Learning only a single systems method is reductive. A course that exposes breadth in a variety of systems methods encourages students to reflect on their circumstances-at-hand, and their explicit and implicit influences on guiding others in projects espousing systems thinking. This was a premise behind the structuring of “Systems Thinking, Systems Design“, an Information Workshop (i.e. 6-week elective quarter course) offered to master’s students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information (iSchool).
The first class day had a short course introduction focused on the history of the systems sciences, and a minimal orientation to the most basic concept in systems theory. Then, for the four class days that followed, student groups led 8 presentation-facilitations on a research reference cluster (with the instructor on standby as a subject matter expert on the content). The topics included:
- Object Process Methodology
- Dialogue Mapping
- Idealized Design
- Soft Systems Methodology
- Viable System Model
- Resilience in Socio-Ecological Systems
- Service Systems
- Generative Pattern Language
After each of the four days, students wrote Personal Appreciation Diary Logs (blog posts), mostly on the open web. These provided feedback to the instructor for commentary (and some remediation) at the beginning of the subsequent class meeting. We could review common understandings, difficulties and misconceptions about systems methods.
For the last (sixth) class meeting, each student group was asked to “prepare and present an infographic poster on their impressions about the system approaches most relevant to their research”. The conclusions reflected different interests, experiences and orientations amongst the iSchool students.
Group 1 (Megan Ferguson and Anna Lutsky) focused on a question most relevant to their immediate career direction: “How can librarians use systems thinking and modeling to plan for the future, enhance library services and better assist patrons?” They emphasized Soft Systems Methodology, Service Systems, and Dialogue Mapping.
Group 2 (Nadine Finlay and Hadley Staite) selected “Developing Systems Thinking” with “The new problem solving methods”. They liked Object Process Methodology, Idealized Design, Dialogue Mapping, and Service Systems.
Group 3 (Amanpreet Bains and Ritchie Singh) oriented towards “The Systems Tool-kit for Wicked Problems”. Across the range problems that might be encountered in the domains of (i) environment, (ii) voting, (iii) poverty and (iv) education, they liked: Dialogue Mapping (for communication, collaboration or participation); Soft Systems Methodology (for rich pictures); Idealized Design vs. Interactive Planning (for what we want right now); and Viable System Model and Generative Pattern Language (for urban planning).
Group 4 (Kyrie (Kaiyu) Wang and Bohan Yang) portrayed a view of “Systems Thinking” selected from the variety of methods in the course. They liked Viable System Model (for organizational adaptation); Service Systems Thinking (for value co-creation); Generative Pattern Language (as solutions in the future); Soft Systems Methodology (for the learning cycle); and Dialogue Mapping (for recording arguments).
Group 5 (Jolene Hurtubise and Omar Khattab) depict a “Systems Thinking Tree” with Natural Systems in the roots (at the bottom), Structured Systems and Semi-structured Systems in the trunk, and Loosely Structured Systems in the branches.
Group 6 (Richard Ovcharovich and Katherine Policicchio) synthesized a Worldview reflecting on the Information Workshop on “Systems Thinking”, incorporating Panarchy (from the Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems reference) with Object Process Methodology, Viable Systems Model and CATWOE (from Soft Systems Methodology), in a variety of colours footed with a legend.
Group 7 (Mingyi Ma and Dami (Oluwadamilola) Oludumila) surfaced key ideas that resonated with them in the introductory lecture on Systems Theory, Dialogue Mapping, Soft Systems Methodology, Viable System Model, Service Systems and Generative Pattern Language.
Group 8 (Karen Fingas and Michal Telem) reflected on “Systems Thinking: A Student’s Path”, sequentially building up knowledge from the first day lecture on Systems Theory, the second day on Object Process Methodology and Dialogue Mapping, then Idealized Design, Viable System Model and Generative Pattern Language.
On the last day in class, the groups each took about 10 minutes to step through the above infographics, so there’s an additional richness not captured in artifacts. From the diagrams, however, it’s clear that each group (and each student) appreciated the systems methods in a different way.
My leading the INF1005H section for January and February is a story in itself. In mid-December, the originally scheduled professor became unavailable to teach, so I was asked if I could fill in on the first section. He would return in March and teach the second section. Since I have previous experience teaching Systems Thinking in Finland, I was able to put together an entirely new course emphasizing systems methods, within the four-week lead time.
This was before I injured my Achilles tendon in a parkour adventure on the family day we annually schedule on my birthday! Fortunately, my spouse is understanding, attentive, and patient. We learned to use Uber and Lyft to get to the university campus, and borrowed a wheelchair whereby she could accelerate my mobility around the Robarts Library and iSchool complex.
This teaching opportunity also closed a long-running learning loop on sequencing a multi-term educational program on systems thinking. In fall 2010 and spring 2011, I had taught on Systems Thinking and Sustainability in the Creative Sustainability program at Aalto U. In that period, I was 80% full-time in my day job. I didn’t get a chance to revise the course when I returned to 100% full-time in the day job. The course leaders (Aija Staffans, Katri Pulkkinen and Susu Nousala, with program director Tiina Laurila) decided that full-on systems theory starting at the deep end wasn’t the best way for students to learn. They resequenced the courses into (i) teaming; (ii) mindset; (iii) systems thinking 1 (methods); and (iv) systems thinking 2 (theory), before entering into (v) thesis finalization. In February 2016, I led the penultimate course, Systems Thinking 2 that emphasizes systems theory. The open question was: how much could Systems Methods be taught before a full appreciation of Systems Theory? This teaching opportunity at the UToronto iSchool validated that teaching systems methods without full knowledge of systems theory is possible and practical. Covering the wide survey of systems methods had the side effect of making students more critical about their practices, leading to a questions that might be closed out with a final systems theory course.