22 July 2014

When The Education System is Unaware That It Is a System: Transforming Learning

There is still not much evidence of systems thinking in education.

Systems thinking lends itself to some fancy talk but really is just an attempt to describe reality. It shifts the focus from parts to the whole, from actions to interactions. A systems thinking cliche is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For instance, the example that the wonderful systems thinking pioneer Russell Ackoff loved to use was a car. An engine can't move you from place to place. Wheels can't do that. Not can a steering wheel or a car seat. The car's ability to move you from one place to the next results from the interaction of its parts, not the action of any one part.

Another way to put it is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Put two gases together, combine hydrogen and oxygen at the right ratio and you get a fluid. You could study the properties of these gases in isolation for decades and not predict water. Put two people together with lots of lonely between them, add them together and the result might be that all the lonely disappears.

An economy is a system. If people living alone were to specialize like they do as part of a big community, they'd quickly starve. It is the interaction of people that creates value. As our world becomes more interdependent, we become more affluent. As we interact and trade goods and services, and ideas and inventions, we create more value.

Even more importantly, we live in an ecosystem. Some things we do make the ecosystems we live in more vibrant. For instance, putting animals with hooves into a wilderness area can actually work the soil in ways that make it easier to retain water and grow more plants. Curiously, as plants gain a foothold on this soil, it actually changes the weather; moisture evaporates from these plants and is more likely to attract cloud systems, creating a virtuous cycle. And of course the reverse can happen as well as places become deserts. Sometimes ripple effects within a (financial, environmental, or any other kind of) system quickly die out and other times they amplify, like feedback.

Systems are also defined by context. What lives under water dies on land, and vice versa. The plant that produces oranges in Orange County is merely a decorative tree in British Columbia and can't even grow in Alaska. One of the most important interactions of a system is its interaction with its environment.

Systems dynamics define all the really important things, from personal relationship and society to ecosystems and economies. And the good news is that we're gaining more ability to model systems. Computers are one reason for this. Even computer games can help kids to gain an intuition about systems.

Systems thinking might be the most important dimension of a good education. Imagine children who assume that the environment or the economy are fixed and unchanged by whatever actions we take. Imagine children expecting them to be static rather than evolving. Imagine children whose education shows little appreciation for systems thinking.

An educational system that showed little appreciation for systems would probably, from the start, ignore a child's environment. Dismissing consideration for the fact that a child is growing up in poverty as the "soft bigotry of low expectations," education that ignores systems won't allow for the myriad challenges facing a child growing up in poverty. The level of expectation will be the same for these children and nothing will be done about their condition. One of the fascinating things about systems is that problem and solution are often separated in time and space. If you want the child prepared to learn you might be able to do very little about their learning by changing variables within the classroom and instead be able to do quite a lot by changing variables within the job market for their parents.

An educational system that showed little appreciation for systems would probably keep children in the classroom, ignoring the world around them. It would close them off from work, from the way the economy, companies, and government agencies actually work. It wouldn't continually get kids to think about how they might actually earn an income once they'd completed education but would, instead, just focus them on pre-defined subjects within a curriculum that imagines the world neatly falls into slices like orange segments, slices with neat labels like "history" and "math" and "business," never imagining that all of those topics are largely meaningless in isolation.

An educational system that showed little appreciation for systems would assume that it could prepare students for a role in stable systems, teach them how to become a politician, engineer, or accountant and make a career in such a role for 30 to 50 years. It wouldn't assume that students will have to create their own roles - perhaps even create their own businesses and organizations - forced to actually update or create systems rather than just take a role within them.

And an educational system that showed little regard for systems would be unaware that it was itself a system with all the odd and contradictory characteristics of a system. It would grade students on their performance within that system rather than adapt that system for the evolving realities of its students and the world it is presumably preparing them for. It would imagine itself more like a factory of education turning out a product measured by standards and GPA rather than a system into which unique people would enter and from which unique people would leave, each heading into some unique corner of an evolving economy and world.

If indeed our world is defined by systems dynamics, it is worth asking why our education systems largely behave as if it is not. Or for that matter, behave as if it is not, itself, a system.


gabby57 said...

I see more and more evidence that local schools are using systems thinking or what some are calling "holistic"; even if they are not aware of it.

What is less prevalent is the environment local school districts have to operate/survive in that is created by county, state and federal bureaucracies.

Also don't over look the environment that encompasses all of this; the communities expectations of the purpose of public education. The education system is also affected by societal factors of poverty, family dynamics and etc. This is evident as a major part of the Chicago public school teachers demands was "support services".

Ron Davison said...

Gabby - I agree that things are moving in this direction. I'd love it to be more explicit as a goal and a guide and think it eventually will be. And to affirm your claim, here's a great item I saw today: