in CFAR, but I do know you're all great. 


A case for developmental thinking

The point of this post is to make a case for CFAR to become "developmentally aware." Massive amounts of quality research has gone into describing the differences between 1) children, 2) adults, and 3) expert or developmentally advanced adults. I haven't (yet?) seen any evidence of awareness of this research in CFAR's materials. (I haven't attended a CFAR workshop, but I've flipped through some of the more recent stuff.)

Developmental thinking is a different approach than, e.g., cataloguing biases, promoting real-time awareness of them, and having a toolbox of de-biasing strategies and algorithms. Developmental literature gives clues to the precise cognitive operations that are painstakingly acquired over an entire lifetime, in a more fine-grained way than is possible when studying, say, already-expert performers or cognitive bias literature. I think developmental thinking goes deeper than "toolbox thinking" (straw!) and is an angle of approach for teaching the unteachable

Below is an annotated bibliography of some of my personal touchstones in the development literature, books that are foundational or books that synthesize decades of research about the developmental aspects of entrepreneurial, executive, educational, and scientific thinking, as well as the developmental aspects of emotion and cognition. Note that this is personal, idiosyncratic, non-exhaustive list.

And, to qualify, I have epistemological and ontological issues with plenty of the stuff below. But some of these authors are brilliant, and the rest are smart, meticulous, and values-driven. Lots of these authors deeply care about empirically identifying, targeting, accelerating, and stabilizing skills ahead of schedule or helping skills manifest when they wouldn't have otherwise appeared at all. Quibbles and double-takes aside, there is lots of signal, here, even if it's not seated in a modern framework (which would of course increase the value and accessibility of what's below).

There are clues or even neon signs, here, for isolating fine-grained, trainable stuff to be incorporated into curricula. Even if an intervention was designed for kids, a lot of adults still won't perform consistently prior to said intervention. And these researchers have spent thousands of collective hours thinking about how to structure assessments, interventions, and validations which may be extendable to more advanced scenarios.

So all the material below is not only useful for thinking about remedial or grade-school situations, and is not just for adding more tools to a cognitive toolbox, but could be useful for radically transforming a person's thinking style at a deep level.


child:adult :: adult: ? 

This has everything to do with the "Outside the Box" Box. Really. One author below has been collecting data for decades to attempt to describe individuals that may represent far less than one percent of the population.


0. Protocol analysis

Everyone knows that people are poor reporters of what goes on in their heads. But this is a straw. A tremendous amount of research has gone into understanding what conditions, tasks, types of cognitive routines, and types of cognitive objects foster reliable introspective reporting. Introspective reporting can be reliable and useful. Grandaddy Herbert Simon (who coined the term "bounded rationality") devotes an entire book to it. The preface (I think) is a great overview. I wanted to mention this, first, because lots of the researchers below use verbal reports in their work.


1. Developmental aspects of scientific thinking

Deanna Kuhn and colleagues develop and test fine-grained interventions to promote transfer of various aspects of causal inquiry and reasoning in middle school students. In her words, she wants to "[develop] students' meta-level awareness and management of their intellectual processes." Kuhn believes that inquiry and argumentation skills, carefully defined and empirically backed, should be emphasized over specific content in public education. That sounds like vague and fluffy marketing-speak, but if you drill down to the specifics of what she's doing, her work is anything but. (That goes for all of these 50,000 foot summaries. These people are awesome.)


David Klahr and colleagues emphasize how children and adults compare in coordinated searches of a hypothesis space and experiment space. He believes that scientific thinking is not different in kind than everyday thinking. Klahr gives an integrated account of all the current approaches to studying scientific thinking. Herbert Simon was Klahr's dissertation advisor.


2. Developmental aspects of executive or instrumental thinking

Ok, I'll say it: Elliot Jacques was a psychoanalyst, among other things. And the guy makes weird analogies between thinking styles and truth tables. But his methods are rigorous. He has found possible discontinuities in how adults process information in order to achieve goals and how these differences relate to an individuals "time horizon," or maximum time length over which an individual can comfortably execute a goal. Additionally, he has explored how these factors predictably change over a lifespan.


