Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘systems literacy’ Category

Why Bucky, and why now?

I’ve finished the manuscript for a children’s biography about Buckminster Fuller, and now I wait.  The editors in New York City and beyond are chewing him over, deciding if today’s middle school kids will find “Bucky” — most famous for his geodesic domes –  interesting, compelling, worth their time.

Bucky and his Fly's Eye Dome and Dymaxion Car

I, of course, will talk to anyone and everyone about Bucky (I’ve written about him here).  Somehow I managed to weave him into a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store the other day.  My kids think I’ve lost it.  I now call my dog “Bucky” despite the fact that his name is Rugby.  The walls of my office are plastered with sketches of Bucky inventions:  a fly’s eye dome, a 4D tower delivered by zepplin, rowing needles, a mechanical jellyfish.

So, why am I so hooked?

For me, a twenty-year plus systems educator, one of the most compelling connections is Bucky’s focus on synergy.

Over forty years ago, Bucky popularized the term, reminding audiences around the world that synergy was “… the only word in our language that means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any sub-assembly of the system’s parts. There is nothing in the chemistry of a toenail that predicts the existence of a human being” (Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969, p. 78). One of the many benefits of understanding and even designing for synergy, is the opportunity to get off that problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse. (See more benefits here).

Looking back at myself as a student forty years ago, my curriculum was for the most part compartmentalized: science was taught in one class, math in another, English in yet another, and never the twain shall meet. Such a fragmented approach reinforced the notion that knowledge was made up of many unrelated parts, leaving me with little opportunity to see recurring patterns of behavior across subjects and disciplines, to look for synergies, or for that matter, to think or talk about “whole systems.”

My teachers were preparing me for a world in which “new technologies” like the computer were just beginning to play a role, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the middle-aged gentleman teaching “computer science” was desperately trying to stay one step ahead of his eager students. With the shock of the gas crisis in the 1970s, came a nascent awareness of the relationship between non-renewable resources and population growth (what we call carrying capacity today).

It was a world that author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as being “characterized by one overarching feature—and that was division. That world was divided-up, chopped-up place, and whether you were a country or a company, your threats and opportunities in the cold war system tended to grow out of who you were divided from. Appropriately, this cold war system was symbolized by a single word—wall, the Berlin Wall.” (Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, 2002, p. 3).

Today, our world has shifted.  We’ve gone from an international system built around division and walls to a system increasingly built around integration and webs, a shift Friedman aptly describes here:

“The globalization system is different. It also has one overarching feature and that is integration. The world has become an increasingly interwoven place, and today whether you are a company or a country, your threats and opportunities increasingly derive from who you are connected to. This globalization system is also characterized by a single word -web, the World Wide Web.” (Friedman, Longitudes and Attitudes, pp. 3–4).

Today’s children are growing up in a world of webs and networks, of increasing interdependence and multiculturalism, of shrinking global borders, and of even more limited natural resources. For students of today, nothing exists in isolation. More and more of the pressing challenges children see in the headlines—global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict—are generated by complex human systems.

Bucky's early sketches of a light-weight aluminum 4D tower, just one of many examples of Bucky's efforts to "do more with less"

Indeed our lives are embedded in systems.

Here’s the wake-up call: Many of us were not explicitly taught skills related to understanding synergy, or for that matter, the behaviors and dynamics of complex systems. That means we tend to see events, parts and fragments when we are in fact, embedded within and surrounded by interconnected systems.  There’s now a lot of research out there, including my own, that deep misconceptions about the dynamics of complex systems persist, even among highly educated adults. Here’s the short version:  when faced with dynamically complex systems—with multiple feedbacks, time delays, nonlinearities, and accumulations—performance is suboptimal, at best.

What to do? Facing a similar question, Buckminster Fuller once said: “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

The good news is, new tools and new frameworks are coming.  Here are just a few examples (send me more if you have them):

Camp SnowballA summer “camp” experience that brings together students, parents, educators, and business and community leaders to build everyone’s capacity around systems thinking, sustainability and leading in the 21st century.

WorldLink:  An innovative media, education and civic engagement organization dedicated to cultivating a generation of “design scientists” who can creatively respond to the most pressing issues of our time. See NOURISH (using public TV and school curriculum to explore food and food systems).

The GeoDome:  Using immersive projection design to understand and have a tangible experience of the planet as a living system.

Quest to Learn: A game-based public school in New York City (brainchild of Katie Salen and team) and in particular it’s “need to know” approach to building twenty-first century skills like systems thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, time management and identity formation.

PBS Learning Media:  I’m working with PBS now to integrate systems literacy tools and concepts into digital media for both educators and students.  The pilot will be available in the fall. Exciting!

Student-created simulations of complex systems, game-based learning, portable “learning” domes, repurposed digital media — Bucky, I think, would be delighted by these ways of making invisible connections, visible.

Synergy is just one reason I’ve fallen head over heals for Bucky, that stocky, gentle genius with the owl eyes and coke-bottle glasses.    Read my book about him (when it comes out) and you’ll have fun discovering the other 9 reasons why Bucky is truly a troubadour for our times.

Systems Thinking for Kids: The Kitchen Sink

I pulled together a list of my”systems thinking for kids” work (articles, blogs, interviews, games, teachers guides, etc.) for a possible funder. I thought you all might enjoy browsing through the curated  list:

Learning to Connect the Dots (An article in Solutions, republished in Utne Reader. My best attempt so far at explaining why it makes sense for kids to “think about systems”.  Lots of practical activities at the end.) 

