Category: systems thinking

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The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book! Learning and Social Media

The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

Is this a library or a graveyard? P.S. Where's the power outlet?

I found myself in a strange situation the other day: I was listening to a podcast of a panel of Web 2.0 marketers talk about their new books and the power of old media in a new media age. No matter how digital a person is, there is still something to hold on to (literally) with a book.

The panel was hosted by Mitch Joel on his podcast Six Pixels of Separation (which is also the title of his new book), and included folk like marketer Chris Brogan and his co-author Julien Smith and others discussing social media and the perils of sticking with the old ways of marketing, yet highlighting the importance (and honour) of being a New York Times Bestseller (i.e., being recognized by a print newspaper as a top seller of paper books). There’s lots involved in this, but most notably I think it actually reflects what Robert Fulford once called “the triumph of narrative” . This is the appeal of storytelling, depth and coherence in communication — things that most new media does quite badly. Twitter, on a tweet-by-tweet basis is largely incoherent. I might have areas I tweet on and may seek people who tweet about other things, but because not everyone stays ‘on message’ and that people tend to have diverse interests (including Twitter follows), that leaves a mass of information that is left up to the user to make sense of.

Facebook, because it is more closely tied to relationships or ‘friends’ we are familiar with, has at least some over-arching thematic consistency to it, but it still isn’t largely a place to tell or learn from stories.

That’s where books come in. Amazon has released the Kindle, while others are trying to digitize text into books. My colleagues at the Strategic Innovation Lab at the Ontario College of Art & Design are looking at the future of the book, trying to understand how to add the searchable features of a regular webpage and the linking features of hypertext within the codex form of book — electronic or otherwise. Seems like a lot of energy is going into a ‘dead’ technology.

Formal education can be a lot like a book. While anyone can pull together the content within a course — textbooks, slides, recordings – few people will learn in the same way at a distance, in chunks, than being part of a coherent narrative provided through a good course (** i.e., one that teaches people to learn, not shovels content at them). That is no reason not to accumulate chunks. Twitter is great — at what it does. So are books.

So much of our discussions of eHealth, eLearning, and education is that we take an either/or approach. Is distance learning better than face-to-face? Books are dead, all the information is on the Web. These arguments are not helpful. I don’t suspect the book — the paper and cloth codex of today — will last, but I do think the book as a long-form manuscript (digital or otherwise) will survive. Our storytelling — at a distance anyway — depends on it.

Another issue is related to complexity. Complex problems require solutions that can reflect this complexity. Those complex responses are much less likely to emerge through a 140 character tweet. They may emerge over 1000’s of tweets, but without any obvious ways to derive coherence from these without mining the data for it. The book, because of its focus on organizing a lot of information into a narrative is one of the best ways to do this. So while we celebrate the rise of new tools and technologies, let’s also give a cheer to the ones we already have.

Lastly, when I came up with the title for this post, I suspected that I wasn’t the only one who’d uttered such a phrase. So in the name of acknowledging the efforts of others, you can see the many different posts using this title here, here, here, here and here (and many other places).

education & learningpsychologysocial systemssystems sciencesystems thinking

Back to School and the Lesson of Accumulation

For millions of kids and young adults and the many faculty and family members associated with the noble profession of teaching, today is the biggest day of the year. It’s back to school.

School and learning are clearly on the minds of many these days. As I posted last week, there is much to be concerned with how education is (or is not, depending on your point of view) being funded. Yesterday I read an editorial on the CBC’s website from a teacher who pointed to the stress that his profession is under and how it is killing those who choose to remain in it.

“I think that the whole idea of teaching has changed in the last 15 to 20 years,” says Emily Noble, past-president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

“People are dealing with more high-need students, with more multicultural issues and with no-fail policies.

“Teachers want to make a difference, but the supports are just not there.”

It’s not a particularly rosy time for educators of any stripe.

