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DSRP is a theory and method of thinking, developed by educational theorist and cognitive scientist, Derek Cabrera based on his research at Cornell University. It is an acronym, standing for Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives. Cabrera's research posits that these four patterns underlie all cognition, that they are universal to the process of structuring information, and that people can improve their thinking skills by learning to use the four elements explicitly.

Cabrera distinguishes between the DSRP Theory and the DSRP Method. The theory is the mathematical formalism and philosophical underpinnings, while the method is the set of tools and techniques people use in real life settings (such as education).


DSRP was first described by Derek Cabrera in the book Remedial Genius.[1] In later writings, Cabrera describes D, S, R, and P as “patterns of thinking,” and expands upon the implications of these thinking skills.[2][3] Although the DSRP theory is a deep mathematical formalism of systems thinking and cognition, predicated on the philosophical underpinnings of constructivism and evolutionary epistemology, the DSRP method has gained widespread popularity and use in education and is a growing influence in educational reform as well as in management of learning organizations. Numerous books, refereed journal articles, an entire refereed journal edition dedicated to the theory, many popular articles, news coverage, and a recent TEDx Talk given by Derek Cabrera summarize the theory.[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12]

DSRP Theory[edit]

DSRP consists of four interrelated structures (or patterns), each structure has two opposing elements. The structures and their elements are:

  • Making Distinctions – which consist of an identity and an other
  • Organizing Systems – which consist of part and whole
  • Recognizing Relationships – which consist of inter and action
  • Taking Perspectives – which consist of point and view[13]

There are several rules governing DSRP:

  1. Each structure (D,S,R, or P) implies the existence of the other three structures
  2. Each structure implies the existence of its two elements and vice versa
  3. Each element implies its opposite (e.g. identity implies other)[14]

These rules illustrate that DSRP is a modular, fractal, nonlinear, complex systems process. The four DSRP structures do not occur in the mind in a stepwise, linear process but in a highly interdependent, complex way.

DSRP theory states that these four structures are inherent in every piece of knowledge and are universal to all human thinking, and that any piece of information can be viewed using each of these structures to gain a deeper understanding of that information. The order in which the operations take place does not matter, as all four occur simultaneously.[15]

In a 2008 paper in a journal edition dedicated to DSRP, DSRP is described as a universal model for systems thinking.[16] Numerous experts in the field of systems thinking contributed papers to the journal edition on the DSRP theory and its contributions. One response paper pointed out that the structures of DSRP have analogues in existing instantiations of systems theory: distinctions are analogous to the boundaries of boundary critique; viable system model explores parts and wholes in ways analogous to the "S" of DSRP; system dynamics is an exploration of relationships; and soft systems methodology explores perspectives.[17] The DSRP theory, however, goes beyond merely providing analogs to existing systems thinking principles by providing an integration of these principles that serves as a universal organizer for systems thinking itself.


Any piece of information can be viewed using each of these elements to gain a deeper understanding of that information. For example, consider the U.S. Democratic Party. By giving the party a name, Democratic, a distinction is drawn between it and all other entities. In this instance, the Democratic Party is the identity and everything else (including the U.S. Republican Party) is the other. From the perspective of the Republican Party ("identity"), however, the Democratic Party is the other.

The Democratic Party is also a system—it is a whole entity, but it is made up of constituent parts—its membership, hierarchy, values, etc. When viewed from a different perspective, the Democratic Party is just a part of the whole universe of American political parties.

The Democratic Party is in relationship with innumerable other entities, for example, the news media, current events, the American electorate, etc., each of which mutually influence the Party—a relationship of cause and effect. The Party is also a relationship itself between other concepts, for example, between a voter and political affiliation.

The Democratic Party is also a perspective on the world--a point in the political landscape from which to view issues.


The primary application of the DSRP theory is through its various methodological tools but the theory itself is a deep mathematical formalism that contributes to the fields of evolutionary epistemology and cognition. The formal theory states that Knowledge (K) is equal to the complex product of Information (I) and Thinking (T).

K=I\otimes T

Cabrera uses the term Thinking (T) to describe the processes involved in encoding or structuring of information. According to Cabrera, Thinking (T) is the fundamental process for encoding or structuring information in order to transform it into knowledge. So the basic treatment above can be expanded, where, the universal processes of thinking (T) are given as D, S, R, and P with their elemental structures (identity-other, part-whole, inter-action, point-view). Information (I) is defined as "all data" of any kind (e.g., physical properties, sensory input, symbolic variables, speech acts, etc.).

