We live in a complex world that is producing unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Many of the challenges that we face come from the ways in which we think about and perceive them. For a long time, education systems have espoused the view that finding correct answers to problems leads to desirable outcomes.
In a complex world, however, finding the correct answer is not so straightforward. Often by the time we arrive at an answer the destination has already changed. And, finding a solution to one problem may create more problems elsewhere. This is because complex problems are interconnected; they cannot be solved in isolation from the larger system they are a part of.
In agriculture, pests are a problem: they eat and kill crops. Pesticides were created to solve this problem. However, pesticides not only kill pests, they also kill nitrogen producing bacteria, which is a natural fertilizer. Killing healthy soil bacteria leads to the problem of decreased soil fertility and negatively impacts the quality of our crops. Not only that, but toxins from pesticides seep into our water systems where they threaten marine life, the food sources of birds, and so on. This example shows how a series of new problems can be created as the result of trying to solve one problem in isolation from the greater system it’s a part of.
A system is a whole that is made up of two or more interconnected parts. When we look closely we can find systems everywhere from the tiniest cell in your body, to your family, to the planet—everywhere within us and around us are systems. In many cases, we cannot see systems. There are no lines drawn between their parts to show how they’re connected. We have to imagine the connections ourselves. Take moment to consider parts of the following systems:
Now take a moment to consider how some of the parts of each system interrelate.
Systems educator and author, Linda Booth Sweeney says:
“To think about systems means we pay attention to interrelationships, patterns, and dynamics, as well as to the parts. The field of systems thinking has evolved over the past fifty years as a set of methods and tools that focus on systems rather than fragments as the context for defining and solving complex problems, and for fostering more effective learning and design. At its best, the practice of systems thinking helps us to stop operating from crisis to crisis, and to think in a less fragmented, more integrated way.”
Young people are intuitively good systems thinkers. This is displayed early in our schooling when in Kindergarten, for example, we read and write about ocean stories, discuss beach erosion and pollution, count and sort seashells, study and taste fish, and tie it all together with art projects. When supported in this way, young people begin to understand that everything is connected—their learning is integrated.
Over time, however, integrated approaches to teaching and learning shut down. Our learning becomes highly fragmented and compartmentalized where one academic disciple seems to have very little, or nothing to do with the next. As approaches to teaching and learning become less integrated, so too do the ways in which we perceive the world and our place in it. When we start viewing the world through an isolated, compartmentalized lens we lose sight of how to solve complex problems.
Systems thinking provides us with a different outlook. Looking at the whole system and being able to see all of its parts as well as the interrelationships between them will help to equip young people with the necessary tools to act as responsible agents of change.
In education, we cannot expect to completely overhaul our current system, at least not all at once, but we can encourage students to build on their early systems thinking tendencies so that they are better prepared to deal with the much more complex systems they are facing in our current age. Sometimes finding solutions to problems is less about coming up with correct answers and more about being part of a community that keeps asking the right questions.
Co-creating a space where people feel that they can speak out in spite of their fears is a vital step in the process of learning how to become a changemaker. Empathy researcher Brene Brown explains that being empathetic requires that we be present and wholly engaged without our ‘protective armour’. People wear armour to try to become invisible or fit in with others to hide what they consider to be defects or embarrassing qualities for fear of being judged, labeled, or bullied. It is difficult to feel empathy for others when you are cut off from yourself.
For this reason, we’re starting the change closest to home. Everyone in the changemaking process needs to feel valued, seen, and heard. Because of the culture we inherited and the way our brains work, all of us carry biases. This isn’t wrong or bad, it’s what we do with them that matters. Being humbled can lead to personal transformation.
The exercises below will help you to:
Once the principles of the safe space have been defined and agreed upon by all, they can be used, reinforced, and referred back to as needed throughout the time you share together.
Design Thinking & the Deskless Classroom(Exercise, Time will vary)
Create a Classroom Contract(30-45 minutes)
Learn how to listen: Are you a good listener? (video 5 min + opportunities for deeper thinking)
Empathy & Equity: From the Stanford D.school, this exercise gives designers to an opportunity to pause and notice their biases(15 min daily over the course of week).
Cross the Line: (30-60 min.) We live in a diverse world. In this exercise we will explore the diversity among us by thinking about our values, our backgrounds, our teachers, and our experiences.
CCDI: Explore Power and Privilege (Toolkit with various exercises)