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Today I build on my reflection yesterday on how to encourage systemic thinking by teaching learners to ask “What else?“.

I listened to a podcast interview by Conan O’Brien of former US President Barack Obama. Towards the end of the interview, both explored a theme that started with this quote (54min mark):

…if we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will… be between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ignorance, and ambition on the other.

In the context of the US political system, the quote could have been from a pundit or scholar on a news talk show yesterday. But it was by Ulysses S Grant in 1875.

Obama then described we how tend to pay attention only to what is immediately in front of us. If you asked me, I would say that we deal with the urgent and forget what is important.

Both men were trying to say how important it is to study and learn from history. The problems we face now are not new; they are just different.

So if we are to nurture critical thinkers who think systemically, another powerful question they might ask is: When else?

After a rigorous walk yesterday, my mind connected some dots and arrived at this point: Students need to learn how to think more systemically.

Sytemically, not just systematically. The latter is about logic and sequence. The former is a combination of divergent and convergent thinking. It is about critical questioning and appreciating nuance. 

Why is systemic thinking important?

Consider the disconnect between what happens in policymaking circles (e.g., the recent updates on Singapore’s ramping up of contact tracing, testing, and vaccination), and social media and kopitiam/cabbie chatter.

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The thinking that happens in the first group is mycelial or rhizomal — it is complex, interconnected, and messy. It is necessarily divergent to find solutions to a complex problem. But such thinking then needs to be conceptualised and simplified, i.e., it needs to converge to communication points and concrete action.

The thinking and discourse in the second group tends to be superficial. I choose not to embed examples here because they are harmful. You need only take a cursory glance of your Facebook timelines or WhatsApp conversations for examples.

The second group depends on personal experiences, does not counter bias, and eschews data or facts. It is convergent from the start and does not diverge because its communication circles are tight or even closed.

I reflect on this 15 years after being conferred a Ph.D. that is based on systemic thinking and design. I majored in Instructional Systems Technology and minored in Information Science. That investment reshaped my life and work.

So during my walk, I wondered why I was not taught to think this way earlier. I compared my schooling to what my son and his generation experience now. They are more aware of the importance of asking critical questions, embracing uncertainty, and non-routine work.

But they are still subject to teachers, tests, and timetables that do not (cannot?) accommodate systemic thinking. So how might they be taught and nurtured to operate more broadly?

At the risk of oversimplification, they need to ask beyond the core set of powerful questions. They need to learn how to ask and answer “What else?” questions. 

If they are solving authentic problems, they need to iteratively ask what else might contribute to those problems and what else might solve them. If they are involved in meaningful projects, they need to ask themselves what else they need to do.

Asking “What else?” is not the only way to develop systemic thinking, but it a useful start. What else do we need to do to enable systemic thinking?


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