The last #AusELT chat of 2014 was voted for by the community and the selected topic was ‘systems thinking’ (ST). Nicki set us up with some pre-reading and also connected the chat with the #systhinking community on Twitter. The inspiration for this chat was Adrian Underhill’s recent professional development sessions, in conjunction with English Australia, on ‘Developing a “learning organisation” approach to PD’, and Underhill is referenced several times in this chat. You can read some posts about Underhill’s session here , here, and here.
A little bit of background
For some of us (ahem) this was a new phenomenon, and you can be forgiven for not having heard of it before – @Penultimate_K described it as ‘one of those “sleeper” topics which is just gaining critical mass in ELT.’
According to Nicki some of the key names to look out for are Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman, a psychologist who specialises in behavioural economics and who was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in 2002 is also the author of the bestselling, Thinking, Fast and Slow, published in 2011.
One brain, two systems
In his book, Kahneman puts forward the idea that within each person’s brain there are two types of thinking, two different systems. Type 1 thinking is the ‘knee-jerk’, intuitive thinking. It’s the thinking that doesn’t think! Rather, it is a response to a situation – it’s the system that we use to deal with stressful situations or other times when deliberation could be harmful or where speed is of the essence. Type 1 is the system that guides our actions. Type 2 thinking, on the other hand, is where our actions are thought through and, through this process, those actions can be analysed and validated (or not, as the case may be). Type 2 is where we reflect and theorise.
There are many YouTube videos, both long and short, where Kahneman explains his ideas. The one that was cited in the pre-reading blog post is this one .
@sophiakhan4, who hadn’t read Kahneman’s book, wasn’t hugely convinced by the illustrative example given in this video, which centred around the hypothetical case of Julie, who ‘read fluently at age 4’. She (hypothetically) graduated recently, and Kahneman asks ‘What was her GPA?’ Apparently we are meant to assume it is high, and this is meant to illustrate the fact that we make many decisions in everyday life that we think are logical but are in fact based on beliefs and biases. This might not have been the best example, but as @michaelegriffin pointed out, ‘it is just a metaphor’ and a way to think about the issue.
@sophiakhan4 had a concern about dichotomistic divisions along the lines of “there are two types of people in the world…” – even if this is not what Kahneman intends, people unfamiliar with his work might easily interpret his ideas in this either/or way. She asked for opinions on the book and @michaelegriffin had a glowing recommendation: ‘I loved it! I said to myself many times, “Gosh this is so related to teaching I can’t believe it.”’
So what IS ‘systems thinking’?
Systems thinking can happen on a number of levels and is open to several interpretations. However, for our purposes, we were viewing ST as the awareness of the two systems at work, and how this awareness can shape our professional development as teachers and learners, and benefit, not only the individual, but organisations.
@aparnajacob said that ‘Underhill mentioned complex systems, how ST was really about understanding the interconnection/interaction between parts of a whole.’ This resonated with @sophiakhan4, who saw this as linking in with established theory on dynamic complex systems, emergent language, etc.
@sophiakhan4 suggested that ‘ #systhinking sees the complex interactions of the whole, not just an isolated event & its immediate cause/consequence.’ @Penultimate_K agreed with this, adding that ‘the interactions can have either positive or negative outcomes.’ @aparnajacob further added ‘And his point is that all of these outcomes are learning opportunities’, giving the example of a school that launches an unsuccessful new product, with investigations revealing inadequate market research, which makes for a huge opportunity for ‘wholeorglearning’. (Isn’t it great that Twitter allows collaborative definitions like this??)
You can find further simple definitions and explanations of systems thinking here and here .
Types of thinking
@Penultimate_K outlined the two types of thinking for the chat participants: T1 (fast, instinctive) & T2 (slow, logical), and asked ‘Which do you use more in your work?’. For herself, she said, ‘My role [as an academic manager] demands more type 2 thinking than type 1.’
@michaelegriffin said, ‘For me personally, I think I need to intentionally engage T2 at certain times or it is all T1 … but I’m not convinced all T2 all the time is practical or possible or beneficial,’ and later he further clarified: ‘I see T1 as the usual mode. The one we need for surviving and filtering and all. Better decisions and clearer thinking from T2.’
@aparnajacob speculated that ‘T2 would be ideal but a combination is required’ and also wondered whether groups tended towards T2 and individuals towards T1. @Penultimate_K thought this was probably the case: ‘Group thinking would need to be more deliberative, I guess.’
There seemed to be an implication that fast, instinctive thinking is inaccurate or unreliable. @mikejcsmith was not convinced of this, and @sophiakhan4 agreed: ‘sometimes you need to react quickly, and sometimes instincts are correct.’ @HairyChef suggested that Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, which is about the remarkable accuracy of ‘first impressions’ and ‘instincts’, might be useful reading to accompany this debate.
Following the instinct debate, @michaelegriffin asked: ‘Could we say that instincts are prone to bias?’ Several participants agreed with this: @HairyChef said, ‘Absolutely – otherwise they would not exist (or humans would process info much faster).’ @sophiakhan4 thought this was probably true but wasn’t sure you could say T2 was any freer from bias: ‘some biases can be so ingrained that even T2 doesn’t always take the layers off.’
