What a cockroach can teach us about systems thinking

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 http://www.rizalacademy.com/files/snowball%20invitation.pdf and www.solonline.org. I’m not affiliated with them in any way.

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One Response to “What a cockroach can teach us about systems thinking”

  1. Been looking for any system thinker here in the Philippines for quite a while, i almost gave up. I’m pleasantly surprised to see your post, and to read it’s related to education, it’s serendipitous.

    Anyway, equipping everyone (educators and students) with system thinking is a high leverage solution (or a beginning of solution).

    Sending people to other countries though to study might not be a high leverage point. Again, bureaucracy will kick in coupled with favoritism and self-interest.

    There’s hope though, open course (like Coursera + University of Michigan) offering lessons, 3-4 hours a week for 10 weeks, for free might be a start…

    …if educators, as you said, stop blaming/complaining, and start learning for the benefit of all.

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