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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?

I love how Dr Inna Kanevsky does not hold back when responding to trolls and crackpots on TikTok.

In this latest salvo, she shot down the perception of one such troll on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) and the MBTI in general. 

A critic might ask what the harm is in taking the test. My response: It is all fun and games until it is not. If companies still use it to hire, advance, or even fire, its use has serious consequences.

The creators of the MBTI were charlatans. The agencies that flog it are multi-million dollar business based on pseudoscience. To paraphrase a comment to Dr K’s tweet: You might as well rely on astrology to sort students and workers.

So what is the harm on using tools like MBTI? You sort people with a tool that is neither valid nor reliable. Its continued use also breeds uncritical and lazy thinking.


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I enjoy these comedic videos on two levels. The first is as a person who enjoys smart comedy. The second is as an educator with a background in science.

The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. If comedians fail to do this consistently, they are just commentators or pundits. The problem with some of these comedic comments is that they are based on ignorance and the perpetuating of such ignorance.

For example, take the comparison of the 95% likelihood that humans are responsible for climate change to the 99% effectiveness of a condom. A comedian remarked that he should be wary about having protected sex 100 times. His implication and intended comedic comment was that there was an assured one time that the condom would fail. This is not what 99% effectiveness means. It means that a condom is effective 99% each time it used.

There are other remarks about rising sea levels and mirrors in space that could be deconstructed and reconstructed with a scientific eye while still appreciating the humour of the exchanges.

My worry is that the audiences have not heard the scientific information previously and the comedy is their source of news. This is not the fault of the show because it is not their role — it is for entertainment, not education.

Ideally educators might use such videos as a relatable way to start lessons about scientific misconceptions. These are invaluable lessons to nurture critical and curious thinkers. Part of such thinking is investigating. When I watched this video yesterday, I looked for the source of the 95% statistic. It was from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its reports are available online.

The next investigative issue was when this video was first aired. A commenter indicated that it was from Season 12 and episode 11 of Mock the Week and first aired on 3 October 2013. One other person’s reply to that comment: “I wish they would post this themselves so I don’t have to look up the episode list”. This information makes it easier to find the actual report.

YouTube comments about the show's episode date.

The show’s YouTube channel does not operate like SciShow, so it does not list its resources to back up what it says. Its audiences then take what panellists say at face value, and if such a practice happens often enough, the information becomes fact and the practice becomes acceptable.

If we are to raise the baseline of scientifically literate people, educators need to realise that this is no laughing matter. They could take the laughing matter (funny videos) to turn ignorance into information into knowledge into mindsets.

I do not see the point of saying one form of thinking is better than another. Nor do I see the point of comparing the types of thinking with different lenses.

I do see the point of using different tools and strategies for different purposes or of combining what you have to get a better picture. This is like how we need both creative and critical thinking together instead of just one or the other apart.


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If I was still a biology teacher, I would use this video to teach content and nuanced thinking.

The content is plain: Even though yeast consumes nectar, it does not deprive bees of nutrients. The nuanced thinking is going beyond the idea that yeast is a competitor to bees.

According to the science, the yeast is consumed by the bees. Yeast also warms flowers up so that nectar flows more easily and this makes the nectar easier for bees to consume.

This is why I like SciShow videos. They not only present investing factoids, they also provide seeds for nuanced thinking. That is the sort of thinking students of science need to learn. It is not good enough to learn about science, it is more important to learn to be a scientist.

This might seem trite, but it needs to be said anyway: Individuals tend to not think systemically, they think only for themselves.

Take this tweet from just over a month ago showing our residents descending upon an IKEA store just before out lockdown.

Now consider something a bit more recent and further away. Protesters in the USA demanded their rights while conveniently forgetting their responsibilities.

Why don’t individuals think more systemically? Perhaps they do not have accurate or timely information. But even if they have that information, they might not be able to analyse it meaningfully.

In the current COVID-19 context, most people do not understand how graphs both show and hide information (see video below). They may not have read or understood why we have specific distances to stay physically apart. They cannot distinguish the value of anecdotal findings vs peer reviewed articles.


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Then again, even analysis is subject to rationalisation. You can give two people the same dataset and they can arrive at different conclusions.

This article in The Atlantic provided more insights. The short version: We tend to have short, narrow, and singular vision. We need to learn how to see long, broad, and complex.

Excerpt from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/03/what-really-doomed-americas-coronavirus-response/608596/

Learning how to see, think, and act more systemically starts first by bursting one’s own bubble. To gain a broader perspective, one first needs access to information, and then the ability to critically process that information.

If I had a wish on how schooling would change, it would be that subjects not be taught in silos and that students learn to make connections between disciplines. The learning would not just be about content (learning about), but also about being a better thinker and person (learning to be).

Anyone not living under a rock will know that the current cultural entertainment phenomena are Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones.

Any educator worth their salt could take advantage of them. Videos that analyze their content are not only seeds, hooks, and drivers of content, they might also be used to teach nuance and critical thinking.


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The video above is one such example. It provides a low entry barrier, a shared experience, and cognitive dissonance among the learners.

An educator might leverage on such a video by highlighting how it models nuanced and critical thinking. By facilitating discussion and reflection the same educator can teach her students to do the same.

 
This article cited a shocking statistic:

In one study, a test based on NASA’s recruiting process for engineers and rocket scientists was used to measure creativity and innovative thinking in small children. At age five, 98 percent of the kids had genius-level imaginative abilities. But at age ten, only 30 percent of the children fell into that category. Want to guess how many adults maintain their creative thinking skills after making it through our educational system? Just 2 percent.

So what might a parent or teacher do to encourage independent and creative thinking? They might take the advice of Esther Wojcicki, a teacher and the mother of Susan Wojcicki (the CEO of YouTube), Janet Wojcicki (a Fulbright winner), and Anne Wojcicki, cofounder of 23andMe.

  • Unshackle from standard curriculum, connect to the daily world: Get students to start “paying attention, taking an interest in the world around them, and forming their own opinions”.
  • Address the why: Remind them to ask why they are learning something. Tell them why.
  • Encourage questions and model seeking answers: Co-learn with kids, but show them search and evaluation strategies.

This tweet and news article reminded me about preconceived notions we might have about robots.

What might be unclear in the tweet was that the girl in question felt overloaded with homework that required her to write the same thing repeatedly.

Relying on rote writing and subjecting people to unnecessary repetition is robotic. There is necessary repetition, e.g., in sports or emergency procedures, that builds what some call “muscle memory”.

Writing characters and essays over and over again is pointless if they are not going to be used meaningfully. But some still insist on doing this because they know no other way.

The girl thought outside the box to get a box-like robot that could write for her. The news article described the robot as being able to simulate different human writing, so she might have got away with it.

We should let some types of robots do what they do best (e.g., fast, accurate, and tireless repetition) and allow humans to do what we currently do better (e.g., imagine, opine, and reflect). We need to be unshackled from unnecessary low-level tasks so that we can focus on more worthwhile efforts.

This idea does not apply to all circumstances, just like rote tasks do not help in every eventuality.


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