I’ve been examining the concept of systems thinking within the context of how public education operates today. Systems thinking focuses on how various components within a system interact with one another synegistically to produce a certain outcome. The underlying assumption within the framework of systems thinking is very Gestaltian in nature: that the whole of the system is greater than the sum of of the contribution of each of the elements that comprise the system.
As I read some articles on the topic of systems thinking, I realized my undergraduate and graduate coursework and research experiences in the sciences of biology, chemistry, and neuroscience were really driving my understanding and comprehension of the systems thinking appoach. I kept thinking of example after example of how systems thinking is used in science.
For example, consider the human body systems that we all learned in elementary school science. The nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), as well as the neurons that extend from our spinal cord to all other parts of our body (peripheral nervous system) that control our sensations and motor movements. The brain is an important element of our nervous system and the rest of the nervous system could not operate without the brain. However, the brain only functions by interacting with the other elements of the nervous system by sending and receiving electrical signals from those elements. Therefore, all elements within the system are essential to the system and the system could not function without each individual element, but the elements cannot individually function without interacting with the other elements in the system.
Similar parallels can be observed all other body systems, as well as within so many other areas of science: at the atomic level in terms of chemical interactions and essential chemical reactions, at the cellular level through the contributions of cellular organelles, at the body systems level, within the organism, and at the ecological level.
I teach biology and one of the more challenging projects we have our students complete is to design and maintain a fully self-sufficient ecobottle. In this project, students must research, create, and sustain a fully functioning closed ecosystem within their bottle. They must consider the roles and contributions of many abiotic (water, air, soil, etc.) and biotic (microorganisms, plants, animals) factors and how those elements work in harmony with one another to sustain a balanced and healthy ecosystem. The project is challenging as students learn about the many interactions that occur and must be balanced for the ecosystem to function properly.
If we are asking our students to engage in such authentic critical thinking and and problem solving, why aren’t we doing this more to tackle the many challenges we are facing in public education?
Traditionally, and even in its current reality, public education reform efforts have arisen from reductionist thinking in which so-called educational “experts” have separated or identified smaller and smaller individual pieces that make up our complex system and designed “fixes” to make those small pieces work better. In such methodology, the underlying assumption has been that by making that one small part work better, the whole system will work better.
If one were to track the various educational initiatives enacted historically in any school system, they would find that much training and valuable time has been devoted to the adoption of these piecemeal approaches to educational improvement. When we separated out elements and ignore how these elements interact with one another, we are engaging in reductionist thinking. We assume the etiology of an educational challenge is derived from one small problem that we need to fix. Our thinking rarely is outside the box as we work within such confined parameters. As a result, our solutions are often too simplistic and unlikely to yield meaningful results. In other words, the reductionist structure we have been using for so long has limited our capacity for developing more transformative solutions.
Ultimately, we must try to shift our approach to be less reflexive and more intentional and forward thinking. We must seek ways to optimize the relationships and interactions among all the elements that influence the system, but also between the system and the environment within which it functions in.
Scientifically speaking, we must improve our evolutionary fitness and our ability to rapidly adapt and integrate into new environmental realities with success. To do so, we must seek ways to allow multiple elements within our system to evolve and improve simultaneously and be always mindful of how changes to one element in the system will impact other elements in the system and the system as a whole. Engineered most effectively, our system will be able to creatively address and adapt to constant changes by embraching new niches and being solutions-focused in a way that allows us to build our capacity and complexity over time.
Great Articles on Systems Thinking: