We Need A New Way to (Really) Teach Systems Thinking

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:

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