A Growing Need for Systems Thinking to Design a New Future
Having just returned from the 2011 Systems Thinking in Action conference, I continue to believe that building the capacity for all children to think systemically is the key to shaping a new world.
The more we recognize that problems are rarely simple cause-and-effect, but rather complex threads of interconnected actions and inactions, we can begin to seek systemic solutions.
The conference, hosted by Pegasus Communications in Seattle last week, supports the work of the Society for Organizational Learning (or SoL), which was started by Peter Senge and his colleagues in the mid 1990s. Senge’s seminal work The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization made a significant contribution in shifting the focus of understanding human and social systems away from behavioral science to a systems and social sciences.
Yet, much of the understanding of human systems and the work that is done within them is still grounded in behavioral science. And while behavioral science makes its own contribution, much of it is grounded in a simple cause-and-effect approach to solving problems.
Let’s look at an example of this in our schools. The focus in most K-12 classrooms is to keep the children under control and to teach them information that will result in good test scores. Schools which have high scores on standardized tests are perceived to be the best schools and those with low scores are designated as failing. Children who sit quietly, participate when invited, and learn the information deemed necessary for high performance on tests are considered successful while those who don’t are considered misfits or failures of the system. Children are rewarded for good behavior and high performance, a practice that creates a greater sense of alienation among those students who need a different learning environment to succeed.
Many children are given drugs so that they can “fit” into this learning system. These are solutions focused on motivating or curtailing behavior and are not addressing the real challenge of preparing children to develop creative new ways to address the complex challenges we face now and will face in the future.
One young woman, Katie Salen, is doing her part to transform our K-12 education system into a dynamic learning environment that doesn’t focus on managing behavior and teaching to tests. Salen's Quest to Learn school uses the principles of game to create an immersive learning experience. Understanding systems and design principles, and characterizing herself as a game designer, Salen mesmerized the Systems Thinking in Action conference participants with her dedication to creating the conditions for children to learn about the systemic nature of our world and the problems we face in order to become designers of the future. Part of the New York public schools system, Quest to Learn was "designed to support the digital lives of young people and their capacity for learning," according to its purpose statement. "Quest to Learn is a school committed to graduating strong, engaged, literate citizens of a globally networked world. Through an innovative pedagogy that immerses students in differentiated, challenge-based contexts, the school acknowledges design, collaboration, and systems thinking as key literacies of the 21st century."
Is there a place for behavioral science? Certainly. It can help us understand why humans behave in ways that sometimes don’t support our purpose. However, when the focus is primarily on individual behavior, we often don’t notice the importance of the environmental conditions and the relationships that can drive behavior.
This is the focus Salen is attending to and she's finding that when children are fully engaged in discovery—whether through games, technology, art, or problem solving—learning occurs in a relevant and meaningful way. Behavior becomes much less of problem when people are fully engaged in learning and meaningful work.
Clearly what works for children is important for adults too. Systems thinking helps us see the importance of relationships and enables us to create the conditions that foster communication, learning, and change.