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Teaching Systems Thinking to Designers

Format: Workshops, RSD2, Topic: Learning & Education

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Facilitator: Birger Sevaldson

On November 9, 2013, a dozen attendees at the RSD symposium came together to reflect on shared issues and experiences around teaching systems thinking to designers. This workshop was initiated by Birger Sevaldson, with the following description:

Teaching systems thinking in general is a challenge. Teaching it to design students has its own challenges and potentials. On one side designers tend to be object-oriented while systems thinking is more geared towards being relation oriented. On the other side designers have the wonderful ability to visualize?

The workshop will discuss and exchange experiences from teaching systems thinking for designers. We hope to collect ideas and concepts as well as sources and references and to brainstorm on possibilities. Hopefully we can create a group that keeps in touch also after the symposium and that recruits more people.

After a round of self-introductions, the group was asked to contribute ideas to the questions:

  • What are the most pressing questions that people have?
  • What are the patterns?

Ideas that organically emerged, and were discussed included:

1. The switch from being object-oriented to relations

Design has traditionally been centered on objects. Systems thinking centers on relations between parts and wholes, i.e. part-part, part-whole, and whole-whole. As the domains in which designers work increasingly expand from products to services and social interactions, the thinking towards relations becomes more important.

2. Clarity in the purpose of systems thinking for students

The motivations for students to change their thinking may not have been made clear to them. Systems thinking may be included early in foundational curriculum, and learners may not appreciate the value at the outset. If the benefits of systems thinking are explained in advance, students may be more receptive to adopting and applying the ideas.

3. Problem definition and problem design

Systems thinking may be a strategy (or approach) to be applied to certain types of problems. Are there characteristics to describe when systems thinking might be helpful or appropriate? Is there a problem with students’ thinking before being taught systems thinking that can be identified?

4. Boundaries on systems thinking content to be taught

What is the breadth and depth of systems thinking to be conveyed, particularly in foundational courses. If the students are around 19 years of age, how much can be covered initially, and how much might be learned with greater maturity. Do we start with the art of systems thinking, and progress in the deeper sciences of systems?

5. Tools to teach systems thinking

What tools are available to aid in systems thinking? Are the tools targeted at mature systems thinkers, and too complicated for beginners? Are there simplified, straightforward tools available?

6. Working systems principles

Does systems thinking have a standard set of principles that could be applied to a problem at hand?

7. Currency of systems thinking content

Much of the teaching of systems thinking is anchored in content originating in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a pre-Internet, pre-globalization world that predates today’s undergraduate students. The systems thinking community has continued to expand (e.g. resilience science, service systems science) and develop intellectual content that may be more relevant to today’s issues.

8. Engagement of designers into systems thinking

Designers may or may not see themselves as problem-solvers who engage directly in systems interventions. In complex situations, more effort might be required in the diagnosis in the knottiness of wicked problems, where systems thinking is often brought to bear.

9. Teaching systems thinking content within 4 to 5 weeks

If the time frame for education is compressed into a few short weeks, what content can be conveyed? What is the depth and breadth that is reasonable to be covered?

10. Terminology to be communicated, particularly when the student’s primary language is not English

The vocabulary associated with systems thinking could be clarified. Students may be challenged with appreciating the concepts and terminology when the instruction and references are in English, and their native language is not. This may be an issue with the context of the references and teaching materials themselves, as systems concepts (e.g. parts, wholes, function, structure, process) are very old, and seem to be present in many languages (e.g. an experience working with Chinese workshops through an English translator seemed straightforward).

11. Teaching with cultural reference

Is ‘systems thinking’ relevant to today’s students? Can teaching materials be updated to resonate with the current world? Sustainability and globalization are issues relevant to today’s students, but do teaching materials cover that?

12. Too much emphasis on systems tools, and too little on systems thinking?

Are designers too focused on products and artifacts? Systems thinking can be positioned as a way of thinking, with methods and applications as supporting rather than primary emphases.

13. Systems thinking as a way for transdisciplinarity

Systems thinking is often positioned as an antidote for disciplinary thinking, as community evolve into silos of vocabularies and concepts. Should transdisciplinarity be an emphasis for motivating systems thinking?

14. An epistemology of systems thinking?

Is there more philosophical work on systems thinking that should be surfaced? Some work has been done within the systems sciences community (e.g. episteme, techne and phronesis) and the systems engineering community (e.g. systems ontology and praxis).

15. The context(s) for systems thinking?

When should systems thinking emerge as a path worth pursuing? What are the boundaries for systems thinking (for designers)?

The half-day workshop, scheduled at the beginning of RSD 2013, was not intended to answer the variety of questions and concerns raised. This context did, however, bring together individuals who have had many shared experiences in guiding students to appreciate systems thinking. The conversations sparked at the workshop fed into deeper inquiries for the days that followed.




Citation Data

Author(s): Birger Sevaldson
Title: Teaching Systems Thinking to Designers
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 5 October 2013
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