3. Developmental aspects of entrepreneurial thinking

Saras Sarasvathy and colleagues study the difference between novice entrepreneurs and expert entrepreneurs. Sarasvathy wants to know how people function under conditions of goal ambiguity ("We don't know the exact form of what we want"), environmental isotropy ("The levers to affect the world, in our concrete situation, are non-obvious"), and enaction ("When we act we change the world"). Herbert Simon was her advisor. Her thinking predates and goes beyond the lean startup movement.

"What effectuation is not"


4. General Cognitive Development

Jane Loevinger and colleagues' work have inspired scores of studies. Loevinger discovered potentially stepwise changes in "ego level" over a lifespan. Ego level is an archaic-sounding term that might be defined as one's ontological, epistemological, and metacognitive stance towards self and world. Loevinger's methods are rigorous, with good inter-rater reliability, bayesian scoring rules incorporating base rates, and so forth.

Here is a woo-woo description of the ego levels, but note that these descriptions are based on decades of experience and have a repeatedly validated empirical core. The author of this document, Susanne Cook-Greuter, received her doctorate from Harvard by extending Loevinger's model, and it's well worth reading all the way through:

Here is a recent look at the field:

By the way, having explicit cognitive goals predicts an increase in ego level, three years later, but not an increase in subjective well-being. (Only the highest ego levels are discontinuously associated with increased wellbeing.) Socio-emotional goals do predict an increase in subjective well-being, three years later. Great study:

Bauer, Jack J., and Dan P. McAdams. "Eudaimonic growth: Narrative growth goals predict increases in ego development and subjective well-being 3 years later." Developmental Psychology 46.4 (2010): 761.


5. Bridging symbolic and non-symbolic cognition


Eugene Gendlin and colleagues developed a "[...] theory of personality change [...] which involved a fundamental shift from looking at content [to] process [...]. From examining hundreds of transcripts and hours of taped psychotherapy interviews, Gendlin and Zimring formulated the Experiencing Level variable. [...]"

The "focusing" technique was designed as a trainable intervention to influence an individual's Experiencing Level.

Marion N. Hendricks reviews 89 studies, concluding that [I quote]:

  • Clients who process in a High Experiencing manner or focus do better in therapy according to client, therapist and objective outcome measures.
  • Clients and therapists judge sessions in which focusing takes place as more successful.
  • Successful short term therapy clients focus in every session.
  • Some clients focus immediately in therapy; Others require training.
  • Clients who process in a Low Experiencing manner can be taught to focus and increase in Experiencing manner, either in therapy or in a separate training.
  • Therapist responses deepen or flatten client Experiencing. Therapists who focus effectively help their clients do so.
  • Successful training in focusing is best maintained by those clients who are the strongest focusers during training. [IFS is very similar to focusing] [more references, similar to focusing] [favorite book of all time, by the way]


6. Rigorous Instructional Design

Siegfried Engelmann ( and colleagues are dedicated to dramatically accelerating cognitive skill acquisition in disadvantaged children. In addition to his peer-reviewed research, he specializes in unambiguously decomposing cognitive learning tasks and designing curricula. Engelmann's methods were validated as part of Project Follow Through, the "largest and most expensive experiment in education funded by the U.S. federal government that has ever been conducted," according to Wikipedia. Engelmann contends that the data show that Direct Instruction outperformed all other methods:

Here, he systematically eviscerates an example of educational material that doesn't meet his standards:

And this is his instructional design philosophy:



In conclusion, lots of scientists have cared for decades about describing the cognitive differences between children, adults, and expert or developmentally advanced adults. And lots of scientists care about making those differences happen ahead of schedule or happen when they wouldn't have otherwise happened at all. This is a valuable and complementary perspective to what seems to be CFAR's current approach. I hope CFAR will eventually consider digging into this line of thinking, though maybe they're already on top of it or up to something even better.