Beyond Systems Thinking… Climbing Out of Boxes & Breaking Arrows

Posted on August 31, 2015 by Jeff Bloom

For years, I’ve been troubled by my own and others’ representations of systems thinking. I’m a visual thinker. I love diagrams. In fact, I’ve driven my students nuts with complicated diagrams of one thing or another, which make some kind of sense to me, but have usually left my students perplexed at best. Even though I thought these diagrams made some kind of sense to me, they were usually a feeble attempt to represent something that diagrams just couldn’t represent. How do you represent inquiry, systems thinking, pattern thinking, creative thinking, critical thinking, or any kind of thinking, for that matter, with a diagram? In fact, how can you represent any kind of complex set of systems with a diagram? Yes, it is tempting. I have tried. And, I am always left with an uneasiness that just feels dishonest… like I’m lying to myself.

As Nora Bateson1 has been discussing recently, the entire concept of “systems” is problematic. Part of the problem is the cumbersome quality of our language and the baggage certain words carry despite the meaning one might attribute to a word. So, while I might have a specific meaning for “system,” no matter what I say or do, the meanings that are commonly associated with this word are going to pop into people’s heads despite what I or anyone else has to say. So, when we think of “systems,” we typically think of mechanical systems, such as a bicycle, or some other system that has been represented as an isolated, mechanical system. Ever since Rene Descartes, we have formalized our relationship to the world around us as that of a mechanical system. The human body was seen as a mechanical system. The biological—ecological world was seen as a mechanical system. This view of the world was very convenient and very powerful. However, this view has brought us to the precipice of environmental collapse, in part because this mechanical systems approach has some rather severe limitations. One of these limitations is that the systems are stuck within themselves and that even though they may operate in cycles, they operate in linear sequences with predictable sets of feedback loops and sets of consequences. Such a “mechanistic” view is very neat and tidy, and incredibly comforting. Everything is predictable, until, of course, it isn’t.

It’s what we call “complex systems” that are characteristic of living systems, there are no neat and tidy sequences of predictable outcomes. At best, there may be a probabilistic set of outcomes, say if you take an antibiotic for a particular infection, but there is no guarantee. And, there are all kinds of other things that can occur of which we have no immediate awareness, such as bacteria encoding their genome against the antibiotic or against a similar antibiotic in anticipation of one as yet to be developed.

As much as we’ve tried to represent ecosystems with boxes and arrows, we’ve never been able to represent the complexity of these systems, which in part is due to the fact that they do not have clear boundaries. In fact, the boundaries are not just the physical boundaries of where the lake ecosystem ends and the forest ecosystem begins (not just because they are integrally interconnected), but also the boundaries with the economy, societies, cultures, industries, agriculture, educational institutions, and all kinds of other human activities. We can’t isolate what we call “systems” into sets of boxes and arrows. Such boxes and arrows cannot capture the complex sets of relationships and their ever-changing dynamics. Such attempts are throw-backs to mechanistic systems.

When I’ve poke around looking at what schools are doing with “systems thinking,” all I find is pages of rubrics and pages of boxes and arrows. At the same time, all of the content is based on very simplistic approaches to “systems thinking” based on closed circuits that are cut off from other relevant “systems.” Our attempts to unclutter and simplify only serve to “stupidify” the whole approach for our children. They deserve better. I think that we as adults assume children cannot handle the complexity, so we try to simplify everything, even under the guise of a more “rigorous systems thinking approach.” But, children can and do think in more complex ways. We just perpetuate the cycle of dumbing down with boxes and arrows. We really need to move “beyond systems thinking” to get at the dynamics of the interactions and relationships that make up our living world.

As Nora and Gregory Bateson have suggested, maybe the arts are keys to ways to represent systems, rather than the mathematical and engineering approaches of boxes and arrows. Maybe we need children to translate their understandings of systems in to plays, poetry, paintings, dance, music, video, photography, sculpture, and so forth. Maybe there are other ways of communicating that can capture the dynamics and uncertainties of the ways living things interact. And, maybe children are the ones who can devise just such ways of communicating.


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