K=I\left\{ \forall d \right\}\otimes T\{DSRP\}

A slightly more detailed formalism describes the interactions between these cognitive structures and processes:

K=I\left\{ \forall d \right\}\otimes T\left\{ :\mathop{D}_{o}^{i}\circ \mathop{S}_{w}^{p}\circ \mathop{R}_{e}^{c}\circ \mathop{P}_{v}^{\rho }: \right\}

The remainder of the formalism simply describes the interactions between these cognitive structures (T) and information (I). These interactions are the "dynamics" of DSRP:

The Rule of Co-implication or "Duality" is given below. It shows that every structure implies its elemental values, that any elemental value implies its complimentary elemental value and that any pair of elemental values co-imply their composite structure. Thus, when a person makes a distinction, for example, there must be an identity and other value in the mind. Any system requires a part-whole value. Whenever a relationship is made, it must mean that both an objective view and a subjective point must have occurred conceptually (e.g., even if those underlying structures are not explicit in behavior or speech acts). In reverse, if there is a whole, there must by definition be a part-value. If any identity is made (that means any object or concept is distinguished in any way), there must by co-implication be an other, non-identity. As there is an identity and other, the pair co-imply a Distinction. So, for example, if someone says the word, "Monkey", DSRP provides that there is a significant amount of implicit cognitive structure occurring that is embedded within and implicit to the speech act.

 & \left( \exists D \right)\Leftrightarrow \left( \exists i,o \right) \\ 
 & \left( \exists S \right)\Leftrightarrow \left( \exists p,w \right) \\ 
 & \left( \exists R \right)\Leftrightarrow \left( \exists c,e \right) \\ 
 & \left( \exists P \right)\Leftrightarrow \left( \exists \rho ,v \right) \\ 

The various symbols relating the DSRP structures and elements characterize the Rule of Non-Order of Operations. Theses symbols simply provide that the process is non-linear and does not require a formal order.

\left\{ :\mathop{{}}_{{}}^{{}}\circ \mathop{{}}_{{}}^{{}}\circ \mathop{{}}_{{}}^{{}}\circ \mathop{{}}_{{}}^{{}}: \right\}

Some argue, for example, D must occur prior to S, R, and P because these "latter" structures are dependent and D is independent, but it has been shown that D requires P, R, and S to occur.[18] The non-order of operations is then requisite for the Rule of Simultaneity, which explains that DSRP are universal because no single structure can occur without the others. This means, at a theoretical level (in practice, teaching thinking may separate the structures), that anytime a D occurs, it simultaneously must exist with an S, R, and P and vice versa (anytime a P occurs, it requires a D, R, S, etc.).[19]

\left\{ \begin{align}
  & {{x}_{1}}=D \\ 
 & {{x}_{2}}=S \\ 
 & {{x}_{3}}=R \\ 
 & {{x}_{4}}=P \\ 
\end{align} \right\}=\left\{ {{x}_{i}} \right\}=\circ

DSRP Method[edit]

DSRP as a method is built upon two premises: first, that humans build knowledge (with knowledge and thinking being in a continuous feedback loop) (e.g., constructivism), and second, that knowledge changes (e.g., evolutionary epistemology).[20] The DSRP method plays upon this constructivist view of knowledge by encouraging users to physically and graphically examine information. Users take concepts and model them with physical objects or diagrams. These objects are then moved around and associated in different ways to represent some piece of information, or content, and its context in terms of distinctions, systems, relationships, or perspectives. Once a concept has been modeled and explored using at least one of the four elements of DSRP, the user goes back to see if the existing model is sufficient for his or her needs, and if not, chooses another element and explores the concept using that. This process is repeated until the user is satisfied with the model.[21]

The DSRP Method has several parts, including mindset, root lists, guiding questions, tactile manipulatives, and DSRP diagrams.

Mind set[edit]

The DSRP "mindset" is the paradigmatic shift toward thinking about underlying structure of ideas rather than only the content of speech acts, curriculum, or information of any kind. The DSRP mindset means the person is explicating underlying structure.

Root lists[edit]

Root list are simply lists of various concepts, behaviors, and cognitive functions that are "rooted in" D,S,R, or P. These root lists show the research linkages between the four universal structures and existing structures which users may be more familiar with such as categorization, sorting, cause and effect, etc.