Anyone who’s been at the head of the classroom (myself included) knows that teaching is as much of a vocation or calling as it is a job. It is not something you do from 9-5 or whatever the set hours are. If you ran an education system on ‘work to rule’ where people did just what their job required of them within normal hours, paid them an hourly wage and had them account for every minute they worked, the system would collapse within weeks. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a greater gap between what teachers actually do and what they are perceived to do by those outside of the profession. As a professor, I routinely shock people who think that I have 4 months off each summer and spend the remaining 8 wandering the hallowed halls of academe ‘thinking big thoughts’, reading books and conversing with grad students in between teaching duties. Between ongoing grant writing, doing research, conference presentations, thesis defences, supervising staff, writing, and preparing our courses for the fall (including adding in the H1N1 provisions this year) summers are anything but idyllic times off. There’s a lot of stress in this job and, as a recent double issue of the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment explored, it manifests itself in many (mostly harmful) ways. Still, most of us do it because we believe in our profession and, mostly, enjoy what we do.

Whether at university or primary or secondary school, teaching as a whole is undergoing a major change. As Smol writes:

There is a general understanding that things “are not the same as they once were.”

Teaching has always been a tough, but rewarding job in part because there’s always new things to learn and we, as humans, are wired for learning. Teaching is also a dynamic profession aimed at supporting this learning, but as Smol and others have written, the changes that are happening in education are great and fast and without the structural supports in place to help these changes take place. I wrote of resliency in my last post, arguing that we’re testing the resilience of our education system with this imbalance between demands and resources. Today I want to focus on another important systems concept: accumulation.

It turns out, people are lousy at understanding how things build up over time. A study by John Sterman from MIT, one of the leading scholars in system dynamics, found that even among his students — some of the best, brightest and well-equipped to handle this topic given that it is part of their studies — most have a poor sense of what accumulation really means. So do educational policy makers I suspect. The reason this is important for education is that as accumulation of stress builds the likelihood of something going amiss increases dramatically. A tipping point, that term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book by the same name, is an expression of accumulation.

In our case of education, the tipping point could come when people no longer want to become teachers en masse. Or, it becomes nearly impossible to hire good, quality educators for anything other top salaries, which in an age when even the basics aren’t funded, seems unlikely. Or, teachers begin to amass more sick days than ever before (which is already happening) creating disruptions in the classroom. (Note: Remember those days when the substitute teacher came to class? Were those ever days filled with lots of learning and orderly classrooms? Not often. Imagine that on the rise as teachers start to miss days on the job a little more)

The unintended consequences could see parents fleeing the public system of education for private institutions, leaving a growing gap between the education of the haves and have nots  even more than exists today. Another option is that some other market form of education replaces our current system. Among the many scenarios that could play out, most suggest that the system could break. And when systems break suddenly and quickly, the stress increases, which seems a little counterproductive given that it is one of the problems in the first place.

The Arab proverb about ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind here. The mistake is thinking that a single straw caused all that damage. It did, but only because of its relationship to all the other straws. Each straw weighs the same and presumably has the same relative impact on the camel. What tipping points show is that, despite this similarity between objects (straws, stressors, whatever…) not all are created equal in terms of their impact. While it is true that each individual object taken on its own is relatively the same, the cumulative impact makes each of them quite different. That ‘last straw’ (which, incidentally, is the name of a great teaching game on the social determinants of health) , has far more influence than any other straw. What we don’t often know is which straw will serve as the ‘last’ one. How resilient is the system? What is its carrying capacity? We don’t know, but by paying attention we can anticipate problems ahead and potentially avoid this last straw scenario and the tipping points that follow.

So as you go back to school, consider bringing something other than just an apple for the teacher.  Perhaps a lesson in accumulation for the principal, school board officials, the public taxpayer, and educational policymakers will do.

complexityhealth promotionsocial systemssystems thinking

Cohesion vs. Diversity

I just watched (yet another!) great TED talk that solidified something that’s been on my mind all week: diversity.

The talk by Cary Fowler, the leader of the global seed bank, a remarkable initiative aimed at saving the world’s seed for future use should that day (or many days) come when we need to draw upon the diversity on our planet to support life. Even though we think we live in a world of apparent dietary diversity (after all the average supermarket literally carries thousands of products — just look at the number of types of yogurt you can buy at a typical store), the truth is that we are in deep trouble when it comes to the diversity of natural food choices available to us. It is estimated that there are about 7500 different types of apples alone. But we rarely see that expressed in food choices. Shop your local supermarket and you’ll find that variety sharply drops down to about a dozen or less. And this dozen or less is the same at most of the other shops. The truth is, we are limiting our diversity in food dramatically and are potentially harming our potential survival in the process.

