From Trees to Webs: Transformation is About Changing How We think

I have been sitting in front of the computer for weeks and weeks now trying to get my thoughts down. How do I introduce my work on transformation? How do I communicate my motivation to change education for the better… to a more equitable system that gets quality work accomplished?

And I realized it’s difficult to begin talking about my work or any transformation efforts without understanding underlying root causes of problems or even of successes. Then, I happened upon this video from the wonderful folks at RSA Animate, The Power of Networks with Manuel Lima.

The video discusses how modern science mirrors our knowledge of how systems work. Lima discusses an article entitled Science and Complexity written by Warren Weaver. Weaver states that in the 17th-19th Century, scientists solved problems of simplicity. At this stage, we relied on using tree metaphors to organize ecosystems, families, and even knowledge. Since then, we have come to understand that systems are not as linear. We have moved from viewing systems as being random and disorganized complexity to finding patterns that actually help to clarify and communicate interconnections between the most diverse elements of a system. We are currently living in a state of organized complexity.

For those of you who know systems thinking, this all sounds very familiar to you. I am thankful to my mentor, Dr. Leslie Patterson, for guiding me on a systems thinking journey via Human Systems Dynamics. Systems thinking is a way to validate, appreciate, and better understand individuals and their differences as well as how to work with rather than against differences to create generative learning that gets important work accomplished.

A mouthful? Yes. Crucial to understanding how transformation can happen in schools? Absolutely.

Let’s get back to the trees. How many of us work for organizations with a clearly set hierarchy or what is often referred to as an organizational chart? How many of us live day in and day out in a system with top-down directives? Look at that chart. Examine the flow of memos and directives. Resemble anything? A tree, perhaps? Many of our systems, especially in the workplace, are modeled after solving problems of simplicity. Problem? We are not asked to solve simple problems. How, then, can we expect this model of a system to succeed?

Now, think back on your most recent project where you feel you succeeded. It could be anything from developing a workshop to setting a menu for a dinner party. Let’s use the latter as an example. When confronted with the task of determining what one should have at a dinner party, it is not as simple as someone saying, “I want this” and it being served— unless you are a horrible host and want your guests to walk away very dissatisfied. No, more likely, suggestions are being taken—perhaps through an Evite or Facebook message. You consider dietary needs of your guests. You refer to Pinterest for recipes. You ask your frugal-minded friends if they know of any coupons or specials on any produce or other ingredients needed. And, you probably have other alternatives rather than one dish to serve. You might even ask guests to bring an item to make your party more interactive. Why? Because ensuring your guests get both a nutritious and delicious meal is a complex task that requires organized efforts of gaining information and input.

Rather than using a tree diagram to gain knowledge to complete this complex task, you used a vast web of resources ensuring you would have the best darn tootin’ dinner party ever. That’s organized complexity. That’s systems thinking.

So why pause and take a moment to talk about this? Why ask for a shift in thinking from trees to webs? I ask you, when serving our diverse students, when preparing them for an unknown future, is it a simple problem? Or, is it one that requires respect for diversity, collaboration with tough discourse, finding patterns that may help us to come up with simple rules to guide a discourse towards learning how to approach and solve problems—-and being willing to do it all again and again to best serve the dynamic nature of human systems?

Maybe, we, as educators, can learn a lesson from scientists. They have metamorphosed from the tree of life to the web of life. In education, we seem to be stuck in problems of simplicity mode, a by-product of using the education system to suit an industrialized society. But, as we make more demands on our graduates, education should be reformed to respond to the complex yet organized web of needs, resources, learners, and teachers.

And now, maybe, I can better communicate my work, my reasons, my motivation for what I try to do. Yes, I do realize this post was for me: a way to reflect on my beliefs as an educator, a way to make sense of why things don’t work and why things do. But maybe, just maybe, you will pause, consider, and remain curious on what changes can and should be made in education because it is not a question of whether or not transformation needs to come about; it is a question on how to proceed.

I believe systems thinking can frame those very profound, challenging, but necessary conversations.