Center for Ecoliteracy: If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?(Interview. talking with kids about living systems).   

Huffington Post (Article, ways to help children see beyond the obvious)

Connected Wisdom:  (Good old stories about living systems, along with fun activities in the teachers guide, free training module and more. Just follow the yellow flower icon.) I’m happy to report that we have two NEW Connected Wisdom resources:  A teachers’ guide and an on-line, video-based, training module (both are free).  If you love all things related to LIVING SYSTEMS and STORIES, read the lost endnotes (cut by the publisher!) to Connected Wisdom. 

Highlights Magazine for Children:  (A “systems thinking for kids” view of wolves in Yellowstone.)  

Systems Thinking Playkits:  (Interactive game for kids, 8-88!  Wolf kit too). 

Talking to Teens About Texting:  (Uses a true story about a teen party that spiraled out of control to sneak in a lesson about exponential growth)

PBS — City Farm Game.  (Working with PBS,  we incorporated systems literacy concepts into this on-line game for middle school students.  Try it!)

Little Pickle Press Post (Learning about reinforcing feedback through a true story of sibling rivalry.)

The Farm as Classroom: (Using the farm to “think about systems”.  Written for farmer-educators.)

And the one that started it all:  When a Butterfly Sneezes:  A Guide for Exploring Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Children’s Stories. (Using pictures books , many of which are likely on your bookshelf, to encourage children to “connect the dots” and other systems thinking habits of mind):  You can order this  book through Leveraged Networks (Contact Rebecca Niles – rebecca@leveragenetworks.com, or Kris Wile kris@leveragenetworks.com).

Although The Systems Thinking Playbook/DVD  (30 experiential activities to build systems thinking habits of mind) wasn’t originally written for children,  I frequently receive notes from educators who use it in their classrooms, so I’ll add it here. (The Creative Learning Exchange has made connections between the Playbook and their Connection to Characteristics of Complex Systems Project.  See www.clexchange.org to learn more).  And some good news:  The System Thinking Playbook is now available as an e-book (and available on Apple, B&N and VOOK as well).

 

Museums + Systems Thinking:  I worked this year with the Mishkat Interactive Center for Atomic and Renewable Energy and the amazing team at KCA London to integrate systems thinking into the Saudi Arabia 2050 traveling exhibit designed to encourage middle school students in Saudi Arabia to rethink energy consumption habits. A fantastic project!  I’ll post pictures when I can.

Digital Media: As part of a collaborative initiative with the University of Indiana, the National Writing Project, the Institute of Play, and Digital Youth Network, I worked with the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media Learning Initiative to produce a series of digital design activities to cultivate systems thinking in middle school students.  The books are done and will be available in early 2014.  I’ll post a link when I get it.  

And finally, I recently started an author’s page on Facebook that gives updates on my  work and occasional inspiration. You can “like” if here (if you like):https://www.facebook.com/lindaboothsweeney 

 

 

Balaton Reading List

What does a cross-disciplinary, multi-cultural, and inter-generational group of leaders in sustainable development read for inspiration? 

  I asked that question at the recent Balaton Group meeting, and the following list emerged.

Balaton 2012 – Books that Have Inspired Us

Global Citizen by Donella Meadows

 Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows

Limits to Growth  by  Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III

Deep Future:  The Next One Hundred Years on Earth by Curt Stager

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

The Starfish and The Spider: Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

Bottom Billion:  By Paul Collier

The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge

La Nature of Nature by Edgar Morin

 Cultural Theory by Michael Thompson

The Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows

How much is enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life

by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

Happiness by Richard Layard

Believing Cassandra, by Alan AtKisson

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding

 The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life,

by Jean-Francois Revel, Matthieu Ricard, John Canti, Jack Miles

The Divine Engineer by Phil Ryan

Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World

 by Brian Walker, David Salt

Groping in the Dark   by Donella Meadows, John Richardson, and Gerhardt Bruckman

 Report from Iron Mountain:  The Possibility and Desirability of Peace, by John Doe

Group Portrait With Lady by Heinrich Boll and and Leila Vennewitz

 The Origins of Political Order by Frances Fukuyama

IQ84 by Haruki Murakaami

 The Conundrum by David Owen

Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory:  The Dharma of Natural Systems Studies  By Joanna Macy

The Blue Planet, An Introduce to Earth System Science by Brian J. Skinner and Barbara W. Murck

Occupy World Street by Ross Jackson

To Have or To Be?  Eric Fromm

True Wealth by Juliet Schorr 

Ecomind by Frances Moore Lappe

A Brief History of Everything  By Ken Wilber

Collapse by Jared Diamond

Urban Dynamics by Jay Forrester

Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter

The Natural Alien by Neil Evernden 

Climate Wars by Harald Welzer

Walking on Water by Derek Jensen

Occupy World Street by Ross Jackson

Sustainability Science Textbook by Bert De Vries

Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems

By Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling

Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson

The Natural Alien by Neils Evernden

Walking on Water by Derrik Jensen

Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainkle

Transgovernence by Topfler (Potsdam Institute)

Momo by Michael Ende

Celestine:  Life in a French Village by Gillian Tindall

Happy reading.  

More on this year’s Balaton Meeting in my next post!