The questions they should be asking

9th April 2004 at 01:00
Schools still don't pay enough attention to how children think and learn, says Stephen Sterling

What happens when cars die?" It was my young son talking. "Well," I said, "they get taken to a scrapyard." "Yes, I know, but what happens to them then?" he persisted. Like most young children, he is interested in pursuing "then what?" and "why" questions. If we are busy parents or teachers, such questions can seem less than well timed.

But let's listen. These questions are their fundamental learning keys. The child is learning relationally, or "systemically". That is, he or she makes sense of the world by recognising pattern, by making associations, by transferring their experience. They look for similarities and consequences, as well as differences and distinctions. Yet the latter emphasis is dominant in our educational thinking and practice: rational thought, logic, analysis and understanding things by taking them apart.

In core skills required throughout the Scottish curriculum, reference is made to analytic thinking, logical thinking, causal thinking and prediction, and problem-solving. Initial teacher education guidelines currently suggest that teachers require competence in critical thinking.

Nothing wrong with this, you might suppose, and you would be partly right.

At the same time, isn't there something missing? At a deeper level, the analytic emphasis in educational content and structures reflects the roots of modern western thinking in 300-plus years of an essentially reductionist, linear and mechanistic outlook which is deeply embedded in our culture.

Yet, while my son, and your kids, tend to think holistically - especially when young - education tends to be organised according to reductionist principles. There are still fundamental assumptions operating, about fixed and discrete bodies of knowledge, separate subjects and the desirability of ever more specialisation. In primary school, the child has still - to some degree - an experience of coherence and wholeness. At secondary level, there is intellectual fragmentation.

All this wouldn't matter too much perhaps, if it were not for the fact that the world has changed, and indeed is characterised by change. Today we live in a fundamentally systemic, that is a highly interconnected and interdependent, world or a global environment. Goods, media and ideas are all traded across the world at a speed and scale undreamt of by previous generations. Half a century ago, we had jobs for life, a stable world order based on separate nation states, and a predictable "safe" environment.

Today, work and social life are in flux, world order seems more chaotic and we collectively face huge ecological problems such as global warming, resource depletion and toxicity. This "postmodern world" of rapid economic, social and environmental change is characterised by complexity, uncertainty and urgent questions of long-term sustainability of current forms of social and economic organisation.

This raises important questions about the kind of education appropriate for the conditions of the 21st century. In wider society, in business, management and government, there is a growing understanding that old ways of thinking and doing are no longer sufficient. There is an increasing emphasis on integrated and adaptive management, on "joined-up thinking", interdisciplinary and participative approaches - all of which challenge education to respond. Fluid social, economic and ecological conditions require thinking, learning and doing which is more holistic, dynamic and integrative. This does not just concern the intellectual sphere either: emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence also matter.

In their book SQ - Spiritual Intelligence, Zohar and Marshall make a distinction between "serial thinking", which is linear, logical, rational and rule-bound, "associative thinking", which is associated with emotional intelligence, and "unitive thinking", which makes it possible to do what they call "creative, insightful, rule-making, rule-breaking thinking".

The latter is often seen as "higher order thinking" and yet it reminds me of young children again. Through play, for example, they make and break rules, they create, they discover insights. We need to recapture and develop these abilities in ourselves and our students in the face of the challenges of complexity and unsustainability. As the American environmental educator David Orr (1999) has said: "We have an obligation to equip our students to do the hard work ahead . . . No generation ever faced a more daunting agenda. But none ever faced more exciting possibilities either." Yet "complexity skills" and systems thinking are missing from our education agenda.

It was to address this problem that the WWF Scotland "Linkingthinking" project came about. Launched in 1997 as a curriculum research and development project, the initial focus was around systems thinking, sustainability and the ecological management of Scotland's wild rivers.

Later this emphasis was broadened to address the issue of how to introduce systemic and relational thinking in education generally, and into specific Scottish curricula in particular. A team of writers was gathered together and materials were developed, culminating in a successful trialling period last year.

The Linkingthinking materials now consist of seven learning and teaching units plus a "toolbox" of activities, designed for flexible use and for self-study or for teaching. A number of workshops have been held, in Scotland and in Australia, and feedback has been enthusiastic.

The point is not the success or otherwise of the Linkingthinking project itself, although its innovative nature suggests that it is likely to provoke a healthy take-up. At a deeper level, the project is at the vanguard of a movement for change in education - recognition that relational thinking and approaches are vital for the interconnected, systemic reality of the world we live in.

WWF Scotland has suggested that the review of initial teacher education includes competence in "systemic thinking" alongside the stated requirement of "critical thinking". If this is accepted, Scotland could be leading the world in beginning to develop an education that will enable us to meet the challenges ahead.

Dr Stephen Sterling was the main writerresearcher on the WWF Scotland Linkingthinking project. More information about the project can be obtained at

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