@mikejcsmith pointed that ‘instincts develop via natural selection. If they fail too often, they disappear,’ the implication being (in agreement with Gladwell) that instincts we have evolved are more likely to be accurate than ‘biased’. @michaelegriffin agreed, saying ‘[that] is why I think System 1 is very good for hunting but probably not so good for planning courses’ though @mikejcsmith found room for both T1 and T2 even in hunting: ‘maybe [T]2 is good for stalking, [T]1 good for the final lunge and kill.’ @michaelegriffin accepted this, and put it in a nutshell: ‘Using [T]2 all the time is impossible and tiring. Sometimes we need [T]1.’
What contexts can systems thinking apply in?
@mikejcsmith commented: ‘I am trained in systems engineering, but I seem to find methodical lesson planning very difficult. Mostly teach instinctively.’@Penultimate_K asked, ‘Do the disciplines of systems engineering have any crossover into classroom instruction?’ and @mikejcsmith replied that ‘they certainly come into play in the art of needs analysis … Needs analysis happens continuously for me. Always thinking about it in class. Always outweighs lesson planning.’ @Penultimate_K summarised this as ‘constant fine-tuning according to the class context of the learners in front of you’ and @mikejcsmith agreed: ‘Yes, perhaps the way to think about it is that T2 (methodological) is the undercurrent, and T1 (adaptive) steers.’
@michaelegriffin made a point relating to the pre-reading blog post which seemed to be focused on how/why we need to teach students to be disciplined thinkers. He noted ‘I’m much more focused on decisions I make as a T than teaching Ss to think in this way.’ @sophiakhan4 agreed: ‘That makes more sense to me at the moment – though it’s fascinating how #systhinking can apply to so many diff contexts.’
@Penultimate_K agreed with this and emphasized the importance of distinguishing between systems thinking in classrooms, in teaching approach, and in organisations. Even further contexts had come up earlier, when @michaelegriffin had shared posts showing how systems thinking is linked to language emergence and to career development. As @Penultimate_K put it, ‘it’s hard to confine the ideas to one area’ with this particular topic.
@HairyChef thought there were also applications to behaviour management – ‘how teachers respond to students’ behaviours in young learner classes.’ He wondered whether a ‘fast-thinking’ T1 teacher would get better results than the T2 teacher ‘who always thinks before reprimanding,’ thus ‘missing’ instances of bad behaviours. He also connected the topic of systems thinking to cognitive psychology models of short term memory vs executive functions, giving the example of a new vs an experienced teacher – the latter has ‘more confidence and reliance on T1 pathways/systems.’
@mikejcsmith pointed out that a systems thinking approach is ‘difficult’ when it comes to very personal areas such as behaviour analysis or management and felt that ‘human behaviour may be too complex for a classical systems approach … Humans, especially learners, are not machines. They react emotionally. Learning barriers are almost always emotional.’
Is there a place for systems thinking in the classroom?
Focusing in on the classroom, and echoing the pre-chat blog post, @Penultimate_K asked ‘So is there “a need to educate learners to be disciplined thinkers”? … How do you think that could be done in among everything else that happens in class?’
@sophiakhan4 wasn’t sure: ‘in terms of language aren’t we aiming for automaticity? Though clear benefits to e.g. editing, self-monitoring … At the moment I see more benefits to exploring this for ourselves/our organisations rather than as something we “teach” students.’ @michaelegriffin felt the same, and simply said: ‘I’m not sure this is my job or how much I can really do on this in an English class.’
However, other chatters felt there might be classroom applications. @HairyChef suggested that there may be ‘a need to draw attention to ways learners evaluate peers, own learning from day to day,’ and @DesouzaJuanita gave a concrete example: ‘I have a CAE student run the risk of another failure because [of] not trusting instinct … we need to train them to be adaptive thinkers.’ She explained that she had extensively encouraged to this student to trust his instincts, but that this may be ‘just how he thinks’, even in his L1. (At this point, @Penultimate_K’s response wins Quote of the Night: ‘So his instinct is to be cautious? T1 meets T2!!!’)
@mikejcsmith also suggested that ‘using empathy methods in teaching’ allows students to access T1, not just rule-driven T2 (eg, pair work) and that this T1/T2 combination approach is important in any grammar lesson.
Can systems thinking turn organisations into ‘an adventure park for everyone’s learning’?
Returning to a claim made in Adrian Underhill’s session, @Penultimate_K asked: ‘How close is your organisation to being “an adventure park for everyone’s learning”?’
@aparnajacob thought this could occur ‘only if a culture of healthy 360 degree feedback and learning exists,’ and @sophiakhan4 found this ‘rather optimistic’ – but added that she was ‘100 % pro people listening to & learning from each other beyond the silos.’
@aparnajacob felt that ‘systems thinking can make leaders of everyone in an organisation’ but emphasised that ‘for this we need to revisit the traditional definition of managers/leaders.’ Those interested in exploring Aparna’s ideas further should read her food-for-thought #AusELT post on this which included this quote on which we will conclude:
“Systems thinking begins when we see the world through the eyes of another…and realize that our own perspective is just a point of view”
There is nothing ‘hard and fast’ about ‘thinking fast and slow’ – when we start to question our perspective and how this perspective was developed, we can better understand our own thought processes and apply the different types of thinking to produce better outcomes in our classrooms and in our places of work.
This post by @sophiakhan4 and @Penultimate_K