In Canada, we praise ourselves for being an accepting society and our social, cultural and linguistic diversity. My home, Toronto, may be the most ethnoculturally diverse city in the world when measured by these aforementioned characteristics. Scott Page, a systems scientist from the University of Michigan, has written a fantastic book on diversity that provides a strong case for diversity in many different contexts from school to work to community life.

But diversity has a dark side. The less we have in common (i.e., the more diverse we are) the less cohesion we are likely to experience as a duo, group or society. It was that very topic that Michael Valpy wrote about in the Globe and Mail this week. In his article, he quotes another Canadian and now Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff from his new book:

“We need a public life in common,” he writes, “some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live. Without this feeling of belonging, even if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other. When we can call the strangers citizens, we can feel at home with them and with ourselves.

And reaching for a codicil from his intellectual hero, he adds: “Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.””

Anyone who has worked on projects where there is a diversity of opinion knows the benefit of having someone not only understand what you say, but also what you mean. That trait alone may be the reason we commit to working together at all and, when it doesn’t happen, why we might choose to do things apart. A healthy system has both diversity (represented by chaos at its extreme) and cohesion (represented by rigid order at its opposite pole). Having watched Cary Fowler’s talk shortly after reading Michael Valpy’s article has me questioning what the balance is in fostering diversity within a system. How does one know when you’re ‘diverse enough’ or when you’re too rigid and inflexible? In the case of Cary Fowler, he’s not planning to have all 7500 apples growing at the same time and place if he even gets all those seeds saved, but he’s not planning on saving just the tastiest, crispest or hearty of them either. That strikes me as a good thing.

In my eyes, a great community is one that is diverse and cohesive — living at the ‘edge of chaos’ in systems terms. Toronto is one of those cities, with many small villages within it, and has been highlighted by urban thinkers like the late Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida as a place that does diverse urbanism rather well. As imperfect as it is, Toronto is pretty cohesive.

But it is also seeing a large gap between the wealthy and the poor – and likely the healthy and the unhealthy. This gap was driven home yesterday as I took part on a panel on the social determinants of health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.The concept of ‘poverty by postal code‘ and the gap between those with choices and those without was clear. Along with Carol Timmins and Stephen Hwang, we spoke separately and as a panel about issues of public health practice, homelessness, and youth. As we explored these issues I thought about this ‘cohesion’ amongst the diversity and wondered whether this is as good as it gets? Can we create greater social cohesion than this or are we doomed to some level of diversity that has lots of upsides, but also many downsides. Can we have it all?

What is the balance here and would we know it if we achieved it?

systems thinking

Making the Invisible Visible

This was a remarkable week for me for many reasons, most of which had to do with getting a new slant on reality or a new view of some of the systems that I am a part of and those that I am not.

I had the pleasure to spend four days in Bogota, Colombia meeting with the amazing folk at CINTEL and presenting at the 4th Encuentro de Invsestigacion Innovation e Ingernieria on Techno-wellbeing. I had the privilige to share the work that the Youth Voices Research Group is doing on health promotion with youth and our integrated eHealth model for community engagement including our Food4Health and Public Health Gambling Projects.

The first morning of meetings I was writing at my computer and then got up to look out the window of my hotel at the bustling morning rush hour of Bogota. As I was admiring the dogs playing in the park, the roar of the motorcycles and the beauty of the tree-lined boulevards outside my window I felt my back go into massive spasm. It hurt so much that I could hardly move. Realizing that I could not stand at the window in pain forever I fought through the ‘lightning bolts’ and managed to get to my bag where I had Advil tablets to manage the pain. But even at the best of times, it hurt – a lot. Over the past week the pain has subsided considerably, although I am still not 100% and probably won’t be for a few more days. But the pain isn’t the story here as much as the revelation it brought to me about the role that accessibility plays within the systems we engage in. Even simple things like stairs became a real pain (literally!) to take. Where I normally bound up the stairs two at a time, I found myself gingerly lifting one leg at a time up each step.

On my first day back home I had to shuffle on my way to the office. In process of shuffling, I realized how I had ‘become’ one of ‘those people’ who walk so slowly that I often get frustrated at in my effort to go somewhere quickly. My back should get better soon, but what hopefully remains is the lessons that this brought (including the one about taking better care of myself to prevent this from happening). As a systems thinker, I see these lessons or affirmations as including:

1. Diversity of perspective is critical. Just in one morning shuffle to the university I realized massive design flaws in the city I live in that favour the able-bodied. For example, some of these street lights can’t be adequately navigated in time if you can’t walk at a normal pace. Another big flaw is the heavy weight of the front doors of my building. I damn near pulled my back out again just opening the doors, which are exceptionally heavy.

