TPO Theory, Boulding's Typology, and the Display/Pickup Poster


  • Susan Farr Gabriele GEMS •Gabriele Educational Materials and Systems


social system design, paradigm shift, educational systems design


TPO Theory, Boulding's Typology, and the Display/Pickup Poster

Sue Gabriele


TPO Theory classifies three parts of a social system, such as a school district, by their very different behavioral laws. Boulding’s Nine-Level Typology of System Complexity underpins TPO Theory and also clarifies how the nine levels cluster into the three distinct natures.  Boulding’s Levels 1- 3 systems—frameworks, clockworks, and control systems (thermostat)—are Things (T), which can be predicted and/or regulated to exteriorly prescribed criteria. Levels 4 – 7 are organisms, which are self-regulating and behave according to interiorly prescribed criteria, especially sophisticated in Level 7, people (P).  Levels 8 – 9, social and transcendent systems, have transient boundaries (illustrated by dashed lines).  In contrast to Levels 8 and 9, Levels 4 -7 boundaries are fixed (marked by solid lines).  Thus, Level 7 individual human needs are mandatory; Level 8 organization needs are optional. People can leave their level 8 systems (their schools or workplaces); they cannot leave their Level 7 systems (their physical bodies).  It follows that individual goals are primary; organization goals are secondary.  The great distinction between Levels 3 and 4 is a great shift in cause or agency.  People are agents of their own learning -- agency represented by the color yellow.  Thus, it is more accurate to describe the classroom instructional process as display/pickup: Teachers display subject matter; learners acquire it by pickup. Not only does pickup depend on each individual learner, rather than the teacher. But each learner has increasing variability in needs (Level 4), abilities (Level 5), perceptions (Level 6), and choices (Level 7).  A close up on people (P) allows identification of four main pickup points for learning (pickup illustrated by graspers, rather than arrows).  The four areas are people’s [1] eyes, [2] ears, [3] hands (and body), as well as [4] their own reflection on observed and intended outcomes.  Such a close up also allows identification of four main output points for behavior, performance and creativity (arrows) – people’s [1] mouths, [2] hands, [3] feet (and body), as well as [4] their creating or participating in the creation of their input, subject matter, and tasks (T).  Outcomes are even more unpredictable.  People’s learning and performance are unpredictable and also infinitely variable (multiple colors) in O.  Moreover, if a Level 8 system is not meeting an individual’s Level 7 goals, it is natural (and perhaps even healthy) that the individual Level 7 system will ignore Level 8 goals and use his/her energy for Level 7 goals. Finally, all people are learners, even leaders.  In a nutshell, TPO theory proposes that, for best outcomes (O), Things (T) are to be carefully designed/displayed (input carefully turned from pointed arrows to rounded arrows) to optimize pickup by People (P) who learn and behave each according to their own interiorly prescribed criteria, each at their own pace, according to their own purposes.


Author Biography

Susan Farr Gabriele, GEMS •Gabriele Educational Materials and Systems

Educational Designer, Consultant, Author. GEMS • Gabriele Educational Materials and Systems Chapman University, Research Methods Graduate Education



How to Cite

Gabriele, S. F. (2017). TPO Theory, Boulding’s Typology, and the Display/Pickup Poster. Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2015 Berlin, Germany, 1(1). Retrieved from