Systems Thinking (is a gateway drug)
Our worldview and way of understanding how the world works directly informs how we act and ‘be’ in the world. Worldviews are socially constructed, culturally embedded and now often reinforced though technologies such as neuromarketing and social media.
Understanding the world in terms of interconnectedness or relationships is central to the needed transition from linear/mechanistic thinking to non-dual thinking and more integrated ways of being.
Premodern worldviews often considered the world as a unified whole in which boundaries between disciplines such as medicine, spirituality, science and art did not exist. The modern worldview was characterised by not only the differentiation but eventually the dissociation between the objective (science) and subjective (spirituality/art/beauty) ways of knowing (Wilber, 2000). This dualistic approach resulted in the belief that one way of knowing was ultimately true while others remained an emergent property of that truth. On the one hand, material science was real while consciousness and spirituality were epiphenomenon of complex neurochemistry. On the other hand, consciousness and the spiritual were ultimately real while matter was merely passing. The competition inherent in this dualistic mindset, arguably resulted in the development of civilizations with a divided and partial understanding of the world.
This mechanistic and linear way of understanding the world led to incredible scientific and technological developments (industrial revolution) as well as new social, political and economic approaches. These ways of being in the world, however, were highly dissociated from the natural (non-human) world (see Article Ten).
This broken way of making sense of the world resulted in the brokenness of our dominant systems and contributes to the current existential crises (O’Sullivan, 1999). Ironically, the technologies of the twentieth century have provided us with the insights and technologies to address these crises. Insights include new ways of understanding the world such as chaos theory, quantum physics, systems theory, Goethean science, integral theory, living systems ecology, depth psychology and phenomenology. Technologies include renewable energy, information technology, internet of things, blockchain technology, open source learning and artificial intelligence. It is imperative to understand that technologies, no matter how advanced, are not capable of addressing these complex crises without the development of more integrated ways of thinking and being. One of the foundational frameworks needed is systems thinking.
Systems thinking is a way of seeing/knowing the world in terms of relationships rather than individual subjects and objects. The relationships in systems thinking are understood as a web of complex interconnections rather than simple linear or causal ones. Taken to its logical conclusion, there is no longer the possibility of independent individuals or homeostatic beings. All members of a system are interconnected and intra-acting with other member-system networks. In this way, no being pre-exists themselves as we are all continually emerging networks of interactions and dynamic relationships (Haraway, 2016). This way of understanding the world undermines all forms of competition based on externalizing harm for individual gain. Further, this redefining of the separate self is incompatible with the individualism undergirding the systems of western civilization.
It is important to acknowledge that systems thinking does not replace, but includes and transcends linear thinking. A linear understanding of simple cause and effect can be held within the larger systems understanding of complex relationships.
It must also be acknowledged, that systems thinking does not guarantee the transformation of individuals’ being and actions. A systems approach can still be used for competitive advantage within the existing paradigm individualism. The transformation of individuals requires the continued expansion of concern from the self, to others, to all others (more-than-human). This process has been mapped within developmental psychology in such models as spiral dynamics (see Article Eight) and explored in terms of transformative learning and social constructivism (see Articles Five & Six).
Systems thinking is not the solution, but a gateway drug. It is a thinking framework that allows for the development of more integrated action (ethics) and being (wisdom). To engage learners in the depth of transformation needed, systems thinking must be embedded in a larger education community framework of whole human development. This being said, I believe that the transition from linear thinking to systems thinking in secondary education is crucial in the development needed to expand beyond the self towards more integrated ways of being in the world.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the chthulucene. London: Duke University Press.
O’Sullivan, E. (1999). Transformative learning: Educational vision for the 21st century.London, UK: Zed Books.
Wilber, K. (2000). A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.Boston: Shambhala Publications.