‘Systems Thinking’

Only a couple of months ago this concept was unknown to me but now I am striving to wrap my consciousness round this notion. I felt quite disappointed in myself, for someone who prided in thinking outside the box and adhering to non-conformity, as I discovered how myopic I have been till now. It feels as if I have been standing on top of the highest peak looking down on the world, thinking I have the best view only to turn around and realise that I am only standing atop a hill while a mountain stands behind me and I am only part of the smaller picture. I am not the only one living this illusion, am I? You might be the same too but you have not realised it yet. You feel like you have everything important in life figured out. How about the issues you brushed underneath the rug? The problem of your neighbor is perhaps not yours; but have you considered that somewhere down the line it might affect you since you both are part of the same system: Neighbourhood, Society, Fiscal jurisdiction and Planet. Maybe it is time to re-think the way you think! As Novalis said: “The mysterious path leads within”; so the first step is to look inward before actively looking outward and observing the world. For a short intro of Systems Thinking see the video below:

Transforming the ‘Thinking Box’

How different would we be as individuals if we were not brought up to conform to institutionalized mindsets and perceptions? What if we were made aware that our perception of things should not be static in a world of ever changing motions? Would we be better citizens more actively participating in the decision processes that determine the fate of our world instead of being satisfied passive observers of the events unfolding?

Not so long ago children with white skin were told that they are superior to those with darker skin and that women were too irrational to vote sensibly. These societal trends persisted over centuries until those mental models were broken down by individuals who refused to grow up conforming to these ideals. What are we teaching our children now? Are we teaching them to build a fairer and sustainable world? Or are we simply teaching them how to acquire skills in order to service the consumerist machine that they evolve into as they adopt the norms of society’s values?

What we should be told is not to think outside the box since we could be stuck in a box within another box. We should be teaching the children carrying forward our future that box altogether. By simply gaining academic knowledge that aids us to pass exams we can be misguided into thinking that we are already thinking outside the box. We conveniently fragmented our world into cubicles: Economic, Scientific, Political, Social and Environmental factors. We have built a very coherent structure to depict the world we live in and its problems. Then, why are global warming effects throbbing at our doors and why are young children being radicalized and picking up weapons? Why are the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Surely, the way we are addressing issues are fundamentally flawed.As Meadows said in her ‘Leverage Points’ (1999), we tend to push forward the right catalysts but in the wrong direction through our restricted mindset. Our main concern is thus, how can we change those mindsets and blow off that restrictive thinking box? Answer: Re-orient Education System.

Education Paradigm Shift

Education for Sustainability is needed to facilitate the change in mental models that currently drive the old educational system which is linked with old socio-economic paradigms. There is a need to reorient the education system at all levels to induce a trickle-up effect as children should cultivate the ability to not only think but keep in touch with their ‘sensing’ and ‘imaginative’ capabilities. This will expand their creative potentials as they grow up and reverse the upside down pyramid pattern that with increasing age there is diminishing creative returns.

The Education Paradigm needs to be changed entirely. The foundations of our institutions on a global scale are quivering as we no longer know the deeper purpose of their existence other than winnowing out the educated from the not so educated. This is why fastidious programmes such as EfS that seek to address issues from the roots are desirable. They can essentially be tools for reform in the education system by developing a learning community for sustainability. Encourage institutions to become ‘Schools that Learn’ (Peter Senge). The mechanism of Systems Thinking and its protruding relevance can thus be propagated to achieve a holistic educational system. By carrying out workshops and training teaching staff, EfS can hope to make education synonymous to transformative learning rather than be teacher-centred and restrictive.

However, the greatest change that EfS can bring forth is to convincingly get multi-stakeholders and agents to engage in the programme as this is the very essence of sustainability. The key to transforming the Education Paradigm effectively in the right direction is to secure participation of the active agents and stakeholders within the system. The first part of this blog pertains to the subject of positive and effective engagement.

