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Systems thinking equips students for a complex world

Lately the news has had many stories of people arguing whether Critical Race Theory should be taught in the schools or not. Many of my colleagues have said that the topics covered are actually just history and opponents are simply attempting to censor historical facts. The recent debates about what to include or not include in a school curriculum are symptomatic of a critical failure due to our educational system’s focus on curriculum versus critical thinking. Is most of the American educational system training kids to regurgitate what they are being fed or teaching them how to think? With the recent discussions about COVID-19 depriving children of classroom time, one might also ask about the purpose of school. Are we focused on training kids to be better at school or should we be training them to be better at life? Have children surviving the pandemic learned something important about navigating through difficult life situations? The following video is from the Systems Innovation channel on YouTube. The clip below starts at the beginning of an illustrative story halfway through a one hour video. So, first take five minutes to hear a story about bringing systems thinking into a school and if you find it intriguing, then go back and watch the entire hour. The story deals with cognition and metacognition. As we encounter new situations in life, what are the tools for building mental models that enable us to understand complex events better?

Emergent Intelligence

For those new to systems theory, emergence is an important concept to understand. Examples that are often presented include insect and animal behavior. No one ant may have very much intelligence, but collectively they can construct an ant colony underground and ant hills that rise up from the ground. The intelligence that emerges from a group of members, be they ants or human beings is what constructs for them a model of the world they perceive as reality.

If you watch the whole video you will hear information regarding the three basic elements of understanding a system. They are actors, interactions and the emergent results. Different groups of people may have different sets of guidelines for how they interact. For example, one set wears masks, practices social distancing and washes their hands. The emergent result in that group is less sickness and less death. Today we have two different Americas, two different realities that are being perceived. It is my hope we can begin to better understand the systems that underlie our thinking to help us bridge this gap.


These next few years may bring transformations that enable us to solve wicked problems like climate change or we may fail to produce the systemic change necessary. We are about to spend trillions of dollars to move our society forward. Will we apply systems thinking to transform how we build new infrastructures or will we fall prey to maintaining a faulty status quo?

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