Systems Thinking

Why Systems Thinking

A significant part of the problem of sustainability is our inability to understand the complex interconnections between the causes and effects of our actions and interactions. Systems Thinking is the practice of enhancing our understanding of how and why social (society and economy) and ecological systems behave the ways they do by seeing their component parts (or sub-systems) in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems Thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect, and is applicable at any scale of human activities and contexts.

Children are born natural systems thinkers

Systems Thinking teaches us to think in terms of process, pattern, flow, connectedness, and relatedness. Children are born natural system thinkers. With their ability of sensing and imagining still activated, children learn through relationships and sense information before they are taught to dissect and analyse this. Dr Ad Smitsman, who has been a resource person for the EFS Programme since 2011, has made a valuable presentation about this. Click here to download his presentation.

For many of us, as we move throughSensing -Imagining - Thinking (Dr Smitsman) the educational systems we are taught not to use these natural systems thinking abilities and instead are taught to compartmentalize information.

As our experience for wholeness is slowly being replaced by a world-view of unrelated parts and stand-alone facts, this deeply impacts on how we experience life and our relationship with the natural world. As Dr Smitsman highlighted in this presentation, human beings have three interdependent systems for development to their availabilitysensing, imagining, and thinking.

For a person who develops holistically these 3 systems never become disjointed, they remain connected and each serves as a further condition for the other to develop; e.g. they develop as a whole. Many of our educational systems force the decoupling of these vital systems for development and start to prioritize and create hierarchy between the three systems where thinking becomes the prime importance, imagination is left for Arts, and sensing is all together forgotten by the time children enter secondary school education.

Learning and unlearning for Systems Thinking

Our current sustainability crisis forces us to unlearn and relearn how to relate with the world through wholeness as part of a larger living process called Life. In the same way that Life is interconnected and whole, our current issues of climate change, food security, water scarcity, pollution, population growth, and growing inequality are interconnected and interdependent. To address these issues / challenges we need to take a Systems Thinking approach and use eco-system design principles to facilitate for whole solutions.

Learning & Teaching Systems Thinking should thus be a fundamental commitment of our educational systems at every level, (formal and informal) and forms part of our life-long learning and development. We highly recommend the following six steps developed by Linda Booth Sweeney for teaching Systems Thinking:

  1. tell the story
  2. name the elements
  3. sketch behaviors over time
  4. make the system visible
  5. look for leverage
  6. share & test
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