Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?

 


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

The UX of Course Design

UXI stumbled upon a post on Medium by John Spencer called "8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design - How a Small Side Project Changed the Way I Teach."  As someone who has taught for a quartet of decades and done UX design and even taught UX, I was intrigued by what he might have learned about "how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses."

A few basics to start: User experience design theory is confusingly abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED, But it is about focusing on the user experience of a device, tool, platform or web application. In doing this, a designer considers accessibility, usability and the easy to overlook pleasure someone might get from the interaction. Do you think Facebook would be as popular if people didn't get pleasure from using it?

Spencer says he first embraced UX design when he worked on creating a blogging platform for students called Write About.

As with any design, you make the best that you can, add features you think users will want - but then you have to deal with how users react and use it.

Is there a connection to teaching?

Every lesson has a design and teachers learn to design based on what works with a course or even with a specific group of students. Even larger in the design scheme is our current use of classroom systems and course architecture.

Building tools and systems that can be used intuitively understand with a minimum of additional instruction or training is key to UX. If you as a teacher spend a lot of time teaching procedures and methods rather than teaching your content and concepts.

Some of Spencer's takeaways make a lot of sense to me. For example, embrace onboarding. Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members. When you sign into a website or register for a service, you might get virtual tour and buttons have pop-ups or rollover text. The designers want you to feel comfortable as you navigate that first experience. Do we offer that to students when they enter a course?

Read Spencer's post, but maybe think about course design as a system that should seem invisible. I don't know that you need to be a UX designer to teach, or that we can all create a course that when you enter it you immediately know where to go and what to do, but we can certainly put the learner at the center of the design.