Why does Peter Senge—perhaps the most recognizable proponent of “systems thinking” as a leadership competency—spend as much time thinking about the classroom as he does the boardroom? It’s not that he has lost focus on his corporate friends; he still believes that business leaders have an indispensable role to play as agents of positive change. But it seems that Senge’s perennial interest in education has been accelerating lately, perhaps as he becomes more convinced that an upstream intervention is the best way to influence organizational outcomes well into the future.
Rather than restore the systems awareness of adults who have had it drummed out of them by the time they become managers, why not reinforce the natural systems awareness of children who can grow up to run companies sensitive to the complexity and interconnectedness of their operating environment?
Senge contends that humans are born systems thinkers but that our schools, with their preference for breaking knowledge down into its component parts, tend to diminish our innate ability to see and understand the dynamic relationships of whole systems. Over the years, Senge’s organization, the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), has partnered with like-minded groups such as Waters Foundation and the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education , who have made real strides in bringing systems thinking into our schools, both through the curriculum and in staff development efforts. Most recently, SoL’s Education Partnership has been a sponsor of Camp Snowball , an exuberant convening of teachers and students who are defining the leading edge of systems education.
One of the most eloquent and committed voices connected with this work is Linda Booth Sweeney , a systems educator out of the Harvard Ed School. Booth Sweeney has an exceptional gift for demystifying systems principles for adults who have forgotten them and cultivating systems skills in children. Her recent article, Connecting the Dots: Developing Children’s Systems Literacy , is a must-read for everyone frustrated by the fragmented nature of our prevailing approach to teaching and learning.
In this richly-resourced piece, Booth Sweeney asserts that systems literacy matters because “Children today are growing up in a world in which oil spills, global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are commonly at the top of the news. For children to make sense of these trends, they must become aware of the causes and consequences in a slew of interconnected systems, including families, local economies, the environment, and more.”
In helping children make sense of these trends, Booth Sweeney suggests, we have an “intriguing opportunity” to re-learn alongside them. This is a reminder that is particularly resonant during presidential campaign season, when the woeful state of our collective systems literacy is so painfully apparent. If we want leaders who value multiple perspectives and voters who aren’t fooled by the delusion of “silver bullet” solutions, what better place to start than with young people who haven’t yet learned to reduce the world to the miserable limitations of only Red and Blue?
Vicky Schubert is an associate of Systems Perspectives, LLC, a coaching and consulting practice that helps leaders achieve new behaviors and better results through greater understanding of the relationships and interdependencies that drive their success. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org