Pandemic’s Utility as a Massive Shared Meaning Making Tool to Force Widespread Systems Thinking

How many of us recognize the current widespread school and higher ed cancellations and switch to online and virtual learning as fitting with the education template various global institutions are pushing called the Libre process of digital pedagogies we covered in the last post? Never let a crisis go to waste, indeed. If you read as many global plans and conference materials for using education to force change as I do, it is hard not to notice that the word ‘pandemic,’ like man-made climate change, has long been considered a tool to force the desired sense of interdependence and communitarianism. Here’s a quote from a 2019 paper  that makes the desired shift explicit:

The starting point must be around the holistic development of living in a better world–to be changemakers. I am convinced that ecosystemic approaches are necessary to move from mechanistic education systems to learner centric ones…It is clear that education needs to become an avenue through which global society will overcome the challenges, gaps and barriers we have created: the digital divide, the growing economic and social inequality, religious, ethnic, and cultural divides, and the extreme ecological pressures we are placing upon the Earth…An active search is underway for new ways of learning and new organizational forms for education that will be consistent with the emergent social and economic reality. In such a context, perhaps it is unsurprising that inspiration for change is sought from biological, as opposed to mechanical, analogues.

A biological lens is certainly easier to practice with during and after a global hype of deadly pandemics, isn’t it? Here’s another quote from that same paper that again fits where we are all suddenly being forced to go:

Across the globe there is a growing consensus that education demands a radical transformation if we want all citizens to become future-ready in the face of a more digitally enabled, uncertain and fast changing world…As learning frameworks outlining ambitious global agendas for inclusive education and lifelong learning begin to emerge, and as societies become more connected and intertwined, it is becoming clear that society has a collective role to play in equipping people to create meaningful futures, through lifelong learning.

Deriving from the field of evolutionary biology, an ‘ecosystem’ is a community of interdependent organisms acting in conjunction with the natural environment…This type of ecosystem comprises complex, evolving networks of organizations including think tanks, foundations, governmental and global agencies and others who are consciously connecting to facilitate the sharing of new knowledge about education and learning, innovation, funding opportunities and more. It is largely concerned with building the global shared knowledge base, scaling innovation and enabling the better use of resources and opportunities to tackle shared global learning challenges, not only within but between networks.

What is meant by a ‘global shared knowledge base’ we might ask and how does that tie to ‘shared meaning-making’ via common global learning standards? It reminded me of the requisite ‘systems thinking’ push over the decades that I first covered in my book Credentialed to Destroy and have since found in recent federal statutes and a new vision of Regulatory Governance pushed by a New Zealand professor, Jeroen van der Heijden, that has made its way here for broader dissemination. It helpfully (with italics) pointed out  the need for a shift from:

thinking of systems as something ‘out there’ –an ontological approach –and systems thinking as a tool that helps us to think about reality–an epistemological approach.

The kind of conceptual learning frameworks I have covered repeatedly on this blog that require a common understanding to become widespread (that the Soviets also pushed as Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete) fits right in with what that paper above covers as “Regulation and Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)”.

SSM requires a careful understanding and defining of the system at hand–known as ‘root definition’. Defining the system and the problem it seeks to address is best done by a variety of individuals and organizations from within the system. In short, the definition includes the basic transformation a system seeks to achieve (T), the worldview that provides meaning to this transformation (W), system ownership (O), system operators (A), the customer or target of the system (C), and the environmental constraints of the system (E)…After establishing the root definition–again, done in a deliberative process with a variety of individuals and organisations from within the system–conceptual models are developed to actualize the stated aims (C). These conceptual models then must be compared with the real-time, real-world situation to define possible and feasible changes.

In late February in the US a paper came out called “Changing Expectations for the K-12 Teacher Workforce” that laid out such Conceptual Models as the new kind of knowledge all teachers are to develop–Deeper Learning. Reading the paper it is impossible not to recognize that without a deep and broad knowledge base that comes from being well read with an Axemaker Mind, the typical student, and the adult they will become, is not in a position to know whether the required Conceptual Models fit with reality or not. What a useful means of covert regulatory governance by governments at all levels and the institutions that serve as their cronies and proxies. It all fits perfectly with this SSM, 21st century global vision, of “regulation as a (cybernetic) system of control” where people and the organisations they are a part of can be:

configured in relation to each of the three components of a cybernetic system: that is, at the level of standard-setting (whether behavioural standards are ‘simple’ /fixed or ‘complex’ /adaptive) [Common Core/Competencies!], information gathering and monitoring (reactive or pre-emptive) [formative assessment and continuous improvement], and behaviour modification (automated or recommender systems) [aka Learning!]…

A call for applying systems thinking to a regulatory problem is a call to focus on the emergent behaviour of a collection of parts and their interactions as they ostensible relate to that regulatory problem…systems thinking sets boundaries to delineate what is relevant and what is not–such boundaries are often operational rather than spatial. Systems thinking introduces a set of concepts that help to map, explore, interrogate and give meaning to a complex problem at hand.

Finally, let’s quote from yet another paper being linked to globally on what learning standards and a transformed vision of education is really intended to do. It is by Ervin Laszlo’s son Alexander from 2014 and came out of ISSS’s 57th meeting on the meta-theme of Curating the Conditions for a Thrivable Planet. Called “Connecting the DOTS: The Design of Thrivable Systems Through the Power of Collective Intelligence,” it sought (with italics in original) systemic leverage points for emerging a global eco-civilization. Number one leverage point? The

centrality of meaning-making to human activity systems–at both individual and collective levels…This meaning-making drive brings us together…[it creates] a community of interest–around systems perspectives and approaches; a community of practice–around the application of systemic ways of thinking/ doing/ being; and a community of place–that sees and appreciates the interdependence of a globally interconnected world.

As we self-isolate in the coming days and weeks, let’s remember that creating a common vision and vocabulary for meaning-making is a prerequisite for the desired transformational change–first, at the level of each individual, but then also in broader political, social, and economic spheres. Notice how often the rhetoric is looking to foster, at both a visual and emotional level,  those very communities of interest, practice, and place needed for transformational change for a different type of collective future. Notice how the release of a new virus from Wuhan China somehow gets used to reenforce the desired changes at an internalized, personal, level that global education conferences have been laying out graphically and with explicit transformational rationales for about a decade.

What a fortuitous kickstart as long as we remain in the vast majority of this planet that will probably not get seriously ill or even know someone who has.

Timely, isn’t it, with only a decade left to the declared finish line of 2030.