Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Decision Making and Systems Thinking: Week 3 - #edfuture

I was fortunate to attend AERA in Denver over the last few days.  As a result, I did not have a chance to participate in the Ed Futures Elluminate session at the regular time on Tuesday.  But, I had plenty of time to think about the plethora of solid educational research that will never translate into educational policy.  It's an ongoing frustration for most of us in the field, yet we can't stop thinking about the possibilities.  Maybe that is the allure of a structured approach to future thinking.  

The Education Futures Elluminate recording and assigned articles prompted me to pull out a handout from the conference (one of few actual pieces of paper I kept) because the decision-making issues in Weick's (1993) article were sounding very familiar.

Relative to poor decision-making, Weick quotes Morgan, Frost, & Pondy (1983:24):
Individuals are not seen as living in, and acting out their lives in relation to, a wider reality, so much as creating and sustaining images of a wider reality, in part to rationalize what they are doing. They realize their reality, by reading into their situation patterns of significant meaning" (Morgan, Frost, and Pondy as quoted by Weick, 1993).
This immediately brought to mind J. Michael Spector's AERA presentation, Integrating a Systems-Thinking Perspective into Learning and Instruction for Complex and Challenging Tasks.  Spector quotes Dietrich Dorner's (1996) Logic of Failure.
Highly trained, well-intentioned adults often make bad decisions when reasoning about complex phenomena.
What is more complex than our system of education?

Spector goes on to explain that these bad decisions happen for a number of reasons.
  • Acting on instinct
  • Failure to anticipate-delayed effects
  • Focus on one aspect of a complex system
  • Failure to understand non-linear effects
  • Less analytical & reflective thinking as a problem worsens
  • Accidental reinforcement of undesired behavior
  • Failure to recognize internal feedback mechanisms and change over time (Spector, 2010; Sterman, 1994)
 He advocates for a systems-thinking approach to help students learn to solve complex, ill structured problems.  It seems systems thinking can also help us with future thinking, at least as we begin to consider education futures.

Anderson and Johnson (1997) define essential characteristics of systems:
  • A system's parts must all be present for a system to carry out its purpose optimally.
  • A system's parts must be arranged in a specific way in order to carry out its purpose.
  • Systems have specific purposes within larger systems.
  • Systems maintain their stability through fluctuations and adjustments.
  • Systems have feedback.  (Anderson & Johnson, 1997)
Each of us exist in silos of expertise in the field (or system) of education.  Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to affect change.  We constantly make decisions without all parts present.  Anderson & Johnson (1997) advise that we should think in terms of the big picture, balance short-term and long-term perspectives, recognize the complexity of our system, and consider patterns.  They even offer a worksheet at the end of the paper that might come in handy as we move deeper in the course.


Anderson, V., & Johnson, L. (1997) Systems Thinking Basics:  From Concepts to Causal Loops, Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications.  Retrieved from http://www.uwex.edu/CES/cty/waupaca/cnred/documents/SystemsThinking2010.pdf

2010 Horizon Report Johnson, Laurence F., Levine, Alan, Smith, Rachel S. and Stone, Sonja. 2010 Horizon Report. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium, 2010.

Karl E. Weick . Reprinted from The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch
Disaster by Karl E. Weick published in Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 (1993): 628-
652 by permission of Administrative Science Quarterly. © 1993 by Cornell University 0001-
8392/93/3804-0628.

Morgan, Gareth, Peter J. Frost, and Louis R. Pondy. 1983. "Organizational symbolism." In L. R.
Pondy, P. J. Frost, G. Morgan, and T. C. Dandridge (eds.), Organizational Symbolism: 3-35.
Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

1 comment:

Becoming Green said...

Thanks Wendy, this is a very informative post. I am trying to put together a list of resources for teaching about systems thinking, the UWEX pdf looks very useful.