Engagement & Participation – The Right from the Wrong:

The people who create the system must also be the ones who support and protect it. Everyone needs to be engaged as ‘Effective Change Agents’ to create a sustainable future (Rowe, 2013). Only when the community as a whole feels engaged they will support the transformation as they feel they are part of the catalyst that is stimulating change. Usually, when we are already set in our ways, we resent the thought of having to change and get accustomed to a new way of doing things. Even if our current way of life is not ideal, we just accept the norms which provide us a false sense of security instead of seeking improvements. We hide behind the excuse that old habits die hard in fear of the unknown. But the feeling of inclusion makes us more receptive and optimistic about change. If agents feel that the change is being externally imposed there will be hostile reactions. If change comes from exogenous elements such as a sudden change in curriculum or examination policies, the agents and stakeholders involved will resist. Educators are one element of this system. They are an important element as they are responsible for the delivery of the services (knowledge) that gives purpose to the system. In a way they hold the system together.  If those educators are now forced to change curriculum or their timetables without having been part of that decision process there is a surge of negativity and resentment that starts destabilizing the flawless working of the system. Hence, training the teachers first is a way to achieve their consent for change and be the drivers of this reform within the system. This would endogenise the change process and ‘catalyse the movement from fear to caring/effective involvement’. This would involve cooperation between students and teachers and foster new cultural norms that rise above political, religious or ethnocentric barriers. Schools are the first training ground in societies where potentials should be unlocked instead of introducing blockages to our mindsets.

It is important for people to feel engaged in order to make a system truly sustainable. The participation of the agents of change is primordial if change is to be catalysed endogenously. So educators are trained thoroughly and students are heard in order to mitigate resistance in the new system.

However, there should be a distinction in how people are engaged. This engagement could be working the mechanism of a system in the right or wrong direction. For instance, there could be repetitive behaviour in spite of changing the way of learning. In this sense, the education paradigm is unchanged. Maybe the curriculum is changed to encompass ecological issues in greater depth however over time we witness that the system is still the same incumbent one in the manner in which outcome is rewarded. Output-oriented learning persists whereby results are more important than learning itself. This is why engaging people to push forward change in the right direction is so important. Mindsets need to be changed. We should be striving to be epistemologically driven – we should seek not only knowledge but the nature and scope of the knowledge. Otherwise, conflicting ideas and signals will keep interrupting our assimilation of the information around us. In Sterling’s words, ‘mainstream education sustains unsustainability’. The current, modernist education system tells us that we need to be socially responsible and care for others while simultaneously instilling in us the values to ‘compete and consume’ and not ‘care and conserve’. This entails confusion within children at a young age. They are not even given the space to reflect and be critical about what they are being taught so this confusion then drives them to be less in touch with their humanistic values.

We end up having a system that conforms to existing norms and sieving out the best students from the worse by rewarding uncreative thinking. It fails to acknowledge the wide spectrum of what human capability truly encapsulates. This rigid system does not explore alternatives. To be the best student does not require one to be critical and reflective. All we need to do is memorise without understanding which is referred as ‘mugging’ by university students. It is astounding that a word was even invented to describe and accept our current education as it is. Students often cease to care whether they understand what is being taught, for, by ‘mugging’ and reproducing the expected answers to problems they would pass with flying colours and obtain their precious degree certificate that would secure a highly paid job somewhere by employers who again value conformity. It is saddening that in our bid to becoming successful in our society we forsake our ‘whole’ person. We are rewarded for sacrificing part of us and that becomes part of our culture and natural way of tackling any decision we have to take in life. This is a very misguided view that is bestowed upon us as we then start adopting this fragmented perception of life and our planet.


Sustainable education promotes the interconnectedness between spirit, heart, head and hand. It helps us get in touch with ourselves and the environment that we are in. Sustainable education is more holistic, participative and practical than the narrowly instrumental view in our prevailing Modernist discourse. It breaks away from ‘servicing the consumerist machine’ that the incumbent paradigm has been doing over decades. So when engaging people to be agents of change they need to be able to reassess their mindsets in order to bring about an authentic education system that ‘recognises the part of past thinking and practice while re-visioning education’. We need to move away from output-oriented learning to system dynamics that reward learning. This is the only way to ensure a genuine shift in education system that does not solely re-constructs itself to conform to ideals and perceived needs of the market. Thus, we should be encouraged to thoroughly understand our mental models and their relevance within Systems Thinking. By nurturing our mental models and frameworks we can better live our lives without producing negative externalities. But we first need to be aware of those mental models.

How open is your mental model?

Written by Kritika Treebhoohun

Kritika worked as a research intern in our Education for Sustainability Programme in 2015.

Note of Acknowledgement: This article was first published on our Education for Sustainability platform on 31 May 2015.