As a systems thinker and practitioner, the question of boundaries has always fascinated me. Which boundaries are real and which ones are humanly constructed? Which boundaries are helpful and which ones need to expand to include more? Where is the boundary of our socially constructed world and how does it interface with the natural world? Where do I end and you begin?
By looking at the boundaries of a system, we can identify some of the challenges and opportunities to transform that system. As a faculty member at Saybrook, I find the practice of “blurring the boundaries” to be transformative for myself and my students—or, rather, if I’m going to blur the boundaries, my co-learners since they are adult learners coming to learn with me more than from me. They are accomplished professionals and, the range and scope of the work and life experience is so diverse and rich that, it is very clear to me that they are also my teachers. Teaching by learning with them involves an exercise in empathy: if I were to investigate their research questions or if I were to work in their professional context, how would I go about it? What resources I know that would be helpful in that inquiry? And, most importantly, what other questions would I be asking myself? From this empathic connection, a collaborative relationship emerges: we are not teacher and student in the traditional sense, but learning partners working together on the same project.
This kind of learning partnership is powerful, but not that common even in graduate programs directed toward working professionals. The educational system that prevails continues to reinforce the division between those who teach and those who learn; this division expands to the rest of society to separate those who know and those who do not know, those who have power and those who are powerless, those who lead and those who follow. In today’s world, where the social, economic, political and ecological problems are so complex and continuously changing, like moving targets, it is impossible to first have a complete understanding of the issue. It is unrealistic to first want to have all the ‘data’ before deciding on a course of action. The notion of “experts” as individuals who know all the knowledge required to solve a problem is becoming a myth. The field of sustainability is an example of an inquiry where knowledge is been produced by collaborative learning and exploration. If we were to wait for all the scientific proof on climate change, for instance, we would not take action for the radical reorganization of society and that’s partly what is happening at one level. The precautionary principle is a wonderful example of dealing with complexity and adopting an open and learning orientation to make progress toward a desirable outcome.
Blurring the boundaries between those who learn and those who teach can also be done with school children. Although children benefit from a strong container for their lively energy and a clear authority figure to guide them, there are plenty of opportunities to allow children to experience the power of collaborative learning in which they get a chance to help other’s learn as they learn too. For example, field trips in nature are great opportunities for children to explore, learn on their own, and share what they already know with each other.
Teaching, in the traditional sense of transmitting what is already known, has an important place in any learning process, but it doesn’t seem to be sufficient anymore. The acquisition of knowledge can be the departure place for a learning journey or it can be a byproduct of an active inquiry. Questions that matter for the transformation of ourselves and the world cannot be answered with facts. They require deep understanding, meaning making and wisdom.
“How can I facilitate the evolution of this organization or community?” is a question I frequently ask myself. And often I find that the answer to this question relies on my ability to expand the boundaries of the system so that we can move from either/or to both/and. If in the old system there where those who teach and those who learn, how can we create a culture in which everybody teaches and everybody learns? How can we move beyond acquiring knowledge to creating meaning? How can we collaborate rather than work against each other?
The boundaries of a system are part of its structure. There are structures that are enabling and others that are limiting. There is a delicate balance between openness and safe space. Diversity is healthy, but with certain limits. As systems thinkers, observing and reflecting on the role of the boundaries is an important practice. We need to remember that social systems are human creations. We must recover our power as social systems designers in order to reconfigure those boundaries and enable new and more life-affirming interactions.