Using systems thinking to uncover connections

Each week I run a discussion group called the Politics and International Relations Society. It is open to pupils aged 12-18 and each week we discuss issues ranging from the economic links between the US and Venezuela to astropolitics.

I often share prompts ahead of our lunchtime discussions and for today's I shared this video on systems thinking that I made to convey this mental model that we would begin to use in our discussions:

This article on the impact of Covid-19 on Cambodian citizens was also shared so that pupils could start to think beyond their own national and continental boundaries.

This video encourages thinking in models, systems or webs as opposed to silos. I demonstrated a system that represented their school so that they could see the relevance of this model of thinking. They understood that while exams are part of the school system they are also part of another system linked to Scotland, politics, devolution and nationalism.

Once they had grasped the interconnected nature of a system with which they were familiar, they were ready to tackle the system in question: the Covid-19 pandemic.

We discussed that on one level many people may simply discuss Covid-19 in the context of their own experience or their national understanding, but the pandemic was part of a vast multi-level system.

Pupils were then encouraged to identify the component parts of the system as they viewed it. I created the diagram below using a puzzle image and asked them to add their ideas:

We discussed what we had identified and collaboratively we added more interconnected component parts. It soon became clear to the pupils that while on one level we were discussing a virus, we were on another level identifying issues such as racism, fast fashion, climate change, PTSD, nationalism and welfare states - all of which were part of other systems.

I asked the group which, if any of the components could be considered lynch pins or keystones. Interestingly the group were almost unanimous that all roads led back to economies.

I asked them which components we could amplify to help tackle the issues raised as a result of Covid-19. Many said that, for them, healthcare and education in all its forms (closing the digital divide and education surrounding the benefits of vaccinations and good hygiene, etc) would benefit from amplification.

My follow up question was "How can nations amplify healthcare and education?" They looked dismayed by the realisation that money would need to be borrowed or taxes raised. We then discussed the system of taxation and how some companies were able to avoid paying corporation taxes but when VAT is raised it impacts those on lower incomes to a greater extent. This would mean that the economic components in the system would need to be amplified before those that they viewed as a priority. This identified the impact one component has on the other components of the connected system.

I wanted to highlight the issue that removing one component part of the puzzle or system was rarely the answer as this could cause the breakdown of the system, or at the very least, impact negatively other components. In fact, they realised that the components could not easily be removed and more could be added instead.

I asked them the final question "Had Covid-19 not occurred, would all of these issues exist?" By doing this I was encouraging them to think about how integral Covid-19 is to the creation of the component parts. One pupil commented that Covid had merely acted as a "window" to these pre-existing social, political and economic conditions. The pupils began to realise that Covid-19 is itself a component of a system of socio-economic and political chaos. The whole global system needs to be addressed but not moved all at the same time to prevent collapse.

We made predictions about possible shifts in voting behaviour as a result of the discontent that some global citizens feel towards their governments and their decision-making during the pandemic. We also discussed the concepts of capitalism and communism and compared the way that different economic and political systems had handled the pandemic. We analysed the impact of greed, nepotism, denial and inequality.

We discussed the fact that thinking in systems was an excellent way for them to approach anything from understanding a Shakespearean play (characters, plot, themes, imagery) to tackling an interview question that demands they solve a problem (where the thinking process demonstrated is perhaps more significant than the solution).

In 45 minutes these pupils, who in today's session, were not aged more than 16 years were able to practise their thinking skills while eating their lunch. They were communicating and collaborating across year group ages, thinking critically and creatively.

If you would like a blank copy of the systems thinking worksheet shown above, you can download an editable PowerPoint slide below:

Systems thinking template
Download PPTX • 256KB

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