I’d like to share some thoughts on systems thinking and curriculum development with you all. Systems thinking has been used by modern ecologists to understand the natural world when linear thinking failed them. Systems thinking is not new; Aristotle understood the natural world in this way. Often, however, the study of science and our western culture in general is guided by linear thinking. Born out of the scientific revolution, linear thinking seeks to understand the world by breaking it down into smaller and smaller pieces, then trying to put it back together again like a machine.
In traditional education, linear thinking seeks to get the diploma, make an A, pass the test, spit out the fact. Aimed at a predetermined outcome, it accomplishes this by breaking knowledge down into subject area, standards, and facts.
By comparison, systems thinking looks at the whole and seeks to understand by observing natural processes. Systems thinking looks for relationships and connections. It explores how the parts work together to form the whole and recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The nature of our world is a thing of incredible balance and complexity. As such, we must step back and allow it to unfold its secrets without our interference.
In terms of education, a systems thinking approach would look at the whole child and observe the child to understand their process of learning. The adult would serve as a facilitator, respecting the child’s innate ability to manifest his or her own development. This approach would focus on the process of learning, not simply the information itself. When presenting new ideas to encourage this process, systems thinking would present them in an integrated fashion, focusing on connections and relationships.
Does this sound familiar to you? If you are involved in the Montessori movement, then you are already a systems thinker. Guiding children to become systems thinkers themselves is like teaching Montessori: you are following the flow of nature itself.
When my daughter, urged me to write a “workbook” for the biomes, I was reluctant. Her argument was that she knew from talking to the teachers using the biome materials that there was a need in some classrooms for more structure to guide them through their study of a continent. There should be materials for independent work that tied in the cultural work with the animal and biome studies. I worried that such a thing could be misused and it should carry a warning label. I was worried that children would be forced to finish it and assigned pages for the day. I jokingly agreed to proceed if this “warning label” would go along with the new Portfolios.