Archive for July, 2011

What a cockroach can teach us about systems thinking

Posted in learning on July 15, 2011 by gohelpyourself

This diagram shows the relationships in a complex problem such as education in the country. Diagramming is one of the tools of systems thinking.

By Anthony O. Alcantara

The six-legged creature frolicked in a mound of DDT, an insecticide that’s supposed to kill pests. With a squeal of delight similar to that of Mama Dionisia getting her first Hermes bag, the cockroach dives into the DDT with total abandon.

It’s a super cockroach. Not even the powerful DDT — which has massacred untold billions of vermin, won for its discoverer a Nobel, and gained the opprobrium of being a bane to the environment — can kill this insect.

Nicanor Perlas has personally met this super cockroach in a lab. And it was not because he needed an endorser for some future presidential campaign. (Remember him during the 2010 presidential elections?)

Perlas was just citing an example of how quick-fix thinking can lead to short-sighted solutions and disastrous consequences. This was during the recent “Kabata ni Jose: Ka-guro ni Rizal,” A Forum on Education for Sustainability and Systems Thinking in Philippine K-12 Schools at the Crowne Plaza Galleria Manila.

The Rizal Academy for Innovation and Leadership (TRAIL) and the Society for Organizational Learning (SOL) have organized this forum to help the Department of Education to improve education in the country.

How? By introducing systems thinking to public school teachers and students.

Simply put, systems thinking is a perspective, a set of specialized language and a set of tools that will enable a person to consider the consequences of ideas and actions that are inter-related in a bigger system. It’s big-picture thinking applied to complex problems.

Systems are groups of inter-related elements. It could be physical (circulatory system), political (local government units), social (karaoke singers club), etc.

It’s different from the traditional analysis that most people are used to. For example, an insect is eating up your favorite bananas in your small farm. Traditional analysis tells you the insect is the problem. So you use an insecticide to kill that insect.

However, unknown to you, or because you haven’t thought well enough about the consequences of this solution, that insect you just decimated also controls the population of another equally pesky insect. So the low-population insect lords it over your garden, wreaking greater havoc on your bananas and other crops.

Using the systems thinking perspective and simple graphical tools to analyze relationships, you may come up with better long-term solutions.

TRAIL and SOL want to train a few teachers in systems thinking in the US so they can spread the lessons they learned to all teachers in the country. These teachers will then be able to spread the gospel of systems thinking to grade school and high school kids.

It’s a laudable and worthwhile project. Aside from preventing kids to manufacture more super cockroaches, this might help solve our country’s complex problems such as corruption, the convoluted state of peace and order, and the dismal quality of education.

I just hope we won’t be immersed into the idea of systems too much.

During the forum, my group had a limited discussion on the forces that affect the quality of education. I said teachers don’t exert enough initiative in making a difference. I said many find it easier to blame bureaucracy, the principal, and the DepEd for their woes.

Somebody in the group countered that the system, or the bureaucracy, has much to do with the problems in education. Well, I didn’t say that the system has nothing to do with the problems. The problem is that many teachers have given up on starting things on their own.

They already have enough knowledge of what needs to be done. Sadly, action is lacking. Initiative is non-existent in most of the teachers. They prefer to blame the system, thinking that initiative is a one-time thing.

So can systems thinking save our educational system?

Using the systems thinking perspective, I think systems thinking is only a part of the solution. Heck, we don’t even have to study about systems thinking to become systems thinkers. Jose Rizal was considered a systems thinker, and yet he didn’t go to a seminar to study systems thinking.

And yet, with the recurring problems we face, systems thinking is probably a good start. So if you don’t want your kids breeding super cockroaches at home, you can do something about it.

Check out and I’m not affiliated with them in any way.



Remember the whip

Posted in martial arts on July 1, 2011 by gohelpyourself

"I will whip you good!" (Photo courtesy of Pernilla Lindmon Gauffin)

By Anthony O. Alcantara

Some may think that a whip is a kinky toy that you take out only on special occasions. But for me, it’s the perfect metaphor for attacking in martial arts. Even if you don’t care about martial arts, you may find this metaphor of the whip useful, especially when you want to imprint your hand on the face of an enemy as a sign of peace.

I have seen many beginners in martial arts who had a hard time punching or kicking with force and speed. That’s understandable. What may help them achieve the force and the speed much more quickly is a useful metaphor: arms and legs are whips.

That’s right. Your arms and legs are whips that can do damage to your opponents. As you know, the whip is a very flexible thing. Its tip travels faster than the speed of sound, making cracking sounds as it slices the air. The tip of the whip delivers the greatest damage.

Now if you think of your arm as a whip, your fist becomes the tip of your whip. Imagine yourself whipping your opponent with your arm and letting your fist strike your opponent like the tip of a whip. You will notice too that there is a recoil when you try to hit your opponent.

Just let your hand hang lose and let it travel like a whip toward your target. Then at the latest possible moment, just before impact, you stiffen your hand a little in anticipation of the impact.

Chances are you would have made a more powerful and faster strike… just by thinking of the whip metaphor.

It’s the same with kicking. Your foot becomes the tip of the whip. You deliver more power and much greater speed compared to just being mechanical about it.

I learned this when I took up Kendo, an art dealing with sword fighting. Though I was already proficient with using the bokken, or wooden sword, Kendo still had a lot to teach me.

The shinai, the bamboo sword used in Kendo, is pretty inflexible. The instructor told us beginners to imagine that our sword is a whip and that the tip of our shinai is the tip of the whip. He also gave us another image: our sword is like a fishing rod and that the tip of our sword is the hook with the squirming worms.

I thought the whip metaphor was better and kinkier, and therefore much more interesting and memorable.

I began applying the idea whenever I instruct people in martial arts. The metaphor can be applied to many other weapons. Arnis sticks can be thought of as whips. Wooden staffs can be likened to whips too.

So it may be a good idea to think of the whip when you need to defend yourself. Want to bitch slap that uncouth ogre at the office? Your whip can serve you well.

Just don’t get too kinky.