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For the last four years I have been facilitating social entrepreneurship, social innovation, and design thinking workshops in many settings, from high school courses to trainings with the World Bank. And along the way, something has started to bug me about how we teach something often called “systems thinking.”

The most common way to teach “system thinking” is to:

  1. Introduce students to frameworks for analyzing and transforming systems in general (like the Natural Step Framework, the Chaordic Stepping Stones process, Theory U, etc.),
  2. Maybe ask those students to spend an hour or two (or, if they’re lucky, a few days or an entire semester), applying that process to a system they care about (whether or not they have any first-hand knowledge of it, to start).
  3. Assume that, from there, they will now be able to apply those frameworks to any other system they encounter, about which they may have little real, first-hand knowledge.

My uneasiness with this approach was fueled in large part to the work of cognitive psychologist and former teacher at the University of Virginia, Dan Willigham who is a proponent of the idea that “21st Century Skills” like critical thinking and creativity, while absolutely being worthy things to teach, are not generalizable skills from one domain to the next; in other words, being able to be creative or critical about anything depends on having “domain knowledge” of that specific thing.

This is obvious, upon reflection. For example, it becomes easier to become a creative piano player the more scales, chords, and styles of music you practice.

Likewise, being a creative piano player isn’t going to necessarily translate to being a really creative defensive coordinator for a professional football team.  I would need more specific knowledge of the game of football in order to do that well.

I believe the same thing should apply to what we call “systems thinking.”

My theory is that the foundation for really being able to think creatively, see patterns and relationships, and affect change in complex global systems- or any system- may require students first develop in-depth knowledge of specific global systems– e.g. our economic, political, technical, industrial, and energy systems- and other specific subsystems they wish to study– e.g.

  • The US health system
  • The Berlin transportation systems
  • The Judicial System
  • etc.

Lately, I have found myself dreaming about a more in-depth, professional-quality education for young social entrepreneurs and other changemakers that would offer them the opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge of the specific systems they want to be working in as well as a range of other complex, global systems that might be linked in important ways with the systems they care about.

I don’t know where this dream is taking me, but one wild idea is that I could imagine one day helping create a graduate school curriculum at the level of depth, time commitment, and prestige as other professional schools (e.g. Law School, Med School, and Business School), specifically for developing this kind of in-depth knowledge of systems.

What it could look like

One (rough) sketch I keep imagining for what something like this could look like would be module-based over about two years and would look like this:

  1. In the first module, students would work learn some of the above systems thinking frameworks, and develop common language and theories for looking at systems (“inflection points” “trim tabs” “positive / negative feedback loops” etc.)
  2. In the second module, students would begin with an in-depth application of these frameworks to an ecological system, the system that grounds everything else.
  3. For the next 18 months, students would move through one module at a time applying this same process to a variety of different specific systems of civilization, including some required ones and some electives– such as Legal and Judicial Systems in the West; Banking, Financial, and Economic Systems; Food Systems; Transportation Systems; Waste Systems, etc. Each time, they would use the same process of first learning about the history of these systems, analyzing them with the frameworks they have been given, and learning about the history of different interventions that significantly changed these systems, perhaps ending with a small design project to design a small intervention of their own.
  4. Finally, their studies would culminate in an in-depth application of this same process they have been practicing in a more self-directed way to one very specific system they care about, such as the public school system in Berkeley.

Who would be interested in such an education? Perhaps people going to work for government design and innovation labs like the Behavourial Insights Team, or perhaps artists wanting to design interventions in their community.

Some resources for further exploration:

On my Open Master’s journey this year, I have been exploring the importance of relationships and community to self-directed, adult learners in self-organized communities outside of formal settings: such as P2PUCitizen Circles, Knowledge Commons DCHackCville, Black Mountain SOLE, Experience Institute, Enstitute, and, of course, the Open Master’s.

Understanding how self-directed learners find and form relationships with peers and mentors to support their learning outside of traditional schools, I believe, is one of the biggest nuts to crack in order to fulfill the great potential we all see in the open education movement.  Creating tools and programs that help them do so has become a central focus of my Open Master’s journey.

An obvious first step was to find out what other work has already been done on this question, so I began to explore the research and literature on social learning, in its many names, forms, and iterations.  I left breadcrumbs along my winding walk through a veritable forest of fields going by names like p2p learning, cooperative learningconnected learning, team-based learning, communities of practice, etc. in my open research notes.

Until now, I have found it difficult to find empirical evidence on the role of peer relationships and community to learners outside of traditional settings. Most of what I found was either anecdotal evidence (study circles!), psychological research on the importance of peer learning and modeling in human development (Bandura), or sociological theory (Vygotsky and Social Constructivism).

