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See the big picture from all viewpoints

A new resource is encouraging pupils and teachers to develop a holistic way of thinking, Miranda Fettes reports

Think about a river; not just about its source, route, length, oxbow lakes, tributaries and mouth, but also what it means to different people, wildlife and flora.

What is its significance to a fisherman, a canoeist, a family living on its bank, a hydro-engineer, a conservationist, a frog, a trout, a tree, the landscape? By looking at the bigger picture and thinking more broadly about how the river affects each in diverse ways, is it possible to reach a greater understanding of its value?

These are the sorts of questions raised by Linkingthinking, a systems thinking educational resource devised by WWF Scotland in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage, HM Inspectorate of Education, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and other organisations. Linkingthinking is about interconnections, integration and looking at the whole rather than component parts.

"Thinking in boxes is a reductionist, fragmentary way of seeing the world," says Stephen Sterling, an environmental education consultant and one of Linkingthinking's authors.

From a perspective of concern about the environment, WWF Scotland has produced a resource to encourage sustainability through awareness and thought processes from an early age.

Linkingthinking materials come in seven units with activities and a special toolbox, either on a CD-Rom or in a ring-binder, to help teachers and students "approach wide ranging issues in a joined-up, systemic way".

The resource was trialled during 2003 in Scotland and overseas at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. "The feedback is that it hits the button in a wide range of educational contexts, it's innovative and versatile and it meets a growing and urgent need," says Dr Sterling.

"Linkingthinking is a response to the social, economic and environmental conditions we find ourselves in today. Young children learn by making connections but is this knocked out of us by linear thinking and secondary education?"

Jackie Kent, a teacher at Kippen Primary in Stirling, trialled the materials while at Dunblane Primary in 2003. She has found it more effective with pupils in P6 and P7 than younger ones.

"I think most staff use thinking skills but this pack gives you a structure and practical tools you can use in the classroom," she says. "It's really about coming up with different solutions to a problem from different viewpoints."

Mrs Kent says Linkingthinking is fundamentally about promoting lateral thinking rather than strictly logical or linear modes of thought.

For example, she asks the children to think of what to do about a polluted river. "Easy: get rid of the pollutant (which could be a factory)," answer the children. "But if you get rid of the factory, people lose their jobs.

What do you do about that?" she responds.

"The idea is each decision has consequences," she explains. "It's looking at the wider picture and how their actions affect other people. It's making them better citizens and makes them think more about issues and appreciate there's not an immediate solution.

"It also helps to develop leadership skills in the children, because there is a reflective area where children can take a more active role in procedure. The teacher is very much the facilitator.

"I think with the way the world is at the moment, it's necessary for children to develop those skills."

Alison Nind, the environmental projects co-ordinator at Currie Community High, was introduced to Linkingthinking when WWF Scotland gave the school staff a presentation.

"It's a methodology: the whole point is you adapt it to use as a way of teaching the material that you need to teach," she explains.

"You don't stand up and say: 'Today, we're going to do Linkingthinking exercise three.' You take exercise three and incorporate it into your geography lesson or your biology lesson."

Betsy King, the education policy officer for WWF Scotland, believes learning to think holistically is crucial in order to make progress towards sustainability.

"Sustainability is central to our mission and learning is something that we think is crucial to making progress towards it. This includes the ability to understand the connectedness of society. We think this resource will help people to develop skills which are desperately needed in the 21st century.

"In education, and in wider society, our habit is to try to understand things by taking them apart, so we don't pay much attention to relationships between things," she says. "But if we're going to be able to understand how everything works as a whole, we're going to have to put everything back together and think about how they do interrelate."

The response to Linkingthinking in England has been extremely positive and workshops in Australia and New Zealand have also met with enthusiasm, she says.

"There's very little else available to help educators develop systemic thinking skills themselves or with their students. Linkingthinking has been designed to be very flexible and meet a range of different needs."

Mrs King has high hopes for Linkingthinking and believes it could revolutionise education. "It is ground-breaking stuff. It's a home-grown thing that we hope is going to take off internationally."

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