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Developing a generation of ‘systems citizens’

| October 29, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Don Duffield

One of the products of mankind’s scientific endeavours has been a paradigm shift from an anthropic and geocentric view of the universe, where we as humans and the earth were viewed as the focal point of the cosmos around which all celestial objects moved, to the realisation that our place in the universe is a virtually infinitesimal subsystem of the solar system.

Our solar system, in turn, is a miniscule subsystem of a much larger system, the Milky Way galaxy – which, in turn, is an inconspicuous subsystem of the universe. Science may very well prove one day that the universe is a subsystem of a significantly larger multiverse system.

The need for ‘systems citizens’ As mankind has surged forth in the pursuit of progress, it has also become clearly apparent that because we have lacked the knowledge about – or have chosen to ignore – how certain systems work and interconnect, we have created a wide array of problems for ourselves as a race. The world global financial crisis and climate change are examples of this.

Peter Senge, one of the world’s leading system thinkers and author of The Fifth Discipline,1 emphasises the need to develop systems citizens, who will not only see the world as an enormous, highly sensitive system but will also act morally and ethically in the decisions they make concerning the environment and use of the finite resources of the earth.

Systems thinking and system dynamics to the rescue According to Senge: “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots… Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the ‘structures’ that underlie complex situations.”2

The premise on which systems thinking is based is that “objects and people in a system interact through ‘feedback’ loops, where a change in one variable affects other variables over time, which in turn affects the original variable”.3 In other words, a cause results in an effect which, in turn, affects the original cause. These loops fundamentally come in two forms, which often occur simultaneously in a system:

  • reinforcing loops are the ‘engines’ of growth or accelerating decline and result in ‘snowball effects’
  •  balancing or stabilising feedback loops have a selfcorrection mechanism that attempts to attain some goal or state of stability, resulting in slowing growth processes down.

Add time delays with a physical separation in space between the causes and effects in a system and the level of complexity demands the quantitative tools of system dynamics, which are:

  • stocks: ‘reservoirs’ of quantities that can increase or decrease over time e.g. populations, bank balance, etc.
  • flows: ‘pipelines’, which control stocks and represent the movement into or out of the stocks.

By using a system dynamics computer simulation language like STELLA,4 highly complex systems can be modelled with reasonable simplicity because it is icon-based. This means that students don’t have to deal with the complex mathematics behind this interface. This makes it possible for school students to model systems that previously could only be modelled by advanced applied mathematicians.

They can focus on understanding the structure of a system rather than worry about the mathematics, and can interpret the behaviour of a system through the visual outputs in the form of graphs.

Implementing the systems Over the past six years at St Alban’s College, we have used the following approach to expose our students and staff to this paradigm. We started off by running school-based workshops for interested students and teachers. Then a fundamental course was introduced as part of the systems section of the Grade 8 technology course. Students are introduced to this paradigm through playing simulation games based on resources listed at the end of this article. As part of the Grade 9 technology course, a system dynamics project is assigned to each student after they have been taught the basics of STELLA.

The learners have to select a ‘real-world’ system, which they model. This open-ended project has proved to be successful in getting learners to think about the structure of systems they encounter and developing the skills to model the systems quantitatively. Once the system is modelled, the learners are encouraged to run a wide array of differing scenarios to test their model.

For students who want to pursue this paradigm at a more advanced level, a System Dynamics Club was set up so that they could be challenged by modelling more complex systems. This has served to successfully equip many of our boys who have pursued tertiary engineering studies with a wider array of STELLA modelling skills and a deeper understanding of the workings of systems.

Driven by passion
Ultimately, the implementation of this paradigm into the classroom is driven by passionate, dedicated teachers who see the absolute necessity to produce systems citizens who will contribute to the survival of our species on our planet, through making responsible decisions and living lifestyles that are congruent with the sustainability of all living organisms on our planet. The manner in which you attempt to do this depends on your subject area and your school.

Don Duff ield has taught at St Alban’s College for many years. In 2014, he takes up a post at Parklands College in the Western Cape as head of science.

References: 1. Senge, P. (2006) The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday. 2. Ibid. 3. Quaden, R., Ticosky, A. and Lyneis, D. (2007) The Shape of Change: Stocks and Flows. New York: Creative Learning Exchange. 4. STELLA can be purchased from ISEE Systems – see 5. See, for example, 18975/news_item_18975.html.



Category: Autumn 2013

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