Meanwhile, while there is some pretty solid data on the importance of peer learning and teaching, I have found that nearly all of it has come from traditional learning settings, such as research on blended learning in K-12 classrooms, or Eric Mazur‘s pioneering research on peer teaching in his Harvard physics lecture course.  Even that field, though, is relatively nascent and sparse.

As a notable exception, one of my favorite surprises along the way was being told by a marine that the U.S. military has actually understood the importance of peer learning for a long time, and that that understanding is deeply integrated into their training model.  I looked into the matter and found that one enterprising Major actually bothered to research and document for us the importance of peer learning in the army training model.  Thanks Major Adkinson!

Until this week, however, I have been frustrated in my search for any real evidence whether relationships and community are important to informal, independent learners outside of institutions.  For example, I have stated in several of my talks this year that I wished we had better data and research on this question coming from massive online courses so that we could understand better whether peer interaction has or could have made a difference in student motivation and outcomes in those courses, whose completion rates tend to be very low.

This week I was very happy to be granted my wish by the first study of a large-scale data set on student outcomes in MOOCs, collected by MITx and dissected by “Lori Breslow, the director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL); physics professor David Pritchard, who heads MIT’s Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively (RELATE) group; and Andrew Ho, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.”  To wit:

“Peer interaction seems to improve a student’s chances of success in 6.002x. While the researchers found no correlation between achievement and age or gender, they say there may be a relationship between achievement and collaboration: In particular, they found that students who reported working with another student on a problem offline tended to score almost three points higher than someone working alone.

“Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, says the new research establishes a noteworthy link between a student’s social interactions and her success in an online course.

“Educational success in a MOOC, but also in a face-to-face class, is not a wholly individual activity,” says Mintz, who was not involved in this study. “It has a social dimension. To put this another way, persistence and success are not simply products of cognitive factors. Noncognitive factors — in this case, social connection — are equally important.”

Further I was happy to see that “the researchers noted that some students who were not native English speakers formed groups on Facebook to help each other through the course.”

If you are interested in testing your own theories and helping dissect the massive datasets now coming from online courses, you may be interested in the Big Data in Education Coursera course this Fall, offered by Ryan S.J.d. Baker and the Teacher’s College of Columbia University.

If you are aware of any other resources, theories, data, examples, etc. to point me towards to help me on my quest to explore the importance of social learning for self-directed learners, I also invite you to comment, email me, or add directly to my notes.  Thanks!

Pack nothing.

Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free.

Don’t wait for the bread to rise. Take nourishment for your journey but eat standing, be ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Do not hesitate to leave your old ways behind: fear, silence, submission.

Only surrender to the need of the time: to do justice and walk humbly with your God.

Do not take time to explain to the neighbors. Tell only a few trusted friends & family members.

Then begin quickly, before you have time to sink back into the old slavery.

Set out in the dark. I will send fire to warm and encourage you. I will be with you in the fire and I will be with you in the cloud.

You will learn to eat new food and find refuge in new places. I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you safely to that place you have not seen.

The stories you tell one another around the fires in the dark will make you strong and wise.

Outsiders will attack you, and some who follow you; and at times you will get weary and turn on one another from fear and fatigue and forgetfulness.

You have been preparing for this for hundreds of years. I am sending you into the wilderness to make a new way and to learn my ways more deeply.

Some of you will be so changed by weathers and wanderings that even your closest friends will have to learn your features as though for the first time.

Some of you will not change at all.

Some of you will be abandoned by your dearest loves and misunderstood by those who have known you since birth and feel abandoned by you.

Some will find new friendships in unlikely places, and old friends as faithful and true as the pillar of God’s flame.

Sing songs as you go, and hold close together. You may at times grow confused and lose your way.

Continue to call each other by the names I’ve given you, to help remember who you are. You will get where you’re going by remembering who you are.

Touch each other and keep telling the stories.

Make maps as you go, remembering the way back from before you were born.

So you will be only the first of many waves of deliverance on these desert seas. It is the first of many beginnings.

Remain true to this story. Pass on the whole story.

Do not go back.

I am with you now and I am waiting for you.

Alla Bozarth-Campbell ~ poem read aloud at a Seder in Berlin (think about that one for a second…)

“… and if she cannot find the culture that encourages her, then she usually decides to construct it herself. And that is good, for if she builds it, others who have been looking for a long time will mysteriously arrive one day enthusiastically proclaiming that they have been looking for this all along.”

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés – Women Who Run With the Wolves (from Open Master’s peer Laura Sheinkopf’s plan)