2. Accessibility has many forms. Public health leaders are getting better at recognizing the social barriers to health engagement created by issues of race, social class, sex and gender, and geography. But one thing that can easily get lost is physical accessibility via disability. In eHealth for example, we often create elaborate websites that have tiny fonts that people with limited eyesight can’t see. Ever try reading a Blackberry or iPhone for long periods of time? It’s only for the good-sighted. Or we make assumptions that people can sit at computer and type (like I am now) and don’t have bad backs (like I did).

3. The mundane is where the action is. In systems we are often attracted to events, because that’s where the action appears to be. Yet, the mundane activities of a system is where most activities happen. For example, tying your shoes is something that happens every day and is never paid attention to until you break your shoelace or (in my case) hurt your back. In order to prepare for systems change, we need to anticipate how change might occur within the everyday actions in the system.

4. The edge of chaos always shifts. Creative systems tend to function at the edge of chaos, yet this edge has a dynamic position. My personal creative edge took a major directional change this week when my back went out. I continued to creatively navigate through my world, but instead of imagining new possibilities that hadn’t been created before, I found my creative edge focused on trying to get close to my former level of equilibrium on day-to-day activities like walking, shoe tying, and just getting dressed.

As I move into a new Fall term and am about to teach a new course on systems science these lessons are particularly apt. While I don’t think I’ll get my students to throw their back out, I will have them imagine how their current assumptions about a system can radically change with a very simple shift in vantage point, making the invisible visible.

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Specialized and Generalized Systems Thinking and Action

This weekend my wife and I had the pleasure to host one of my best friends in the world and his fiancee for a weekend visit to Toronto. It’s perhaps no surprise that we spent a lot of time talking and laughing over a meal. Last night we talked about the impact of our work and the focus we’ve chosen to take and it got me thinking about the challenge of finding balance between specialization and generalization in health promotion work relative to impact. My wife is a social worker who specializes in domestic violence issues. Although she is a trained psychoanalyst, she came to find her greatest opportunity to contribute to the world lay in tackling problems from a systems perspective. She builds multi-sector partnerships, collaborations and works to address the problem of domestic violence at its root and its consequences from multiple perspectives including treatment & prevention and policy & practice. It is a systems approach from the beginning to the end.

Readers of this blog will know that this is a similar approach I take to the problems that interest me like food systems change, tobacco control and gambling. These are often ‘wicked’ problems — those with no clear source or obvious solution requiring collaboration and broad stakeholder engagement to solve. I work and study in the field of health promotion, which is (I argue) a systems science and practice even if it doesn’t identify itself as such. It looks at the bigger picture and tries to use that lens as a means of understanding the world and solving social problems.

My friends are both quite attune to this and I would argue also apply systems thinking to their work, yet they do in a very different way. They are counseling psychologists and, for the most part, they work one-to-one or in small groups. What our conversation revealed was the myriad ways in which systems thinking can be applied to the big and small picture. Family systems therapy for example, is one way in which these ideas are applied to small groups or individuals. But there are many more.

This got me to thinking about the opportunities and challenges associated with promoting systems transformations at the macro and micro levels. The way my friends approach their work is fundamentally different even if it shares much of the same interests in systems change as the approach that I take. Yet, that difference has a huge impact on a few people (hundreds) rather than an almost imperceptible impact on thousands.  In applying systems thinking outside of the clinical encounter, the problem they face is that they are not paid (that is, they are not reimbursed for clinical time) when they go beyond the one-to-one and small-group approach; so even if they wanted to do that work, they couldn’t unless it was on their own time. Health promotion is almost the opposite: we have become so good at working with large groups that we’ve stopped developing strategies that can help individuals that fit with the health promotion values. It’s true, that there is a season for each of these approaches. Health promotion has worked hard to escape the individual-focus that other fields like health education still use and psychology is pretty good at doing the individual thing. It just seems that there is room for both specialized and generalized systems thinking and action working together. I just haven’t figured out how. Any suggestions?