Guiding questions[edit]

Guiding questions provide users with something akin to the Socratic Method of questioning but using DSRP as the underlying logic. Users pose so-called "guiding questions," of which there are two for each structure of DSRP. The guiding questions are:


  • What is __________?
  • What is not __________?


  • Does _________ have parts?
  • Can you think of _________ as a part?


  • Is ________ related to __________?
  • Can you think of ________ as a relationship?


  • From the perspective of __________, [insert question]?
  • Can you think about ____________ from a different perspective?[22]

Tactile manipulatives and DSRP diagrams[edit]

Users are encouraged to model ideas with blocks or other physical objects, or to draw (diagram) ideas in terms of D, S, R, and P. This aspect of the method is promoted as a form of nonlinguistic representation of ideas, based on research showing that learners acquire and structure knowledge more effectively when information is presented in linguistic and nonlinguistic formats.[23]

Educational outcomes[edit]

With continued use, the method is supposed to improve six specific types of thinking skills:

  • Critical thinking - this improves as people learn to examine the reasoning behind the distinctions they draw and the perspectives and relationships that influence how information is presented
  • Creative thinking - this improves as people make connections (i.e. relationships) between new pieces of information
  • Systems thinking - this improves as one becomes increasingly fluent with all four elements of DSRP
  • Interdisciplinary thinking - this improves as people reconsider boundaries (i.e. distinctions) and make connections between new pieces of information
  • Scientific thinking - this improves as people learn to analyze information in a logical way
  • Emotional intelligence/Prosocial thinking - this improves as people learn to take multiple perspectives—particularly to imagine the perspectives of other people[15]

In addition, the DSRP Method is supposed to improve teacher effectiveness.


DSRP Theory, as a deep mathematical and epistemological formalism, and the DSRP Method, as a set of cognitive tools, is universally applicable to any field of knowledge. It has been applied to a variety of fields and may be applicable to many more.


The DSRP method has been used extensively in educational settings from preschool through post-secondary settings. The DSRP method, as applied in education, is intended to work with existing subject-specific curricula to build thinking skills and provide a way for students to structure content knowledge.[24]

Organizational learning[edit]

As a universal theory of systems thinking, DSRP method is in broad use as the basis for organizational learning. The link between organizational learning and systems thinking was made by Peter Senge. DSRP Methodologies provide tools for developing complex adaptive organizations that learn. DSRP forms the basis of an organizational systems and learning model called VMCL.

Physical, natural, and social sciences[edit]

Because DSRP is both an epistemological and an ontological theory[12] (that is, it is predictive not only of what is known but also how new things will come to be known and how those things are actually structured a priori), it could theoretically be used not only to deconstruct existing (known) knowledge about any phenomena but also can be used as a predictive and prescriptive tool to advance any area of knowledge about any physical, natural, or social phenomena. DSRP Theory posits that the mind-body problem and symbol grounding problem that causes a disconnect between our knowledge of physical things and the physical world (the basis of systems thinking) is resolved because our universal DSRP cognitive structures evolved within the boundaries and constraints of the physical, chemical, and biological laws. That is, ontological underlying structure of physical things as well as the epistemological underlying structure of ideas is reconciled under DSRP. A video[25] demonstration of a recent scientific advancement provides a good specific example of how DSRP applies to scientific discovery both descriptively and predictively.

Evaluation & program planning[edit]

DSRP has been used to apply systems thinking to the fields of evaluation and program planning, including an National Science Foundation-funded initiative to evaluate of large-scale science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs, as well as evaluations of the complexity science education programs of the Santa Fe Institute.[26][27]

Public health[edit]

