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.
As I got into the project, I got really excited when I realized this portfolio could serve as a vehicle for teaching systems thinking to children. I saw how the curriculum could be further integrated and give the children the experience of seeing connections and putting the puzzle pieces together independently. I knew from observation how satisfying this experience could be for them and how motivating it was to go on to the next connection. We agreed to make the Portfolios a compendium of the child’s exploration of the continent, a place to collect researches, map making, and art projects, and to tie in the systems thinking exercises that would foster a real understanding the ecosystems and cultures that were being studied.
We worked on North America as a team and came up with the format. I was able to translate some of the concrete manipulative work that I had designed for the work mat to the printed page. I realized that the Portfolios did not need to replace that manual work, but rather, that they would enhance it. The Portfolios would offer opportunities for follow-up activities that the child could engage in independently, creating a collection of their own work that could be kept and shared. We have completed portfolios for North America and Africa. Today we release South America!
The exercises were adapted to each biome chapter, bringing in different plants and animals and their adaptations to that biome. We came up with a way to make the human cultures of the biomes come alive, as we introduce each biome with a native guide who invites the child to take their imagination on an adventure and explore their world. This healthy use of the imagination is what Montessori elementary is all about.
Some examples of system thinking in action:
The child completes graphs that show change over time and is asked to make observations and predictions.
The portfolio encourages reading comprehension by inviting the child to trace the course of the adventure they are reading about on a map.
Stories are told from one animal’s perspective with the suggestion to try writing the story from another point of view.
There are stories where ecological threats are viewed from the perspective of the animals involved. What is it like to lose a part of your habitat? How does it affect you? This is also extended to humans in other cultures. How does deforestation or global warming affect these people?
There are activities where children create food chains and look at the relationship between specific plants and animals to see where and how the energy flows. Symbiotic and mutualistic relationships are explored in this way.
Animals, plants, and biomes are studied in terms of their parts while showing how the parts work together to contribute to the whole.
Math is used to understand key concepts. The child does the math problem to come to an answer that gives them a deeper insight into ecological issues.
Most importantly, the exercises encourage the children to make connections and see how everything is related to the whole.
Resources: The clearest explanation of systems thinking I have found: “The Myth of Progress” by Tom Wessels An online resource for teaching systems thinking to children: http://watersfoundation.org/