Thinking Systemically

I’ve become a big fan of these little, short videos from 12 Manage that deal with various issues of leadership and management. This one is particularly good:

12 Manage – Video – Systems Thinking

It provides an excellent, intelligent explanation of what systems thinking is and why it matters. I first came across systems thinking in the writings of Peter Senge of the MIT Sloan School of Management, especially his books: The Fifth Discipline, The dance of Change and Schools That Learn (compulsory reading for all educators in my view).

Watching the video I was provoked to think about the question – “why don’t more people think systemically, naturally?” My conclusion was that, as in too many other things, those of us in education have to take a big chunk of the blame. And, the clue lies in that word “chunk”. Schools deliver knowledge in sealed boxes called ‘subjects’. They test, assess and evaluate each one separately, as if there is no inter-relationship of knowledge across the boundaries of the subjects. In such circumstances and after so many years, should we really be that surprised if people grow in to adults who find massive discomfort if asked to deal with facts, issues, problems or challenges without defining a neat box that it belongs in, then simply applying formulaic solutions in accordance with the standard thinking practiced within that box.

We saw a classic and extreme example some years ago in the Indian education system. The Supreme Court in that country passed a ruling that every citizen growing up should be taught about the environment. Not a bad idea to believe that reduced ignorance of the citizens would lead to more responsible approaches to preserving the environment.

So, the Indian examination Boards rolled out curriculum for Environmental Studies and it was made a compulsory subject. However, the catch was that over the next few years students found high marks very easy to come by in this subject. As a result, universities and colleges refused to take account of results from this subject when considering children for admissions. So, masses of students, parents and teachers labelled the subject a ‘waste of time’. Then, one of the exam Boards proudly announced that they were terribly clever people because they’d discovered a loophole in the Supreme Court judgement that meant that it didn’t need to be taught as a separate subject. it was enough if environmental matters were dealt with, within subjects such as Biology.

So, this new subject was scrapped – and everyone rejoiced.

Now, should we wonder why we read headlines about 80 deaths a day in Delhi due to pollution? Should we wonder why everyone’s scratching their heads and saying the issues of environment are too complex to solve? Here was a classic lack of systems thinking and here is the price to be paid.

Incidentally, it was the most systemically oriented subject possible. It had the scope to blend science, humanities, the arts, sociology, psychology and many other areas in order to understand the interrelationship between aspects that contribute to environmental degradation.

When I wrote to the Board in question and pleaded with them to rethink their decision they told me I was the only person to have raised an issue, everyone else was happy – now students could focus on the subjects that would get the scores to get university places.

Because, after all – that’s what education’s for – isn’t it?

Nobody needs systems thinking more than educators!

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One Response

  1. Very well said Sir. Ironically, I often wonder how systematically our education system is able to change our children from sponges who readily to absorb and learn from around them to slot-machines constantly sorting information into subjects and score cards.

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