A 2006 article in the American Journal of Public Health applies DSRP systems thinking to the public health system.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cabrera, D. (2001) Remedial Genius: Thinking and Learning Using the Patterns of Knowledge. Loveland, CO: Project N Press., page 13. ISBN 978-0970804501
  2. ^ Cabrera, D. (2006) Doctoral Dissertation: Systems Thinking: Four Universal Patterns of Thinking. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University. OCLC 303117195
  3. ^ Cabrera, D. and Colosi, L. (2009) Thinking at Every Desk: How Four Simple Thinking Skills Will Transform Your Teaching, Classroom, School, and District. Ithaca, NY: The Research Institute for Thinking in Education. ISBN 978-0979430831
  4. ^ Rogers, Patricia J. (2008). Response to paper “Systems thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: Is it systems thinking or just good practice in evaluation? Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 325-326
  5. ^ Wasserman, Deborah L. (2008). A Response to paper “Systems Thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: Next steps, a human service program system exemplarEvaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 327-329
  6. ^ Nowell, Branda (2008). Response to paper “Systems Thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: Conceptualizing systems thinking in evaluation Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 329-331
  7. ^ Gerald Midgley (2008). Response to paper “Systems thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.:: The unification of systems thinking: Is there gold at the end of the rainbow? Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 317-321
  8. ^ Datta, Lois-ellin (2008). Response to paper “Systems Thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: Systems thinking: An evaluation practitioner's perspective Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 321-322
  9. ^ Forrest, Jay (2008). A Response to paper “Systems Thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: Additional thoughts on systems thinking Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 333-334
  10. ^ Reynolds, Martin (2008) Response to paper “Systems Thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: Systems thinking from a critical systems perspective Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 323-325
  11. ^ Hummelbrunner , Richard (2008). Response to paper “Systems Thinking” by D. Cabrera et al.: A tool for implementing DSRP in programme evaluation Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 331-333
  12. ^ a b Cabrera, D. & Colosi, L. (2008). Distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives (DSRP): A theory of thinking and of things Evaluation and Program Planning, Volume 31, Issue 3, August 2008, Pages 311-317
  13. ^ Wheeler, G. (2010) A Simple Solution to a Complex Problem. ASCD Express, Vol. 5, No. 23.
  14. ^ Cabrera, D. (2008) Systems, Relationships, Perspectives: The Simple Rules of Complex Conceptual Systems: A Universal Descriptive Grammar of Cognition Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the ISSS.
  15. ^ a b TEDxWilliamsport - Dr. Derek Cabrera - How Thinking Works. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUqRTWCdXt4&feature=youtube_gdata_player
  16. ^ Cabrera, D., Colosi, L., & Lobdell, C. (2008). Systems thinking. Evaluation and Program Planning, 31(3), 299-310. doi:10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2007.12.001
  17. ^ Midgley, G. (2008) Response to paper "Systems thinking" by D. Cabrera et al.: The unification of systems thinking: Is there gold at the end of the rainbow? Evaluation and Program Planning. Vol. 31, No.3 doi:10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2008.04.002
  18. ^ The Science Behind ThinkBlocks - YouTube
  19. ^ Cabrera, D. (2002) “Patterns of Knowledge: Knowledge as a Complex, Evolutionary System, and Educational Imperative.” R. Miller (Ed.), Creating Learning Communities (online ed.). Solomon Press.
  20. ^ Cabrera, D. and Colosi, L. (2009) Thinking at Every Desk: How Four Simple Thinking Skills Will Transform Your Teaching, Classroom, School, and District. Ithaca, NY: The Research Institute for Thinking in Education., page 19-21. ISBN 978-0979430831
  21. ^ http://www.google.com/patents/US8075314?dq=derek+cabrera&ei=KVIjT_zAMNPq0QHFuemyDg
  22. ^ Cabrera, D. and Colosi, L. (2009) Thinking at Every Desk: How Four Simple Thinking Skills Will Transform Your Teaching, Classroom, School, and District. Ithaca, NY: The Research Institute for Thinking in Education., page 81. ISBN 978-0979430831
  23. ^ Nonlinguistic Representation | Researched-Based Strategies | Focus on Effectiveness
  24. ^ Orr, Jennifer. (2011) Thinking About Thinking Skills: Not How, But What. Elementary My Dear, Or Far From It. [1]
  25. ^ New Dolphin Species DSRP Creates New Knowledge .mp4 - YouTube
  26. ^ Steele, Bill. (2006) Did outreach really work? Cornell team will develop tools to evaluate science and technology education. Cornell Chronicle Online. [2]
  27. ^ Stites, Janet. (2007) Complexity for the World. SFI Bulletin, 22(1), 50-51.[3]
  28. ^ William M. Trochim, PhD, Derek A. Cabrera, MA, Bobby Milstein, MPH, Richard S. Gallagher, BS, and Scott J. Leischow, PhD (2006). Practical Challenges of Systems Thinking and Modeling in Public Health. Am J Public Health. 2006 March; 96(3): 538–546.doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2005.066001

External links[edit]